Princes, movie stars, queens, and pop gods. Polly Devlin interviewed them all. She recalls the beauty and the banalities, the sex and the style, and explains why she’s through with the celeb interview
This article first appeared in The Gloss Magazine in February 2013. We’re opening the archive so you can read a Polly column every week …
I brought being an interviewer onto myself. Talked myself into it. Fool. I’d gone straight from Belfast to my first job, as a writer for Vogue and then as features editor and since I didn’t know what to do and I needed to fill my pages I started to interview people. Famous people. Now called Celebs. Lord knows how I got away with it. I was 21. Everything I wrote was published and I could hardly bring myself to read it; I felt that nothing had any authenticity. How could it? I was interviewing Barbra Streisand, the Empress of Persia and Ursula Andress. Strangers to this world, never mind to me. You name them, I was interviewing them. And sometimes sleeping with them. Not with Ursula Andress, I am happy to say.
I’d rather be boiled in oil now than do another interview. The very idea of earnestly questioning celebs, finding out their thoughts (hello?) and feelings leaves me aghast. And although most of what the famous told me didn’t seem worth a hill of beans, their thoughts seem Socratic wisdom compared to what I read now. (Lindsay Lohan: “I kinda think I am still a kid, in a way. I’m 26.” Harry Styles: “There’s a lot of things that come with the life you could get lost in. But you have to let it be what it is.”) Plus everything now is so monitored that if, when interviewing a star, you deviate from the submitted questions or write the truth as you see it and it isn’t wholly admiring, you, personally, are blackballed and the piece isn’t published since the magazine would lose access to other stars. I once interviewed someone very famous who told me of their enduring love for their partner, of how they were eternally linked, had been linked in a life before and would be forever, and, in the midst of this declaration, segued without a pause into the words, “You wanna fuck?”
And few magazines I think would publish my thoughts that watching a certain star on set “labouring under many handicaps including that he bristles angrily, doesn’t know his speeches, drops lines and uses words ill” was not a laugh a minute. Only the director John Huston raised an eyebrow and I should think that that was because I hadn’t gone far enough.
In general the people I interviewed who taught me much and spoke interestingly were old people, they who generally didn’t want to be interviewed or writers. I remember Salman Rushdie telling me that he spoke Urdu – a lyrical language with an enormous metaphorical content – until he was 14 and he said, “If Midnight’s Children were translated into Urdu it would disappear.” This startled me. “All the strange use of English would go,” he explained. “For example, in Urdu calling a child a piece of the moon is a normal endearment, not flowery language.” I’ve always wanted to speak Urdu to my children since.
Now I find it hard to believe that I reached back into deep history by meeting the man who helped kill Rasputin, the strange, fey cross-dressing Prince Youssoupoff, a member of the once-richest family in Russia. The interview never went ahead. He was 77, ill and tired, and I think there was legal trouble looming, after all those years, about what was, after all, cold-blooded murder.
One year I interviewed all the great couturiers, the most interesting of whom – not that that is saying much – was Yves Saint Laurent (also the most modest). What I did get from meeting these men was wonderful glimpses into what houses could look like given endless money and a great eye. I’m sure it’s where my passionate interest in interiors sprang from. I remember the superb simplicity of YSL’s dining room: white lacquer from top to bottom with a shimmering ivory dining table and on it a fat white bunch of voluptuous cabbage roses. Hubert de Givenchy’s Paris apartment? Be still my beating heart. A bronze mini palace atop a spectacular building in the Seventh with a wonderful Miro hung like a patch of rippling blue sky above a drawing room that was so luxe, polished and civilised, so burnished that it practically turned over and purred when you looked at it. From the ceiling, small stars looked down. Tiny holes had been pierced in it so that minuscule gleams of light glimmered through, illuminating shining objects of museum quality, black lacquer and shining glass, gold turtles under textured shells, an amazing Picasso opposite a carved double door, the like of which I had never seen. His most interesting quote was, “I am not always thinking of Audrey Hepburn.”
In general the people I interviewed who taught me much and spoke interestingly were old people, they who generally didn’t want to be interviewed or writers
These designers’ rooms were a far cry from those of Erté, who, paradoxically, was known as a brilliant theatre and set designer. His real name was Romain de Tirtoff but his parents were so appalled at him wanting to be an artist that he had to use his initials as the signature that became so famous all over the world. When I visited him in his hideous small Parisian flat I entered a squawking aviary: every room was filled with birds. The smell was overpowering, as was the noise. The house that most lived up to what I imagined it might be like was Eunice Shriver’s, John F Kennedy’s sister. Large, congenial, comfortable, overlooking rolling white-fenced country near Washington, its rooms were full of light and noise and children, people coming and going, doors always open. The house hummed with energy – a friend of hers whispered wryly, “Lord knows where the energy comes from. Perhaps because everyone there goes to bed so early … certainly not many people have seen the Shrivers on foot after half past ten. If you go to a party in their house you leave early else they’ll be halfway up the stairs.” Eunice Shriver was a formidable woman, the only person I’ve been nervous interviewing.
Actually the very first person I interviewed was the notorious playwright John Osborne, author of Look Back in Anger, which changed the whole course of theatre in Britain. It’s hardly watchable nowadays it’s so dated but then it seemed incredibly modern and radical. He wouldn’t see the press, loathed journalists, but somehow agreed to our meeting and that interview also changed my life in that American Vogue published it (they rarely had any truck with stuff that first appeared in poor sister British Vogue) and as a result offered me a job.
My second was with Bob Dylan – I knew that he was writing all his songs for me, never mind that there was one small technical sticking point: he had not as yet met me. He was not so well known then and surprisingly enough was in London for a television play, which, of course, the BBC did not record! Vogue wouldn’t publish the interview and I was so green I didn’t offer it to anyone else and I lost my only copy and there’s hardly a year goes by when I’m not asked to send it to some magazine, or to some aficionado. (His life is so tracked that it’s known what he was doing on a certain day in any year and whom he was talking to.) Though I was forced to face the heartrending fact he wasn’t writing the songs exclusively for me, still, I spent the day with Dylan and it’s not everyone can say that. Nor that they spent day after day with John Lennon, who, I think, was one of the great men of the 20th century and I curse his murderer, that social inadequate Mark Chapman, every morning. So in many ways my being an interviewer was an exciting way to earn a living, a daily adventure with wonderful recompenses. Pity I hated it.
Part of the rewards were that I got to work with almost every outstanding photographer of the time (I went on to write a history of fashion photography), including Irving Penn, and sometimes I got top tips from them. Once, when I was having difficulty with Janis Joplin – well, she simply wouldn’t speak to me – Richard Avedon whispered “she’s like plugged-in sandpaper”, and somehow my laughter triggered an interview. (One thing Joplin did say with perfect gravity when I asked her how different her life was now that she was a megastar, after her earlier existence bumming around from hand to mouth: “It means I get an allowance now; but I think I got more when I was unemployed.”) Aretha Franklin was also deeply unforthcoming but I always thought and still do that it was all done because of basic insecurity and suspicion and anyway I worshipped at their shrine so I didn’t much care and though I didn’t like them personally I tried always to be fair.
While I was trying to fathom Mia Farrow – (“How do you feel about your profile, Mia?” asked Irving Penn, who was photographing her. “Not very strongly,” she replied.) – a soi-disant friend confided, “She was born cynical and thinks she was born wise.” You couldn’t not use such a quote but Mia wasn’t best pleased. I also got aperçus. Lennon told me, “I’m never conscious of being a Beatle. I’m just me.” And modest George Harrison said, “I’m beginning to know that all I know is that I know nothing.” Jean Shrimpton: “I’m secure enough not to worry about whether men think I’m sexy or not as long as the man I’m with thinks I am.” Catherine Deneuve: “I read that I am the most beautiful girl in the world but I do not believe it.” Oh, la la la Catherine. I once watched Estée Lauder – there was a piece of work – test new aftershaves for men; there was a cross-looking Frenchman there who I think had concocted the smells. Every time La Belle Dame Sans Merci uncorked a bottle his face contorted with anxiety. After a few sniffs she announced, “This is the only possible one, the rest smell of soap. I want sex.” You never saw a happier Frenchman. The other cosmetics tycoon was Charles Revson, one of the founders of Revlon, and the nastiest man I ever met. “I called my yacht ‘Ultima’ and can you believe that people said that I called it that for publicity purposes?” “Well, yes,” I said. He glared. “I was going to call it ‘The John Charles’ after my sons but I thought, that’s pretentious, not in good taste and I am sensitive about things like that. Then I bought another one, called it ‘Ultima 11’ and it’s a scary little thing having two yachts.” You can’t imagine how I sympathised.
So in many ways my being an interviewer was an exciting way to earn a living, a daily adventure with wonderful recompenses. Pity I hated it
I interviewed politicians – the sharpest was Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment at the time, who said something eye-opening for innocent me: “I’m trying to teach myself to be as irresponsible as my male colleagues.” The one I admired most and still do was the heroic Bernadette Devlin.
I listened to movie stars and comedians (very unfunny people, but Morecambe and Wise were great. Eric Morecambe said, “We have a major ambition to become a classic and memorable part of British comedy so that years later we are used as a standard, are remembered as a great comedy team. We want to be so good that years from now people will look back and say, ‘Ah but you should have seen Morecambe and Wise.’” I wish they knew that their wishes had come true. I listened to theatre directors, artists (the first picture I ever bought was a David Hockney at £30), sculptors, pop stars, opera singers, film directors – liked Roger Vadim, fell for John Huston, hated Orson Welles (so appalling that I lost the run of myself and cried – very professional). Federico Fellini knocked me back by drawling, “With all my limitations, with my laziness, my lack of money, my lack of time, I do what I want exactly. I am a very lucky man and a very happy man.” For a guilty Irish girl that was a lesson and a half. The most impressive actor I interviewed was John Hurt. “Nothing is original,” he said. “When people say ‘What an original performance’ all they mean is that they haven’t thought of it before.” But he was original.
Did anyone pick up on subtext? For example, there was a famous actor called Hugh Griffith who (I wrote) looked like a cross between a ramshackle vintage car and a Victorian print of God the Father. I observed, about the strain of living up to his memorably terrible looks, “He has to play a part in order to be natural … it is only when one sees him utterly relaxed that one realises the strain of looking like and being recognised as Hugh Griffith.” Hello? Utterly relaxed? When would that be then?
I interviewed the Queen or “Gyalmo” of Sikkim (a remote Himalayan kingdom), Princess Elizabeth of Toro (a remote African kingdom), the Empress of Persia (a remote Iranian kingdom) and various other queens but none more queenly than Barbra Streisand (remote Hollywood kingdom). She was Diana Vreeland’s crush at that time and so was the celeb model for American Vogue at the Paris Collections and I spent four exhausting nights in studios in Montparnasse with her and Richard Avedon. She treated me as though I had been dragged in by the cat and I felt humiliated but it did no harm towards getting a good interview. Too high a price though. She had the grace to write and send flowers to me afterwards but I was past caring.
I did it for two years and I hated it all. Then one day I was in the back of Rolls Royce interviewing Ursula Andress who had arrived at Heathrow and was graciously fitting me into her schedule. At the Hogarth Roundabout, the first major stop on the road into London, I thought, Why Is I Listening to these banalities with such earnest intention? I opened the door of the car and stepped out. Then the car moved smoothly on, into the evening traffic and I walked away.
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