Public Places

My Life in the Theater, with Peter O'Toole and Beyond

Siân Phillips

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Public Places
Chapter One
March 1975
Naples Airport and I'm frightened. Coming after the black winter months in London and the weeks of filming on the icy Suffolk coast, the March light of Italy is blinding me. And the noise is confusing me. London and its airport must have been busy but I feel that we have emerged from near silence into this aggressive, lighthearted tumult. Years of disciplined dieting have left me stick-thin and as I shuffle the travel papers and passports and begin to worry about the baggage, I am aware that there's nothing much in the way of protection between my frame and the demands that are being made on it by this expedition. No ordinary journey for me or for the tall figure standing a little to the side, detached, aloof and rather grand but in fact carefully positioned so as not to be conspicuous and finding the place of maximum safety in this press of people. If I'm scared, he must be terrified. Not that he's showing it. Only a slight over-stillness and a too-studied air of relaxation betray him.
He is not supposed to walk more than a few steps, forbidden to lift anything heavier than a teacup. There is no certainty that he won't suddenly need the resources of a well-equipped hospital. I have on me the number of a helicopter ambulance service and the address of an approved hospital. His medical records are in my suitcase along with a letter from our doctor, Gerry Slattery. Don't leave London, they all said, the doctors who have become familiar to me these last months. And here we are in Naples Airport on our way to the San Pietro Hotel outside Positano. More importantly, we're on our way to Sr Carlo Cinque, thebuilder, architect and proprietor. We are the hotel guests from hell.
Left to me, we would still be safe in Guyon House, on Heath Street in Hampstead, just up the road from Dr. Gerry Slattery and the Royal Free Hospital (the umbilical cord attaching me to Men's Surgical has yet to be cut). As usual, confronted with the prospect of O'Toole standing alone against expert opinion and common sense and people who know what's best for him, I crossed the line and stood with him against Them. 'He's not an alcoholic,' they told me. 'He just drinks a lot.' When he became aggressive they always made themselves scarce, I couldn't help but notice. 'See you tomorrow,' they'd cry, trooping out into Heath Street as the first glass shattered. They have been very present at the hospital, looking grave and concerned.
The sense of the folly of this adventure and awareness of the responsibility I've taken on myself have kept me awake for a week past. And this comes at the end of the worst time in my life; standing vigil while he hovered between life and death, returning to an empty house only to change clothes and deal with the journalists anxious to verify the show-business facts of a life that they believed to be coming to an early end. They didn't try to hide what they thought and offered sympathy. Only Jules and Joyce Buck, our partners in Keep Films - our 'family' - knew what was really going on. We spoke briefly at night. They knew too much, feared too much, to be interested in chatting or speculating. Night after night I sat, alone, on our bed in the big, gleaming house. Manolita, much, much more than the 'daily' and one of the few people to know anything of our private life, had been there all day, cleaning as though she were banishing fiends, conquering illness with antique wax. She brought from her house little plates of food and left them in the fridge and these small kindnesses were enough to tip me over into short, violent bursts of weeping, never a long, healing, outpouring of grief. There were too many momentsevery day when I had to assume a bright face; even the children and my mother, away in Ireland, and his parents, in a flat off Haverstock Hill, are not to be told how bad things are until the last moment - should the last moment come.
For a while I even fooled myself. 'All this is to be expected, I suppose,' I said to Sister in a sensible tone after a particularly bad night. 'It will get better, won't it?' Her eyes filled with tears and she looked away before leaving the room without speaking. Then I knew we were in more trouble than I had realised. 'Be prepared for the worst,' I was then advised and during the next few weeks I forced myself, alone at home, to come to terms with the fact that the person dearest in the world to me was possibly never going to return to himself but would slide from this comatose state into his death and I would never speak to him again.
I had never before felt such grief. When the worst thing in the world happens it seems incredible that one should be able to get up and bathe, get made up, phone for taxis, wish people good day and lie. Lie all the time. 'Oh, you're giving yourself a bad time,' said my closest friend, Ricci Burns, when we met in the street. 'Stop making a drama. He's going to be fine.' Oh Rick, if you only knew what it was like in that side ward.
Against all the odds one day, many weeks later, he opened his eyes in that side ward, ripped out his tubes and irritably demanded sustenance. The tubes were replaced and it was explained to him that he'd been 'really quite ill'. He didn't seem interested and quickly graduated to what we called 'flat' food - little pools of pureed who-knows-what. The family returned to London, the house grew light again, and not quite as gleamingly perfect. And he came home. 'I told you it was nothing too awful,' I said to everyone. Dr. Slattery and the surgeons and Manolita and I looked at each other in mute fellow feeling. All our lies were coming true, but the shadow of death had come very close.
The question of drink was not broached. Gerry Slattery musthave explained the score to him. Large quantities of vitamins and packets of something new and helpful called Valium were deposited in the house. O'Toole insisted that the bar - just opposite his large leather chair - was fully stocked and the wine cellar kept full. He just didn't drink. No discussion, no help required. It was an extraordinary turn of events. He'd always been bookish and an easy, fluent writer. Now he became a slow, painstaking writer of sonnets. I could not even imagine what went on in his head as he embarked for the first time since his mid-teens on a life of sobriety. My admiration for him increased even as I found it difficult to keep up with his frantic intellectual curiosity; everything was considered and questioned down to the most trivial newspaper stories. It was exhausting. Admiration and respect struggled with resentment. In the past I and the girls, Kate and Pat, could have done with a sober, present husband and father but nothing that I could have said or done would have stopped him drinking. He stopped now to save his life - which is reasonable enough and thank God he has but - but, I wish he could have stopped for our sake.
My mother, who had come to live with us in London after my father's death in Wales in 1962, flung herself into the role of matron; cauldrons of beef broth were prepared in the kitchen and she mastered the art of flat food. The children, aged twelve and fifteen years, learned not to lean on his stomach but otherwise enjoyed having a father captive in bed instead of one that dashed in and out of the house, worked behind closed doors, surrounding himself with people. I never talked to him of the time in hospital but he must have thought I looked the worse for wear and after a few weeks he urged me to accept a job that I had thought I couldn't possibly take. Each night, scared, I called him from Suffolk and he, tucked up in bed which he referred to as his 'teapot', assured me that he was enjoying his life as a dormouse. Dressed as Mayflower pilgrims in a film made for American TV, we froze all day onthe desolate beach and I returned to long, dreamless sleeps in the hotel. I discovered a tiny brewery that made exquisite beer. That and the fresh air began to repair me. I went home to my beloved dormouse.
'I need to go somewhere nice to recuperate. Not too much sun. Quiet. Nice.'
'Go? Where? You're not even supposed to be up. Not for ages.'
'I'll get up.'
'Categorically, NO. We stay in London.'
'Oh. Hello. My name is Siân O'Toole. I'd like to make a reservation. Is your hotel suitable for a semi-invalid?'
'Is there total privacy in your hotel?'
'How far is it from your hotel to the nearest hospital?'
'What do you mean, you're not even open yet?'
'I see, sorry to have troubled you.'
O'Toole's partner, Jules Buck, and I looked at each other in despair. We'd been on the phone for hours. North Africa, France, Italy, Austria. Nothing.
Then suddenly, 'Oh, we have total privacy - a suite hanging over the Tyrrhenian Sea. No, we are not open but we will open for you and look after you like family. We will respect the ill-health and never make anything of it.'
Oh blessed, blessed Carlo Cinque. Just let us get to you quickly now. We are an odd little procession. I've got a porter and the bags are piled high on a cart and he wants it to be the fastest cart in Naples Airport. I want to slow him down so that the third figure bringing up the rear can seem to saunter as though his mind were on other things. Each step is painful, I know. Tapping the porter on the shoulder, I shake my head and apologetically pat my chest. I don't have the Italian to say, 'Feel a bit woozy'. But, hands raised in comprehension, he nods sympathetically and we proceed at a regal pace and he keeps a brotherly eye on me until we reach the waiting car.
Good as he is at 'disappearing' in a crowd, people are beginning to recognize O'Toole and as I'm carefully eased into the back seat I try not to look at him on the other side of the car, nonchalantly negotiating himself into the seat beside me. I can tell it's a miracle of small, self-controlled, slow movements. The half-smile disappears once he's seated and we're pulling away from the curious crowd. I'm so relieved I could weep. As for him, I think that in the last forty minutes he's done enough acting to last the year and now we're silent and grateful that the pressure is off. Well, I am. Who knows the state of mind of someone who has been in what doctors call 'unacceptable' pain ('torture', I'd call it) and who is now, after a close brush with death, biting all the hands that have helped and fed him because he must try to return to what he thinks of as normal living. O'Toole on the ropes is beyond sensible help. Only crazy people can lend him a hand. No, not that. He needs crazy people who are also rational. Madness has to walk hand-in-hand with common sense to be any use to him. And that's my talent. It would be nice to say only great love can help in these extremes but I don't think that's it. Fear and anxiety and grief have left me empty of soft emotion but I can't see this person without seeing my shadow behind him. And I don't feel I exist without his presence, informing my voice, my behaviour, even when he's there only as an irritating grain in my shell and I'm forming layers of disagreement along with the shiny, graceful insights I get from observing him at what I think of as his best. Even after all these years I'm not sure that I don't make up this state of mutual dependence, the 'oneness', this very special state that is never discussed. Maybe it only exists in my head and that has worried me in the past; now it doesn't matter. We're on yet another crazy, possibly doomed journey.
There's a tiny chapel - hardly that, maybe a shrine - on the roadside. In a less anxious state the twists and turns of the Italian Riviera road would have left me a wreck but todayI'm not worried about my skin. Steps! Damn! Lots of steps! No one said anything about steps. The hotel is out of sight below us. How far below? Very slowly we begin the descent. If there are hundreds of these steps we're not going to make it and this place will be impossible for us to stay in. So what do we do? There's a turn in the staircase and a lift door appears in the rock. We step inside and descend, emerging into a lovely room - a huge foyer looking out at the ocean. There seem to be seven people to help us to our set of rooms and the terrace, already flaming with bougainvillaea, does truly hang over the Tyrrhenian Sea (is this the 'wine-red' sea? It's lovely but about as wine-red as ink).
This feels like home. Are the Italians alone in their talent for purveying luxury in a way that has one reaching for words like 'simple', 'homely', 'unassuming'? Since 1970 I've spent almost five years building a house in Ireland and immediately I feel here much as I feel on the West Coast in Connemara. Even the ground under our feet is familiar; solid rock everywhere around, above and below. Who or what guided us to this place? I'm overwhelmed with a sense of good fortune. Maybe our luck has turned. Luck is important. O'Toole is lucky. Leaving him to potter around the rooms, I set about fine-tuning our life here. Breakfast quite early, big jugs of fresh juice mid-morning. No alcohol. The simplest of small lunches. More fresh fruit juice at the cocktail hour. Dinner as much like lunch as possible. The minimum of attention. Telephone calls only from my mother or Jules (and they won't ring unless there's an emergency). I unpack and within hours his books and papers (O'Toole never attempted to master the art of travelling light when in 'civilized' surroundings) cover the tables in the enormous sitting room. My books are piled high in the bedroom. Carlo has raised the drawbridge for us and we are alone.
I've stayed in some of the loveliest hotels in the world but never in one that met all the urgent needs and desires of themoment as did the San Pietro. As the weeks went by we began to tackle the corridors and the steps to the foyer and the dining room. At first we were the only guests and it was like being in the West of Ireland. Service was impeccable but running through everything was a streak of idiosyncratic joie-de-vivre that was peculiar to Carlo. There was a St Bernard (suffering in the warmth of Southern Italy) who came and yearned mournfully at the food on the table. Outside there were grumpy penguins living in and around the pool. The parrot in the dining room shrieked obscenities learned from the village builders. The builders ... When we learned the story of the making of the hotel I knew that we were right to feel at home. In the West of Ireland, before you build anything, you buy gelignite and you blast yourself a flat space on the granite. The boys cycle out to you with a bit of 'jelly' in the basket and, cigarette in hand, survey the impossible terrain, then they lay their charges and murmur, 'Better get back there now, missus', before the ground explodes. 'Would ya like a little bit of that over there blown off?' 'Mmm, I think a terrace looking out at the--' 'Sure thing. Better move back a bit.' Pow! And there's your terrace - just where you wanted it.
Carlo Cinque, who ran a successful hotel in Positano, thought he'd like a quiet place just for himself and, having bought the San Pietro chapel, perched on the edge of a cliff outside the town, he and a few of the village boys 'jellied' a bit of a ledge and, having cut some steps down to it, he built himself a few rooms and a kitchen. His friends kept borrowing them so he blasted away another ledge and built a few more rooms and on it went. Most wonderful of all (and if he was proud to tell this tale he never found a more admiring audience) when he decided that this was now a proper hotel and maybe should include access to the beach, he decided to make an elevator through the cliff to the sea shore hundreds of feet below. A couple of village boys came and surveyed the problem and quickly said they were ready to start. Carlogave them the go-ahead and provided the explosives. (A less confident man might have feared for his hotel.) Off they went. One boy descended through the rock from the hotel ledge and the other ascended from sea level. They blasted away and one day they met - smack on target in the middle - and there was the elevator shaft. It's sad that this is an extraordinary story. People, understandably people in remote neighborhoods, have talents and skills and don't question them. Closer to urban communities they lose their confidence and learn to bow to 'experts in the field', experts on building, parenting, meteorology, elevator construction. Well, I hope nobody wages a guerrilla war in Southern Italy. Those men are invincible, natural engineers.
We were told that we were too early, alas, for the annual, month-long visit of the famous Welsh actor Hugh Griffith and his wife, Gwnda (one specially designated member of staff would tactfully head him off as he made for the edge of a cliff late at night, glass in hand), but a few guests appeared in the dining room as time went by - charming, quiet Americans mostly. Carlo and they and O'Toole and myself began to meet for 'drinks' before dinner. Innocently, they would urge us to have a glass with them. Carlo never betrayed his anxiety at these moments. Nor did I. O'Toole was a model of tact and sweetness, saying he'd 'not been very well' and would have a fruit juice. They, worlds away from the hells we'd inhabited, said, 'Well, when we get home, there'll be no more wine, Fanta only, so we're going to have a glass every night.' Oh God, they were so nice and I loved the glimpse into their nice, safe lives. 'Why not?' we chorused, raising our glasses of fruit juice and Carlo nodded, beaming.
Normally a sound sleeper, even in the most desperate of circumstances, I lie awake in this Eden. James Herriott's books are making me laugh in the wind-down part of the day. Siegfried seems to be such an O'Toole character; I read aloud to him and he recognizes his own maddening habits andit makes him laugh also, before he falls asleep. After that, with the lights out, in the profound silence I lie awake, listening. When I was a little girl I would creep across the landing to see if my parents were still breathing but that was out of fear that I would be left alone in the world. This is different. I feel that if I don't stand vigil he might stop breathing after all. I fall asleep at dawn. Only the dark hours are dangerous. Exhausted, I fall asleep again after lunch. I think that my fears are concealed but one day we decide to take the famous elevator to the deserted beach. Entering the cave below we look around, admiring the arrangements, the bar that would operate in season. We stand there looking out at the sea, which looks different at close quarters, more real, less like a set. Above us rises the press of hundreds of feet of rock. My feeling of dread is profound and when O'Toole says, 'Well, I think we've seen enough of this', I gratefully get into the elevator and return to the familiar warm, sunny lounge high above the painted sea. In our suite I climb on to the beautiful ornate day-bed in a corner of the sitting room - and sleep, and sleep. When I wake, O'Toole is sitting there looking at me. 'You were afraid, weren't you?' I nod, eyes full of unshed tears. 'Don't fret,' he says, stroking my head. Does he mean that there's nothing more to worry about? Does he mean I'm allowed to feel nervous about rocks? Does he mean he's going to be all right? I nod and resolve to try not to fret.
We now have a lovely pattern to our lives. We've so rarely had patterns. Rising, we have breakfast in the sitting room. (Who brings breakfast? I see no one.) Then we prepare for The Walk. It becomes a little longer each day. The hotel car follows us and at first we're lifted the last kilometer into the town. There we buy the New York Herald Tribune and sit outside drinking coffee and doing crosswords or playing word games. There are few people about. Then the car takes us back to the hotel and we lunch in the dining room. Now that visitors are beginning to arrive the foul-mouthed parrothas been banished. Also the St Bernard (we know that he stands in the kitchen, drooling over the preparing of lunch). The penguins also have had to go. The hotel still doesn't look quite 'there' in brochure terms. It's the gardens, of course. Carlo and I go to Naples and buy hundreds of plants. (This time the road does scare me half to death.) Over the next week I spend a few hours a day digging and fertilizing and planting and voilà! There we are. Every suite has a beautiful, planted, fed and watered garden. By now, I almost feel I'm on the staff and I'm happier than I have been for a long, long time. One day O'Toole and I walk all the way into Positano. Triumph! We peer at Zeffirelli's villa down on the beach and hear stories of the goings-on down there. Nureyev hurling heavy objects down from road level is one I particularly like to contemplate. Having been around during the time of Rudi's worst excesses it doesn't surprise me in the least that he should have been thrown out of the villa. Though frankly, by O'Toole standards he's not so bad and I, for one, would never have kicked him out.
Life is calm, a bit like our early days in Connemara when we first acquired a small cottage and a little land. It's not so much having a time to think and reflect, rather it's inhabiting a space in which not to think at all. There was a time in 1960 in the desert when I felt like this. Nothing happened. Living closed down to existing, getting through the day, like a tree. Or a cabbage. Maybe there's something wrong with me. I love life at its lowest level. One thing is clear: I have never felt such love for O'Toole as I feel now. I was all loved out, slumped like a boxer, beaten in my corner. I thought I knew all the turns in this maze he and I inhabited and there was nothing that could dismay or surprise or delight me. Wrong. Where did it come from, this huge, even surge of love? Not from pity. I could never feel pity for such a dangerous, disruptive human being. Sympathy? No. I've never almost died so I don't know what that feels like. Well, this is the place we've arrived at after somany exhausting twists and turns and stops and starts and ups and downs and false endings and I've learned one thing: to accept what comes my way. I'm not going to try to work it out, the reason for this intensely happy time.
Copyright © 2001 by Siân Phillips