A life of sizing up the stars
The star who comes off worst is one OrryKelly was never paid to dress, but whose rise to fame and riches mirrored his own. Sailing to New York in 1921 after several years living hand-to-mouth in Sydney, Orry-Kelly was soon making good money selling hand-printed shawls and ties. One winter evening a stranger walked into the gated courtyard of his studio in Greenwich Village. His name was Archie Leach. ‘‘He was carrying a little two-foot-square shiny black tin box which held all his worldly possessions, and he was wearing a much shinier black suit. He had been locked out of his hall bedroom. I took him in.’’
In New York the often unemployed Leach helped him with his hand-printed ties while Orry-Kelly began painting the nightclub murals that became his calling card for the movies. Leach, meanwhile, became Cary Grant. In rough times the two relied on money sent from Australia by Orry-Kelly’s mother. Orry-Kelly says lent cash without thinking, but when the tables were turned, the successful Grant insisted on repayment down to the last cent.
During World War II, Orry-Kelly applied to join the US Army. At the aptitude test he was informed that his IQ ‘‘was the lowest out of 1700 men stationed at St Petersburg’’. The army took him anyway, and the man who had dressed Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth spent most of his war digging latrines. ‘‘ My short stay in the regular army made me regain values,’’ he writes.
Grant cannily avoided service by schmoozing the British ambassador, Lord Lothian, and boasting about it. ‘‘I could see now that Grant had gone to the point of no return,’’ writes Orry-Kelly. His loss of respect for his former friend and lover strikes a rare note of regret in a book — and a life — in which he seems to have had few misgivings. There was a reconciliation of sorts: in 1964, Grant was one of the pallbearers at Orry-Kelly’s funeral.
In his introduction, Orry-Kelly insists he is ‘‘not particularly literary. The biggest dunce in my class, there was no one worse in English.’’ He may not have been literary, but he could certainly write. As befits the memoir of a great dresser, his book is beautifully designed and illustrated. The end papers are a treat.
There is much to enjoy in his Hollywood tales, but the book’s most deeply felt and vividly recalled sections relate to the streets of east Sydney and New York during and after the World War I, when the young Orry-Kelly was living by his wits, befriending prostitutes, gamblers and bootleggers (he briefly ran a speakeasy) while trying to find his way as an artist.
Gentleman George, with his ‘‘too light grey suit … black patent leather shoes with grey suede uppers and mother-of-pearl buttons’’, Minnie the Toad, Port Wine Pansy, Spanish Nell, Rosie Boot and the sly grogger Alice O’Grady fly off the early pages with an energy and conviction that none of the Hollywood stars in the later chapters can match. OrryKelly’s pen portraits bring the city and the period pungently to life: The Two-Shilling Girl was standing with one foot on the pavement and the other foot on her doorstep. Her cheap, gaudy wrapover exposed the half moons of her irregular sagging breasts and emphasised the large button of her navel. She wore broken-down faded turquoise satin shoes with diamond buckles and rolled stockings. A drunk approached; she called out, ‘‘Ello, dearie, ’ows’s about comin’ in fer a good time?’’ He paused for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and staggered away.
Did Orry-Kelly really remember every detail of that scene, or had he spent too long in the movies? I’m not sure I care.
is an author and critic.
Orry-Kelly, left, dresses Tony Curtis for his role in Some Like It Hot