Joan’s lost boy

A fa­ther hooked on sex and drugs. A mother in thrall to Tin­sel­town. And a child­hood ru­ined by the ‘mon­ster called show­biz’. No ac­count of be­ing raised by fa­mous par­ents is as haunt­ing as a new book by Joan Collins’s artist son...

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT - by Alexan­der New­ley

SUM­MER 1967. I am aged two in a pho­to­graph taken in the gar­den at 1106 Sum­mit Drive, our home in Bene­dict Canyon, Los An­ge­les. My sis­ter Tara, then aged three, and I are in match­ing out­fits astride my fa­ther’s back; he’s on his hands and knees in white pants and a sailor jersey. My mother is mouth-wa­ter­ing in a wa­ter­melon-pink house dress and berib­boned beehive.

For this one mo­ment, ev­ery­thing is per­fect. Tony New­ley, the Cock­ney fire­brand, has met his match and found com­ple­tion in fiery Joan Collins. But it’s a lie.

A year later, it would all be over. My fa­ther would be liv­ing in his of­fice hav­ing his tawdry af­fair with the au­to­mo­bile heiress Char­lotte Ford. My mother would be hav­ing hers with the record pro­ducer Ron Kass, and con­sid­er­ing a move back to Eng­land.

When I look back at the bro­ken sto­ry­line of my child­hood, I see that the chief cul­prit was an ogre called Show Busi­ness. It yanked my help­less fa­ther and my mother back and forth be­tween Eng­land and Amer­ica: Broad­way, Hol­ly­wood and the West End.

My par­ents were both en­slaved by the mon­ster’s de­mands. It gave them no se­cu­rity but kept them in the pre­car­i­ous state of want­ing and need­ing the phone call from the agent with the next big gig – the only thing be­tween them and obliv­ion. As a child, I could feel their in­se­cu­rity and knew their fo­cus was else­where, not on me.

My par­ents ar­rived in Hol­ly­wood in the mid-1960s. My fa­ther was fresh from his Broad­way mega­suc­cess, The Roar Of The Grease­paint – The Smell Of The Crowd. This was my mother’s sec­ond foray into Tin­sel­town. Her first, in the 1950s, had been all happy aban­don. She had cap­tured the hearts of the golden boys: Mar­lon Brando, Harry Be­la­fonte and War­ren Beatty, by whom she be­came preg­nant.

This time around she was joined to the man of the hour Tony New­ley. She was a wife and mother – roles for which she wasn’t ex­actly type­cast but which she worked hard at none­the­less. Her hus­band was as im­pos­si­ble as he was fab­u­lous. Ev­ery­one wanted a piece of that ac­tion. And there was plenty to go round. Like ev­ery­one else, my mother was madly in love with him. But, un­like ev­ery­one else, she had to live with him day in and day out. He was with­drawn. He was prickly. He was a hypochon­driac. But worst of all, he was fla­grantly un­faith­ful.

Nowa­days he’d be tidily la­belled a sex ad­dict. He de­pended on the prom­ise of an af­ter-show tryst with a star­let or groupie to get him through the grind of a per­for­mance. He lived to screw. He had been hon­est with my mother about his ap­petite for young girls and said he would change but she mar­ried him any­way.

They be­came the Brangelina of the day. Only Bur­ton and Tay­lor out­peered them. They first met in Lon­don, back­stage af­ter a per­for­mance of Stop The World – I Want To Get Off, my fa­ther’s first trail­blaz­ing mu­si­cal. My mother was on Robert Wag­ner’s arm that night, and RJ’s [Wag­ner’s nick­name] heart must have sunk as he quickly re­alised New­ley had de­signs on his date. Who wouldn’t have? She was the to­tal pack­age: sexy, beau­ti­ful and bright, with an un­der­ly­ing shy­ness to her charisma.

As my fa­ther was hell­bent on se­duc­ing any and ev­ery beau­ti­ful woman he hap­pened across, he im­me­di­ately sug­gested to RJ that they all go to din­ner. There he launched into a full-scale charm of­fen­sive, squeez­ing RJ’s arm in a ges­ture of broth­erly com­pan­ion­ship even as his eyes bur­rowed deep into the sac­ri­fi­cial maiden.

Hu­mour was the weapon he used to soften all re­sis­tance, so that the work of se­duc­tion could be­gin in earnest. I’m sure RJ en­joyed him­self, laugh­ing all the way to ir­rel­e­vancy. My mother knew, as she kissed my fa­ther lightly good­night, that some­thing ir­rev­o­ca­ble had hap­pened.

Af­ter his movie Doc­tor Dolit­tle – now con­sid­ered a clas­sic – was a flop on its first re­lease and with no movie work on tap, he marked time in Las Ve­gas do­ing cabaret. The mob ran Cae­sars Palace where he head­lined and, af­ter one mega-suc­cess­ful en­gage­ment, the boys up­stairs asked my fa­ther what he would like by way of a present. ‘A choco­late­brown E-Type Jaguar would be nice,’ he replied offhand­edly. On clos­ing night, rolling on from stage left, came a spank­ing-new E-Type Jag, choco­late as spec­i­fied, tied with a big red rib­bon. To my hor­ror, he sold it a week later to Tony Cur­tis, com­plain­ing: ‘The steer­ing’s too tight.’ It was life it­self that was too tight to fit him com­fort­ably.

My mother failed to un­der­stand his help­less mor­bid suf­fer­ings. His ex­treme com­plex­ity made her feel lost and alone in the mar­riage. Like him, she pos­sessed no mid­dle set­ting, no com­mon touch to heal over the chasms in un­der­stand­ing. They co­hab- ited the big house but they rarely lived to­gether. My fa­ther pre­ferred to re­pair to his study over the garage, where he could noo­dle with songs, dream his dreams, pop his pills, and smoke his dope. My mother had her gay friends who were al­ways up for an­other long night. She was rarely sick and rarely tired. He was a com­mit­ted nap­per and hypochon­driac. She was for­ever at the door try­ing to en­tice him to come out but he would just shake his head: ‘You go, flower. Have a won­der­ful time. And re­mem­ber… start a trend!’

She took him lit­er­ally and started sev­eral: knee-high white boots, bangle ear­rings, rak­ish bob hair­cuts. She was a comet, a whirl­wind, an It Girl. He didn’t really know or even dimly ap­pre­ci­ate what he had in her.They ar­gued all the time about her ca­reer, which she rightly felt she was sac­ri­fic­ing for him. Her best friends, such as Natalie Wood and Dyan Can­non, the for­mer wife of Cary Grant – inar­guably less mag­netic and gor­geous than my mother – were sit­ting in make-up chairs at 20th Cen­tury Fox while she was sit­ting at home.

Re­sent­ment reigned un­til they came to a silly com­pro­mise: she would find an­other out­let for her cre­ative en­er­gies in in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion. It was some­thing, he laughed, that she could do from home. Their house was sub­jected to a to­tal makeover, as were sev­eral of her friends’ places.

She threw a dizzy­ing round of par­ties, which on any given night might have fea­tured Natalie Wood, Rat Pack mem­ber Peter Law­ford and Paul New­man and Joanne Wood­ward deep in con­ver­sa­tion with Sammy Davis Jr.

One night, I fell face-down in the pool, sink­ing. My mother screamed and the party froze. My fa­ther ran to the res­cue. He jumped in and splashed out to save me.

Back at pool­side, I vom­ited wa­ter and started bawl­ing. My mother col­lapsed with a brandy into Paul New­man’s arms.

For my fa­ther’s 37th birth­day, in Septem­ber 1968, the ex­tremely sexy, truly great, near-great and once-great all du­ti­fully pull up.

It’s Bar­bra Streisand’s turn to take the mic: ‘Tony is very im­por­tant to me,’ she says. ‘Let me tell you how much. Newleee… peo­ple who need Newleee… are the LUCK-i-est peo­ple in the world.’

My mother’s an­ten­nae quiver; her eyes go to quick-zoom on her ogling hus­band. She will later dis­sect the mo­ment in her mem­oir Past Im­per­fect: ‘Some­thing in the way Tony looked at her while she was singing this made my fem­i­nine in­tu­ition kick in with, “He’s been to bed with her – I’m sure he has.”’

Mum was the full pack­age: sexy, bright and beau­ti­ful It hit theatres with an X rat­ing – the crit­ics hated it

DRUGS had be­come key in my

fa­ther’s new mood of trippy op­ti­mism. He used them to con­sole him­self af­ter the bro­ken prom­ises of Dolit­tle and Sweet Novem­ber, his film with Sandy Den­nis. He de­cided to cre­ate his own movie. His de­but project: Can Heirony­mus Merkin Ever For­get Mercy Humppe And Find True Hap­pi­ness? It was a tes­ta­ment to the un­bri­dled sin­ful­ness of his sex life and was a holy mess.

Sev­eral ac­tresses passed on the part of Polyester Poon­tang un­til the pro­ducer gamely sug­gested: ‘Why not Joan?’ So my mother du­ti­fully read the script and, God bless her, was dis­gusted. In Alexis Car­ring­ton guise, she would have cut off my fa­ther’s c*** and salved the wound with vine­gar; but this was a full two decades be­fore her in­ven­tion of the uber-bitch who took no pris­on­ers.

By the win­ter of 1968, the New­ley fam­ily, such as it was, was in Lon­don for pre-pro­duc­tion. Heirony­mus hit theatres in 1969 with an X rat­ing. My fa­ther had pri­vately screened it be­fore­hand for a num­ber of friends and the re­sponse was en­cour­ag­ing – Ro­man Polan­ski, for one, ate it up. But the crit­ics slaugh­tered it: New­ley was no more than a self-in­dul­gent poseur and con­man. My fa­ther was dev­as­tated. He felt he’d given ev­ery­thing.

Home­life was never the same. My fa­ther with­drew more and more into him­self. My mother fret­ted and de­spaired. Her mar­riage, she now re­alised, was a sor­did joke. They would stay to­gether ‘for the sake of the chil­dren’ but it was all just a con­trac­tual show of guilt be­fore the dirty deed of di­vorce. Nei­ther one of them could ever change. What she could have be­come to him is un­clear; his be­sot­ted mother per­haps, who looked the other way ev­ery time he strayed and was al­ways there for him when he came slink­ing home. But she’d been a will­ing fool for love long enough and it was time to wake up. She knew there was no fu­ture with Tony and that she had bet­ter make her own.

By au­tumn 1969, when I was not quite four, Ron Kass was pay­ing reg­u­lar vis­its to the house now that my fa­ther was liv­ing full-time at his of­fice. My fa­ther later con­fessed to me that on Christ­mas Eve that year, he parked out­side, went up to a win­dow and peeked in­side. There we were, lift­ing and shak­ing our presents. My mother smiled wanly at our plea­sure as my fa­ther watched through fogged glass – the blessed scene amount­ing to a stake in his heart. He turned and walked off, leav­ing a shrink­ing stain of breath on the win­dow glass to sym­bol­ise his care.

A few days af­ter my fourth birth­day, I am push­ing my Tonka toy across the pa­tio when I hear him, call­ing me in­side. Mummy and Tara are al­ready sit­ting there. Daddy plunks me down next to Tara and takes his seat next to Mummy and the two of them hold hands.

‘Mummy and I have some­thing to tell you that isn’t easy. We’ve been think­ing about this for a long time. We love you both more than any­thing in the world and what we are do­ing has noth­ing to do with you. The fact is Mummy and Daddy don’t know how to live to­gether any more. We fight too much and we don’t like to fight. We want you to know how much we love you but we can’t be to­gether any more in the same house. Mummy and Daddy are get­ting a di­vorce, which means we’ll live in dif­fer­ent houses but we’re still your Mummy and Daddy. And we al­ways will be. D’you un­der­stand?’

Tara nods and tries not to cry. I suck my thumb and say: ‘Can I go back and play now?’

I don’t re­mem­ber mov­ing to Lon­don. My mother’s flat was about the size of the maid’s quar­ters at our old house. When my mother first met him in Los An­ge­les, Ron Kass was work­ing for MGM Records. By the time we moved, he was rid­ing high at Ap­ple Records, pro­duc­ing The Bea­tles’ fi­nal two al­bums. He badly wanted to marry Joan Collins. My mother re­sisted, pre­fer­ring not to im­pose an­other fa­ther on us so soon af­ter the trauma of di­vorce, but she did con­sent to move in with him at his lav­ish Geor­gian town­house in May­fair. My mother soon helped him restyle it into a party pad, com­plete with a psy­che­delic base­ment lined with pleated fab­ric like a ma­haraja’s tent and filled with Bea­tles mem­o­ra­bilia.

Paul Mc­Cart­ney and Ringo Starr came to the house but I don’t re­mem­ber John Len­non or George Har­ri­son there. When my mother bumped into Len­non at The Bea­tles’ pro­duc­tion of­fices in Abbey Road, he flirted out­ra­geously with her, con­fess­ing that he’d had a pin-up of her in his room ‘as a lad’. She was present at what would turn out to be their last con­cert, un­aware that this was the end not only of an era but of Ron’s gain­ful em­ploy­ment. But while it lasted, Ron’s stint at Ap­ple gave us an im­preg­nable base in Lon­don and my mother con­structed her ex­trav­a­gant life around him.

One day we all go to Ringo Starr’s house. He tells me about the time a fire­work he let off in the gar­den looped the loop and came back into the house, set­ting it on fire.

At week­ends we go to Aun­tie Jackie’s [Jackie Collins]. She lives at the top of a sky­scraper. The sil­ver el­e­va­tor doors slide open like in Star Trek. She wears blue jeans and

She’d been a fool too long – it was time to wake up

a big brass belt just like Mummy. In her bath­room there’s an ex­er­cise ma­chine with a strap that goes around you and makes the fat wob­ble off.

Life with Ron was geared to­ward en­ter­tain­ing. His May­fair home was a few turns away from Doug Hay­ward’s lux­ury men’s tai­lor­ing shop. The town­house soon be­came the go-to pad for Doug’s A-list cus­tomers and their equally glam­orous girls.I was al­lowed to stay up late and watch the guests ar­rive. Dodi Fayed slinked through the den in his ma­roon Hay­ward cash­mere, young and slim, fresh to the Lon­don scene at 23. He was fol­lowed by Pe­dro Ro­driguez, a For­mula 1 driver. Michael and Shakira Caine, Roger and Luisa Moore, Peter Sell­ers and Britt Ek­land were all reg­u­lars, as was Johnny Gold, the larger-than-life man­ager of Mummy and Ron’s beloved Tramp night­club.

With my mother on his arm, Ron was the hap­pi­est bloke in Lon­don. I heard him laugh­ing and knew he was hold­ing her and look­ing at her with sparkling eyes. I never saw Daddy do that.

As a step­fa­ther, Ron was a non­event. He had walked out on a wife and three sons in Switzer­land, drop­ping them whole­sale for my mother and was in no moral po­si­tion to fa­ther the son of an­other man.

My mother was fly­ing blind with Ron. She hadn’t taken the nec­es­sary alone time to know her­self – or Ron – be­fore the next plunge. The need for a con­stant male pres­ence in her life was in all like­li­hood a bad habit trace­able to her fa­ther – the emo­tion­ally glacial and self-im­por­tant the­atri­cal agent Joe Collins – who rarely gave his per­fect lit­tle daugh­ter the time of day. Ev­ery re­la­tion­ship there­after be­came a quest for the fa­ther’s love. But the old man wasn’t lis­ten­ing; he’d long ago left the the­atre, in­dif­fer­ent to his daugh­ter’s act­ing out.

Mum and Ron’s mar­riage took place in Ja­maica in Oc­to­ber 1972. Tara and I were not in­vited. Shortly af­ter­wards, Mum an­nounced she was preg­nant.

Katyana Kennedy Kass was born in June 1972.

Over­come by pa­ter­nal feel­ing, Ron tried to mend re­la­tions with the chil­dren he’d aban­doned in Switzer­land. They joined us at Christ­mas and for sum­mer hol­i­days in Spain: three sullen boys who spoke mostly Ital­ian and re­sented us for stealing their fa­ther.

My mother’s Christ­mas card that year shows us all by the pool of our hol­i­day villa in Mar­bella: five be­wil­dered chil­dren, two fe­ro­ciously smil­ing adults, one cra­dled baby. ‘Christ­mas is a time for kids,’ reads the card. ‘Have some of ours!’ © Alexan­der New­ley, 2017

Unac­com­pa­nied Mi­nor: A Mem­oir, by Alexan­der New­ley, is pub­lished by Quar­tet on Novem­ber 30 at €29.

sHAr­InG THE sPoT­LIGHT: Alexan­der with Joan in 1983

BRO­KEN DREAMS: Joan Collins with Alexan­der and Tara in Lon­don in 1969, the year she sep­a­rated from their fa­ther, An­thony New­ley

‘PER­FECT MO­MENT’: Alexan­der New­ley’s 2007 paint­ing of a fam­ily pho­to­graph taken in the gar­den of their Los An­ge­les home in 1967

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