Robert Graves – Artful Interviews by Christina Katrakis
In this series of articles Christina Katrakis interviews her good friends Tomás Graves (son of Robert Graves, writer, musician and environmentalist) and Natalia Farrán Graves (Robert’s granddaughter, singer, writer and artist). The interview focuses on the major stars and celebrities who visited Robert Graves in Mallorca and includes stories never told before, curious anecdotes and personal insights. We will get some insights of some celebrities of our and of their time like Oliver Stone, Ava Gardner, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alec Guinness, Stephen Hawking and many more…
Robert Graves: Before you read any further have a quick look at this interview. Watch this charismatic (irish) poet a little while…
Christina: Dear Tomás and Natalia, I think that writing an article in a “let’s sit down to tea” format would be most appropriate when talking about Robert Graves and all the stars of the last century who came to visit him, wouldn’t you agree? Didn’t he have tea with all of them?
Natalia: That sounds delicious, Christina! I think it’s perfect.
Christina: Can you share some “tea” memories of famous guests?
Tomás: We would have all kinds of people dropping by for tea, like Alec Guinness or Peter Ustinov; musicians, people like Alan Lomax or Ronnie Scott; Clare Booth Luce (owner of Time Magazine) or the comedian Spike Milligan, who became a close friend…
Natalia: Friends staying with us or in the village would be at the house for tea every afternoon. You’d never know who’d be there when you walked up from the beach! We were always encouraged to join in conversations with the grown-ups, none of this “children should be seen but not heard” business.
Tomás: Not when we were little! He had a fairly strict “no interruptions” policy when he was working… but tea-time was a different matter.
Natalia: Yeah… but when we were little he wasn’t writing much any longer, so it was quite different. I suppose you could say we had the luxury of a full-time grandfather. But yes, there were always people dropping by for tea.
Tomás: Sometimes even more than just ‘dropping by’!
Christina: What do you mean?
Tomás: Well, on two occasions I remember some of the guests just ‘dropping off the road’ on their way to afternoon tea with Robert (smiling).
Christina: No way!
Tomás: One incident I remember was that Kingsley Amis’s station wagon fell off the drive at Ca n’Alluny, onto the lawn, and we had to round up a lot of men to lift it back onto the drive. Funnily enough, the same thing happened with the car of another British writer friend, Alan Sillitoe.
Christina: Well, no wonder… they were both ‘angry young men’ (smiling)! That’s karma for you, ha, ha!
Christina: What kind of people was Robert inviting round for tea? Whom did he prefer: fellow writers, Hollywood stars, philosophers, musicians?
Tomás: Robert’s friendships were few among writers (perhaps because of professional jealousy), although he was good friends with e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot (who helped him publish The White Goddess), Robert Frost and Cecil Day-Lewis, the father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who was a school chum of mine. As a young man, Robert was also close to Siegfried Sassoon, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein – she was the one who suggested he settle in Mallorca. He became a very good rock-climber, having practiced in his school holidays with Thomas Mallory, who died in the first attempt on Everest.
Christina: Were there any celebrities Robert didn’t like, and would have never invited to tea? (smiling)
Tomás: Oh, yes! A mutual friend once introduced Robert to Ezra Pound, saying “Mr Graves, this is Mr Pound. You will dislike each other.”
Natalia: Ha ha! What a great line.
Tomás: He was right: he disliked Pound, Hemingway and a few others.
Christina: Hemingway? How so?
Tomás: I think my father didn’t like Hemingway’s “macho” style of writing… he was more respectful of the Goddess.
Christina: Did these famous tea guests seem to be ‘stars’ to you? Since you were growing up surrounded by such famous tea-time visitors constantly?
Natalia: They were just family friends. I never thought of anybody as being “famous”… although, when I was little, I thought everyone was a writer, an actor or a musician… I thought everyone got up on stage and “did things”!
Christina: I know what you mean! I can relate to that. So… if sharing an afternoon tea with contemporary writers and poets was not Robert’s ‘cup of tea’, what kind of people did he fancy having round?
Tomás: As a poet, he was more interested in non-intellectual relationships with actors, musicians, scientists or scholars, such as the Sufi scholar Idries Shah or the Talmudic experts Raphael Patai or Joshua Podro. His friendships included celebrities like Ava Gardner, who visited him in Mallorca… and some of his friends’ children who visited him in Deià grew up to be famous, like Robert Wyatt or Stephen Hawkins.
Christina: I also know that drinking tea was not Robert’s only favourite pastime – he also loved writing letters and sharing correspondence with extraordinary people, didn’t he?
Tomás: Oh, yes. Many of his friends never visited him here but were close correspondents, such as Winston Churchill or Ingrid Bergman.
Natalia: He loved writing letters and receiving them! In fact, we were all encouraged to write letters, as children and teenagers. He was a very loyal friend. His letters to and from Spike Milligan were published in a wonderful book called “Dear Robert, Dear Spike”, by Pauline Scudamore. I remember a postcard which John Lennon and Yoko Ono sent for Robert’s 80th – it was published in a book of John Lennon letters recently. I was very young, but I remember the 80th birthday party – there was lemonade, our very own ice-cream cart in the garden and lots and lots of people everywhere!
Christina: Did Robert invite Lennon and Yoko?
Natalia: No…you did, Tomás, didn’t you?
Tomás: Yes, your uncle Juan and I invited John Lennon to the party and he replied, “Dear Robert Graves, Happy Birthday!” He added he would have loved to attend but that “immigration problems here in the USA do not permit”.
Christina: Wow, what a treasure to have access to such correspondence. Are they all preserved and on display at the Robert Graves’ House in Deià?
Natalia: Yes, some of them are. There are lots of letters, photographs, first editions and so on displayed in the exhibition room of the house, including Ingrid Bergman’s and Rossellini’s letter’s regarding the film shooting of ‘Homers’ Daughters’ – the film never materialized, but the letters remain.
Christina: Do visitors still come to pay homage to Robert Graves, in the vain hope that he may offer them a cup of tea?
Tomás: Oh, they still do. Just last week Oliver Stone came by.
Christina: Wow, the house is quite a tea-drinking hub!
Natalia: In recent years, it has had many interesting visitors – Patti Smith came to have a look round a couple of summers ago… oh, and we were waiting for the Prime Minister last summer, but Rowan Atkinson (‘Mr Bean’) turned up instead! It’s wonderful to be able to visit – I half expect Beryl (Robert Graves wife) to appear with a teapot and offer us all tea whenever I visit.
Christina: Well, let’s reminisce a little and share some ‘tea stories’ about all the wonderful visitors who had tea with Robert, shall we?
Christina: Tomás, I read about Robert’s friendship with Ava Gardner. Was she a guest at your house in Mallorca?
Tomás: Yes, she came to visit… she caused quite a stir at Robert’s birthday party! She asked a Guardia Civil officer to dance with her. And probably, for the first time in her stellar career, she was turned down by a man.
Christina: How so?
Tomás: She was turned down because he was “on duty”! Ha, ha!
Christina: Well, that must have been a shocking eye-opener for Ava. It probably turned her into a vicious hater of the Franco regime!
Tomás: Noooo, I wouldn’t say so. She visited Spain often and even lived in Madrid for a while.
Christina: And what about you, Natalia? Do you remember Ava visiting your grandfather, or know about it?
Natalia: I hadn’t been born then, but I do have a funny story about one of her visits – my mother had to say her “aunt” was arriving at the airport to get permission from the nuns to go and meet her with the family.
Christina: That must have been quite a sacrilegious lie… ha, ha!
Natalia: She must have hated lying to the nuns at school! But it must have been worth it. Imagine the excitement! Much later, Ava came to the hospital in Madrid and gave me a silk Balenciaga scarf when I was born – “For when she’s older”, she told my mother. I still have it…
Christina: Did you ever get a chance to visit Ava, or was she always visiting you?
Natalia: Years later, she invited me to her house in London and was very gracious and charming, full of stories, anecdotes and questions about my life and family. And a few years ago my mother and I translated “A Toast to Ava Gardner”, one of Robert’s short stories, which was published in Spanish, and my mother also translated Ava’s autobiography into Spanish.
Christina: Did Ava influence you at all as a performer?
Natalia: Well, when I became interested in acting and music as professional careers for myself, any connection with actors and musicians were the most fascinating to me – more than being star-struck, it meant that I could be in their presence and ask questions about their lives and their training. Ava was possibly the biggest star to visit Deià. Maggie Smith also came to visit – in the early 1960s, I think. She was a good friend of Beryl’s, my grandmother. I wish I’d been around then! I’d ask her so many questions… she’s such a marvellous actress.
Christina: She truly is – and now so popular worldwide, as the queen of the caustic quip in Downton Abbey! What kind of insight and advice did Ava give you? You were auditioning for drama school at the time, weren’t you?
Natalia: Yes, I was… I remember her telling me something about it being relatively easy for her starting out as an actress and how much harder it was “for you kids today”, that we all had to study so hard now… When I visited her at her house in London, I’d just done my entrance test for Central School of Speech and Drama earlier that day, and it was snowing, I recall. She also complimented me on what I was wearing, which I haven’t quite got over yet!
Christina: What would you say was the greatest thing that you have learned from Ava?
Natalia: Ava seemed from a faraway era of impossible glamour, and yet so approachable and warm. I suppose that’s what I took from her – that glamour and authenticity could co-exist.
Christina: So true – yet so rare!