When Jennifer Vyvyan died she left behind a large quantity of papers, diaries, cuttings, correspondence and concert programmes that document her life and leave a vivid picture of her personality.
The diaries run from 1945 to 1971. And although the entries are far from methodical – with detailed coverage of shopping trips but sometimes totally blank pages on days when she premieres a new opera or makes a major recording – they reveal a woman working frantically, often to the point of exhaustion. The overall impression is of somebody with spirit, generosity, a loving, warm (if vulnerable) nature, and a jolly-good-sport sense of humour: qualities that those who worked with her attest to.
The composer Gordon Crosse first met her when he was young and in awe of her singing, and recalls that ‘I’d thought she must be a rather proper, respectable lady but discovered later the degree of emotional warmth that came from within. She was a just so nice’.
In the diaries she writes down jokes and ludicrous exchanges – often between herself and her mother Biddy, who could be bluntly insensitive about Jennifer’s work.
Before an opening night of Mozart’s Cosi in November 1955, Biddy is feeling poorly and Jennifer advises her not to come: “feeling so miserable you won’t enjoy it”. “Oh I shan’t enjoy it anyway” says loving parent’.
She records the films and plays she sees, the books she reads – everything from Brideshead Revisited to How to Win Friends and Influence People (which she considers ‘extremely sensible’). She is in fact an avid reader, noting in 1958 a taxi trip to Smiths in High St Kensington where she buys thirteen Penguin paperbacks.
She’s culturally curious, a regular theatre-goer with a keen interest in actors. She draws, paints and buys pictures from artists like the Aldeburgh-based Mary Potter. She engages deeply with the operatic characters she sings, as this short extract from an interview about her role in Owen Wingrave shows.
And she’s fond of lists, especially lists of songs for her recital programmes – not that the choices varied hugely but there would be small variations within fixed parameters, just enough to give her concerts a ‘bespoke’ feel.
Another list she obviously enjoyed devising was her one for Desert Island Discs which broadcast 18 July 1966. The record choices ran:
- Strauss – Four Last Songs
- Edith Evans and John Gielgud, actors
- Britten – Peter Grimes (Peter Pears in Act 2, scene 2)
- George Malcolm, harpsichord
- Shostakovich – Violin Concerto (Oistrakh)
- Schumann songs (Fischer Dieskau)
- Peter Sellars, comedian
- Mozart – Cosi fan tutte (Soave sia il vento, Schwarzkopf, Karajan)
The Mozart was her paramount choice. Her book was Dickens. And her luxury was painting equipment: she was a keen amateur artist.
Choosing this particular Mozart item shed light on a dreamy aspect of her character that wasn’t always to the fore but struck a young man, Michael Johnson, who worked with her on a 1961 Handel Opera Society production of Rinaldo at Sadlers Wells. He remembers finding her backstage, gazing at the ‘tangle of roofs and crazy chimneys and pots on the other side of Arlington Way, all gone now. She grabbed my arm and enthused about what a romantic sight it was – rather in the way that Paris rooftops and chimneys are celebrated in Rene Clair films. She did have qualities of feyness, almost a form of slight madness, which was hugely creative in her singing’.
Slight madness is in fact a telling term. So much of her life was on the road – or more particularly on the railways up until the mid-50s when she starts flying to foreign dates – that her diaries tell a repeating story of late nights, early starts, bad hotels and lost luggage. There’s a sense of living on the edge and in exuberant, semi-neurotic chaos.
In 1956 alone she leaves a bag on a train at Cambridge, an attache case in Norwich, and some ear-rings in a French hotel. In 1957 she leaves her handbag in a Spanish taxi with everything inside: passport, tickets, money. Later the same year, for a last-minute Entfuhrung engagement, she catches a train from Paris to Portugal but makes a mistake about the date, arriving on the wrong day with a consequently invalid visa, and is turned away at the frontier.
Almost immediately after being given expensive jewellery by a suitor she loses it, finds it, and loses it again. In 1964 she forgets her passport on a trip to Sweden but still manages to get there: a mark of gentler times for international border control. And so it goes on.
Through the mid-1950s her life is further complicated by a dog, Vyan, who is mischievous, messy, hard to control, and constantly needing to be lodged with friends while she travels or collected on return.
All the while she’s an obsessive correspondent, writing sometimes eight (and on one occasion in South Africa, twelve) letters a day, listing the recipients in her diary, and clearly expecting them to reply in comparable quantity when she’s away on tour – even though she then complains about the amount she has to read. In July 1959 she writes ‘Beautiful day. 12 letters. Ugh!’
Like most performing artists she has good and bad days and is well aware of them. ‘Helen Watts sang wonderfully. I had frogs’; ‘No low A flat – very depressing’; ‘Sweated with terror over broadcast’, read the diaries.
She is sensitive to criticism. Newspaper reviews are noted in terms like ‘Ouch’ or ‘Heavenly’; on 10 July 1960 she ‘cries for 2 hours’ over a harsh review for Radamisto in the Observer; and she has understandable concerns when roles that she considers ‘hers’ are taken by someone else – as happens with Tytania in Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Governess in Turn of the Screw.
Anxiety, though, made her ill – as she often was before a big engagement. She is ‘bad all day’ in Venice before the premiere of Turn of the Screw, and unwell the previous night. And in 1956 the illnesses become more serious with signs of the severe bronchial condition that would eventually bring about her death two decades later. In March 1956 she cancels a BBC recording of Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito (later issued on disc with her name mistakenly still on the credits) after ‘terrible asthma spasms’. She ends up being taken as an emergency into a Harley St nursing home – and afterwards into a convalescent home at Birchington on Sea, cancelling all further engagement for the next month.
A few weeks later she is ill again on her high-profile trip to Russia with Arthur Bliss, missing some of the sightseeing and a concert with the composer Khachaturian.
See: Cold War Cultural Diplomacy
The same year, during an October run of Turn of the Screw in London, she has an attack so bad that a doctor is called to administer emergency penicillin injections. ‘My bottom VERY hard and painful after yesterday’, she records ruefully, and quietly organises a trip to Rome to recuperate.
For good reason, given the potential consequences for her singing engagements, she does all she can to keep the problem a secret as she consults an array of doctors, signing up for experimental drug regimes, entering discreet private clinics and taking rest cures abroad (where, in desperation, she resorts to prayer!).
How critical this secrecy became is indicated in a later, January 1959 letter from her husband where he worries that she might acquire a reputation for being ‘no longer reliable’.
But the diaries continue to record bad nights that only increase in severity and induce panic. In May 1960 she makes what she considers such a bad radio recording in Germany that she feels bound to decline payment for it. The following year she has similar problems during a recording of Britten’s Cantata Academica that entail a lot of Harley St visits and the frequent intervention in her life of a Dr Ambrose. As a result there are sometimes weeks of cancelled concerts; and occasions when she succumbs to expressions of extreme frustration. ‘Broke cupboard door in rage’, she writes on Christmas Day 1971. ‘Could not go to church for anger’.
Things come to a head in April 1973 when she is forced to withdraw from rehearsals for the Covent Garden stage premiere of Britten’s Owen Wingrave, ending up in intensive care at the Brompton Hospital while the Australian soprano Janice Chapman steps into her role. In May she’s taken by ambulance-bus to a nursing home in Frimley ‘v low and tearful’, but does manage to make a recovery, and is working again until shortly before her death in 1974.
She died at home, 59 Fitzjohn’s Avenue Hampstead, on 5th April; and the death certificate records three contributory causes: myocardial infarction, coronary atheroma, and bronchial asthma. She had taken a hot bath and it triggered all three problems.
Fitzjohn’s Avenue was the substantial house she had acquired after a relatively late-in-life marriage in 1962 to Leon Crown, a Marylebone-based accountant who had been looking after her business affairs as he did for many of her fellow artists.
Crown had been waiting patiently in the wings of her emotional life since 1951, when they saw a lot of each other before deciding to ‘pack it up’ (as Vyvyan’s diary records) in October, followed by a break for several months and then some kind of rapprochement on Christmas Day.
That things went on like this for ten years indicates the extent to which Vyvyan’s emotional life was turbulent. In some ways fiercely independent, with a career to which much else was sacrificed, she was never short of admirers – with some of whom she had deep and long relationships, although she tended to keep them guessing about her ultimate intentions.
One was the conductor Ivan Clayton who passed from being a mentor and potential love-interest to being a responsibility she devotedly took on when he became a chronic invalid. Read more about her association with Ivan Clayton here.
Another was an ardent Latin lover, Jose, who featured prominently in her life in the later 1950s, pursuing her with a tempestuous passion that could only be called operatic, and bombarding her with anguished correspondence that followed her wherever she went. Staying in Italy in 1957 she records the discovery of ‘four registered letters and three ordinary ones from Jose waiting at home’. And the on/off intensity of her involvement with him becomes like farce – culminating in a day of trauma in September 1958 when she chases him across London in assorted taxis before going to Westminster Abbey for the funeral of Ralph Vaughan Williams, ‘exhausted’.
In September 1960 a ‘hateful MAD letter’ from Jose finally ends their five-year affair. But meanwhile, watching and waiting, is Leon (aka Lee) Crown who has been there in the background throughout. In August 1958, for example, she travels with Jose to Spain, then flies back – to be met at the airport by Lee. They alternate in her affections. And as an older man, almost a father-figure, Lee provides a badly-needed stability in her life.
Lee is solid, dependable, with a close, warm family around him to which Vyvyan is drawn, and considerable wealth: he drives a Rolls Royce.The only problem is that Vyvyan is a practising Christian from a grand, aristocratic family, while Lee is (despite the Rolls Royce) a North London Jewish accountant with East End roots. And these are the 1950s/60s.
Surviving members of the Vyvyan family recall no prejudice against him; but the evidence of Vyvyan’s diaries suggests otherwise. In October 1957 she records a fraught phone conversation in which she’s told ‘we can’t rest until we get you out of the hands of the Jews…Poor Lee had to comfort me. Hysterical tears’.
Eventually they get engaged, and early in 1962 Vyvyan writes to tell Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears of how happy she is, in characteristic terms. ‘I have been drifting round the country in a complete daze’, she says, ‘leaving a trail of sponges and tooth-brushes and grinning inanely at strangers – at my age’.
In March 1962 at 11.45am she marries Leon in the neutral territory of a registry office, and they fly to Barcelona for their honeymoon. But even then, career intrudes on domesticity – because in Spain she slips into the schedule of her newly married life a Beethoven Missa Solemnis and Mass in D while Lee flies home alone. And it turns out that she can be hard on herself in the management of work, marriage and family.
In September 1963 her first pregnancy ends in a miscarriage, which she records as ‘all rather a shock’ but deals with it in a startlingly brusque manner. The following day she buys a hat ‘to cheer myself up’. And four days later she’s in Brussels for a Messiah. It’s back to business.
In September 1964 she has better luck with the successful birth of her son Jonathan, who becomes the natural focus of her life, and the work-load decreases. But it still remains considerable, and the strain takes its toll. She often takes her young child with her to rehearsals, but it’s not always fortuitous and can result in chaos .
See: A Repertoire – Benjamin Britten
In September 1972, just before a high-profile British Council trip to Yugoslavia (with the Queen, Prince Phillip and Marshal Tito in attendance) squeezed between a UK tour of Midsummer Night’s Dream, she writes ‘dreadful exhaustion grips me all the time. NEED a holiday so badly but cannot leave J’. ‘Really at wits end over J’. And her diary records the phone number for a helpline called Children:What to do?
Running a career, a family, and fighting ill health ultimately proved too much. But in dealing with all three, she proved to be a very human being. Passionate, devoted, spirited – and never giving up until the odds were overwhelmingly against her.