virginia mckenna her fiery marriage and the husband who cheated with a moroccan gigolo

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By Michael Thornton
Last updated at 12:59 AM on 30th September 2010

Poised and elegant: But when Virginia McKenna discovered the infidelity of her first husband Denholm Elliott with members of his own sex, things started to fly

Poised and elegant: But when Virginia McKenna discovered the infidelity of her first husband Denholm Elliott with members of his own sex, things started to fly

The spectacle was so astonishing that not even the most imaginative of film fans could have envisaged it. Virginia McKenna, the supremely cool, outwardly serene and eternally ladylike star of stage and screen, habitually dubbed ‘the ­English rose’ by the media, stood in her London living-room hurling plates, cups and saucers against the wall with such ferocity that they shattered into ­minuscule fragments.

Taking evasive action from this barrage of bone china was the acclaimed actor Denholm Elliott, who had been her husband for only a matter of months.

Virginia McKenna OBE, then already a screen icon, would go on to win international acclaim for her performances in film classics such as A Town Like Alice, Carve Her Name With Pride and Born Free, in which she memorably portrayed Joy Adamson and her quest to reintroduce the orphaned lion cub Elsa back into the wild, a movie that President Barack Obama recently revealed as ‘having an impact’ on his childhood.

In the new paperback edition of her autobiography, The Life In My Years, published earlier this month, we have, according to Joanna Lumley in her foreword, ‘Virginia McKenna as she sees herself; her life, full of passion and grace and fun and wisdom and friendship’.

But of the violent destruction of her household china there is not a word. And of the deep frustration that arose from her disastrous and traumatic first marriage to Denholm Elliott, she says little or nothing.

The bitter failure of that marriage is dismissed in three deliberately unrevealing sentences. ‘He was a fine actor and a delightful person,’ she says of Elliott, ‘but I suppose I have to admit that, for both of us, our marriage was a mistake . . . I knew in my heart it wouldn’t work. So I had to leave.’

In fact, it was Elliott who did the leaving. Miss McKenna, though a famous and beautiful star, found herself in the invidious position of being able to attract the adulation of millions, but not the interest of her own husband.

The reason was one that has confronted women before her and women since. Her husband’s intense interest in his own sex precluded the possibility of a happy and satisfying marriage. For a woman who had become a national role model early in her career, it was a dilemma of devastating proportions, and one that needed to be kept secret from both Press and public.

Bisexuality was deeply ingrained in Denholm Elliott’s character all his life, and when he joined the Royal Air Force in 1940, many of his inhibitions fell away. He enjoyed the company of women, but preferred the company of men, and during the war only men were on offer to him.

In September 1942, when he was 20, Elliott’s Handley Page Halifax bomber was forced to ditch in the North Sea. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Germans in Stalag VIII-B at Lamsdorf in Poland, where, having trained as an actor, he found himself much in demand for amateur theatricals, often in leading female roles.

With his slim body and delicate face and hands, Denholm could be made up to look like a very attractive girl. He made a fetching Viola in Twelth Night, and a surprisingly sexy Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.

Not husband material: Bisexuality was ingrained in Denholm Elliott's character for all of his life, meaning his marriage to Virginia McKenna was destined to fail

Not husband material: Bisexuality was ingrained in Denholm Elliott's character for all of his life, meaning his marriage to Virginia McKenna was destined to fail

It was at Lamsdorf that he fell in love for the first time with a man, a young German guard with ‘a gentle voice and shy manner - a boy in ­uniform, an innocent, not unlike Denholm’, according to his second wife, Susan. ‘What they shared was a warmth, a compassion.’

There is no evidence that this relationship was ever consummated sexually. The close friendship was ‘expressed through small gifts of chocolate and cigarettes’. It ended sadly, according to Susan, when the young guard was transferred.

‘When the gates opened and the truck moved out, Denholm saw his friend sitting by the tailboard. There was no signal of recognition, not so much as a wave. But Denholm knew beyond doubt that this was the last time he would see him,’ she said.

After the war ended, Elliott, who had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, made his West End stage debut in the play The Guinea Pig. Another actor in the production, Robert Flemyng, overhearing one of Elliott’s conversations, realised for the first time that Denholm was bisexual. ‘In those early years, he took great pains to keep it to himself,’ said Flemyng.

In 1949, Elliott appeared in one of George Bernard Shaw’s last plays, Buoyant Billions. The star of the production, the American-born blonde siren Frances Day, who was herself notoriously bisexual - one of her most ardent admirers was former American First Lady Eleanor ­Roosevelt - instantly detected the ambiguities in Denholm’s sexuality. She inveigled him into an affair, much to the chagrin of her understudy, Liz Prideaux, who was extremely attracted to Elliott, but found ‘something missing’ in their relationship.

Denholm Elliott met Virginia McKenna - known to her friends as Ginny - in 1953 at Ealing Studios on the set of the film The Cruel Sea, in which he was playing Sub-Lieutenant Morrell and she was playing a Wren, Julie Hallam. He was 30, she was 21.

Happier time: The couple on their wedding day, however within months the marriage would be over as Elliott's preference for men became apparent

Happier time: The couple on their wedding day, however within months the marriage would be over as Elliott's preference for men became apparent

‘There is no doubt,’ said Elliott’s second wife, Susan, ‘that Denholm fell desperately in love with Ginny. Encouraged on all sides to believe that this was a match made in heaven, he threw himself into an ecstasy of romance. Here, at last, was his paragon. It was hard for Ginny not to be swept along by the sheer force of his desire. He told the world how much he needed her.’

They were married on a bitterly cold March day in 1954 at Holy ­Trinity, Brompton, with the bride in white and the Press photographers out in force to capture the wedding of a star.

There was no honeymoon because McKenna was on tour with Dodie Smith’s play, I Capture The Castle, in which she was appearing with a rugged 6ft 6in tall actor, 32-year-old Bill Travers, whom she found ‘such a fascinating person, with very ­profound views about life’. 

Travers was married to the actress Patricia Raine, daughter of the musical comedy star Binnie Hale, and they had a young daughter, Anna.

The spell in McKenna’s marriage to Denholm Elliott was soon broken. ‘Ginny was incapable of meeting the demands made upon her,’ said Susan Elliott. ‘And who could blame her? I doubt that any woman could have satisfied Denholm’s wholly unrealistic expectations.’

With his slim body and delicate face and hands, Denholm could be made up to look like a very attractive girl.

 

In later press interviews, McKenna maintained that she knew nothing of Elliott’s bisexuality. But one interviewer, digging deeper, did elicit from her the admission that she realised that Denholm’s fondness for some men went beyond ordinary friendship.

‘I recall saying once, protectively, that I didn’t know,’ said McKenna, ‘but I did become aware. In truth, I suppose I thought it was the result of being in a prisoner-of-war camp and would no longer be a problem.’

Susan Elliott said: ‘He genuinely expected that life with Virginia ­McKenna, by popular consent an alluring beauty, would be successful. It never occurred to him to talk about sex. He was madly in love and had put Ginny on a pedestal.’

‘According to Denholm,’ Susan added, ‘they never made love in any way that was satisfying or fulfilling for either of them. There are friends of both who have always assumed that the marriage was not properly consummated.’

McKenna’s life with Elliott was punctuated by violent rows. ‘Having put Ginny on that pedestal,’ said Susan, ‘Denholm wasfurious when he discovered that she was less than perfect.

‘His rage fed on jealousy, knowing as he did that Bill Travers was ever near to console his wife in her marital troubles. But when it came to open confrontation, Denholm was no match for Ginny. When words failed her, she was ready to express herself with a few well-aimed domestic missiles.

‘After a particularly bitter exchange, he walked out, taking with him the only memento of their life that inspired his affection: a porcelain cat.’

 

‘Five minutes was all she needed to work her way through an entire tea service -less a single cup which Denholm managed to save, albeit temporarily: it was shattered against the living-room wall, along with other wedding presents, when the argument resumed a week later. 

‘After a particularly bitter exchange - about what, Denholm could never remember -he walked out, taking with him the only memento of their life that inspired his affection: a porcelain cat.’

In her autobiography, McKenna relates: ‘After that, it was a kind of wilderness. Eventually Denholm and I met again at the house, and I remember sitting in the kitchen together dividing the gifts we had received between us. It was quite calm, in fact, but sad.’

But Elliott’s anger did not subside. When it came to the divorce, he took the unusual step of bringing an action against McKenna, citing Bill Travers, instead of ­saving male pride by accepting guilt by association with an unnamed co-respondent. The suit was undefended. 

‘Husband Sues The English Rose’, announced a tabloid headline. That was in 1957. A few weeks later, McKenna married the now-divorced Bill Travers. They had three sons and a daughter, and remained happily together until Travers’s death in 1994.

Elliott’s affairs with men continued. In 1962, he married the 20-year-old American actress and model Susan Robinson, 20 years his junior, after admitting to her: ‘I’ve had male lovers. Does that shock you?’ A daughter, Jennifer, was born in 1964, and a son, Mark, in 1967.

A film icon: Virginia McKenna starred in the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride

A film icon: Virginia McKenna starred in the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride

But a few years later, after returning from filming Too Late The Hero in the Philippines, Elliott ­confessed to Susan that he had been to orgies involving both men and women, and that she ought to call in at the ‘clap clinic’ for a protective shot, ‘just to be on the safe side’.

This was too much for Susan. She demanded a trial separation, but then changed her mind — they were apart for only a week. Elliott now took a permanent male lover, Moñolo, who worked at a parking lot in Barcelona. 

Moñolo was succeeded by Moroccan gigolos, Chinese waiters, Spanish garage attendants and even a hunchbacked Haitian dwarf. There were muggings and attempts at blackmail. Elliott’s homosexual indiscretions increased with the years, to such an extent that his promiscuity became, in his wife’s words, ‘almost a psychological disorder’.

Elliott ­confessed to Susan that he had been to orgies involving both men and women, and that she ought to call in at the ‘clap clinic’ for a protective shot, ‘just to be on the safe side’.

He was reunited with his former wife, Virginia McKenna, in the television play The Blue Dress. McKenna found it ‘friendly and comfortable’, but Elliott was tense about the reunion.

In 1988, after his acting career had brought him countless honours and awards, he was created a CBE. By that time, however, he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. He died from Aids-related tuberculosis in Ibiza on October 6, 1992, at the age of 70. One tabloid described him as ‘a great actor with the morals of an alley cat’.

In January 1993, a memorial service for Denholm Elliott was held at St James’s Church, Piccadilly. Among the congregation were Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.
‘Little did I know,’ notes McKenna poignantly in her autobiography, ‘that I would be there again two years later, remembering Bill.’

The painful matrimonial triangle that had brought such bitterness and frustration into the lives of its participants 40 years earlier, and which, even now, Virginia McKenna finds it difficult to confront, was finally at an end.

The Life In My Years, by Virginia McKenna, is published by Oberon Books at £12.99. It can be ordered from 01235 465577 or direct.orders@marston.co.uk

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So, the Sue Ryder Care patron dishes dirt on someone who cannot answer back! How clever.

- WD40, Hants, 30/9/2010 15:36

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Elliot was a coward and a rotter to have sued McKenna for divorce when in effect he had just pretended to be heterosexual to marry her and was in fact just looking for a "beard."

All McKenna wanted, like most women, was to marry a "real" man. Luckily in Bill Travers she certainly found one. He was quite a bloke.

- G man, London, 30/9/2010 15:22

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Don't care what his private life was like I just know he was one of the best actors I have ever seen, it really is a joy to watch anything with him in, one of my favourite roles was as the pompous doctor in A Private Function. Brilliant.

- Susan, Cwmbran,S.Wales, 30/9/2010 15:03

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Even English Roses get angry at times.

- Anne, Europe, 30/9/2010 14:41

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Vanilla, bisexuality is actually being attracted to both sexes, being promiscuous is nothing to do with it. Being bisexual does not force you to cheat and sleep around, and as far as I'm aware straight/gay people are also completely capable of the same thing no?

- Rose, York, 30/9/2010 14:20

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I really don't understand the negative comments here! It's a story of it's time for goodness sake! I had never heard it either, but I think it's quite an interesting one. He didn't murder anyone, did he? He seems to have been genuinely fond of her and what could bisexual or homosexual people do in those hypocrytical times? Virginia McKenna certainly doesn't slag him off so why should some of you?

- Katy, Spain, 30/9/2010 13:53

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