My Hollywood nightmare

The Bug’s political commentator concludes the tale of his special mission to Hollywood where he was sent in 1955 by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies to drum up export deals for Australians films.

As I detailed in my column yesterday, Prime Minister Menzies appointed me as his personal troubleshooter in Hollywood, with a brief to open doors in the US to more Australian films.

I must say I enjoyed my stay in Hollywood even if it meant living apart from my good lady wife Devon for some considerable period of time.

My time there gave me many fond memories of “Tinsel Town” and those who live and work there.

I recall sailing off Catalina island in Errol Flynn’s yatch – just Errol and me and on each occasion a different one of his very young nieces.

So many memories – rolling cigarettes for Humphrey Bogart, teaching Grace Kelly to drive and getting a massage – several in fact in one day and all free of charge – from Rock Hudson.

But, I digress.

But one particular memory has always been most painful – almost shameful. It is one I have always refrained from disclosing. Until now.

It concerns an episode in my life of which I am not proud.

Fate can take a person on some strange journeys. For me, one such journey began on a Saturday night at a typical Hollywood party.

I had been invited to the shindig at the Bel Air home of a major movie studio executive in my official capacity as Special Envoy on the Australian Film Industry.

When I arrived the house was filled with guests and some were already spilling out onto a terrace overlooking a huge, floodlit, swimming pool.

I collected a drink from the bar and stood at the open French doors leading out to the terrace. 

It was there that I saw her, standing alone, leaning on the terrace railing, and seemingly lost in the crowd, and lost in thought.

Elizabeth Taylor looked somewhat smaller than I had imagined her to be.

To this day I do not know what propelled me towards her and gave me the courage to strike up a conversation. (main picture)

Actually, I tell a lie. I made a bee-line for her simply to avoid Rock Hudson who was waving at me from across the room. I couldn’t have suffered another one of his massages especially not since he had begun using what he said was a traditional Nordic technique requiring him to be fully naked.

I raised my glass to him and walked swiftly in the opposite direction through the crowd on the terrace.

After introducing myself to her, Elizabeth Taylor seemed genuinely interested in me and my job on behalf of the Australian film industry.

She spoke quietly, leaning back on the railing, fixing me with her gorgeous eyes and occasionally looking past me and over my shoulder – as people do in Hollywood.

I had already learned not to interpret such action as bad manners. It was all part of the modus operandi of a town that thrives and survives on personal contacts – keeping an eye out for the rich and powerful who may help your next step up the ladder of success.

Elizabeth soon entranced me with her lively anecdotes of fellow actors and the intimate details to which she was privy about some of Hollywood’s biggest movers and shakers.

I frankly admit to being besotted by her extraordinary charms and complete lack of pretence – something rarely found in Hollywood at that time, or even today I imagine.

At one point as she looked over my should I saw her eyes light up and widen before she winked at someone whose presence I could feel behind me.

Suddenly we were joined by Robert Mitchum and, after introductions by Elizabeth and some small talk, he offered us each a hand-rolled cigarette which he said was “very special”.

These days it is something of a social no-no to admit to being a smoker. But back then I – like many other Australians – was unaware of the dangers of smoking and readily and regularly consumed up to a packet of unfiltered Capstans in a day and, on special occasions, luxuriated in a Grosvenor Club cigar, the same brand Menzies smoked.

Even the big, athletic stars smoked cigarettes or cigars in those days.

I well recall Rock Hudson telling me he enjoyed nothing better than sucking on a Cuban – an act which was then still legal in the US in the pre-Castro days.

The roll-your-owns Mitchum provided certainly had a kick. So much so that the remainder of that night is a complete blank.

I woke up hundreds of miles away in a Las Vegas hotel bed, naked except for a thin covering of confetti from head to toe.

Beside me, under the bedsheets, was a still-sleeping and snoring Elizabeth, wearing a white lace veil and nothing else.

I could tell by the state of the bed linen, and the soreness of my most intimate extremities, that physical congress had occurred between us, possibly many times, during the night.

My watch showed it was late morning, but the drawn curtains made the room almost pitch black.

In the dark, I stared at the ceiling for some time, trying to make sense of it all.

My head pounded and I was sweating profusely. I felt drained and unable to move.

Finally, when I summoned enough energy to get out of bed, I was horrified to find on the bedside table a long, crisp, white envelope with two intertwined hearts and the greeting, “Congratulations from La Chapelle d’Amour, Las Vegas”, embossed in gold on its front.

With shaking hands I opened it. After doing so it seemed I had opened my own Pandora’s Box, such was the mixture of panic, terror, disgust and repulsion that spread over me. I slumped back on the bed.

My movements must have woken Elizabeth, for she reached out in the dark with one hand and stroked my back before running her hand down to a region of my body which, in the interest of modesty, I shall refrain from specifying. Suddenly she stopped.

“Bob?” she said. Then she opened her eyes and sat bolt upright.

“Jesus, you’re not Bob Mitchum,” she said, covering herself with the bedsheets.

By mid-morning we were 400 miles away in the small Nevada town of Reno, thanks to some high-speed but expert driving by Elizabeth’s chauffeur.

I had decided not to mention to Elizabeth my existing marriage to my good lady wife Devon back in Australia – not to be dishonest, but to avoid any delays.

This would not have been a problem anyway because the divorce was processed in less than an hour with few questions asked by the state judge at the small court office which Elizabeth’s agent had pulled strings to have opened on a Sunday morning.

I was relieved to be putting an end to a brief, and perhaps the most unfortunate, event in my life to date.

Outside the Reno court house as I trotted beside her moving car and spoke through a partially opened back window, I asked Elizabeth if she would keep our short-lived marriage a secret.

She readily agreed, before her limousine sped off. 

Elizabeth kept her word and to this day any profiles written about her mention her eight marriages, not the real figure of nine. I, too have kept publicly the secret until now.

On my return to Australia I agonised for weeks about whether I should tell Devon of my fleeting union with one of the world’s most beautiful and admired women.

I finally could not carry the burden of guilt any longer and, shaking with remorse and fear, told her all.

To spare Devon pain as much as possible, I had intended to refrain from detailing the intensely physical nature of my fleeting marriage to Elizabeth especially since my wife and I, at her insistence, were yet to consummate our own.

But, always a stickler for minutia, my wife insisted on being told every aspect of the illicit interlude, even down to the most graphic of carnal technicalities.

Although it was unpleasant for me to do so, I bowed to her wishes and was surprised at how understanding and accepting she was about the whole sordid episode, and indeed how many graphic details she sought.

She comforted me somewhat by readily admitting that, had she been in my position, she would have done the same.

Rufus Badinage MBE, now retired, is one of Australia’s leading experts on politics and public administration having worked as a senior bureaucrat for various state and federal governments.