A Second Blooming

IN the final confrontation between Nora and her husband, there was one line in particular that had always moved me profoundly…

IN the final confrontation between Nora and her husband, there was one line in particular that had always moved me profoundly; in reply to her husband's statement that no man would sacrifice his honour, even for love, Nora responds `Millions of women have'."

So writes Claire Bloom in her autobiography Leaving A Doll's House. Nora is the heroine of Ibsen's play whose title Claire Bloom has appropriated. In a long and illustrious career Nora, the spoiled child bride, remains Bloom's defining role: trapped, wounded, desperate for romantic love, always longing for "something wonderful" to happen.

Nora eventually breaks free and Claire Bloom implies that she, too, has broken with the past. In her case, however, she was trapped not just by one man, but by lover after lover (Richard Burton, Lawrence Olivier et al) and husband after husband (Rod Steiger, Hilliard Elkins, Philip Roth).

Millions of women may well indeed have sacrificed their honour for romantic love, few however would sacrifice their child. Yet Claire Bloom sacrificed her daughter, Anna. She was fathered by Rod Steiger, the only honourable man in the whole tragic story, whom Bloom married upon becoming pregnant. Eight weeks after Anna's birth, the actress returned to screen and stage ("with Rod's full approval"). There was a nanny and, in England, a granny.


Ten years later Hilliard Elkins.the theatrical impresario who would transform her career as she approached 40 with Ibsen and Tennessee Williams, made his move. Claire Bloom "pondered the gamble" and accepted his offer of marriage.

Mother and daughter's new home was a house Bloom describes as having the atmosphere of a provincial bordello. This second marriage was all about sex. "Hilliard Elkins's entire being cent red on his sexual gratification, his fantasies seemed alternately voyeuristic and sadistic."

Bloom revelled in her newfound freedom. Hardly surprisingly, Anna hated this nightmare of a stepfather (the graphic Ok Calcutta! was one of his shows). Bloom acknowledges that life for her pubescent daughter was terrible. But she did nothing about it beyond putting her in boarding school.

Six years later, after Elkins had run off with someone else, Claire Bloom met the love of her life, the writer Philip Roth. Before she moved in to his beautiful 18th-century Connecticut farmhouse, there was a proviso. No Anna. So 16-year-old Anna was sent to live with Granny Alice in London.

A year later, Roth agreed to try living in England so that mother and daughter could be together. The rapprochement was short-lived and Anna, by then 18 and training to be an opera singer "was asked to move out" Bloom writes, exchanging the comfort of her Chelsea childhood home for a student hostel "in one of the least salubrious areas of south London".

Claire Bloom is now 6 although you would never think it. The only lines on her face are smile lines around her eyes. She sits upright on the edge of the sofa, literally trembling, like a bird fallen from its nest, its plummage intact but everything else in doubt.

I ask her which of the loves of her life theatre, mother, daughter. men is the most important to her. She thinks before answering, her perfectly shaped head tilted to one side. "Well my mother is dead," she says, as calmly and quietly as ever. "So it's my daughter." Why then did you leave her for Philip? (I mean to say "abandon", but don't.)

The apparent vulnerability of this woman is frightening. The story of the breakdown of her 18-year relationship with Philip Roth is one of the most painful accounts of the systematic humiliation and destruction of one person by another that I have ever read.

"That was why the pull was so terrible." And yet you still went with it? A half-apologetic smile. "I'm afraid it was worth it." Pause. "There's nothing else much to say."

Does she regret that now Another long pause as she looks as me, with eyes suspiciously watery. "I don't regret my years with Philip at all. Not a minute."

On the fourth finger of her-right hand is a gold ring in the shape of a serpent with an emerald for an eye. It was given her by Roth the day he showed her the manuscript of his novel Deception, a cruel distortion of their life together.

"Denial" is one of those concepts we might know the meaning of but rarely encounter. But here, surely, is a case study. The book I had read before we met told of a life as painful as it was seemingly glamorous, its pages peopled by kind, uncomprehending friends and abusive men. Yet the pain is distant, its source never confronted, merely left in a box labelled "the past". Abandonment runs through it from first to last. Her mother was abandoned by her married lover. Later, her father abandoned his small family and went to seek his fortune in South Africa, returning to England (with new wife) only to die three days after seeing his daughter as Juliet at the Old Vic.

She was 19, a star and already involved with Richard Burton. They had met the day after he married his first wife but this didn't stop him from having a tumultuous love affair. On one occasion, Burton even took to bed-hopping when the three of them were travelling in adjacent carriages across Europe. Their affair lasted six years.

Then came Olivier and similar indignities he, of course, was married to Vivien Leigh.

Then the marriages one, two and three.

Why does she think she allowed these men to tread all over her? "I don't see that my history with men was so dreadful before this terrible break-up with Philip," she says. Burton being married, for example, she describes merely as "dreadfully unfortunate".

She does admit to wondering why she chose "extremely difficult men. "I suppose I wanted the challenge. I wanted the sense of danger. I am a gambler's daughter. I wasn't content with everyday, life. I wanted something very heightened. Well, I got it. And I got what goes with it, which is a great deal of pain."

SHE doesn't blame the men. She isn't even angry with Roth, although she accepts that writing this book may be seen as some kind of revenge. She reserves her anger for her mother for giving her "so many wrong signals about what to expect from men". All she had to go on, she says, were the heroes of Emily and Charlotte Bronte and Daphne du Maurier. Dashing chaps who would sweep you off your feet and sort everything out? She laughs.

"Exactly. Terribly attractive, extremely interesting and, strangely enough, still there at the end of the story." The one thing she had learnt from her disappearing father: "This is what men do. They go. Yes. I'm afraid so."

Having been plucked from obscurity by Charlie Chaplin because she resembled his wife Oona, the working-class Jewish girl from Finchley, in north London was a star from the start. She had no chance to make normal relationships with her contemporaries. "From the beginning I was thrown together with very attractive men.

Men whose status meant they were in the business of collecting beautiful women?

"Men have always prized beautiful women," she replies. And she too began to expect only the most handsome, the most talented, the best. And for the girl who left school at 14, they would be her education. "I've always demanded an awful lot from people, I think," she says.

She then describes herself as "appallingly tidy".

"My mother and I always had arguments about that. She didn't really care about the look of things, when I think back on it. Not for herself. I don't remember her ever putting make-up on. She always had a cigarette drooping out of her mouth with ash falling off." And the actress shows me how. "She cared about me. She wanted me to be perfect. That's hard to live up to, although I have tried