Award-winning actress Dyan Cannon didn’t get the happily ever after she was looking for with film icon Cary Grant. A relationship beset with tragic twists and turns, she struggled to keep herself together. Here's an excerpt.
Chapter 1: When in Rome
“Cary who?” I said. I was sure I’d heard wrong.
“Cary Grant the actor?”
“No, Cary Grant the rodeo clown. Yes, silly, it’s Cary Grant the actor.”
“What does he want?” I asked.
Addie Gould heaved a theatrical sigh that could’ve carried from Los Angeles to Rome, even without the phone. This was back in the days when your agent could be your trusted friend, or vice versa, and for me, Addie was both. She had my best interests in mind personally and professionally. At that moment, Addie was firmly planted in the realm of wheels and deals while I was hovering in a pink cloud over Rome like a dove in a Renaissance painting. She must have felt like she was talking to a rather simple-minded child. Cary Grant had asked to meet me. He was Cary Grant, and if he wanted to meet you, you didn’t ask questions — especially if you were a young actress trying to work your way up in Hollywood.
I wasn’t really as flighty or as indifferent as my words might suggest, though. It was just that at that moment, I wasn’t going to leave Rome for anything less than a guaranteed part, and a good one. In Hollywood, “meet-and-greets” are a fact of life. There’s nothing wrong with them, and they’re important for keeping yourself on the radar, but they don’t necessarily lead to anything substantial. I was having the time of my life, and if somebody wanted me to interrupt it, I wanted name, rank, and serial number.
“Dyan, it’s Cary Grant. It’s about a part in a movie.”
“What’s the movie?”
“It doesn’t matter. When Mr. Grant requests a meeting, we hurry home.”
“Is he paying my way?” I asked, sticking to my guns.
Maybe another person would have rushed to the airport and boarded the next flight to Los Angeles, or maybe not. It was autumn of 1961. I was in my early twenties. I was in Rome right when Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” had cast Rome as the most glamorous place on earth. I was living a fairy tale, and Cary Grant was just another knight of the realm who could take a number and wait his turn.
Addie persisted. I dug in my heels. “We are talking about Cary Grant,” she said.
“I know who Cary Grant is,” I replied. We were talking about Cary Grant the movie star, the matinee idol, the greatest leading man of the day. Yes, that Cary Grant.
The word “icon” has been hopelessly devalued over the years, but Cary Grant was exactly that and more. More than an actor, really. Cary Grant was glamour. Cary Grant was charm. Cary Grant was class, intelligence, refinement. Women hardly dared to fantasize that such a combination of warmth, wit, and dash would walk into their lives. Men who took a page from his playbook came to believe in the power of being a gentleman. Cary Grant made manners, civility, and style as thrilling as Humphrey Bogart made a good pistol-whipping.
He’d starred in about a bazillion movies, including three of my all-time favorites: “An Affair to Remember,” with Deborah Kerr (a five-hankie weeper); “Indiscreet,” with Ingrid Bergman; and, at the top of my list, Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”
But that still wasn’t enough. “I’m sure Mr. Grant will still be there when I get back,” I said. “If I ever decide to go back.” There was a knock at my door. “Oops,” I said. “Gotta go ...” I hung up and opened the door and Charles Fawcett — we all called him “Charlie” — stepped through, kissing me on both cheeks.
“You ready?” he asked.
“I need a minute,” I said. “I was just on the line with my agent. She wants me to fly back to Los Angeles to meet Cary Grant.”
“For a movie?” Charlie asked.
“That’s what she says.”
“If he’s going to cast you in something, it’s worth the trip. But if it’s just a get-acquainted kind of thing, let him wait.”
I loved Charlie Fawcett. I had met him two months earlier in a remote Portuguese fishing village, on the set of a low-budget movie that I’ve done my best to forget. It was my second movie; my first was The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, about jewel thieves in Prohibition-era New York, and that film, along with a string of television credits, had led to the job in Portugal. Alas, we all knew from the start that we weren’t making a masterpiece, but the bright side was that we all relaxed about it and had fun. We all lived in the same bed-and-breakfast, started the morning with good food and strong coffee, laughed our way through our morning table-read, then went off to make the best of another day of second-rate filmmaking.
I fell in love with Charlie by the end of that first week. He was a good actor who treated acting as a bit of a lark. His services were in demand, and he earned enough at it to subsidize the low-key, bohemian lifestyle he enjoyed as an American expatriate in Rome. Beyond that, he didn’t attach much importance to it.
Charlie was truly larger than life. In World War II, he joined the British Royal Air Force as a Hurricane pilot. He fought with the Polish army after the German invasion, and fought again for six months with the French Foreign Legion in Alsace. Then to Greece to take on the communists in the Greek Civil War. As if that weren’t enough, in the waning days of World War II, he freed a half-dozen Jewish women from concentration camps by marrying and divorcing each one in rapid succession. That got them an automatic American visa and allowed them to leave France. If I had to choose one word to describe Charlie, it would be “noble.” I had a little crush on Charlie, the kind of crush that gives you a feeling of boundless emotional safety along with a little jolt of physical attraction. That makes the friendship really interesting — whether or not you act on the attraction, though it is usually better if you don’t. It’s the best type of crush, and Charlie couldn’t have agreed more.
“My favorite kind,” he once told me. “Let’s try to make it last.”
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Charlie was a man of experience, a man of the world, and I was a spirited Jewish girl from Seattle, barely past college age, who’d had sex only once in her life (though it was so inept, I’m not sure it even qualified). Charlie was the rare man who placed more value on the unspoiled fabric of our friendship than he did on a night of tangled sheets and awkward “see you later”s. I think he sensed my innocence and figured there’d be enough contenders to relieve me of it without his joining in.
Once we bonded on the shoot, we were inseparable: Charlie, me, and Bangs, my beloved Yorkshire terrier, who’d joined me in Portugal midway through the shoot. Bangs was my best buddy. Without Bangs on the pillow next to me, I found it very hard to fall asleep.
So Charlie invited me to go to Rome with him after the film. “You can bring the mutt,” he said, scratching Bangs under her chin. “The culture will do her a world of good, and it won’t hurt you either. You will be inspired beyond your wildest dreams.”
It wasn’t exactly a hard sell, and Charlie was absolutely right. I fell into a complete swoon over Rome, from its tiny street-corner cafés to the constant growl of mopeds that careened through the narrow, winding streets. I found a small, comfortable room in a modest pensione and by week’s end decided I was never going back to Los Angeles. It was la Dolce Vita for me! Bring on the tortiglione and the Chianti! Charlie took me everywhere, introducing me to writers, poets, filmmakers, and fellow actors. And, of course, plenty of men. To be blond in Italy was to be Cinderella in glass slippers. Sort of, anyway. I think many of the men I met saw me as a head of blond hair — the rest of it didn’t matter.
This was not the case, however, with Eduardo, a handsome businessman from Brazil and the kind of tall, dark stranger that the Gypsy fortune-tellers are always warning about. He was alluring, yes, with beautiful sad eyes and that particular kind of masculinity that’s all the more prominent for being gift-wrapped in elegance and suavity. I was attracted to him, but the little voice — the one we all have but too often don’t listen to, especially in our twenties — told me to keep my distance.
Eduardo was keeping his, too. It was clear he was interested in me, but he didn’t swoop down on me like a hawk the way so many guys did. Nothing made me more uncomfortable than a guy trying to move in too fast.
“He’s very generous — always picking up the check,” Charlie said when I asked his opinion of Eduardo. “That’s about as far as my acquaintance with him goes.”
“He told me he’s divorced,” I said.
“Do you have any reason to doubt him?” Charlie asked.
“If you enjoy his company, just get to know him a little better before you jump into anything. That’s all I can say.”
Eduardo being officially, formally, and fully divorced was mandatory if I was going to go any farther than having lunch with him. I was — still am — an old-fashioned girl. I won’t say I was hell-bent on living up to my parents’ “not until marriage” ethic, but sex to me meant crossing a very serious line. No guy was going to cross that border with me without a valid passport — and it had better not be marked with the stamps of too many destinations!
Getting involved with a married man was not in my playbook. I objected to the idea morally and emotionally. That’s how I was brought up and it stuck. For me there was going to be one man and one man only: my soul mate. If I didn’t find him, he would find me.
I was seventeen before my parents let me start dating, and even then I had to be home by ten. I did like kissing, and like a lot of girls who weren’t going to go all the way no matter what, well, let’s say I was good at it. Maybe too good. When you know that’s as far as you’re going, a kiss may seem like more than just a kiss. Not surprisingly, more than one young swain took those lollipop kisses as an invitation to greater glory. Whenever that happened, I shut ’em down fast.
My nickname at school was Frosty.
I wasn’t technically a virgin. I’d technically become a “fallen woman” with the hottest guy in school. But like I said before, that episode hardly counted, except that it made for the kind of story that’s absolutely hilarious as long as it happened to somebody else.
It’s worth relating because it tells a lot about what I was like back then.
My boyfriend “Larry” and I had a dinner date to celebrate his birthday. I woke up that morning with a ferocious cold but decided to power through the evening anyway. When we got back to my house, I surprised him with an elaborate birthday cake. (My mother made it but I took credit. As you will see, my criminal side has expressed itself mostly through culinary plagiarism. Indeed, like most crooks, I started young!)
Maybe the angels were punishing me for my deception. As I proudly leaned forward to light the candles on the miscredited cake, a geyser erupted from my nose, anointing the lily-white icing with a splattering of glorious, Day-Glo green ... uh, matter. It looked like a failed experiment in abstract expressionist art. So, naturally, I did the mature thing. I ran for the bathroom, slammed the door shut, and locked myself in. Larry pounded at the door, telling me not to worry, pleading for me to come out. I just flushed the toilet repeatedly and turned on the faucet and shower to drown out his voice until he finally went home.
Sweetheart that he was, and undaunted by germs, he dropped by the next night to see how I was feeling. We sat in the living room and kissed. He understood that was as far as I was willing to go. I told him flat-out that remaining a virgin was completely nonnegotiable. He acted like he was sensitive to this. Then, the next thing I knew, we were having sex. But I actually didn’t realize it was sex. It happened so fast, it was over before I figured out what was going on. Maybe he thought he’d make me feel better. Well, he didn’t. It was a shabby thing to do, but I decided not to throw the whole male gender away on account of one overeager high school senior. Larry was one guy, and he didn’t represent all guys. I was a bit wounded, though. I’d wanted to bring that purity into marriage, and now that dream had been tarnished.
So that was me: 1950s sexual mores transplanted to Rome, city of lovers, with an unshakable belief in true love ... just as the era of free love was about to dawn stateside. I guess you could see I had a few things to figure out.
From the Book "Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant" by Dyan Cannon. Copyright © 2011 by Dyan Cannon. Reprinted by arrangement with Bonkers Entertainment, Inc., a Division of HarperCollins Publishers.
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