'You may love your husband very much, but you should face the fact that he has no talent'
Rebecca West's most extraordinary letter
It’s almost the weekend. We made it. Today’s peach of a letter can be found in the book Selected Letters of Rebecca West, which, as it happens, is also a peach.
Mid-December of 1952, British author and critic Rebecca West travelled with her husband to Rome to meet with Roberto Rossellini, a giant of Italian film who had asked West to work on his next project: an adaptation of the novel Duo by French writer Colette, to star Rossellini’s Oscar-winning wife, Ingrid Bergman. Much to her annoyance it took two days for Rossellini to appear, during which time West found a couple of hours to watch and be “startled”1 by his most recent film, Europe ‘51. To make matters worse, when he did eventually arrive, it was revealed that Rossellini had failed to obtain the rights to adapt the novel in question, and instead presented West with a brief so different and underwhelming that she turned him down and walked away.
When West arrived home, she found an apologetic letter not from Rossellini, but from Bergman. This “extraordinary” letter was West’s reply.
Rossellini’s film, Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia)—loosely based on Duo—was released the next year and starred Bergman as planned, and despite a terrible reception is now deemed a masterpiece by many2. Three years after its release, Bergman and Rossellini divorced.
10 March 1953
Dear Miss Bergman,
Thank you very much for your letter, which I am going to answer honestly. My feelings were not in the least hurt by the abandonment of what was for both of us a trial trip. But I was distressed by the whole incident, from your point of view. I had been asked to write the dialogue of a film which was being founded on an important novel, Duo, by an important writer, Colette.
Instead I was faced with a ridiculous idea, incapable of development in any way not likely to be prejudicial to your reputation.
You may love your husband very much, but you should face the fact that he has no talent. You have great talent and a great personality, and it is absurd that for the sake of your private emotions you should allow these gifts to be wasted in a film like Europe 1951, which is so inept that even your performance, which excites admiration by itself, cannot save it.
You will not believe this when you read it, and you will think me an odious woman. But when your husband has made two more films for you, you remember this letter, and think about putting yourself in the hands of a competent director.
I never wrote such an extraordinary letter as this in my life. But I have also never seen such an extraordinary situation as the wreck of your artistic life.
With all good wishes,
I am, Yours sincerely,
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In a letter to Charles Curran on Jan 1st 1953, West said of Europe ‘51: “…except for a good performance by Ingrid Bergman it is childish, the plot, dialogue, and production is amateurish and out of date.” She also, in the same letter, said of Rossellini: “He is in fact a camera man who has worked his way up on a ladder of sheets and blankets.”
When I say “…by many” I’m speaking about critics and people who probably subscribe to MUBI. This is not a dig. I like MUBI.