The Magazine

Mum's the Word

John Osborne's rebellion began in the cradle.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By EDWARD SHORT
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After being expelled from school for punching one of his masters, Osborne worked as a copy editor for a trade magazine called Gas World. Most of his days were spent poring over the huge office dictionary. Notebooks from this period abound with word lists: "Acolyte, addled, alchemy, blancmange, bumbling, burgeon, bollocks, clammy, coverture, conk . . . . " But it was not until he escaped journalism for repertory theater that he put his love of words to the test. Look Back in Anger was not his first but his fourth play, and drew on much that he had learned as a repertory actor.

When it came to marriage, Osborne's motto was "Eat, Drink and Remarry." In trying to account for why he was such a serially poor husband, he explained, "I often confronted problems like an improvising chimpanzee faced with the dashboard of a jumbo jet." Osborne's first marriage to fellow actor Pamela Lane supplied most of the materials for Look Back in Anger. Lane's middle-class parents strenuously objected to the match, and Osborne pursued it largely to spite them, just as Jimmy Porter marries Alison to spite her parents. When Lane saw the play, she was amazed by its fidelity to their marital nightmare. After they divorced, Osborne married Mary Ure, his beautiful leading lady, who was playing Alison at the time. Osborne later admitted that he married Ure because she reminded him of Lane, which prompts Heilpern to remark: "The man who thinks of his first wife while marrying his second gives nostalgia a bad name." Although a talented actress, Ure would later descend into madness. (It is remarkable how many of his wives came to bad ends.)

It was with his third wife, Penelope Gilliatt, film critic for the New Yorker, that Osborne had his only child, Nolan, whom he would later disown after he discovered that she preferred the company of her teenage girlfriends to his. Worse, she reminded him of his stony, mocking mother. Gilliatt spent most of her adult life telephoning William Shawn with late edits and drinking herself to death; the man who brought up Osborne's castoff daughter was none other than the old Times critic Vincent Canby who, when asked for comments about the playwright, replied, "I've nothing to say about the bastard!"

Wife number four was another of Osborne's leading ladies, Jill Bennett, with whom he would have a bruisingly destructive marriage, fueled by drink and venom. After its collapse, Osborne formed something called Adolfs Anonymous, "Adolf" being his nickname for Bennett. Anyone tempted to marry Jill Bennett could ring the organization day or night and be talked out of it. Bennett would eventually commit suicide.

Before leaving Bennett, Osborne suffered a nervous breakdown, during which he mused: "'Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.' Is that right? It feels just right at this moment in time. I feel like a figment. A pretty awful fiction. I take back what I have said about the Irish." Osborne's fifth and final wife was Helen Dawson, arts editor for the Observer, with whom he shared estates in Shropshire and Clun--A.E. Housman land-- about which he would remark, "I may be the poorest playwright in England but I've got the best view."

That John Osborne should have been virtually bankrupt in the last decade of his life was proof of his extravagance: His lavish homes in London and the country, his cars, wives, many generous handouts to friends and colleagues down on their luck, drink bills--"Osborne and champagne," Heilpern writes, "were as inseparable as Fortnum and Mason"--and bills from his Savile Row tailor whittled away a sizable fortune. In his prime, he made money hand over fist. Several of his plays were box office hits in Britain and around the world, and Tom Jones (1963), for which he wrote the screenplay, was one of the most successful films ever made. (Its profits today would be the equivalent of $247.7 million.) Since half the profits went to Woodfall Films, owned jointly by Osborne and director Tony Richardson, Osborne was a multimillionaire by the time he was 35.

After his talent for playwriting dried up, Osborne was forced to write for The Spectator to keep the local tradesmen at bay, prompting the Angry Old Man to complain: "That's how you end up: A f--g journalist!" Nevertheless, the columns collected in Damn You England! (1994) are full of salutary diatribes against the English nanny state.