Sharon Tate, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford & Me

Someone else who was about to make the “big time” in 1965 was actress, Sharon Tate. Following her success in the much-hyped TV version of Jacqueline Suzann’s explosive novel, “Valley of the Dolls”, Sharon had just completed filming, “Eye of the Devil” with David Niven and Deborah Kerr.

Sharon Tate & David Niven
Sharon Tate & David Niven

Prior to the film’s release, Joe and I were invited to meet Sharon at the home of publicist Earl “Mr. Celebrity” Blackwell. Earl was known as the undisputed king of New York society. For the past two decades he had defined who was and who was not a true American celebrity. Since 1939 he had been printing a “Contact” book, available by subscription, containing the names and contact addresses of everyone who was anyone in the U.S. He also co-edited the Celebrity Register, in which every society-conscious New Yorker wanted to be included.

Earl lived on our doorstep, right opposite Carnegie Hall, on the southeast corner of 57th Street & 6th Avenue. His luxurious penthouse home, boasted a Mediterranean roof garden, Italian stone and marble sculptures, mature trees and water fountains. Stepping into the interior of Earl’s apartment was like stepping out of modern day New York and into an 18th century Etruscan villa, complete with terracotta tiles, stucco mouldings, mosaic floors and trompe l’oeil frescoes.

As Joe and I walked into Earl’s apartment that night there were, it seemed, around twenty men milling around just one very beautiful girl, Sharon Tate. The men were press agents, lawyers and financiers. All had a vested interest in making Sharon a major star.

Sharon Tate
Sharon Tate

As one of them told me somewhat crudely: “We put a lot of money in that girl. Now it’s pay back time!”

In my very English way I retorted, “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

I guess I still had a lot to learn about the way Hollywood works. My only brush with it so far had been a recent audition with the director, Joshua Logan. My friend, Sarah Dalton, and I had hoped to secure roles in his movie version of “Camelot” as the handmaidens of Guinevere.

From the start Josh had been the consummate gentleman. When deciding to reject us, he rose from behind his huge mahogany desk, shook our hands and said, “I’m very sorry, girls, but I can’t give either of you a role. You’ll both outshine my leading lady, Vanessa Redgrave. It wouldn’t do, would it, to surround her with girls more beautiful than her!”

So I was not used to these Hollywood thugs, these unrepentant “money men” exacting their pound of flesh. I hadn’t even met Sharon yet but I already felt sorry for her.

When Earl introduced us she smiled warmly. “I m so relieved to see another girl,“ she whispered, “I seem to be surrounded by men all the time these days.“

Although she looked as fragile and sweet as she always did on television, like some brittle porcelain doll, it was obvious the pressures of non-stop appearances, photo opportunities and publicity interviews were already beginning to take their toll on her.

“It’s a big step for me,” she sighed. “We fly to LA tomorrow and then they tell me my life’s going to be crazy after that. As if it isn’t already!”

“Aren’t you looking forward to it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, wrinkling her nose seductively, “I really don’t. One moment I think it’s all thrilling and I can’t believe it’s happening to me and the next, well…sometimes I just want…” Her voice trailed off.

“It won’t be that bad,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “They’re not all vultures out there. In fact I’ve heard that some of them can be quite human!” I told her my about my recent meeting with Josh Logan.

Josh Logan
Josh Logan

Sharon laughed. “I hope you’re right, Caroline, but most of them aren’t like that, sadly. They’re hideous, really they are. They’ll probably chew me up and spit me out – like they do with everyone else.”

“I’m sure you can handle them, darling,” Joe said, patting her sympathetically on the back as one of the press agents appeared from nowhere, grabbed her arm and whisked her off to introduce her to yet another hovering journalist.

As Sharon left us, she turned and whispered in my ear, “I just hope I’ll remember what it was like to be me.” “You will,” I reassured her, “I’m sure you will.”

As we left Earl’s apartment I went over to Sharon to say goodbye and wish her luck.

“I’ll need it, lots of it,” she smiled. “Thanks for coming. Perhaps we’ll meet up again when I get back to New York and I’ll tell you how it’s been.”

“It’s a date, “ I said. “Good luck. “ There could be no way any of us that night could have anticipated the gruesome fate that awaited her. And, when the appalling tragedy did occur just four years later, it was hard for me not to reflect on our very brief conversation and hope that Sharon had found, at least, some brief happiness with her husband, the bad-boy film director, Roman Polanski.

Joe and I were in Earl’s apartment again some weeks later. As we were chatting his telephone rang. He answered it and carried on a short conversation.

”That was Cary Grant,” Earl informed us as he replaced the receiver. “I’ve invited him over – he’s at the Plaza.”

Earl summoned Chang, his Chinese chauffeur.

“Now,” he addressed Chang, speaking very slowly, “I w-a-n-t y-o-u t-o g-o t-o t-h-e P-l-a-z-a H-o-t-e-l a-n-d p-ic-k u-p M-i-s-t-e-r C-a-r-y G-r-a-n-t. He’ll be waiting for you, OK?”

The chauffeur shrugged his shoulders. It was obvious he didn’t understand a word except, perhaps, the name of the Plaza Hotel.

“C-a-r-y G-r-a-n-t, you must know him,” Earl went on.

Again the bewildered Chang shrugged his shoulders.

“Cary Grant” Earl emphasized, “the famous movie star? You must have seen his films!” It was obvious Earl was beginning to lose his patience. The chauffeur’s face remained impassive. Exasperated, Earl wrote down Cary Grant’s name in capitals on a piece of paper and handed it to him.

“Well, it doesn’t matter, Chang,” he said, nudging the driver towards the door, “just go to the Plaza Hotel. Mr. Grant will be waiting for you in the lobby. I’m sure when you see him you’ll recognize him. OK?”

“OK!” Chang beamed, “I go. I find, gentleman. You not worry, Sir! “ Chang grabbed the note and left.

Half an hour later the apartment door opened and Cary Grant walked in. I was eager to know whether Chang had, in fact, recognized him immediately or not.

“We’re dying to know, what happened when Chang picked you up.” I said.

Cary Grant
Cary Grant

“Oh, it was fine,” Grant laughed, “I was standing in the lobby waiting for him anyway. And, as soon as he saw me he flung his arms into the air, grinned from ear to ear and said, “Oh, Mr. Kelly Glant why didn’t Mr. Brackwerr tell me it was you!!” Then he asked me to autograph the piece of paper for him!”

A week later Joe and I lunched with Earl at our favourite health food bar on 57th Street, just below his apartment.

“Look what I’ve got!” Earl grinned as he reached into his pocket. He extracted a telegram and handed it to us to read. It said: “Dear Err Brackwerr. Thanks for a wonderful evening. See you again when I’m next in New York. Signed, Kelly Glant.”

On another occasion Earl accompanied Joe and me to dinner with Joan Crawford in her sumptuous Park Avenue apartment. Joan had just completed filming on “I Saw What You Did”, a thriller where she played a murderous old woman, Amy Nelson, plagued by teenage pranksters.

I was curious to meet Joan since I considered that, although she had an unequalled tendency to be melodramatic, she was, without doubt, one of the great actresses of her generation. But I was totally unprepared for the evening that awaited us.

Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford

It was obvious from the start that dinner with Joan Crawford would be no ordinary affair. A maid ushered the three of us into the living room. I only needed one swift glance around me to realize that the entire room was white. Joan, dressed in an impeccable white V-neck cardigan over a neat white pencil skirt, was sitting bolt upright on a white sofa There was even a white ceramic bowl containing white tulips placed on top of the white grand piano.. And everything, including photographs, paintings and furniture, was covered in sheets of clear plastic. This, I learned later from Earl, was how Joan Crawford always entertained. She didn’t want any of her guests to make a mess. Surprisingly for someone who was obviously so hygiene conscious, Joan was smoking a cigarette in a long, white holder. I extended my hand, as Joe introduced us but, evidently fearing the transfer of germs, she chose to ignore it so I was forced to withdraw it, hoping no one had noticed.

“Charming,” the trademark bright scarlet lips parted briefly into a smile as she surveyed me up and down. “Won’t you sit down, dear – Caroline is it?” She patted the plastic covered seat beside her. “Earl tells me you’re from London?”

The smile, I decided, was not genuine. It was the smile of someone long accustomed to adapting her mood and character for the benefit of a film camera, an interviewer or an audience.

“I adore London,” she went on, taking a sip of neat vodka, “I love your theatrical tradition but, my dear, the theatres are so….” she paused to think for a suitable adjective, “so ancient. Most of them should be torn down or replaced, wouldn’t you say? I mean they’re falling apart! It’s a disgrace!”

“The English like them that way,” I replied frostily, “we think it gives them character.” I thought I better change the subject.

I shifted uncomfortably on the plastic covered sofa and asked somewhat foolishly, “Are you redecorating here?” Joan arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow, “Now why would I want to do that, dear? I like it just the way it is!”

Earl Blackwell and Joan Crawford
Earl Blackwell and Joan Crawford

Silly me. I had fallen into a trap – and I hadn’t seen it coming. “I just thought because of the…the…” I stuttered, picking up the plastic sheeting and waving it limply in front of me. I immediately regretted pursuing the subject. I felt my cheeks burning. I looked across at Joe for moral support but he and Earl were smiling, seeming to enjoy every minute of my discomfort. Right then I could have killed them both for not warning me. I decided I had no alternative but to prolong the joke, even at my own expense.

“I think you’re absolutely right,” I said to Joan, trying to keep a straight face, “I’ve always loved white. And what a brilliant idea you have to keep it clean. One day when I get my own house I think I’ll do the same.”

To my surprise and relief that seemed to do the trick. Joan was completely taken in and she went on to expound the visual, spiritual and emotional virtues of the colour white.

“Visually white is unassuming, inoffensive and harmonious,” she explained. “Spiritually it’s uplifting, uncomplicated and pure. And emotionally it’s quiet, gentle and balancing.”

I wondered if she was quoting from her favourite script, from a Hollywood clairvoyant or from her interior designer. “Yes,” I agreed, and added a little cheekily, “I read that somewhere too!”

Joan gave me a withering look. This, I thought, was a good start to a dinner party. Earl butted in, trying to salvage the situation.

“We went to the opening of “The Glass Menagerie” the other night, Joan dear. Did you see it yet?” He was referring to the twentieth anniversary production of Tennessee Williams’s play, starring Maureen Stapleton.

Joan waved her arm disparagingly, “Earl, dear, you know me – and you should know how I feel about him and his plays!” She pronounced the word “him” with evident disgust.

I had no idea what she was on about. The way she spoke the words sounded petulant and dismissive as though she either hated Tennessee Williams personally or his plays professionally or, indeed, both. Pity, I thought, since, unlike many contemporary playwrights, he wrote particularly strong female roles, most of which were totally “off-the-wall” and would have suited Joan’s melodramatic talents admirably.

“It was a wonderful production,” I said defensively. “I love almost all his plays and Maureen Stapleton was excellent as Amanda.”

“No doubt,” Joan replied icily, removing the cigarette from its holder and stubbing it out fiercely in the ashtray.

I sensed that Joan didn’t like any form of competition and that a compliment about another actress’s work was immediately translated into a threat to her own acting abilities.

The maid came to the door at that moment and announced that dinner was ready. If I was expecting to be ushered into a white dining room I was about to be disappointed. The maid disappeared for a minute and then reappeared pushing a trolley in front of her. I saw then we were going to eat off our laps. This, perhaps, helped to explain the plastic on the chairs. Joan handed us huge white cotton napkins which we draped them over our knees. And the maid handed round plates of homemade sandwiches. I half expected a television to be turned on so we could enjoy a TV dinner but realized there was no television set in the room. The laboured conversation would have to continue.

Joe came to the rescue. ”Earl tells me you don’t entertain too often, Joan?”

She sighed theatrically, “It’s difficult in my business. I have too little time to myself. And the children need me when I’m at home.”

Children? Apart from us, the apartment appeared to be empty. I wondered where she kept them.

“Are your children here?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, but I always make sure they’re in bed by 6pm. I need some time alone, you understand. And, when I have friends around I don’t want the children to disturb them.”

I wanted to tell her I would have much preferred to be momentarily “disturbed” by her children than by the persistent discomfort of her plastic sofa cover that, on this hot summer night, was becoming increasingly clammy on the thighs.

For once I was very relieved when Joe announced we had to proceed to another party. We made a hasty getaway, leaving Joan perched on her plastic-covered sofa, inhaling a cigarette and pouring herself another vodka.

I think I’d had so much pent up embarrassment during the evening that, once in the elevator, I started giggling hysterically. “The woman is completely insane!” I blurted out, clutching my sides. “How can she live like that?”

“Same condition as Howard Hughes,” Earl explained, “simply terrified of germs!”

“You must admit it was worth it, though,” Joe pointed out, “you’ll be able to dine out on that yarn for a while.”

Joan Crawford and Christina Crawford
Joan Crawford and Christina Crawford

Poor kids, that’s all I could think of. “Just imagine,“ I giggled, “what it must be like having a mother like her! Perfectly tailored clothes. Perfectly manicured nails. Perfectly mascaraed eyes. Perfectly pencilled eyebrows! Perfectly painted lips! And a perfectly primed ego to match. Can you think of anything worse?”

It certainly came as no surprise almost a decade later when her adopted daughter, Christina, published a “kiss and tell” book about life with Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest”. I doubted if there was enough room in Joan’s house for two stubborn, strongheaded and wilful women.

3 thoughts on “Sharon Tate, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford & Me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s