Friday, March 5, 2021

Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 VII

Special note to those of you who are obsessed with Bertrand Russell's sex life:
March 23, 2024. This post is so popular that I thought I'd add a comment. While there is a chance that Russell did have sex with his son John's wife, Susan, I think it is unlikely for the following reasons:
1. It is possible that Russell was impotent by 1950.
2. The whole point of having John and his family live with him was to stabilize them to prevent embarrassment to himself.
3. The only source that I've found for the idea is Anne, John's adopted daughter. She was only about five years old when this would have occurred and probably couldn't assess the situation accurately.
4. Russell's opinion of Susan could not have been good: he helped John divorce her later.


Russell was so active over such a long period and so many details of his daily life survive that it is a strain to read this biography at times. He rose to great prominence in England after World War II, in part because he had supported the war, unlike World War I, during which he had been a pacifist. In 1948, while on a lecture tour, his plane crashed into the sea between Oslo and Trondheim, and only those in the smoking compartment, where Russell sat, survived. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He was dumbfounded by the latter, since he had never published any fiction or poetry, but it encouraged him to write short stories, which, according to Monk, weren't very good. He also came to represent the U.K. in semi-official international meetings. Throughout this period, Russell continued to lecture, and his main concerns at the time were the possibility of a nuclear war and the dangers of the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors. His last lecture tour in the U.S. occurred in 1951. 

Russell's marriage to Peter did eventually collapse, and Peter left with Conrad, whom Russell didn't see again for nearly twenty years. Because his divorce from Dora had been extremely contentious, he did not engage in a legal battle with Peter. His relationship with Colette O'Niel never revived, and they broke up permanently. While Russell was in the process of separating from Peter and seeing Colette, he had another short affair with a woman named Nalle Kielland. After this, he took up a relationship with Edith Finch, who was a friend of a friend from Bryn Mawr whom he had met many years earlier. They were married in December, 1952, when Russell was eighty and she was fifty-two. Edith was different from his previous wives in that she liked order and had a more conservative personality, and they had a harmonious marriage. She seems to have been more supportive than Dora or Peter had been, thereby not triggering his animosity. It may also be relevant that Russell had prostate surgery shortly after the marriage and perhaps no longer had a roving eye.

The main event in the section I'm reading concerns the disastrous developments in the life of his son, John. In 1945, John traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend a party given by Kate, who was just beginning graduate school. On that trip he met a college friend, Maurice Friedman, and Susan Lindsay, the daughter of the poet Vachel Lindsay, who was then nineteen. Susan had given birth to a baby from her previous boyfriend, and Friedman married her in December. However, the marriage collapsed after just two months, and John decided to marry Susan. This situation grew into a major family disaster. Susan's mental state can hardly be considered stable. Besides the indications of her promiscuity, her father had committed suicide by drinking lye. Moreover, although John was clearly homosexual, he held the mistaken idea that his homosexuality was caused by his mother and could be cured. To make matters worse, Griffin Barry, himself a failed writer, had convinced John to become a writer. I think that this was all an obvious disaster-in-progress, but perhaps because it was occurring on a different continent and Russell refused to communicate with Dora, no action was taken to remedy the situation until it was too late.

John and Susan married in the U.S. in 1946, and John adopted Susan's daughter, Anne. They had their own daughter, Sarah, in 1947 and moved to England that year. John had received an inheritance from his father and proceeded to run through it by living in luxury in London, hiring an expensive governess and seeing an expensive psychoanalyst. To complicate matters, John and Susan had another daughter, Lucy, in 1948. Neither John nor Susan were interested in taking care of their children, and their household became chaotic. Susan continued her affairs with other men. John could not hold down a job, and they began to run out of money. In early 1949, when John was twenty-eight, a plan was made for Russell to buy a large house and share it with John, Susan and the three children. Russell found a house in Richmond, near the house where he had grown up, and had major renovations made to accommodate the family. 

The chaos continued at the new house, though, for a time, Russell seems to have developed a close relationship with Susan. When Russell married Edith in 1952, she moved in and apparently put her foot down regarding household behavior. On the surface, the home seemed calm initially, but on Christmas, 1953, after dinner, John and Susan announced that they were "tired of children" and left the house forever, "taking the remainder of the food, but leaving the children." John and Susan moved to Wales, where their psychiatric conditions continued to deteriorate. Susan launched a new affair with a man named Wordsworth, and John proceeded to divorce her with the help of his father. By December, 1954, John had become psychologically unhinged, and he was taken to a psychiatic ward and began a long period of hospitalization. The children were temporarily left in Russell's custody. 

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