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Tim Adler leads an unauthorized tour in 'The House of Redgrave'

The British writer started a biography of director Tony Richardson but felt the gravitational pull of the whole Redgrave star system: Michael, Vanessa and more.

March 27, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Sisters Vanessa, left, and Lynn Redgrave attend a post–Oscar party in 1967.
Sisters Vanessa, left, and Lynn Redgrave attend a post–Oscar party… (Associated Press )

On Jan. 30, 1937, Michael Redgrave was performing the role of Laertes in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" at the Old Vic in London. After the performance, Laurence Olivier stepped onto the stage to announce, "Ladies and gentleman, tonight a great actress was born: Laertes has a daughter."

Olivier's words were prophetic. Redgrave's first daughter, Vanessa, did indeed become a great actress and an even bigger star than her father.

But in British author Tim Adler's biography, "The House of Redgrave," which arrives in the United States on Monday, he recounts that Michael Redgrave didn't rush to the side of his actress-wife, Rachel Kempson, and baby Vanessa on the night of her birth. Instead, Adler writes, he had dinner at a restaurant in Soho and then retreated to the boudoir of his lover, Edith Evans.

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The book chronicles the award-winning and often mercurial careers of Redgrave, Kempson, Vanessa and her siblings, Corin and Lynn, and her daughters, Natasha and Joely Richardson, as well as their equally complex private lives.

In fact, "House of Redgrave" has more high drama than most Shakespeare plays — including Michael's bisexuality, his distant parenting skills, Vanessa and Corin's revolutionary politics, which nearly derailed their careers, and the untimely death of Natasha Richardson.

The unauthorized biography also explores the equally colorful life of director Tony Richardson, Vanessa's first husband, who was a groundbreaking theater and film director, winning an Oscar for directing "Tom Jones."

Adler, who previously penned "Hollywood and the Mob," originally had planned to write a biography on Tony Richardson, who died of AIDS in 1991.

"It slowly dawned on me that Tony Richardson had been unfairly airbrushed out of film and TV history," Adler said. "Actually, he was responsible for a whole type of filmmaking that you still see today in British shows like 'Coronation Street' and 'EastEnders' — these kind of gritty, real-life soaps with fly-on-the-wall shooting techniques that all came from him."

Adler said he had been in touch with Natasha Richardson about the project before her death in 2009 in a skiing accident.

"She was keen on me writing this biography and I started to work," he said. "We were in the middle of drawing up a legal agreement when I turned on the television and saw the terrible news."

He assumed the family would want him to continue with the project. But that wasn't the case.

"The shutters came down," Adler said. "They didn't want to have any involvement in the project at all. But by this time, my office was like the final scene from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' with boxes and boxes of materials."

Early in his research, Adler said, he realized that Richardson's life was so intertwined with the Redgraves that he needed to expand his concept.

"The whole family was a solar system and they were all revolving around each other," he said. "It was difficult to explain the relationships without talking about Michael, who was this extinct dead star, and all the planets orbiting around him, whether it was Vanessa, Corin or Lynn."

The book was serialized in the London newspaper the Daily Mail and published in England in 2011.

"I think I have written a good book," he said. "The Daily Telegraph gave it a five-star review. The Daily Mail called it 'dazzling.'"

Far from being impressed, "Vanessa Redgrave reached out for her lawyer," Adler said.

And her actress/daughter Joely Richardson wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph, taking umbrage with several passages in the book, including one in which Vanessa supposedly found Michael in bed with Tony Richardson.

"Silly as pie on the one hand, highly defamatory on the other....," wrote Joely Richardson.

"Eventually," Adler added, "Vanessa called off her legal action."

Despite Redgrave's reaction, he said, "She is one of the few actors who takes acting up to a different level. There's no barrier between her and the theater audience."

susan.king@latimes.com

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