How English writer Robert Graves’ FIVE lovers and his bizarre web of sexual intrigue made his steamy novel I, Claudius look like a tea party
- New book Robert Graves: From Great War Poet To Good-bye To All That (1895-1929) reveals the bed-hopping antics of writer
- Book tells how Robert was married to Nancy, but was besotted with Laura
- Laura jumped out of window after being spurned by man she was besotted with
- The devoted and despairing Robert then jumped out of a window after her
- Robert survived the fall and went on to become an author of huge significance
- He has 55 collections of poetry to his name, 15 novels and 40 non-fiction works
The mis-matched lovers — entangled in a bizarre web of sexual intrigue, a menage a cinq no less — gathered for the showdown in the top-floor flat in Hammersmith they called ‘Free Love Corner’.
Put simply, Robert was married to Nancy, but was besotted with Laura, who in turn ached for Geoffrey — but Geoffrey spurned her advances and wanted to go back to Norah, his wife.
They talked and argued through a long, exhausting night, back and forth about who needed whom the most, until Geoffrey declared dramatically: ‘I will not live with Laura’ — a wise decision given that she was clearly as mad as a box of frogs.
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As the sun came up, the nutty and controlling Laura edged to the open window in her flowing nightdress, sat on the sill and threatened to jump. The others took no notice, convinced she was bluffing. It was not the first time she’d threatened an Ophelia-like exit.
But then, to their horror, she cried out ‘Goodbye, chaps,’ and disappeared over the ledge, plunging 50ft to the ground.
The devoted and despairing Robert rushed down one flight of stairs before throwing himself out of another window, landing beside her.
In that moment in 1929, the life of one of the 20th century’s literary giants might well have come to a premature end, snuffed out needlessly in an insane act of reckless love and sexual hysteria.
Because the man now lying moaning with pain was none other than the majestic writer Robert Graves, just 33 years old at the time, and his best work — his World War I memoir, Goodbye To All That, his classic I, Claudius novels of ancient Rome and the bulk of his poetry — was as yet unwritten.
He survived the fall to become an author of huge significance, a polymath with 55 collections of poetry to his name, 15 novels and 40 works of non-fiction — a much-feted and distinguished grand old man of letters.
Yet his early life was an emotional car crash, a romantic merry-go-round that — as revealed in gripping and meticulously researched detail by the eminent biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson in a new book — rivals television’s Love Island for bed-hopping.
Nancy Nicholson artist and first wife of the majestic writer Robert Graves
Key to all these shenanigans was Laura Riding, a witch-like American poet (and not a very good one, at that) who latched on to the up-and-coming Graves and cast a spell on him. She brooked no opposition in getting what she wanted. For good reason, one of her detractors called her ‘Laura Riding Roughshod’.
For her, the middle-class, public school-educated Graves was easy prey.
After a sexually frustrated adolescence in which he was drawn to platonic crushes on male friends, out of the blue — aged 23 and suffering shell-shock from his time as a soldier in the trenches in France — he met and married Nancy Nicholson, from a famously bohemian family of artists.
Boyish-looking with bobbed hair, she was a strident feminist who refused to take his surname and wore the trousers in their relationship — literally. Even at their wedding reception she wore breeches, having changed out of her bridal dress at the earliest opportunity.
For years, they lived beyond their means as he struggled to get his literary career off the ground, bailed out by the bank of his well-off mum and dad. Surprisingly in their straitened circumstances, they managed quickly to conceive four children, but the sex was apparently unsatisfactory.
Nancy generally wasn’t keen — she thought his demands ‘excessive’ — and Robert was disillusioned and unfulfilled, writing in one poem: ‘Two bergs of glinting ice were we/ And love went by upon the wind.’
As they drifted apart, Laura Riding entered their lives and turned it upside down.
Graves had been sent some of her poetry by a friend and wrote to her in New York about it. He found her ideas stimulating — though why, heaven knows, because even then they were pretty batty and far-fetched.
But he was a poet desperate for a muse and an intellectual collaborator (which Nancy was not), and Laura fitted the bill perfectly.
So though he’d never even met her, he invited her to come along with him and his family as his secretary when, as a way out of his penury, he took a well-paid job as a professor of English at a university in Cairo.
It was a pretty odd arrangement, but, as Moorcroft Wilson writes, ‘he and Nancy appear to have reached a point in their marriage where they welcomed a third person in it’.
When he met the 24-year-old Laura for the first time at Waterloo Station after her journey from New York, her otherwise plain face was plastered with make-up, which a staid Englishman like him considered rather forward and daring. She ‘glowed’, he noted, smitten at once by her strong personality and her sexuality.
She, too, fell for him instantly — possibly genuinely, given her over-the-top temperament, but also, one suspects, because she saw him as a stepping stone in her own literary career. Sex was very quickly a given, as, to Graves’s obvious delight, Laura shared with him what she termed ‘all the obscenities of my utterly vile mind’.
The pleasure was heightened for him because she just as quickly fulfilled his intellectual and spiritual needs, becoming that literary muse he’d been longing for, inspiring him to create marvellous, passion-filled love poems.
‘We looked, we loved,’ he wrote, ‘so wild of heart were we.’ He looked on her as a mythical goddess or the legendary Helen of Troy.
He was blind to the faults that put others off — her colossal egotism and her temper tantrums when she did not get her own way. The American poet Allen Tate described her as ‘the maddest woman I ever met’ and from the outset feared for Graves’s sanity once she got her hooks into him.
So did Graves’s close friend, the soldier and writer Lawrence of Arabia, who thought him ‘bewitched and bitched’ by her and ‘drowning in a quagmire’. Nancy, however, was unfazed by the over-bearing intruder catapulted into her life. She not only didn’t mind the threesome arrangement, but welcomed it.
She got along with Laura, and Laura with her. They were both feminists, both ‘modern’ in their approach to life, unconstrained by convention. Laura wrote to a friend about the ‘love’ that had sprung up between them as they proudly proclaimed themselves ‘the Trinity’ in ‘a marriage of three’.
So they all trooped off to Egypt — Graves, the children (plus nanny) and what was rapidly termed his ‘harem’.
Graves couldn’t believe his luck. He had it all.
But very quickly life in Cairo turned sour, not least because the superstitious Laura, an avid believer in witchcraft and the occult, decreed that camels — with which Egypt abounded — were evil spirits. After just four months they turned their back on the Middle East and went back to England, to a cottage in Oxfordshire, where Nancy took the marital bedroom and Robert and Laura slept in the attic room. Laura declared them all ‘ridiculously happy’.
But it wasn’t true. Nancy was increasingly disconnected and jealous. She begged Laura to go back to America. Needless to say, Laura refused, and she and Graves set up home on their own in London, virtually jettisoning not only his wedded wife but their four children in the process.
He also sacrificed the support of his parents, who were appalled when they finally discovered the nature of his liaison with Laura.
Graves didn’t care. Friends who disapproved — even his oldest and dearest, the poet and writer Siegfried Sassoon — went the same way, all tossed overboard because of his obsessive love for the home-wrecking Laura.
All that mattered to him was fulfilling her needs. He put his own growing reputation on the line to promote her career but, while he was finding it easy to place his own poems and articles, all she ever got were rejections from publishers who found her work tedious, convoluted and unoriginal.
He was even prepared to fall out disastrously with as influential a figure as the poet and editor T. S. Eliot, for publishing a savage review of Laura’s work in his literary magazine. The two didn’t speak for another 20 years. Meanwhile, life in the Hammersmith love nest in West London — where Laura hung a banner over the couple’s huge bed proclaiming ‘God is a woman’ — was turning sour. Despite Graves’s unfailing devotion, she was bored.
She needed stimulation and excitement — and found it in a handsome, virile Irish poet by the name of Geoffrey Phibbs.
Tall, thin and dark with what was described as ‘an animal beauty’ and a belief in free love, he had been corresponding with Laura about her work, and she summoned him to join her and Graves in London.
Laura Riding jumped out of a window after man she was besotted with spurned her advances
The first time she laid eyes on him, she declared (or so she later claimed): ‘You are the Devil!’ He was the perfect partner in her growing flirtation with the black arts. He arrived with his wife, Norah McGuinness, a painter, whom he dumped in the Regent Palace Hotel with a bottle of brandy before heading off with Laura and straight away took his turn in her bed. Graves looked on, the voyeur now, seemingly unperturbed by this new coupling as long as Laura was happy — though he did complain quietly to a friend that Phibbs seemed to be getting more of the action than he was.
By now Laura — more bonkers than ever — had become even more controlling of those around her. She ordered a mesmerised Phibbs to transfer his entire library of books from Dublin to London, and then, in what she called an act of purification, she threw out all the ones she didn’t approve of.
She also burnt all the clothes he came in and sent him to a tailor in Burlington Arcade for an entire new wardrobe, including black silk pyjamas to wear in bed with her. She had the bill sent to Graves.
With her two tame poets dancing attendance on her every whim, she now announced that she had divine powers, that she was immortal and that she was going to ‘break the frame of the universe’ and stop time, bringing history and human existence to an end.
After seven weeks of this nonsense, and physically worn out to impotence by her demands in bed, Phibbs slipped away whenever he could to spend time with none other than Nancy, Graves’s estranged wife, now living with her children on a barge on the Thames. Graves, clearly not as relaxed with this madcap situation as he made out, seized the opportunity to urge Phibbs to scarper altogether, which he did, escaping back to his wife, Norah, who was now in Paris.
When she realised Phibbs had gone, Laura — like the leader of some religious cult who could not accept the defection of a single disciple — went looking for him, dragging Graves and Nancy.
They tracked down Phibbs and Norah to a hotel in Rouen, where, over lunch in the restaurant, the runaway couple — with the strong-minded Norah putting her foot down — made it clear that Phibbs was not going back.
Laura went berserk, throwing herself on the floor, kicking her legs in the air and screaming, until the waiters had to drag her away.
Robert Graves From Great War Poet to Good-bye to all that 1895-1929 is written by Jean Mo
Yet still Laura would not give up. Back in London, she continued to harass Phibbs with voodoo-like gifts in the post to spook him. He sent her a telegram saying emphatically he would ‘never return’ to her — to which Graves, swept up in the lunacy and unable to resist Laura’s every whim, even though she was two-timing him, replied: ‘She cannot live without you.’ He then went to fetch Phibbs and even threatened to kill him if he did not return to Laura and her mad menage.
And so it was the four of them — Robert Graves, Geoffrey Phibbs, Nancy Nicholson and Laura Riding — took their places in the top-floor flat in Hammersmith for that melodramatic denouement and Laura’s plummet out of the window — ever after referred to among them as The Fall.
By some miracle, Graves, following her down, was unhurt, but Laura was in a bad way, her pelvis and spine broken.
She was not expected to live and, if she did, would almost certainly be paralysed.
A skilful surgeon mended her, however, and she spent three months in hospital, ungrateful and self-absorbed, yelling at staff and visitors about how bored she was.
Graves sat by her bed for hours on end, dutiful and doting as ever. He even pulled strings among his contacts in high places to get a police investigation into her attempted suicide — a criminal offence in those days — dropped.
She, though, in her usual manipulative way, blamed him for deliberately failing to stop her when she’d threatened to jump.
Robert Graves has 55 collections of poetry to his name, 15 novels and 40 non-fiction works
The strain on him was immense, not least because he had run out of money and his parents were refusing to help out.
He fell ill and was taken to hospital — where Nancy came to visit him and tell him her news: she had taken up with Phibbs, to whom she had become close. Graves was furious and consumed by jealousy — the ultimate irony, given all he had put Nancy through over Laura. His reaction was a harsh one. He told her he was giving up all rights to his children and would have nothing to do with them.
‘You are their mother,’ he told Nancy. ‘The children are yours. They are not my charges.’
He made his loyalty to Laura crystal clear. ‘I love her beyond anything.’ She was all that really mattered to him.
In his deranged mind, too, the fact that Laura had survived The Fall was proof that she was indeed the divine creature, the goddess, he had always believed her to be. He gave up everything for her.
Yet out of this unholy mess, some good came. Graves was now broke. The bank of mum and dad was firmly closed to him and his running costs were enormous, with Laura insisting on a month of convalescing in a private hospital ward at an eye-watering six guineas a week, massages extra.
He had to make money urgently and so he agreed to write his memoir of the war years in return for a healthy publisher’s advance.
He knocked off Goodbye To All That in just 11 weeks, and it instantly became a best-seller.
Along with I, Claudius, his fictionalised account of intrigue, excess, incest and so forth a few years later, it took him to a new level as a successful literary figure.
It was ‘goodbye to all that’ in another sense, too. Having burned his bridges with family and friends, he also left England for Spain, where he and Laura could live much more cheaply.
They set up home in a fishing village on the island of Majorca, just the two of them — until, after ten years, she, true to form, left him for another lover . . . and the spell was finally broken.
Robert Graves: From Great War Poet To Good-bye To All That (1895-1929) by Jean Moorcroft Wilson is published by Bloomsbury at £25. To order a copy for £20 (offer valid until tomorrow; P&P free), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
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