Tuesday, March 11, 2008
King of the Cads
Exactly one hundred years ago this month, Rex Harrison, one of Britain's greatest actors was born. Here's my Daily Express article on the man who was the height of urbanity on screen, but a fatal charmer off it.
He was described as ‘the greatest actor of light comedy in the world’. A star of more than 40 films, he won an Oscar for his unforgettable portrayal of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady.
Yet while Rex Harrison, who was born exactly 100 years ago this week, was the height of urbanity on screen, off it, he was a very different character. A serial womaniser, he went through six wives and had countless affairs. Two of the women who fell for him killed themselves. The fatal charmer who was given the nickname ‘Sexy Rexy’, was also loathed by the rest of his profession for his rudeness and arrogance. ‘He was one of the top five unpleasant men you’ve ever met’ said Patrick Macnee. ‘Rex was kind of an axxxxxx’ said Charlton Heston. If he hadn't been an actor, the only thing he would have been fit for was selling second hand cars on Great Portland Street, was Noel Coward's withering verdict.
So how did he come to provoke such adoration from women and revulsion from his fellow actors?
The story goes back to when he was born Reginald Carey Harrison on 5th March 1908, in Huyton, Lancashire. From an early age Harrison, who adopted the name Rex at the age of 10, after hearing someone calling it to their dog and thinking it ‘sounded rather nice‘, had wanted to be an actor. He left school at 16 to join a repertory company where he learned his craft over the next six years.
At 26, Harrison married the first of his many wives, the glamorous fashion model Collette Thomas. Thomas came from a wealthy background, and gave Harrison, a lifelong snob, the status he desired. Most importantly, she had the contacts that could help the ambitious young actor in his career.
When the Second World War began, Harrison tried to enlist but was turned down due to blindness in one eye, caused by a bout of measles. With his wife away working for the Red Cross, Harrison was free to “play the field”. He met and fell in love with the German emigre actress Lilli Palmer. Even though Harrison was still married, he set up house with his lover in London. Collette sued Harrison and Palmer for cohabitation and divorce followed.
In 1943, Harrison and Palmer married. Two years later he was offered a seven-year contract by Fox Studios in Hollywood worth an incredible $4500 a week and he and his new bride headed across the Atlantic.
Even in a place where adultery was common, ‘Sexy Rexy’’s womanising exploits became legendary. In his biography of David Niven, Graham Lord relates a practical joke that Niven and fellow actor Tyrone Power played on Harrison. Niven and Power hired two young actresses to play a ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ and planted them at a Hollywood party where they knew Harrison had been invited. Harrison was duly mesmerised by the ‘daughter’ and invited to afternoon tea by the ‘mother‘, but when he arrived the ‘mother’ had been called away and the’ daughter’ was on her own. Just as ‘Sexy Rexy’ was getting down to business, the ‘mother’ suddenly returned catching the famous actor with his trousers down and threatening angrily to ruin his career and his marriage by telling his wife and gossip columnists. As Harrison pleaded with her to keep quiet and hopped about trying to pull up his trousers, he saw the grinning faces of Niven and Power at the window and realised that he’d been set up.
Yet Harrison’s philandering was soon to prove disastrous. In 1947 he had begun an affair with Carole Landis a tall, beautiful actress of Norwegian extraction. Although only 28, she had been married five times and had twice attempted suicide. Infatuated with Harrison, she filed to divorce her spouse, believing that Harrison would do likewise. But Harrison had no intention of jeopardising his Hollywood career with a messy divorce and on the evening of July 4th 1948 he told Landis he would not be leaving his wife. That night the heartbroken actress took an overdose of barbiturates and killed herself. Harrison claimed that he arrived at Landis‘ home the following afternoon to find her already dead. But rumours circulated that Landis was still alive when Harrison arrived and that instead of immediately calling for medical assistance, he telephoned his publicist to ask for advice. In his autobiography Harrison makes no mention of Landis. But what we do know is that Landis left two suicide notes- one to her mother, which was found, and the other to Harrison, which he bribed a police officer to destroy.
Landis’ suicide caused a scandal. Harrison was widely blamed for his lover’s death and with his contract cancelled by Fox, he left Hollywood in disgrace. To her credit Lilli Palmer stood by him- loyalty which was not to be repaid.
The womanising continued. In 1954 he became infatuated with Kay Kendall, a vivacious young actress nearly twenty years his junior. Palmer believed Kendall to be another of Harrison’s numerous lovers who would be discarded when he grew bored, but her husband was genuinely hooked.
Kendall’s appeal was heightened by the fact that at the time she first met Harrison, she too was involved in an affair, with the American actor Steve Cochran. Harrison, not used to sharing his women, was determined to win Kendall over.
After three passionate years as lovers, tragedy struck. Harrison was informed in confidence by Kendall’s doctor that she was suffering from leukaemia and had only two years to live. In his autobiography, Harrison claimed that he ‘wanted to accept responsibility for Kay’ and asked his wife if she would divorce him to enable him to marry his mistress, and then, when Kendall died, he would remarry her. But Palmer later claimed that she had urged Harrison to marry Kendall. She did promise she would remarry Harrison on Kendall’s death, but it was a promise she had no intention of honouring.
Although Harrison was in many ways a heartless man, Kay Kendall’s premature death at the age of just 32, affected him deeply. For the rest of his life he wore a ring that Kendall had given him.
By the Sixties, Hollywood had forgiven him and in 1964 he appeared in the film role for which he is most famous: Professor Higgins in the glossy MGM musical My Fair Lady. It’s a film that is loved by millions to this day, but making it was not such a happy experience for those who had to work with the temperamental Harrison. As far as Harrison was concerned My Fair Lady was his film; director George Cukor had to spend much time assuring him that he would not favour co-star Audrey Hepburn unduly.
Harrison was disliked by almost everyone who worked with him. When he left the Broadway show of My Fair Lady he gave a small party for the cast and stage hands. No one turned up. When co-star Stanley Holloway revealed this to the press, Harrison threatened to sue him.
Even his fans were not immune to feeling the lash of Harrison’s acerbic tongue. One night, after a stage performance of "My Fair Lady", an old woman stood alone at the Stage Door. When she saw Harrison she asked him for his autograph. Harrison told her to "Sod off". The old lady was so enraged at Harrison’s rudeness that she rolled up her program and hit him with it. Stanley Holloway, who had witnessed the incident observed that it was the "first time in world history that the fan has hit the sxxx!".
By the time of his Academy Award, Harrison was married again. Wife number four was the hard-living Welsh actress Rachel Roberts. It was a volatile relationship which ended in divorce in 1971. Rejection hit Roberts hard. Her alcoholism and depression increased and in 1980 she committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates.
In 1971, Elizabeth Harris, ex-wife of hell-raising Irish actor Richard Harris, became the fifth Mrs Rex Harrison. The union lasted only last five years, before Harrison married his sixth and final wife, the American Mercia Tinker, who was 30 years his junior. “Wives are like gilt-edged stocks. The more you have, the greater your dividends“, said the man who had by now emulated Henry VIII.
In an interview in 2000, the film producer Anthony Havelock-Allen tried to explain why Harrison, a man capable of great charm, often behaved so badly. “The more successful he became, the more difficult he became. I think he made a decision and said to himself ‘I’m not going to waste time being nice to anybody. No one has been very nice to me and if I make it, I am only going to be nice to myself”.
Harrison died in 1990, at the age of 82, three weeks after making his final stage performance on Broadway, and less than a year after receiving a knighthood. And right up to the end, he was still being rude to people.
Rex Harrison was undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest actors. But a great human being? Sadly not.