One of the perks of my job is the tales of the unexpected I am privileged to tell. Though I don’t do an awful lot of journalism any more, I can always rely on my old mucker Ashley Heath (owner of POP and Arena Homme +) phoning out of the blue with a fascinating assignment. I’ve worked for Ashley forever and he always takes me outside my comfort zone. Under his watch at AH+, I had the opportunity to interview Tom Ford, Miuccia Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Nicolas Ghesquiere and Chris Bailey.
Anyway, Ashley called a couple of weeks ago and asked if I could be on a flight to Milan that week to hop down to Lugano and interview the fashion designer ‘king of bling’ Philipp Plein. Philipp is a phenomenon: he went from one boutique in Monte Carlo to over sixty-six worldwide in under eight years. So it was with no little thrill that I found myself checking into the Grand Hotel in Milan (my favourite), nipping to Duomo to light a candle or two to my guardian angels then zipping down to Switzerland with a fabulously glamorous PR snuggled into a mink coat.
I’m not going to go into further detail because you can read all about it in the next issue of POP. Suffice to say, Munich-born Mr Plein was a rather fabulous, blunt, outspoken and refreshingly honest empire builder. He had a set of silver dumbbells in his office and told me they were the ladies’ model and that he was too strong for them. Be still my beating heart! Bagging an old line from Raymond Chandler, I described him as the kind of handsome that would make a priest kick a hole through a stained glass window.
I think it is the variety that I am thankful for in my professional career right now. As you know, I continue to trawl the Henry Poole & Co ledgers in the archive for famous undiscovered customers for our Hall of Fame. I popped-in the other day to look at a set of short, fat ledgers dating from the 1950s to the 1960s that I had not previously mined. Well, the reward was discovering old sloe-eyes Robert Mitchum listed in 1960. Poole’s frowned upon professionals in show business so Hollywood stars are few and far between. Admittedly, Poole’s dressed Sir Henry Irving but he was the Laurence Olivier of his day and was received by Queen Victoria so there were exceptions to the rule.
Mitch was a beatnik before the phrase had even been coined. His past was chequered to say the least. Aged fourteen, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a chain gang. He escaped and made his way to California where a number of bit parts in Western B-movies caught the eye of director Mervyn LeRoy: the man who produced The Wizard of Oz and who discovered Clark Gable and Lana Turner. LeRoy obtained Mitch a seven-year contract with RKO and a star was born.
Though he was vastly underrated as an actor, nobody was more laconic or cynical about Mitch’s career than he was. He was a pot-smoking, hard-drinking, chain-smoking son of a bitch who used to laugh at the Method acting boys like Monty Clift, James Dean and Marlon Brando saying ‘they only want to talk about method and acting technique. In my day, all we talked about was screwing and overtime’. Mitch had some superb lines. ‘People say I can’t remember my lines’, he once drawled, ‘not true. I’m just too damned drunk to say em’. He claimed that movies bored him and none more so than his own.
Actually, Mitch was electrifying on screen playing film noir villains in such classics as The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear. I loved him as Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep. In 1954 Mitch made a film with Marilyn Monroe. The River of No Return was Marilyn’s only Western and she loathed making it. The director, Otto Preminger, clashed with Marilyn’s acting coach Natasha Lytess and threatened to have her removed from the location in Canada. In retaliation, Marilyn twisted her ankle and hobbled about on crutches until Preminger bowed to her demands.
Mitchum had known Marilyn when she was plain Norma Jean Dougherty. He was a friend of Marilyn’s first husband Jim Dougherty and was struck by how amazed Marilyn was that she had become the world’s number one box office sex symbol. ‘She played the part’, Mitch said in his last interview, ‘in fact she burlesqued it. As a comedienne she was comfortable. As a sex symbol, she was like Alice in Wonderland. She couldn’t quite believe it’.
Though Marilyn said that the acting in The River of No Return came a poor third to Cinemascope and the scenery, the film is actually rather charming not least because Marilyn has to mother a child actor called Tommy Rettig. Whenever she had to act with a child, Marilyn came alive. Mitchum might have been a great guy for Marilyn had it not been for his wife Dorothy who he married in 1940 and remained with until his death in 1997. But I think he was one of Marilyn’s most powerful co-stars and the fact that he’d known her before fame found Marilyn Monroe is perhaps the reason why the film works. It is thanks to Henry Poole that I get to delve into these worlds that I love so very much.