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The Times (05/Apr/2005) - The truth about Hitchcock and those cool blondes

(c) The Times (05/Apr/2005)

The truth about Hitchcock and those cool blondes

Twenty-five years after Alfred Hitchcock's death his biographer reveals the enigma of the man he knew. On following pages Tippi Hedren describes her troubled relationship with the director and Hitch’s daughter Patricia says he was unfairly maligned

Hitch was white as a sheet, and visibly shaking. For a moment I couldn’t make out whether this was because he was in the grip of barely suppressed fury — he prided himself on not being able to lose his temper, but that sort of superficial equanimity always comes at a price — or whether he was merely anguished. Enlightenment came soon enough.

“What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” he wailed, or as near wailed as his habitual stentorian enunciation would permit.

“What’s the problem?” I asked innocently. “You know the part of the dodgy medium (in his last film, Family Plot, which he was then casting)? Well, they want me to use this girl Li-za Minn-ell-i. And she would be completely wrong. What am I going to do?” I was so shocked at his attitude that, without thinking, I blurted out, “You say no. You’re Alfred Hitchcock. What can they do to you?”

“Oh, you don’t know. Terrible things; they can do terrible things.”

I have often thought about this little scene. After all, what could they have done to him? Even at 75, he was Alfred Hitchcock, and any company in Hollywood would have jumped at the chance of having a new Hitchcock film on their books. But not in his mind: that is the point. For him, at least in his more paranoid moments, they could have done the most terrible thing of all: they could have stopped him making films.

One day, after he had finished shooting Family Plot — yes, of course, with the casting he wanted — I thought of doing back-to-back interviews with the two senior Hollywood film-makers I knew best, Hitchcock and George Cukor, on the subject of surviving.

The two men were almost exact contemporaries, both born in 1899, and temperamentally could hardly have differed more. But on one thing they were in total agreement: nix on retirement. When I asked Hitch whether he ever contemplated the possibility of retiring he gave a (this time totally histrionic) shudder, and said “I think that is the most horrible idea. What would I do? Sit in a corner and read a book?” But then, though Hitch was without doubt the film-maker who most successfully played Hollywood at its own game, making by and large the films he wanted to and convincing Hollywood studios that this was what they had wanted all along, he was always the first to say that he was afraid of everyone and everything. Indeed, the way that he managed deviously through the years to arrange that life around him was a game played entirely by his rules suggests the defensive strategy of a timid but cunning man.

Above all, he hated confrontations. It was one of the worst happenings of his life when Roy Thinnes, fired early in the shooting of Family Plot from the role of the master kidnapper, actually turned up at Chasen’s, the Beverly Hills restaurant where the Hitchcocks were dining at their own personal table, and begged a face-to-face explanation. Another which permanently marked him was the parting of the ways which came with Tippi Hedren about halfway through the shooting of Marnie.

He had refused her permission to fly off to New York over the weekend to take part in a charity event she was involved with, at which she was to receive an award.

She took this amiss, and then, according to Hitch, “She said something no one is permitted to say.”

“What did she say? What did she say?” I quizzed him eagerly. “She, um, referred to my weight” (if that’s how you define calling him a “fat pig” in front of the assembled crew). Ever after that, on set, it was “Would you ask Miss Hedren..? ” “Would you tell Mr Hitchcock..? ” Mention of Hedren raises of course the vexed question of what, exactly, were Hitch’s relations with those cool blondes with a sizzle of sexuality beneath the frosty exterior. This fascinated me when I was working on my biography. Claims put forward subsequently that the break between Hitch and Hedren was precipitated by his violently putting the make on her I just did not believe. I knew Tippi while I was in Los Angeles, and she never even hinted at anything of the sort but admitted, retrospectively, that what she most resented, that he was unreasonably possessive, was entirely unconscious on his part.

But there other, less clear-cut examples. Joan Harrison, for instance.

You would not call Hitch a ladies’ man in any conventional sense, but he always loved and felt most comfortable in the company of women, and always in his professional life liked to be surrounded by capable members of the sex. Joan Harrison was certainly capable: she became the first female independent producer in Hollywood. She was also exceptionally glamorous, in the prescribed cool blonde fashion.

She went over to Hollywood with Hitch (and family, of course) in 1939, and was known shortly after to have had a flaming affair with Clark Gable. She was widely assumed to be Hitch’s mistress as well. Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s personal assistant for his last 30 years, told me that when she first arrived in Hollywood people kept asking her shamelessly if she was to be Joan’s successor in every sense (nudge, nudge).

Being the forthright, jolly-hockeysticks English lady she was, Peggy went straight to Hitch and asked if being his mistress like Joan was one of her duties. Hitch registered shock-horror. “I can safely tell you that I was never between the sheets with Joan.”

“Well, that’s not saying much,” said Peggy; “What about in the hay, on the hearthrug, on the kitchen table?” More shock-horror. “Do people really do things like that?” said Hitch.

A footnote: the subject once came up in conversation with the actor John Houseman. He was categorical: “I would put my hand in the fire to swear she was never his mistress. I ought to know, because for some time she was mine.”

People often ask me what Hitch was like as a friend, man-to-man and all that. I don’t really know: it is not really a concept that springs readily to mind in relation to Hitch. I can answer only from my own experience.

I do know that he was never deeply friendly with any of his famous stars, even if, as with Cary Grant and James Stewart, he liked them and worked with them as often as possible. I should say that he decided immediately whether he liked you or not, but it was a long process of auditioning, either literally or metaphorically before he would decide whether he could trust you. This mattered, because if he gave you his trust, it had to be complete and unquestioning.

One thing I am sure of: he emphatically did not identify with the heroes of his own films: Cary Grant was never to him a wishful version of himself. Indeed, after he told me all about the bad dreams and creative uncertainties he had while tormenting Tippi Hedren in The Birds, it occurred to me that it was actually his heroines that he identified with. Which makes him a masochist rather than the sadist of legend, doesn’t it?

The playwright Rodney Ackland, who worked with Hitch in the 1930s, was at the time one of the few openly gay men in British cinema, and found that Hitch was immensely curious about all that. Once, Ackland told me, Hitch confided coyly: “You know, if I hadn’t met Alma at the right time, I might have been a poof.”

Chance would be a fine thing, thought Rodney.

From the first, once I had arrived to teach in Los Angeles, I found Hitch a generous, confiding and very amusing friend, who seemed to want to know as much about me as I wanted to know about him. Cary Grant told me that he thought he got on well with Hitch from the first because “at least I knew what liquorice allsorts were”, and no doubt that applied in my case also. David O. Selznick, the producer who first brought Hitch to Hollywood under contract, gradually got to know him personally and wrote to Irene Selznick in 1939, after spending a social evening with Hitch, that he was “not a bad guy, shorn of affectation, though not exactly a man to go camping with”. Well, there’s no arguing with that!

But what of all the tales of his cruelty, and the assumption that anyone famous, as Hitchcock was, for his practical jokes must be somehow coarse-grained and brutal? (Even though Hitch’s practical jokes, like sneaking a horse into Gerald du Maurier’s dressing room to greet him inexplicably at the interval, are more surreal than anything else.) At least one thing in my experience of him goes right against the popular judgment.

When I had completed my biography I had to twist his arm even to read the typescript. When he did, he came up with just one request for omission. It was the story about his being taught to dance by the father of Edith Thompson, his favourite English murderess. Whatever for, I asked; it’s such a wonderfully bizarre idea. He explained that when he had his first job, for an electric-wire company, there was a company social club at which the young gentlemen were taught to dance by senior gentlemen, and the young ladies by senior ladies. (It would have been improper for them to learn with each other.) The man who taught Hitch, a Mr Graydon, had two daughters, one of whom worked in the same office, so Hitch knew her well, the other just around the corner, so Hitch saw quite a lot of her, too. A few years later the second daughter, now married, became famous as Edith Thompson, the last woman for many years to be hanged. Years later still Hitch’s sister, like him a devout Roman Catholic, met the other sister, still Miss Graydon, at some kind of church function. They became friendly, and the next time Hitch was in London he was reintroduced to Miss Graydon over the teacups. It became a little ritual of his sister’s, and the lady started sending him birthday and Christmas cards.

Now whenever he saw her, said Hitch, he found himself considering. The connection with a famous murderess never came up, and he presumed this must be the great secret of her life. “I look into her eyes, and I am sure I can see her asking: does he or doesn’t he know? Now obviously she is going to read your book, and if that story is in it she will know for sure that I do. John, would you want to break an old lady’s heart?”

Who would have expected him to be so solicitous over the wellbeing of someone he hardly even knew? So, of course, I took it out. But there is a coda. During the proof stage of the book I got a call from Hitch. “You know that story? Well, you can put it back in. I just heard that she died.”