What does a woman do?

Photoplay Magazine – September 1958

This is the question Deborah Must Answer:
What does a woman do when, to keep her children, she must lose her husband?

It was one of those incredibly lovely English days, when the sun comes out to banish the last wisps of fog with its brightness. On the deserted beach, it shimmered on the gently rolling waves, and turned the wide stretch of sand to a dazzling white.

Deborah Kerr sighed, and smiled. Oh, it was so good to be away from everything, from everyone. Away from the hounding reporters with their endless questions. Are you going to divorce Tony Bartley, Miss Kerr? Is it true that you are in love with Peter Viertel? What about your children, Miss Kerr?

Her smile faded, and the pain that lay heavily in her heart welled up to choke her throat and flood her eyes. Why couldn’t they leave her alone? Couldn’t they see that this was tearing her apart?

She had to come here, to be alone for just a little while. To think. To weigh. To decide. Away from Tony. Away from Peter.

Away from the hubbub of picture-making on the M-G-M set in Vienna. Ready, Miss Kerr? Just one more take, Miss Kerr! “The ‘Journey!’” she thought. “What a sardonic title! What a dreadful journey it has been for me!”

She thought of another journey . . . and tears coursed down her cheeks, to fall unheeded and mingle with the waves that lapped at her bare feet. It was to have been such a happy trip. Just a few short weeks ago—it seemed like years now—she and Tony had sailed together on the Queen Elizabeth. She had to begin work on the picture; Tony had to return to his post with CBS-TV in London. It would be wrong, they decided, not to let ten-year-old Melanie and six-year-old Francesca finish the school year. So it was arranged that they would come later on one of the Cunard “Queens” with Nan Patterson, the trusted nurse of seven years. And the girls were so thrilled at the prospect of traveling “like real grown-ups.”

Nobody in the household had suspected anything unusual when Tony called one night and told them to take the Pan American Polar Flight to London instead of the boat. “We’ll have more time together that way,” he said. A twinge of pain crossed Deborah’s face. She knew exactly how it must have been—the youngsters jumping with joy, driving poor Nan to distraction as she tried to rush with the packing. Melanie, whose great current ambition was to be an expert horsewoman, trying to decide which of her beloved books on horses to take. Frankie collecting he favorite stuffed animals. Both of them picking out some new jigsaw puzzles “to work with Mummy.” And so happy at the prospect of seeing their Grandmother and Grandfather Bartley, and Deborah’s grandmother and aunt. The household staff going along to the Los Angeles International Airport to give them a big send-off. And what a thrill it must have been for them, flying over the North Pole to London in seventeen hours and forty minutes!

And then . . . their own world, that tight, secure little world the four of them had known, exploded to bits.

She met Peter Viertel as a writer on the film. A tall American of Austrian parentage, he had been called in to help doctor the script, dealing with the Hungarian anti-Communist revolt in 1956. At thirty-seven (a year older than she), he had a brilliant reputation as writer of the best-seller “White Hunter, Black Heart,” and the screenplays of “African Queen” and “The Sun Also Rises.” He also had a reputation as a ladies’ man. Long separated from his wife, he had been famed model Bettina’s constant escort for several years before she met Aly Khan. Joan Fontaine had been a guest at his thirty-room mansion in Killcock, County, Kildare, Ireland. He had squired Rita Hayworth in Paris and escorted Ava Gardner in Hollywood. He was a man of great sophistication and persuasive charm.

That they should become friendly was inevitable. Both were staying at the Imperial Hotel, Vienna’s finest, Deborah in a cozy apartment on the second floor, Viertel on the third. And perhaps the events that developed from that chance circumstance were also inevitable . . .

Every morning, promptly at 8:00 a.m., she was picked up by the studio limousine, to be taken to the Rosenheugel movie grounds, where she worked until late in the evening. She loved her work; the picture was an exciting challenge. But often, she was very weary. “I’ve made four pictures in a row,” she would say, with an air of forced gaiety. “That is much too many. It leaves no time for rest.”

At first, when she had a day off, she rushed about on happy sight-seeing sprees. To the Auersberg Winter Gardens, to the Kunst-Historisches Museum where, a painter and art lover herself, she gaped in wonder at half the Breughels in the world. To the Hofburg, where the Austrian crown jewels are displayed. “Oh, what fun it will be to show Frankie and Melanie all this,” she thought. “Just a few weeks . . . then they’ll be here!”

But then, there were no more sights to see. And the old feeling set in—a feeling she knew well. Loneliness. Emptiness. Boredom. In the past few years when she had been picture-making all over the globe, it had become all to familiar. Usually, it had been possible to bring the children with her, at least part of the time. It was the rest of the time that was so hard.

In London before she had left for Vienna, she and Tony had talked to friends about their plans for the future. “My Old Man” she called Tony, using her favorite pet name, explaining how they just wanted to work hard until they were sure that the children would never have any financial worries. “Yes, Mouse,” he had agreed, smiling. “These separations won’t last forever.”

Now, she wondered wistfully whether she was doing the right thing . . . and wondered again, whatever she saw in Peter Viertel. Peter with his witty conversation and his enthusiasm for intellectual chit-chat—an enthusiasm she had recently acquired, but which Tony did not share—helped to fill the void and brighten her lonely hours. And to have dinner with someone, to talk a while—what harm was there in that?

“It must have been some so-called ‘friend’ who got to Tony and gave him an earful,” she thought bitterly. Oh, she knew them well, these myriads of hangers-on who make the lives of movie stars miserable, gleaning bits of gossip, passing them on with the pride of being “in the know.” Meddling.

But the damage was done. Tony’s retaliation was swift—and devastating. Through his lawyers, Nordon and Company, he had the children made temporary wards of the court. It meant a judge would decide their destiny. It meant she could not take them out of England.

To quiet the rising clamor, she had made a brief statement, announcing the separation “with deepest regret” and expressing the hope that she and Tony could resolve their problems.

Outwardly, she was calm, dignified, the “perfect lady” everyone always expected Deborah Kerr to be. Inwardly, she was baffled, heartbroken, enraged, like a tigress whose cubs have been taken from her. At the first break in shooting, on Whitsuntide weekend, she flew to London. She knew that the move was a sacrifice of position on her part. But if she had to eat humble pie, she would eat it. “Not to have my children with me,” she thought. “I can’t bear it. No matter what, I can’t bear it!”

Friends reported that Tony said, “I cannot understand it for a minute. I see no reason—it’s all a great puzzle and torment to me. But if it has to be a break, I want the children.”

He had whisked them away to a secret place—probably the home of his parents, Sir Charles and Lady Bartley, in Sussex. But it made no difference. All Deborah’s pleas were in vain. Tony remained unmoved.

And now, on the lonely shore, in desperation, she tried to find the answer to the question that pounded through her brain like the surf beating against the sand: “What shall I do? What shall I do?”

Troubled, she wandered along the deserted beach, thinking. At times, the waves rose around her ankles, then receded, and she watched the grains being carried to the sea. “Maybe that’s the way it has been,” she thought dully. “Through the twelve years of my marriage, little by little, bit by bit, wearing and crumbling away.” And she remembered something she had said once, when she was questioned about her role in “Tea and Sympathy.” Always, she had been able to express herself better emotionally, when she was acting or talking about a part. Perhaps it was her English reticence, perhaps the shyness that had haunted her ever since she was a small, thin child, taunted with the cruel nickname, “farthing face,” but it was so. She had said. “I believe when one is young, one thinks of love as something tender. And somehow, when one becomes older, even in marriage this tenderness is lost. I hope this picture will touch people, will make them remember a way of loving that has gone out of the lives.”

How had it gone out of hers? She remembered how it was, when she and Tony had met in 1944. She was a fledgling actress, just getting a start in films; he was a dashing hero of the RAF, a World War II ace with fifteen planes to his credit. It had all been very British, very proper. “Do you like to hunt?” “Yes, very much.” “There is a party on Saturday. Would you care to go?” “Yes, I should like that.”

He had wired a proposal when he was away on a flying jaunt. And, all decorum forgotten, she had answered with all the straightforward warmth that had so often been kept under wraps, before and since: “Yes. When?”

When she was offered a Hollywood contract, it was a chance too good to turn down. In 1945, they had come there together, with high spirits and high hopes. But for both of them, those hopes were soon dashed. She had found herself in a straitjacket, playing one insipid English gentlewoman after another. And for Tony, it had been worse. Poor Tony! For three years, he was unable to take a job because his immigration status was not cleared.

When at last he got his papers and found a happy niche in TV production, their troubles were not over. With “From Here to Eternity,” came the Big Switch for her—and an Academy Award nomination. “Nobody knew I could act,” she often said, “until I put on a bathing suit.”

If Tony felt uncomfortable at her emergence as an actress with a figure and sex appeal, he didn’t show it. Even the ridiculous rumors of a romance between her and Frank Sinatra on the “Eternity” location failed to upset him. “Well, my dear,” he laughed, “now you have arrived!”

But without their realizing it, their success was pulling them further and further apart. Tony’s TV job took him to London. Her work took her—who knew where?

Now it was too late, perhaps, to recover what they had lost. And here, with the fresh salt air whipping her face, her mind was suddenly clear. “I know now what I must do,” she thought. “There is no other choice. If my marriage is to be sacrificed it is a risk I must take. But I cannot live without my children.”

She boarded the plane. Back to Vienna. Back to Peter Viertel. And a few days later, more bad news. Tony had filed a writ charging Viertel with “enticement” – the first step in a suit for damages.

Peter reacted violently, calling the charge “malarkey.” But his plans to divorce his wife at long last added more fuel to the fire.

She could delay no longer. She had waited, hoping against hope that there might be some way it could be avoided.

She picked up the phone, and called her lawyers in Hollywood. Yes, they were to begin a suit for divorce. It would force a decision on the children’s custody. It was the only way to get them back.

When she hung up the phone, she burst in to tears. There are times when a woman cannot be both wife and mother. But if she cannot be both, there is only one answer possible.

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