Huxley and High Society
British author Aldous Huxley, whose friends included artists and socialites, poets and comedians, scientists and movie stars, was one of the 20th century’s most densely networked people. His influence was as international as Huxley himself; he spent the first part of his life in Britain and continental Europe and his last 26 years in America. Few lives are as full, or as fascinating, as that of this novelist, essayist, historian, screenwriter and public intellectual.
Aldous Huxley’s first novel, the comedy of manners Crome Yellow, satirizes the mores and behavior of upper-class Brits during the early decades of the 20th century. Its setting, a country house called Crome, is a fictional facsimile of Garsington Manor, the estate of the flamboyant Lady Ottoline Morrell—patron of the arts, champion of left-wing causes and great accumulator of protégés. Huxley fell under her spell and became a frequent guest at Garsington.
Lady Ottoline introduced Huxley to some of Britain’s brightest intellectual, literary and artistic lights: mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, transplanted American poet T.S. Eliot and writer D.H. Lawrence, with whom Huxley eventually formed a strong friendship. At Garsington, Huxley met Bloomsbury luminaries Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey. But the most important and lasting relationship Huxley began under Lady Ottoline’s wing was with a beautiful Belgian refugee named Maria Nys; the pair married in 1919.
Huxley repaid Lady Ottoline for her patronage by cruelly portraying her in Crome Yellow as Priscilla Wimbush, Crome’s frivolous doyenne. Lady Ottoline was horrified by the novel’s “description of life at Garsington, all distorted, caricatured and mocked at,” and the consequent rift took years to repair.
Aldous and Maria Huxley arrived in the U.S. in 1937 for what was supposed to be an extended visit. After completing a multicity lecture tour, the Huxleys settled in California, where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Huxley’s fame after the publication of Brave New World (1932) was considerable, and the social set that gathered around the couple included some of Hollywood’s biggest names, among them actors Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Paulette Goddard and the Marx Brothers. (Harpo became an especially close friend.) Not all the luminaries in the Huxleys’ circle were movie types: American Astronomer Edwin Hubble and his wife, Grace, were frequent companions, as were Indian spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and his wife, Vera.
Another intimate, the novelist, playwright and screenwriter Anita Loos provided help when Huxley sought screenwriting work. He held a lifelong antipathy toward modern entertainment media, but the money, apparently, was a lure: Huxley’s first attempt, a script for a biopic about French physicist-chemist Marie Curie, though never filmed, earned him the princely sum of $15,000. His next efforts fared even better: He cowrote adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1944).
Aldous Huxley met the screenwriter Anita Loos in 1926 in New York, where he landed after an around-the-world voyage. Huxley admired Loos’s best-selling novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady (1925), a satire centering on the romantic adventures of the brazen but intellectually challenged gold digger Lorelei Lee. The original “dumb blonde,” Lorelei was portrayed by Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie-musical adaptation of Gentlemen, in a sex-kitten role that cemented Monroe’s stardom. Loos, however, was a brunet and far from dumb. In a career spanning seven decades, she wrote novels, short stories, plays, memoirs and scores of screenplays—including scripts for such chatty classics as The Women (1939), directed by George Cukor.
Huxley’s screenwriting career was brief and only moderately successful. After he’d finished Jane Eyre (1944), Walt Disney Productions contracted him to develop a cartoon adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But Huxley’s highbrow concepts didn’t sit well with the creator of Mickey Mouse, and his work was scrapped. In his 1948 novel Ape and Essence, Huxley describes a “two-ton truck” loaded with discarded scripts destined for the incinerator, which is “where they belong. A million dollars’ worth of literature.”
Among Aldous Huxley’s Hollywood clique was another British expat writer, Christopher Isherwood, who arrived in the U.S. in 1939 with his literary collaborator and sometime lover, the poet W.H. Auden. Isherwood headed west to Los Angeles because, he later said, he wanted to meet Huxley. Like Huxley, Isherwood was smitten with Southern California, and it became his permanent home, too. “It’s no good explaining to people why one lives in Hollywood,” he said. “They either understand or they don’t.”
The British press castigated Isherwood and Huxley for remaining in America during World War II, and their antiwar stances complicated their applications to become U.S. citizens—though Isherwood, unlike Huxley, eventually succeeded. The two collaborated on a film treatment that was never produced; lost for more than half a century, it was rediscovered and published as Jacob’s Hands: A Fable in 1998.
Isherwood’s fictional works include the novel A Single Man (1964), a milestone of gay fiction and the basis for director Tom Ford’s 2009 film, and The Berlin Stories (1946), based on his youthful experiences in Weimar-era Germany, which were adapted as I Am a Camera (stageplay, 1951; film, 1955) and the musical Cabaret (stageplay, 1966; film, 1972).
From the late 1960s through the 1970s, director Ken Russell was the bad boy of British cinema, auteur of a series of florid movies that include over-the-top biopics of composers Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1970), Mahler (Mahler, 1974) and Liszt (Lisztomania, 1975). Russell’s most controversial film is The Devils (1971), his adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1952 book The Devils of Loudun.
Centering on a case of alleged demonic possession at a French convent in the 1630s, The Devils of Loudun is a serious, densely researched work of history, a novel of sorts (Huxley attributes motives to the historical figures) and a platform for Huxley’s ideas about the nature of the divine.
In filming Huxley’s work, Russell largely dispensed with the theology, simplified the history and amped up the sex and violence. Starring Oliver Reed as the reprobate priest Urbain Grandier and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne, the hunchbacked, sex-starved nun who accuses Grandier of witchcraft (leading to his being burned at the stake), the movie proved too infernally hot to handle. Where The Devils wasn’t banned outright, it was subjected to severe cuts. The unexpurgated film has only rarely been screened theatrically in the decades since its release.
Reviewing Ken Russell’s film The Rainbow (1989), based on D.H. Lawrence’s 1915 novel, New York Times film critic Caryn James called Russell “the purest interpreter…Lawrence could have hoped for.” But, she quickly added, “That is not unadulterated praise,” given the novelist’s and the filmmaker’s shared propensity for “heavy symbolism” and “high-blown speeches.” Russell had earlier kept his trademark tendencies toward visual and dramatic excess in check in his 1969 adaptation of the Lawrence novel Women in Love (1920). Unlike any other Russell film, Women in Love enjoyed widespread critical acclaim, and Glenda Jackson won the Academy Award for best actress for her performance.
Lawrence’s sequel to The Rainbow, Women in Love is set mostly in England during the Edwardian era and recounts the messy love lives of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, and the men with whom they become involved, school inspector Rupert Birkin and industrialist Gerald Crich. Lawrence focuses on his characters’ troubled relationships, including Rupert’s unconsummated passion for Gerald, and the author’s theme is universal (American writer Joyce Carol Oates called it “nihilistic”): the impossibility that human beings might ever satisfy the sexual or spiritual yearnings that motivate them.
In 1915 Lady Ottoline Morrell wrote to one of her protégés, the young novelist D.H. Lawrence, to tell him he ought to get to know Aldous Huxley. Lawrence and Huxley met in December of that year, though their relationship did not flourish until more than a decade later, when both were living in Italy.
Their closeness during what would be Lawrence’s final years seems improbable: Huxley was cerebral, scientifically minded and sociable; Lawrence was visceral, anti-intellectual and reclusive. But the friendship worked, aided by Huxley’s hero worship of the older and more accomplished writer. He saw Lawrence as “different and superior in kind” from other human beings. Huxley’s wife, Maria, and Lawrence developed a mutual fondness, and Maria held Lawrence as he died, from tuberculosis at age 44.
Lawrence served as the model for the writer and painter character Mark Rampion in Point Counter Point (1928), Huxley’s longest novel and the one generally considered his most artistically ambitious. Lawrence in turn modeled the “bullying,” “impudent” Hermione Roddice of his novel Women in Love (1920), at least in part, on none other than Lady Ottoline Morrell. A year later Huxley wickedly caricatured her in Crome Yellow.