Today is Boris Karloff’s birthday, so it seems fitting to dedicate this post to his life, and to extend happy birthday wishes to his daughter Sara Jane Karloff who shares his November 23rd birthday.
I confess that I knew very little about Boris Karloff as a person before beginning this blog, but exploring his life has been a beautiful, inspiring journey. The first biography that I read was Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff by Cynthia Lindsay, who was a friend of Karloff’s for many years. Lindsay’s book is entirely worth reading, as she provides some wonderful insights into Karloff as a kind and devoted friend. But her book raises as many questions as it answers. Despite having been his friend for decades, there were many things that Cynthia did not know about Karloff’s life due to the fact he was a vey private person. Despite her best efforts at research, there were many details she simply could not uncover. Some of these details I found mysterious and unnerving. For example, he never discussed his childhood and revealed his five marriages after many years of friendship. I wonder if , in this era in which people share minute details of their lives on social media, people would regard Karloff’s secrecy about his private life with suspicion. Perhaps such discretion regarding personal matters is a lost virtue.
The next book on the list was Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life Scott Allen Nollen. The author was able to consult with Karloff’s daughter, Sara, resulting in a more detailed account of Karloff’s life. My only complaint about this book is that the print is surprisingly small and there is no ebook edition. But if one can overlook the irksome font, this is a delightful book that gives great insight into Karloff’s character.
Lastly, there’s Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster by Stephen Jacobs. This is, perhaps, THE authoritative text on Karloff’s life. I admit that I have not finished reading it yet, as it is over 500 pages long. What I’ve read is absolutely engrossing, as Jacobs was able to obtain previously unpublished material, including family letters. (However, what I’ve read so far does not shed much light on his five marriages.) I highly recommend this book, but am sad to report that it appears to be out of print and it is difficult to obtain affordable copies. Currently, the best and least expensive way to obtain a copy is directly thought Karloff.com, the official site maintained by Sara Karloff and other relatives.
Obviously, there is no way to summarize these three biographies, so I’ll just share a series of interesting and inspiring facts about Boris Karloff’s life and personality.
Karloff’s birth name was William Henry Pratt. He claimed his stage name “Karloff” was derived from Russian ancestors on his mother’s side of the family. However, all of the biographies I’ve read state that he was of Anglo-Indian heritage, and didn’t find evidence to support his claims of Russian ancestry.
Boris came from a long line of English diplomats. He was considered the black sheep of the family due to his lack of interest in adopting their profession.
He attempted to join the British military during World War I, but was rejected due to a heart murmur. He was also bow-legged and had a severe stutter and lisp.
Karloff started his acting career in the theater, and then performed in roughly 80 films before getting his “big break” as the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Before this role made him famous, he earned most of his income through hard labor, including ditch-digging.
Karloff was liberal in his political views. Biographer Cynthia Lindsay describes him as a “civil rights fighter.” Interestingly, despite being an advocate for all people, he never revealed his own East Indian heritage due to the racism of his time. When asked how he got his deep tan, he would give responses such as “Too much sun. Out of work, you know!”
He was one of the charter members of the Screen Actors Guild. SAG was founded because actors were forced to work in truly hazardous conditions at that time, and often for little pay. Karloff served as the director of SAG for multiple terms.
Karloff’s charitable work included dressing as Santa Claus and visiting a local hospital at Christmastime. In their excitement to see him, the children knocked over and trampled the large Christmas tree that decorated the children’s wing. Other charitable activities included renovating old churches and creating a fund to help young athletes.
Boris had a great love of animals, and cared for several dogs, chickens, turkeys, a cow, and a pet pig at his farmhouse. He also tended a vegetable farm and flower garden on his property. In the A&E documentary The Gentle Monster, one film historian went so far as to describe Karloff as the “St. Francis of Assisi of horror actors.” His other hobbies included playing soccer and cricket.
The sources I’ve read unanimously describe Karloff as an extraordinarily kind and gentle person, though the press seemed to have trouble reconciling his kind personality with his villainous film roles. Boris himself claimed negative social effects from being typecast: “I’m a quiet citizen, I have my home, my dogs and my orchids. I vote and pat little children on the head. What does it get me? Queer stares from strangers and even more unusual glances from friends. Every time I walk into a room, there is a noticeable lull in the merrymaking.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)
However, those who knew him reported a different perception. His wife Dorothy states that these roles were beneficial: “Before Boris began playing sinister parts…he was a much more irritable person than he ever has been since. Whether or not these roles give him the opportunity of purging himself of any latent streaks of malevolence he might ordinarily possess, I cannot say. But I do know that…he is a much sweeter person at home than before. He really is a lamb.” (Quoted in More Than a Monster.)
In a 1941 radio show, Boris referred to himself as “Cuddles Karloff,” which wasn’t inaccurate according to his friends. Cynthia Lindsay recalls, “I never thought of him as a ‘movie star,’ only as a woolly friend. And there is a tactile memory of him that is woolly, the good soft tweeds and the silvery gray hair that had always been shaved for some monstrous role and for which, as it grew furring in, he charged fifty cents a feel. In advance. (Beards were a dollar. They were rarer.)”
Former President Ronald Regan shared his memories of Karloff in a letter to Cynthia Lindsay as “one of the warmest, kindest, most gentle human beings I have ever met, and at all times a perfect gentleman… He had great, good common sense plus a sense of fairness typical of his great integrity.”