Joan Collins: ‘I couldn’t bear to be married to someone my own age’
The actress is about to unleash her caustic diaries. She tells Josh Glancy about toy boys, tantrums and why cancel culture needs to be cancelled..
Dame Joan Collins breezes into her baroque drawing room and plonks herself down on the hunter green velvet sofa. We don’t “mwah mwah” for obvious reasons, and she seems far from thrilled to be here. Her big sunglasses stay on.
“How are you?” I inquire tentatively. “Pretty stressed,” she replies.
The problem we are facing is that Collins is going on holiday to Mallorca the following day and our interview is eating into her packing time. It should be noted that packing for Collins is rather different from packing for you or me: she has been known to take 16 suitcases on her travels. And on top of that, she’s double-booked, facing a photoshoot immediately after our chat.
Who’s responsible for this disaster, she wonders. Her agent? Her book publicist? She casts around the room for a culprit. I step in. “This is my fault,” I admit, pointing out that our first interview was postponed because a lunch date of mine came down with the dreaded virus, and I certainly didn’t want to be the guy who gave Joan Collins Covid.
The real mood killer, though, is not me or my Covid-afflicted friend but The Mail on Sunday, which has just printed a story about Collins supposedly having an affair with the patrician Tory MP Alan Clark that is “an absolute, 100 per cent lie”. The offending anecdote is taken from documentary maker Michael Cockerell’s new memoir. Collins was “appalled” by the story and is trying to put her lawyer on it. “I’ve never heard of this Cockerell chap,” she says dismissively.
Oh, he’s very well known, I assure her, before realising this is really not what she wants to hear. She sends me a withering glare. I’m starting to wonder if this interview is heading off a cliff. Then suddenly she breaks out into a Hollywood smile. The sunglasses come off. Collins is a pro and we’re going to have a good time, despite the tabloid calumnies and unpacked Louis Vuittons. “I’m always happy because I’m a very happy person,” she says, those famous mint green eyes twinkling.
She is particularly happy about her new book, My Unapologetic Diaries, which is what has brought me to perhaps the last homely house in London’s Belgravia, an area pitted with ambassadorial residences and kleptocrat safe houses. Hardly anyone clapped for NHS carers on her street, she laments. “It was pathetic. It’s people who buy these flats as an investment, mostly Chinese and Middle Eastern.”
Anyway, the book. For about 15 years or so, from when the hit TV show Dynasty ended until the final Concorde flight in 2003 (with a few later entries), the actress (she doesn’t like “actor”), author and generally fabulous A-list personality kept a sporadic voice diary, recorded on a Dictaphone. Now she’s had these diaries transcribed and edited for publication.
The result is an extraordinary collection of Hollywood tittle-tattle, jet-set extravagance and caustic zingers that will either enchant or repel you, depending on your proclivities. Imagine if Michael Winner’s Sunday Times restaurant column and Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries had a love child.
She will hate me for saying this, but meeting Collins is a bit like stepping back in time. Her drawing room resembles that of a National Trust house, the walls covered in portraits of long-forgotten grandees. Above her head on the sofa is a huge painting of a fresh-faced dame. Any idea who? “She was the duchess of Austria or something,” Collins assures me. “Nothing to do with me. I just like this kind of room.” The only modern portrait I can spy is one of herself, a pop art affair by Patrick Nagel.
The daughter of theatrical agent Joseph Collins and Elsa, a dance teacher, Joan was just nine when she made her London stage debut, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. By her early twenties she was living in Los Angeles with her name in lights, after being signed to a contract with 20th Century Fox. She appeared in movies such as I Believe in You (1952) and Land of the Pharaohs (1955), starred alongside Richard Burton (whose advances she fended off in Jamaica) and Paul Newman, and had affairs with a lascivious young Warren Beatty (which she described as like being “an oyster in a slot machine”) and a married Harry Belafonte (“mesmerising”). Of all her many roles, it was her turn as the endlessly fabulous, relentlessly catty Alexis Carrington Colby in the 1980s television phenomenon Dynasty that made the most lasting impression.
It’s no exaggeration, then, to describe Collins as one of the last remaining links to Hollywood’s golden age. Her book is peppered with references to Jack Lemmon (“adorable”), Gregory Peck (“dull but adorable”) and Tony Curtis (“exuberant”). It is crammed with absurdly decadent sentences such as “tracked Roger Moore down on his mobile in Montreux in Switzerland, where he was buying shoes” and “met Farah, the ex-Empress of Iran. She was very friendly. Very bejewelled.” Or, my favourite: “I compliment her [Diana] on how lovely she looks and she’s so modest. I ask if I can send her my beauty book and she seems pleased.”
While on her adventures Collins flits through the grand palaces of the 1990s — Le Dôme, Le Cirque, Chateau Marmont, the Ritz, the Ivy — where agents are fired, caviar is guzzled and withering insults are delivered. She gets stuck next to a senescent Frank Sinatra at dinner and discusses sex with Oliver Stone (a subject he was “terribly interested in”). It’s a blizzard of boldface names, some long faded, others — Donald Trump (“ungallant schmuck”), Jennifer Aniston (“I’ve never seen such slender arms”), Cara Delevingne (Collins’s goddaughter, “a very free girl”) — still very much in the spotlight.
Collins is refreshingly, amusingly immodest and direct throughout. She recalls going to see 101 Dalmatians, a film in which she narrowly missed out on playing Cruella de Vil. “God, what a piece of shit!” is her not very impartial assessment. “Without too many sour grapes or bitterness, I thought Glenn Close was perfectly awful as Cruella de Vil. I really wanted to play this role and would have done anything, well almost, to get it. She plays it totally without humour and without any kind of vulnerability.” She also takes in an early season of a new hit called Friends, insisting that The Nanny, a long-forgotten sitcom that she made a guest appearance on, is “an infinitely better show”. She condemns the talk-show comedian Jay Leno as “one of the unfunniest men in America, as well as one of the most unattractive” and receives a tour of her sister Jackie’s LA mansion. “God, it is so huge,” she muses. “I would hate to stay in a house this gargantuan.”
I wonder if delving into these acerbic archives made her feel nostalgic at all for her youth, for those departed matinee idols and the now distant Hollywood glory years. “I don’t live with nostalgia, I live in the present,” she says. Besides, she never loved LA the way she does London, often finding Tinseltown a place of emptiness, insecurity and insomnia. Casting-couch culture was also rife at the time. She has recalled how big-time producers like Darryl Zanuck (who kept a gold statue of his penis on his desk) pursued her relentlessly, but says she rebuffed their advances — at some cost — “I lost a few roles because [of it].” Not least, she says, the part of Cleopatra in the 1963 blockbuster, which eventually went to her friend and rival Elizabeth Taylor. Her best defence against pervy moguls was a right knee to the groin of whichever lech was on her case. “I felt I was an early feminist, before it became a dirty word,” she says. “I believed in living my life as freely as a man.”
Anyway, she insists, the real Hollywood golden age was during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the era of Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr and Rita Hayworth. Collins just caught the tail end of it. “All of those people are gone. Perhaps I’m associated with that era because there are very few surviving people that were actually working in movies in the 1950s. Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, who else?”
I realise she wants me to answer this. I don’t know. “You’re not a film buff then,” she observes tartly, making me feel the size of a paperclip. She’s fantastically, terrifyingly sharp. (Later, with the help of Google, I come up with Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine.)
So what was it like then, I wonder, seeing the great Sinatra in his dotage. She describes a confused, childlike figure who interrupted speeches to ask if it was time to go home yet. “There’s a certain embarrassment about old age,” Collins says dolefully. “It’s sadness, pity and remembering them in their prime. As a schoolgirl I thought Frank Sinatra was the crème de la crème. There’s something sad about seeing people getting closer to death.”
Which leads me to territory I’m afraid to enter but feel I must. Collins prefers not to discuss her age. (Needless to say, she absolutely does not look it.) Does she ever hear time’s winged chariot at her back?
She prickles, whipping out the old showbiz line: “Age is a number and mine is unlisted.” Her doctor, she tells me, says she’s more like a woman in her sixties than in the “bleeugghh blahhhh other number” whose name she refuses to speak. “He said I’m incredibly robust, I don’t have any illnesses.” At this point she insists on getting up to touch a wooden sidetable for luck.
This is a minefield, but I keep going because her age defiance is so striking. Collins has done everything, been everywhere, met everyone, yet she’s still making movies, writing books, giving interviews. Alongside her new diaries she is currently working on a documentary about her life with the BBC, featuring home-cinema footage of her behind closed doors with the many stars who have populated her life. She’s also considering publishing her Covid diaries. Is she not tempted to, well, put her feet up?
I’ve crossed the line. “I think that’s a f***ing rude question,” she says. “Don’t f***ing ask me that question, don’t use that word, ‘retire’.” I explain that the question really comes from a place of admiration for her enduring zest: if they could bottle Joan Collins’s vitality, it would be a priceless elixir.
The compliment sort of placates her. “Us who have gotten older feel like we are allowed to work in a profession that has to use older people,” she says. “There’s a perception about getting old that’s outdated. People are living longer and living healthier. Henry Mancini’s wife [the singer Ginny O’Connor] is about 95 and she goes disco dancing every week.”
Another project Collins is working with is a Sony-backed biographical TV series called Joan and Jackie, which tells the story of Collins and her similarly glamorous sister Jackie, who followed her out to LA and became a romantic-fiction author and publishing juggernaut. At one point the sisters even joined forces, with Joan starring in two hit film adaptations of Jackie’s racy books, The Stud (1978) and The Bitch (1979).
It is the sixth anniversary of Jackie’s death the week of our interview, and Joan has published an Instagram post showing a tender picture of her as a young girl cuddling her baby sister. She still misses Jackie terribly. “It’s very sad,” she says. “For the first couple of years I’d think about things and think, ‘Oh, I must tell Jackie that,’ then I’d think, ‘Oh, she’s gone.’ We were very, very close, most of the time. Unfortunately there was a bit of a rift in the early Eighties, I’m not quite sure why. I’m still trying to find out.”
At this point she pops out for a bottle of water, still thinking about her sister. “When I say a rift, Jackie hated the man I was married to,” she says, walking back in. “Quite frankly, so did I. When I said I’m going to marry Peter Holm, she said if you do I’ll never speak to you again. I said, you don’t mean that, and she didn’t of course.”
Collins is now on her fifth husband, Percy Gibson, a film producer who is more than 30 years her junior. (When asked about the age gap, she has been known to say: “If he dies, he dies.”) To call her romantic history uneven is putting it mildly. Her first husband was Maxwell Reed, a Northern Irish actor who raped her and took her virginity at age 17 after drugging her drink, an experience she described as “awful and degrading” in her memoir, Passion for Life. She wrote that she married Reed out of a sense of obligation, because they had “done it”. It didn’t last long, though, and Collins moved on to the actor and songwriter Anthony Newley, with whom she had two children, Tara and Sacha.
Next came Ron Kass, who managed the Beatles, and their daughter, Katy. Then a short stint with the dreaded Holm, a singer and playboy whom she found to be such an unpleasant bully that for years she would only refer to him as “the Swede”. Then at long last she met Gibson, who is “absolutely, without a doubt” the best of the bunch. This February will be their 20th wedding anniversary and Collins is considering a platinum cigarette case as a present. The jovial Gibson pokes his head round the door to say hello at one point. Collins lights up — “Hello meeee,” she trills.
“He’s the best, I can’t imagine life without him,” she says. “He’s the rock that holds our family together. Thank God I married somebody 30 years younger than me. I couldn’t bear to be married to someone my own age.”
Yet even this most blissful of unions was challenged by the claustrophobia of lockdown. Collins spent days walking around her drawing room for exercise, devouring television in bed and raging at the builders who have been chuntering up and down the scaffolding outside her building for the past nine months.
“I was fearful,” she says. “We were sanitising our newspapers, I would not go to the supermarket. Percy would go and then we’d sanitise everything.” They ploughed through various box sets, notably Good Girls, The Queen’s Gambit and Ray Donovan, and chatted to the odd passing friend from their balcony. Now she’s had her booster jab and is fighting to get back to normality. She’s been to the theatre three times, visited America, France and now Spain. She’s determined to “get back to living”.
Unfortunately, though, Collins is finding the air of national suffering a bit of a downer. “It’s not wrong to want to have a good time, it’s what we all deserve as people,” she says. “For people to say, ‘Oh, we all have to suffer, we’re suffering, prices are going up, there are no lorry drivers, we’re not going to have any heating during the winter,’ well, you can’t all sit around and suffer. I believe that life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Spectator columnist and titan of old Hollywood, Collins comes down pretty firmly on the “anti” side of the woke wars and says she “leans Tory” nowadays. She is furious about the Insulate Britain motorway protests. “I think it’s an outrage that they’re allowed to close the M25, protesting about insulation. How can a person who earns minimum wage afford to insulate their house? It’s a joke. It’s an absolute joke. It’s a joke that the police can go up and say, ‘Do you need anything?’ to these people. If they glue themselves to something, why do they have to be unglued?”
Collins may have become just a tad reactionary in her later years, but she’s far from a relic. She follows the culture wars carefully and reads the media landscape astutely. Apart from the odd “anodyne” post, she largely steers clear of social media due to cancel culture.
“I don’t want to engage in any way, shape or form with these morons,” she says. Perhaps this is why she doesn’t want to comment on Prince Harry and Meghan either. “I think they’ve had enough oxygen in the press,” she states icily.
When she’s not taking umbrage at activists, Collins likes to savour each day, particularly her breakfast coffee and newspaper routine. But mornings haven’t been the same since Piers Morgan stormed off the set of Good Morning Britain. “He’s more interesting than any of them,” she says. Her gripe with Britain today is that, Morgan aside, no one feels able to speak freely. “People can’t say what they think, because they’ll get cancelled,” she says. “Dredging up tweets from 15 years ago, about what somebody might have said when they were 14, I think that’s sick.” She also “hates the way they are disavowing Churchill, who saved us, saved us from the Nazis. I was too young at the time to realise, but they were on our doorstep. If it hadn’t been for Churchill we would all be walking around with swastikas.”
After an hour of jawing about Hollywood and history, I’m struck by how dreary everyday existence seems compared with the fairytale of her satin and velvet world. The sheer 16-suitcase, champagne-for-breakfast exuberance of it all feels so distant from the screen-addled introversion of modern life.
Reminiscing with Joan Collins is like having lunch at the Ritz with Roger Moore, opening a bottle of Bollinger at Ciro’s with Frank Sinatra and heading to a cocktail party at Valentino Garavani’s house with Princess Margaret all at once. It’s a world that you can’t inhabit and possibly wouldn’t want to. But as the lights of high 20th-century glamour continue to dim, I’m glad she’s still here, showing the rest of us just how brightly a life can shine.
My Unapologetic Diaries by Joan Collins is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on October 14 at £20