book excerpt

Excerpt: Novelist Philip Roth’s Unsettled Marriage to Claire Bloom

“God, I’m fond of adultery,” Roth liked to say. “Aren’t you?”

Philip Roth and Claire Bloom, at home in Connecticut, 1983, photographed for House and Garden. Photo: Sheila Metzner
Philip Roth and Claire Bloom, at home in Connecticut, 1983, photographed for House and Garden. Photo: Sheila Metzner

The obsessions of novelist Philip Roth were work and women, and not always very flattering versions of his wives and girlfriends populated his fiction alongside not always very flattering versions of himself. One of his most agonizing relationships was with the English actress Claire Bloom, his second wife. Roth would fictionalize Bloom and their relationship in a number of novels, including Deception (1990) and I Married a Communist (1998). Bloom told her side of the marriage and its unraveling in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), which so infuriated Roth, who preferred to control the narrative, that he wrote a book-length rebuttal, Notes for My Biographer, which friends ultimately convinced him not to publish. He did share it with his biographer, Blake Bailey, from which the following excerpt about his life with Bloom is adapted.

Update, Tuesday, April 27: After allegations of sexual assault against Bailey by a number of women were made public last week, W. W. Norton & Company first paused distribution of Philip Roth: The Biography, and then today announced it would permanently put out of print both the Roth biography and Bailey’s own earlier memoir. “Mr. Bailey will be free to seek publication elsewhere if he chooses,” a Norton spokesperson said in a statement. “In addition, Norton will make a donation in the amount of the book advance for Philip Roth: The Biography to organizations that fight against sexual assault or harassment and work to protect survivors.”

Asked in 1983 what had saved him from the long siege of neck and shoulder pain that had “reduced his life to practically nothing,” Roth replied “Claire [Bloom] did.” He liked to say he’d fallen in love with her at age 19, in 1952, when she’d starred with Chaplin in her first major movie, Limelight; 15 years later she and Roth met in person at the East Hampton home of Roth’s friends John and Barbara Jakobson. Bloom was still married to her first husband, Rod Steiger, who’d appeared for a tennis date wearing a black Speedo. “What’re you staring at?” he barked at Roth, bursting into a room where Roth was using the phone. Roth was with his then-girlfriend Barbara Sproul when he ran into the actress again, in 1973, this time at a dinner party; by then she was with her second husband, the Broadway producer Hillard (Hilly) Elkins — a “scary guy” (Sproul) with ruffled cuffs. Sproul was struck by the way Bloom invariably got a little tearful at the end of her stories. “Wasn’t she wonderful?” Roth said afterward. “God she is,” Sproul replied, “and so sensitive too.” (“You’re a fucking killer is what you are,” she remembered thinking, “and you’ve got the henchman [Elkins] to go with.”)

In 1974 Roth was alone, and lonely, when Barbara Epstein phoned him in Connecticut to invite him to a Christmas Day party; she’d also invited Bloom, whose marriage to Elkins was nearing the end of a long skid; Epstein thought she and Roth might make a good match. Roth remembered sitting opposite a sofa containing the whole moribund family: Elkins, Bloom, and her 14-year-old daughter, Anna Steiger, whom Roth had last seen, fleetingly, as a gloomy 7-year-old. “She obviously despised Hilly Elkins,” he remembered, “and was obviously very unhappy.” Still, Bloom herself seemed vivacious as ever, and besides, Roth figured, her daughter’s unhappiness “had nothing to do with” him.

One day in the fall of 1975, she and Roth bumped into each other on Madison Avenue, where Roth was on his way to see his psychiatrist, Hans Kleinschmidt. Bloom mentioned she was about to leave for Hawaii to shoot Islands in the Stream with George C. Scott, and remarked, “I’m sure he’s a monster.” “Not all men are monsters,” said Roth. “And at that point,” she later told an interviewer, “I just fell madly in love with him and his little round professor’s glasses.” When she returned to New York a few weeks later, she phoned Roth, as promised, and they spent time together before she returned to London. The flirtation had yet to become intimate, and the writer Edna O’Brien recalled that Bloom consulted her as to what tone she should take in her first letter to Roth; O’Brien advised her to be at once “inviting and not too gushing,” and this Bloom managed admirably. Roth, in his own first letter, had wondered whether she’d noticed his interest during their previous meetings, and she allowed that, yes, his “dark, piercing eyes” were hard to miss, and now that Elkins was out of the picture she intended to follow her “interests.”

“Very careful and correct” she wrote of the flowers and card (“Welcome, Philip”) he’d sent to her hotel room when she returned to New York on February 16, 1976, a day after her 45th birthday. The two had dinner together the first three nights of her stay — either at Roth’s apartment or the raffish cafeterias of Yorkville — and on the fourth night they slept together for the first time. Soon Roth declared his love for her — but reluctantly, Bloom thought, his voice “suffused with pain”; still, given his love (however painfully expressed), she was startled when she overheard him chatting on the phone with his friend Philip Grausman, the sculptor, about a trip to the Caribbean they planned to take while Bloom was still in New York (albeit a month or more after her arrival, according to Roth’s diary). When she inquired, Roth explained that they’d rented a house on St. Martin quite a while ago and, yes, he was sticking to his commitment. In her scurrilous memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, Bloom complained of her being “treated in a strange and offhand manner” by a person who’d just professed his love for her; despite her misgivings, though, she soon wrote her “very dearest friend” from London that she’d had “a happy, lovely time,” and he invited her to Connecticut the following month. Meanwhile he stayed up until 4:00 a.m. watching her play Richard Burton’s girlfriend in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and wrote Dick Stern that he’d found “a great emotional soul-mate.”

Bloom’s first visit to Connecticut was scheduled to begin May 10 and last three weeks; later it struck her as typical of Roth’s “deep ambivalence” toward commitment that he’d specified “very clearly” the finite duration of her visit. For Roth’s part it occurred to him, also later, that she hadn’t expressed the slightest compunction about leaving her 16-year-old daughter for whatever length of time.

Bloom was nervous that she wouldn’t seem intellectual enough to Roth, perhaps underestimating the extent of his awe toward the “greatly gifted actress” with whom he’d fallen in love as a teenager: “I thought I was with a peer and a comrade,” he wrote a friend in 2012. “And for the first year I was.” As it happened Bloom was remarkably well read, able to recite the intricate plots of almost every major 19th-century English novel; also, during that first visit, she introduced Roth to Kierkegaard’s The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress, wherein the philosopher reflects — resonantly for Roth, as one may imagine — on “the petty persecution” of recognition, of the rabble “beating the great drum of triviality.”

Oblivious to bicentennial festivities that spring, Roth had finally started a new novel after a long fallow period, and Bloom was forewarned that he’d be working on this (“What else is there to do?”) throughout her visit. “I was happy and cheerful in the mornings, until Philip left to go to his studio,” she wrote; “then I began to wonder how I was going to get through the day.” She tried reading, planning elaborate meals, and so on, but she had no pressing work of her own and mostly she waited for Roth to emerge in the afternoon so they could take a walk together and begin the pleasant ritual of wine and dinner and reading beside the fire. For the most part they had an easy-seeming rapport, though even then Roth’s occasionally abrasive shtick was apt to rub the genteel actress the wrong way. “I didn’t come here to be insulted,” she murmured at one point, and Roth burst out laughing. “But of course you did,” he said. “We all did. That’s what I want carved on my gravestone. ‘Philip Roth. He came here to be insulted.’ ”

Roth claimed that his stipulation of a three-week visit hadn’t been a matter of gun-shy ambivalence — rather he’d assumed that three weeks was the most a working actress (and mother) could spare; as he soon learned, however, Bloom’s career had tapered off (à la Kierkegaard’s aging actress) until she worked maybe two months out of the year. Because of problematic finances, she’d agreed to write a children’s book about her early life as an actress (“Thus avoiding all lovers and husbands,” she wrote Roth, “who should have been avoided in the first place”), and Roth encouraged her to occupy herself in Connecticut by expanding this into a full-length memoir. First he fed her questions that she answered on a tape recorder, and then, with Roth’s help, adapted into written form. “She was a natural writer with an extensive vocabulary and could compose fluent sentences,” he remembered, “but nonetheless the writing was flat and the content skimpy until I prodded her to go back into the material time and again.” During those early sessions they would work as much as two or three hours a night — assistance Bloom was happy to acknowledge in later interviews: “He was very hard, and accurate, and devastatingly cruel,” she remarked with a smile.

Limelight and After: The Education of an Actress would be finished in 1981; Roth gave it a final polish before handing it over to his friend Aaron Asher, then at Harper & Row, who scheduled its publication to coincide with the author’s 51st birthday on February 15, 1982. The centerpiece of its promotion in the States was a New York screening of Limelight, which was attended by the likes of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and his Times colleague Michiko Kakutani, who nonetheless passed on reviewing the book, as did every other major American critic. Still, Roth was proud of it: “I think it’s the most intelligent book about being an actress that’s been done,” he wrote a friend. Even more gratifying, to Roth, was its total absence of gossip; one was led to believe, for instance, that Bloom’s friendship with Richard Burton had entailed nothing more prurient than “read[ing] poetry endlessly to each other in our digs.”

All in all, our first foray in domesticity was a success,” Bloom wrote of her time in the country, remembering how sadly she’d watched the little scroll calendar on Roth’s mantel as it ticked off one day after another toward her departure. After her visit Roth also took a “reckless step forward” away from what she’d perceived to be his epistolary reticence — that is to say, his disturbingly noncommittal “Dear Claire” was replaced with “Dearest Love.” Indeed, that was the least of it: “I think you are going to have cock enough to last you a lifetime,” he wrote her in June; she’d left a dress behind in his closet, and a motif of his letters that summer concerned his tendency to ravish the garment in her absence. Writing from Venice, she less ribaldly mentioned how her desire for him had almost made her faint in a gondola on the Grand Canal.

From August 10 to September 2, she hosted Roth at her three-story town house on Fawcett Street, near Chelsea, a few minutes away from Fulham Road. Roth was apt to describe the place as charming. On the first floor were lace-curtained living and dining rooms, both with fireplaces, and a little terrace out back with a plane tree and garden; on the second floor was Bloom’s “luxurious, slightly whorish” bedroom, said Roth, who never mentioned the stuffed animals that Barbara Jakobson swore she saw on the bed (Dick Stern’s wife, Alane Rollings, recalled that Bloom liked to take these on planes to calm her nerves); and on the third floor was Anna’s room and bath, as well as a little guest room where Roth set up his workshop during the weeks of his stay. Bloom was good friends with Gore Vidal and had assured Roth that her daughter was “well trained by Gore” not to be noisy while he was working; Anna, however, was in Switzerland with her former nanny for most of Roth’s stay, and seems to have kept mostly to herself during the one or two days they coincided.

Bloom was starting rehearsals for The Innocents, an adaptation of James’s The Turn of the Screw, and Roth was eager to see her at work, especially since the director was Harold Pinter. Most mornings Roth would walk Bloom to rehearsals at a church not far from her house, and sometimes he’d stay and take notes on her performance (“sometimes brutally critical,” Bloom wrote, “always completely accurate”) — this in hope of improving what was, he feared, a “terrible (alas)” play. But usually he stayed on the third floor at Fawcett Street, where he worked on a 90-minute screen adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Name-Day Party,” since Bloom had complained about a paucity of good television roles. The story, about the grueling hypocrisy of bourgeois life, had a character that Roth considered perfect for Bloom: Olga Mihalovna, who spies her husband flirting with a pretty 17-year-old guest at his name-day party; already vexed by the man’s boorishness, she passes the day in a state of incipient hysteria, until finally she explodes at him in private (a passage Roth heavily underscored in his copy of the text):

“You may as well know that all this is revolting — revolting — revolting! I’ve hated you all day …”

“Olya, I wish you would give me warning when you’re out of sorts so I can sleep in my study.”

Roth’s first attempt (of several) to create a proper vehicle for Bloom’s talents “made the rounds” but was never produced.

On September 4, Bloom arrived in New York for out-of-town tryouts; she’d rented an apartment on the East Side, where she planned to stay with Anna and her mother for the duration of the play’s Broadway run. Meanwhile, during tryouts in Boston, she was interviewed by a Globe reporter who described her as “a frail, white-china faced woman with … a manner as tremulous as a butterfly”: “ ‘We’re friends … have been … long time,’ ” she “murmur[ed], almost inaudibly,” when asked about her appearance on Newbury Street with Roth. When The Innocents premiered in New York on October 21, Roth brought his “thrilled” parents, and all agreed Bloom was wonderful as the governess; the play, however, closed after only 12 performances. In Doll’s House, Bloom pondered her decision to remain in New York, with Roth, while she sent her mother and daughter back to England in early December; the “furious” Anna had pointed out that she’d “once again chosen a man over her,” and Bloom worried the girl might be right: “perhaps I was unconsciously sacrificing her in favor of Philip.” To Roth, at the time, it seemed a wholly conscious sacrifice.

One afternoon the couple returned to Roth’s apartment, where Bloom discovered a note on the dining room table. “I went into the kitchen and didn’t see it,” Roth remembered, “but suddenly Bloom was wailing and screeching and wildly running about the apartment. She was holding in her hand a two word note from the cleaning woman. It read, ‘Christa called.’ She began screaming about Christa. Who is Christa? You’re having an affair with Christa! How dare you invite me to America under false pretenses! How dare you make me abandon my child to come to America while you were carrying on with this Christa!” This went on for about an hour, according to Roth. Christa was a German journalist living in Berlin who’d interviewed him a couple of years back for her newspaper; they’d hit it off and become friends. Evidently she was in New York and wanted to get together. Some 20 years later, after Roth and Bloom had divorced, Christa remarked that she’d occasionally tried to phone him in London, but whenever she gave her name Bloom hung up on her.

Bloom, it must be said, was no stranger to furtive liaisons, and in her second memoir, at least, she was refreshingly candid on that point. Richard Burton was married to another woman during his “precious and deeply spiritual” affair with Bloom, ditto Laurence Olivier and Yul Brynner, and Bloom herself was still married to Rod Steiger when she dallied with Hilly Elkins (prior to his becoming her second husband). As for Roth, he was rarely less than forthcoming (except with whoever happened to be his main female companion at the time) on the subject of straying: “God, I’m fond of adultery,” he and Mickey Sabbath liked to say. “Aren’t you?” Even with so staid a fellow as Bernard Malamud, Roth couldn’t resist alluding to his extracurricular love life: “Claire is off in London doing Brideshead Revisited,” he wrote his colleague from Connecticut in 1979. “It’s not easy being Stage Door Johnny. But it has its compensations.”

Roth’s foremost compensation in Warren — during the entirety of his time with Bloom, and then some — was a Norwegian named Inga Larsen (pseudonym), a physical therapist who lived a mile down the road with her husband, a contractor, and four children. Joel Conarroe remembered her as the sort of woman who gave off “vibrations” (“even to me”) the moment she entered a room, and little wonder she served as model for the insatiable Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater, and also — “falsified beyond recognition” (Roth) — for the doting, submissive “Erda” in Leaving a Doll’s House. Inga had known Roth casually since his move to Warren in 1972, but nothing carnal happened until the fall of 1976, when he summoned Inga for her professional services. As she recalled, Roth sat in the kitchen, depressed, while she worked on his neck, and after she packed up and was ready to go, he put a hand on her breast; the following spring they picked up where they’d left off, and so began an 18-year affair that, said Roth, “became an adjunct to my domestic life, without which I couldn’t have continued my domestic life.”

Inga’s own domestic life was far from ideal. After work she would come home, make dinner, and put her children to bed, whereupon her husband would fall asleep and she would tipple chardonnay, though Roth was mostly unaware of her drinking until she entered rehab many years later. At the height of their affair, she and Roth would meet as often as possible at their favorite trysting spots: behind a cluster of boulders near the Housatonic river — a place vividly evoked in Sabbath’s Theater (like Sabbath and Drenka, they were almost spotted in flagrante by a helicopter scouring the area for marijuana farms) — and, in a pinch, a spot in the woods midway between their houses. Such outdoor emergencies were relatively rare, though, since Bloom was less and less in Connecticut; Roth estimated he and Inga met at his house or studio, all told, “over a thousand times.” They also liked to meet socially: Roth was fond of Inga’s husband — the man designed the remodeling of Roth’s studio in the late 1970s — and the two couples often entertained each other. During the decade that Roth lived half of each year in London, Inga would visit him and Claire for a few days en route to seeing relatives in Oslo (she so admired the decor of Bloom’s guest bedroom that, on her return to the States, she went straight to the Laura Ashley store in Westport).

Inga was as much a kind of co-conspirator as she was a lover to Roth, who urged her not to skimp on details when telling him about her other affairs with, say, the wealthy alcoholic businessman whom she blew in his limousine. Often she’d marvel aloud at the disparity between her private shenanigans and public image as a supercompetent professional and homemaker — a duality, or multiplicity, Roth relished in both their lives: “the kick of having a multiple self who behaves various ways in numerous lives and of possessing an impressively lavish endowment of self-abandonment.” Later Inga would refer to her and Roth’s “mutual addiction to sex,” an idea Roth would have rejected as psychobabble, though other perceptive friends were apt to describe their affinity in precisely that way. “They were both secret junkies,” said one. “Philip’s a secret junkie… . Because the nature of eroticism is a share under the table; it’s not visible to others. And that’s very important to him.” Another friend — who used to attend AA meetings with Inga — said that Roth, though hardly an alcoholic, consummately behaved like an addict in the way he compartmentalized everyday life, the better to get away with transgressive behavior. More and more, however, in his life and certainly his work, he became almost disarmingly candid about things. He hooted at Bloom’s coy reference to “the dark part of [her] sexual nature” that she’d discovered vis-à vis Hilly Elkins: “I enjoyed, through my long, adulterous liaison with [Inga], the bright side of a stupendous sexual nature.”

Roth’s own endowment of self-abandonment arguably exceeded even Inga’s, though she took pains to seem a worthy peer in that respect. She pretended to be pleased when he’d press on her a semen-encrusted napkin or some such fetish, and she became more and more adept at looking entranced whenever he’d suddenly, apropos de rien, begin masturbating in front of her. “This is a man led by the penis,” her therapist observed when she mentioned this compulsion of his. Roth later pointed out that Inga had often assured him that she loved to watch men masturbate, the way they gradually lost control before coming; indeed her remarks on the subject were given almost verbatim to Drenka.

During his London years, Roth would call Inga long-distance and expect her to listen while he masturbated. Such calls were inconvenient, given the time difference. “Here I am,” Inga remembered, “and here’s this guy on the line there and I have patients and the doctors around and he wants me to listen. And then as soon as he has come, ejaculated, he bangs the receiver and that’s it.” She paused. “And then sometimes he calls back and there’s a conversation: ‘How are you?’ …”

It was Roth who suggested to Bloom that they live together in London for six months out of each year, beginning in September 1977, when she was returning to start rehearsals for Ibsen’s Rosmersholm at the Haymarket. Roth would follow a couple of weeks later, once he’d gotten maximum seasonal use out of the recently completed, 18-by-55-foot Franklin Library Memorial Pool — so named because it was paid for with proceeds from Roth’s signing six thousand books, at two bucks a copy, for the Franklin Library First Editions Book Club. Roth had phoned John Updike to inquire whether the feat was really possible: “Just,” Updike replied.

According to Bloom’s memoir, Roth was willing to live with her in London on the condition that her daughter live elsewhere, until Bloom frantically persuaded him to give “some form of family life” a try — marveling the while at what would prove an all-too-characteristic “mixture of kindness and cruelty” on his part. Roth later insisted, however, that the subject of Anna’s cohabitation “had never arisen” up to then, and as for his alleged “cruelty”: “If there was any cruelty directed toward Anna, it was Bloom’s, as Anna well understood and as the disastrous consequences I saw played out between mother and daughter in London confirmed. It will not do to shift the ‘cruelty’ onto me, who at this time barely knew Bloom’s adolescent daughter and had no particular interest in her one way or another.” Bloom’s willingness to sacrifice her daughter (consciously or unconsciously) in favor of her own interests had hardly begun with Roth, who pointed out that the girl was all of 9 when Bloom left her father for one of his closest friends. Hilly Elkins is perhaps best remembered as the producer of the risqué 1969 revue Oh! Calcutta! — the same year he began his liaison with Bloom. “Strangely, Hilly had some of the same features as [my father] Eddie — certainly the same weak mouth. Still more bizarre, they even shared the same birthday.” Be that as it may, the main point of Elkins appeared to be his show-business pull, which helped his wife’s career even as he stole, by Roth’s account, “tens of thousands of her dollars, if not more, while she looked on and let him do it.” Naturally Anna Steiger despised Elkins, and Bloom admitted she and the girl had seen little of each other during this turbulent but productive era: “Those years did a lot of damage to us as mother and daughter, and yet they were the years when I played the roles I so wanted.” Bloom also pointed out, not unreasonably, that a child tends to resent the mother far more than the father for “going off like that.” In the event, once she got rid of Elkins, he became “the unmentionable” to mother and daughter alike.

In later years Bloom would often concede that Roth “had tried at first to be kind and understanding of [her] daughter,” as she told Charlie Rose in 1996; but the situation was fraught, to put it mildly, given the damage inflicted by her “brief and ridiculous” marriage to Elkins. In 1977 Anna was a 17-year old singing student at the Guildhall School, and Roth’s vague impression at the time was that she mostly lived with her grandmother while Claire “came and went as an actress.” He had every reason to imagine that relations between mother and daughter were “loving and cordial,” he said, though in fact certain passages in Bloom’s letters might have given him pause. On Anna’s 16th birthday, so Claire had written him, the mother was forced to “cower” in her room rather than mingle with the girl’s guests, and a few months later she described “a dreadful scene” involving “AWFUL” insults because Anna had wanted to stay in London, alone, while Claire departed yet again for New York.

“We moved to London and at first it was all peaceful,” she wrote in Doll’s House, a state of affairs that Roth emended as “family hell.” For three days after his arrival, so he recalled, Anna was missing; that first day he was entertaining the playwright Tom Stoppard (an Anglo Czech who was also interested in the plight of dissidents), when Bloom’s sister-in-law phoned to say they couldn’t locate Anna anywhere and were notifying the police. Then, on the third day, Anna appeared and casually announced she’d been staying with a friend. That evening the three sat down for their first family meal. The mood, as Roth later noted, was “tense”:

Anna sat stewing at her place. Eating mechanically without looking up, while Bloom, trying far too hard, as she would continue doing incessantly from the day I arrived to the day I left, asked the girl sweet, motherly questions of no consequence that remained unanswered and appeared only to feed Anna’s scorn. And then the fight broke out. I couldn’t say now over exactly what, but mother and daughter were up from the table and into the living room, where, first, they were merely screaming at each other, then punches were being thrown and blows being struck — and then Anna screamed at her mother, “Kike bitch!”

I rushed into the living room and separated the two of them. “You can’t use that language around here, ever,” I told Anna, “and you cannot strike your mother. Both are forbidden.” I’m tempted to say that from this moment forward Anna never gave up on the idea of me as the enemy, if it hadn’t been that I was the enemy even before I arrived.

Though reticent about her other differences with Roth — content, that is, to stand by the accounts given in her book — Bloom was roused to dismiss the above scene as categorically false. “The idea that Anna ‘punched’ me, her mother, or threatened me in any way whatsoever, or used anti semitic slurs is pure and utter nonsense,” she wrote in a 2013 email. Anna Steiger was even more strident in her denial. Roth, she wrote, “NEVER, EVER physically restrained me as in any case I am not physical when angry and more to the point, he is an immense physical coward… . As for the anti-semitic slurs that’s most strange for him to invent. However, it is an invention.” Roth was unsurprised by their denials (“It’s too shaming to acknowledge”) and stony in his insistence that the scene transpired precisely as he described it for his biographer, and barely fictionalized it in I Married a Communist: “The ‘kike’ part was indelible because it was partially for my benefit and aimed at me,” he explained in 2015. “As for the ‘bitch’ part, that was a part of her repertoire.”

The next day, his fourth in London, Roth went looking for a flat of his own in the same neighborhood. He declined simply to return to the States — because his homes in New York and Connecticut were already occupied, and because he was still devoted to Bloom and determined to make things work. He visited an American lawyer, Bob Gurland, who advised him that taking an apartment in London would have “disastrous” tax consequences. Also, when he mentioned his plan to Bloom, she “dropped to her knees,” he said, and begged him to stay. So he stayed. “I’m not going to be defeated by this kid,” he remembered thinking.

They hired a carpenter who converted the entire third floor into a separate apartment for Anna: a kitchenette was added, and the little spare room Roth had used as a study became a dining/sitting room. Meanwhile the girl’s presence on Fawcett Street was relatively scarce — she was at school all day and tended to spend weekends visiting friends and attending concerts — and, after that one rebuke their first night together, Roth was careful not to argue with her. “She is turning out to be rather cooperative, and even some fun, now that the initial period of adjustment seems to have ended,” he wrote hopefully to Joel Conarroe.

“Anna is nuts,” he wrote Riki Wagman. “A great pain in the ass who has spent the last two weeks trying to sabotage Claire’s opening … I just take off for my study (studio that is) in the morning and at home don’t have much to do with her other than to ask her to turn down the punk rock on the record player every night. There will be problems there, and I feel sorry for the girl. She is fatter than ever and so confused and self-defeating … But for the last month I’ve just tried to keep Claire and her apart.” The three of them still had dinner together from time to time, and their “obsessive discussions” (as Bloom herself described them) were entirely focused on Anna’s life and interests as a Guildhall student. Roth was appalled by the “abject woman” Bloom became in her daughter’s presence — so unlike the witty, intelligent, self-possessed celebrity he’d come to know during the first year of their affair.

One morning in March — what would generally be described as the “most shocking part” of Doll’s House — a grim-faced Roth “thrust a letter” into Bloom’s hand. By then he’d learned that if he wanted to impart his thoughts on any remotely controversial matter, it was best to commit them to paper, since conversation was hampered by Bloom’s tendency to scream and run away, sobbing, or assume a kind of wary crouch and cry, “Don’t go for me,” which Roth took to mean she feared some form of bodily harm. The letter, dated March 14, 1978, was only summarized very briefly in Doll’s House; its main contents are given here:

Though of course I am prepared to live with you and Anna until June 1st, when we leave for Conn., I think it would be a mistake to try to repeat this living arrangement again next year. The dynamics of your relation- ship with Anna make me tremendously uncomfortable, in large part because I know how very uncomfortable they make you. As the saying goes, you are either at each other’s throats or at each other’s feet, and it is emotionally exhausting for the both of you … I think it is very clear to you that when we live alone — either in the country, or when Anna has been away on a trip — there is a richness to our lives that simply withers away when we have to deal with the daily problems that are a consequence of the impasse which you and Anna have reached.

Roth proposed two alternatives: either Bloom would come live with him year round in the States, in which case he’d gladly pay her way to visit Anna and her mother every month, or else Anna would go live in the Guildhall music hostel, Henry Wood House:

I have telephoned them to inquire about living arrangements (not for Anna, of course, but only generally, as an interested parent). There are single rooms for £18 a week; the rate may go up some next year in Sept … She would be near the school, she would never have to worry for companionship — and she will actually discover (I will bet you a hundred pounds tonight on this) that she likes it better herself. You will stop being the central problem in her life; we will stop being people who exclude her, and become people she can rely upon to help her as she moves on in school and towards her career — in brief, the whole childish side of her life will begin to dissolve. As it simply will not, so long as she is at home with her mother and a man who is not her father, but is really willing to be a friend. Of course she is going to resist this and be angry immediately at the idea. But so too does she reject the idea of a diet …

Lastly. The sooner the better. It is not after all hell one is consigning Anna to. I am only suggesting that she live like eighty per cent of the university and college students in the world. There are reasons for dormitories and university residence halls, and you know every last one of them. Children are too old to live at home but not old enough to rent houses or flats of their own or parents don’t have money to pay for houses or flats.

Bloom would impute sinister motives to Roth’s epistolary gambit — without, again, bothering to spell out the details, or else baldly misrepresenting them (“No explanation,” she told Charlie Rose of the letter; “he just said he can’t go on living like that”). It was not so much about “hatred,” she wrote in her memoir, as “control… . Philip made character assessments the way surgeons make incisions … If I was willing to jettison my own daughter in this manner, what could I ever deny him?” Nevertheless she came to the “shameful” decision that would invariably cause her, later, to choke up during media interviews: “Anna was asked to move out,” she concluded the episode in Doll’s House. “She was 18.” “So somber, so tragic, so tellingly concise,” Roth observed, “as if she were writing, ‘Anna was asked to move out. She was 2.’” He then directed the reader to proceed seven paragraphs further in Doll’s House to “the anticlimax of anticlimaxes”: “Anna moved back home” — as she did, he claimed, within five months of moving to Henry Wood House, where in any case she’d spent only a few days per week before returning to Fawcett Street more or less permanently for many years. (“It wasn’t that I sacrificed my daughter,” Bloom rallies a little to her own defense while chatting with Charlie Rose. “Frankly my daughter in a year [sic] came back to the house.”) As Roth would tell friends during the difficult times ahead, “Maggie” — his vindictive first wife — “sent Anna to me.”

From the book Philip Roth: The Biography. Copyright © 2021 by Blake Bailey. Published April 6 by WW Norton & Company

Excerpt: Philip Roth’s Agonizing Marriage to Claire Bloom