Culture

Elsa Lanchester’s Memoir Exposes a Closeted Marriage

Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) by Universal Pictures

Forget what you’ve heard about Hollywood progressives: as long as LGBTQ people fear their careers will be damaged by coming out of the closet, there will still be marriages like Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester’s.

You know Lanchester by sight: she became famous worldwide as the Bride of Frankenstein in James Whale’s 1935 film, though she was prouder of her performance as Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue.

Back then, she was the lesser half of a Hollywood power-couple, migrating from England to the US with Laughton in the early ’30s, where he became an Oscar-winning wunderkind. Elsa snapped up character roles, often in her husband’s movies, toiling in his shadow as he became further renowned as a master-thespian, teacher, and even director (“The Night of the Hunter” remains a classic). The quirkiness of their relationship was considered by fans and friends alike as proof that these two offbeat intellectuals were made for each other – but it also served as a smokescreen for the secret they ended up keeping together for over thirty years.

In 1983, long after her husband’s death, Elsa finally broke her silence. Her memoir, Elsa Lanchester Herself, included a detailed, unflinching personal account of their arrangement, from unfortunate way she first learned of Laughton’s homosexuality (when he was busted for soliciting a male prostitute, early in their marriage) to the grief and resentment that gradually accumulated between them, fully permeating even their final moments together.

Of those later times, Lanchester writes:

Long before Charles was ever ill, he had said to me, “I wish I could get over this sex business, so when we’re old we can travel together.” We had never really been on a planned holiday, except as part of work, and I was glad that at least he thought about that — about this sex thing being something that just got in the way. I thought then that it would be kind of nice to go abroad with Charles on a pure vacation, to a place like Japan maybe, because Charles wanted so much to go there.

After Charles’ gallbladder operation, when I was well away on the road touring, Charles spent the last part of his convalescence fulfilling his life wish of going to Japan. Taft Schreiber saw to it that he had an unimportant TV assignment to cover his expenses. MCA also arranged introductions in Kyoto for Charles to see the gardens and meet priests and visit temples. But he went with Peter Jones.

I have some photographs of the two of them traveling through Japan.  From descriptions and a few letters and pictures, I see that Charles when in Japan did as the Japanese did. He felt himself akin to people who searched for and found peace…

…You cannot say quite why the mind leaps forward and backward unexpectedly, but if there is a reason and you can find it, you can catch the understanding of anyone – like a half-forgotten tune or the smell of autumn leaves and wood smoke. I was sitting in Charles’ hospital room one night at Cedars of Lebanon. I had taken him a small but particularly graceful branch of camellia from the garden, and I put it in an ordinary toothbrush glass. Charles was under constant, heavy sedation – if awake, he was in pain, if under drugs, dreaming… Anyway, Charles woke up for a lucid moment or two and looked at the branch of camellia and said, “You know, that’s as beautiful – in fact, more beautiful – than anything you and I saw in Japan.”

I said – how badly my honesty now served me – “But I was not in Japan with you, Charles. You were with Peter.” Charles’ face distorted into a thousand crinkles. He wept the most bitter tears for about twenty seconds, then slept as if nothing had happened.

***

You might imagine that revelations like these would strike a nerve, that fans of Laughton would also grieve the man they never ended up truly knowing, or that Lanchester would be remembered for her bravery and sensitivity in affording everyone a peek at how couples in their predicament have managed it. Times were changing after all – but not fast enough, and at the time of her book’s release, the AIDS crisis had dominated every media narrative related to homosexuality, including the lives of celebrities, who proved to be just as susceptible to the disease as anyone else.

So instead, Elsa’s book sank without a trace, and while most accounts of Laughton’s life acknowledge his “bisexuality,” his wife’s intimate account is usually treated as just one version of the story – often accompanied by rebuttals by contemporaries of Laughton’s, such as Maureen O’Hara, in defense of the star’s virility, dismissing or overruling Elsa’s detailed recollections. A Hollywood outsider by birth as well as by nature, she had (perhaps deliberately) broken the film industry’s cardinal rule: Thou shalt not interfere with the legacy of a Great Man, especially once he’s no longer around to defend it. 

What is the statute of limitations on a secret? Even today, over thirty years later, women are finding that unless they speak up immediately, their motives in remaining silent will forever cast doubt on their honesty. Keeping silent seemingly revokes their right to complain. Speak while someone’s alive, and you’re labeled a fortune-hunter, and your account is worth less pound-for-pound than the aggrieved party’s denial. Speak after they’re dead, and you’re a graverobber, a coward. When is the correct time for a woman to address the public? Apparently, when finally she feels she has nothing left to lose.

That was Elsa at age 81, when Elsa Lanchester Herself was released to virtually no fanfare. Thankfully, a new reprint of the book by Chicago Review Press – featuring a new foreword by actress-turned-author Mara Wilson – has brought The Bride’s wise and witty words back to life, and along with them, a chunk of feminist and LGBTQ history that’s suddenly more timely than ever.

Arrangements like Lanchester and Laughton’s proliferate to this day, allowing one (or both) parties to maintain professional appearances and sidestep questions and consequences related to their sexuality. Often the result is an open marriage; this is a choice two (or more) people are entitled to make for themselves – and the greater visibility of polyamorous relationships overall has helped destigmatize the idea of an “arrangement” that allows queer or bisexual partners explore the full range of their desires.

However, there is nothing “open” or free about codependency, and Lanchester and Laughton’s tale contains salient warnings for those who keep their arrangement secret in the long term. All things being equal, these two might have remained happy together, but the imbalance of gender politics – plus the complications that result from living in the public eye – created a situation that was ripe for manipulation and abuse.

Progressive as Laughton may have been by many standards, it was predictably Elsa, as the woman and the lesser star, who was expected to bow to his needs above her own, and her duties included propping up that mountainous ego. Charles liked to think of himself as his wife’s greatest cheerleader, even directing a one-woman show for the modest singing and storytelling career which Elsa considered to be her greatest creative accomplishment. However, he ultimately could never bring himself to share the spotlight, nor could he risk letting Elsa gain too much independence – however Elsa might have seemed like the reliant one, Charles was just as dependent on her, if not more, because of the cover their marriage provided.

And so, while outwardly happy, their years together gave way to an endless cycle of desperation and cruelty. Elsa writes about sometimes returning home from trips to discover that in her absence, Charles had sold off some of her cherished personal belongings, including irreplaceable works of art. “To this day I cannot bring myself to fall in love with objects or something I might want to possess,” she writes. As for her one-woman show – entitled Elsa Lanchester, Herself, just like the book she’d go on to write – the same afternoon Lanchester was to kick off her tour, Laughton attempted suicide by throwing himself down the concrete steps outside their home. Another time he raced out of the theater during her curtain call, trying to enter from the side so he take the stage and share her applause.

Upon years of reflection, Lanchester sounds as if she was able to forgive the bullying she experienced at Laughton’s hands – after all, who knew the source of his pain better than she did? “Anger finally only ages a person,” she writes. However, it remains significant that she couldn’t stand to have the record go unamended. And while there are at least two sides to every story, Lanchester declines to let herself off the hook for the abuses she inflicted in turn. Even reading from safe emotional distance, with the kind of healthy skepticism we reserve for books written by avowed eccentrics, Lanchester remains a credible narrator and a fiercely independent woman.

It’s also fascinating that for every lament, she makes sure to include an equally poignant or entertaining testimonial to the depths of their hopeless affection, and what a luxury their complex relationship afforded them in terms of artistic and sexual exploration (for she, too, courted other men). They were just two odd-duck Londoners who wandered afield from society’s standards, only to end up pinned beneath them, and she remained fiercely protective of Charles – the real Charles – to the bitter end.

To wit:

In California the wildflowers gave Charles a new color experience, and I can only say that he felt free and ecstatic as he stood among them. For him those were rare times without anxiety. We would drive home exhausted, put the California poppies and lupins in our great pots or in aluminum saucepans in a casual mass, undisturbed, as we had picked them. The Lupins, thrust in a kitchen bucket, would straighten up like ranks of soldiers in the sunlight the next morning.

But often when people came to the house, Charles would say to me, “If they say anything about the flowers, don’t tell them that I arranged them. Say you did it.”

We in the 21st century still have so much to learn from stories like these – they are echoes from a distant past that strangely mirrors our present. Fortunately, 20th century women like Elsa thought ahead, and we are uncovering more of them all the time.