On this day in 1921, Sir Dirk Bogarde was born in West Hampstead. From his idyllic Sussex childhood through World War II, and from Hollywood to his frequent retreats in France, Bogarde’s memoirs and fiction overlap and intertwine to reveal just about all there is to know about the man … but not everything.
Son of the Art Editor of The Times and a former actress, the young Bogarde was perhaps destined for a life in the arts, despite his parents’ nudging in a more academic direction. A fledgling theatrical career was side-lined when World War II broke out. Bogarde joined the forces of the Queen’s Royal Regiment, reaching the rank of captain. He was one of the first Allied officers in April 1945 to reach the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, an experience that had the most profound effect on him.
“After the war I always knew that nothing, nothing, could ever be as bad … but nothing could frighten me anymore.”
In most respects he lived by this newfound bravery, rising up the ranks of British cinema in the 1950s as a matinée idol, before abandoning his heart-throb image for more challenging roles.
In the film Victim (1961), Bogarde played a married barrister embroiled in a secret gay affair. Homosexuality would remain a crime until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was passed, but with his daring role, the British star helped to change the gay narrative forever. Although Bogarde never publicly acknowledged his sexuality, it was always part of the discourse around him, and in 1969 he left for the Continent with his partner Anthony Forwood, who managed his career and shared his life for 40 years.
At their cherished farmhouse in Provence, Bogarde went on to write 15 bestsellers; a mixture of novels, memoirs, a collection of journalism and a collection of correspondence.
His debut memoir, A Postillion Struck by Lightning (1977), takes us from childhood through adolescence, to the beginnings of his budding film career, offering insight into what created the drive and charisma that eventually made him a star.
Writing plays instead of playing sports, Bogarde’s talents lay in the creativity of painting and expression rather than in the precision of maths or science, much to the growing concern of his parents. Packed off to live with relatives in Scotland, his father hoped that a proper Scottish education would equip his son to follow in his footsteps for a career in newspapers.
Bogarde’s foray into the literary world was an instant success, and he went on to produce a further six volumes of memoir.
In Jericho, our protagonist is a writer, William Caldicott, whose circumstances take him to France. With divorce proceedings looming he is in desperate need of some respite. As fate would have it, he receives a cryptic letter of farewell from his estranged brother James, along with the keys to his house in France.
Taking us back to his silver screen days, Bogarde’s third novel West of Sunset is a sharp and potent satire of movie-making America.
Bogarde’s oeuvre is a testament to an incredibly sensitive and talented man, and is available now in both paperback and ebook.