Should someone's private life remain private?
Little preamble for here. This is sparked off by the post about Wikipedia the other day. On whether privacy and biography are interchangeable ... Anyway, I thought I'd put this up for discussion. Be warned, long post under the cut!
The internet has opened out the world and at any time there are millions of people online uploading information (scans, articles, blog posts, tweets, images, discussions, forum posts, reviews, publications, videos, audio files, and many other forms of communication). Some of this rehashes other sources, whether attributed or not, some is original thought, research, comment or opinion.
The most emotive area appears to be around what should and shouldn't be shared and discussed around the private lives of those in the public eye, particularly those who have died.
The particular example I'm thinking of today is the late actor Jeremy Brett, who has a huge and active fanbase across many countries and many sites devoted to him and his work. When we read about Brett, for example on Wikipedia, a notoriously poor but very high profile source of biographical information, we hear that he was 'intensely private' about his personal life. Curiously this 'fact' is not given a source but on the very flimsy basis that because we have read it there must be some truth in it, let's leave it as 'fact' for now.
It seems to me that it has been 'OK' to discuss certain aspects of Brett's private life with impunity, particularly concerning his two marriages to Anna Massey and Joan Wilson Sullivan, and anything relating to his son, David Huggins. We can track several 'facts' in the public record: The Times carried an announcement of the marriage between Brett and Massey. Massey herself has written a book which touches on their marriage and subsequent relationship of divorced parents of a son (We'll return to this book later). We have audio and video interviews where Brett discusses his marriage to Wilson (although no wedding announcement or certificate appears to be in the public record, and even the date of their marriage seems to be in dispute). We have photographs of him with Massey (although whether his wedding pictures were part of the public record at the time seems debatable), and with Wilson (again, they look like personal shots which have been shared since the birth of the internet). There's also the issue of Linda Pritchard but that is rather different given the fact she has written two books about him and is the source for many personal photographs and material entering the public record.
What it doesn't seem 'OK' to discuss is aspects of Brett's private life relating to his relationships with people of the same sex. Three in particular are known about - the mystery man in Switzerland who caused him to end his marriage with Massey (documented by her in her own book, but without naming the man involved); the late actor Gary Bond (who was first mentioned by name in the Terry Manners book but who has been mentioned in various places since, including by theatre critic and reviewer Sheridan Morley who knew both him and Brett very well, and in a recent biography of director John Schlesinger, who was a neighbour and friend to both of them; there is also a photograph of him and Brett together which is available in many places, although not always without being cropped to just show Brett); and the late actor Paul Shenar (purely on the evidence of one of those liberated photographs showing him and Brett together). We are led to believe that Brett would not want these relationships to be made public because he was ashamed of them and wished to forget about them. (In which case, why keep photographs?).
I'd like to look at some arguments why this odd situation is still with us:
You risk being libellous/slanderous ...
It isn't possible to libel or slander someone who is dead. There is no legal precedent or definition to cover this. In any case, why is saying someone may be anything other than heterosexual immediately read as defamation? We are not saying that Brett was a criminal (although before 1967 gay relationships were illegal in the UK). We are not saying anything detrimental to his character, or to those of anyone involved with him. I personally think it is far more damaging to share photographs like the mannequin one which has been in circulation and which is clearly not aimed at a female audience. I think, personally that Jeremy Brett is a fantastic role model for bisexual men to aspire to.
I'm in love with him. Please spare me from the trauma that he was gay.
I swear I actually read this on a real Brett forum. I would say to that person that if you love someone (how can you be in love with someone you've never met?), you accept them for what they are or in this case were. You don't go into denial or refute facts because you personally are affected by thinking of someone as being someone other than they are in your perfect little world. And you know what? It doesn't matter. The man is dead, so have your fantasy in your mind. It doesn't matter - or shouldn't - in the slightest what his inclinations were in real life. (Jeremy Brett wasn't gay, incidentally).
He never mentioned it, so we shouldn't ...
Not a good reason. Times were different then. How do we know who he mentioned it to, when, and why? Someone in the public eye often has a private persona and a public persona. Many do not share anything to do with their private lives at all with their public but are happy to be open with friends, colleagues and family. So if we change this argument to 'He never mentioned it on the record.' Regrettable, but that's the case for many people. It doesn't automatically mean he was ashamed of it. That's just someone's opinion. I've seen comments on blogs from people who claim to have personal knowledge that he was 'ashamed'. But he never said it on the record. He did however keep photographs which, although they look innocent enough, do prove that he knew the people concerned. If he was ashamed of knowing these people, wouldn't he have destroyed the photographs?
It's disrespectful to talk about someone when they are gone ...
Perhaps it is more disrespectful to fight about certain issues and post abusive comments and refutations if you don't agree with what is being said. Now, I'd be the first person to be annoyed about the Terry Manners book. It's shoddily written. It's extremely poor when it comes to dates. It makes too many assumptions about the inner workings of Brett's mind and his thoughts. However, that doesn't mean that it should be totally dismissed as a source. I have heard it described as a 'respectful' book, which I must admit surprised me. On 'the issue' I think Manners is actually quite discreet. He touches on the fact that between his two marriages, Brett had at least one male partner. Believe me, he could have said a lot more which would have been disrespectful. But he didn't. I think in most of the writing about that aspect of Brett's life, Manners errs on the side of discretion. As does David Stuart Davies in 'Bending the Willow' (although, of course, he doesn't mention names).
It's not fair to his two wives and his final companion ...
It's not fair to his male companions, two of which are dead and unable to speak for themselves. Brushing them under the carpet is incredibly unfair and disrespectful to their memories. I refer again to the photographs of Brett with Gary Bond, and with Paul Shenar. You know what I see in those photographs? A man who is happy in the company he is in. I can't believe for a moment that he would want his association with them forgotten, denied, or referred to in some of the offensive ways which have been put forward by those who say they are his fans. I think it is extremely disrespectful to the memory of Gary Bond to say that his relationship with Jeremy Brett meant nothing and should just be forgotten (or, worse, to imply that his name has been linked to Brett's because of some distasteful reason or to increase interest in his own career, both of which are absolute rubbish).
Just being famous doesn't make you fair game for gossip ...
That's true. But biographies sell well, and biographical information is sought out and highly prized when it is found. There's a difference I think between facts (which could be from published sources, or from personal knowledge) and gossip. I wonder what the reaction would be if the issues surrounding Brett 'facts' were about him having a long string of young girlfriends or something similar. I suspect that would be seen as OK.
The Brettish Empire doesn't say anything about it ...
Because every site owner has their own views, and that particular site owner, for whatever reason, chooses not to acknowledge that side of Brett's life. TBE is not the only Brett site, or the only Brett source. Read more widely.
His family wouldn't approve ...
His family didn't approve when he was alive it seems. They should be proud of everything in his life now he's not here to be proud about them himself.
Wikipedia/YouTube etc says anything on this topic is trolling ...
Wikipedia would. Some site editors there have a big problem. And if we go back to the start of this article, Wikipedia is very poor on biographical subjects (although high profile in relation to other sites). Sadly some trolls have jumped on this issue purely because of the negative reaction of some outraged fans who, out of the best of intentions, want to protect the memory of their idol. This is balanced out by some fans who want to honour and respect the memories of all Brett's intimates, of whatever gender. As for YouTube, some people just have boring lives and want to post the same stuff ad infinitum. Stop them in their tracks. Say 'yeah, we know' and they'll go away. I've tried it - it works like a charm.
I'll show my flag here at this point. I run a website in memory of Gary Bond and half that traffic comes from Jeremy Brett fans, either through referrals from JB-related sites which are interested in and supportive of his relationship with Gary (and grateful thanks to them), or through Google searches linking their names together. I wish that my traffic sources were a little wider but I'm touched and surprised by the interest in this lovely person who does not deserve to have his own private life bickered about under the cloak of 'protecting' Brett. When I set up Gary's website I thought long and hard about whether to include anything about Brett. I decided in the end that I had to - my interest is in protecting Gary's memory and by acknowledging someone in his life who was obviously important for many years I can do that. By ignoring Brett it would be saying that this person isn't important and to me, that's taking too much upon myself. I haven't speculated beyond one paragraph about the fact they were together and to me that is being respectful of both men. I don't want to hurt either of them, if such a thing is possible when someone has passed. I also don't want to hurt Gary's surviving partner who was with him for many more years up to his death. I want to celebrate the fact that two distinguished and talented actors found each other and loved each other, and that even when that relationship ended, they parted as friends. I admire them both very much. I especially admire them because of how difficult it must have been to sustain a relationship on the fringes of the public gaze.
I think that it is important that Brett's life is discussed in full. If we are not to discuss his private life then that means no discussion about his first or second marriages, how much in love he was with his second wife, what went on with his final companion, and everything around that. It means no discussion of his mental state. It means discussion of his career only. Otherwise, I'm afraid we are just being hypocrites. There's no such thing as selective biography.
So - over to you for your thoughts.