One of the things I love most about writing this blog is witnessing how each week’s topic surfaces into consciousness. This week, because I drove about 1,800 miles from Santa Fe to Austin to Dallas and back to Santa Fe in six days, many ideas came to me — gratitude, a joy toolbox, music, and more about fear vs. love. And I will write about those things, I’m sure. But on Thursday in Dallas, as I was taking my albeit sweaty, early morning, bug-infested morning walk, I suddenly found myself in the company of an immensely large and strikingly gorgeous, yellow-and-black butterfly, who danced alongside me for at least 20 immensely joyful seconds. When it finally veered off toward a beckoning bush, I was left with a smile that lasted the rest of my way back to the hotel. That beautiful butterfly gave me this week's blog topic. . .
Thursday would have been my stepmother’s 102nd birthday. My wicked stepmother, as she liked to call herself, which is rarely a good thing! The afternoon before, I had had a wonderful conversation with an incredible gentleman from Ireland named Mike Callan, who is bringing me in to do two events with the Irish Film Institute in Dublin in November. Our conversation covered so many things — muses, the Beatles, feminism, legacy, inheritance, stewardship, spirituality. When that conversation ended, I was left with another smile that lasted from Waco to Dallas.
During that conversation, Mike told me that he had found out about the work I was doing with my father’s legacy after chatting with a friend while he was reading Coral’s biography. A wonderful book, by the way, if you would like to read more about her, by the terrific Rose Collis. The title of the book and the quote on the back cover pretty much say it all. It’s called Coral Browne: This Effing Lady. And on the back is a quote by the acclaimed director, Tyrone Guthrie, who referred to Coral as “the most degenerate person I have ever known.”
As Mike and I were chatting, he said, “As I read about Coral, I realized that she was rather a. . .tricky. . .person.” When people bring up Coral’s name to me now, almost 25 years after her passing, I’ve noticed that there is often something I’ve come to refer to as “the Coral wince”. Even if I’m not face to face with them, I can feel it. . . a kind of psychic hesitation, a discomfort with all the contradictions of Coral. It happens with people who knew her and loved her, with people who knew her as well as with people who were treated badly by her. Recently, when I had the pleasure of spending some time with Barry Humphries, a fellow Australian from Melbourne, who wrote a singularly wonderful “Chorale to Coral” after her passing, he brought up my stepmother with the aforementioned wince, saying, “I don’t know quite how well you knew Coral, but. . .” And then proceeded to talk lovingly but haltingly about their friendship.
Even when I interviewed some of Coral’s dearest friends while working on my father’s biography, they all recognized that Coral was, by her very nature, a two-edged sword. . .a barbed rapier wit with one of the truest and kindest hearts on the planet.
The Coral wince is an admission of discomfort by people filled with admiration and love for an extraordinary woman, whose legacy was colored by the results of her fear, anger, and dishonestly. The Coral wince is a kindness directed toward me, because I was in the uniquely uncomfortable yet privileged position of calling Coral my stepmother for eighteen years.
I met the unthinkable Coral Browne in London, when I was ten years old and she was co-starring with my dad on a movie called Theatre of Blood. A year later, she was living with my father in Los Angeles as his permanent “houseguest”. In the fall of 1974, as I was waiting for my mom to get off the phone to ask her a homework question, I saw my father’s face flash on the TV screen. As I moved closer to hear the story, I realized that my father was marrying the houseguest, and I had a new stepmother.
Coral was everything my mother wasn’t. She knew she was gorgeous and was determined to remain so. She walked around the house naked after sunbathing, flaunting her beauty and her own audacity. She laughed loudly, socialized gladly, professed her acerbic opinions on everything, surrounded herself with her admirers, and left the mark of her indelible wit on everyone she met. Furthermore, she was a remarkable actress. Like my mother, she was also a brilliant businesswoman, an innovator who was ahead of her time.
In my biography of my dad, I refer to Coral as a cross between Auntie Mame and Cruella de Vil. I was trying to capture Coral’s inexplicable cruelty that seemed unconscionable paired with her completely infectious joie de vivre.
Her complete excision of my brother’s children from their grandfather’s life is something I will never be able to explain or condone. Her behavior toward me was trickier — mercurial. In the late 1980s, my dad’s health had declined, but no one was able to determine exactly what was wrong. I came home from a weekend trip to find a message on my answering machine from Coral saying, “Your father is in hospital. It’s not looking good at all. But don’t bother trying to find him. He’s checked in under an assumed name. If something happens, I’ll let you know what you need to know.” That kind of cruelty is never easy to understand, except when I see it from the perspective of Love vs fear.
Almost from the time I met her, I could see that Coral was an incredibly fearful person. I could see and feel her fear. It palpably extended toward me, toward my father, and of course toward herself.
In the late 1950s, Coral experienced her first terrible theatrical reviews, which devastated her. She went to Canada to work with Tyrone Guthrie, to recover her confidence. In a moment she never forgot, as she was floundering through rehearsals, he called her on stage and asked, “Are you man or mouse? Because I always thought you man.” Coral freely admitted the nearly constant stage fright she had to surmount, even as she created some of the most memorable performances of some of the strongest female characters ever written for the stage.
In his eulogy for her, Alan Bates captured it best, when he said, "We all knew Coral Browne the superb actress, witty, stylish, powerful, classical, and of course beautiful. We all knew the Coral Browne that she presented to us socially, a great personality, mischievous, alarming, unpredictable, outrageous. It could be said that this 'Coral Browne' was one of her great performances, one she certainly relished, and reveled in. I think there is another less well known Coral Browne. I was invited to present her Evening Standard Award for that superb performance in Dennis Potter's "Dreamchild." I made a rather extravagant announcement as one does on these occasions, and she came to the stage, suddenly a Coral I had not reckoned with before. The supremely confident Coral Browne was nervous, she forgot the name of someone she thought highly of and very much wanted to thank, and was, in short, suddenly vulnerable. I think the reason why we all loved her was perhaps because we all sensed that underneath her wicked sense of humour was this vulnerability, and it made all her outrageousness wonderfully acceptable. She was kind, she was generous, she was loyal, she was extremely sensitive to other people's condition, their bereavements, and their vulnerability. She loved people -- she could see right through us all, of course, and we loved her because she dared to say what she saw. Above all, she was brave, fearless in her defense of those she loved and cared for, and totally courageous in the period of her illness."
So, why am I writing about my wicked stepmother in this blog about my daily practice of joy? Because that gorgeously ostentatious dancing butterfly on Coral’s birthday reminded me that joy was a huge part of her legacy to me. The smile I felt spread through my entire being as I saw that gorgeous creature is the smile Coral elicited from us all -- as we witnessed the elegance, elan, and enthusiasm with which she took on the world!
You see, joy was the key to my forgiveness of her, because whatever else happened when she came into our lives, I saw very clearly that she reawakened my father to his own joy. As people get older, I’ve come to believe that we either contract or expand, move into Love or shrink into fear. My mother, who had been a free and joyful person, had contracted into greater and greater fear and rigidity, overwhelmed by what became a sense of duty, responsiblity, and obligation to my dad and his image, lifestyle, and family legacy she felt the need to protect and grow. My father felt that keenly; it crashed up uncomfortably against his innately joyful and free nature. So when Coral came in to his life, my father fell in love with all those qualities that Alan Bates so aptly described, and they helped return him to his joy and set him free.
I learned many things from Coral. I learned about being a strong woman. An innovator. I learned about being a stylish and fashionable woman. I learned about thinking big and outside the box. I learned the immense power of humor, language, and a well-turned witty phrase. I learned about generosity of spirit and love of people. I’ve often said it would have been easy if she just had been my wicked stepmother. But just when I had written her off, she would come through for me. The woman who once wrote me a four-page letter with cursewords no one I knew even were aware existed also was the woman who leant a sympathetic ear to all my romantic troubles. The stepmother who excoriated me to her friends as Vincent’s terrible daughter co-signed a student loan for me when no one else in my family would.
The first time I felt the Coral wince came a decade ago, when Rose Collis interviewed me for her biography. I could feel that wince across thousands of miles of phone lines when Rose hesitatingly asked, “How does it feel to be talking about her?”
Fine, I thought. I really had no idea what Rose meant. Then she asked, “Have you been able to forgive her?”
That surprised me, because I had forgiven Coral a few weeks after she passed. To me, forgiveness releases the stories we keep repeating about people or situations in our past -- stories that do nothing but keep us trapped in cycles of negativity -- shame, guilt, fear. As I told Rose, “Coral was dead and I was alive. Which one of us was going to suffer if I didn’t forgive her?! Me! Of course, I forgave her. I let it go. All I really wanted was for her to love me and let my dad and me love one another. Her departure allowed both of those things to happen."
It was then that Rose gave me one the great gifts of my adult life, when she revealed that, to a person, all of Coral’s friends told Rose how badly they thought she had treated me. As a kid, I thought no one noticed. As a kid, I thought it was all my fault. My father himself asked me to make his life easier by avoiding conflicts with Coral. But the revelation that others noticed and seemed to care was huge! For the first time, I didn’t feel crazy. Others had seen what had happened and didn’t blame me. Because I had blamed myself. My father wanted me to make his life easier, and I had really tried. I felt that I had failed. It was an extraordinary release — and a huge step forward in my healing.
Forgiveness, I have come to realize, is a lifelong process. It is not a one-off deal. And forgiveness with Coral, as with everyone whom I have loved, has been a gradual untangling of the snarls and stories that keep us bound up in fear and prevent us from seeing through the eyes of Love.
If the whole point of this daily practice of joy is to reconnect to the Love that has always existed in us, that is our inheritance — before our lifetimes of learned fears that entangle us, dim our lights, contract our lives — then acknowledging all of the people and experiences who taught us joy is part of our “joy homework”!
When I think of Coral, I think of her like this Helmut Newton photograph — that glamorous free joy-filled exuberance at being alive. Underneath that extraordinary exterior was a brave teenager who made her way to England from Australia, and then created a persona that she hoped would continue to assuage her lifelong terror of being found out to be that provincial girl from Footscray.
The legendary Coral Browne so beloved by the theatre world had scandalous affairs, and most notably was one man’s mistress and business partner for fifteen years. When he died, at his memorial, one side of the church was filled with the wife's family and the other with Coral's friends from the theatre world. Her decadent life is the stuff of legend! While that might be judged by some, those of us who knew Coral knew how very very deeply she loved. She once told me of her most painful heartbreak, when she felt forced to choose her career and societal approval over love. It was the hardest decision she had ever made in her life. I saw the painful truth of that decision in her eyes. She wanted that heartbreak to be seen by me.
When she married Vincent Price, Coral Browne partnered with a man whose bright light she hoped would ignite her own, because the death of her first husband had plunged her into a mesmeric terror of her own death that she seemed unable to shake. But when my father’s immense life spirit and extraordinary expression of Love outshone her own, Coral grew terrified, and tried to hold him back under the guise of protecting him, as my mother had done. Soon my father found himself hiding things from her, as he had done with his other wives.
The legacy of fear vs Love writ large on all of our lives.
In 2013, on what would have been Coral’s birthday, I remember waking up to the realization that, unlike for my father, there was no global centennial celebration for my stepmother — as there had been when the Vincentennial was enjoyed all around the world. No outpouring of love flooded social media. It made me recognize even more keenly that legacy is always and only about Love. If legacy isn’t based on Love, however it manifests, it doesn’t last.
For those of us who loved and were loved by Coral — and I am blessed to know that Coral and I did love one another (the last words we spoke one to the other before she passed were “I love you”) — we carry with us her legacy of laughter, of irreverence, of expansive generosity, of an adventurous spirit, of glamour, of style, of being a powerful woman.
It’s very very easy to stay stuck in our life-limiting, woe-is-me narratives. In the fairy tale of my life, having a wicked stepmother could have been a very seductive part of my tale. But the fact is that, without Coral, I never would have learned half the lessons I have about choosing Love not fear. Nor would I have laughed nearly as much. Say what you will, Coral’s wit made every day an adventure, as you can read with laugh-out-loud joy in Rose Collis’ wonderful biography.
I am grateful to include Coral Browne as part of my legacy of joy. Joy and gratitude are inexorably linked. One reminds us of the other, but the purpose of both is to reconnect us with the only thing that lasts — and that is the power of Love.
Happy Birthday Coral!