Secrets of 'The Panther' : REBECCA WEST: A Life. By Carl Rollyson (Scribner's: $35, 511 pp.)

Brenda Maddox, whose 1988 biography of Nora Joyce won the L.A. Times Biography Award and whose "D. H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage " (Norton, 1995) won the Whitbread biography award, is working on the life of William Butler Yeats

'Bernard Shaw in Skirts!" cried the BBC's Radio Times in May 1925, heralding a radio interview with Rebecca West. Too true. Today West (1892-1983) is as dated as Shaw. The admired iconoclasm and wit fall strangely flat at the end of the century they were widely thought to be shaping.

The present Bosnian war leaves West curiously exposed. "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," published in 1941, may indeed be, as Rollyson maintains, one of the masterpieces of world literature. But her passion for a unified, centralized Yugoslavia was love misplaced for a cobbled-together state, doomed to be torn apart by warring ethnic factions. Hindsight also makes it harder to tolerate this book's self-indulgent tone--like the New Yorker at its worst--in which West exalts the most trivial of her own observations and puts down her traveling companion, who happens to be her long-suffering husband.

No, West is not easy to like. Nonetheless, Carl Rollyson--biographer of Marilyn Monroe and Lillian Hellman among others--has done a skillful, intelligent job of telling her story. He has come to the story at the right time: after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the new uncertainty about, to borrow the title of another of her best-known works, "The Meaning of Treason."

Rollyson also came to his task after the death of West's illegitimate son by H. G. Wells, Anthony West. This allowed him access to West and Wells' letters long held at Yale, available but not quotable by scholars until Anthony West's death in 1987. His handling of this vast archive is admirable. Too much material is the biographer's greatest trap.

This is one biography about which there can be no carping at the revelation of sexual secrets. West's life was built around a sexual secret. Two, actually. Her father, an articulate, sensual Anglo Irish adventurer and journalist, ran off to Africa in 1901, deserting the family into which she had been born Cicely Fairfield in 1892, the third and favorite daughter. In Rollyson's interpretation, the rest of her life--in its prodigious output of novels and political journalism and its succession of notable lovers--was a search for his replacement and for an explanation of why he left. The second sexual secret was the birth of her son by Wells. Prodigiously well-read, she disdained university for drama school in London, then, at 18 joined the staff of the radical feminist journal, the Freewoman. Her caustic, powerful prose and indelicate subject matter caused her to take a pen name from Ibsen, "Rebecca West," which stuck.

Small, dark, with large brown eyes and brows, a soft mouth and a quick mind, West drew the attention of the celebrated novelist. At 46, Wells was a noted practitioner of free love. Yet he resisted the entreaties of the impatient virgin West. He had a complaisant wife and a steady mistress as well. But West implored, in a heartbreakingly unfeminist letter of self-deprecation, until he gave in, to discover an exciting sexual partner for games in which she was "Panther" to his "Jaguar."

"Panther" trusted the experienced "Jaguar" to practice his favored form of contraception: withdrawal. A knock at the door one afternoon spoiled his concentration and thus Anthony West was born in August 1914. Wells, father of two sons already, was delighted to have produced another "manchild."

In its sexual mores, the turn of this century had more in common with the Middle Ages than with today. The overwhelming impression left by this biography is of the savage lunacy of the stigma of illegitimacy. The rest of Rebecca West's life--and Anthony West's too--was blighted by a status that today is totally meaningless.

There was no question of an abortion. For months before and after the birth, she had secluded herself in the country. Then with "nephew" and nurse, she returned to resume her literary life in London. Besotted at first by the infant, she soon found him a burden. Sent to boarding school at the age of 3, very soon Anthony West found that everyone but he knew who his parents were. Not until he reached the age of 7 did West admit, to his insistent questioning, that she was his mother. Even then she refused to confirm the jovial "Wellsie" who took him on holidays and gave him a bicycle was his father.

West never forgave Anthony for being born out of wedlock. She embarked on a lifetime of hiding records, fudging interviews, dreading (as Anthony grew to adulthood, a writer in his own right) his trips to America for fear the truth would get out. "Illegitimacy does something to people," she said to the mother of a murderer whom she was interviewing in 1949.

None of this concern for propriety stopped her from having affairs with, among others, Max Beaverbrook, John Gunther, Charles Chaplin and a Romanian prince and, even while covering the Nuremberg Trials, the American prosecutor Francis Biddle. Motherhood had not halted her swift rise to literary superstardom, through innumerable brilliant book reviews and two successful novels, "Return of the Soldier" in 1917 and "The Judge" in 1922.

In 1930, at the age of 38, she married at last, a tall, thin, gallant banker named Henry Andrews. This, too, was a game of nicknames--"Ric" (his) and "Rac" (hers)--and, a relationship both chummy and sexy. It was more than a marriage of convenience but convenient it was. Over nearly three decades, Andrews encouraged her work, gave her a Georgian country house and servants, and tolerated her infidelities as she tolerated his.

The older she grew and the more distinguished--she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1958--the more she became self-referential, pompous, in love with her own words and conservative. Her vigorous anti-communistic journalism cost her some friends in America during the McCarthy era. Widowed in 1968, often ill, still pouring out prose, she retained a musky aura that drew the supreme praise in the form of a compliment from Warren Beatty, who interviewed her in her '80s: "I don't care how old she is. She's sexy."

Just as durable was her animosity to her son. His unforgivable affront was to publish--in the United States in 1955--his autobiographical novel, "Heritage," in which he described her as actressy, neglectful and self-preoccupied. She refused to let him publish it in England during her lifetime. When she died in 1983, she left him nothing in her will.

Rollyson's meticulous book conveys neither greatness nor sympathy on its subject. But he shows how West worked with an ambition "worthy of Augustine": to resolve simultaneously her feelings about her family and the 20th century. That is all a writer can be asked to do.

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