People

Subscribe

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Archive

Life with Portnoy

Posted on

CLAIRE BLOOM’S FACE LOOKS bruised; a black eye and a nasty gash on one cheek mar her still-radiant beauty. Fortunately, the blemishes are just face paint—Bloom, 65, is filming a TV movie in Middlesex, England—but as she settles in for a salad and a chat at a local pub, she makes sure her scarf covers the worst of them. “I have always,” she says, “been very private.”

That is, until now. Her just-published Leaving a Doll’s House—a kiss-and-dis autobiography recounting her theatrical triumphs; her affairs with costars, including Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier; and her ill-fated marriages to actor Rod Steiger, producer Hillard Elkins and novelist Philip Roth—is currently the most buzzed-about celebrity memoir of the season. And her turbulent 18-year relationship with Roth dominates her story. When she isn’t praising him for his brilliance, she paints him as spiteful, volcanic, sadistic. “I had a devastatingly dreadful end to what had been in many ways a wonderful marriage and thought it might help me to write about it and help other women,” she says, explaining her decision to be brutally candid. “Philip always said, ‘Be private in your life and shameless in your work.’ ”

And Bloom, her book makes clear, nearly always listened to Philip. The actress and the novelist, who met through mutual friends, began seeing each other in 1975, when she was 44 and he 42. Drawn to Roth’s fierce intelligence, Bloom, a renowned stage actress, soon began splitting her time between her home in London and Roth’s farmhouse in rural Connecticut. “I loved talking to him about books,” she says, “walking in the country with him, having quiet evenings by the fire.”

Not long after their affair began, however, Roth decided that Anna Steiger, Bloom’s teenage daughter from her first marriage, bored and irritated him and, in a letter, demanded that Anna move out of Bloom’s London home, where Roth lived part-time. Terrified of losing him, Bloom complied, sending Anna to a nearby student hostel, a decision she rues yet defends. “I don’t think Philip will ever understand what a monstrous episode that was,” she says. “Many girls of 18 have left home, but Anna was wounded already, and this was very difficult.”

Roth, as Bloom tells it, became more impossible as he battled depression along with other illnesses during the ensuing years. In his novel Deception, Roth introduced a writer named Philip who has affairs to relieve the tedium of his relationship with a middle-aged “Claire.” (After the real Claire threatened to sue, he changed the character’s name.) When Bloom—remarkably, still determined to preserve their relationship—proposed marriage in 1990, Roth presented her with a draconian prenuptial agreement that ensured she would receive nothing if they divorced. Against her better judgment, she signed. “I wanted to be his wife more than anything,” she writes, “enough to turn my face away from this blow to my pride.”

Then, during a mental breakdown for which he was hospitalized in 1993, Roth sued her for divorce, claiming cruel and inhuman treatment. When Bloom negotiated a $100,000 settlement, he faxed her a bill for $62 billion, one billion for each year of her life. Only later did Bloom learn the real reason for the divorce: Roth had left her for another woman.

“I’ve had moments of enormous anger, but I just feel deep sadness now. And a great, great sense of loss,” says Bloom, who seems surprised when asked why she stayed so long. “He was a wonderful man, and I loved him.” Explains a friend, Vita Muir, who watched the debacle: “Claire is a person who will sleep on the floor and give you the bed. She is a magnet to the kind of man who will take advantage of her.”

Bloom’s strong yearning for “a protective male presence,” as she describes it, dates from her childhood. She grew up mostly in England, changing schools and homes often. Her father was an itinerant salesman and gambler. “He had wit and charm, and I loved him very much,” Bloom says, “but he was unreliable.” She and her younger brother John (now 60 and a film editor) were closer to their mother, who encouraged her daughter’s early interest in the stage. By 14, Bloom had dropped out of school to pursue acting. At 20, Charlie Chaplin cast her in his film Limelight, but she was back doing Shakespeare at London’s Old Vic Theatre when she took up with the first of her bad boys. Richard Burton, then 27 and married to his first wife, Sybil, “was brilliant, unspoiled and pure,” says Bloom, who lost her virginity to her frequent costar at 22. By the time their romance finally ended—when she caught him in a clinch with actress Susan Strasberg—he had become “simply…a womanizer,” she says. “He went from a naive young boy from Wales to a rather practiced seducer.”

Bloom herself was hardly staying chaste. She had brief dalliances with both Olivier (who had “a kind of false charm,” she writes) and Yul Brynner (“he was just fun, quite honestly”) before marrying Steiger (her Rashomon costar on Broadway) after learning she was pregnant in 1959. “We didn’t have a great deal in common except affection, and that’s not enough,” says Bloom. In 1969, Hillard Elkins, a flamboyant producer and Steiger friend, lured her away from the marriage, but that union failed after nearly five years. “The Unmentionable,” as Bloom now calls Elkins, left her, in 1974, for another producer’s wife. “I was looking for love in the wrong places,” says Bloom, “until I met Philip.”

To this day, Bloom believes Roth was worth the pain. “I thought I’d found the ideal father, lover, husband—and I had, for a long time,” she says. The two are no longer in touch, and Roth hasn’t commented publicly on her book, “I could not have gotten through all this without my family, my sister-in-law, my brother, my daughter,” says Bloom. “It was just too hard. Sometimes I was shaking and zombie-like and Valiumed out of my mind to keep calm, but I never missed a day’s work and that’s quite an accomplishment.”

Today, Bloom divides her time between a small apartment in Manhattan and her daughter’s London home. Anna, now 36 and an opera singer, “will always feel I let her down in certain ways,” says Bloom, but “we are still close.” Though she received “a very good advance” for her book, Bloom has worked almost constantly during the past three years, even taking a temporary role on As the World Turns to support herself. And, at the moment, she is not involved in a romance. “I don’t have much of a personal life,” she admits. “I’m rather lonely. It would be very nice to have a companion.” Would she choose more wisely next time? Bloom’s laugh is hearty. “I bloody well hope so,” she says, summoning a quote from King Lear: “Thou shouldst not have been old ’til thou hadst been wise.”

KIM HUBBARD

NINA BIDDLE in London