After, by Robert Anderson
Like nearly everyone, I first learned of playwright Robert Anderson’s only novel through Donald Spoto’s biography on Audrey. For those of you who haven’t read or heard about Spoto’s book, he claims that Audrey and Anderson had an affair during the filming of The Nun’s Story, which Anderson had written the screenplay for. This is Spoto’s big scoop, the only tidbit making his biography stand out from the roughly 20 others out there. He claimed that, as a close friend, Anderson slowly and painfully told Spoto about the affair over many years, piece by piece. He then claimed that Anderson’s sole novel, After, was written about their torrid affair. While Spoto’s biography says that everyone on the set of The Nun’s Story was aware of the affair, it seems to be the only one of Audrey’s on-set affairs (and by “affairs” I mean whatever may or may not have happened between her and William Holden, her and Albert Finney, and her and Ben Gazzara) that no one has ever breathed a word about. Suspicious? You be the judge.
The book opens with Anderson’s counterpart, Chris, nursing his terminally ill wife Fran (in real life known as Phillis). Fran has struggled with breast cancer for years, and 50 years ago, there wasn’t much you could do against cancer. Fran’s cancer spread to her spine and bones, making them so brittle she had to live in traction and a complicated series of braces and corsets just to keep from snapping every bone and living in excruciating pain. This part of the book feels the most real, with his gentle care of his ill wife and all-too-real frustration and moments of blind rage against this helpless, dependent patient of his. When she finally does succumb, his mixed emotions drown him, and Chris finally escapes to their cottage at the Cape.
It’s here that he meets Marianne Chappelle (a play on the name of Ariane Chavasse, Audrey’s character from her film directly before, Love in the Afternoon?), the first recipient of a new scholarship Chris has set up in his wife’s name to benefit young actresses studying at the school Fran once attended. And here, in its entirety, is the “spot-on” description of Marianne, so you may judge for yourself:
I looked out into the semi-darkened auditorium to see which one would be Marianne Chappelle. Somehow I had not seen her as my eyes had wandered over the rows, or I would have known. The first thing you noticed was “style.” She was tall and slender and held herself beautifully, almost like a dancer. Her dark hair was worn in her own particular style, not the style of the day. And as I moved to the edge of the stage to help her up the stairs, I saw her large dark eyes, and they were filled with tears. She smiled at me as she took my hand to be helped. The entire effect of her was striking. I led her to the lecturn, handed her the envelope and stepped aside.
That was spot-on Audrey? Seems pretty vague to me. And the book pretty much goes downhill from here. Marianne stops by Chris’s cottage the next day, and they have sex. This is pretty much all they do for the rest of the book. In his thoughts, Chris says that he feels enormous affection for Marianne, but their very limited dialogue is either about her acting or his sex organs. He never expresses whatever he claims to feel, and in the end has pretty much just used her for sex, and used his recent widowhood as an excuse for his behaviour. There is also another woman he claims to be infatuated with, Jean. Jean is also an actress, but internationally known and married with children. According to Spoto’s book, this is supposed to be Ingrid Bergman. I’m certainly not judging by looks, but how is it that Robert Anderson could be married to a well-loved actress and also dangle two of the most beautiful actresses to have ever graced film?
In Spoto’s book, the Hepburn/Anderson affair wasn’t so physical. Robert claims that while he was recently widowed, he and Audrey had a deep and intense relationship and Audrey was thinking of leaving Mel for Robert. But talk of children came up and Anderson admitted that he was sterile. Audrey dropped the relationship and never spoke to Anderson again, though he tried desperately to reach her for years. In the book Marianne is unmarried without even a serious boyfriend, and claims to never want to get married. Anderson’s counterpart Chris also has a child, so how much is reality? Upon finishing the book, I had the sinking feeling that this novel was just Anderson pouring out his fantasies onto paper, and that Marianne was a sort of pale ghost of Audrey that he fantasized over. What’s more, the book was published in 1973, nearly 20 years after the affair. Anderson was by then remarried, and had remarried shortly after the supposed affair. The book is dedicated to his second wife, as well. Anderson claimed that he never came forward about the affair during Audrey’s life because he didn’t want to hurt her, but why wait another 13 years after her death to tell Spoto? And why publish After during her lifetime?
All in all, the book strikes me as fishy at best, a grown man’s teenage fantasies at worst. It shows the worst part of being a famous and beautiful woman: being subject to strange men’s sexual fantasies, and what’s worse, having complete strangers read these delusions. I’m only going on personal opinion right now, but there’s just too much that doesn’t add up or is just plain unaccounted for, for it to ring any sort of truth with me. I tried to keep an open mind about it when I read Spoto’s book, but on reading After for myself, my decision is that the affair never happened. Outside of Anderson’s head, that is.