A last hug, then days later Natasha lay dead: They'd been friends for years. But the death of Natasha Richardson plunged Rupert Everett into the strangest scene of his life
07:18 GMT, 18 September 2012
waspish new memoirs, Rupert Everett pricks the pomposity of showbusiness
egos. But he also movingly describes private tragedies. Here, in the
final part of our exclusive serialisation, he recalls the sudden death
of his friend Natasha Richardson.
Close: Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson in The Comfort Of Strangers
A few years ago, after one of my eight performances a week in a New York production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, I was heading out to dinner when I heard a commotion at the stage door.
Just inside the vestibule was Natasha Richardson. She was in the middle of a spirited confrontation with a no-neck redneck, who worked at the theatre as a bouncer.
Natasha’s voice was raised and she was stabbing at the bouncer with her finger.
Meanwhile, the public waited outside, taking pictures of her each time the stage door was opened by people going in and out. They knew who Natasha was, all right — she’d been made to stand in line with them by the loathsome bouncer.
Before I’d arrived at the stage door, she’d told him she was my friend — but he didn’t care. He frowned, checking his list: ‘No Richardson here.’
This was too much for the crowd. Someone said, ‘Hey! That’s Na-tah-sha Richardson.’
‘No Richardson here,’ repeated the bouncer, waving his clipboard. ‘I gotta have names. It don’t matter who the party is.’
‘Tasha,’ I said, when I saw what was going on.
She turned to me, eyes wide, half-laughing, half-crying, a coiled spring.
‘Rupesy, there you are!’
We hugged and she was trembling like a leaf.
At that moment, the stage door opened and a hundred jolly old ladies waved and blew kisses. The door slammed shut again.
Then Natasha simply changed gear and laughed. She complimented me on my performance, alongside Angela Lansbury, but said the sofa on stage was ‘awful’.
I said I was just running out to dinner — coincidentally with Robert Fox, her ex-husband and one of my closest friends. She said she’d like to see Angela Lansbury, so I took her to Angela’s dressing-room door.
‘We must meet up,’ we both said in unison, laughing and hugging. I blew a kiss and escaped.
A week later, the lights were all out on Broadway because Natasha Richardson was dead.
She fell on a ski slope in Canada, got up, went back to her hotel, had a headache and then went into a coma. Brain-dead, she was flown back to New York, while her family rushed from all corners of the world to her bedside.
Then the decision was made to turn off her life-support system. Her organs were removed — someone is looking through her forget-me-not eyes right now — and she was pronounced dead in the late afternoon, three days after the accident.
I go with Robert Fox to see Natasha for the last time.
‘Blithe Spirit was the last play she saw,’ her mother Vanessa says in a strange musical voice, as if she’s trying to work something out.
‘Yes. Isn’t that odd’ I reply.
She turns to me, those blue-diamond eyes dead with disappointment. ‘Very.’
She leads Robert and me by the hand towards the open casket, in which Natasha lies, cocooned in white satin on a lacy pillow for eternity, in virginal white with rust-coloured make-up on her lifeless cheeks.
Never forgotten: Natasha Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, launching a rose in memory of her late daughter at the Chelsea Flower Show
Vanessa, like a seasoned undertaker, or an actress who’s mastered a difficult prop, neatly lifts the bottom half of the casket lid to reveal a blue woollen blanket covering Tasha’s legs.
‘She loved this,’ says the matriarch, stroking the body and kissing the hands of her dead daughter.
We must have terrified faces, because she looks up at Robert, with a classic Vanessa half-smile — biting her lip, boring into him with her burning eyes. ‘You can kiss her,’ she says.
‘I will,’ says Robert, but he doesn’t. He touches her hands instead.
They are beautiful. I never really noticed them when she was alive. Her long sensitive fingers are crossed over her belly and for a moment they seem to be rising and falling as she breathes.
We all look down into the casket, searching for life, but it only whispers round the rigid features.
I start to feel giddy.
As if she’s similarly affected, Vanessa briefly grips the side of the coffin with the same expressive hands and fingers as her daughter. For a moment, she looks as if she’s going to fall, but she gathers herself and sets off towards another room. ‘Come and see her!’ she chants, arms wide, to a group of people who are hanging back.
Robert and I stand on either side of the coffin, lost in thought, searching the face for some recognisable trace, but death has sucked all the character away.
Her lashes lie against her cheek and tremble slightly at the hum of the outside world, the traffic, the brakes, horns and wailing sirens that she will never hear again.
Sad: Timothy Dalton, left, Holly Hunter,
right, and Alan Rickman, second right, arrive for the funeral of Natasha Richardson at St. Peter's Lithgow Episcopal Church in
Millbrook, Dutchess County, New York, in 2009
Looking up at Robert, I remember the cold grey weekend in February when they got married.
We were all staying at the Wyndham hotel in New York at the time, the last of the great theatrical B&Bs.
It was dusty and over-decorated with vast swooshing curtains lined with plastic, complicated wallpapers (peeling) and lampshades dripping with tassels. The lift trembled and groaned up the building, driven by a series of sweet doddery lift-boys.
The evening before the wedding, we had drinks in Robert’s suite. The curtain was hanging off the rail in one corner and the tightly packed, blue-squiggle wallpaper had a damp patch over the bed.
Natasha and her girlfriends briefly entertained us before leaving for their hen night, while we went for a grim bachelors’ dinner at a dismal eatery. It was a drunken affair and Robert was like a coiled spring. As it happened, the couple had just had a blinding fight the night before and — unbeknown to the rest of us — were thinking of calling the whole thing off.
Doomed relationship: Miss Richardson with then husband Robert Fox, whose wedding Everett attended
The following morning, I had
breakfast downstairs with the film director Tony Richardson — Natasha’s
father and Vanessa’s ex — his best friend, the inventor Jeremy Fry, and a
beautiful gazelle called Annabelle Brooks.
‘Have you written your speech, Tony’
asked Annabelle. In reply, he began reciting from Romeo And Juliet: ‘A
gloomy peace this morning with it brings, the sun for sorrow will not
show his head . . .’ His voice was gloomy, deliberate, slightly
breathless and utterly compelling.
UPSTAGED BY THE DARLING OF THE ZIMMER FRAME SET
Angela Lansbury — in a coral silk dressing gown, a rust-coloured wig and panda eye make-up — sits in a tiny pink room with a pink sofa and no natural light. She’s doing her lips in the mirror.
As I enter her dressing room, she pecks at my reflection in the glass and goes on with her work.
Depending on her mood, or whom she’s talking to, she speaks either English or American. With her fans, she’s Jessica Fletcher. With me, she’s Miss Marple.
‘Good house tonight’ she asks.
It’s week five of Blithe Spirit, in which we’re both starring on Broadway.
Angela plays Madame Arcati, the clairvoyant, originally played by Dame Margaret Rutherford, and has the funniest lines. Her entrance on stage sometimes extends for five whole minutes while the rest of us stand around and she beams star quality across the footlights, nodding modestly and waving her public on with subtle movements of encouragement.
‘I’ve just seen a picture of your latest facelift,’ teases Angela, waving a gossip rag that features a double-page before and after spread. ‘Don’t,’ I groan.
An editor has published a bloated mugshot of my so-called botched facelift. ‘Well, at least they’re talking about you!’ says Angela.
She’s charming and reserved, with flint-sharp ambition under her cape and galoshes. She has the eyes of an owl and the tenacity of a mountain goat.
Angela’s from the old school: outwardly very friendly, ultimately detached. Old-fashioned descriptions suit Angela best. She’s a good sport. A lady. But she’s also 83, and as any seasoned Broadway star knows, needs to divide her energies judiciously. Most of hers go into her performance. Then her fans.
Many of them have loved her since Gaslight. Each night, they’re fork-lifted from buses in knots of Zimmer frames and walking sticks. They always love the show.
Afterwards, they gather wild-eyed in lines outside Angela’s door, proffering autograph books with shaky hands. She receives them in the doorway like a headmistress preparing for bed — clutching their hands but pushing them firmly out at the same time.
On stage, she takes no prisoners, grabbing all the reviews and a Tony award, leaving the rest of us dazed and confused in her undertow.
the winter sun shone on his face through the window, he looked ancient —
like the crumbling statue of a Roman emperor. Right up until Natasha’s
wedding day, he’d been doggedly airing his reservations. ‘I don’t see
why they can’t just keep on as usual,’ he said for the thousandth time.
‘But they’re in love,’ pleaded Annabelle.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be together. Just not marriage. It never works.’
The service itself took place in the
apartment of [writers] John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. In the
wedding photo, Robert — one of the best-looking men I know — seems
slightly chubby. (This was his last year of drinking.) Natasha looked
beautiful but strained.
service was agnostic. There was no music and we all stood uncertainly,
marooned on the slippery parquet of the Dunnes’ drawing room, balancing
delicious nibbles and high flutes of champagne, unsure what to do next.
At a wedding, everyone’s supposed to
look forward. Here, everyone was looking over their shoulder, except for
one guest who’d mislaid his false teeth.
The walls of the Dunnes’ house were shiny grey, the colour of ghosts, and half the faces in the wedding pictures are now dead: [actress] Maria St Just, John Gregory Dunne, Tony and Jeremy and, of course, the bride herself.
The wedding breakfast — or late lunch — took place in a dark restaurant with raw brick walls, where the theme tune from The Godfather played endlessly. Tony didn’t recite the end of Romeo And Juliet; instead, he gave a beautiful speech, talking about how he knew Robert’s father and loved him. This meant a lot to Robert who, I think, loved Tony more than he loved Tasha. Adding to the transitory nature of the event, everyone was leaving directly for the airport after the lunch, so we all had our bags. (I was making a film with an orang-utan in the morning.)
Tony and Jeremy were leaving for Africa that night, embarking on one of their legendary trips. No luggage and no medication for Tony, who was terribly unwell [he later died of Aids] — though no one knew this apart from him. Not even Robert and Natasha.
Tony directed the party from his chair, forcing Vanessa and me to make headscarves out of napkins and sing How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria.
My final image was of Robert and Natasha laughing, smoking and drinking — as Vanessa and I brought the house down, and Tony watched like a wizard.
Now Natasha is dead, and I’m with her ex-husband, looking at her body. It’s like a magnet. When we pull ourselves away from it, others succumb and are slowly enveloped by its field, edging closer and closer.
We join Natasha’s half-sister Katharine and her mother Grizelda for a stiff drink. At the other end of the room, Tasha’s head seems to rise out of the casket in a pool of light.
As I watch, Vanessa and Uma Thurman are leaning over her. Then Vanessa holds Uma back, looking like a heroine in a nineteenth-century melodrama.
This is a theatrical wake for theatricals. Many of us here have played scenes like this in rep and on the West End stage. Some of us are better at it than others, but it’s a brilliant way to deal with the tragedy.
It’s nearly time for me to be back on stage, so I say goodbye and leave. I walk over to Broadway in a strange, twisting mood.
Memoirs: Rupert Everett pictured last year at the unveiling of the renovated tomb of Oscar Wilde at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris
The truth is Tasha and I gave one another a wide berth while she was alive. We knew each other well; but despite many connections and similarities, we didn’t get along.
Perhaps we were more alike than we cared to admit. Both of us dreamt, after all, of entirely different careers for ourselves than the ones that we ultimately achieved. (She wanted to be Vivien Leigh and I wanted to be Montgomery Clift.)
We both passed through periods of excess; they just didn’t coincide. Both of us had a sharp tongue concerning others, oversensitivity about ourselves and equal doses of practicality and hysteria.
Both of us tried endlessly to remodel ourselves — physically and psychologically — for those elusive conventional careers. The fact is, we were both better character actors than love interests.
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