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Prisms of the Heart
Shattered Love: A Memoir
By Richard Chamberlain ’56
Regan Books, 2003
245 pages • $25.95
Shattered Love, the recently published memoir of Richard Chamberlain ’56, challenges the stereotype of the celebrity autobiography. In contrast to the usual self-congratulation, insider gossip and unflattering portrayals of lesser characters that mark this genre, Chamberlain writes respectfully of many prominent people who have figured in his life while being painstakingly honest—even brutal—in chronicling his personal and professional struggles. The result is disarming—a book cast against type in a way that is both engaging and, on occasion, unsettling.
Chamberlain grew up in Beverly Hills in a middle-class family that was, to all appearances, not only normal but ideal. His parents were attractive and accomplished—his father Charles a respected salesman; his mother Elsa a talented musician and actress who stayed home to raise her two boys. (Richard’s brother Bill is six years older.)
The façade was misleading, however, an illusion of normalcy the author refers to as the “Chamberlain Magic Show.” Although outwardly successful, Chamberlain’s father was a self-absorbed and unpredictable “periodic” alcoholic at home. When drinking he was domineering, verbally abusive, and suffered episodes of delirium tremens that terrified his family. During periods of sobriety, he devoted himself to other alcoholics, becoming a sought-after speaker for AA. Cowed by her husband, Richard’s mother pursued her own salvation through Al-Anon.
Although Chamberlain’s childhood also included a doting grandmother, friends and modest success as a student and athlete, the instability of his family life had a lasting effect, setting him on a course fueled by a nearly desperate need for acceptance and acknowledgement. “If I were to look for a central dynamic in my life, it would be the long peregrination from fear to love,” he says.
Convinced of his inadequacy, he determined, as he writes, to “bury as deeply as possible my offending self and create an image that would be lovable. … Thus my life as an actor began very early. I learned to write my role and act my life.”
The key to that role was approval, and public recognition became an addictive, ever-demanding mistress. Chamberlain confesses his readiness to sacrifice virtually everything, including important relationships, on the altar of his career. “My career was me. I was my career,” he writes. Ultimately, however, the sense of unworthiness that so plagued his life was assuaged not by celebrity but by making peace with himself, an accomplishment that took nearly 60 years.
Chamberlain entered Pomona College in 1952, finding “high scholastic standards and the leisurely, romantic aura that graced such institutions. … This was the perfect place for a dreamy romantic to discover the riches of human thought and creativity, removed from the harshness, insecurities and competitive scrambles that all students face after graduation.”
Fellow students remember him as shy, thoughtful, sensitive and a “terrific artist.” Although powerfully attracted to the notion of acting, his terror of appearing ridiculous, what he calls his “near-catatonic inhibition,” led him to art and art history, which he considered a safer alternative for self-expression. Early in his freshman year, however, while watching tryouts for a play in Holmes Hall Theatre, he was noticed by Professor Virginia Princehouse Allen ’26 who persuaded him to read for a role in George Washington Slept Here. When his subsequent performance was well received, he was hooked.
Chamberlain acted throughout his years at Pomona, concluding with a “breakthrough role” as Bluntschli in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Shortly before graduating in 1956, he was approached by Paramount Studios and, after some negotiation, offered a seven-year contract. Although a draft notice and 16 months in Korea intervened, Chamberlain determined then not only to pursue acting professionally but also to make the “big splash” that would justify his
Promising prospects notwithstanding, leaving Pomona proved to be an emotional transition. During the Christmas holidays following his commencement, and just prior to leaving for his tour of duty, Chamberlain heard a radio performance of Handel’s Messiah, which he had sung as a member of the college choir under the direction of Professor William Russell. The music elicited such nostalgia that he made a pilgrimage to campus, revisiting old haunts and, as he wrote to a friend, “packing away the treasured past for good.”
In fact, Pomona would continue to influence his life. In a 1988 interview, Chamberlain cited Professor Allen’s role in his decision to move to England in 1968 for what turned out to be a transforming four-year residence. “People have said they thought I had tremendous courage to go to England after the (Kildare) series, drop all the commercial stuff and take those chances. Well, that’s what a Mrs. Allen actor would do.”
Meanwhile, Chamberlain’s rise to the celebrity he sought was swift. At the encouragement of classmate Robert Towne ’56—a talented screenwriter and Hollywood player who would go on to write the screenplays of such groundbreaking films as The Last Detail, Chinatown and Shampoo—Chamberlain entered an acting workshop taught by Jeff Corey. By 1959, he had signed with one of the most powerful talent agents in Los Angeles, and, in short order, landed the lead role in the enormously popular TV series Dr. Kildare that would occupy him from 1961 to 1965.
Moving to London in 1968, he undertook dauntingly ambitious stage roles, including Hamlet at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, acting in the heady company of such luminaries as John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave. The same year, he stared with Julie Christie in the film Petulia and was tapped for the role of Ralph Touchett in the six-part BBC production of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.
Chamberlain’s interest in working in all three major media may, as he suggests, have been determined in part by a fear of turning down any offer that might further his career. That he has been able to do so successfully and often simultaneously for over 40 years, however, reflects exceptional range and talent. Despite such a record of accomplishment, however—not to mention the loyal support of thousands of fans—Chamberlain ultimately came to realize that outward success, however gratifying, would never satisfy his craving for validation. While continuing to work, the focus of his life shifted gradually to self-examination and spiritual development. It is this history that is the true subject of the memoir.
A key part of Chamberlain’s secret self with which he had to make peace was his sexual orientation. Aware from adolescence that he was attracted to boys, he kept buried his “loathsome secret,” dating girls and struggling to fulfill what was expected of a middle-class boy in the early 1950s. In Chamberlain’s day, Pomona was still a conservative campus, according to one fellow student an “innocent time” when dormitories were segregated, female students had evening curfews, and sexuality was a private matter, rarely discussed openly. Although there were surely more than a few homosexual students on campus at the time, the gay culture was largely sub rosa and, for most, not the subject of concern or even awareness.
Although Chamberlain permitted himself homosexual relationships later in life, he continued to sidestep questions about his sexuality, fearing that his career, based on playing romantic leading men, would be jeopardized. The fact that he was competing for parts with actors like Sean Connery and Robert Redford only reinforced his misgivings, and he remains convinced that roles such as John Blackthorne (Shogun) and Father Ralph de Bricassart (The Thorn Birds) would not have been given to an openly gay actor. Even given today’s climate, he says he would advise gay students hoping to work in Hollywood to keep their sexual orientation private—not because it is “wrong,” but because it would, he feels, limit their options.
In the 1990s Chamberlain was “outed” by a gay activist and obliged to deal with tabloid exposés. Far more frightening to him than the revelations, however, was his terrified response to them. Forced to withdraw, in part because of a temporary lack of work, he confronted the deep-seated fears that had held him in thrall throughout his life, ultimately recognizing them to be largely of his own making. Even so, it was only during the writing of this book that he felt sufficiently comfortable with himself to tackle the subject publicly. He does so forthrightly but also with tact, the ingrained discretion of a lifetime spent protecting his private life still apparent.
One of the laudable qualities of Chamberlain’s memoir is its courage in applying the hard-won realizations of his later life to early personal and career decisions. He is painfully aware that his devotion to the public persona he created to please others not only failed to reflect his true nature but also made self-knowledge all the more elusive. With the perspective of many years of therapy and determined self-examination, Chamberlain’s retrospective analysis is poignant.
He recalls a party given by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monte Carlo during the filming of The Madwoman of Chaillot in 1969, one of his early experiences in Europe, where he was not yet well known. Entering in the company of Katharine Hepburn, Yul Brynner, Charles Boyer and Dame Edith Evans, he was devastated when the paparazzi failed to recognize him.
Chamberlain remembers that at Pomona, art history professor Alois Schardt once paused in a lecture to caution students about the desire for greatness, which, he asserted, inevitably involved a degree of emotional anguish that only the most extraordinary creativity could survive. Chamberlain continues to wonder if it is possible to experience the satisfaction of creative fulfillment without losing one’s true self.
The book’s provocative title, Shattered Love, refers not to devastating personal loss, as the reader first expects, but rather to the spiritual concept that humanity was created as a manifestation of divinity, of the “stupendous, immaterial power of creative love.” “Each of us,” Chamberlain writes, “is a prism of shattered love . . . our individual self-discovery is essential to the revelation of divine nature. We are love exploring love.”
Chamberlain credits many teachers—among them J. Krishnamurti, Carolyn Conger, David Spangler and Brugh Joy—on his path to such revelations, and Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on living fully in the moment is particularly apparent. He has recently returned to painting, finding in the process a creative experience whole unto itself, free of the pressure to please, and he enjoys a loving and supportive relationship of many years’ duration.
In the course of a recent conversation with the author, Chamberlain expressed interest in visiting Pomona, both to talk about his book and its themes—love, forgiveness, self-image and social conditioning, detachment— and to find out how students are grappling with the big questions. “The central question in my book,” he says, “is whether it is possible to live openheartedly all the time, whatever life throws at you. I answer ‘yes,’ because I think love—not romantic love, which is conditional, but unconditional, divine love—is the essence of wisdom.” Asked what advice he would give, he replies: “I would say to a young person, be passionate. Explore everything you believe. Everything. Ask: is this true? Is this true for me. I would say: keep your eyes open. Keep your heart open. Keep part of your mind open to finding your truth. Listen to your heart.”