Monthly Archives: March 2013

Dame Elizabeth Taylor

Playing “grab ass” with a real Hollywood Dame

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton - breakfast with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

I sent a letter of congratulations when Elizabeth Taylor was named a Dame Commander of the Britsh Empire in 2000, and told her she deserved it. Not only for her acting ability but for her unstinting generosity to hundreds of desperately sick children all over the world, and her unselfish work in raising money for AIDS charities. She wrote back and thanked me, enclosing an autographed photograph of herself cuddling her little dog, Sugar. I’d like to show it here, but some bugger pinched it. Instead there is a picture I took of Elizabeth (She HATED being called Liz) and Richard Burton on the set of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf. 

A few photographers, including me, were invited to “Breakfast with the Burtons” then watch them rehearsing a scene from the film. After a scrambled eggs and champagne, we were soon clicking away with our cameras while Richard and Elizabeth fought and argued rehearsing a scene from Virginia Woolf.  It was acting. It wasn’t real and yet weeks later many magazines ran articles LIZ AND RICHARD… KNOCK DOWN BATTLES − splashing pix of them fighting all over the papers.  There was no mention the pix were taken on the set at Warner Bros. It was lies, and the photographers had been treated to a champagne breakfast.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth  had to endure bad publicity all her life because it sells magazines. From age 12, when she first starred in National Velvet, she has been on the cover of more magazines than any other star. Why? − because Elizabeth Taylor sold magazines − her marriages − ex husbands − her jewelry.  Her so-called affairs all made juicy headlines − but quite often the reports are wrong, or wildly exaggerated. Elizabeth Taylor may be a Dame, but she’s no lady, and I mean that in the nicest way. Elizabeth was a REAL woman − loving, caring, bitchy , she smoked, swore,  drank booze  with no holier-than- thou attitude. All her life she had been followed by leeches cashing in on her rich lifestyle and the paparazzi close behind waiting to catch her off guard, sneezing, smoking, yelling, crying. Who could she trust? Certainly not ex-husband Eddie Fisher who wrote endlessly about their sex life complete with intimate pictures.  Would YOU want your bedroom secrets headlines in the national papers? And not just once, but all the time?

Roddy McDowall, the London born actor was Elizabeth’s trusted friend for over sixty years. They became firm friends when filming the Lassie pictures at MGM.  When Elizabeth  needed a true friend, Roddy was there for her, sharing her secret joys and sorrows, his was a trusted shoulder to cry on. He knew all the Hollywood Divas and their intimate secrets but not a word to the press. When he died, there was no glitzy funeral. He knew if there had been, the ceremony would be crawling with paparazzi − zooming on his grieving friends, Elizabeth, Lauren Bacall, Liza and half the stars in Hollywood. Instead, Roddy McDowall’s body was secretly cremated, his ashes scattered at sea. Elizabeth and his friends held a private memorial service at her home, and there were no photographers. Roddy’s mother introduced me to him and he introduced me to Elizabeth. I was the manager of a gourmet shop in Hollywood where Mrs. McDowall, a lovely Scottish lady, was a regular customer. British imports like Cadbury’s chocolate biscuits quickly sold out, so I always kept some aside for Mrs. McDowall. I had no idea who her son was, but he always sent his thanks for biscuits. Later, at a party I saw him with his mother and realized who he was. She introduced us and we became good friends.

Roddy told Elizabeth I could be trusted, even though I wrote for magazines. Never bite the hand that feeds you, was my motto, although I never made a lot of money in Hollywood, I gained many interesting friends. Elvis was one of them. Unfortunately today many lurid exposes of the stars are published, telling all their secrets.  One event I never wrote about happened at a star-studded cocktail party at Warner Bros at a party for the film The Phynx. Elizabeth was there, drinking, laughing telling jokes when Dorothy Lamour sashayed by, fortunately not wearing her skintight sarong. Suddenly Elizabeth leaned forward and smacked Dorothy on her undulating ass. It was a real SMACK and Dotty was mad. She turned around and glared at us all, madder than a wet hen. Immediately Elizabeth pointed at ME. Red faced and flustered, I tried to defend myself while Elizabeth disappeared into the crowd, hysterical with laughter…

Weeks later, at Director’s Guild, I was asked to save the end row seat for Elizabeth who was late. As soon as she entered the theatre I stood up and she sat down, quietly thanking me for keeping her seat. …at the cocktail party after the film, she glared at me. “Thank you for the seat Roger,” she groaned.  “All through the movie, the young guy  in the next seat was trying to grab my ass.”  “Great!” I replied. “D’you want me to find out who it was?”  We both laughed, hysterically.

That’s the Elizabeth Taylor I knew…


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The Berlin Wall

East Germans on the Cuban Trader

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

David Hasselhof, who is very popular in Germany for his singing and Baywatch seems to be in constant reruns there (I think the German’s just fancy all those scenes of sunny beaches) is trying to save a remaining mural covered portion of the Berlin Wall which a developer wants to knock down to build luxury housing. Mr Hasselhof, who gained part of his fame in Germany for singing a hit song there “Looking for Freedom” while performing on top of the wall in 1989, which some Germans credit in part for the fall of the wall, would like to see this portion preserved as a memorial. As a reminder, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 to separate East Berlin from the west and at one point consisted of almost 80 miles of barbed wire topped concrete encircling the west side of Berlin during the socialist/communist regime. 

But before there was an actual wall, the east and west zones were divided more simply by barbed wire and guard posts, but like the impetus in the US now to “build a fence”, the desire of East German’s to escape to more freedom in the west mounted to a desperate flood. In my time on the Cuban Trader, if heard many of these stories. Young Helmut was shot by the Russian guards while scrambling under the barbed wire. Helmut got thru but his younger brother got caught in the wire concertina coils and the guards dragged him back into East Berlin. Helmet never saw his brother again.   

The crew of the ship were mixed Polish and Germans from East Germany. Many had crossed to West Berlin where there were recruiting agencies for the Liberian ships…usually jobs any experienced seamen wouldn’t take… I took the job because it was almost triple the wages I was getting and in any case Officers were well paid and certainly treated a lot better.

The recruitment agencies in West Berlin usually promised these ignorant, desperate youths all kinds of perks, showing them pix of luxury passenger cruise ships, then signed them for two or three years  (without passports) shipping them like cattle to the Dutch West Indies…Curacao near the Panama Canal. Then, any ship, especially Liberian or Monrovian (flying flags of convenience because they ignored the basic safety rules of the sea) which needed a crew member, radioed to the “Office” in Curacao and they would bring out the seaman on a launch. Many of the crew jumped ship and disappeared, especially in South America. The American ports were always very vigilant and rarely let them onto the dock. They had no passports, no I.D. and usually no money. To paraphrase a line from “Around The World in 80 Days” “You like America, but you have no money, America no like you…”

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My First Ships – The Assorted and the Sordid

British Scientist

British Scientist

I’ve written of my experiences as a Radio Officer on the Cuban Trader in my book, but I had sailed on a series of ships before that. The BRITISH SCIENTIST was my first ship, she was an oil tanker plying between Scotland and Stockholm, Sweden – also sailing the Mediterranian to Sicily where we could see the volcanic Mount Etna smouldering.  The ship would traverse through the Suez Canal to Mina Al Ahmadi in Kuwait many times until our last trip through the desert after the Egyptians under Colonel Nasser nationalized the canal … The Egyptians took over control from the Brits and the French, but really and had no idea how to run it…so it silted up and ships had to go around the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town) as they had done before the canal was built.

I was also Chief Radio Officer on the RMS HINEMOA – a New Zealand Overnight ferry between the North and South Island)  I also worked on the original QUEEN ELIZABETH ocean liner of Cunard.  I was about the 14th Radio Officer on this ship as she was aging. When her passenger days were done she was sold to a Chinese entrepreneur who turned her into a floating a college campus until she mysteriously caught fire and sank in Hong Kong Harbor.

I was on the SS IRVINGDALE (a ship of Irving Oil in Canada trading between various oil ports in the Caribbean and then unloading in Nova Scotia or Rimouski in Quebec.  On the IRVINGDALE the Captain’s wife often came along on voyages with us. She was a prudish bible punching bitch who almost demanded the crew attend prayers on deck before I was allowed to pay them their shore money. We docked once in in Cartagena, Columbia,  right next to the port whore house where a red neon sign showed a naked women lifting her leg up and down and showing her black bushy money maker. This drove the captain’s wife nearly insane … And for one of his birthday presents she bought the captain a Cadillac which was loaded on board as deck cargo…but when we arrived at foreign ports there were rarely any cranes capable of lifting it onto the dock.  It was sheer madness.

Empress of Scotland in WWII

Empress of Scotland in WWII

I was on the EMPRESS OF SCOTLAND, the second one. The original was first launched in 1906 as one of the great transatlantic liners before the Titanic. My Empress was the second, built for the Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP) launched in 1930. She was originally named the Empress of Japan, but World War II put an end to that and she was rechristened as the 2nd Empress of Scotland. She carried troops in the war. In 1958, after I signed on the Trader the old Empress was bought by the Hamburg-Atlantic  Line and renamed again, the Hanseatic carrying passengers until the 1960s. These huge transatlantic passenger ocean liners were fun, but it turned out one spent all one’s wages in the bars, having a good time. And I needed to make some $$$$. The Cuban Trader was paying triple the wages, but who would have  thought I’d only have to put up with the smell of molasses…

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The Glamorous Gabors

Roger Asquith and Eva Gabor

Roger Asquith and Eva Gabor

My meetings with Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor are both worth mentioning because of the very different circumstances. I had been invited to interview Eva Gabor when she was starring in the TV series Green Acres.  Arriving at Eva’s posh home in Westwood, the photographer and I were shown into the library by the butler who offered us drinks while we were waiting for the glamorous star.   Finally she swept into the room looking very blonde and very beautiful.   “Darlinks! I am sorry I kept chew vayting,” she purred. “Ah! I see my butler has brought chew some drinks.”

I was ready with a list of questions about the TV show, and some personal questions about her Eva’s mother, Jolie aged about 80 years old who was about to get married, and her sister, Zsa Zsa who was about to get divorced.   “I’m sorry, my Dahlink, I do not talk about my mother or my sisters, I sink you came here to talk about me. Dahlinks I first tell you about my vigs. My company sells Eva Gabor vigs. Dahlinks; my vigs are styled by one of zee best coiffures in Hollywood. You can buy my vigs all over zee vorld, and all my friends in show business wears them all zee time.”

Eva went on and on about her wig company until I almost ran out of tape. Finally I asked her about the reports that she didn’t get along with her co-star, Eddie Albert in the TV series. “Dahlink! Everyone say terrible things about us. Eddie is a vonderful man, I adore him. His vife, she vears one of my fabulous vigs.”

After an hour of endless chatter about her vig company and her homegrown orchids, I got absolutely no information about her TV show, but I sure knew a lot about her vigs. Finally Eva posed with me for a photograph, and then was time to leave. “Dahlinks,” she purred. “Vould you please sign for me zee visitors book?”

Of course.  I would be honoured to sign Eva Gabor’s visitors book. “And, Dahlinks, please put zee name of zee magazineI have to keep a record of zee visitors I entertain for zee Income Tax man!”   …what a let down, the one glass of vodka and orange juice was going to be on her expense account for the taxman. I should have one or two more…

Eva’s older sister, Zsa Zsa, a very charming and beautiful lady, loved Hollywood press parties and receptions where she expected European men to kiss her hand…but on one occasion it was very different…

It was the preview of the film Fiddler On The Roof at the Hollywood Director’s Guild. The place was full of film stars and members of the press. My friend, Bernice and I sat down in the centre row of the theatre next to a rather scruffy looking man. In front of us was a very talkative group including George Cukor, Katherine Hepburn, and Aldo Ray. Moving along our row from the opposite direction was the glamorous Zsa Zsa, greeting everyone in her unmistakable Hungarian accent, and leaning forward to display her famous décolletage. Cukor and Hepburn were not very interested, but Aldo certainly perked up.

Finally the lights faded, and on came Fiddler On The Roof. It’s a long drawn out musical starring Topol, as a peasant farmer in the middle of Russia, but wishing he were somewhere else.  About twenty minutes into the film our little group in the centre row were subjected to a series of peculiar noises, like a farmer in Wellington boots sloshing about in the mud…and a distinctive aroma. Apparently the fellow in our row was wearing a colostomy bag, which was not functioning properly. …ironically Topol was also strutting about his farm wallowing in the muck. We knew the picture was filmed in wide-screen Cinemascope, but had the producer treated us to the new… smelly visionprocess now being tried out on moviegoers?

The film dragged on and on, the snow came down, Topol sang to us, wishing he was a rich man, and eventually he waved goodbye to his eldest daughter on her way to Siberia. It was all very sad, and most of the audience was in tears …

 … except our little group in the centre row, many of them wishing they too were on their way to Siberia. The disgusting noises continued and the smell got worse. Zsa Zsa glared at me and I glared at the little man between us… My friend, Bernice was trying hard to stifle a laugh and Zsa Zsa frantically rummaged in her bag for some perfume. Katherine Hepburn and her friends were also within range, but any escape from the disgusting small  was impossible. It was a case of breathing deeply hoping the smell would soon go away.

At the cocktail party after the film, Bernice and I sipped our champagne, glad to be in the comparatively fresh air of the Green Room…that is until we saw Zsa Zsa bearing down on us. “How dare you bring such a creature to zis place,” she fumed. “He vas disgusting. He ruined zee film. I sought I vas in zee middle of a farm yard.” Bernice couldn’t control her self and burst out laughing. “It is not funny,” hissed Zsa Zsa, trying not to laugh, but as she walked away I could see she too was laughing.

Years later I met Zsa Zsa at the launch of Eva’s book. The two sisters were seated posing for photographs while Eva signed her book. When I appeared, grinning, book in hand waiting for Eva’s autograph, Zsa Zsa looked at me for a few seconds.  “Ugh,” she groaned, looking at me, “Eva, Dahlink!  Zis is the man from zee pig farm in Russia.”

We all started to laugh…

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My Hollywood Arrival

I don’t remember the year, but I do remember it was Friday the 13th when I first landed at Burbank Airport in-bound on a “puddle jumper” from Philadelphia. I do remember the first two hectic days very well. The first night, armed with my camera, I was strolling along Hollywood Boulevard hoping to take some pix of the film stars when I was suddenly pushed into a dark alley, beaten up and robbed – no  film stars, no wallet, no camera and a lot of bruises. The only film star I saw the first day was a famous Witch, Margaret Hamilton the Wicked Witch from Wizard of Oz who had the mail box number 628 next to mine at the Hollywood 28 Post Office on Bronson Avenue.

While moaning to some of the guys at the YMCA about my painful “Welcome to Tinseltown”  they advised me to go to the Chaplin Studios early in the morning and apply for work as an EXTRA.  Me?  Work in a film Studio? Wow! Only one day in Hollywood and I was already on my way to stardom! I was outside the Chaplin studios at 6 am, all polished up in my best clothes. There were about ten of us, we were quickly ushered passed the main gate into room and asked if we spoke any foreign languages or had special skills. I casually mentioned I was former Marine Radio Operator and could send Morse code and I could. . .

. . . Morse Code must have been the magic word because I was hustled across the lot to the sound department where they needed to dub over some footage of a British spy sending a coded message to London during the war, and gave me my “script” to look over.

So there was no make-up, no sound stage, no film stars just an ordinary looking desk at the back of the recording studio with an old brass Morse code key. When I finished tapping away, the Sound Engineer asked me where I had learned to send Morse code so fast, it was a wonderful opportunity to tell him all about my life of hell on the CUBAN TRADER and my adventures in the Cuban Revolution.

*Excerpt from my autobiography “Asquith in Tinseltown” –  in progress

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Other Asquiths

Just to note about this Asquith’s Notes blog. It has nothing at all to do with Herbert Henry Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, who served as the liberal British Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, who saw Britain into World War I, and introduced the Home Rule Bill for Ireland in 1910, thoroughly disliked by the Ulster Protestants, and due to early setbacks in the Great War replaced in latter 1916 by David Lloyd George. His nickname was reportedly “Squiff” or “Squiffy”, an apparent derogatory reference to his fondness for drink. And aside from that, I bear no personal relation whatsoever.

There is a small town called Asquith in Australia with a railway station named for the Prime Minister. There is also apparently a restaurant called “The Asquith” in Birmingham with 66% likes, which serves a suckling pig dish, but I myself have never eaten there. There is a J. Asquith in London, who may or may not be a dentist. There is an Asquith city in Saskatchewan, Canada, but I would have no reason I could think of to go to Saskatchewan.

The most culturally significant Asquith with whom I am not at all related is Anthony Asquith, the British film director of the 1952 Michael Redgrave version of “The Importance of Being Ernest”, with Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell. He also directed the British film classics “Pygmalion” and “The Browning Version”. Anthony Asquith was the son of H.H. Asquith, but only dabbled in politics, before heading a labor union. 

I, Roger Asquith, disavow any association to these others. Though, I did recently have a dream about Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell.

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Cheltenham Festival

This week, the annual Cheltenham Festival comes galloping into Gloucestershire with hats, horses and Guinness galore at the Racetrack in Prestbury. Goodnight Mister Tom celebrates its 30th anniversary with a brand new production starring Oliver Ford Davies, coming to Cheltenham for one week only, George Montague performs and an overnight kart racing challenge to raise money for kids.. Plus, the chance to win an equine work of art from Dwell at The Brewery.

I was born in Prestbury village where they have the racecourse  where the Cheltenham Festival is held. I recall back during the war when the whole racecourse was taken over by the American troops who were welcomed like Flowers in May by us kids because they always had lotsa candy  (Babe Ruth, Juicy Fruit Gum , etc.) to give us kids when we yelled “Any Gum Chum”!

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