Book review: Ever Dirk: The Bogarde Letters
EVER, DIRK: THE BOGARDE LETTERS EDITED BY JOHN COLDSTREAM (WEIDENFELD, £25)
SINCE Dirk Bogarde spent his adult life obsessed with the wish to conceal his gay identity from the curious public gaze and wrote several volumes of sexually reticent autobiography, it comes as an ironic surprise that this posthumous volume of letters should succeed in outing the famous film star – if only by implication. You can't miss the authentic sound of a bright, bitchy old queen, cruel wit and some wisdom at the ever-ready to disparage his male film-star rivals.
It's a role Sir Dirk never took to in public but he cannot help slipping into it again and again in his letters, as displayed in these epistolary revelations, compiled by his assiduous biographer, John Coldstream.
The part, and it's one of many, some heroic or sympathetic, that Bogarde plays in this highly theatrical volume, suits him like a vocation.
Take, for example, a reference of patronising viciousness in a 1971 letter to the film director, Joseph Losey, and his wife Patricia, about the bisexual Alan Bates, who had made a strong impression – though not on Dirk – playing the farmer-lover who leaps the class-barriers to seduce Julie Christie in Losey's The Go Between.
"Old Alice Bates came up to the house for the day ... and brought that rather aggressive wife with him ... she seems to spend her time looking over her shoulder to see if Alan is still there. As well she might. He is a nice fellow but as virile and sexual as a packet of Kleenex ... no sexual magnetism."
Sir Dirk, of course, was an authentic sexual magnet to hundreds of thousands of women in the early Fifties, when his beautiful, young face and not exactly virile personality helped launch his Rank career.
In those days, as Coldstream acutely reminds us in his introduction, there was something of a homosexual witch-hunt going on in Britain. John Gielgud, one of the very few male actors for whose talents Bogarde has an admiring word in these letters, was caught cottaging in 1953. Sir John offered a terrible warning to the young heart-throb who must have been forever running scared of exposure. For in his late teens Bogarde met his long-term lover Anthony Forwood, who was already married with a child and whom Coldstream describes with superannuated primness as his "companion".
No wonder Sir Dirk lived a sort of lie for the rest of his life, fostering the illusion that Forwood was merely a devoted manager who happened to share his home.
This crucial man in his life is relegated to the margins in the letters Bogarde writes to his friends and relations. He remains an almost unseen, backstage character, until succumbing to Parkinson's, and then a fatal cancer.
How poignant and distressing to witness Bogarde, struggling to justify his grief and pain for a man that he could scarcely bring himself to reveal he had loved. With stoicism and bravery he rebuilds his life.
These letters, mainly addressed to a series of women older than him, such as Penelope Mortimer and the film critic Dilys Powell or Norah Smallwood, portray the conservative Bogarde, who rails at "nig-nogs," punks and chewing gum when he returns to England after his long idyll in Provence but was a connoisseur of the Left-wing or liberal directors with whom he worked – such as Losey, Visconti and Fassbinder. His letters to them usually sound authentic and are invariably interesting.
Many others, though, succumb to camp, playful flirtatiousness: sadly, Bogarde felt it necessary eternally to role-play rather than be his true self.
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