Biography

Alec Guinness. The Authorised Biography. Simon & Schuster. London, 2003

cover alecguinnessAlec Guinness, one of the pre-eminent English-speaking actors of his generation, was the illegitimate son of a flighty, alcoholic mother who refused to name his father. She gave him the name Guinness, and members of the brewing dynasty later liked to claim kinship, but it is more probable that his natural father was a Scottish banker, Andrew Geddes, who had been a guest of the Guinness family at the Cowes regatta at around the time of Alec’s conception.

Living as a child in over thirty different locations, Guinness received a private education. While working in an advertising agency he trained as an actor and was given the part of Oscric in Hamlet by John Gielgud. His talent was quickly recognised on both the stage and the screen. Under the direction of David Lean, he played Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, Fagin in Oliver Twist and later Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Quai. He played leading roles in a number of Ealing comedies such as Kind Hearts & Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Guinness married Merula Salaman and they had one son. Commissioned in the Royal Navy, he commanded a landing-craft in the Mediterranean, and was separated from wife and child for over two years. During this period Guinness discovered his hitherto latent homosexuality which throughout his life he concealed from the outside world. At one time a devout Anglican, he was received after the war into the Catholic Church. The tensions between his faith and the strict morality it enjoined; his love for his wife Merula; his homosexual alter ego; and the growing isolation that came with fame created a character as subtle and complex as any of the roles he played.

‘It may sound hyperbolic to suggest that a `mere` showbiz biography could be a deeply intelligent, acute piece of work, full of humanity and compassion…but that is what Piers Paul Read achieves in his magnificent Alec Guinness’.
Frank McLynn, Independent on Sunday
‘A splendid biography… Read gives us an astonishingly moving portrait of a very complex man, his loving marriage, and his quest for spiritual solace. It is a warts-and-all portrait but Read effortlessly invokes compassion for his subject’.
Keith Baxter, Spectator
‘Piers Paul Read’s perceptive study about this much admired and most complicated of actors falls into that rare category of exceptional theatre biographies’.
Patrick Garland, The Oldie
This is one of the best biographies I have ever read’.
Christopher Silvester, Sunday Times
‘A searching and moving book that is as much about Guinness’s spiritual journey, sexual ambivalence and gift for friendship as about his stage and screen triumphs’.
Michael Billington, Country Life.

In 1988 I was asked to write a profile of Sir Alec Guinness for the Independent Magazine: he was about to make his last stage appearance in Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods. He invited me to lunch at the Connaught and, before I could express my admiration for his work, he told me that he had read and admired some of my novels.

Even before my profile was published, Alec telephoned to invite me with my wife to dinner at the Connaught. He lived in the country but grew bored and would come to London, book into at the Connaught, and summon friends to join him for dinner. Rich thanks to a percentage of the profits of Star Wars, he could afford to indulge his tastes for fine food and wine; and every two or three months, we would be invited to join him for dinner either at the Connaught or some other extremely expensive restaurant in London’s West End.

Certain standards had to be maintained: we had to dress correctly and turn up on time. Although I did not share Alec’s taste for expensive restaurants, his company was always delightful – discerning judgements on books and plays mixed with gossip, witty reminiscences and touching confidences about the difficulties of his life. Our Catholic faith formed a bond between us: we discussed the merits and demerits of our pastors, and bemoaned the banality of the liturgy that had followed Vatican II. As in the interview I had first conducted at the Connaught, and in his two volumes of memoirs, Alec gave nothing away.

On rare occasions, Merula would come up to London and join us for dinner. She then fell ill with cancer and Alec confided that she was expected to die. However, Alec also had cancer and died before she did. We heard the news in France and soon after I was told by Alec’s literary agent, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, that Merula would like me to write his biography. I had never written a biography and had no interest in the stage, but it seemed impossible to refuse the wish of a dying friend. I therefore accepted but soon aftewards learned that Merula too had died.

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