Although Michael Redgrave was one of the finest actors of his generation, he is now mainly remembered for being the head of an acting dynasty. His achievements on stage and screen gave even the great Laurence Olivier a run for his money, but his self-loathing over leading a not-so-secret double life tormented him until a tragedy came for him.
1. He Was Born To The Theater
Curtains up! Michael Redgrave was born on March 20th, 1908, in Bristol, England, to actress Margaret “Daisy” Scudamore, and Roy Redgrave, a pioneer of Australian silent cinema. His grandfather, Cornelius Redgrave, was a “theatrical racketeer”—a dramatic way of saying he used his shop to resell theater tickets at pocket-gouging prices. As if the Redgraves needed more drama in their lives.
2. He Was A Natural
Michael made his acting debut at the age of two when he was supposed to run on stage into his father’s arms during a sentimental monologue and cry, “Daddy”! He broke down in tears instead, poor thing, but then, he always knew how to add emotional depth to lines he delivered. Unfortunately, he’d later find it easy to draw on family trauma.
3. He Dealt With Rejection Early
When Michael was only six months old, Roy left the family to pursue his career in Australia. Against his wishes, Daisy soon followed with Michael in tow, determined not to lose her husband. It was a brutal mistake. After two years of putting up with an uninterested, unfaithful partner, she finally took her exit cue and returned to England.
Michael would never see his father again and would later say, “I knew next to nothing about him, little good”. After all, Roy’s track record wasn’t great…
4. He Thought He Was Illegitimate
Michael’s father Roy had abandoned his first wife, Judith Kyrle, and their three children for an actress named Ettie Carlisle. Roy then dumped Ettie—when she pregnant, no less!—for Daisy, who was also with child. In spite of Judith filing divorce papers in 1905, Michael persisted in believing that he was the illegitimate son of a bigamist.
It’s easy to see why he thought the worst of his father, but why he’d always think so little of himself was more complicated.
5. He Suddenly Had A New Family
After her split, Daisy began seeing a wealthy tea farmer named Captain James Anderson. As she was still legally married, she had to be discreet—so discreet she hid a pregnancy! Nine-year-old Michael had only met Anderson three times when Daisy made a shocking announcement. She told him that not only would they be moving in together, but that he had a six-year-old half-sister named Peggy. How did he take the news? Not well.
6. He Was Sent Packing
Michael Redgrave disliked his conservative step-father and the feeling that he was being replaced by his new sister. Soon the most comfortable solution for everyone was to pack him off to Clifton, a boarding school for boys. There he excelled in creative subjects like music and poetry, and his participation in school plays made him very popular at an age where he began having his first crushes—on girls and boys alike.
7. He Discovered Something About Himself
As he later admitted to his son, Corin, while writing his memoirs, “I am, to say the least of it, bisexual”, but at the age of 17, “the least of it” had yet to come. Michael was only just starting to form romantic attachments to fellow classmates; He had his first heartbreak with a boy named Cyril White—but that’s not the most scandalous part.
Around this time he was also having heavy make-out sessions with his mother’s friend, Margaret Chute. It all caused feelings of confusion and so much more.
8. He Felt Deep Shame
Because identifying as anything other than straight was not only a 1920s society no-no, but also illegal in the UK until 1967, Michael began the lifelong habit of keeping a diary filled with guilt-ridden confessions. He wrote about his secret loves and described himself as having “diseased morals” and of being “rotten in mind and thoughts”. Yet for all his self-loathing, his compulsions couldn’t be helped.
9. He Was Daring
Michael started going alone to Turkish bathhouses to see if men with “beastly” intensions would proposition him—and he took some big risks. Once, on a holiday in France with his family, he brazenly snuck out of his hotel to “cruise” for company. He let a strange man take him back to a flat only to chicken out, throwing money at him as he bolted out the door in a panic. If you at first you don’t succeed, you go back to square one…as in, family friend Margaret Chute.
10. He Always Wanted To Be A Writer
Redgrave’s education in all things continued at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was the editor of the school paper and wrote film reviews for Granta magazine. He refused more acting roles in school productions than he accepted. Being a writer seemed a far superior aspiration than becoming an actor, but since his love of poetry wouldn’t pay the bills, he needed a day job.
11. He Became A Schoolmaster
After graduation, he became a teacher at Cranleigh School for boys in Surrey. His students idolized him for hosting evening literary discussions while serving omelets and cheap drinks. He soon began organizing groundbreaking school productions of Shakespearean plays, casting himself in all the lead roles. It may have been the only time he could be accused of putting the “ham” in Hamlet, but he had found his true calling.
12. He Made The Big Leap
High praise for his performances encouraged Michael to quit teaching and focus on an acting career. He shocked everyone, Daisy especially, when he turned down an offer to play minor roles at the prestigious Old Vic theater for starring ones at the lesser esteemed Liverpool Playhouse. It was destiny, however, because that’s where he met the love of his life.
13. He Fell In Love
In 1935, Michael became fiercely smitten with the delicate beauty of Playhouse actress Rachel Kempson, and she was so madly in love with him that she proposed within weeks of their meeting. Michael expressed doubts due to his orientation by saying there were “difficulties…with his nature”. Rachel said she loved him anyway and they married that summer. For 50 years she would remain a very understanding wife. Unbelievably so.
14. His Wife Put Up With A Lot
Rachel was uncommonly sensitive to romantic fluidity and believed monogamy, for most, could be something akin to imprisonment. Still, her tolerance for Michael’s incessant appetite for physical intimacy outside their marriage was almost shocking. While he would confess to his many affairs with men over the years, Michael seldom could bring himself to tell her of his affairs with women, such as the one he began mere months into their marriage.
15. He Strayed With His Co-Star
When Rachel was pregnant with their first daughter, Vanessa, Michael began a passionate affair with his As You Like It co-star, Edith Evans, who had a habit of falling in love with her leading men. Rachel only learned about the affair years later and said it must’ve been wonderful for her husband “to have been loved by one of the greatest actresses of our time”. Really, Rachel?
16. He Acted With The Best
His turn in As You Like It was the hit of the Old Vic’s 1936 season. Michael was making a name for himself with meaty roles in classical productions alongside legends like John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, and Laurence Olivier. Michael played Laertes to Olivier’s prince in Hamlet for which they both received rave reviews. It started rumors of a rivalry that were only half right.
17. He Had Glamorous Friends
While entertainment headlines tried to stir up competition between the actors, Michael counted Olivier as one of his closest friends, even naming him as Vanessa’s godfather. Along with their wives, Rachel and actress Vivien Leigh, they socialized and holidayed together until the Oliviers divorced. Michael never actually suspected Larry felt threatened by his success. But he sure did.
18. He Saw His Dream Project Ruined
Michael was set to write, direct and star in a planned film adaption of Antony and Cleopatra—until Olivier sabotaged it. He’d received such spectacular reviews for the stage production that jealous Larry started rumors of the copycat project just so Michael’s film wouldn’t find funding. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d steal his friend’s thunder either.
19. Hollywood Came Calling
In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock offered Michael Redgrave the lead role in The Lady Vanishes. Michael and Hitchcock didn’t get along so well at first. Michael wanted more rehearsals, but Hitchcock valued spontaneity. Hitchcock told him that actors were “cattle”, perhaps in an effort to get a less stage-y, more casual performance. The results were extraordinary.
What he got was a charismatic, subtly comedic performance which made Michael a leading man in demand.
20. He Joined The Navy
In 1941, the studios planned a series of follow-up films with his The Lady Vanishes co-star Margaret Lockwood. Well, they—and Michael—were in for a surprise. WWII forced them to scrap the planned series. Michael joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman. He hurt his arm during an ammunitions exercise and was discharged in November of 1942. Alec Guinness sniped he was dismissed for a “trifle” of an injury and swore Michael’s acting career was washed up. He was wrong.
21. He Put The Deed Before Duty
Michael was so crazy for playwright Noel Coward that he stayed with him his last night before reporting for naval duty. Rachel would later say that Noel had apologized. He hadn’t wished to hurt her but Michael was just too irresistible. She forgave him, of course, because she “couldn’t help but agree with him”. Come on, Rachel!
22. His Double Life Took A Toll
During and after WWII, Michael worked constantly in both theater and film, and he got his first Academy Award nomination for Mourning Becomes Electra in 1945. His co-star, and fellow nominee, Rosalind Russell, claimed Michael was hiding a dark secret. She said that he was nervous on set and swallowed pills the whole shoot.
Not much has ever been said of Michael using illicit substances, but he was dealing with his divided life in other harmful ways.
23. He Was A Heavy Drinker
With extramarital affairs as numerous as his acting roles, the guilt was getting to him. He once wrote to a friend, “I am shallow, selfish…at times hideously immoral”. Michael began drinking heavily, forgetting lines and slurring others on set. He was not unemployable yet, but years later, his reputation for being a drinker would make a far worse condition harder to diagnose.
24. He Attended Secret Parties
With Rachel at home in England, Michael hobnobbed with Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. He also had an “in” with director George Cukor, who hosted regular, secret Sunday afternoon, all-male pool parties at his home.
There, Michael and the discreet gay Hollywood crowd mixed with a steady supply of handsome, willing men—but Michael was willing to settle for just one.
25. His Boyfriend Moved Next Door
When Michael met Bob Mitchell at a pool party in 1947, it was love at first sight. Rachel’s reaction was bizarre. She gave him her blessing and he brought his new lover home with him to live near the family in London. By now, the Redgraves had three children, Vanessa, Corin and Lynn, who adored Bob and called him “Uncle”. The relationship lasted for eight years.
Bob would later name his own son after Michael, and in 1976, Michael was there to hold Bob’s hand on his deathbed.
26. His Wife Took A Lover
Rachel finally stopped being a cheerleader for Michael’s affairs long enough to take a lover of her own. Glen Byam Shaw was a popular stage director and Michael approved of the relationship. Rachel, it seems, had a type, but so too did Michael. Glen was also bi, and there were rumors that Michael slept with him too.
27. He Was A Sugar-Daddy
Michael’s next main squeeze was Fred Sadoff, 18 years his junior—but this time, his affair rubbed people the wrong way. Fred was a pushy, self-serving actor. Michael let him have a say in nearly everything he did, which drove his friends nuts! Some said he just using Michael, who set him up in an apartment, paid off his debts and financed his showbiz ambitions for six years.
According to Corin Redgrave, however, it was a fair trade with Sadoff only getting as much as he gave.
28. He Discovered Stephen Boyd
Handsome Irish actor Stephen Boyd got his big break while working as an usher for the theater hosting the British Academy Awards of 1952. Michael asked for a robe to change into while heading to his dressing room and Stephen scrambled to find him one. Grateful, Michael remarked, “You look more like a film actor than I do”, and later used his connections to find him an agent.
29. He had Musical Talent
Michael not only played the piano, he was also a singer. Over the years he’d lend his melodious voice to musicals such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Kirk Douglas, The Beggar’s Opera, and Oh, What A Lovely War. He sang in nearly every number of the Technicolor musical-comedy, Oh…Rosalinda!!, while most of his co-stars were dubbed. But some of his work had an even more personal connection…
30. His Art Imitated His Life
Michael Redgrave may have been keeping his personal life hidden—but some projects gave away his biggest secrets. He had two big hits in the 1950s with The Browning Version and The Importance of Being Earnest, both by gay writers, both dealing with characters struggling with secrets and repressed emotions. Michael’s most impactful roles—like his schizophrenic ventriloquist in Dead of Night—were often as men at odds with their own dualities.
In his own words, he liked “attempting parts of men…in invisible chains”.
31. His Fears Led To Nightmares
Michael Redgrave had a recurring nightmare where he sat at a dressing table, applying stage make-up that wouldn’t stick. It would run and smear with nervous sweat, and eventually slide onto his chest in one grim mask, leaving his real face bare. He lived in constant fear of his true nature being exposed—and with good reason.
32. He Got Sloppy
Michael’s cruising for strangers in parks or picking up random guardsmen—what he called a “necessary degradation” —put him in a terrifyingly vulnerable position. Once he received a note demanding money not to tell Rachel what he’d been up to. Michael met with this extortionist and called his bluff. Another man who had stolen his watch ransomed it back to him. Anyone could have been watching. And sometimes, they were.
33. He Met With A Wanted Man
While touring Moscow with Hamlet in 1958, Michael ran into an old Cambridge buddy, Guy Burgess, backstage. Burgess had a hidden history of his own. He’d fled to Russia seven years prior with Foreign Office diplomat and double agent, Donald Maclean, in one of the biggest spy scandals of the Cold War.
Michael agreed to meet with him for lunch, revealing little about their date when asked by the embassy—but MI5 had their ways of finding out what went on.
34. He Was On MI5’s Watch List
In 2014, declassified MI5 files revealed a bombshell about Michael Redgrave. They showed that the agency had been keeping tabs on Michael since the 1940s, having wrongfully suspected him of having communist sympathies for signing a manifesto of the People’s Convention. In the end, it was much ado about nothing, but Michael’s lunch with Burgess helped to confirm, through a source, that the spy had been forced to stay in Moscow by the KGB after helping Maclean escape—and that he was absolutely miserable.
Luckily, these types of “unsavory” activities didn’t affect his career too much…
35. He Became A “Sir”
Michael received a knighthood from the Queen in 1959—just like actors Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier had before him. He feared the day might never come thanks to his “Red Redgrave” scandal with the People’s Convention, but the delay was probably another club’s fault.
36. He Found New Thrills
A desire to explore the darker side of his compulsions, fueled no doubt by his excessive drinking, began to lead to more casual encounters than ever. Michael began attending illicit parties and joining private clubs where he started to experiment with bondage. It was said he used to walk around in a suit of armor for the sensation it gave him. Makes sense. After all—he was a knight.
37. He May Have Crossed A Line
There were rumors that Michael dealt his daughter Vanessa the ultimate betrayal. Her husband Tony Richardson was also bi, and director Desmond Hurst claimed that one afternoon, she found Tony in bed with her father! Michael reportedly said, “I love him, you love him. What’s the problem?”. Yeesh!
Vanessa’s daughter Joely Richardson calls this story “make believe”, but…Michael and Tony being spied together at an all-male party at a hotel in France sure didn’t help rumors.
38. His Friends Couldn’t Help Themselves
John Gielgud, aware of Michael’s dabbling in the “rough stuff”, once greeted him on the street with, “Ah, Sir Michael, I’ll be bound”! Noel Coward, upon seeing the marquee for The Sea Shall Not Have Them, a film which co-starred gay actor, Dirk Bogarde, famously quipped, “I don’t see why not. Everyone else has”. With friends like those, well…
39. He Blew The Competition Away
Though Laurence Olivier wasn’t known to praise rival actors, he wrote in his autobiography that Michael’s starring role in 1962’s Uncle Vanya “was the best performance I’ve seen in anything”. Of course, it helped that he directed the play. Hailed as Michael’s finest acting moment, it was a stunning achievement for both, but it would also be, as reflected on by one critic, “the end of their artistic amity”.
40. His Health Began To Decline
During the 1963 inaugural season of the National Theater, managed by Olivier, Michael began to think he was ill—and his symptoms were frightening. He was suffering from exhaustion and would often find himself spacing out. He didn’t know it yet, but he was showing early signs of Parkinson’s disease. His best buddy Larry was less than patient.
41. His Friendship Declined Too
Michael’s Evening Standard Award win for Uncle Vanya did nothing to soften Olivier’s criticisms—they likely made them worse. He berated Michael for his “dim” performance as Claudius in Hamlet, causing him to spiral with self-doubt. Soon Michael had difficulties getting the regional accent right for his character in Hobson’s Choice.
His nerves were so shaken, he forgot lines and needed cues. Things were about to come to a head.
42. He Got The Sack
During the season closer, The Master Builder, Michael’s anxiety and memory lapses forced him to ad lib dialogue. Olivier’s reaction was cruel. He assumed it had to do with his drinking and gave him a brutal dressing down before stating that he would be taking over Michael’s role. He then said,—get this!—“I cordially invite you to the first performance”.
It was a devastating hit to his career, with a worse one still to come.
43. He Got Bad News
At the age of 66, suffering from memory loss, tremors, and facial immobility, Michael finally got the devastating diagnosis that he had Parkinson’s disease. He carried on bravely, working less frequently and with familiar material, but by 1979, he was simply too sick to go on. Sadly, he missed out on a third act of his career and with it, the chance of winning new generations of fans.
44. Headlines Haunt His Family
Tabloids began spinning tales of a “Redgrave Curse,” which mainly revolved around controversies with failed marriages and illnesses—something many families grapple with out of the spotlight. Curse headlines resurfaced with tasteless speed when Vanessa’s daughter, Natasha Richardson, lost her life in 2009 in a tragic skiing accident, adding to the family’s grief.
It’s an unfortunate price of fame, but the Redgraves have much to be proud of.
45. His Children Followed In His Footsteps
Michael expressed early doubts about Vanessa’s acting talents— he once joked she should give up and work for an airline. But after seeing her debut in the film, Behind The Mask, he tearfully acknowledged she had a “divine gift”. Vanessa has won numerous acting awards, and her children, Natasha and Joely Richardson, and their half-brother Carlo Nero, went on to successful careers in the business as well.
46. His Daughter Wrote A Play About Him
Lynn Redgrave wrote and starred in the one-woman show, Shakespeare For My Father, in which she acted out her difficult relationship with Michael through family stories and Shakespearean scenes. Though loving, Michael could be aloof and hard to communicate with, and she learned to know him better through the roles he played on stage. It was an exercise in forgiveness and understanding, and it was a big hit.
47. His Son Filled In The Blanks
Michael’s son, well respected actor and activist, Corin Redgrave, helped him to write his autobiography, In My Mind’s Eye. Finally having frank conversations with his father about his many male lovers, he encouraged him to discuss his complicated nature in the book. Michael’s reaction was heartbreaking.
He ultimately chose to take what secrets he had left to the grave, but Corin later wrote compassionately of his father’s struggles in his own memoir, Michael Redgrave: My Father.
48. He Managed To Keep Something Private
In his last years, though frail and, at times, unkempt, Michael paid regular visits to a mystery lover named Alan. The live-in caretaker who dropped him off at his rendezvous points could only guess that Alan was in his 50s, married, and possibly a cab driver, but Michael chose to keep the last name of his last hurrah a secret.
49. He’d Leave One More Mystery Behind
After Michael’s passing in 1985, a mysterious card was found amongst his things. It was signed, simply, “Tommy, Liverpool, January 1940”, followed by a quote from W H Auden: “The word is love. Surely one fearless kiss would cure a million fevers”. There is still debate as to who wrote it, but the touching note seems to sum up Michael’s complicated love life as best as anyone could.
50. He Was An Actor Until The End
Michael Redgrave passed on on March 21st, 1985, just one day after his 77th birthday. On one of his last days, he mistook hospital room noises for the buzz of a theater audience outside his curtains. He asked his daughter Lynn, “How’s the house?” and she assured him it was at capacity and that on all the posters, his name received top billing.