March 20, 1908– Michael Redgrave:
I didn’t think I’d be any good in films… I couldn’t imagine myself on the screen. Besides, there were such exciting things to do in the theatre, so much to learn.
Sir Michael Redgrave was an exceptional stage and screen actor, director, and writer. He was the father of three supremely talented actors: Vanessa, Corin and Lynn Redgrave; the grandfather of Joley Richardson and Natasha Richardson (whose father, Tony Richardson, was bisexual), and Carlo Gabriel Nero. His wife, actor Rachel Kempton, knew about his gayness before their marriage.
Redgrave spent much of his life in the company of his longtime lover, Bob Michell, who lived in a nearby house and was like a beloved “uncle” to the Redgrave children. Michell, also married a woman, named one of his children Michael, after Redgrave.
Redgrave realized that he was gay, or at least bisexual, while studying at Cambridge University. It was there that he began a series of affairs with other guys. Barely a year into his marriage to Kempton, Redgrave had a passionate affair with playwright/composer/actor Noël Coward. Years later, Coward told Kempton that he had never wished to hurt her, but he’d been unable to resist Redgrave because he was so totally charming. Kempton replied: “I couldn’t help but agree with him”.
Not one to miss out on the action, Kempton had her own lovers on the side, including a two decade long affair with married actor Glen Byam Shaw, who was also bisexual, even having an affair with Redgrave himself. There was so much to keep track of; I feel sort of dizzy. At one point, Redgrave had Michell living in the Redgrave family home. Michell often walked sisters Vanessa and Lynn to their school.
In spite of this rather sordid and tangled family scenario, Redgrave managed to have a career as one of Britain’s finest actors, as talented and accomplished as Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, or John Gielgud, although I can’t imagine how he found the time or the stamina. Redgrave was an especially skilled Shakespearean actor, and he was considered the greatest English interpreter of Anton Chekhov’s work. His Prospero is considered to be the greatest of the 20th century.
Redgrave had an impressive film career that included Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Lady Vanishes (1938). His first American film role was opposite Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), bringing Redgrave an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He starred in The Browning Version, based on gay writer Sir Terrence Rattigan‘s play of the same name; The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952) by another noted gay writer, 1984 (1956), The Quiet American (1958), and Time Without Pity (1957), for which he was nominated for a BAFTA Award. My favorite of his film performances is as the schizophrenic ventriloquist in Dead Of Night (1945) where he is riveting.
Always a heavy drinker, at the very apex of his career Redgrave began to have trouble remembering lines. But it turned out that it wasn’t the booze; Redgrave was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was no longer able to learn new roles.
As they grew older, the Redgrave/Kempson marriage began to strain. By the 1970s, Redgrave was experimenting with kinkier stuff, like clunking around naked inside a suit of armor and having ping-pong balls fired at threads that had been pulled through various body parts. Gay novelist Christopher Isherwood tells stories in his published diaries of attending all-male swim parties in the South of France hosted by Rattigan, with both Redgrave and his son-in-law Richardson in attendance. Shockingly, Vanessa even caught her father and husband together in bed!
This may all seem particularly messy, but the Redgrave family seems to have made the best of it. Remember, it was only 30 years prior to Redgrave’s first gay assignations that Oscar Wilde had been publicly disgraced and thrown into prison. By 1939, recorded offenses for homosexuality had increased with police crackdowns. More British men were brought to trial for gay acts than for any other reason. In 1953, Gielgud, usually highly discreet about casual gay sex, was arrested for cruising in a public lavatory.
During the height of the Cold War, when he was playing in one of his most noted roles as bomb inventor Sir Barnes Wallis in the classic 1955 war film The Dam Busters (1955), he was still being investigated as a possible spy. Redgrave came to the attention of the intelligence services in 1940 when he was working at the BBC and signed a Communist-inspired manifesto of the “People’s Vigilance Committee” and over the next nine years his M15 file detailed 21 occasions in which he came to their notice because of his suspected left-leaning views.
Redgrave had a career spanning almost 40 years and starred in more than 50 films as well as making all those theatre appearances, including one as Hamlet in Moscow in 1958 where he met up with gay British traitor Guy Burgess who passed thousands of secrets to the Russians. Both men attended a gay party at a Moscow flat, with Burgess having been given 100 Russian rubles to get home by one of the cast members. An M15 memo notes: ”We also heard that after one of the performances Burgess made his way to Redgrave’s dressing room and there was sexual activity”.
The file on Redgrave was closed in 1961, but there remained an open file on Vanessa and Colin through the 20th century.
Redgrave was knighted by the Queen Elizabeth II in 1959.
With the help of his son Corin, Redgrave wrote his memoirs, In My Mind’s Eye (1982). During one of Corin’s writing sessions, his father stated:
There is something I ought to tell you. I am, to say the least of it, rather bisexual.
Corin encouraged him to acknowledge his sexuality in the book. Redgrave agreed to do so, but in the end he chose to remain silent about it.
A card was found among Redgrave’s belongings after his final bow in 1985, when he was taken by Parkinson’s. The card was signed: “Tommy, Liverpool, January 1940“, and on it was a quote from gay poet W. H. Auden:
The world is love. Surely one fearless kiss would cure the million fevers.