Richard Harris died last October and left Joe Jackson with a wealth of biographical material, from which it emerges that he was a man who, despite his hellraising, and avowed promiscuity remained true to his first love
"And after all the loves of my life
You'll still be the one."
'MacArthur Park', as sung
by Richard Harris
THOSE of us who have loved that song nearly all our lives must, at some point, have pondered over its lyric and wondered whose face will be the last to flash by our inner eye just before we die. Likewise, as I work my way through reams of tapes I made with Richard Harris which, next year, will be published as Conversations with Richard Harris, I can't help but ask myself who, after all the loves of his life, was "the one"?
Not that Richard, even in the biography we once planned to write, ever was going to do a kiss-and-tell book. He "absolutely detested" such biographies. Yet despite all the secrets the man took to his grave he did disclose enough during roughly 20 hours of sometimes remarkably revealing taped conversations over a 14-year period to allow me to speak with at least some authority about his love life. Or, rather, the loves of his life. Plus his obsession, as a black romantic, with the concept of love itself.
And where else can we begin the story of the great loves of Richard Harris other than with the nearly half-century-long love affair between himself and his first wife, Elizabeth Rees-Williams? Well, actually, as a prelude to that affair we really should pay some attention to the women in Harris's life prior to Elizabeth. Even though he never spoke to me, with any great sense of gravity, about his earliest romances in Limerick, where Richard was born in 1930.
"I remember a girl, Pat O' Connor, was mad about her," he once said, nostalgically, before immediately setting this relationship in its rightful and delightful context by adding, "I sat beside her, aged six, seven, just before I went to the Jesuits!"
Richard also was "mad about" Grace Lloyd. Yet his adolescent passion was not, it seems, reciprocated. "Grace was a girl I really cared about but I don't think she had any love for me." Then there was another Limerick woman, with whom Harris apparently lost his virginity in a local field. He also, rather revealingly, had this to say about another woman in 1987.
"I met a girl this week who's married to a very successful businessman here. And I'd been in love with her, very serious, wondering should I propose?" mused Harris. "And I looked at her the other night she's still gorgeous and said to myself, 'God, wasn't she lucky? I must have loved her more than my two wives as I didn't ask her to marry me.' And that was not a superficial thought, that's how I really feel about it."
What did Harris mean? Maybe the answer will become more apparent before this article ends. But back to Limerick. Like many young men, "Dickie" also had his share of bed-tossing "erotic fantasies" about female film stars, such as Rita Gam and Merle Oberon. But unlike most of us, Harris later moved to Hollywood and found himself in a position, in every sense, to turn such fantasies into flesh. And apparently did. In both those cases. And more. Far more. In fact, Richard once described himself as "the most promiscuous man in the world!" and, during the early years of his movie career was "romantically involved" with Nina Van Pallandt, the Empress Soraya of Iran and even had, he once told me in hushed tones, "a brief affair with Princess Margaret." But all of this romantic and sexual excess occurred only after Harris left Ireland, a country in which he believed passion was crushed by the dead weight of "Catholic beads" to paraphrase one of his poems.
"I was always an exceedingly horny bastard," he explained in 1987. "But growing up in Limerick in the Forties there was a tremendous amount of guilt associated with sex. Also, women were not as free or sexually liberated as they are now. So that had an inhibiting effect. Once I got to London it wasn't as oppressive. Because that sense of sexual liberation was there, even in the Fifties."
So did Richard take full advantage of the new-found opportunities for sexual indulgence? "Absolutely! Wouldn't you?"
Quite. But this does bring us back to the daughter of Lord and Lady Ogmore, Elizabeth Rees-Williams, who Harris met not long after moving to London to become an actor in the mid-Fifties.
AT THE time he was attending RADA and directing the Clifford Odets play Winter Journey and she was a fellow student who auditioned for the lead role. Elizabeth got that part but herself and Harris "at first, seemed, on the face of it, utterly incompatible", she once said. Rees-Williams also, at first, was afraid Harris "would despise me and my way of life, my background, my friends." Forty-five years later Richard did tell me that when he met Elizabeth "it wasn't love at first sight" and her background was off-putting.
"But there's no question that we did fall in love, though I can't tell you the actual moment it happened" he said. "It happened gradually. But as for the question of whether or not I was in love with Elizabeth? Absolutely, I was."
And happily, as Harris said, this love was reciprocated. In fact, it was Elizabeth who proposed to Richard. They were married in 1957. A year later their first son, Damien, was born and "hard man" Harris actually fainted while watching his wife give birth. However, from the moment that child was born Richard also was determined to provide for his family "a far better life" than they had to endure while living in "some shitty little #6-a-week rented rooms" in London at the time. In fact, Harris later did one relatively crap "commercial" movie, jor Dundee, partly to "pay Lord Ogmore the #20,000 he'd loaned us to buy a house." As Harris explained, "when I married Lil I promised I'd take care of her, and here he was taking care of us, not something I wanted at all." And this desire to provide for his family would remain a driving force in Richard's life until the end. For example, he did the Harry Potter movies not just because his beloved grand-daughter Ella asked him to, but because he wanted to make sure she could "go to the right school, the right university".
Sadly, back as early as 1959, cracks began to appear in the Harris marriage when he, literally, became The Ginger Man in JP Donleavy's legendary play of the same name. "Had Richard left his performance on stage after the final curtain, all would have been well," Elizabeth once said, sagely. "Unfortunately, somewhat obsessed by Stanislavsky at the time, he continued to live the grotesque Dangerfield off stage. With the characters he liked playing, he assimilated them into his own life for the duration of the play or film."
Harris himself who'd later reject the Stanislavsky approach to acting and, indeed, the behavioural patterns of the grotesquely male-chauvinistic Dangerfield, partly for the reasons cited by Elizabeth also told me he got so "caught up" playing Frank Machin in the 1963 movie This Sporting Life that he "ruined" his first marriage.
"I was so terrified I'd step out of the part that, even when I'd have a weekend off, I'd do Frank Machin all weekend long with Elizabeth," he said.
Machin, lest we forget, was a fumbling, inarticulate beast of a man who used his fists when words failed him. Or he failed words. Though, tellingly, Richard also choose to highlight the child-in-the-man when it came to his vulnerability, a tendency that later defined roles like Bull McCabe in The Field. And which, I believe, was part of the dichotomous dynamic appeal of Harris himself. But did Richard, in his Machin mode or otherwise, slap Liz?
'MY relationship with my first wife, which she writes about in her book, was horrendous," he told me, obviously referring specifically to his own behaviour when drunk. "But there's no justification for it. I got drunk and, she says, beat her. I probably f***ing did give her a smack across the face. I remember once I did. But it was unjustified. And I once asked Elizabeth, 'What was I really like to be married to?' She said, 'It was absolute magic, a magic carpet ride, but then you'd get that look in your eye, one drink too many and, in the end, I couldn't take it, the good moments weren't balancing out the bad."' Indeed.
But apart from Richard being described as "a belligerent, two-fisted drunk given to smashing furniture and faces. And black moods", his seemingly serial infidelities also were cited as reasons for a divorce by Elizabeth in 1967. At precisely the same time he was in Hollywood, filming Camelot while still singing with all his heart, How to Handle a Woman. Either way, when Harris returned to London and heard that temporary custody of his three sons, Damien, Jared and Jamie, had been granted to their mother, he collapsed in a corridor of the divorce courts. And it would be three years before he and Elizabeth divorced. During which time Harris poured his pain into songs like MacArthur Park and Didn't We, which were written by Jim Webb but turned into burning slabs of autobiography by Harris. Often with lyric changes he imposed. Harris, himself, also composed songs about the marriage break up for the album My Boy, such as Cries from Broken Children. And that divorce would have come sooner had he not been haunted by those cries.
"Elizabeth and I would have been divorced three years earlier if I'd conceded to her demands for custody of the children. I wouldn't," he explained in 1987. "I said, 'I must have joint custody, because I don't want to have to ask you, 'Can I see what are mine?' Luckily, Elizabeth wanted to marry Rex Harrison so she decided, 'If this is the only way to get my divorce, I'll concede.' And she says, today, 'Thanks be to God you fought for it, because that's what the children needed.' You couldn't get a stronger family unit than me and my divorced wife. We aren't married, we don't live together, but, by Christ we are a family. We stick together like a f***ing fortress."
And stick together "like a f***ing fortress" the Harris family obviously did right up to his death, as you'll see. It also must be said that the years following his divorce were the years in which Richard upped his intake of alcohol to such a degree two bottles of vodka a day that he had a mental breakdown while filming the 1970 movie Cromwell, and sought psychiatric help, and tried, but failed, to give up alcohol. Three years later Harris also became Mia Farrow's lover, though it was only during our last interview, in 2001, that Richard told me about this relationship, with the former wife of one of his life-long heroes, Sinatra. Saying and this I address specifically to his family, who may not be aware of such relationships and feel I am betraying some confidences here "everything I tell you, Joe, I give you the right to use in any way you see fit, because, as I have told so many people, you are the only journalist I trust." That said, Richard still was tentative telling me about Farrow.
"I made a deal with Paramount to do Hamlet and wanted Mia to play Ophelia," he said. "But one day we were in her apartment and the phone rings and she says, 'It's Frank, he wants to speak to you.' So I said, 'Did you f***ing tell him you and I are having an affair?' They weren't divorced yet, they were separated! But she said, 'No, I didn't tell him.' So Sinatra and I talked for about 20 minutes, mostly about Mia playing Ophelia, then, at the end, he said, 'Dickie?' Pause. I said, 'Yes, Frank?' And he said, 'You take care of her.' I said, 'I will.' And he said, 'You better take care of her.' And I knew if I didn't, I could end up in the Hudson River, wearing cement shoes!"
And that Harris knew even through he was a drinking buddy and friend of Sinatra's!
BUT like a true black romantic, Richard liked to live dangerously, because he later had a similarly secret affair with another of Frank's former wives, Ava Gardner, whom he described as "one of the greatest women I ever met". Why? Because she could out-smoke and "out-drink" him, which was "virtually impossible at the time!" and she was "totally down-to-earth". But does this mean Ava was to cull a line from the advertising campaign for The Barefoot Contessa "the world's most exciting animal"? "She was," said Harris. Though again, as with Mia, he only told me about this relationship during what turned out to be our final conversation.
As to why he and Mia drifted apart, Richard didn't say. However, a year after their love affair he met the woman who would become his second wife, Ann Turkel. And, as with Elizabeth, when they met it wasn't exactly love at first sight. Or first hearing.
In fact, when Harris heard Turkel was cast as the female lead in his movie 99 and 44/100 Per Cent Dead he said, "You're not going to wean an unknown actress?" unaware that she was a "fully fledged actress" who'd graduated from Boston University with an arts degree. Turkel also, at first, described Harris as "my total opposite a guy from Ireland, a hellraiser, a brawler" before adding the stinging caveat: "and much older than me". He was 44 at the time and she was 19. Even so, they soon became lovers and, according to Ann, "fell in love even before we'd gone to bed with each other".
Indeed, according to a more objective commentator, Ann and Richard became "more than lovers, they were great pals and inseparable" and she discovered "another side" to Harris: "a man who was romantic, sentimental and a gentle lover". He definitely was demonstrative, and during one interview hugged his new love, calling her "Turkey" and saying, "You're bloody beautiful, I guess you've got me!"
However, after they married Richard and Ann soon realised that what they actually got was a union of formidable, frequently opposing forces in which their frantic bouts of passion were interspersed with similarly ferocious fights. Like most great lovers.
"Richard says Gable and Lombard had fights and so should we," said Ann, at the time. "There are no greys in my relationship with Richard. We have tremendous highs, and tremendous lows. We know even when we're fighting that afterwards the high is going to be great. We live off the excitement."
No doubt they did. But at one point the Harrises' "loud quarrels" made a judge in Paradise Island, where they lived, order them to "try bring about a reconciliation". Which succeeded. For a while. However, after seven years they went their separate ways. Three years later Richard told me why he felt his second marriage was such a "bad" marriage.
"It was like Burton and Taylor, an all-consuming relationship," he said, obviously still drawing on movie couple metaphors. "Look at me now, full of energy, right? If Ann called and I spoke to her for 10 minutes I'd have to say, 'The interview is over, Joe, call you Tuesday.' She'd drain everything out of me. She fed on it, couldn't help it. But it was something you couldn't extradite yourself from."
The darkness in such a relationship, the double edge, can be deeply attractive to a black romantic, I suggested.
"There had to be some kind of attraction in all that," Harris agreed. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have stuck with it for so long." And when asked if we learn from the failure of a first marriage or, as statistics suggest, make the same mistakes all over again, he had this to say:
"I broke up my first marriage because I was totally selfish. The second one broke up because I was self-less. I was like a nursemaid, an uncle, lover, doctor, psychiatrist, occasional husband, father-confessor in her eyes. But I couldn't take that any more. I gave too much, because the first marriage was an absolute catastrophic f***-up as a result of my behaviour. I tried to over-compensate in the second, and that was disastrous."
Harris never did marry again. In fact, despite subsequent relationships one with a "very young girl" who he apparently told, "If you want to go to bed with me you have to have an Aids test" and another with a woman named Isabelle who finally left him and married someone else Richard spent a large part of the last decade of his life on his own. By choice. Increasingly, towards the end. Even though, on the last morning we met, Harris told me had to "get rid of someone, a woman who is wary of the Press" before I could go to his hotel room to do our interview. He was 70 at the time.
Though it also should be said that I've seen Richard refuse an offer of sex. The night he gave a lecture in TCD and was propositioned by a woman who later told me she'd "love to have shagged Richard Harris, no matter what age he is".
I hadn't the heart to tell this woman, who also claimed to have slept with Van Morrison, that her chances of doing so with Richard were reduced to zero by the fact that he felt "she had no class". Harris said something similar about a Dublin journalist.
EITHER way, during the period covered by my conversations with Richard, 1987-2001, he did gradually let go of his longing for a "great love" and even for sex, given that, in the end, his "gigantic libido" was "not gigantic any more". Harris certainly came to believe that the kind of "comfort" his parents had in their marriage and which he, in part, left home to escape plus "prolonged emotional involvement in any relationship" was "anathema" to the creative artist. And that a "sustained relationship" would, in fact, erode all chances of reaching his artistic goals.
And this really is where we get to the core of Richard Harris, and the reason why his two marriages probably were doomed from the start. Maybe even all Richard's love affairs. If longevity is the ultimate aim in love.
"As an actor my range of experiences is bound to be limited if I stay, say, in one stable relationship all my life," said Harris in 1987. "And, as the personal cry of my poetry is joyless, could best be described as a collection of sores, then lasting companionship cancels out the poetry. As I begin a love affair I also begin looking to the end of it, the tragedy, the walking on the beach, lost, bleeding, writing poems, singing songs. I thrive on that."
See what I mean about RH being a black romantic? And, as such, in 1990 I did actually ask him who, after all the loves of his life, will be the one. "Don't know!" Richard replied. "I'm still open to taste it all again." However, a decade later Harris disclosed that, apart from "occasional companions, whenever I feel like it" and sex, "now and again" because his "gigantic libido" was "not gigantic any more" and even, at one point, temporarily assisted by Viagra he had "no deep craving" for another great love affair.
"Maybe I'm becoming more compassionate towards other people," he said. "Because I am totally unreliable. I had a big, four-year affair with a girl who was in my stage production of Henry IV, and I realised that when I go for it I open up all the channels, nothing withdrawn, nothing held back. Then, all of a sudden it's over. But what about them? They're left stranded, bobbing around in some ocean, saying, 'He's gone.' That's what happened to that last woman. I really damaged her, in that sense. So now I hold back. And say, 'What's the purpose?' There also is a commitment to love I don't like. Elizabeth and I get on so well and Ann and I because we are not committed to each other. Look at the break-ups of my marriages. I was madly in love with Elizabeth, I was in love with Ann, but there's something in me that cannot sustain it. Relationships go through passionate love, passionate sex, then lose their excitement and end up in a comfort zone. I never wanted that. So, everything there was at home, I wanted the opposite. Even if this means that when the excitement is gone, I'm gone. It's not growing up, isn't it?
'YET having said I've no desire for a great love affair, it may come like that [he snaps his fingers]. Never say never! But I doubt it will."
Indeed. But even though the characteristically paradoxical Harris insisted that he never wanted to end up in a "comfort zone" there's no denying he sustained long, loving relationships with his former wives. So I had to ask him, during our last interview, mightn't that have militated against his ability to commit to other relationships? "I must make this clear," Harris responded. "My relationship with Elizabeth and Ann is not romantic. We're great friends. And, more than that, I feel I am like a Mafioistic figure to them. Anything goes wrong, I take care of it. But it's been a long time since either fulfilled my romantic needs."
Even so, when Richard was finally drawn into the "comfort zone" of death he once described dying to me in those terms, saying "death will be a great relief" Elizabeth Rees-Williams and Ann Turkel were by his side. Indeed, at one stage, after Harris had undergone chemotherapy to try cure cancer of the lymphatic system, Turkel moved her hands over his body, saying to herself, "I'm going to heal him." And the last thing she actually said to Harris was, "Don't go yet, it's not your time to go to the other side. Stay here with us."
No doubt Elizabeth and her three sons, Damien, 43, Jared, 40 and Jamie, 38 as well as his grand-daughter Ella, aged 12 whispered similar prayers. And after Richard did go to "the other side" his sons and first wife decided to have "one final Guinness" in the presence of the man. Meaning, in effect, Richard still was luring Liz into his "evil ways" beyond his death! Because she'd never drank Guinness.
Yet as they made that final toast Elizabeth Harris the name she uses nowadays dipped her fingers in that Guinness then brushed it over her dead husband's lips. So who do you think, after all the loves of Richard Harris's life, was "the one"? You tell me.
Joe Jackson 2002
Richard Harris will be Joe Jackson's 'guest' in 'Under the Influence' on RTE Radio One at 5pm on St Stephen's Day. The 'Late Late Show' will present a Richard Harris tribute the following night at 9.30.