Rubbing shoulders with Audrey Hepburn and Princess Grace of Monaco, hanging out with Edith Head, forging a lifelong friendship with Phyllis Diller, and escorting Rita Hayworth to the movies… New Zealand’s first full-time gossip columnist David Hartnell has certainly lived a life of colour and intrigue, writes Nina Nuku.
Whenever David Hartnell shares his fascinating Hollywood anecdotes, he has a habit of apologising for digressing.
But for anyone who enjoys hearing intimate and first-hand tales of Hollywood legends such as Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, you don’t mind the digression at all.
The former make up artist lounges in his quaint Auckland home, with his tiny pooch Miss Liza (as in Minnelli) sitting on his lap, and regurgitates his many intriguing Hollywood stories like a jukebox spitting out the latest hits.
“There was this one time when I was doing Elizabeth Taylor’s make up for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar,” he says with glee. “She was holding her tiny shihtzu dog and we were giving her a matching hair style. Well, she just had her fingernails painted, and she pointed to a box and asked me to pass it to her. She instructed me to open it, and to my amazement, inside was THE diamond,” David says, referring to the infamous Taylor-Burton jewel. The extravagant 68-carat ring caused a worldwide sensation when Richard Burton bought it for his wife. She sold it in 1978 for $US5 million after the famous couple divorced, and the proceeds were used to build a hospital in Botswana.
“She then said to me, ‘Can you please put it on my finger, because I’ve just done my nails.’ Th at was a wow moment.”
Stories like this, involving personal encounters with Hollywood legends, have made David’s life full of colour and intrigue. He also took Rita Hayworth to the movies, and Lauren Bacall confided in him about her romance with James Gardner and swore him to secrecy.
He’s documented these meetings by taking photos of himself with each celebrity he has met – and for good reason.
“People didn’t believe that I was meeting all of these Hollywood stars, so I started taking my photo with them as proof that I had actually met them,” he explains.
The wide selection of photos of the 70-year old with stars ranging from Joan Collins to Sylvester Stallone is proudly displayed in the home he shares with his partner of 21 years, Somboon Khansuk. Even his toilet is covered with these priceless pictures, with the invitation he received for Elizabeth Taylor’s 60th birthday at Disneyland taking pride of place on the toilet wall.
“A friend of mine says that she can never go to the toilet at my house, because she hates all of those eyes staring at her,” David laughs.
For a boy who was born and bred in Auckland’s suburb of Sandringham, Hollywood seemed impossible to conquer. Growing up, his only taste of showbiz were his frequent theatre visits with his grandparents and his time spent as a champion roller skater.
“I’d never thought about going to Hollywood or rubbing shoulders with movie stars, because that world seemed a million light years away from littleol’ New Zealand; Hollywood was an untouchable world,” he says. “I learned very quickly that Hollywood was never going to come to me. I had to go to it!”
David found his way to Hollywood through the make up brand Revlon. A move to Sydney saw David become Revlon’s first in-store male make up artist. Th is led to stints in Hong Kong and London where
he was the make up artist for the 1970 Miss World Pageant). Finally he made his way to New York and Los Angeles and started to interview the celebrities he met.
He gained access to Hollywood’s elite through his close friendships with US comedienne Phyllis Diller and legendary costume designer Edith Head, who won eight Academy Awards and designed gowns for classic films like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard.
“I met Phyllis in 1965, when she visited Sydney and I did her make up. Aft er we met, she gave me her address in Los Angeles and told me to call her whenever I was in town. Phyllis was an old-school comedienne, I never heard her use a four-letter word on or off the stage. She was disappointed with the comics that came aft er her and who were crude, like Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr. She said there was no need for that kind of humour.” David was a huge fan of Edith Head, and met her the old-fashioned way.
“I was in my 20s, and I simply wrote her a letter and told her I was coming to Los Angeles and wanted to meet. She said, not a problem. When we met, we just clicked and instantly become close friends. She was so giving and warm. I stayed at her house a number of times. Carrie Fisher now lives there, with her mother Debbie Reynolds living in the little gate house in the garden.
I think Debbie lives there just so she can keep a close eye on her daughter.” David was oft en Edith’s “plus one” at events and accompanied her to many Hollywood VIP parties.
“Edith rang me one day and said, ‘What are you doing tonight? Can you be my partner to this thing?’”
The “thing” Edith referred to was a private party for Grace Kelly, Princess Grace of Monaco, a true Hollywood princess and one of the most famous women who ever lived. “As soon as Edith arrived, Princess Grace made a beeline for her. Because I was Edith’s partner, we had a little chit chat.”
David Hartnell and Lauren Bacall
David is still captivated by that encounter. “Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn are the three actresses who, whenever they walked into a room, the world seemed to stop. They were just so glamorous and serene.”
With such a strong connection to Hollywood, it’s no surprise that David became a celebrity gossip columnist. Th e New Zealand Woman’s Weekly was the first magazine to off er David a permanent gossip column in New Zealand in 1976 and since then he’s appeared on many TV and radio shows talking about Hollywood. Perhaps David’s biggest coup was a world-exclusive interview with Rock Hudson’s gay lover Marc Christian aft er the Hollywood heartthrob died of AIDS. But he says the pinnacle of his career was receiving a New Zealand Order of Merit from the Queen in 2011 for Services to entertainment. He’s the only gossip columnist in the world to be bestowed with such an honour.
“I found people in the industry would tell me things, and then they’d go, ‘I should not have told you that.’ I never broke their confidence. Why do I want to cut the cord? If you’re a friend of mine, then you’re a friend of mine for life.”
In terms of friendships, not many can say that Elizabeth Taylor was a mate. “She was English, wild and wacky and swore like a sailor,” he says.
As for Bette Davis, she wasn’t the easiest celebrity to be around, David says.
“Bette was a hard cookie, but I wouldn’t call her a bitch. For a woman of her time to tell the studios to go and screw themselves was a brave thing to do, and I admired that. I will put up with bullshit and jellybeans if they come up with the goods, and Bette Davis always came up with the goods.”
David still has a passion for Hollywood. His office is filled with tinsel-town memorabilia and he has an extensive library of Hollywood books and hundreds of autobiographies. He still writes an online gossip column and collates a Hollywood trivia quiz for the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. He’s also a patron and ambassador for three charities close to his heart: the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand, Prostate Cancer Foundation and an organisation trying to save Auckland’s St James Theatre.
“The biggest regret I have in my life is hearing all those people put me down for doing what I was doing, and saying that I never met the Hollywood stars. I wonder where those people are today, ‘cause I’m still doing what I love.”
And despite having met the world’s most famous men and women, it’s surprising who David’s favourite celebrity is.
“My favourite star is Mickey Mouse; many generations have fallen in love with him, he’s a survivor and he’s never turned into a rat.”
Glory Days Magazine Jan 2015