T H E   P E R S O N  


Interviewed by John Amis about her role in Britten's Owen Wingrave

When Jennifer Vyvyan died she left behind a large quantity of papers, diaries, cuttings. correspondence and concert programmes that document her life and leave a vivid picture of her personality.

The diaries run from 1945 to 1974. And although the entries are far from methodical - with detailed coverage of shopping trips but sometimes totally blank pages on days when she premieres a new opera or makes a major recording – they reveal a woman working frantically, often to the point of exhaustion. The overall impression is of someone with spirit, generosity, a loving, warm (if vulnerable) nature, and a wicked sense of humour.

She writes down jokes and ludicrous exchanges – often between herself and her mother 'Biddy'.

She records the films and plays she sees, the books she reads - everything from Brideshead Revisited to How to Win Friends and Influence People (which she considers 'extremely sensible'). And there are endless lists of songs for her recital programmes – not that the choices varied hugely but there would be small variations within fixed parameters, just enough to give her concerts a 'bespoke' feel.

So much of her life was on the road – or more particularly on the railways up until the mid-50s when she starts flying to foreign dates – that much of the diary content is a repeating story of late nights, early starts, bad hotels and lost luggage.

There's a sense of living on the edge and in exuberant chaos. She leaves bags in trains, umbrellas in shops, earrings in hotel rooms. Almost immediately after being given expensive jewellery by a suitor she loses it, finds it, and loses it again. In 1964 she forgets her passport on a trip to Sweden but still manages to get there: a mark of gentler times for international border control.

All the while she's an obsessive correspondent, writing sometimes 8 letters a day, listing the recipients in her diary, and clearly expecting them to reply in comparable quantity when she’s away on tour.

Like most performing artists she has good and bad days and is well aware of them. ‘Helen Watts sang wonderfully. I had frogs’; ‘No low A flat – very depressing’; ‘Sweated with terror over broadcast’, read the diaries. She is sensitive to criticism. Newspaper reviews are noted in terms like ‘Ouch’ or ‘Heavenly’; on 10 July 1960 she ‘cries for 2 hours’ over a harsh review for Radamisto in the Observer; and there’s clearly an issue when the roles she considers ‘hers’ are taken by someone else – as happens with Tytania in Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Governess in Turn of the Screw.
Much of the time her insecurities are related to tiredness – there are many diary references to staying in bed with fatigue – and illness. The first signs of the bronchial condition that would eventually cause her death emerge in 1956 just before she goes on tour to Russia [for more, click on COLD WAR CULTURAL DIPLOMACY]. For good reason, given the potential consequences for her singing engagements, she keeps the problem a secret: consulting doctors, signing up for various drug regimes, entering discreet private clinics and taking rest cures in France and Italy (where, in desperation, she resorts to prayer!).

How critical this secrecy became is indicated in a later letter from her husband (Jan 1959) in which he worries that she might acquire a reputation for being ‘no longer reliable’.

But the diaries continue to record bad nights that only increase in severity and induce panic. As a result there are sometimes weeks of cancelled concerts, and occasions when she succumbs to expressions of extreme frustration. ‘Broke cupboard door in rage’, she writes on Christmas Day 1971. ‘Could not go to church for anger’.
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At the same time, though, she spends significant amounts of her life looking after the conductor Ivan Clayton who had become important to her, professionally and emotionally, in the late 1940s but then contracted multiple sclerosis. The diaries record endless visits to keep him company, cook him meals and, as his debility progresses, help him wash, dress and deal with toilet accidents. ‘Bought po-cupboard on approval’, reads a diary entry for Jun 1956. ‘No good. Took it back’.

Her devotion to Clayton was solid through until his death; and it extended to the organisation of a group of friends (including Britten and Pears) to finance his eventual care costs.

In stark contrast to the grim practicalities of this offstage nursing role, her onstage personality was upbeat, glamorous and celebrated beyond the strict confines of musical reportage. She made the general news and fashion pages of the press; and not for nothing do her diaries carefully note which dress she wears for each engagement: ‘old black lace’, embroidered’, ‘blue brocade’ etc.

JV and son, on the seafront at Aldeburgh
With that sort of profile went admirers. And she had many, including one who compiled and eventually presented her with a voluminous cuttings book [to view, click on APPRECIATION]. But the admiration sometimes became over-zealous; and from several diary entries it appears that she either had, or feared she had, stalkers. ‘Door bell rings 2.15am. Car drives away’, she writes in 1954. And in 1955: ‘Strange call from ‘admirer’. Didn’t like voice’.

More personally there were, throughout the 1950s/early 1960s, three men in her life: one of them Ivan Clayton, another an ardent Portuguese suitor (source of the expensively lost jewellery) with whom she had a tempestuous on/off relationship that erupted into high drama. An example was during the Dutch tour of Midsummer Night’s Dream where her diary records: ‘Went to theatre in trembling state but in my anger sang better than usual’. Not for nothing was her chief success in fiery roles.

Meanwhile, waiting patiently through all this, was a Marylebone-based accountant called Leon Crown who looked after her business affairs (as he did for many of her fellow artists). She finally married him in 1962.

Surviving correspondence suggests that her settling down with Leon was welcomed with relief by friends but perhaps not so obviously by her wider family. He was middle-class Jewish from the East End of London, she was Christian with aristocratic connections. And although the marriage endured with evident success until her death in 1974, the religious divide did surface from time to time over matters like the baptism of her son, which proved contentious.

With the birth of her son her work-load decreased but remained considerable; and she regularly took him with her to rehearsals and performances. Not always fortuitously [click on THE BRITTEN CONNECTION: OWEN WINGRAVE].

But running a career, a family, and fighting ill health proved too much. In 1973 her health broke down dramatically and she was admitted to hospital. She recovered enough to resume work later in the year, but in 1974 her respiratory problems returned and this time proved fatal.

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