The Oscars and me
Jamie Lee Curtis just won an Oscar. I knew her old man. It’s probably fairer to say Tony Curtis knew me.
To cut a long story short, I had been hitchhiking around Europe, the Grand Tour, as we called it then, and to earn a shilling I got a job as a reporter in London. Jamie’s dad was caught with a tiny bit of maryjane (marijuana) – cannabis, weed, dagga, ganja – in his luggage at Heathrow airport.
It was my first “scoop.” I had been sent to see what was happening at a nearby magistrates’ court. The court list of the day’s hearings named one Bernard Schwartz. I was the only person on the press bench.
I didn’t recognise Mr Schwartz at first. Then Eureka! I saw it. I got it. Some Like It Hot. Marilym Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon. Here he was. Curtis, his film name not the family name of his father, a modest Jewish Hungarian tailor who fled the pograms of Europe and settled in America.
Tony recognised me later as having opened the floodgates of a media storm. He got off lightly with the magistrate wittily reminding him he was free to appear in the cinema in Britain but not in court again.
Asked if he was guilty: “Yes, Judge,” Curtis said in his natural Bronx accent. Came the reply: “I am not a judge. If you please, I am referred to in Her Majesty’s jurisdiction as Your Worship.”
When Tony died in 2010 at the age of 85 the magazine Private Eye spoof Poetry Corner put it like this:
Your most famous film
Some Like It Hot.
Will it be hot
Where you are going?
This week Jamie won an Oscar for the best supporting role in the film that swept the board Everything Everywhere All At Once on Oscar night. Now 64, she was 12 when I met her daddy. Neither he or her mother, the acclaimed film star Janet Leigh, Tony’s first wife, got Oscars although they were nominated more than once.
My old acquaintance Tony was married six times, the last wife who tied the knot in 1998, was 45 years younger than he was. Quite the ‘ladies man,‘ he reputedly got Marilyn Monroe pregnant around the time of Some Like It Hot. She did have one miscarriage. She had been ‘seeing’ other men. (and even President John F Kennedy at one time, it was said.)
Not so long after the Heathrow bust Tony, like so many other celebrities, became an alcohol and cocaine addict and way after that he had chronic heart disease and advanced cirrhosis of the liver; he eventually went into rehab and apparently got ‘clean.’
More about that court case from my memoir Mutoko Madness:
What the hell … if you can’t open this link and can be bothered to read more, here it is.
‘Scoop’ Ewing, the court reporter, wouldn’t be in today. He had had a glorious career working his way up to Fleet Street from weekly papers with scoop upon scoop; he was now working his way back down again, totally worn out and finding comfort in the hops, the grape and the grain, the scoops eluding him now. I was to stand in for him at the magistrates’ court.
Nothing to it, they said. ‘Watch out for kleptomaniacs from the Mothers’ Union up for shoplifting. Vicars up for drunk and disorderly or sexual shenanigans, navvies up for GBH, Grievous Bodily Harm.’ The principle of court reporting was that justice had to be seen to be done. A stolen packet of biscuits brought shame on the housewife in the road where she lived and she might never do it again.
The trick was to study the court lists and befriend the court clerk for a forewarning of the best cases. Scoop Ewing already had the clerk well primed.
‘Court No. 3 at ten o’clock,’ the clerk winked. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more. Know what I mean …
The court list gave the slot to one Bernard Schwartz, charged for possession of a proscribed illegal substance. Bail applications, mostly from drunks held in the tank to dry out overnight, were dispensed with first. A teenager had been caught vandalising a telephone box. As ten approached, I settled down in Court No. 3.
The bailiff called out the name of the accused. The call was relayed into the lobby and in he strode, accompanied by two lawyers. He wore a pale seersucker suit and walked with confidence. He wore a diamond pin in his tie, had a healthy tan and impeccably groomed hair. He repeated his name and gave a California address. Her Majesty’s Customs had found a small quantity of cannabis in his suitcase at Heathrow airport. How did he plead?
‘Guilty, judge,’ the American said.
‘I am not a judge, I am a magistrate. If you please, I am referred to in Her Majesty’s jurisdiction as Your Worship.’
The prosecutor stood. The facts of this case were…
Then I got it. Eureka! Some Like It Hot: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis. Bernard Schwartz was Tony Curtis. Tony Curtis was his stage name, his film name, his showbiz name. Here, bringing his distinctive Bronx accent, was the famed son of the modest Jewish Hungarian tailor who had made the journey past the Statue of Liberty and settled in America. I was alone on the press bench. I had just begun shorthand lessons but Tony Curtis and the lawyers spoke slowly enough for me to get it all down. The actor didn’t know how the cannabis had found its way into his luggage. He had hosted a party at his Beverly Hills house and possibly someone left the stuff lying around. The valet must have swept it in by mistake when packing for him.
‘Do you … er … use cannabis, Mr Schwartz?’
‘I object, Your Worship,’ said Curtis’s defence lawyer. ‘The accused has admitted possession of the drug as charged. Further questioning is irrelevant. In view of the small quantity at issue, the defence believes a fine would be the appropriate remedy under our law.’
Tony Curtis could certainly afford a fine.
The young prosecutor knew he was going to get his name in the papers. ‘With the greatest respect, Your Worship, I beg to differ with my learned friend. I wish to speak to the aspect of whether Mr Schwartz uses cannabis. It is entirely relevant to his having the drug in his possession and to the truth of his explanation.’
‘Absolutely nothing turns on my client’s … er … attitude to recreational drugs, Your Worship. It is a minor possession offence, pure and simple. The social behaviour of the American cinema industry and its … er … Bohemian personnel is not on trial here. My client’s explanation is entirely plausible. Indeed, it is entirely true.’
Tony Curtis seemed amused by the Britishness of it all. ‘Damned quaint, these Limeys,’ I thought he might be thinking. The cannabis, resembling about enough Mutoko Madness for one or two good hits, was submitted as an exhibit. After a little more beating around the bush, the magistrate adjourned to pass sentence on Thursday. Tony Curtis’s lawyer didn’t offer to post bail. Tony Curtis wasn’t about to abscond. Where could a film star hide?
Curtis’s slick Los Angeles attorney was present on Thursday with his agent and his publicist. The actor was fined and cautioned that he had a criminal conviction that would be taken into account in any future appearances in Her Majesty’s courts.
He was welcome to appear in the cinema in Britain, but not in the courts, the magistrate told him, pleased with the wit of it. The publicist handed out a statement saying that Mr Curtis appreciated the courtesy and fairness of the British authorities, he hoped the media would respect his privacy, and the actor looked forward to returning to the States to start work on his new motion picture.
Tony Curtis recognised me as the lone scribbler from Tuesday and waved. He put on his hat and sunglasses and ducked into his limo.
Reporters, said George Bernard Shaw, were like waiters. They met interesting people in humiliating circumstances – and vice versa.
I wore my first scoop on my belt like a scalp.
And, to say the very least, I couldn’t wait for Tony Curtis’s new motion picture.
Great days Goose, and written with your usual style and wit. I have read and recommend “Mtoko Madness”.