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Sunday 21 September 2014

The forgotten Irish starlet who fell into tragic downward spiral

Published 12/05/2013 | 05:00

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Constance Smith

In the tributes over the last week to the great British film director Bryan Forbes, the tragic story of his first wife, an Irish starlet, was often overlooked.

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The Limerick-born Constance Smith, whom Forbes married in 1951, rose to the heights in early Fifties Hollywood – including co-presenting the 1952 Oscars ceremony – but was to die an alcoholic on the streets of London 50 years later.

Constance was born in Limerick in 1928 as the first of 11 children to an army soldier and miner who was to die when she was 11.

It was a tough life, with her mother struggling to support the children. However, Constance won a Hedy Lamar lookalike contest in 1946 and her mother sent the photo to a film studio.

Sharon Slater, the Limerick genealogist and historian, wrote earlier this year on her Limerick's Life website that, afterwards, Constance was called for a screen test, which she was reluctant to take but continued under her mother's insistence.

The screen test was successful with the Rank Organisation, but in the process of being groomed by the Rank 'charm school' in London, Constance first demonstrated her fiery temperament and her unwillingness to toe the line. This quickly got her fired.

However, she kept acting and had bit parts in several British B films. She was first noticed by the big movie studios in 1950 after playing an Irish maid in The Mudlark. Impressed with her performance, 20th Century Fox offered her a contract.

Ms Slater says that when Constance arrived in Hollywood, producer Darryl F Zanuck cast her opposite Tyrone Power in I'll Never Forget You (1951). However, Power soon decided she was not experienced enough and replaced her with Ann Blyth.

Constance was most active in the 1950s, appearing in Hollywood features such as Man in the Attic (1953). In addition to her movie roles, Constance also appeared as a presenter for the Academy Awards ceremony in 1952.

On February 1, 1951, Constance married Bryan Forbes, the English film director, actor and writer, whom she had known for three years. They married in Caxton Hall, London, when Forbes was 24.

The newlyweds were never able to go on honeymoon as Forbes had to report immediately to his play, The Holly and the Ivy, and she to Tyrone Power for her film, The House in the Square.

Constance regularly clashed with producers and executives, starting with her refusal to change her surname from 'Smith' to something, presumably more memorable to movie-going audiences. By the time her acting contract expired in 1953, she had undergone an abortion forced upon her by the studio, and her marriage to Forbes was on the ropes.

As the years went on, and she failed to get the parts she felt were commensurate to her abilities, she began an embittered descent into a life of drugs and alcohol.

In June 1955, Constance divorced Forbes on charges of desertion and he married fellow British actress Nanette Newman the same year. (See Obituary, Page 29)

Constance last acted in a string of minor films made in Italy between 1955 and 1959, including a role as Lucretia Borgia in La Congiura dei Borgia (1959). However, her failing career couldn't be saved and she made her last film appearance in 1959. During her time in Rome in 1958, she first attempted suicide by overdosing on barbiturates.

In 1960, she paid a visit to Limerick, with soon-to-be live-in boyfriend Paul Rotha, who was over 20 years her senior. In 1962, Constance was sentenced to three months in prison for stabbing Rotha, a documentary maker and film historian. On February 4, 1968, she stabbed Rotha for the second time – and was charged with attempted murder. Oddly enough, Constance and Rotha later married in 1974 and he died 10 years later in Oxfordshire.

However, Constance's tumultuous life continued in a downward spiral. She tried several more times to kill herself and her last decades were spent as an alcoholic and in and out of hospitals. When able to get herself together for brief periods, she worked as a cleaner. Constance died on June 30, 2003, aged 75, on a street in Islington, London. As Sharon Slater writes: "A sadder end is hard to imagine."

See 'Who was Constance Smith?' by Sharon Slater in Limerick's Life http://limerickslife.com/ constance-smith/

Irish Independent

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