What’s it like being married to a genius?
Three years ago actress Suzanne Cloutier, of Ottawa, married an actor director producer novelist essayist linguist artist worst-dressed man in England. His name is Peter Ustinov. Here’s what life’s like in a three-ring circus
Just as Suzanne Cloutier was winning recognition as one of Canada’s most promising actresses, she became the wife of Peter Ustinov, the most versatile young dramatist to emerge in England since Noel Coward rose to fame. This marriage, nearly three years ago, cost the daughter of Edmond Cloutier, the Queen's Printer in Canada, the brilliant career predicted for her since 1945 when, at seventeen, she left Ottawa for New York, Hollywood, Paris, Rome and London. But she is content, for the hectic, happy and hilarious drama of Suzanne Cloutier, housewife. must by all the standards be judged a better show than any of the twelve plays or seven films that made the reputation of Suzanne Cloutier, actress. Since the February morning in 1954 when the Canadian girl married the product of a FrenchGerman-Russian heredity and an English environment. the scene of their domestic drama has shifted between London, Hollywood and Europe. Its more or less permanent backdrop is an eighteenth-century brick house in the arty London borough of Chelsea. A brown plaque to the left of the front door informs rubbernecks that “Ellen Terry the great actress lived here.” This fragment of information seems incomplete, to say the least, since the present owner is not only an outstanding actor of stage, screen, radio and television, but a dramatist, screen writer, director, producer, novelist, essayist, musician, artist, inspired comedian and a longhair, figuratively and literally. "Being married to Peter is a career,” says Suzanne. The late James Agate, drama critic of the Sunday Times, once acclaimed Ustinov as “the greatest master of stagecraft writing in England.” This is debatable but no one can deny that he is prolific. In sixteen years he has written tw'enty plays (he will acknowledge only the twelve that have been produced), two novels, six screen plays and an incalculable number of radio and television shows, cabaret turns, speeches and essays, the latter ranging in subject matter from child care to motor racing, from how to get along with the Russians to how to behave when engaged to be married. Occasionally his plays, which bring him royalties from sixteen countries, are mercilessly panned. But as a rule critics use words like “tantalizing” and “riotously funny" leavened with complaints against intellectualism and diffuseness. "He crams six plots into one play and ten ideas into one speech,” one critic said about his current play, Romanoff and Juliet, a mad but successful mixture of serious drama, political satire and farce. In free adaptation of Shakespeare’s theme, the lovers in Ustinov's play are the children of the Russian and American ambassadors to a minute mythical democracy which is unwilling to sign pacts that might jeopardize
its historical role of maintaining the balance of feebleness in Europe. Ustinov's acting, even when hammy, is invariably rated in the range of good to great. In Romanoff and Juliet he plays an overdressed general who, as president of his tiny country, must convince the hostile ambassadors that he is not anti-Russian or anti-American, just antibig. In one scene Ustinov causes a riot in the auditorium by saying nothing for ninety-two seconds. He limits the action to delicate, almost imperceptible movements of his fingers, ankles and facial muscles. Both play and performance are characteristic. As a writer. Ustinov is didactic, a moralist who thumps his pulpit with continued on page 34
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‘My daughter thought I was a dog,” says Ustinov, “and barked at me”
laughs. As an actor he uses his mobile clown’s face and his bulk (almost six feet, two hundred pounds) more eloquently than words. Most of his friends says he is funnier off stage than on, and one insists he is “the greatest raconteur in the land.” This is not strictly accurate, for Ustinov rarely tells a story; he acts it, even if it involves ten people of different nationalities.
When Suzanne gets up in the morning she may have breakfast with her husband. dressed in pyjamas and a shapeless dressing gown. On the other hand, she may find herself sitting opposite a Prussian general about to face the firing squad, or a confidence man trying to sell her a dud car. To a straight question she may get a straight answer but she is quite likely to get a sombre lecture from a Soviet commissar on the joys of living, an argument between a Polish army officer, an Italian prisoner-of-war and an American GI. or an account of how the Moscow Dynamos were robbed of their football victory by the Fascist deviationists playing for England's Arsenals.
Ustinov speaks five languages and countless dialects, real and invented. He also sings and at odd moments of exuberance his household may be treated to a complete operatic quartet. On a recent English TV program he gave his impressions of the United States. Beginning with cab drivers and police, he satirized the entire nation, including the movie moguls in Hollywood and a complete hearing of the House committee investigating un-American activities. Shortly after this a Sunday newspaper invited its readers to suggest how they would run commercial TV, then the subject of a nation-wide controversy. One writer said, "Fire everybody and turn the whole damn thing over to Ustinov.”
This suggestion is not without merit, for Ustinov’s prodigious energy is usually employed on six projects at once. Last spring, for example, he celebrated his
thirty-fifth birthday, while on tour in Scotland with Romanoff and Juliet, writing another play and meditating on still another. On week ends he rushed south to Bristol to watch rehearsals of The Empty Chair, a new play now awaiting a London production but then being staged by the Bristol Old Vic, breaking his journey to visit Suzanne in a maternity hospital where she awaited the birth of their second child.
Igor Nicholas Ustinov was born in April; his sister Pavla Marina is two. A French cook, a French housemaid, a Scottish nannie and an Australian secretary also inhabit the Chelsea "house which, on a normal morning, is about as serene as a railway junction after a train wreck. Suzanne darts about, tending to the children and chattering in French to her husband. The cook rushes after Suzanne to discuss the menus. The housemaid carries a cup of coffee up to the drawing room for a visitor on a mission that Ustinov, habitually kind, welcomes with a warmth he cannot possibly feel. Pavla and her father converse in wildly undulating basic Chinese, disregarding the arrival of three friends who must wait as some private joke unfolds. Then Pavla yanks her father’s beard, which she firmly believes to be false, and says good-by to everyone, including some workmen who have come to fix a leak in the roof. At this moment Miss Dalgleish, the secretary, buzzes on the intercom. Ustinov picks up the telephone. But the caller hangs up, believing, with every good reason, that he is talking to an Italian fruit vendor who has lost a shipment of figs.
Through this confusion Suzanne moves with remarkable poise, proving she is indeed the Iron Butterfly, a name invented for her in 1950 by Orson Welles when she played Desdemona to his Othello.
"After Welles, anything is normal,” she says, explaining that the name was
coined to commend her stamina. “I lasted longer than any other actress who worked for him,” she says. Friends agree the name is appropriate. Like her husband, Suzanne is unaffected, unassuming and unworried. She looks as little like an actress or a rich man’s wife as her husband looks like an actor or a rich man. Fier long dark hair is usually caught up in an elastic band. She rarely uses make-up. In a crowd she might attract no attention. But, once attracted, the attention is held captive by her candid blue eyes and a face of exceptional beauty.
“I’m what they call photogenic,” she explains. “I’m told I have good bones, or something.”
Neither of the Ustinovs is preoccupied with dress. Suzanne wears loose comfortable skirts that do little for her neat figure, except to make her look smaller than her five feet, two inches, and much younger than her twenty-eight years. As for her husband, a gossip columnist recently nominated him the worst-dressed man of the year, criticizing his missing buttons and the hairy tweeds he wears to cocktail parties.
“He’s not like other men,” says Suzanne. “He doesn’t get excited by trifles like missing buttons.”
“I have no interest in sartorial matters,” says Ustinov, who has an eye for color that sometimes leans to fancy waistcoats and red socks, but the kind of build that would make the most inspired creation of Savile Row look like pyjamas. He also shares his wife’s hatred of large cocktail parties. But the Ustinovs are not antisocial. They like small functions and a hostess who can get them as guests has no worries about the success of her party, for even Ustinov’s casual remarks sound like dialogue. Some random samples:
• His bulk: ”1 prefer starches to grasses.”
• His beard: “At first my daughter
thought I was a dog and barked at me.”
• Hollywood: “It’s like death, the great lcveler.”
• Acting on TV: “It’s like being asked bv the captain to entertain the passengers as the ship goes down.”
• A neurotic actor: “He's got an
Achilles heel running all the way down his back.”
• His crowded dressing room: “Lau-
rence Olivier had a sign on his door: •No Visitors.' I put a sign on mine: •Visitors Welcome.’ These are all liis admirers.”
• Reason for leaving a large hotel for a country inn: “Too many autograph hunters.”
• Reason for returning next day to the
large hotel: “Too few autograph hun-
• Annual New Year’s resolution: "To commit all the follies of last year this year, with better results.”
"When he is about, nothing is sad and depressing,” says Suzanne. “Life is happy all the time. If something goes wrong he turns it into a joke. I have never met anyone who makes me laugh so much.”
The Ustinovs traveled toward their outwardly hectic but inwardly composed union by routes with only one common feature: the disappointment of their parents when they chose the theatre as a profession. Peter, born in London on April 16, 1921, began at an early age to reverse the expectations of the senior Ustinovs. His mother, artist Nadia Benois. hoped that, like her. he might be an artist. At Westminster School he rebelled against what he now calls “the cruel masquerade of dressing small boys as undertakers,” did poorly at his work, was punished for writing plays in class and for imitating his masters, and established himself as a heretic beyond redemption by developing a violent loathing for cricket. “More was expected of his twelve and a half years,” one of his masters reported sadly. He chose the theatre, Ustinov claims, “because I couldn’t do anything else. 1 never passed an exam.”
He left school at sixteen, put in some time at drama school and repertory and at nineteen wrote his first play. House of Regrets. It was not produced until 1942 because of the outbreak of the war, an event which did little to slow his development.
Ustinov wrote steadily during the four years he was, by his own account, “the saddest sack in our shade of khaki.” He never rose above private, and says he would always have been in trouble if he hadn’t acted his way out of it. Inevitably. he gravitated to the Royal Film unit where, in addition to being batman for Col. David Niven, he was put to work writing. By 1945. at twenty-four, he was writing, directing and producing a film about radar and finishing his third play and his first novel.
Until this time Suzanne, one of the six children of Edmond Cloutier, the Queen’s Printer, had been attending Marguerite Bourgeoise College in Montreal. Since she was a serious-minded child, her family thought she might become a nun. But in 1945. when she was seventeen, she ran away from home with sixty-three dollars in her purse and a one-way ticket to New York. At Grand Central Station she crept fearfully up to the street where for a few minutes she stared with wide-eyed dismay at the roaring traffic. Then she plunged down again and remained in the station for three days.
"Grand Central is really quite comfortable.” she says, looking back. "You can have a bath, there are places to sleep and lots of restaurants.” In one of these, on the third morning, as she searched a
newspaper’s want ads with the help of a French-English dictionary, she struck up a conversation with a dazzling young woman who proved to be Bijou Barrington. a Conover model. To Miss Barrington's trained eye Suzanne’s good bones were evident at once although the skin that covered them was white and tearstained and their owner, wearing hair down to her waist, a skirt and sweater and flat-heeled shoes, looked about twelve years old.
"She took me to the agency, they cut off my hair, dressed me up and made a model of me,” says Suzanne. Three months later, her picture was on the cover of Vogue.
“I was on lots of covers after that.” she says. "I find that if you leave life alone one thing just leads to another.”
In Suzanne's case it would be more accurate to say that one mentor leads to another, for seven have so far guided her career. Number one was George Stevens, the Hollywood director of A Place in the Sun. One day early in 1946, while thumbing through some stills looking for likely material for his new company, Liberty Films. Inc., he turned up a picture of Suzanne. He looked again and offered her a Hollywood contract.
Number two was Charles Laughton, whom she met during her two years in Hollywood, interrupted briefly by her wedding in Ottawa in August 1946. to a childhood friend, François La Flèche, of Montreal. While waiting for her big chance in pictures. Suzanne joined Laughton's Shakespearean company. When Liberty Films merged with Paramount and she found herself lost among the starlets. Laughton advised her to leave. “Go to Europe, get on the stage and learn to be a good actress,” he urged.
“She'll go far, that one”
When Suzanne reached Paris in 1948 she had a letter of introduction from Laughton to mentor number three, the late director-actor Louis Jouvet. Through Jouvet she joined the junior Comédie Française, where she was seen by mentor number four, director Julien Duvivier. He invited her to test for the lead in his film. The Sinners, and she won the part.
The Sinners led Suzanne to mentor number five. Orson Welles. When Welles saw Suzanne on the screen, he sighed massively and announced that his quest for the perfect Desdemona was over.
"I'm a lucky girl.” Suzanne told a reporter after she had signed to play opposite Welles in his production of Othello. "Of course she's lucky,” boomed Welles. "But Suzie’s a talented kid. She's got everything—looks, ability, and she s a hard worker. She’ll go far. that one.’
Mentor number six. director Marcel Carné, evidently agreed for he chose Suzanne to play the lead in his film. Juliette (she won the part against another newcomer, Leslie Caron). As Juliette she played opposite Gérard Philipe, the matinee idol of France. This, in a roundabout way. led her to lucky seven, the most important man in her life. Peter Ustinov.
One day in August 1951 Ustinov was browsing at a newsstand when his attention was caught by the photograph of a girl on the cover of a French women’s magazine. It was Suzanne in her role as Juliette. Ustinov bought the magazine. That night, in London to discuss an offer from British producer Herbert Wilcox. Suzanne went to see the current stage hit, The Love of Four Colonels. After the performance her agent took her backstage to meet the star and author, Peter Ustinov.
“Since he had that very day bought
my picture, it played in my favor,” said Suzanne. “It was easy to become friends,” she says. "We found we shared so many interests.”
Soon after that meeting Suzanne moved to London to earn the only good notices given to Derby Day, a film starring Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding. Later she went to Hollywood to play opposite Alan Ladd and Humphrey Bogart. But the film was shelved and she returned to London to play a small part in the British screen comedy, Doctor in the House, and a large part in Ustinov’s worst and most soul-searing failure.
No Sign of the Dove, a serious allegory on the Flood, closed after eleven performances. Although Suzanne played a key part she spoke only one word. But by then she was in love with the
author so she suffered more acutely than the other players when it flopped. Before the end of the first act the gallery began to boo. During the last act boos greeted every entrance. When the star, Beatrix Lehmann, spoke one of her climactic lines, "I forgive you all,” a voice from the gallery roared back, "That’s more than we do.” The critics, while deploring the churlish demonstration, agreed with the gallery.
“I was determined not to let it bother me, but in point of fact it did bother me,” says Ustinov today. Two months later, after Suzanne’s divorce, they were married. During the next two years, while they traveled to Hollywood, Mexico, Haiti and Europe, Ustinov wrote a film script, two plays, part of a novel, and acted in five films. Meanwhile he
was, as always, adding to his curiously diversified store of knowledge.
He is an expert on fast cars and many other esoteric subjects. He has a remarkable memory for incident and fact, and is an insatiable reader, particularly of newspapers. “I have just finished reading a complete account of the Peninsular wars in some old copies of The Examiner,” he said recently. "Fascinating!”
“He reads the Encyclopaedia Britannica in bed. He’s up to S,” says Suzanne, who classes this, and a constitutional inability to be on time for anything but a curtain, as his only bad habits.
As busy and successful as they have been, the Ustinovs have refused to let either time or hunger for success tyrannize over their lives. “I am not ambitious for a career in the abstract sense,”
says Suzanne. “I’ve had one. I may act again if the right opportunity presents itself, but right now I have enough to do. You can’t just have babies and leave them.”
“I don’t want to be successful,” says Ustinov. "Success is dangerous. You’re apt to rest on your laurels. My ambition is to be a night watchman—all that time to think up ideas and no need to do anything about them. In life there are always compensations, always ups and downs and always hope. But the greatest privilege of all, which is of far greater value than success, is the privilege of being happily married.”
Suzanne agrees. "I would never try to change him—1 couldn’t,” she says. “Anyway, I love him—beard, long hair, red socks and all.” ★