Book: 'The Secret Life of a Schoolgirl'

By SHIRLEY SAAD  |  July 25, 2003 at 5:09 PM
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SAN DIEGO, July 25 (UPI) -- While reading Rosemary Kingsland's "The Secret Life of a Schoolgirl," my overwhelming feeling was one of envy. "She slept with Richard Burton," was the leitmotiv going through my mind. "How lucky."

Some may find this story shocking or revolting, but I felt a kind of vicarious thrill.

This is not only a tell-all memoir, however. Kingsland's story is also that of her childhood, her family and her growing up in post-war England.

Her style is captivating. Her simple yet intimate narrative draws her readers into feeling that they are part of the family. And quite an unusual family it is.

The authoritative father, often insensitive to his wife and children, but charming in company, is an inveterate drinker and womanizer. His weak, long-suffering wife, born to comfort and privilege, is reduced to working nights in a hospital to support the family.

And the children -- Jimmy, Rosemary and Gracie -- born in India in the last days of the Raj, are brought back to the cold, dismal England of school uniforms and ration coupons. They returned after India won its independence on a ship so crowded that cabins had to be shared. Their cabin-mate turned out to be Doris Day, returning from a USO engagement.

The actress apparently did not enjoy the trip. "These are the worst children I have ever met in my life," Rosemary remembers Day declaring.

Once in England the family moved from Brighton to Wimbledon to Cornwall and finally to London, according to their fortunes and their parents' whim. Rosemary often had to take care of her siblings, her mother being prone to bouts of depression.

Her first encounter with Richard Burton was at a reading of Dylan Thomas's "Under Milk Wood." As he was a Welshman, "there had been," to quote Dame Sybil Thorndike, "a quick whip-round to gather together all those Welsh actors who were resting," a euphemism for 'out of work.'" The reading was held at the Old Vic, a venerable old theater, in a derelict neighborhood near Waterloo station.

The poetry was beautiful, of course, but what caught Rosemary's attention was the actor reading First Voice. "His voice was mellow and rich and fluid, like warm syrup flowing over the audience, soothing us, entrancing us. Dressed entirely in black, his muscular build made him appear stocky. His head, from which dark curling hair sprang rampant, seemed too big. It was an actor's face, strong jaw, high cheekbones, mouth mobile and expressive. The audience was captivated from the first word to the last. Even my father fell silent."

My first glimpse of Burton was in "Rains of Ranchipur" with Lana Turner, not his best movie. But he played the role of an Indian prince, and his blue eyes blazed from his tanned face and I, too, fell in love with him.

The next time Rosemary saw Burton was at the movies in "My Cousin Rachel." She recognized the actor she had seen at the reading and fell headlong in love with him.

Rosemary finally met Burton some months later at a café near the Old Vic. She had escaped from a party where she had gone with her father. She was dressed in a new green taffeta dress and a white fluffy bolero, her mother's lipstick making her look older than her 13 years. She was sitting in a booth, sipping squash (a fizzy drink), when a man addressed her, and to her shock she recognized the actor, who asked her to go for a walk.

Thus began a romance that lasted -- on and off -- until Rosemary turned 17. Rosemary didn't hesitate very long. She gave a fleeting thought to the possibility of "getting into trouble," but then decided it was time, as she put it, "to become a woman."

"I couldn't think of anyone I would rather lose my virginity to than this man whose beauty and power astonished me each time I looked at him."

Through Rosemary's eyes, we get to know Burton, the actor and the man: his doubts, his failings, his yearnings and his ambitions. Burton had already started drinking heavily in his mid-twenties, maybe to forget the "sissy" job he had.

"Life's an illusion, a bloody great big illusion." He stopped.

"You're right. Acting isn't real man's work. It's a sissy job. I should be down the mines like my da, shoveling coal in one of Masefield's dirty British coasters, rolling steel in a fiery mill down in Port Talbot. And Jesus, what do I do? Mince about a bloody stage in poofters' clothes, slap all over my face."

Burton never knew how old, or rather how young, Rosemary was until she turned up at the theater one day in her school uniform. By then, they had stopped seeing each other, but the sight of her in her pleated skirt and white socks rekindled his interest, and the affair resumed for a while. All this time he was married to Sibyl, his first wife, with whom he had two daughters.

He later left Sibyl for Elizabeth Taylor, whom he met during the filming of "Cleopatra."

Meanwhile, for Rosemary, at home, things were not getting better. The battles between Rosemary's parents raged on, fueled by the presence of her maternal grandmother, who came to live with them. Her father eventually left them and married a Frenchwoman called Tina. The story of his love affair with Tina and how he eventually went to live with her is too bizarre not to be true. No one could invent something like that. Not surprisingly, Rosemary's mother went mad, and took years to recover.

Rosemary discovered not only love and champagne with Burton, but also a world of history, poetry and literature. He formed her young mind and, as she pointed out, thrilled her with his knowledge of all things.

Later, Rosemary met Gerald Kingsland, famous journalist, editor, writer and real-life castaway, and had three sons. Gerald Kingsland's adventurous life has been portrayed (falsely, it seems) in a film starring Oliver Reed, "The Castaway."

This is a remarkable coming-of-age story, of a young girl's awakening to love and life, in unusual circumstances.

("The Secret Life of a Schoolgirl" by Rosemary Kingsland, Crown, 352 pages, $24.95)

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