A life of siz­ing up the stars

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

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

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