sjhstrangetales

CONSTANCE SMITH – TROUBLED BEAUTY

Posted on: December 7, 2017

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I was watching Man In The Attic, a 1953 film about Jack The Ripper, on TalkingPicturesTV very recently, and I was curious to find out more about the girl playing Lily, the music-hall star who befriends the Ripper (played by Jack Palance).  I hadn’t seen her before in anything, and my curiosity was piqued when one reviewer referred to her film career “mysteriously” ending in the late 1950s.  So I did some digging around, and unearthed a classic tragic tale of riches-to-rags, of showbiz gothic, of a beautiful woman who couldn’t conquer her demons and who paid a terrible price for it.

Constance was a feisty Irish girl, born into grinding poverty in Limerick in 1928, the eldest of 11 children.  Her father died when she was a child, and her mother, unable to support them all, put Constance into a convent school.  At the age of 16 Constance won a Hedy Lamarr-lookalike competition in Dublin, and was offered a screen test.  Constance wasn’t interested in a career in the movies though, but her mother pushed her into it.  She was taken up by the Rank Organisation in London, who found they had bitten off more than they could chew with Constance.  She had what we would call today “attitude”.  Constance wasn’t a girl to be pushed around.

The peak of Constance’s short career was in the early 1950s, when she starred in the aforementioned Man In The Attic (where she considerably enlivens a pretty pedestrian film in my opinion), and was a presenter at the 1952 Academy Awards ceremony.   Constance was as much of a handful in Hollywood as she had been in London though.  Hollywood wanted another feisty Irish beauty in the Maureen O’Hara mode, whereas Constance had more of a dark, ethereal quality to her.  She has been described as more like Vivien Leigh or Grace Kelly than the flamboyant O’Hara.  She has also been described as “the Dublin Dietrich” and “the intelligent man’s Elizabeth Taylor”.

Constance flatly refused to change her name from Smith – the studio wanted something more memorable – and was forced by them to undergo an abortion.  Her first marriage, to director Bryan Forbes, lasted only a couple of years.  Forbes was so busy working that they didn’t even have a honeymoon.  Constance sued him for desertion in 1955, and he went on to marry Nanette Newman, later the same year.  Forbes saw the way the Hollywood system crushed Constance, lifting her up and then pushing her down to (in his words) “the status of a Hindu road-sweeper”.  A classic case of We Build ‘Em Up To Knock ‘Em Down.  Some wonder if, witnessing this destruction first-hand, inspired him when he came to direct The Stepford Wives in the early 1970s.  By the mid-1950s Constance was feeling increasingly embittered that she wasn’t getting the parts that she felt she was owed, and turned to the familiar rocky road of drugs and alcohol.

In the late 1950s she decamped to Italy, and made a few forgettable minor films.  None of them did anything to salvage her career.  Her final film appearance was in 1959, when she was still only 31.   Her time in Italy was eventful though, probably for all the wrong reasons.  She had a second brief marriage, this time to the son of a Fascist politician, who referred to her as “a barefoot Irish peasant”.  She also attempted suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates.   One high note in all this misery was a triumphal return to Limerick, which Constance made in 1960, where she was feted as a star.

Constance met her third husband, Paul Rotha, a documentary film-maker 20 years her senior, in 1959.  Rotha was in Italy to make a film about Mussolini.  Theirs was to be a tempestuous relationship to say the least.   In 1962 Constance attempted to stab Rotha, and she found herself in prison for 3 months.  Her short stint inside did nothing to curb her temperament though.  In 1968 she stabbed Rotha in the back (literally).   He survived, and Constance was charged with attempted murder.  Rotha accompanied her to the prison gates, and was waiting for her when she came out a short while later.  Incredibly, none of this repelled Rotha, who went on to marry Constance in 1974!  He was to die in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in 1984.

Constance’s life continued to spiral downwards in a truly shocking way.   She was in and out of hospital being treated for alcoholism, and attempted suicide more than once.  During the brief periods when she was reasonably compos mentis, she took a job as a cleaner.  Her fellow workers had a feeling they had seen her before somewhere, but no one realised she had once been a Hollywood starlet.

Constance wasn’t the only Hollywood actress to find herself in this kind of situation.  Gene Tierney, one of the most stunningly beautiful women ever to appear on screen, battled severe mental health issues for most of her life, and had to be hospitalised for depression.  On release, she hoped to find her way back into society by getting a job in a dress-shop, but she was recognised by a customer, and the Press had a field-day, screaming out hysterical headlines.

Veronica Lake had been a major star during World War 2, famed for her flowing locks hanging over one eye, earning her the nickname The Peek-a-Boo Girl (her hair had been a health and safety concern, as women working in wartime munitions factories copied it.  Veronica had to make a big show of adopting a more restrained style, in order to prevent her fans being caught in the machinery by their own flowing locks).   Veronica also battled mental health issues and alcoholism though, and she got a reputation for being incredibly difficult to work with.  By the early 1960s she was found working as a hotel waitress.   The Press described her as “destitute”, and well-meaning fans sent her donations of money.  Veronica returned the cheques as a matter of pride.

The end for Constance Smith came when she died on a street in Islington, London, on 30 June 2003.  She was 75.  It is said that her toes had turned black from gangrene.   As Limerick historian Sharon Slater put it, “a sadder end is hard to imagine”.   I’m also reminded of the famous quote by journalist Julie Burchill: “it has been said that a pretty face is a passport.  But it’s not, it’s a visa, and it runs out fast”. 

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