Sunday 18 March 2018

Drinker, Taylor, soldiers, spy

Liam Collins remembers when Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor brought glamour and chaos to dreary 1960s Dublin

The couple on the set of The Sandpiper in the same year. (Photo by API/GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
The couple on the set of The Sandpiper in the same year. (Photo by API/GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

'You are not accident-prone, you're incident-prone," Richard Burton told Elizabeth Taylor as Hollywood's golden couple left Dublin after 10 tempestuous weeks filming the classic thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Their stay that cold February and March of 1965 had been marked by a catalogue of misfortune that in today's world would have drawn a rolling commentary from the celebrity channels. But back then, Dublin was a dreary backwater and their antics were less important that the bishop's Lenten pastorals.

Burton in a scene from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which he filmed here at the time. Photo by Everett/REX/Shutterstock
Burton in a scene from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which he filmed here at the time. Photo by Everett/REX/Shutterstock

These 'incidents' included the theft of Taylor's jewellery, the mysterious death of an old lady on the Stillorgan Road, Taylor's flight from Dublin to her father's bedside in Los Angeles, and the tense relationship between Richard Burton and his co-star and former lover, Claire Bloom.

If you add in Liz Taylor's pet monkey wrecking their suite in the Gresham Hotel and Burton's legendary boozing, their visit to dirty Dublin could well be the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster all on its own.

Now the famous John le Carre spy novel which led to the carnage is to be re-made as a television series for Paramount TV, possibly starring Aidan Gillen reprising the role of Alec Leamas, played by Burton, a British spy in Cold War Germany.

But it is unlikely that modern day Dublin, with its stylish skyline, would fill the role of post-war Berlin as it did in the 1965 thriller.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton pictured out and about in Dublin in 1965
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton pictured out and about in Dublin in 1965

Back then, Dublin was a different country. The buildings were grubby - the only flourish of modern architecture was the brutalist Liberty Hall, which opened a couple of weeks after Burton and Taylor left. The pubs were dimly lit establishments where men sat around drinking bottles of stout and women were either unwelcome or banished to the snug. Little red vans with the black Swastika emblem from a laundry of the same name still traversed the mean streets.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who had married in March 1964, after meeting on the set of Cleopatra, arrived in Dublin in the spring of 1965, where Burton was to play master-spy Alec Leamas opposite Claire Bloom (Nan Perry) in le Carre's 1963 convoluted thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

An entire floor of the Gresham Hotel in O'Connell Street had been booked to accommodate a retinue of 17, which included four of their collective children (including one adopted in Germany months earlier) nannies, tutors, hairdressers, the chauffeur, both their private secretaries and various other hangers-on, including Taylor's pet monkey.

The first thing they did was direct the hotel management to a get a bigger bed for their personal suite - it came in at 7ft 3inches wide, and appeared to accommodate their extravagant needs. Burton was then whisked out to Ardmore Studios, founded by former Michael Collins bodyguard Emmet D'Alton, to meet with the American director Martin Ritt.

The Gresham Hotel on Dublin’s O’Connell Street where the actors stayed
The Gresham Hotel on Dublin’s O’Connell Street where the actors stayed

The problems began almost immediately.

Ritt phoned David Cornwell (le Carre's real name) in Vienna imploring: "Richard needs you, David. Richard needs you so bad he won't speak his lines till you've rewritten them."

So Cornwell and his wife Ann flew first class to Dublin and were put up in the Shelbourne Hotel.

"On the set it quickly became obvious that the director and the star were barely speaking," says Adam Sisman in his biography of le Carre. "One further factor complicating their relations was that Ritt had cast Claire Bloom as the female lead, rejecting Burton's suggestion that his wife might play the part instead. More than 15 years earlier, while still a teenager, Bloom had acted opposite Burton, then only 24, and the two had become lovers... now she was once again playing opposite Burton. It was scarcely surprising that Elizabeth Taylor, to whom he had been married less than a year, should be jealous of her."

Author John le Carre. Photo: Ian West/PA Wire
Author John le Carre. Photo: Ian West/PA Wire

According to Sisman, Burton complained that he "couldn't go to the pub any more" although he seems to have been able to find his way around a few Dublin establishments during his stay.

The biographer adds that Burton had a comparatively weak tolerance for alcohol, with Claire Bloom later recalling: "Sometimes he was drunk, yes; sometimes he wasn't."

The gossip columnist Terry Keane later recalled waiting for someone in the Gresham and seeing this small, almost dumpy figure in a fur coat. She thought nothing of it until suddenly she was looking at this beautiful face that lit up the room with astonishingly large violet-coloured eyes and an unusual double fringe of eye-lashes. Seeing Elizabeth Taylor in the flesh was a breath-taking moment she never forgot.

With le Carre now on tap, the filming did begin, mostly in Ardmore but with central Dublin used in some location shots.

The malevolent Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie went up across Smithfield, then a cobbled hub of car and truck dismantlers, scrap yards and the odd down-at-heel Georgian building. Dublin may not have suffered the ravages of the Blitz but it had fallen to the economic war of de Valera and the depredations of the men in mohair suits.

Ironically, on March 1, 1965, the remains of Roger Casement were repatriated to Dublin. The front page of that day's Irish Independent was dominated by preparations for the ceremonial re-burial of the 1916 patriot in Glasnevin Cemetery. On an inside page is a picture of 'Checkpoint Charlie' going up across Smithfield.

That same day, with the capital swamped with troops and gardai, Taylor's jewellery, including the wedding ring given to her by her first husband Mike Todd (killed in an aeroplane crash), was stolen from the couple's suite in the Gresham.

"Dublin gardai are without exact knowledge of the jewels taken on Monday (March 1)," reported the Irish Independent. "They are awaiting the return of her secretary Richard Hanley to give a description of the jewellery valued at £20,000."

When he did get back from Paris "he was too fatigued to be interviewed", according to later newspaper reports.

In the meantime, Burton took Taylor on set when he was filming at North Strand in Dublin. She became 'short-taken' as they said in those days, and wishing to go to the toilet was escorted into Cusack's pub. A newspaper cutting commemorating the event reveals that, on entering the pub, it was discovered that there were no female toilets - women didn't drink in those days! So her loyal chauffeur/bodyguard and some locals stood outside while she used the men's, which was certainly a first for the Hollywood glamour girl.

It was also said that when they were filming in the Liberties, Burton decided to go into The White Horse for a "quick one" but when Taylor attempted to join him she was refused by the owner who explained helpfully that it was a 'men only' pub.

As the mystery of the jewel theft deepened, worse was to come.

On March 4, as her French chauffeur Gaston Sanz drove out the Stillorgan Road he hit and killed 78-year-old Alice Maud Bryan, of Commons Road, Loughlinstown, who was crossing what was then a twisty country road.

In Liz: An Intimate Biography, C David Heyman described the dead woman as a "crazed pedestrian" who threw herself at the car.

This appears to have been far from the case. Liz Taylor, who was sitting in the back of the white Rolls Royce, was on her way to the Ardmore set when the accident happened.

She was interviewed there for an hour by Sgt O'Brien of Loughlinstown garda station and "accepted she will be called as a witness at the inquest" which was scheduled for the following week.

But on Saturday, March 13, "trembling and nearly in tears", she left Dublin dressed in a white astrakhan coat and a black lace mantilla, explaining to reporters in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport in London that she had received a call at 4am that morning to say her father had suffered a stroke in Los Angeles and was "seriously ill" in hospital.

A newspaper report added helpfully that her father, Francis, was "in a private room" with his wife Sara by his side rather than the intensive care unit of the hospital, indicating perhaps that his daughter's hasty retreat from Dublin was a little dramatic.

The inquest before coroner PJ Brennan went ahead on Tuesday, March 16, in the absence of the main witnesses. Superintendent P Carey began by saying "criminal proceedings are being considered" in the case. A niece of the dead woman said that she was crossing the road to visit her son. It was revealed that she was mangled from head to toe and almost certainly died instantly.

A solicitor representing Elizabeth Taylor and her chauffeur, Mr TH Bacon of JG O'Connor and Co, suggested that the dead woman had "walked into the side of the car" and her injuries were caused by hitting the road, rather than the impact of the Rolls-Royce, although there was no evidence to that effect. The inquest was adjourned indefinitely.

The absence of his wife gave Burton a bit of leeway. Up to then, he was kept under "constant surveillance" by his wife, but now he began to "drink as much as ever".

His secretary, Bob Lee, recalled being sent out to buy bottles of Irish whiskey at regular intervals and that, while filming in Blackpitts, he adjourned to Kavanagh's pub at the corner of Long Lane.

It also seems that in her absence the film star got down to work and the filming ran smoothly.

On Taylor's return, normal service was resumed. Rock Brynner, a son of the Hollywood film star Yul Brynner, was a student in Trinity College and spent a considerable amount of time with Burton and Taylor, either out on the town or in their suite in the Gresham. He later painted a sympathetic picture of them as what would now be described as a 'loved-up' couple.

The film director Franco Zeffirelli saw another side when he called to the Gresham to discuss doing a film project together.

"Liz had somehow acquired a Bush Baby (a small African primate) which had not taken to its luxurious imprisonment and had set about rearranging the decor. It had knocked over vases and lights, ripped the curtains and had, by the time I arrived, taken refuge near the ceiling of the bathroom, where it was clinging wide-eyed with fear, to one of the water pipes.

"Liz's maid had withdrawn with a scratched face. Richard was angrily trying to get everybody to shut up, and Liz could clearly think of nothing but the rescue of the poor little animal.

"As I entered, the two great stars proceeded to have one of those magnificent rows that made them so alarmingly electric. I was nervous but utterly spellbound. Seeing me there, Liz broke off: 'Forget about this fricking Shakespeare.' she commanded. 'Come and help.'"

Only after he caught the monkey, which she then snuggled in her arms, did she agree to do The Taming of the Shrew with him.

The final scene of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was filmed in Smithfield, with a large cast of on-lookers waiting for a glimpse of Burton, who had to attempt to escape from East Berlin with Bloom by climbing over the fake wall.

"Burton was not supposed to emerge until it was fully dark, so at Ritt (the director's) request, David (le Carre) kept him company in a basement room, sharing a half bottle of whiskey," says Sisman in his biography of le Carre.

"To stop Burton from becoming so drunk that he would not be able to climb the wall, David tried to consume most of it himself, but he wasn't sure that he had succeeded.

"Outside, set designers and technicians were having a last fidget. Suddenly, to delighted cheers from the assembled crowd, a white Rolls-Royce appeared, driven by a chauffeur, bearing the most famous film star on the planet onto the set of a film in which she played no part.

"Roused by the clamour outside, Burton bounded up the basement steps into the square roaring, 'Oh Christ Elizabeth, you fool,' and raging at the French chauffeur, who threw the Rolls into reverse and drove away. Furious, Marty Ritt, call off the shoot."

For Cornwell (le Carre), Dublin also had a significance he would never forget. While dining with Claire Bloom he got a call from his lover in Vienna, Susan, to say that her husband had discovered their affair and was on the warpath. The following morning he left Ardmore with his wife Ann and walked into the nearby countryside, where, leaning on a farm gate, he told her their marriage was over.

So too was the filming of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - but that too developed into another legend.

The film production company put the Smithfield 'Berlin Wall' up for sale and Dublin scrap dealer Bart Cummins bought the worthwhile bits, transporting the sinister German watchtower overlooking 'Checkpoint Charlie' to his Bluebell Works in Inchicore and re-erecting it there. He is believed to have sold it off bit by bit in the years that followed.

What was left of the wall went to a better purpose altogether. Grattan Puxton, an English journalist living in Dublin, took what the writer Sean Lynch describes as "a sizeable portion of the wall" and with the help of the Bewley family (of coffee fame) re-erected it out in Cherry Orchard as St Christopher's - the first ever school for Travellers in Ireland.

In 1967, Liz Taylor returned to Dublin in more sombre circumstances. This time she gave evidence at the inquest into the death of the tragic Mrs Bryan and whatever criminal proceedings had been contemplated were dropped. She also expressed her condolences to the dead woman's family.

One of the greatest stars of the silver screen era left Dublin hours later never to return.

Sunday Independent

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