Worst marriage ever: Bloom v. Roth revisited

clairebloomStage and film star Claire Bloom and author Philip Roth took no prisoners when their 17-year relationship ended in a firestorm.

When one of the partners in a marriage is a man who’s been called “a gleeful misogynist” –- in a complimentary article, no less –- it comes as no surprise when their union is torn asunder.

Claire Bloom and Philip Roth became a couple in 1976. She was not only a classically trained actress, but her beauty rivaled that of fellow English-woman Elizabeth Taylor (who she actually beat to Richard Burton, with whom she had an affair). He, of course is the American novelist whose career ebbed and flowed, until, after bypass surgery in 1989, he devoted his whole being to writing and has been on a tear ever since.

Why re-visit their marriage over a decade later? How about as a case study in why two people of opposite temperaments shouldn’t pair off? Or as a cautionary tale about airing your dirty laundry in public? In truth, its fascination lies in the incongruity of artists behaving like tabloid trash.

I first became curious about them while working on an article about writers and their lovers or spouses. The sticking point in those relationships has always been, aside from insufficient remuneration for the writer’s work, the amount of time he or she devotes to his labors. During my research, I came across this quote from Philip Roth, when he was interviewed by New Yorker editor David Remnick:

“Usually I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day.”

Roth must have been referring to the days when he was married to Ms. Bloom, especially when they were in residence at his country home. They didn’t marry until 1989; in 1993 he served her with divorce papers.

Then I learned that their relationship occupied a central place in her memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House (Little, Brown and Co., 1996). Thus, if you care to assign blame for who turned their relationship into a public vendetta, it was Ms. Bloom.

But, as Time reviewer Elizabeth Gleick wrote about Bloom’s book, it “is hard not to wonder what will happen when Roth turns his novelist’s eye to this same material. Claire Bloom has good reason to shudder at the prospect.”

philiprothDrawing First Blood

Why, one wonders, did she strike the first blow when the odds were she’d be subject to fierce retaliation? Perhaps she was seeing a therapist who encouraged her to write the book as a way of standing up for herself with someone to whom she felt subservient. Ms. Bloom wrote of Roth, “that I was intimidated: Philip always gained the upper hand in any argument, and with his razor-sharp wit could easily say something amusing and cutting.”

Also Ms. Bloom likely needed the money. After all — “The better to get the whole ugly business over” — she’d brought the divorce proceedings to a premature close. “After a relatively brief period of negotiation,” she wrote, “and much against my lawyer’s strong advice, I settled with Philip for the sum of $100,000.” Though she was a star, she was still prone to the vagaries of casting and suffered dry spells during which she generated no income.

Nor did Ms. Bloom reveal anything, um, icky, about the “gleeful misogynist” — no sexual quirks, not to mention shortcomings. Their main bone of contention was Ms. Bloom’s daughter by her first husband, actor Rod Steiger. “Above all else,” she wrote, “both for him and for me — the subject of my relationship with Anna became an eternal battlefield.”

She admits that: “I clung to Anna in ways that were extremely unsuitable, especially as she grew older; this made Philip feel as though he was an intruder in our closed circle.” But “I hadn’t recognized how deep his prejudice ran. … I was caught in the middle. … Placing Philip’s needs over Anna’s meant hanging on to an important relationship at the price of my daughter’s trust in her mother’s protection.”

After an operation on his knee went awry, Roth sank into a depression and spent time at a psychiatric hospital. The reader may fault Ms. Bloom for holding Roth responsible for his odd behavior while ill. But there was no ignoring the extent of the cruelty to which he subjected her, especially when it turned out he’d met someone else and was trying to drive her away. To wit:

“Philip demanded the return of everything he had provided for me during our years together. His [itemized to a fare-thee-well] list included … $28,500 per annum he had given me over twelve years … $150 per hour for the “five or six hundred hours” he had sent going over scripts with me … and ‘a little something’ for adapting The Cherry Orchard and writing a play about the writer Jean Rhys.”

Roth, whose publishing contracts may be the largest a writer of serious fiction has ever received, saved the best for last: “…for refusing to honor my prenuptial agreement, he levied a fine of sixty-two billion dollars –- a billion dollars for every year of my life.”

Ms. Bloom’s response: “At first, the element of mockery I was doubtless intended to read into these messages was entirely lost on me.” Why would that be? Oh, because it wasn’t funny.

Blood Feud

In 1999, Roth wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books: “Over the past three years I have become accustomed to finding Miss Bloom’s characterization of me taken at face value.”

But by then he had already sought revenge to set the record straight by means of a novel published in 1998 called I Married a Communist (Houghton Mifflin). The title refers not to the book’s plot but to another book that plays a part in Roth’s book — one chronicling the failed marriage of its author, a character named Eve Frame, in a spirit similar to which Claire Bloom wrote Leaving a Doll’s House.

In his novel, Roth makes no bones about the problem the protagonist, Eve’s husband Ira Ringold, experiences with her daughter by a previous marriage. Ringold is not the author’s alter ego; as in some of Roth’s other books the task falls to Nathan Zuckerman. To make it more confusing, Zuckerman sub-contracts much of the narrating work to Ringold’s now aged brother, Murray.

Ira Ringold is an outsized (in physique as well as character) radio star after World War II, known as Iron Rinn, with Communist sympathies. Murray describes domestic life at Ira and Eve’s Manhattan apartment:

“Eve would be in the living room doing her needlepoint and listening to Sylphid plucking away and Ira’d be upstairs writing to O’Day [Ira's Communist mentor]. And when the harp [in real life, Anna Steiger is an opera singer] went silent and he went downstairs to find Eve, she wouldn’t be there. She’d be up in Sylphid’s room. … The two of them in bed, under the covers, listening to Cosi Fan Tutte.”

Eve becomes pregnant with Ira’s child. But he’s unable to talk her out of an abortion, which, he comes to realize, “wasn’t Eve’s decision –- it was Sylphid’s. … What he hears Sylphid saying to her mother is, ‘If you ever, ever try that again, I’ll strangle the little idiot in its crib!’”

Then Ira rents a well-appointed apartment for Sylphid:

“That night [Eve] gathered her courage and went upstairs bearing the drawing she’d made, the floor plan of the new apartment. … It took no time at all, of course, for Sylphid to register her objection and for Ira to be racing up the stairs to Sylphid’s room. … But no Mozart this time. … What he saw was Eve on her back screaming and crying, and Sylphid in her pajamas sitting astride her, also screaming, also crying, her strong harpist’s hands pinning Eve’s shoulders to the bed [with] Sylphid, screaming, ‘Can’t you stand up to anyone? Won’t you once stand up for your own daughter against him? Won’t you be a mother, ever? Ever?”

Leave us not forget the anti-Semitism (the self-hating kind — Claire Bloom was born Jewish) Roth ascribes to Eve as she lashes out at her sister-in-law, Murray’s wife: “‘You! What are you staring at, you hideous, twisted little Jew!’”

If you think this is pretty over-the-top for a supposed world-class novelist, you’re not the only one. It’s as if Roth is so intent on seeking revenge against Ms. Bloom that he fails to notice that his writing has sunk to the level of melodrama.

Worse, he describes a scene in which Eve seeks out Ira, who’s left her. She prostates herself before him, throws her arms around his legs, and begs him to come back. In her book, Ms. Bloom admits that she swallowed her pride in her attempts to keep Roth from leaving. But, Roth portrays Eve’s craven imploring not as a cry for help at some level, but as an assault on Ringold. That’s judgmentalism from the most imperious and frigid of heights.

Worst of all, he equates Ms. Bloom’s writing about their marriage with Eve Frame outing Rinn’s communism (which may be a metaphor for the single-mindedness with which Roth pursues writing).

No Grist Too Coarse for the Mill

One can hear the objection: All’s fair in love and fiction. Isn’t all life fair game for fiction, no matter who gets hurt? Perhaps, but in life as well as art a balanced portrait aligns fiction more closely with the truth.

While I Married a Communist is a wild ride of a book, the character of Eve Frame is a caricature that has no place in a novel by an important writer. Furthermore, while Roth’s reputation may have suffered harm from Leaving a Doll’s House, there’s no way it ruined him like Ira was when Eve outed him as a communist during the McCarthy era.

Today Roth enjoys accolades as America’s greatest living novelist. After the divorce, Ms. Bloom, who’s played in everything from Shakespeare to a Charlie Chaplin movie to Ibsen to a Woody Allen movie, accepted a role in the soap opera As the World Turns to pay her bills.

In the end, the revenge Philip Roth sought with I Married a Communist boomeranged on him. Its author comes off as petty, narcissistic, and vicious — unbecoming traits that could work to keep this perennial Nobel-Prize-for-literature candidate perennial.

7 comments on “Worst marriage ever: Bloom v. Roth revisited

  1. What a strange tale, all new to me. What i don’t get is the amount of energy Roth expends to get back at his ex. I get anger and i understand the desire to “get even”; i’ll even admit to enjoying thoughts of petty revenge from time to time. But this seems like a particularly extreme amount of pettiness.

    Ego run amok.

  2. And to think, with John Updike’s passing,Philip Roth has the title of Greatest Living American Novelist all to himself. (Not that he necessarily is.)

  3. After reading this, i picture him dancing a little jig upon hearing of Updike’s passing. Maybe he isn’t, but at this point i figure him to be a massive jackass…though i must admit to not having ever read him.

  4. Pingback: Check Please | 100 Reasons To Have An Affair

  5. She definitely needed the money – Roth left her in a parlous financial state. Have always loved Claire Bloom, great actress, great beauty and a class act.

  6. I feel that there was a pair of them in it, she was obsessively self-absorbed and he an arrogant, petty, mean genius. Was a fine actress particularly as she got older. I hated Portnoy’s Complaint, but loved The Human Stain.

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