Jill Balcon (Jill Day-Lewis) died on July 18, 2009. Here is an abridged version of the obituary by C Day-Lewis’ biographer, Peter Stanford, first published in the Guardian newspaper.
Jill Balcon was celebrating her 23rd birthday and just beginning to make a name for herself as a film and stage actress when on January 3 1948 she appeared on the BBC radio programme, Time for Verse, broadcast live on Sunday evenings. Her voice - a rich, expressive, finely modulated instrument - was already a favourite with listeners and was to remain so throughout her long working life. In the studio she met a fellow contributor, the poet C Day Lewis, whom she had worshipped from afar ever since he visited her boarding school, Roedean, in 1937 to judge a verse-speaking competition. That meeting in Broadcasting House was to change her life.
Balcon – pronounced, she would point out with typical precision, like Olivia Manning’s trilogy not an abbreviation of balcony - thought Day Lewis had hardly noticed her, but soon afterwards he telephoned her at her Pimlico flat just as she was packing for a season with the Bristol Old Vic. He wanted her to join him in a poetry recital in Salisbury. She couldn’t, but she used to recall that she spent her whole time at Bristol wishing she had been able to say yes. ‘He had charm,’ she later recalled, ‘in the original sense of the word – a kind of magical magnetism’.
They met again later that year - at the English Festival of Spoken Poetry in London - and romance blossomed. Balcon was, said her great friend Natasha Spender, wife of the poet Stephen Spender, ‘strikingly beautiful – like the sort of beautiful woman you only see on a Greek vase’. Jacob Epstein was so taken by her looks that he asked her out of the blue if he could make a bronze sculpture of her head.
The couple’s joy at finding one another was not shared by those around them. Day Lewis was 21 years Balcon’s senior and married. He had also been involved throughout the 1940s in a very public love affair with the novelist, Rosamond Lehmann, one of the most celebrated women of her age. He was dividing his time between her home in Oxfordshire and his wife and two teenage sons in Devon.
Balcon had few expectations of Day-Lewis, but, after a late night walk along the banks of the River Thames, where they carved their initials on a tree outside George Eliot’s home on Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk, he told her he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Day Lewis broke with both his wife and Lehmann in favour of Balcon. It caused both discarded women great pain. Mary Day-Lewis bore it stoically, but Lehmann blamed Balcon and made it plain to all and sundry that she would never recover from the blow.
Balcon’s father, Sir Michael Balcon, the head of Ealing Studios, was not at his daughter’s wedding breakfast in 1951. He had been horrified when her name appeared on the front pages of the newspapers as the co-respondent in Day Lewis’s divorce. Lady Balcon was afterwards only able to see her daughter at clandestine meetings in Hyde Park. None of this disapproval could detract from the real bond of love and common interest that the newly-weds shared. They were soul mates.
There followed many joint public performances of poetry - Day Lewis’s and that of others they both admired such as Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. From 1968 until his early death in 1972 Day Lewis was Poet Laureate and the couple were familiar public faces in the world of the arts, supporting progressive causes.
In the early years of their romance, Balcon’s own career continued to thrive. At the Old Vic in 1950, she played Zenocrate to Donald Wolfit’s Tamburlaine in a rare revival of Christopher Marlowe’s play. It was part of a season directed by Tyrone Guthrie, which also saw her play Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
However, with two children – Tamasin, born in 1953, and later a noted documentary maker and cookery writer, and, in 1957, Daniel, the Oscar-winning actor – she put family before work. The demands of home and husband meant she concentrated mainly on television roles and radio work since it placed more manageable demands on her time. After Day-Lewis’ death, she took on the mantle of his editor, producing a collection of his posthumous poems in 1979, the complete set in 1992, and a selection to mark the centenary of his birth in 2004.
She became the keeper of the flame and noted with wry amusement that he had once written a poem The Widow Interviewed. ‘Sometimes I think God I have become that relic’. She continued giving performances of his verse at festivals and events as well as dealing with a constant stream of visitors and letters about Day Lewis and the poets of his generation.
With her children grown up, she retreated to the Hampshire countryside where she shared a picture postcard thatched cottage with a new partner, the military historian Antony Brett-James. After his death in 1984, she tended their exquisite garden, entertained with good humour and great generosity neighbours like Alec and Merula Guinness, kept a watchful eye on her beloved grandchildren at nearby Bedales, and made a new generation of friends among writers - including those, such as Claire Tomalin, who were anxious that her golden voice should be the one featured on audio versions of their books.
Her passion for poetry never diminished, as she demonstrated in a 2007 appearance as the castaway on Desert Island Discs. She continued to give recitals and remained in close contact with almost all of the distinguished British poets of the generations that followed Day Lewis. ‘I have spent my entire life,’ she reflected just short of her 80th birthday, ‘trying to interest people in poetry’.
To listen to Jill Balcon's October 2007 appearance on BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs click here