“I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive, that they have been unnoticed and unknown. Yet I believe that I met her first and most frequently in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe, “Ligeia”, 1838
These are the foreboding introductory lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “Ligeia”, first published in 1838. In 1964, actress Elizabeth Shepherd starred alongside Vincent Price in director Roger Corman’s film adaptation, Tomb of Ligeia. Born in London, England, Shepherd has enjoyed a long and illustrious career on both stage and screen. Her dual role as Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine and Lady Ligeia in Tomb of Ligeia remains a favorite among Poe enthusiasts. Elizabeth Shepherd has recently released a new dramatic reading of “Ligeia” on CD. Diabolique caught up with Elizabeth Shepherd to chat about her new CD and also reflect on the classic 1964 film.
DIABOLIQUE: Were you previously a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works before appearing in Tomb of Ligeia in 1964?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: Not like I am now. I knew who Edgar Allan Poe was. I’d never read “Ligeia”. I knew about “The Raven” and I think I knew about “The Fall of the House of Usher”. I knew Vincent Price from Laura. I really did not know Roger Corman and I didn’t know about this whole series of Poe films. So this was a whole new world for me. Of course the first thing I did was read the story.
DIABOLIQUE: At the time of the film’s premiere, did you foresee the enduring appeal of Tomb of Ligeia over fifty years later?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: Quite honestly I was still in England. I don’t even remember the opening. I had nothing to do with the big opening here (in the USA). I was in the process of maybe coming to America, but not yet. I just had a child, so I was a new mother and everything. I had no idea that it was no more than just another piece of work I did, which was interesting and new and I enjoyed it very much. If I’d had known then that Tomb of Ligeia would still be so much a part of my life till this very minute, I would have been amazed. I’m proud of the film. I think it’s stood the test of time very well. I felt it was good work because we had such a wonderful cast. We were surrounded by the crème de la crème of all the English character actors. We were like a little theatre company. But I had no idea that it was going to have this kind of life.
DIABOLIQUE: Robert Towne’s screenplay depicts Lady Rowena Trevanion as strong-willed and not easily deterred nor frightened. He really fleshed out the character of Rowena, putting her on equal footing with Verden Fell, as portrayed by Vincent Price. Were you originally pleased with the script?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: Well, when I first read the script I was outraged on behalf of Ligeia. Because, of course, Poe’s original story is all about Ligeia. She stars in the story. Rowena is just a sort of incidental, almost there like a vehicle for other things. Of course, there’s the opium also. During my next conversation with Roger Corman, I expressed this change in the whole way this story was being told and the fact Ligeia was now this evil in the background. Roger replied that it’s a wonderful story, but an opium dream is not very cinematic (laughing). Roger said he and Robert Towne had to find something else, and the key to the psychological side of the story. I absolutely agree the mesmerism, which was in period, was brilliant. The hypnotic spell Ligeia has put on Verden Fell, I bought that. The character he then created of Rowena, I loved very much. I accepted her. I think it was a very clever adaptation. It made sense in its own. It was a very emotional story and it was a love story. In this film, it’s really about the relationship of the key people with each other. It’s a wonderful story and I think that it’s still within the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.
DIABOLIQUE: I know you have been asked this countless times, but I’m sure our readers would love for you to share memories of co-starring with Vincent Price.
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: The way in which Robert Towne wrote the characters and relationship meant Vincent and I really had something very strong to get our teeth into. Vincent is such a brilliant classical actor. With my Shakespearean background also, we were both very at home in that really heightened situation. Vincent was such an attractive man, so handsome and arresting, and that voice. I mean, Rowena had absolutely no problem falling in love with Verden Fell! That long walk across the ruins, Vincent, bless his heart, picks me up as if I am as light as a feather. I was very impressed with that!
DIABOLIQUE: Castle Acre Priory is such a beautiful locale. How was filming on location for Tomb of Ligeia in the summer of 1964?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: It was perfect! Roger and Vincent had said how they dreamed of one day actually filming within a real ruin. So Roger went all around England, the English Heritage Trust sponsors all these heritage sites. He chose Castle Acre Priory which was perfect! The look of the film, which starts in the countryside with all the exterior of the ruin, was wonderful. Of course when he (Vincent) kicks open the door, we go inside and then we are in the studio. As you can see we had nice weather which was a blessing. I had a wonderful horse wrangler, Dorothy, and she instructed me in sidesaddle. I’m not a horsewoman at all but I felt enormously secure. Also, when it came to the costume…the second costume that I wear in the film was supposed to be my first…but I said to Roger, oh no, we have to have hunting red! So he agreed and that costume was added which of course is brilliant in the setting.
DIABOLIQUE: You have just released a brand new audio recording on CD of your reading of Poe’s “Ligeia”. How did the idea for this project originate?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: Well some time ago, Matt Beckoff (co-producer of the CD) had been organizing me going to conventions. I started a decade ago. I offered at a couple conventions that I would do a reading from the story. Matt, years ago, said I should do a recording of it. So the idea was in the air for ages and suddenly Matt said let’s just do it! Mark Redfield (co-producer), who has a recording company…I had met him and he is a Poe expert. So the three of us decided all right, let’s do it, so it all happened quite quickly then. So we decided we will do the whole story of “Ligeia” and put some poems in as well. Just make it entirely Edgar Allan Poe.
DIABOLIQUE: Your dramatic interpretation of “Ligeia” immediately draws the listener in and technically it sounds flawless. How many takes were involved in the studio recording process?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: Actually the recording itself was very quick. We did it all in just about two hours. So it was done almost like a piece of live theatre. More or less the first take all the time. There was a little bit of editing that had to be done. But more or less, I just sat down and did it.
DIABOLIQUE: You mention having previously performed live readings of Poe onstage at film conventions. Do you anticipate doing more live performances?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: Occasionally I would do readings. Obviously I would do more now. I’m enjoying it more and more because I do think that these stories are filled with drama. I think that they really come to life when it is spoken aloud. Although the narrator is a man (in the original short story), somehow because I have played Ligeia and know who she is inside me, I was able to somehow bring the spirit of Ligeia into it. Somehow it works. I must say I am very, very, very happy that the CD has turned out so well. It was just that the atmosphere as we did it was extremely positive. I’m so glad that people are enjoying it.
DIABOLIQUE: The conventions are a lot of fun for fans and guests alike. Do you enjoy the interaction with folks at these type of events?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: I love it! From the beginning when I first went I was so touched and amazed at the love that the fans have for these movies. It’s extremely gratifying. Because, you know, when you work on screen you never meet your audience. But now, through these conventions, you have a chance to meet the audience.
DIABOLIQUE: You have a unique opportunity to present the source literature of Poe to fans who may only be familiar with the cinematic adaptations. Do you plan interpreting other Poe stories in the future?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: They’re all wonderful stories. I’m thinking I should start looking at it. Vincent, of course, has done recordings of a lot of them. And I listened to Vincent as I was preparing my reading. It’s interesting that we are very different, but I think both, you know, in our own ways, are connected to the material.
DIABOLIQUE: I want to touch upon the additional Poe material you recite on the CD.
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: The content…Matt and Mark and I all talked about that and we all had our own ideas. Mark suggested “Annabel Lee” and “Romance”. I suggested “Elizabeth” and then found that other little poem, “To Elizabeth” (supposedly written for Elizabeth Herring, Poe’s cousin). “Romance” and “Elizabeth” are both about writing, which is interesting. People know “Annabel Lee” and they know “The Raven”, but they don’t know there are these exquisite other poems that he wrote. He was a tremendously sensitive man. A man who never benefited financially in his lifetime. He was a brilliant writer. The man was so at home with words. He obviously loved words. He loved writing. It flowed out of him. The intricacy of his sentences. As an actor, you know, you have to find maybe two or three different tones within one sentence. He’ll start a sentence, then he’ll go on a detour, and then maybe another detour, and then he’ll come back to where he started. You have to sort of lead the audience through that. Because the whole thing is so intense, I think that’s probably enough material (for this CD).
DIABOLIQUE: Themes of loneliness, melancholy, and romance are often present in Edgar Allan Poe’s works. He seems to explore the human condition in the guise of horror and mystery. Do you feel this gives Poe a timeless quality?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: Well, I feel there is a great deal in common between Shakespeare and Poe because the emotional stakes in the stories are high. And then it is expressed in this wonderfully heightened and intricate way using the language, the way language is crafted, so beautifully and so intricately to tell the story. The emotional tone of everything is very similar in both writers. Poe writes mystery and imagination from the heart…and often it’s a broken heart.
DIABOLIQUE: The photographs of you at the Poe sites in Baltimore are wonderful on the back cover of the CD.
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: It was a few years ago that I was at the Baltimore Center Stage doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses…and so I got in touch with the Edgar Allan Poe Society and made arrangements with them. I visited the gravesite and monument, and then the statue, which is in another place, and the house itself.
DIABOLIQUE: Are you planning special Poe events in conjunction with the release of the CD?
ELIZABETH SHEPHERD: What I’d want to do, and I’ve talked to Matt (Beckoff) about this, is to make arrangements with all the different Poe historic places and museums…to make the CD available and to also offer them readings so we can make it an event. As there are ardent fans of the films, there are also ardent fans of Poe’s life and literature, and we are on for doing special events for them.
DIABOLIQUE: Elizabeth, it was such an honor to chat with you about Tomb of Ligeia and your new audio recording. Thank you for sharing your time with Diabolique readers. Here’s wishing you much success on your CD and all future endeavors.
ELIZABETH: And thank you so much for doing this.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Ligeia – A Tale of Mystery and Imagination, Read by Elizabeth Shepherd is a Redfield Arts Audio production. The CD was produced by Matt Beckoff and Mark Redfield and recorded at Premier Studios, New York City.