I did so want to be a great actress

Rachel Roberts in 1976

Rachel Roberts was a formidable Welsh actress whose performances on stage and screen garnered praise and awards, her name often spoken with a mix of reverence and endearment within theatrical circles. Sadly, her personal life was at odds with her professional one, and in the last 18 months of her life she sought refuge in the pages of a journal that laid bare her struggles. Roberts had battled alcoholism for many years, but it was her 1971 divorce from fellow actor Rex Harrison that set in motion a profound decline, a descent into a darkness from which she would not return. A week after writing this entry, Roberts took her own life.

The Diary Entry

November 19, 1980

I went to hear Baba [Muktananda, a yoga guru] and meditate and be intensive and got not a moment’s peace from it. But it was an accomplishment to shower each day and get into the car. Others around me moaned and laughed and shivered and shook and claimed spiritual uplift. I remained where I’m at, bogged down in hopelessness. On Monday, I read Baba’s autobiography. At Tuesday lunchtime, Rex called. He’d been out on a friend’s sixty-foot cabin cruiser all day Monday. Monday was the day ‘A Lesson from Aloes’ opened in New York. I swigged back a lot of whisky neat on the Monday and, of course, felt terrible.

I watch Carol, in control, caring for herself, taking her piano lessons, her French lessons, looking after her son – and I look at me, marooned, bed-ridden, shaking, thinking daily of suicide. I am shut off from all my friends now, now even Darren, and the myth of Rex, too, gone. We are worlds apart, Rex and I. We always were. I’ve written earlier that it wasn’t a major mistake for me to go away with him, but, despite the magic days, I think it was. It’s too late to do more than speculate, but I had a need to act – have the discipline of that habit and to sublimate all my needs and emotions into the parts I was playing. I wanted to act. Always. But for my first marriage, I would have continued to do so with increasing confidence and flair – my personality and voice and instinct, powerful allies. I would never have sunk into this torpor. Never. Never have had a day like this. Never.

Alone in someone else’s house in Los Angeles. Yes, I loved Rex, passionately, and all our good larks. Yes, I adored walking up the Champs-Élysées with him. Yes, I adored Joseph’s and the Berkeley and ice-cold, perfectly prepared dry Martinis and beautiful wine and brandy and potage and brains. Yes, I loved going back to the Lancaster and going to bed and making love. Yes, I loved the Rome Express and the adjoining coupes and snuggling up to Rex. Yes, I loved our love: it completely tallied with my adolescent fantasies. Yes, I loved the look of Rex’s shoulders swaggering down the train corridors. Yes, I loved our walks past the donkey to San Fruttuosa. Yes, I loved the fires, the villa, the books, the cats, Homerino. I loved them passionately. And for all that, I forfeited my birthright inherited from Grandpa – my voice and Welsh emotionalism – my acting. It was all I ever knew or understood. Working in the theatre, I was easy with it. Understood it. Liked having my days structured by it. Really preferred rehearsing: I was with people. But I liked stalking the stage, too! I liked being told I was good, I liked controlling an audience and could do it!

I wish I could put the clock back. I wouldn’t have known such empty days of solitude. I probably wouldn’t have known Hollywood or New York. I wonder would I have drunk? Probably – but maybe not so much.

Alan [Dobie, her first husband], when I met him last November, was as down-to-earth as ever. Perhaps after all that’s what I needed – something downbeat to balance all my emotionalism and steady me. I had affairs all the time we were together – and no children. Would it – could it – have lasted? I don’t know for sure, except I don’t think I would have left him and he could have controlled me. That I know. I don’t think, in a more closed environment, I’d have been so punched about. My failings so highlighted. I don’t think Alan would have let me degrade myself to the extent I have. I think, too, I would probably have given him a bad time, because I so wanted to know ‘important’ people and sophisticated people, and Alan couldn’t get on with such people at all. I could and did, and so wanted fun. Nothing turbulent has happened to Alan: he certainly hasn’t suffered all I have. Who has?

I did so want to be a great actress. Not being a romantic, nor yet beautiful, it’s more than likely I wouldn’t have achieved that pinnacle. But I might have plodded along. I might have had a proper home. I might have had familiar Alan to share my bed, so that home really meant home and when it rained I could feel safe with Alan and the cats and books and faith in my craft and pride in Rachel Roberts.

Rex’s voice tonight sounded tired. I’ve read Aloes again, and have the same feeling towards it.

Further Reading

In 1984, some of Roberts’ journal entries were reprinted in No Bells on Sunday: The Rachel Roberts Journals, edited by Alexander Walker and published by Harper & Row. It’s a profoundly moving book.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *