THE BOOK SHELF: "The House of Redgrave," Charting the Family Tree of a Theatrical Dynasty

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24 Mar 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This month's column looks at Tim Adler's "The House of Redgrave: The Secret Lives of a Theatrical Dynasty."

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Tim Adler opens his new book with Laurence Olivier — not yet a Sir, just a Hamlet — interrupting curtain calls one night in 1937 to announce that "tonight a great actress has been born: Laertes has a daughter." The Laertes in question was Michael Redgrave, who the next year would achieve film stardom as the intrepid hero of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes," and who himself would be knighted in 1959. The daughter in question was one Vanessa. With an introduction like that from one of the century's great Hamlets, the hours-old Vanessa was duly and properly launched.

This tale makes an arresting introduction to Adler's The House of Redgrave: The Secret Lives of a Theatrical Dynasty [Aurum]. As does his postscript to that night at the Old Vic, with the new father trundling off to bed with Edith Evans — who became a Dame before Larry or Michael became Sirs — and who was decidedly not Vanessa's mother nor Michael's wife. Which, as it turns out, is well-mannered behavior compared to the marital escapades of the various Redgraves with extramarital affairs all 'round. The only happy marriage we hear about, in fact, is that of Lynn. Who in 1998 discovered that her husband of 31 years was the secret father of her grandson, or something of the sort. And that's the best of the marriages.

For those who need a scorecard, the Redgrave dynasty — if you want to call them a dynasty — extends over three generations of stage and film celebrities. They are in turn descended from an earlier pair of actors, one of whom deserted six-month-old Michael and his mother and ran to Australia, where he formed a touring company and drank himself to death. Michael's mother, herself, was apparently the illegitimate daughter of yet another actor.

Michael (1908-85) married Rachel Kempson (1910-2003), whom he met in stock in 1934. While Kempson never achieved the fame of her husband, daughters, son-in-law, granddaughter or grandson-in-law — she was merely an accomplished actress — she had a long career, making her last appearance in 1997 (playing Vanessa's mother). Their three children were the infamous Vanessa, the merely famous Lynn (1943-2010), and the less-well known Corin (1939-2010). The latter shared his elder sister's radical tendencies, and seems to have sacrificed his career prospects in the process. The dynasty continued with Vanessa's daughters Natasha Richardson (1963-2009) and Joely Richardson (born 1965).

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