Readers of this magazine will have enjoyed Joan Collins’s diaries, and her Past Imperfect was one of the funniest showbiz autobiographies ever. (One of her beauty tips: ‘Never eat rancid nuts.’) She started as a Rank teenage starlet who, after being beckoned to Hollywood, was given B-roles because ‘I wouldn’t be “nice” to studio heads and it gave me a reputation of being a bitch’. More accurately, her ex-fiancé Warren Beatty called her ‘Butterfly’ —always fluttering on to some new project, even now at the age of 88.
I love gossip and was looking forward to a wagonload of it in these diaries, written between 1989 to 2006, ‘when I felt like it’. I wasn’t disappointed.
Everyone gets served — even ‘The Master’ himself: ‘Very strange grammar… continual use of the word “nice”… Coward had quite a small vocabulary.’ Alan Ladd Jnr is ‘very dull, but then so was his father who I tested with at the age of 18 — as I was taller than him, he had to walk on a raised plinth… I told Junior the story but he wasn’t amused.’ Poor old Captain Kirk probably wishes he could be beamed up: ‘I ask Bill Shatner a few questions — is he MC-ing, is he introducing me? — he seems not to know the answer to any of these questions. In fact, he seems not to know why he’s here at all.’ Faye Dunaway’s ‘ass looks like it’s been sliced off in a bacon slicer’ and ‘Liza has put a lot of weight on around the face, probably due to drink or substances… she grabbed me and put me on her knee crooning “My baby, I’ve missed you”… cringe-making.’ The Cosby Show is ‘as funny as a funeral’. Reading the script for the TV show The Nanny she observes: ‘This is even worse than Empire of the Ants.’
It’s not just individual people and projects Collins looks unkindly upon. Her impatience with Hollywood itself, where parties end at 9.30 p.m., is palpable. The south of France seems to be her spiritual home, where asking for a glass of wine with lunch is not regarded as the first step towards rolling in the gutter clutching a bottle of Buckfast, and where she spends a good part of the year. She likes London, too, where she lives in some style in Mayfair. Playing an after-dinner game called ‘What have you never done?’, Prince Andrew reveals that he has never been into a supermarket. A young Princess Diana asks her: ‘How do you stand it, the press and paparazzi all the time?’ Collins answers sensibly: ‘You just have to ignore them as much as possible.’
She is funny on the travails of celebrity. After waiting for hours in Cologne to do a television interview which will allegedly ‘illustrate my seriousness as a human being’, she is introduced as ‘the Denver Beast, a man-eater who has had four husbands and many lovers’, while the first question is: ‘Do you think men should wear underwear?’ Ghosts come and go. Paula Yates, baby on her hip, offers to pleasure A.A. Gill in a public place; and of course there’s Jackie, a wonderful woman, who, in contradiction of the modern celebrity way of making PTSD out of a stubbed toe, was diagnosed with cancer six years before her death in 2015 and kept it to herself, telling her sister only two weeks before she died.
Collins has kept her marbles while all her showbiz cohorts are losing theirs, so it makes sense that she has been married to a man 31 years her junior (her fifth husband) for the past two decades. Being yoked to a fellow 88-year-old would be ludicrous. She does show her age at times, romanticising the Hollywood of her youth, which in Past Imperfect sounded pretty grim, and the grande dame in her finds too many things ‘appalling’ and ‘ghastly’ and ‘frightful’ — this book needed a strict editor. There’s a surreal moment when she sits down at a fancy showbiz dinner with ‘Mick Jones of the Clash — he was very friendly’. Except it’s Mick Jones of Foreigner.
When in 1997 she’s awarded the OBE for services to drama, there’s a lovely moment when Paul McCartney, about to get his knighthood, hugs her and says: ‘Hello, luv, you nervous?’ Suddenly we’re back in that sunny 1960s hinterland before everything fun was a problem.
And what’s this, in September 1999? ‘A very intellectual lunch at The Spectator offices. Boris Johnson, the editor, looks like he brushes his hair with an egg-beater.’ At the White House, she is rather more impressed by Bill Clinton; when he points out a chunk of black rock from the Moon almost three and a half billion years old, ‘I surprised myself by answering “Almost as old as me!”’ This doesn’t put off Buddy, the First Dog, who tries to hump her right leg.
New Year’s Eve finds Joan in unusually gloomy mood: ‘Something awful is going to happen, like a world pandemic.’ But what the 21st century actually brought was a damehood, her beloved Brexit and her adored Percy. (‘If he dies, he dies!’ she quipped of falling in love with a man in his thirties when in her sixties.) And a world pandemic, of course.
Most women believe that their lives would have been better had they been more beautiful. Collins is one of the few who might have been happier if born plainer — rather like Hedy Lamar, who become so bored with being a film star that she started a second career as a scientist. Collins is too sharp for the ceaseless schmoozing: ‘Lots of compliments on how great we all looked — blah blah!’ But then, she does have a second career; she is an actress-turned-wit, like Mrs Patrick Campbell. ‘Fame is a mask that eats the face’ ambitious adolescents are warned by wary adults. If a bookish girl from Paddington can end up as this fabulous creature, good.