'Totally uncontrollable': the tragic life of Hollywood's forgotten Welsh hellraiser, Rachel Roberts

'Stupendously drunk’: Welsh actress Rachel Roberts trying an ice-cold shower in London, 1954 - Hulton Archive
'Stupendously drunk’: Welsh actress Rachel Roberts trying an ice-cold shower in London, 1954 - Hulton Archive

She killed herself in November 1980, at the age of 53. The most horrible death imaginable – pills, washed down with weedkiller. In her agony she crashed through a glass door.

This was in Los Angeles – 2620 Hutton Drive. Rachel Roberts was born in Llanelli, in 1927, the daughter of a Baptist minister, and though she yearned, as a child, for a more exotic and dramatic world than was on offer in South Wales – she fancied dressing up; she wanted to be noticed – Roberts was always tormented by a puritan conscience, which made her ill at ease in Hollywood, mistrustful of success and happiness. As she wrote in her diary, “Yes, I have a sweetness and a warmth and intelligence and talent, but I have also a devastating psychological flaw that is finally crippling me.”

The roles for which she is best known – Albert Finney’s mistress Brenda in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Richard Harris’s mistress Mrs Hammond in This Sporting Life (1963) – capture Roberts’s turmoil. She could portray women whose brief pleasure had to be followed by endless bleak punishment. As Richard Gere, who played another of her younger lovers in Yanks (1979), put it, “I always sensed something fragile about her, tensed up, ready to snap.”

Fully aware that, psychologically, she was “personally adrift and promiscuous and unstable”, in 1955, after graduating from RADA, and with stints in rep in Swansea and Stratford, Roberts married the excellent character actor (still with us at 89) Alan Dobie, in the hope he’d bring her a steadying domestic calm. Unfortunately, “Alan’s dourness was beginning to depress me”, and in her search for colour and raciness she latched onto Rex Harrison.

They met during a production of Chekhov’s Platonov at the Royal Court in Sloane Square, in October 1960 – “Rex cut such a dash… There was something Edwardian about him, something silky and ruffled” – and Roberts’s love for him had an intensity which oscillated with hatred: “Days of deep shock, rage, anger, terror, relief and hope.”

 ‘Edwardian – silky and ruffled’: Roberts with Rex Harrison in 1968 - Popperfoto
‘Edwardian – silky and ruffled’: Roberts with Rex Harrison in 1968 - Popperfoto

Was she too domineering for him? Was there too much wild energy? Their wedding was in Genoa in 1962, when Harrison was in Italy making Cleopatra, but a chill soon descended – Roberts hit him with a shoe and had assignations with the chauffeur. She was jealous of his numerous ex-wives.

“My large personality needed Rex’s existence,” she said, but his exalted status and stardom only served to rub in Roberts’s feelings of inadequacy. Harrison didn’t like to mix with audiences or the ordinary public. He was driven in a Rolls to Warner Brothers. He had prestige and power – and Roberts fed off this, and loathed herself for doing so: walking through the mimosas in the South of France, travelling First Class on the Golden Arrow and the Rome Express, swishing into the Dorchester lobby in furs. “I basked in the sun.”

Innately feeling harassed, and with nothing to cling to, Roberts reacted by behaving appallingly, as Richard Burton, himself no angel, documented. “Maniacal,” he called her, “totally demented… stupendously drunk… totally uncontrollable… a mad case of alcoholism.” On one occasion, Roberts stripped naked, flashed her pubes at sailors and molested Harrison’s basset hound. “Outrage in Rachel’s case has now become normal,” wrote Burton in December 1968, when he additionally noted her “very cheap-looking dyed blonde hair”.

Crammed with contradictions, Roberts lapped up the luxury and celebrity, while also saying she despised it – fame cut a person off from warmth and honesty and was “pathetic and paltry”. She yearned to be a leading lady and then disliked the vanity of such an ambition. She had strong features, which though never beautiful, were not improved by plastic surgery.

Harrison eventually tired of the antics, which had exposed him to public humiliation – Roberts crawling around on all fours barking like a dog and biting Robert Mitchum; demanding an uncooked egg in a posh restaurant; singing Welsh rugby songs and wearing tarty clothes, such as transparent tops, suede miniskirts and thigh-length boots. The last straw was her misbehaviour at a royal premiere: “Princess Margaret had no time for Rex Harrison’s sloppy-looking, drunken, noisy wife,” said Roberts, putting herself in the third person.

Roberts starring opposite Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1964) - Shutterstock
Roberts starring opposite Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1964) - Shutterstock

They separated in December 1969, and Roberts went off her rocker. She started to swallow overdoses and was regularly having her stomach pumped. “I want to f---ing kill him,” she said of Harrison to a doctor at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. When her agent Aaron Frosch sent a basket of cheese, she threw it out of the window, saying the gift was “vulgar and pretentious”. Roberts went on Russell Harty’s chat show, called the host “a silly c---” and said of her cats, “all they want to do is screw”. Harty’s other guests, Sir Peter Hall, Elton John and Barbara Cartland, fell into an embarrassed silence.

What are we to make of all this? First, Roberts was right to be indignant that, were she a man, her bad behaviour would have won applause, even admiration. It irked her she should be chastised as a nuisance and for not “obeying the rules of civilised behaviour. Yet Rex often doesn’t. Robert Shaw didn’t. Burton didn’t. O’Toole didn’t.” Very true. Secondly, Roberts is a warning about what can happen if you become overdependent: “I didn’t make a life of my own… I lived entirely through him,” she said of Harrison. Ten years after the divorce, she was still dreaming of a reconciliation: “I still love my special, dynamic, silly, crusty, unbearable Rex.”

Finally, there is her Welshness – the chippy Celtic strain uneasy with Anglo-Saxon cool. Comparing her fate with that of Burton, Roberts said they’d become “croppers in the eyes of the world” because they’d wanted to impress; “insecure, cursed with feelings of inadequacy”. Despite manifest gifts and public recognition (Roberts won BAFTAs and was nominated for Oscars), “underneath, the uncertainties and the instabilities bubbled away”. There were other resemblances between Roberts and Burton, too. Dissipation, frayed nerves, adrift from one’s origins, an inability to settle.

The Welsh are supreme at being actors and actresses because flamboyance is suppressed; it is the guilty secret, which bursts out now and again in lunatic ways, quick and fierce. There’s a sense of flight, dispersal, a splitting up of the emotions. Yet what is the alternative? To be respectful and dry? As Rachel Roberts said, “I still have emotional power, but it is locked up inside me, devastatingly, eating me alive.” Born in Glamorganshire, I’m not dissimilar.