Sean Connery: A Biographyby Christopher Bray
Sean Connery's creation of secret agent James Bond invigorated Britain and its cinema, allowing a cash-strapped,
morale-sapped country in decline to fancy itself still a player on the world stage. But while Bond would make Connery the first actor to command a million dollar-plus fee, the man himself was forever pouring scorn on the fantasies audiences found it
Sean Connery's creation of secret agent James Bond invigorated Britain and its cinema, allowing a cash-strapped,
morale-sapped country in decline to fancy itself still a player on the world stage. But while Bond would make Connery the first actor to command a million dollar-plus fee, the man himself was forever pouring scorn on the fantasies audiences found it increasingly hard to separate him from. How can such worship not play havoc with one’s soul—especially a soul as painfully unprepared for the pressures of stardom as Connery’s?
Undaunted, Connery went on to prove himself one of the cinema’s most relaxed and assured stars and a guaranteed box-office draw. Molding and remolding his image to fit the contours of the age, Connery has gone from Sixties sex symbol to the sagacious figure to which today’s young stars are forever turning.
Spirited, argumentative and sardonically celebratory,
Christopher Bray’s Sean Connery is the story of an actor learning his craft on the job and, at the end of his career, of a man pressing his stardom into the service of his burgeoning political awareness.
The Washington Post
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By Christopher Bray
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Christopher Bray
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On the Road
He travels light, Sean Connery. A small grip with 'a clean shirt, spare trousers' is enough for him. 'If I'm in a place more than a day or two I just send it to the laundry.' And though he has properties in New York, in California, in the Bahamas and sundry other places around the world, he has never found 'anywhere that I want to live permanently'. Instead, he says, 'Home is where you're working.' And Connery has worked pretty much everywhere. That last remark was made in 1994, not long after the wrap on his fifty-sixth movie, a picture whose shoot had taken him deep into the wilds of South Africa. Much of the previous year had been spent filming in Los Angeles, while in 1992 Connery had endured a long, less than comfortable shoot in the jungles of Mexico. Seen through rose-tinted spectacles, the life of the big-shot movie star can seem as wondrous and wandering as that of the globe-trotting secret agent. Seen au naturel, it can look an awful lot like the lifestyle of what used to be called the itinerant class – the class to which generations of Connery's antecedents had belonged.
Hence what Holden Caulfield called 'all that David Copperfield kind of crap' is sketchy about Connery's background. When Thomas (later Sean) Connery was born, in Edinburgh in 1930, his father's forebears had been in Scotland for less than fifty years. Before fetching up in Glasgow, the Connerys — Irish Catholics — had plied their travelling tinker's trade over the water in County Wexford.
Given that nomadic background, the Connerys are unlikely to have abandoned the mother country because of the rent-raising strictures of Gladstone's second Irish Land Act of 1881. What we do know is that James Connery, who had been born in 1839, was 42 years old (well into middle age back then) when he made the move. And that Elizabeth McPhillips, the woman we must assume was James's wife, was some fifteen years his junior. They had met back in 1865, when Elizabeth was just eleven. A year later, she gave birth to their first child, another James; in 1870 to their second, another Elizabeth; and in 1879, shortly before their departure for the city on the Clyde, to their last-born — Sean Connery's grandfather, Thomas.
Like his father before him, Thomas Connery preferred his girls young. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the then 22-year-old Thomas set up home in Garscube with 13-year-old Jeanie McNab. (Barely an expression on a map, Garscube was an area of Glasgow so poor they gave allotments to the unemployed there.) A year later, in 1902, she bore Thomas an illegitimate son whom they called Joseph. (The couple were not actually married until 1938, a couple of years before Jeanie died of cancer, aged 52.) In 1905, with the family now resident in the no less impoverished — though rather more central — area of Cowcaddens, a second son, James, was born.
Poverty is never pleasant but we should be wary of overplaying how tough the Connery family found Glasgow life a century ago. Rough and ready as the districts they lived in were (and Sean Connery has said Thomas was never happier than when he was bare-knuckle fighting), the city itself — the soidisant 'second city of empire' — was doing very well indeed, thank you. Given its then rock-solid economic bases of engineering and shipbuilding, there were far worse places for a skilled man to ply his trade. Or even an unskilled one. For though Thomas Connery had no skills to speak of, much less to write home about — like so many men of his class he was illiterate — the horse and cart he had made his living from since his early teens served him well in the city's thriving scrap-metal trade. Nonetheless, come the outbreak of the First World War, Thomas decided to try his luck in the country's capital city, Edinburgh.
If there was any logic behind this move then, the better part of a century on, it is hard to discern what it might have been. During the war, Glasgow and the Clyde Basin would, predictably enough, grow into Britain's most vital centre of munitions manufacture. The pickings for a scrap-metal trader can have only become richer there. To be sure, Edinburgh did well enough too. But as Edwin Muir was to note on his Scottish Journey (a trip made when Sean Connery was just three or four years old), 'the most historical part of Edinburgh ... is a slum intersected by ancient houses that have been segregated and turned into museums and training colleges'. More, the city that calls itself the Athens of the North was and is an altogether more cerebral town than Glasgow. The print trade was one of its backbones — and print calls for literacy. All things considered, life for the Connerys can hardly have been any easier in their new city than it had been in their old. Except, one surmises, that to Thomas the fact of Edinburgh's 'newness' was all that mattered. The nomadic bug still bit this family deep.
It went on doing so. Until well into his twenties Sean Connery had no idea of where he was going, or of what he was doing. And looking at his career as he went into his thirties — that ungainly slalom between the series of films that made his name and the more ambitious dramas he hoped would sustain it — it can be difficult to abstract a line of attack. Sure, Bond was artless, mindless, so by all means work with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock or Harry Andrews while out of the 007 armour. But with Basil Dearden? With Edward Dmytryk? With Richard Harris? By the mid-sixties, Connery was one of the highest-paid actors in the world, but he was never happy being tied down to what most people — and certainly most actors — would have considered a nice big earner. He was forever beefing about this, bemoaning that. The family models he had to work from, the examples of peddlers and chancers and men who couldn't settle, had stayed with him.
Certainly, Sean Connery's early life was as unsettled, as unfocussed, as unpredictable as any young man's has ever been. He was born Thomas Sean Connery in Edinburgh's Royal Maternity Hospital on 25 August 1930, a big, big baby boy, weighing in at around ten and a half pounds. His size was much commented on, because the Connery men had never been particularly hefty. Joe Connery, the boy's father, was built as solidly as any skill-free workman, but he topped out at a less than imposing five feet eight inches. But they say that you get your height from your mother, and while the photographic evidence doesn't quite endorse Diane Cilento's claim that Joe's wife Euphemia (née Maclean) stood 'a good head taller' than he did, nonetheless she was tall for a woman and stood head-to-head with her husband.
They had married at Tynecastle Parish Church, a couple of years before Thomas's birth, on 28 December 1928, when Joe was 26 and Effie (as Euphemia was always known) was 20, and there are reasons other than her long legs to believe the labourer had done well for himself. Euphemia was a favourite name for Protestant girls of the time, which means that Joe was moving away from those lowly Catholic roots so frowned upon by many Scots. 'I understand,' John Buchan rued in a speech to the House of Commons not long after Thomas Connery had come into the world, 'that every fifth child born now in Scotland is an Irish Roman Catholic.' Despite his Hibernian middle name, the new Connery wasn't going to be one of them.
Unlike Joe's parents, Effie's parents were married. By the time Thomas was old enough to know them they had left Edinburgh and retired to Lassodie, a coalmining village north of Dunfermline, 30 or 40 miles as the crow flies across the Firth of Forth. Retirement presupposes an earlier period of work, and Neil Maclean had indeed held down a job all his life. He had started out as a plasterer, a skilled trade from which he worked his way up the ladder to the titled job of Public Works Foreman. Something of an achiever then, especially when his achievements are set next to those of the Connery tinkers. Little wonder, perhaps, that the two families were uneasy around one another. His parents' wedding celebrations, Connery has told us, were cut short because a fight was about to break out between his two grandfathers.'
At the time Thomas Connery was born, Joe was being paid £2 a week as a labourer in the North British Rubber Company's mill. This last was not far from the Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh, in one of whose run-down, two-room tenement apartments the Connerys had set up home. Ablutions were carried out in cold water at the kitchen sink, more private matters in the shared toilet on the tenement's back stairwell. Tam, as baby Thomas was immediately nicknamed, slept in a drawer at the foot of the family wardrobe. 'My background,' he would tell a reporter years later, 'was harsh.' So, of course, was that of everyone with whom he came into contact. As he remembered, 'the attitude at home was the prevalent one in Scotland — you make your own bed and so you have to lie in it'.
It sounds like a hard and harsh life, but the childhood photographs we have of Connery rather belie the image. They show a very well-cared for young fellow. There is a picture of him at five or six at Edinburgh's Tollcross Primary School in which he is turned out with so much more pride — that jacket! that tie! that parting in his hair! — than the other boys around him. And in Being a Scot, his idiosyncratic history of his home country, Connery prints another picture of his young self, surrounded by what he calls 'the Stewart Terrace school gang'. Here he is, a beaming-faced and hearty-looking angel, surrounded by what one can only call the junior great unwashed. As Connery himself asks of the picture, 'Why am I the only one who is wearing a tie?' Who can say? But it is perhaps worthy of note that, his most famous movie role aside, the mature Connery has almost never been seen in his best bib and tucker.
Indeed, stories told by his brother Neil (born eight years after Thomas) give us an altogether rougher Connery than the one those photographs prepare us for — a Connery who is in and out of hospital after twists and tumbles and head-first dives into trees from sledges. Neil has described an incident in which Tommy cut his hand very nastily — by gripping the glass knob on the door to his parents' bedroom so tightly that it shattered. 'Sean was the quiet one of the family,' Neil remembered, 'and inclined to be an over-sensitive child.' 'When I met him,' his second wife Micheline Roquebrune said of the Connery she has known since his early forties, 'I very quickly wanted to protect him. He needs protection.'
Connery's first wife, Diane Cilento, has latterly claimed her erstwhile husband was a troubled and troublesome youngster. Many children go shoplifting, for instance, but she says that when Connery did, he did so with his mother in tow. Did so, moreover, using baby Neil's pram as the cover for his ill-gotten comics and chocolates. One day, writes Cilento, Mrs Connery 'flipped back the blanket and uncovered the stolen goodies. After a public belting in the street, Effie dragged him back to the shop by his ear, forcing him to apologise to the shopkeeper and replace the lot.'
And yet, one suspects Tam was his mother's rather than his father's son. Likely the fact that he was the first Connery we have come across who learned to read was down to Effie's influence. More, he liked the printed word — if only in the form of those comic books. Still, enough of it rubbed off on him for a teacher at Bruntsfield Primary School to praise one of his early compositions. Yet for all his love of words (and his speed at mental arithmetic, a trait perhaps inherited from his bookie's runner grandfather), when the time came for him to move on to secondary school he opted for a place not at Boroughmuir — a fee-paying school, though one open to scholarship boys, where they taught subjects like economics and modern languages — but at the rather more practically minded Darroch.
His reasoning was simple enough. Though he had passed the requisite exams, attending Boroughmuir would have meant having to play the dreaded English public-school game of rugby. At Darroch he was able to play the soccer he loved and loves. Fair enough. The trouble was, he seems to have done little else while there. 'I never remembered anybody making school sufficiently stimulating or interesting to make me want to stay,' he would say, close on half a century after leaving Darroch. Well, maybe. One of his teachers, a Mrs Hardy, saw things rather differently though. 'He wasn't a fool,' she remembered. 'He wasn't stupid, but just bare average.' Like other bare average kids of the day, he did just two years at secondary school, leaving in July 1944, a month before his fourteenth birthday.
Not that anyone could have called him lazy. During those years at Darroch Connery was spending much of his waking life hard at work. Accounts vary as to the age he was when he began earning the money to pay his own way, but we know for sure that within days of leaving school he was working for St Cuthbert's Dairy for a guinea a week as a barrow boy. And we know that within a few weeks of that start-date, he was promoted to transport duties — driving a horse and cart around the city delivering milk.
Though the bulk of the money he earned was handed over to Effie to help out with the rent, Connery was spending less and less time at home. Even when not working, he was out of the house, taking care of his new best friend, Tich — the horse that pulled his milk-cart. 'He was horse daft,' Effie would tell a reporter years later. 'Always taking my dusters to rub down the milk horse.' You can call such behaviour soft-headed, even sentimental, though it may be that what Connery found in tending to his charge was a way of being alone — and artists need to find ways of being alone.
Then again, maybe he just wanted out of an increasingly fraught home life. According to Neil, there were tensions between his father and his elder brother, tensions he believes explicable by the latter's 'developing too fast. He was too big for his age, too bold, the bread-earner too early.' The real problem, one suspects, was that around the time Thomas commenced earning a wage, his father stopped doing so. One weekend he returned home from Glasgow, where he had been labouring at the Rolls-Royce factory, having broken his nose and wrist in what he called an accident. For the next eighteen months the money Thomas earned, together with what Effie managed to bring in from her work as a part-time charlady, were the mainstays of the family income.
Years later, with his son become an international movie star, Joe Connery would characterise himself as 'not the sort that would like to sit around and let a son take care of him'. And yet Diane Cilento has claimed that when she first met Joe for a drink, some time in the late fifties, she saw Connery surreptitiously slip his father some money under the table. Later, when the man who was then her boyfriend had gone to the bar, Joe turned to Cilento and asked her, 'How long have you known Tommy?' Told they had met a year or so before, Joe feigned amazement at the relationship's longevity: 'But ye've never met ... his wee brother, Neil. Well, he's no' so wee the noo. He's in the army. He's the one, ye know ... once you've met Neil, you'll never look at Tommy again ... and he's nine [sic ] years younger than Tommy, too. Have you noticed he's going thin on top?' You don't have to be a strict Freudian to conceive that there might have been something Oedipal going on here.
Consider the curious incident of Thomas's sixteenth birthday spending spree. Effie, it turned out, had not had to use all the money he had been handing over to her from his weekly wages. She had managed to salt away some of it in a Post Office savings account. Come the day he turned 16, young Connery was surprised to learn that he had somewhere north of £75 put by. Horse-lover or not, he told the family that he had decided to treat himself to a motorbike.
Now remember, this was 1946 — only a year since the end of the war. British youth culture was hardly a force to be reckoned with. Over in America they were inventing the teenager, but in Britain — and perhaps even more so in Scotland — there was no such thing. There were children and there were adults, and the children did what the adults told them to do. And the adult of the Connery household told the eldest child that, no, he would not be buying a motorbike. By then, of course, the boy everyone called Big Tam towered over his father. But Marlon Brando and Nicholas Ray were not yet making movies and he had no example of youthful insurrection to follow. And so, while he did indeed storm out of the family home to kick and cool his heels on the streets, he did not buy himself that motorbike.
Excerpted from Sean Connery by Christopher Bray. Copyright © 2011 Christopher Bray. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Meet the Author
Christopher Bray has written on movies, books, music,
and art for the Daily Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, The New York Times, and The New Statesman. Also the author of Michael Caine: A Class Act,
Christopher lives and works in southeast london.
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