Yvonne Cloetta, Graham Greene’s companion for 32 years, rarely spoke about their time together, but in 1994 she was angered by the injustice of recent assessments of his life and work. In an exclusive interview she speaks candidly about biography and betrayal
Guardian, London, 10 September 1994
When Graham Greene left Dr Lechat’s leper settlement in the Belgian Congo in early 1959, he broke his journey in French Cameroon to visit friends at Douala. Cameroon was well past the defining moment of colonial insecurity, a year before independence. Whites no longer went out without revolvers under their shirts, and newspapers regularly reported colon murders, the bodies sliced up like sausages at the roadside. I imagine the setting for the colons’ entertainments – the reunions of the Amicale Bretonne, their picnics and parties and trips to the coast, like the London summers of The End of the Affair, ‘bright condemned prewar summers… in the dry unbreakable weather’.
In Douala Graham Greene was introduced by his friends the Bouccaruts to Yvonne Cloetta. He had a brief drink with a shy, pale, waif-like woman. She was the wife of a Unilever executive. Perhaps the Bouccaruts, aware of a strain in her marriage, had a hand in what followed.
Greene and Yvonne met twice more before he flew on to Cuba, and in the summer of 1959, with the Bouccaruts at Cap-Ferrat, they met again. Soon after, they began an affair that ended 32 years later, when Greene died.
I met Madame Cloetta by coincidence. With a journalist’s heartless curiosity I discovered that she was the friend of a friend, and asked if we might talk. My friend did not hold out any hope because the first interview she had given to a journalist, a few months after Greene’s death on 3 April 1991, had resulted in an astoundingly trivial article in Harper’s and Queen which had referred to her as ‘the highly decorative Madame Cloetta’ and ‘a brightly coloured Barbie doll’.
But a few days later I received a phone call. ‘I could shut up and retire,’ she said, ‘or try to tell things as they were. Eventually I felt a need to try to rectify. I have no hope at all of succeeding.’
Switzerland is a view. From the terrace of the apartment in Corseaux, on the shore of Lac Leman, which the couple shared for the last two years of Greene’s life, you look down at neat vines, rushing trains, the lake disturbed by a steamer that leaves a clean kite-tail of ripples. I arrived at sunset, and Madame Cloetta brought Scotch and water onto the terrace and told me to help myself.
‘Graham always used to enjoy watching the trains,’ she said.
When Greene met her she was a charming beauty in her mid-thirties. The first attraction for him may have lain in her strange combination of pallor and vitality. In her sixties she still has it.
What did she want to rectify? Her anger was evident. By the time she stopped talking, breaking off without finishing one of her stories about Greene, her small head with its blue eyes and white schoolboy crop was invisible in the dark.
Her case is simple. In none of the books that have recently come out about Greene does she recognise the man she knew for thirty-two years.
Before she went to bed she wanted to show me one of the last letters Greene wrote to her. In the autumn of 1990 he made the journey from his flat in Antibes to Geneva for the last time. When he and Yvonne arrived, he took out of his pocket a letter he had written before going to the airport. He knew how ill he was and he had been afraid he might die in the plane.
10 September ‘90
My very dearest Yvonne,
I feel nervous about the journey tomorrow, so I am slipping this cheque into my pocket in case something goes wrong with me [he knew that in the event of his death Yvonne would be stuck with the funeral expenses in Switzerland]. Send it to Mr — and be happy, after the shock is over, in that beautiful flat you made for me. (I shall be watching you!)
All my love, Graham
For the half-dozenth time she said, ‘I want you to know what kind of a man he was.’
The following morning I remembered the story that had been interrupted by the darkness, and I pestered her to tell me the rest of it. In August 1959 she and her two daughters were on the Côte. In the meantime Greene had been to Cuba and Capri and had started writing A Burnt-Out Case. Greene telephoned her two days running and they had drinks with the Bouccaruts. On the third morning he asked her if she would accept an invitation to dinner with
‘It was that night that we had our first real conversation on our own, at La Réserve de Beaulieu. With all the upheavals in my life then and the problems with the children’s education in Africa, I was very anxious. Almost as soon as we sat down he said, “It’s curious. Between the carefree woman I met in Douala and now, you’ve changed a great deal. Has something happened in your life in the meantime?” I was so surprised suddenly to find myself sitting opposite a man I didn’t know, and slowly to realise that he knew me better than I knew myself, by the manner he had of understanding a problem, the words he had to reassure…. It was then I knew that he wasn’t an ordinary man. Not the writer, but the man who had this capacity to see things, to go to the heart of them and to tell you what was happening in the words that you needed to hear.’
Greene had to go to England the next day. In the morning he called again and asked Yvonne to go to the airport with him. They had lunch in the Ciel d’Azur, and the loudspeaker called his plane.
‘In the lift he took me in his arms and he kissed me and he said, “Do you love me?”
‘I said, “Look, it’s too early to say, I don’t know”…. We talked about that later, and he claimed that I had misinterpreted his words and what he had meant was, “Do you like me?”
The memory of his attempt to get off the hook amused her. ‘My English wasn’t very good, but I had learned at school the difference between “to love” and “to like”. But the malentendu was because he feared rejection so much. He came back about a week later.’ She was still shy about it. When she spoke, there was slight embarrassment in her laughter. Greene had telephoned her. ‘Every day. Several times a day. Then he came back, and that was when it started.’
And their affair hadn’t wavered for thirty-two years? ‘If you want to draw it as a graph, it was a slope which kept on climbing.’
We live in an era of biography. This summer it has been Greene’s turn, two heavy volumes – Michael Shelden’s Graham Greene: The Man Within and Norman Sherry’s second volume of the authorised life. In its cultural ascendancy, we have come to believe in biography’s capacity to tell us everything. This acceptance is a paradox in an age when we recognise with a sort of fright that our own lives are becoming more ambiguous. Can biography truly represent a subjective life, or explain the work? According to Freud, biographical truth could not be had, and even if it could one could not use it; in Two Cheers for Democracy E.M. Forster noted that ‘Study is only a serious form of gossip. It teaches us everything about the book but the central thing, and between that and us it raises a circular barrier which only the wings of the spirit can cross.’
As Graham Greene’s relict and keeper of his memory, Madame Cloetta could in her privacy appear like Camus’ widow or Lilian Hellman, a sort of veuve abusive. If she were, she would never have trusted her lover’s biographers (or myself) with details like the letter and story above. But she is exasperated with Norman Sherry, and with Michael Shelden, author of the unauthorised The Man Within, whom she willingly entertained on the terrace at Corseaux when he was researching his book, she is extremely angry.
The Man Within (the title appropriated from Greene’s first published novel) is a fait accompli. The writer, according to Shelden, was a whoring drunk ruled by hate, disloyalty, cruelty, secrecy, financial greed and a homosexual kink he lied about throughout his life. The capacity for disloyalty, we are told, Greene acquired as a schoolboy at Berkhamsted – the headmaster’s quisling son, divided between loyalty to his schoolfriends and loyalty to his father. Soon afterwards, he had his first experience as a victim of betrayal, which left him prey to unresolved homophilia.
The resulting humiliation gave him a lifelong faith in the virtues of treachery, according to Shelden. The other factors of his personality eventually led him ‘to squander his talents on bad books’ (with the inevitability of all depravity). As early as A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Greene was apparently nearly burnt-out himself. Later we are told, with the conceited primness of an end-of-term report about a loathed pupil, that ‘A complete retirement would have been preferable to the sad failures of J’Accuse, Monsignor Quixote, Getting To Know the General and Dr Fischer of Geneva’.
To refute every point of Shelden’s hostility demands an appetite for tedious contradiction I offer one observation of my own – that it may have escaped Shelden, as an American, that there remains a side to the British that forgives a whoring drunk far more easily than it forgives conceit – and one of Madame Cloetta’s:
‘Michael Shelden came to see me in July 1991, three months after Graham’s death. He came at the beginning of one afternoon. It was a lovely day; we sat on the terrace and we talked. In December, after the article in Harper’s and Queen came out, he wrote to me. I kept his letter.’
The letter, written from the University of Indiana at Bloomington on 16 December 1991, begins:
Please forgive my long silence, but I wanted to take some time to think things over after speaking to you about the errors and distortions in the Harper’s and Queen article. I was very sad to hear how completely, and terribly, your trust had been betrayed. It was depressing to know that you had been hurt in such a pointless manner by someone whom you had invited to your home, and with whom you had spoken in confidence. I don’t blame you for being reluctant to speak to outsiders about Graham Greene. What is the use of doing so if your words are going to be twisted and lies are going to be used against you?
In the virtue of Yvonne’s plain trust in the biographer, you feel Greene would have seen a danger, the danger facing Helen Rolt in The Heart of the Matter, Elizabeth in The Man Within, the dancer Coral Musker in Stamboul Train. In Shelden’s concluding line to her – ‘The last thing I want to do is cause you any distress’ – Greene would have detected the note of false reassurance.
‘Shelden never knew Graham,’ Madame Cloetta said, ‘he never met him. Thus what he says that isn’t documented can only be hearsay. In the first two pages of the chapter covering my life with Graham there are many errors of fact; but more than that, in the book you feel an unswerving will to destroy Graham, to destroy his reputation as a writer.’
But we have met Shelden before. He could, in the biographer’s literal language, be ‘based on’ Mabel Warren, the sadistic lesbian journalist of Stamboul Train. Of her interview with Quin Savory, the successful popular novelist, Greene writes: ‘[Mabel] could insult him with impunity, for the Press had power to sell his books.’ Failure she could love; weakness gave her power over her victim, where success did not.
Possibly, in 1991, Mabel Warren-Shelden had not decided her precise ‘line’. But on 16 May 1992 when she was well into the writing of her book, she wrote to Yvonne again, asking for contact to be renewed: ‘I would like so much to see you this summer. If you don’t want to talk about Graham, that is fine with me. I simply want us to be friends again.’
In certain respects the betrayal of a subject’s lover by his biographer ranks as venial. If Yvonne – not to mention Greene’s surviving family – has been shattered by it, that is surely the going rate for literary liberty. Outside of piety, does it really raise any literary-ethical question? Perhaps only if one regards betrayal as a sin. For Greene the Christian terminology was important. He once told Norman Sherry, ‘his face absolutely wooden, an ingrained melancholy painfully apparent: “I’ve betrayed very many people in my life.”’ For Mabel, betrayal is Greene’s besetting sin – yet Mabel’s own betrayal is merely the price of belonging to what she calls ‘the lucrative profession of writing’. (The phrase used in her book to describe one of Greene’s own motives for writing.)
It’s possible that Greene would have greeted the biographical fuss over him with sardonic amusement. He once wrote: ‘If anybody ever tries to write a biography of me, how complicated they are going to find it and how misled they are going to be’; of Sherry’s doggedness he also wrote that he ‘has the undoubted advantage of being a very slow worker, so that I hope I shall not be there to see the result’.
If he had known the effect the result was to have on Yvonne, one can more easily imagine his fury. It is less easy to imagine another’s grief, the dull peace without, the clamour within. To lose trust is one thing. To lose love is to lose all reassurance, the reassurance which made her fall in love all those decades ago.
‘One day very early on I was surprised when he said, “If one day you don’t want me any longer, if you love someone else, just send me in an envelope a blank sheet of paper. I shall understand, and I promise I shan’t bother you.” Then later, when we lived as we did, and we both accepted the constraints of each other’s life [for her daughters’ sake she did not divorce, and continued to live in the same house as her husband in Juan-les-Pins], he also said to me, “If one day you decided to change your life, I want to tell you that you will always be welcome here with me. I’ll say it now, once and for all. I shan’t change my mind.”’ (Mabel’s version reads: ‘Although she was the principal woman in the last thirty years of his life, he was not one to restrict his interests to only one person. Until the last year of his life, he never lived with Yvonne, and gave no indication that he wished to.’)
As our conversation continued, Yvonne spoke as if she was talking to her memory, slowly, in her accented alto roughened by cigarettes. ‘It was his great thoughtfulness, his concealed tenderness that drew me to him: it’s very difficult to put an idea of the kind of man he was for a woman into words… I had the impression that I was at the centre of his life, that it revolved around me. That was the feeling he communicated. He was always so present.
‘He could stay plunged in his thoughts, but he translated that into saying, many times: “It can’t be much fun for you living with a writer.” But if I stayed silent, because I was daydreaming, immediately he intervened – he studied my face and he said, “Two pennies for your thoughts.” It’s only an image, but it’s a reflection of the way he treated me, and that treatment never faltered.’
In Mabel’s world a successful novelist is permitted no vices and possesses no virtues, apart from the praise, rendered faintly in the echo of damnation, to half a dozen great novels. (The selection, setting the overwrought Brighton Rock at the head and dismissing A Burnt-Out Case as ‘diffuse and uninspired’, is largely esoteric.) Greene himself was a better and harsher judge of his talent. ‘For a writer, just as for a priest,’ he wrote, ‘success doesn’t exist. I would like to do better. I ought to do better.’
That Greene was difficult is well known: cruel, neglectful, secretive and egotistical (particularly before he met Madame Cloetta). He played both sides against the centre. His attachments to causes like Yvonne’s daughter’s fight for custody of her children, and to the defector Kim Philby, were questionable. All this is as familiar as a journalist who writes sentimentally and inaccurately for the sake of a story.
A writer’s work, however, is not a profession. He is the creator (later often the prisoner) of characters who are born from neurosis – in Greene’s case his humiliation and insecurity. But writing is an erotic as well as a neurotic act, an effort at harmony between the expression of opposites, of love and art: in Sartre’s unexpectedly lucid definition ‘to recover this world by giving it to be seen as it is, but as if it had its source in human freedom’. It is no coincidence that the real story of Yvonne’s relationship with Greene is missing from Mabel’s work. It is not by chance that in neither The Man Within nor the authorised Life of Graham Greene: 1939-1955 is there any understanding of the part that Greene’s passions (religious and sexual) played in his work, or of how his insecurity and lack of confidence in himself were forced into fiction. Biography, in its dedication to solving mysteries by gathering clues, wrestles blindfolded with the subjective internal life.
Yvonne had no doubt about this. ‘A long time after our misunderstanding about “to love” and “to like” I found a reference to it in one of his books. In The Captain and the Enemy there is a chapter that begins “To love or to like…”
‘The words struck me because the question had been put to me in reality. The context isn’t at all the same, naturally. That’s what the biographers cannot understand. They use this expression “based on”, as if Graham’s life explains his writing, as if a note here or a letter there can tell you everything.’
Yvonne kept a diary of her conversations with Greene about writing. ‘I noted a small thing in the apartment in Paris one morning, early. He was starting out on The Honorary Consul, and he said: “It’s terrible to think that from now on I am going to live for three years with a man called Charley Fortnum.”’
Later Greene read the diary, annotating it in his tiny, insecure script: ‘I’m surprised at that reflection. Perhaps I was remembering how depressed I was when I had to endure the company of Querry in writing A Burnt-Out Case. In fact, I grew quite attached to Charley Fortnum.’
In another annotation you see the writer’s brief satisfaction: ‘The reason why I like this book is that it shows characters changing through their experiences, especially Plarr and Fortnum, a difficult thing for me to bring off.’
Yvonne once asked Greene what connection he made between the man and the writer. ‘He said: “It’s certain that emotion has an immense part in the creation of fictional characters. The only way to give them life is to imagine how they would react in the face of such and such a situation. To describe the impact of the events on a certain character and his reactions in consequence, I have to experience a real and deep emotion faced with the same facts in the the same situation.”
‘You see. It’s the opposite of what the biographers think. He had to live the life of his characters.’
She shook her head, remembering Norman Sherry’s fastidious attention to facts. Her exasperation with Greene’s dogged treatment by his official biographer exceeds her sympathy for his dedication (Sherry lost part of his intestine from gangrene following Greene’s tracks to South America, and partially and temporarily his sight). Accuracy stalks the pages of his version, like a slow-witted policeman trying to make his eye-witness description fit the photographs of suspects in the files.
At least Sherry met Greene, and was able to write down the answers to the questions he put to him. But the result is stubbornly inanimate, denying both Greene and his characters life. ‘A major character, Anthony Farrant [in England Made Me], was modelled on his older brother Herbert.’ ‘He never spoke better about his love affair with Catherine [Walston, wife of a Labour peer] than in The End of the Affair.’ ‘Scobie is, to a great extent, Greene’s emotional and psychological double.’ On and on he goes, working out which character comes from which real person. (‘What do you think, sergeant?’ ‘That’s him, sir, that’s definitely him. He’s got the same beard’.) In fact, we have met Sherry before too. He is modelled on the tall, weedy teacher turned journalist in England Made Me, Professor Hammarsten:
‘A glass of beer, Professor?’ Krogh said…. He thought of all the interviews he had been forced through the years to give to this decayed teacher of languages, not from pity but from necessity, because he represented the most respected of Swedish papers, because there was some justification in his boast: he did at least try to be accurate.
Greene knew his biographers before they knew him, and better. They passed in front of him as he worked, ‘”at the outset [as Yvonne noted in her journal] only a tiny point, a point that I fix on with such an intensity that after an hour or two my eyes weep and I have to stop. Then this point grows, takes shape bit by bit. At last it becomes alive, even independent. It has its own character, its own will outside me.”
‘What upsets me,’ Yvonne said, ‘is the conviction that in narrating the life of the man, document by document, [the biographer] arrives at the portrait of the man and the artist. It’s easy to take a phrase from a letter and an extract from a book, and say that one is based on the other, but it’s a fabrication. It doesn’t correspond to reality.’
She has no personal quarrel with the Professor, no desire to upset the Greene family who authorised his work. But she finds it beyond her to reconcile her feelings about the first two volumes of the Life with the idea of collaborating on the final volume covering the period of which she was the central witness.
It is the ordinary, the settled and the everyday that biography finds as much of an enigma as the role of the writer’s subconscious in his work. That Greene found a quantum of happiness with Yvonne that he had not known before is certain. Boredom didn’t leave him, or the anxiety of having nothing left to say, or doubt. (His diary annotations confess a liking for Monsignor Quixote ‘because it is a book that deals with doubt, and doubt for me now is really a central point in the evolution of my thought’).
But the despair of his forties and fifties began to go; meeting Yvonne helped him to learn the lessons of the past. The beautiful colonial wife who had no experience of a writer’s obsession experienced the emotional pull of a writer’s needs.
‘After his two or three hours’ work in the morning, he was very disturbed and unsettled… he needed someone to help him come out of that other world, to talk about this and that, to return to a normal life; he needed someone to hold out a hand and lead him back. I felt that and I very quickly accepted it.’ He was probably faithful to Yvonne; after one excursion with him at the beginning to a brothel in the rue de Douai, which upset her badly, she had no evidence that he went again. (His reason for going, he told her, was his ‘boredom with the conversations in offices, the meetings with journalists, with people who had nothing interesting to say’.) In the end, with her he achieved a kind of contentment.
His biographers have laboured over the psychoanalysis, his conversion, marriage, brothel-going, the Blitz and the death-wish that welcomed it, the spying, the wheeling round the world to try to escape from himself. Outside of his Catholicism, few of these landmarks were ultimately positive, except in a loose artistic sense.
But the superficially unimportant meeting in Douala was the start of an affair that ended thirty-two years later, an affair that ended well because it only ended when one of the partners died. It was a frontier between a personal zone of war, of a broken marriage and broken passions in which his ever-increasing despair was evident, and one of peace – maybe the peace that seemed to Major Scobie in The Heart of the Matter ‘the most beautiful word in the language’. Greene’s friends said that Yvonne stabilised him. It seems a mild description; but in the life of a writer who had reeled around cities and continents and their bars, brothels and wars for thirty years, in a search for action and sensation that was at its heart an escape from himself, who felt restlessness like an addiction, boredom the way a dog feels mange, why wouldn’t a kind of stability have appeared to be a second conversion?
Among the papers of Greene’s in Yvonne’s possession are the last words he wrote, five words on a scrap in an uncertain hand: ‘In Search of a Beginning’. An apt title for a book he didn’t write, the story of a man who found very late a beginning with a woman. Scott Fitzgerald wrote (quoted by Greene in Ways of Escape) that ‘A writer’s temperament is continually making him do things he can never repair.’ In the end Greene had the luck, and possibly the judgment, to last longer in the attempt to overcome the irreparable. In the end he had Yvonne, rather than Zelda. In the end….
After lunch there was a storm all down the lake. The Alps disappeared, and the rain danced in a soaking horde of drops. Yvonne’s tiny umbrella covered neither of us, as we got out of her car and walked through to the far side of Corseaux cemetery. Greene’s grave is large and square, the name on the headstone clear against the marble. A pair of Ingrid Bergman roses stand higher than the stone, flanking it. The ground is packed with more roses, begonias and blue sage, sagging with water, planted by Yvonne. We stood and looked at the grave and her garden, and after a while decided to get out of the rain. To fill the silence, I said stupidly, ‘Ce n’est pas une mauvaise fin.’
I didn’t see her face as she answered, ‘Ce n’est pas la fin pour moi.’
© Julian Evans 1994. All quotations by Graham Greene previously unpublished © Verdant 1994