ELSA LANCHESTER, HERSELF by Elsa Lanchester

ELSA LANCHESTER, HERSELF

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Only a half-accurate title for this quiet, generally engaging memoir--because, once she's married to Charles Laughton, Lanchester concentrates almost entirely on his story (a sad one), with surprisingly little about her own work or feelings. The first chapters, however, are disarming and distinctive: Elsa's one-of-a-kind childhood as the illegitimate daughter of unlovable Biddy, a notorious liberated-woman who lived in sin with diehard socialist Shamus (a common-law marriage as confining as any legal one), turning her back on her family's pride and property. (Biddy's father and brother once had her committed to an insane asylum--a celebrated ease.) Thus, Elsa grew up in the thick of WW I-era British bohemianism, with vegetarianism, political talk, and dance classes from Isadora in Paris. (""I soon learned that all lsadora could do was teach us to run away from or toward an enemy or to become an autumn leaf. . . ."") She became a dance teacher herself, a Children's Theatre innovator, a performer/manager on the fresh 1920s-cabaret scene, a soon-famous London presence (odd clothes, wild hair, that unusual face), and a hit in small theater-roles. But in 1929 Elsa married rising ""genius""-actor Charles Laughton; thereafter (despite Bride of Frankenstein celebrity), her career would always take second place--with producers slimily using Elsa to get to recalcitrant Charles, then casting her off. Even more of a shadow over the marriage: Laughton's guilt-ridden homosexuality, which Elsa tolerated (""Perhaps it was unkind of me not to show disapproval"")--though she raged when Laughton's young, handsome lovers took advantage of him. . . or when Laughton sold or gave away her favorite art acquisitions. (""Selling the mask was part of a killer thing in Charles, and it killed my taste and initiative."") Still, she doted on his talent, helping him to overcome his massive neuroses and achieve stage success (in Galileo and Lear); meanwhile, as they settled in Hollywood, she became the resident toast of a local cabaret-theater, singing satiric and whimsical songs. (Oddly, though detailing almost all of Charles' roles, Lanchester barely mentions their acclaimed work together in Witness for the Prosecution.) And when Laughton became ill with bone cancer, she nursed him until his death--a long ordeal, thoroughly reconstructed here. But, with only fleeting references to her own love-life, or to the 20 years since Laughton's death, Elsa herself remains somewhat elusive; and this unflashily well-written memoir, while effectively depressing (if not, at this stage, surprising) as a Laughton study, is only intermittently involving as a self-portrait.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1983
Publisher: St. Martin's