Read It Forward: In your new book, The Redgraves, you briefly describe the first time you met Sir Michael Redgrave. Could you tell us a little more about that experience? What do you remember most vividly or what surprised you the most?
Donald Spoto: At my first meeting with Sir Michael Redgrave, he was already ill with the Parkinson’s Disease that would eventually take his life. I felt privileged to be one of very few permitted to interview him during his last decade.
Although he was unquestionably one of the most famous and honored men of 20th century theatre, film and television – as well as a writer and director with important credits – he could not have been more accessible or down to earth. His memory was prodigious, his humor infectious, and he affected no self-importance.
Perhaps I was most astonished by his insistence – despite the frailties and symptoms of his illness – on being a gracious and generous host: he tended bar in his modest but elegant London mews house and so offered me his friendship as well as his assistance with unique memories and materials relative to my biography of Alfred Hitchcock. His movie debut, after all, was in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).
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RIF: Though Rachel Kempson Redgrave was a celebrated actress in her own right, her name may not be as familiar to people now. What are some of the most important things we should know about her? Why was your friendship with her so valuable?
DS: Sir Michael’s wife, Rachel Kempson, was a great beauty as well as an accomplished Shakespearean actress from her twenties. She was much admired by colleagues like John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, who directed her onstage; her film roles were few but memorable. She subordinated her career to her role as mother to her three children – Vanessa, Corin and Lynn – and never attempted to upstage them when they, too, rose through the ranks to international stardom.
My friendship with Rachel was singularly valuable because she confided so deeply and richly the details of her marriage and her family life – details never before entrusted to any writer. She was a great support to me when I was preparing my life of Olivier, and she encouraged every project I undertook.
RIF: How did your friendship with Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson Redgrave influence you and the writing of your book?
DS: My friendship with Michael and Rachel required me to undertake this book with absolute honesty, which is the only quality they endorsed. Researching and writing The Redgraves was without doubt one of the great privileges in my career.
RIF: The Redgraves’s circle included many luminaries. If you could have interviewed anyone else for the book, living or dead, who would it have been and why?
DS: It would of course have been valuable had I been able to interview those who knew and worked with the Redgraves but who are deceased- – great talents like Carol Reed and Anthony Asquith, for two important examples – and memorable actors like Edith Evans. Tony Richardson would have been a significant person to know; alas, he, too, died long before this book was undertaken.