On the face of it, Michael Levey and his wife Brigid Brophy should be the image of Establishment English fussiness. Michael, 47, the author of 10 works on art history, was appointed by the prime minister last year as director of the hallowed National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. Brigid, 45, acknowledged high priestess of the British intelligentsia, has written 14 novels, plays, biographies and volumes of criticism. But when it comes to family life, Michael and Brigid talk with an out-of-the-closet candor that earlier Bloomsbury couples chronicled only for posthumous publication and which makes most “open marriage” couples sound like Ma and Pa Kettle.
“If I felt sexually excited about someone else, I would feel free to go off,” proclaims Brigid, adding, “I would tell Michael, of course.” Not that he’s an obstacle. “No one has rights over another human being,” he says. Sharing their permissive ménage à quatre—at the very least—is daughter Kate, who at 16 dropped out of school and lived with her boyfriend in her bedroom in the family’s four-room flat.
“The cure for sexual jealousy,” Brophy believes, “is sexual generosity,” and she is an apostle of, among many other causes, bisexuality. The fact that Brophy and Levey have themselves survived 20 heterodox years of marriage without, they claim, even a squall is testimony to Oscar Wilde’s dictum that the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Their one regret is that they even got married—officially—in the first place. She says, “It was a meaningless ceremony which we went through to please others.” “It’s just the church,” he agrees, “which tries to fabricate rules.” But the Roman Catholic rites aside (in deference to his family—hers is Protestant), the Leveys have no other qualms. “It just happens to be our extreme good fortune that we met each other,” says Brigid. “It was ludicrous luck.”
It happened at a New Year’s Eve party. Brigid, daughter of stylish novelist John Brophy, had been bounced from Oxford for being drunk in chapel and worse. Levey, also of Irish descent (his musician great grandfather assumed his violin teacher’s name because Londoners mispronounced O’Shaughnessy), had left Oxford with a first in English. He tried graduate research, but lost his thesis manuscript in a cafe and blundered onto the National Gallery staff.
“My first impression,” the uncompromisingly intellectual Brigid recalls of their own encounter, “was that if I have an affair with that man I’ll never feel the same about the National Gallery.” Levey’s reaction was that “until meeting Brigid I hadn’t the courage of my own imagination. I felt confident just meeting someone who thought I wasn’t odd.” He proposed by telegram. “I have only one question for you to answer,” he wired. “Will you?” He had prepaid a one word reply. It was “Yes.”
Brigid and Michael are more formally wed to their work. Brigid’s elegant novels of manners and her trenchant psychobiographies of Mozart and Aubrey Beardsley have been well received, but her real fame—or notoriety—arises from her reputation as the Mad Bomber of English criticism and espouser of causes, including vegetarianism, anti-vivisectionism, anti-censorship and prison reform.
Michael, with his flowing sideburns, trendy suits and three-inch-high heels, looks more like the proprietor of a Carnaby Street boutique than director of one of the world’s leading museums. He says he’d “rather be an office boy” at the gallery than work anyplace else. When he retires at age 60, he will be in line for a knighthood. One of Michael’s distinguished predecessors at the Gallery (before creating the Civilisation TV series), Kenneth Clark, says Levey has done “a wonderful job.”
Life at Brigid and Michael’s ground-floor flat on Old Brompton Road is at times a bit dotty. When Brigid is writing, which is almost always, she smokes heavily, lets her hair frazzle, ignores meals, friends and family and soaks up ideas in the bathtub. “I’m a simple neurotic,” she concludes. A frequent visitor is Maureen Duffy, who wrote a novel about lesbianism before it was fashionable, wears a gold heart necklace identical to Brigid’s and works closely in her writers’ rights campaigns. Maureen generally drops around days and on Saturday evenings when Michael joins them to watch Match of the Day, the BBC’s equivalent of Monday Night Football. Since neither Michael nor Brigid has learned to drive, Maureen chauffeurs them everywhere including on their vacations abroad.
Michael, whom Brigid calls the feminine principal in their marriage, slips into skin-tight black trousers and flamboyant shirts in the evenings, sometimes after stopping en route to pick up a couple of shirts and ties. Brigid says her husband “gets more pleasure out of pleasure than anyone I’ve ever known.” Michael admits, “I can get a sexual frisson from a painting. I’m not recommending you should go round rubbing yourself against the pictures…we’re awfully against that sort of thing at the gallery.”
One sensual satisfaction the family is not into is cuisine. The women in the family are vegetarians and, as Michael groans, “Ah, cornflakes again.” Daughter Kate and Craig Dunant, her boyfriend, share a hi-fi, telephone, telly, a double bed and Kate’s teddy bear. She wants to be a painter and a writer and, says Brigid, “she has all the confidence we lack.”
Kate concedes that “I could have done with being a bit more average at times, like coming home from school and finding brown bread and butter ready on the table.” But for all her seeming laissez-faire philosophy of motherhood, Brigid recalls her own time of troubles at Oxford: “I had been drunk for six weeks, and yet not one person in authority asked me: ‘Why are you so unhappy?’ ” Brigid hopes that no one will be so unfeeling with her daughter. Brophy’s only dictat to Kate, despite her own satisfying modus Vivendi with Levey, is “I don’t want her to get married.”