Tag Archives: theatre

The Natasha Spender archive is now available

Programme for a piano recital by Natasha Litvin (later Spender) in 1944, from MS. 6647/54The archive of Natasha Spender, concert pianist, academic, and wife of the poet Stephen Spender, is now available.

Natasha Spender, Lady Spender, née Litvin (or Evans), was born on 18 April 1919, the illegitimate daughter of Ray Litvin and Edwin Evans, who was a well-respected (but married) Times music critic.

Ray Litvin (d. 1977) was from a family of Lithuanian Jewish refugees and grew up in Glasgow. She became an actress and was by 1915 a regular with Lilian Baylis’s Old Vic theatre company but in 1926 her career was crushed when she caught typhoid fever and became profoundly deaf.

Young Natasha, who had been fostered out during her early years, went on to spend her holidays with the wealthy and very musical family of George Booth (son of the social reformer Charles Booth) and his wife Margaret at their home Funtington House in West Sussex. A gifted pianist, Natasha trained at the Royal College of Music and following graduation, studied with the musician and composer Clifford Curzon and the pianist Franz Osborn before starting her professional career. During the war, she gave concerts for ENSA and in 1943 she, along with the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, founded the Apollo Society which presented poetry with a musical accompaniment. She appeared often on television and radio including as the soloist in the very first concert televised by the BBC. She also gave recitals in the UK and abroad, including a concert for former prisoners in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In the 1960s Natasha made a move into academia after earning a degree in psychology and from 1970 to 1984 she taught music psychology and visual perception at the Royal College of Art. She later contributed to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Natasha met the poet Stephen Spender in 1940 at a lunch party hosted by Horizon, a literary journal that Stephen was co-editing at the time. They married in 1941. For decades, the Spenders were central figures in the London (and international) literary scene, with Stephen Spender’s career as a writer, professor, lecturer, editor and delegate taking them all over the world, with long periods in America.

In the 1950s, Natasha became friends with the terminally alcoholic, noir author Raymond Chandler, who fell in love with her. The exact nature of their relationship became an ongoing source of speculation among his biographers. This, along with controversies over unauthorized biographies and interpretations of Stephen Spender’s life led to Natasha fighting hard for the rights of biographical subjects and particularly for her husband’s reputation. Following Stephen Spender’s death in 1995, Natasha founded the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust, which continues to promote poetry in translation, and she collaborated first with John Sutherland on an official biography of her husband (published in 2004) and then with Lara Feigel on an updated edition of Spender’s journals (published in 2012). Natasha also published articles about friends and associates, including Dame Edith Sitwell and Raymond Chandler, and her archive includes an unfinished memoir covering the early years of her life and marriage. She died on 21 October 2010 at the age of 91.

The papers will be of interest to readers researching the history of early twentieth century theatre and performance, the academic field of visual perception, and the literary circle of Stephen Spender.