Yes, Connery did beat me unconscious
By JOAN CLARK
Last updated at 11:40 14 August 2006
Diane Cilento revelled in the warmth of the Spanish evening sun. Surrounded by the cast and crew of the movie her husband Sean Connery was shooting in Almeria, she drank freely, and laughed and danced with other guests into
the small hours.
For the actors, the invitation to a local wedding was a chance to let off steam after a long day’s filming, but for Diane the celebration was a welcome change from hours waiting for Connery to return from the set of The
Towards the end of the evening, she sought out her husband of three years - by then world famous as James Bond - and went up to their room to find him.
‘I was a bit drunk,’ she recalls, talking about the incident fully for the first time, but she could never have expected what came next. Connery was waiting for her. ‘Once inside our room in the darkness, I felt a blow to my
face and was knocked to the floor and passed out for a few seconds. Then I was screaming, we were both shouting. I got to my feet and tried to fight back, but another blow sent me flying.
‘I managed to get through the bathroom door and locked myself in. I spent the rest of the night sprawled on the bathroom floor, covered with towels, whimpering.’
Connery went to bed without a word. Next morning Diane - who was then an ethereal beauty of 31 - looked in the mirror and was appalled at what she
saw. ‘I felt sure my face would never be the same again.’ Now, sitting in her son Jason's cottage in the Scottish Borders, she still sounds bemused as she remembers the incident.
‘I was in shock - no one had ever treated me like that, it was confusing, and I felt ashamed in a way - and afraid of the Press finding out. What could I say - that I walked into a door?’
So she collected a few things as Sean slept, donned an enormous pair of sunglasses and drove as far away as she could. ‘Everything had changed. Looking back, I think my conviction that Sean was my loyal protector, the one person who always made me feel safe, had been
shattered. I still loved him deeply, but he would never again be the same person I had trusted unconditionally.’
Despite this explosion of violence, the incident was never mentioned. It simply 'festered' between them, and she still struggles to explain why. ‘It was different then,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t like modern marriages where couples discuss things. And I was ashamed in some way. I wasn't afraid it would happen again, but it made me careful about putting myself in a position where it might.’
To the millions of fans who idolise Sean Connery, this calm recollection of his brutality to his first wife will come as an unpleasant dose of reality.
But they should not be surprised. The actor himself sparked a controversy when he told Playboy in 1965: ‘I don't think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman - although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man.
‘An open-handed slap is justified, if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning. If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or
bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it.’
Well, on that balmy night in 1965, Diane Cilento had no warning, neither was she being bloody-minded. What is certain is that the attack left emotional scars that have outlasted the physical damage.
That’s why, 40 years later, she has chosen to reveal the truth about her former husband in a brutally honest autobiography, My Nine Lives.
She describes marriage to Connery as being 'crushing', and at last gives
her side of the story about his towering jealousy and his attitude to
money. Her feisty character comes through strongly, and as she sits before me, my first thought is that even at 72, this Oscar-nominated actress is vibrant and warm.
She talks with candour about her 11 years as the first Mrs Connery. She first set eyes on him in 1957, at the glitzy premiere of The Admirable
Crichton, the film that made her a star. She had married a beautiful young Italian in London, only to discover that their lives were controlled by his wealthy family.
The London premiere offered two weeks of freedom. ‘I was footloose and fancy-free,’ she says, ‘but pregnant by my Italian husband.’
Her strongest memory of that night was ‘the presence of a tall, funny actor with two gold eyeteeth, who leapt about firing off a barrage of one-liners in a broad Scottish brogue. He walked with the forward-leaning, slightly
pigeon-toed gait of a body builder,’ she recalls, ‘and his thick eyebrows met between his eyes. He looked dangerous, but fun.’
She was told by her agent it was Sean Connery, her next leading man in ITV's upcoming production of Anna Christie. ‘There was no question of romance,’ she says, ‘I was about to disappear abroad to have my baby, but Sean and I became friends.
He was at the start of his career - he'd appeared in the chorus line in South Pacific - and I helped him with his acting ambitions, though he now says he learned by reading a book.’
She stops and smiles, shaking her head slightly. Despite lacking discipline, training and confidence, what she saw in him was, she says, ‘a
powerful presence and a burgeoning talent’.
But Cilento had other things to worry about. Shortly after returning to Italy after the birth of her daughter Gigi, she caught tuberculosis, and was sent into the care of nuns in the Vatican, with her daughter handed over to a wet nurse. It took two years to recover her health.
‘Sean was my lifeline,’ she remembers. ‘He wrote letters and we spoke on the phone a couple of times. I found the sound of his voice comforting.’
Finally, concerned about her treatment and life in Italy, she escaped from her in-laws and tried to phone everyone she knew from a callbox. The only one to whom she got through - ‘fatefully’ she says - was Sean, and he saved her.
‘He met me and Gigi at the airport in London and took me to a doctor who treated me with modern drugs. I wasn’t in love with him then, but I knew he would play an integral part in my future.’
Diane’s marriage was annulled and when she married Connery, in Gibraltar in 1962, she was heavily pregnant with his child. ‘I didn’t want to get married,’ she says, ‘I was relishing bringing up two children on my own, but Sean insisted we be a family.’
They bought a house in Acton, West London, and Sean became father to Gigi, and their newborn son Jason. At that time Cilento was famous and Sean was not.
‘I was passionate about his career, and my own, and did everything I could to help him.’ Unfortunately, her passion for her career did not tally with Connery's outlook on life.
Whatever idea he had of what a wife should be,
Cilento didn't fit it. ‘But then I never had,’ she says quietly, aware that she had always been a free spirit.
He wanted her to stay at home, to cook for his golf buddies whenever they chose to appear. Then he told her that since she had her own career, he
would provide no more housekeeping money. ‘I tried to be the kind of wife he wanted,’ she says. ‘I took up writing because I could do it from home, I turned down Hollywood and so much work my agent despaired.’
Together they worked on their new home ‘like any other young couple’. She describes those early days. ‘Like typical new parents, we settled down
to sleepless nights of baby colic, teething and weaning. Our marriage, Jason’s birth, a house to renovate, a large German shepherd called Harry
Hotspur and a profound trust and love had melded us into a cohesive unit.’
Sean did much of the work himself while Diane oversaw the interior decoration. Sean also bought a safe - a reflection of how his sudden
elevation to superstar affected their lives after Dr No was released in 1962.
Meanwhile, Diane was expected to be a devoted wife. ‘My role was to be camp follower, going on location with Sean and having no other interests,’ says Diane. ‘When Tom Jones (the film in which she starred with Albert Finney)
was released in 1963 and I was nominated for an Oscar, offers of work poured in. I was ecstatic, but Sean was not pleased.’
As the Sixties unfolded, the Bond phenomenon overtook them, and Sean began acting like a star. ‘It was difficult for him - he was expected to live up to the image, he was adored, and that can be hard to cope with,’ says Diane
with a wry smile.
And there were unwelcome side effects. Their home became a target for burglars and fans, and her friends, who, in Sean’s mind, were just as bad.
She spent much of her time catering for Sean’s golfing buddies and famous friends. ‘One night I’d be cooking for Jimmy Tarbuck, Eric Sykes, Eric Morecambe, Benny Hill and Bruce Forsyth,’ she says, ‘and the next we'd be
entertaining the Berliner Ensemble or Rudi Nureyev. And yet all the time there was an uneasy atmosphere in the house.’
Then Sean ordered her to sort out an overdraft on their household account that had ballooned to £5,000, a vast sum in the Sixties. ‘I've never been good with money,’ she smiles, ‘but I couldn't understand how I could've got
The bank manager explained Sean had never paid a penny into the account. ‘I hadn't understood that when Sean said there'd be no housekeeping money, he meant never.
‘I gave the bank manager a cheque to pay off the deficit and, knowing that the best way to send Sean ballistic was to mention money, asked for a
letter to be sent to him instead, explaining the overdraft and confirming that I had paid it off and inquiring whether he'd be depositing funds in
the account in the future. He just ignored it.
‘So all the time I was being a dutiful hostess to his friends and turning down work, I was actually paying for the privilege, and now I had to work to earn money.’
Realising that everything they had was in Sean’s name, she resolved to use what was left of her fee for making the film Hombre (with Paul Newman) to buy a little house in Kingston Hill, South-West London, as an investment.
But if their domestic finances were troublesome, and Sean's growing passion for golf was driving a wedge between them, all this paled into
insignificance after Connery's assault on Diane in Spain. That soured their relationship for ever.
Talking about it today, her hand goes to the left side of her face. ‘I was bruised all over here,’ she says. ‘I had a huge black eye, and a big blood clot there.’ She points to the corner of her eye. Though the media never found out what had happened, the assault put a distance between the couple which further increased when they returned to London.
As their life continued to unravel, seven-year-old Jason was assaulted by a man on Wimbledon Common. ‘I called Sean, who was working in New York,’ she recalls. ‘I said Jason needed him. But he didn't come back.’ No longer feeling safe in their home with the children, she fled with them to the Kingston Hill house.
‘Sean was stunned that I had walked out, left Mrs Bond and fame far behind. His main concern, though, was that the Press should not think I’d left him, but that he had left me.’
Could they have got back together, if only for the sake of the children? ‘At that point, neither of us was entertaining loving thoughts about the other.’
Later came the financial details of the split. ‘I would get half the money
from the sale of the marital home I had left,’ she says, ‘but that was all, there would be no alimony, no lump sum or anything like that. He said he would set up a trust fund for Jason's education, but not for Gigi's because
she was not his responsibility.
‘But I just desperately wanted not to be married any more,’ she says. ‘He was squashing me, crushing me.’
Later, he would take her to court alleging that she was an unfit mother. Only when he lost this case did he agree to provide for Gigi, who regarded him as her father, though they no longer have any contact.
Jason, meanwhile, was sent to the austere boarding school Gordonstoun in the North of Scotland. Was that deliberate, chosen to separate him from his mother? ‘Oh yes,’ she says, matter-of-factly.
As for Cilento, she remembers it took a while to get her bearings. Desperate for money, she took whatever jobs she was offered. Gigi had won a
scholarship to Millfield School, so Diane was able to film abroad and travel while Jason spent time with his father.
She married once more, in 1985 to playwright Tony Shaffer, but is now widowed. Connery, now 76, lives with his second wife Micheline in the tax haven of the Bahamas.
Diane hasn’t seen or talked to Sean in so long she can’t remember when the last time was. ‘I did bump into him in an airport some years ago,’ she says. ‘It was weird. A sudden shock. Like seeing someone you think you know, only now it's a different person.
‘But I do feel there's unfinished business between us, I don't know why, and I wish I didn't feel that - I wish I could be free of him.’
Her home now is in Queensland, Australia, the country of her birth, where she stages plays and theatrical events at the Karnak Playhouse, which she founded when she returned there in the early Eighties.
For all her adventures in Hollywood and as Mrs James Bond, she feels truly at home only in the land where she grew up, the fourth of five children of her doctor parents, Sir Raphael and Lady Phyllis.
It is far away from her Hollywood days — and her life with Sean. In a telling remark in the book, she says, ‘I loved the old Sean, I still
do. Sometimes, when I see him today on some talk show, I catch a fleeting glimpse of my old love in the turn of his head or a well-remembered phrase, and it still makes my heart turn over.’
My Nine Lives is published by Viking at £20.
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