Reviewed by Harriet Devine
Writing a biography is easy, right? You just have to find out lots of facts about the person, and string them together to make them readable. Avoid the obvious pitfalls, of course – speculating if you have too little information, stodginess if you have too much.
Well, yes, in theory those are the basics. But if you add to the mix the facts that the person is very distinguished, very old, and very much alive, and that having already agreed to an ‘authorised’ biography he is not too sure if your own project should actually go ahead, and you get some idea of what Jonathan Croall was up against when, towards the end of the 1990s, he came up with the idea of a biography of Sir John Gielgud, one of England’s most famous actors, by now in his nineties. Croall’s rival biographer was Sheridan Morley, who had already been at it for some years, though he was said to have only reached the 1930s, and who did everything in his power to prevent Croall’s book from seeing the light of day. Croall fortunately had an encouraging agent and found a publisher, but then began a race to be first past the post, not helped by Morley’s continued snipes, and his attempts to undermine the project by telling potential interviewees not to talk to Croall because he was unauthorised.
You might think that would make rather grim reading, but that is absolutely not the case. This quite slim volume is a total delight, and had me laughing out loud many times as I whizzed through it. Structured in the form of diary entries over the three years of the project, it’s an absolutely fascinating account of the whole process from start to finish. And the start, of course, is the interviews. Croall compiles a hit list: “Oldies first, in case the curtain’s about to ring down on them”. Ranging in age from Gielgud’s exact contemporary and friend, the designer Margaret Harris (93) to Alec Guinness, ten years younger, these people do indeed form the very foundation of the book, as they can remember Gielgud in his heyday, the 1930s, and provide wonderful insights into his character and abilities. They also provide some priceless examples of Gielgud’s famous gaffes, like this variation of one of the most famous, from a party in New York:
Gielgud to fellow guest on the sofa: I understand the person to avoid at this party is Mrs Higginbotham.
Fellow Guest: But I am Mrs Higginbotham.
Gielgud: No no, I meant the other Mrs Higginbotham.
Great anecdotes like this abound, mostly about Gielgud himself but also some snippets about other people – I very much liked the story of the famous actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, who late in life went on tour in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and described herself as “a tour de force now forced to tour”. Actors are often witty people, and nobody liked a giggle more than Gielgud, who sometimes even collapsed into laughter on stage, as when, playing Lear, one of his false eyebrows fell off just as he’d uttered the line “I have sworn. I am firm”.
What emerges clearly from this account, though, is the amount of sheer hard work involved in producing a volume that ended up over 500 pages long. Croall skims remarkably lightly over the hours spent reading and then, of course, writing, always plagued by uncertainty into the bargain. At one point Gielgud, who never met Croall but had sent a rather lukewarm letter of agreement to the project, actually tried to withdraw his permission. Croall’s editor at Methuen disappeared for long periods, didn’t read things Croall sent, and eventually disappeared without prior warning from the company. Then towards the end, there was the race towards publication, finding the photos (and having to pay for them!), wrestling with incompetent proofreaders, and of course fending off the constant attacks from the Other Biographer. Who ever thought authorship could be easy.
Sadly, Gielgud died before the book was in proof, so he never saw it. But it did appear, well before Morley’s lame and inaccurate attempt, and happily proved very successful. I’ve read it myself, in the revised version, John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star, which came out in 2011 to incorporate material Croall had no access to first time around, and it is excellent.
And excellent is what I have to call this book too. Deceptively short and light, it is packed with insights not only into Gielgud himself but also into the theatre of the twentieth century. Croall himself comes across as a man of humour and humanity, often self-deprecatingly honest about his own mistakes and shortcomings. He wears his learning lightly, and for me that’s about the biggest of compliments. Highly recommended.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Jonathan Croall, In Search of Gielgud: A Biographer’s Tale (Herbert Adler: Bristol, 2014). 978-1-84289-022-6, 220 pp., paperback.