Saturday, 21 April 2018

Remembering Gracie Fields





Gracie, with Maurice Chevalier and Patachou

In 1994, I was working on Morrissey: Landscapes of the Mind, and repeated in a BBC radio interview what Morrissey had said about our beloved Queen Mother...how when, on the occasion of her 85th birthday, he had watched a television news bulletin of the vast crowd outside Clarence House. Quoth Mozza, "If the woman had died, there would have been less. And I would have been hammering the nails in her coffin to make sure she stayed there!"

Just weeks later, a letter arrived from Clarence House. Where the Queen Mother had got my address from I shall never know. Usually when anyone wanted to contact me, they sent a letter to one of my publishers, and they forwarded it on to me. I deliberated over opening it, half-expecting it to contain a writ. It didn't. It was a very nice little missive from the Queen Mother, no mention whatsoever about Morrissey and my radio show. She had been told, and again I have no idea how she found out, that I was writing a biography of Gracie Fields, and asked me to keep her informed of its progress. 




The book was published in July 1995, when I was given the "semi-freedom" of Rochdale. The launch took place at the Town Hall, and was televised and broadcast simultaneously on the radio. 


The Mayor presided over the event, and the guest-of-honour should have been the MP, Cyril Smith. He sent a last minute apology, saying that something urgent had cropped up at one of his boys' clubs. Bearing in mind that he was later identified as a paedophile, one does not have to ponder too hard what he might have meant by that. The other guests included my friends John and Anne Taylor (Gracie's closest friends), Mary Whipp (her childhood friend) and two broadcaster friends, Richard Whiteley and Frank Wappatt. The evening went well.



The book received massive radio, television and press coverage. Later, I would make two documentaries for the BBC about Gracie. Two major newspapers serialised it, one calling Gracie "The Madonna of Her Day", which was going a little too far, just because she had a clutch of relationships while married. In the midst of all this, I had sent a copy of the book to Clarence House, and received a really kind thank-you letter from the Queen Mother. She was enjoying my book immensely, she said. Gracie had always been her favourite entertainer.

When the Queen Mother passed away, I received a letter from Buckingham Palace, with the Queen thanking me for my kindness towards her mother, and for the tribute I had done for BBC radio. A few years later, I learned that another of my books held pride of place on the royal shelves...George Formby: Troubled Genius. That, as they say, is another story.

There have been three editions of Gracie Fields: the hard-back and paperback editions, and a large-print edition. The Kindle edition is to be published later this year.










Sunday, 15 April 2018

Remembering Clark Gable


Remembering Clark Gable...
Shortly after I published Clark Gable: Tormented Star, a Rudolph Valentino fanatic got in touch with Judy Lewis, the illegitimate daughter of Gable and Loretta Young. Ms. Lewis took great exception to some of the things I had written about her father, including a piece about his "gay-for-pay" period, within which I quoted directly from Joan Crawford.

I was not the first to repeat the anecdote of how Joan claimed that the silents star William Haines had told her that, such was his desire to get into films, young Clark submitted to Billy's charms in the mensroom at the Bevery Hills Hotel. This was repeated to George Cukor, the director of Gone With The Wind, who himself had been intimate with Haines, nicknamed "Lavender Lips" because he is reputed to have given the best blow-job in Hollywood. Such was Gable's fear of Cukor outing him that he had him fired from the film.

Ms. Lewis was fuming. She had known her father her whole life, she said, and could attest to the fact that he was a "normal man". In other words, in her bigoted opinion, gay men were not normal.

Neither had she known her father her whole life. She met Gable once, with her mother, and only learned that he was her father on the eve of her wedding, some years after his death. She called me "a bastard", which I guess was rich coming from someone who was very definitely born on the wrong side of the blanket. She also called me insensitive, among other things, and speculated about what people might write about me after my death.

I told her, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!"

Whoosh, dozens of one-star reviews from people with very odd-sounding names began appearing on the social media sites...not so strangely the same names that had slammed my Valentino book. Then Ms. Lewis offered the supreme insult by cashing in her chips on 25 November 2011. This was the anniversary of the death of one very famous gay man she had mocked, Freddie Mercury, and the eve of the anniversary of another gay man who holds a very special place in my heart, Joey Stefano, also hammered by Ms. Lewis.

I ask you! If the lady had any decency at all, she would have curled her toes before or after this date! And those one-star reviews made not one iota of difference, for by the time they appeared, Tormented Star had already entered the 6-figure sales bracket and has rarely been out of the Top 200 in the ten years since his release.

To Ms. Lewis, and on behalf of Clark, Freddie and Joey, I say a heartfelt thank you! I will not include a picture of you, because you do not deserve this.






















Friday, 13 April 2018

Twenty Years On, Remembering Dorothy Squires, A Great And Much-Missed Friend.





In my opinion, Dot was the greatest female singer Britain has ever had. She was what the French call a chanteuse-réaliste, in the tradition of Piaf, Damia and Barbara. She sang about the triumphs and tragedies of life because she had been there. Piaf admired her so much that wrote a special arrangement of "If You Love Me, Really Love Me" for her. Barbara admired her, and gave me permission to adapt "La solitude" into English for her. 



Dot had lovers, but only one man really counted in her life: the actor Roger Moore, who used her as a stepping-stone for his film and television career, and then walked out on her. Every sad song that Dot sang, every pastiche of loss and unhappiness, was about him. She refused to allow him a divorce for several years, always hoping that he would come back to her. He never did, though he never left her also. Though they never met again after the eventual divorce, they stayed in touch by telephone. I never once heard either say a bad word about the other. When Dot had her final illness, when she was almost destitute and living at a friend's house in Wales, Roger paid the hospital bills. He is also said to have paid for the funeral, in Streatham.

We first met Dot in Sheffield, in September 1972, three weeks before our wedding. We turned up at the Fiesta along with all the other fans, and got talking to a little lady called Doris Gaard, who turned out to be the head of Dot's fan-club. 

"Go through that door there," she said.

No sooner had we got through the door than a security man grabbed me by the collar...and no sooner had he done this than this voice boomed out, "Get your fucking hands off him!"

Dot, not in one of her fabulous Douglas Darnell gowns, but in a brown twin-set. She asked us into her dressing-room, and gave us a drink. We told her we were going to see her the following week, and she said, "Make a point of looking for Doris, and he'll have a little natter!"

The "little natter" led to much bigger things. I was singing in the clubs back then. For another 18 years, until she retired, we travelled up and down the country with Dot. We met Marian Montgomery, who also became a close friend...through Marian we met Casey Donovan! Dot asked Jeanne to take pictures of her on stage, and we were given the job of running the memorabilia stalls.



Later on, Dot wrote her memoirs, Rain, Rain Go Away! Because she had been "blacklisted" by the establishment, no publisher would touch it. Therefore she asked me to ghost-write it for her, and still no one would touch it. Dot had upset too many people. And do you know why? Because, when the theatres started to show reticence to book her, she booked them herself, starting with the London Palladium. This was a triumph. The double-LP sold over a million copies in record time, and then the theatre managers decided that they might want to book Dot after all. She told them to get lost...well, something like that!

Dot's book never saw the light of day. She blamed a certain newspaper mogul, accusing him of setting her up in the so-called "Payola" scandal, where she was accused of paying to have her records played on the radio. She was acquitted. The O'Neill Report makes for interesting reading. Many of those appearing in court in the wake of the Scandal were accused of sexual crimes. Janie Jones went to jail. A girl committed suicide after accusing a DJ of sexually abusing her. Dot knew everyone involved...names which still have to be kept under wraps because these men are still alive. Each time the Report is edited and re-published, anyone who has died, whose name was blanked out, now has their name revealed. It does not take a genius as the list is whittled down to work out who the others were.

I wrote three songs for Dot. One was "I Sing My Life", as part of a collaboration with Gérard Berliner. Dot recorded them at the same time as she recorded 10 songs for her May You Always album. They are still in the archives.

Twenty years on, and nothing has been released to commemorate the anniversary...in as much as nothing was done last year to honour the 40th anniversaries of Elvis Presley and Maria Callas.


Dot may be gone, and ignored by the "establishment" she despised. For those of us who loved her, she will eternally remain within our hearts.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Casey Donovan and Sal Mineo: The Not So Divine Feud.


Casey Donovan was the greatest adult star of his generation. His abilities and talent, however, went far beyond the realms of gay porn. He scored hits with "legitimate" films and on the Broadway stage. He appeared in musicals. He was an A-list fashion model. As an escort, he mixed with the glitterati of the show business world. He was a celebrity tour guide, organising trips to locations then rarely visited by the regular tourist. It was during a trip to Egypt in 1983 that he contracted the lung-disease which took his life. Casey did not die of AIDS. This is part of the legend that sprung up after his death. 

Sal Mineo rose to prominence when starring opposite James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. He triumphed in Exodus and, like Casey, on the stage. By the time he propositioned Casey to work with him, however, his career had taken a nosedive. In short, he needed a star of Casey's magnitude and ability to return him to popularity. Sadly, this did not happen.



The following is an extract from Casey Donovan: Blond Bombshell:

Casey was once again thinking of giving up porn...To this end, when The Merchant of Venice closed, he responded to a call from Sal Mineo, who in the wake of a career hiatus had taken to producing and directing stage plays. In 1969, he had directed a Los Angeles production of the gay-themed Fortune and Men's Eyes featuring himself and Don Johnson, unknown at the time. This had included a graphic, extended prison rape scenario which had not gone down too well with the critics. Casey, in his Calvin Culver guise, was invited to audition for a part in Mineo's forthcoming off-Broadway production of The Children's Mass, by Frederic Combs, who had appeared in the stage and film versions of Boys in the Band, and was now trying his hand at play writing. This was scheduled to open at the Theatre de Lys on 5 May. Casey was successful in acquiring the part of Dutchie, and flung himself into learning his lines at home, with Mineo and Tom Tryon putting him through his paces. Much was made of the casting, which was announced in After Dark and several tabloid newspapers.
   Casey and Mineo were among the guests invited to After Dark's annual Ruby Awards ceremony, at New York's Delmonaco Hotel on 23 April, where Bette Midler was presented with the Entertainer of the Year Award. Here, he rubbed shoulders with Ethel Merman, Mick Jagger, Carrie Fisher, An  Miller, and dozens of other luminaries. Then, five days into rehearsals, Mineo fired him and replaced him with Gary Sandy, seemingly without giving him an explanation.
   Casey had always been aware of his own value, and when the play bombed after just seven performances, he was not surprised:

A lot of people are going to be very disappointed, because of course I was in the big ad in After Dark. They realised when they let me go that they were losing a great box-office potential, because you know my name has a certain draw and was going to sell tickets. Anyway, it's very chic this season to have your contract terminated. Everyone I talked to, agents and people who read the play and whatever, they all said they were glad I wasn't doing it after all. It's probably the best thing that happened to me, because evidently it's just not working. If it wasn't meant to be, it wasn't meant to be. [7]

After Dark's Robb Baker fervently denounced it:

The show pretty much falls apart, a sketchy plot bogged down with muddled religiosity, one-dimensional characterisations, and even two young children on stage...I was also irritated by the ploy of having what was basically a gay theme filtered through the viewpoint of a playwright-character who happens to be "respectfully" straight. Didn't that kind of normality-by-association liberalisation go out with 1950s attitudes towards Negroes and other nice quiet minority groups? [8]

Casey's feelings were hurt when, soon after the play closed, he learned that Mineo had told friends that had dropped him from the play because, in his "professional" opinion, he could not act. According to one source, who asked not to be named:

Mineo broadcast to all and sundry that Cal was a useless actor, incapable of learning his lines. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mineo wanted Cal to hop on to the casting couch, and also boasted about that. I'm sure that they would have ended up having sex at some stage, had they gone out on a date or something like that. But being expected to drop his pants to get a part was not Cal's style. He refused, and Mineo took offence and felt humiliated at being rejected. He fired him, then made up a story. [9]

***

End of quote.

In conclusion, Casey Donovan could act, and unlike Sal Mineo went from strength to strength. He worked with Ingrid Bergman on Broadway, and was pencilled in to do a film with Maggie Smith. He triumphed in Radley Metzger's Score, and caused a sensation in Misty Beethoven. In 1979, he was guest of honour at the Edinburgh Festival where my wife and I, then with Marian Montgomery and Richard Rodney Bennett, presided over a supper-party and had the pleasure of meeting him.

Remembering Gracie Fields

Gracie, with Maurice Chevalier and Patachou In 1994, I was working on Morrissey: Landscapes of the Mind , and repeated in a BBC ...