Deborah's second man

English translation of “Il Secondo Uomo di Deborah”

The sophisticated English actress, known as exemplary wife and other, has set her wedding date with Peter Viertel in July. But Kerr’s first husband doesn’t give up.

By Giorgio Berti

One morning in June 1958, Deborah Kerr gathered the press in an office of her studio in Hollywood. «Mrs. Kerr », said the invitation, «has an important statement to make.» The journalists imagine it has to do with some relevant new role she’ll be taking in film, possibly followed by the usual press marketing. But in the little room where we were gathered, there were no cameras and no drinks or cocktails. Just a long table used by the commission board. When we were all ready, the actress came in dressed in an elegant yet sober black dress, fallowed by an old lady also dressed in black. Standing on one side of the table, Deborah takes her glasses and a piece of paper out of her bag, and with emotionless voice reads: «It is with sadness that I must announce the separation of my husband and myself. I hope we will be able to reach a friendly agreement towards the future». And, without adding another word, and always followed by this lady in black, she left.

The mood felt as if one head of state had just announced the break of diplomatic relations with another state. The columnists remained stunned by the unexpected news and the unusual cold tone of the statement. For many years all the magazines had portrayed Deborah and Tony Bartley’s marriage as perfect: The happiness of that couple (and also Debbie Reynolds-Eddie Fisher one) was offered as a fact. Making it the second proof that Hollywood is death for marriage

One of the American magazines had just recently published an article in confession tone by Deborah Kerr herself, which main topic was «How I manage to be an actress, a wife and an exemplary mother nowadays», and which had brought tears to many readers. Hundreds of photographers at Pacific Palisades, the beautiful home of the actress in Hollywood, had shown the world the image of a happy family: A husband and a wife tenderly in love, after thirteen years of marriage, completely dedicated to raising up their children… that now sees a sudden end.

The news quickly spread from Hollywood to England, homeland of Deborah and her husband. He was at London at the time but journalists tried without success to have a statement from him. «I am asking Deborah to think about it for a year», was all Bartley said, «we’ll see what happens.»

What happens is that Deborah has started to let herself be seen in the company of author and screen-writer Peter Viertel, giving credit to those who think she’s abandoned her husband and children because she is madly in love with this not so handsome older man.

At this point, the English journalists were furious. During the war, Tony Bartley was an ace of the British aviation, one of the participants in the cruent battles in the skies of London. He had shot down fifteen enemy planes, and had accomplished amazing heroic tasks, being condecorated by Churchill himself. And now Deborah leaves him, the Hero; and for whom? For an ex-enemy, a tedesco. The public was offended, just like they were the previous year when Ingrid Bergman left Peter Lindström for the turbulent latin Roberto Rossellini.

Some where still waiting for Deborah to change her mind. But a year later, on the 9th of July 1959, the Court of Santa Monica in California pronounced the divorce sentence. To the judge, Kerr said that the marriage with Bartley had became unbearable because “her husband could spent some days in complete silence, without even talking to her”.

Having the judge told them that episodes of the sort happen normally in all marriages without making them unbearable, she went into further detail, asserting that Tony “gave her physical and mental suffering” that were damaging her career.

It was only after the sentence had been heard that Bartley came out of his silence, but his were noble words, worthy of a Hero: «I have tried to make Deborah think this twice, but now there is nothing else I can do. But I will not condemn her, I can imagine anything from the man who stole her from me. I have had thirteen wonderful years with Deborah: I’ve been a lucky man, if only for all the times death has spared me during the war. It was time I had my share of suffering. I want Deborah to be happy. I have told her not to have the divorce according to the California law, which splits everything we own in two equal parts, because most of what we had was her. I don’t want gifts, I have no need for them. All that I am getting from the divorce, will be destined to our daughters Melanie and Francesca. If one day Deborah wants to come back, I will be waiting for her with the children…». Once again, millions of women cried for Deborah Kerr, not for her good sense, but for her selfishness.

On January 6th, Deborah took a plane to London, where her husband had set her final residence (and was now a TV producer), to hug her children. As soon as she descended of the plane, the actress was direct: The date for her wedding with Peter Viertel was finally set for next July.

Of Viertel not much is known: Years ago he published a novel regarding the time spent shooting with John Huston, “White Hunter, Black Heart”. It opened the doors to Hollywood for him and he started working as script writer auxiliary, a job of little satisfactions, but well paid. With this position he was sent to Vienna, where they were shooting “The Journey”, a film about the tragic destiny of Hungary, with the actors Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.

In Vienna, he became the perfect gentleman, a sort of Prussian knight for Deborah Kerr. Becoming her guide on the few spare free hours they had, thanks to his knowledge of the native language. How did he manage to break his way through the “sophisticated lady” of cinema’s heart? Hard to believe, but easily done: He overwhelmed her with gifts, compliments about her work, her success, her braveness, as if he were not worthy of being at her presence.

Things she had never heard her husband said. Tony always remained the handsome official, but quiet and harsh of war time. The man who having only seen her once in a play proposed with a short telegram: «Will you marry me? I expect an answer in 24 hours in the following military address… ». Back then, his spartan manners and his heroic reputation won the actress’s heart. But now, obviously, the «diva» needed a husband who could compliment her on her cinematographic career as well.

But Tony never spoke about films with Deborah: A bit because he had to carry the burden of being Mr. Kerr, and partly because when Deborah walked through the door, the actress stayed out with the journalists and the mother and wife came into the house.

Deborah arrived in Hollywood in 1947. She was 27 years old, had been married for two and came from Europe with a solid fame as an actress. Hollywood, was not so kind with her and only saw her elegance and manners, and reserved for her a treatment of a lady, forcing on her the complex of inferiority that comes with being considered superficial.

Yet at the beginning, this same cliché of the sophisticated aristocrat risked to ruin it all. The producers offered her parts that reflected exclusively what they believed were her attitudes in her private life. The films were a disaster. Probably, Deborah would have slowly became crazy if it had not been for the role in “From Here to Eternity”.

In this film, she was finally able to show more than her lady-like side. She was finally true, finally a woman, the kind that ends up in the arms of a strong Burt Lancaster. The scene with the two lovers in their bathing suits with the vast ocean behind them, made the cinemas shake all over the world. The beginning of triumph. Deborah was nominated for an Oscar for her performance and then came “The King and I” with Yul Brynner: A film that did not have much artistic quality but was embraced around the world.

The journalists became then aware of this new Hollywood star that was able to be a «sophisticated lady», a woman full of sensuality, brave to the point of appearing as an ugly woman in “Separate Tables”. And who had an exemplary family life: A husband who was a hero, two lovable children raised in the European way, a home where no rumors and scandal had a place. All the ingredients to asses the American audiences that “Good” could remain invicted even at the Devil’s home.

But then came Peter Viertel and, as it happened with Reynolds-Fisher because of Liz Taylor and after what happened with Glenn Ford and Eleanor Powell, the poor reporters no longer know where did the typical “happy-family-life-in-Hollywood” go.

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