'IHAD the kind of drive I could walk through walls with." And walk through walls was just what my aunt, Marjorie FitzGibbon, did. Through sheer will and determination, she escaped the poverty ofher youth to become an accomplished actress and acclaimed sculptor.
Back in 1956, as a 26-year-old making her London debut in Sabrina Faire, she had the "rafters ringing". And today she is a famed Irish sculptor; hundreds of tourist albums are filled with photos of her whimsical statue of James Joyce - Dublin's landmark monument which stands where North Earl Street meets O'Connell Street.
Even now, when she is 74, Marjorie's tilted green eyes, slightly tipped nose and full lips still shine through. I have travelled halfway around the world to spend time with this wonderfully witty and perceptive woman - a woman who has become both a mentor and a mother to me.
My aunt's life is a real shot-to-fame story, suitable for a Frank Capra movie - if it wasn't for all the pain and suffering that mingle with the applause and rave reviews. Along the way, she survived a life-long struggle with manic depression, alcoholism, three turbulent marriages and the death of her eldest daughter.
My aunt Marjorie's life is a big part of our colourful family history; a history that began with my great-grandfather who, at the turn of the last century, boarded a Swedish freighter bound for America to start the journey that would eventually land him in the wild silver cities of Nevada, the birthplace of my aunt.
Her life has been as wild and colourful as the western Sierra mountain landscape of her youth. Born in 1930 in Reno, Nevada, my aunt spent her early childhood in "an honest-to-God log cabin - it only had two rooms, and we used kerosene lamps". At the age of 17, dressed in the grey wool Eisenhower coat and cotton floral skirt her mother had sewn her, she boarded the train in San Francisco, bound for Hollywood. It was1947, and with the $37 shehad tucked away in her little Woolworth's pocketbook, she was determined to becomean actress.
In LA, she attended the Actors Lab (on a scholarship) during the day, and worked as a cigarette girl at Ciro's nightclub in the evenings.
It was at Ciro's that she caught the eye of the multimillionaire Huntington Hartford, 36-year-old heir of the A&P supermarket chain. And in 1949, at the age of 19, she married him. "I was mad for him. Hunt truly educated me about the finer things inlife. He was a great teacher," she recalls.
However, for my aunt it was never the money or the fame, it was the work. She wanted to be an actress - and an actress she was. But not becauseHuntington Hartford made it so. He never backed any ofher plays, never fast-tracked her auditions. And after seven years, when his insatiable philandering just got too muchto take, my aunt forfeited his millions and divorced him. The love of her life - asshe still calls him - brokeher heart.
"It was because I loved him so, that I couldn't stay married to him," my aunt whispers. Fame and money have never been a driving force in her life; instead, she has an almost fanatic determination to live life to the fullest. She doesn't do anything half-heartedly.
I suppose that's why she not only divorced Hartford but also gave up her alimony to marry what the New York society papers of 1960 called the "little-known actor" Dudley Sutton. Today, Sutton is a familiar face from many British TV shows and films, including Lovejoy, EastEnders and The Football Factory, but back then, he was just anotherpenniless actor.
Despite his social standing, Marjorie found him "awfully cute, entertaining and lots of fun - just the opposite of Hunt". Unfortunately, it was doomed from the start. "We were both neophytes, ill-prepared to deal maturely with the challenges of marriage," says Marjorie - and just four years later, the couple parted. "We went into the marriage like children, and we were both drinking too much."
It was after her divorce from Sutton that, in an attempt to curb her drinking, my aunt sought help at a health farm in Guildford. And it was there she met the man whom she still calls her "true life-partner", writer Constantine FitzGibbon.
"I was absolutely dazzled by his mind," she tells me. "He was so refreshingly intelligent." In 1967, they married and came to Ireland.
It was during their honeymoon in Greece that my aunt fell in love with the art of sculpture. "When I saw those marvellous statues in that white Greek light, I said to myself: 'I've got to try this.'"
Back home, she buried herself in books on sculpting and within 18 months had her first show, at the Brown Thomas Gallery. Things then started to move rapidly. After seeing her six busts of famous living Irish writers, the RDS Library contacted her in 1971 and commissioned nine more. Today, those 15 lauded Irish writers eye library visitors like watchful schoolmasters.
During their 16 years of marriage, Constantine continued to write numerous books, everything from thrillers to histories, including two books that became play productions, In the Bunker and When the Kissing Had to Stop. As my aunt says: "He provided a strong base for me, and I was a good companion to him."
IT was during the years she was married to Constantine that my aunt accomplished the lion's share of her work. She has sculpted the likeness of some the most important figures of our day, including Steven Hawking (whose bust is on display in the Albert Einstein Museum in Switzerland) and a bust of Pope John Paul II, which resides in the Papal Chambers of the Vatican.
After her work for theRDS, Marjorie was swamped with both public and private commissions from Belfast to Boston. After sculpting another set of busts of Irishwriters, from Swift to Heaney, and a large fountain of the 'Three Muses' for Stonehill College, Massachusetts, she was awarded an honorary degree and made a Doctor of Fine Arts.
Yet her marriage to Constantine had its share ofheartache. Constantine suffered from manic depression and on several occasions had to be hospitalised. "His fitsof elation were particularly bad," my aunt admits. "Sometimes he'd be in a statefor up to six weeks. But I was never bored with him, you couldn't be."
As well-established members of Ireland's community of artists, Marjorie andConstantine were never at a loss for interesting dinner guests. They held large gatherings twice a year, and enjoyed more frequent dinner parties with some of Ireland's most colourful personalities, Michael Mac Liammoir among them.
"I remember going to a party with Michael one night," my aunt recalls. "He was all dressed up, make-up and all. And who should answer the door but this big drag queen who grabbed Michael and kissed him on the lips.
"Well, I'll never forgetthe look on Michael's face. 'What do you think I am, alesbian?' he snorted. Oh, itwas marvellous."
As a sculptor, my aunt developed personal friendships with many of her subjects. She remembers her fears when she sculpted writer Gerald Hanley (apart from hismany novels, Hanley also scripted the film The Blue Max ), whom she describesas having a "wild and wonderful personality".
"I was afraid that my equally wild and wonderful sculpture of him with bulging eyes and a quirky smile would offend him," she explains between puffs on her cigarette. "You see, I'm not just trying to capture my subject's physical likeness, I'm trying to capture their personality as well."
Apparently, Hanley looked at his bronze portrait - a portrait my aunt claims is less than flattering - and said: "I love it. It may not look like me, but it sure feels like me." The bust, bulging eyes and all, is today in the RDS collection.
I think my aunt's insights into her sitter's inner self is the defining mark of her work, both on stage and in bronze. She has an innate ability to capture the emotional essence of a subject. I wonder if this ability to see into the essence of a character like Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , the Tennessee Williams play she starred in on Broadway in 1957, is a result of her own emotional struggles.
You see, for most of her life my aunt Marjorie has suffered from manic depression, a condition that led her to severe bouts with alcoholism and hospitalisations. "There were times when I was so downthat I literally sat on theedge of my bed and wondered how I would get up and cook frozen peas."
This condition is one shared by many other artists, including Tennessee Williams, a man she knew and worked with. She remembered one occasion after rehearsal during Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when Williams took the leads out to lunch.
My aunt will never forget a conversation she had with Williams over cups of coffee at the famous Algonquin Hotel in New York. "There he sat with his beefy, not-too-bright male companion, and calmly announced: 'I visited my sister in the asylum last week and I didn't like the way she was being treated. So I told my mother to look into it. When she arrived at the asylum, they locked her up in the paranoid ward.'"
THESE stories just roll off my aunt's tongue, as simply and unpretentiously as cookie recipes. Stories of Errol Flynn spending weeks in a drunken stupor lying on the sofa in the Manhattan penthouse she shared with Hartford. Or sunning herself poolside on her Hollywood estate with the young Liz Taylor and Natalie Wood.
"They were all very interesting, darling, but they were just people," she says with a laugh when she sees how awestruck I am.
Even though my aunt and her three sisters were raised in a log cabin and then later in a two-room tenement in San Francisco, she has never developed a taste for celebrity. I suppose that's why she has been an advocate for social causes.
In the Fifties, while touring Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the segregated American South, black and white cast members were often forced to stay in separate hotels. Rather then stay at the white hotels, my aunt opted to stay at the black hotel with the black crew members.
This led my aunt to spearheada call for Actors' Equity topass a law that prohibited union actors from staying in separateaccommodations.
"I never forgot where I came from," my aunt often reminds me. "And I've never ceased being grateful for my opportunities."
I know this is true. Throughout her life, my aunt has always been thrilled by the opportunity towork with so many interesting individuals. This is especiallytrue of her work as a sculptor. Through sculpting, she not only had the opportunity to meet "wonderful people", but she found both "solitude and the freedom". Sadly, she is now unable to sculpt, after a severe fall resulted in numerous operations and an eventual shoulder replacement.
"I can't lift my arm up any more, so sculpting is out," she says, and you might think she would be inconsolable. But my aunt is ever the optimist. "I just see this as an opportunity to pursue painting."
So today, my 74-year-old aunt is busy with her canvas and oils. "It's wonderful really," she says with a laugh. "Another challenge, another adventure."
It is this unflinching optimism that I find so amazing about my aunt. "Darling, it's better to be an optimist and be disappointed, than be a pessimist and be disappointed. The other is so much more fun," she tells me.
I suppose this ever-buoyant view is what has helped her weather three turbulent marriages. Despite the difficulties, my aunt has few regrets. "I'll never say that my marriages were a waste, because I got four beautiful children from them."
Her son Jackie Hartford has become an accomplished harpsichord player and renowned Bach expert. Her son Peter, by Sutton, has painted murals for some of Dublin's finest homes. And her daughter Oonagh, by Constantine, is raising her own three children in Massachusetts, where she has worked as a social worker.
"My children are my proudest accomplishments," says my aunt with a big smile. "They are proof that my life has had meaning."
Sadly, Cathy Hartford, her eldest child, died of a drug-related accident when she was only 38 - a heartbreak from which my aunt has never fully recovered. "She was caught up with the drug culture of the Seventies; and try as I did, I couldn't save her."
Then, shortly after her daughter's death, Constantine lost his three-year battle with colon cancer. "It was awful to see such a vital man suffer. But I was comforted that I was of comfort to him." Through it all, she found great solace in her work. "I've always been able to bury myself in my work. It gives me great energy," she says.
Great energy is what my aunt has - she still drives, still frequents the dress shops, and still enjoys Dublin's fabulous restaurants. "I've always loved Dublin," she says. "I feel so at home here."
But Ireland hasn't always been easy. When she and Constantine arrived in Ireland in 1967, they settled in Bantry. "I felt so isolated there," she admits. It wasn't until she moved to Dublin that my aunt fell in love with Ireland and its people. "I love the Irish. I love that they're not very caught up with celebrity. People are just people to them, you know what I mean?"
The Ciro's cigarette girl who floored the dashing Huntington Hartford; the wife of a millionaire who gave it all up for love; the stage actress turned renowned sculptress; the Wild West girl who became a noted Irish citizen - all of this and more is my aunt.
Her rags-to-riches story filled my childhood dreams. But now, as an adult, it's not her fame that impresses me most. It's her ability to be at peace with herself.
For all of its triumphs and defeats, my aunt's life is a life lived. A life lived with the courage and honesty of an artist, where nothing is hidden but everything is made beautiful - warts and all. And it's this arrival at a life grounded in contentment, despite the pain, that is her greatest legacy to me.
Alicia A Reynolds currently lives in Derry. She has written for the 'LA Times' and writes a weekly column for the 'Derry Journal'