Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool: A True Love Story

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool: A True Love Story

by Peter Turner


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Now a Major Motion Picture Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, and Vanessa Redgrave

The Golden Age of Hollywood, a young British actor, a love affair, and a tragedy, Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool is Peter Turner's touching memoir of the last days of Hollywood icon Gloria Grahame, the Oscar-winner best known for her portrayal of irresistible femme fatales in films such as The Big Heat, Oklahoma and The Bad and the Beautiful.

The Hollywood Reporter calls the film adaptation "a tender, affecting romantic drama."

On September 29, 1981, Peter Turner received a phone call that would change his life. His former lover, Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame, had collapsed in a Lancaster hotel and was refusing medical attention. He took her into his chaotic and often eccentric family’s home in Liverpool to see her through her last days. Though their affair had ended years before, it was to him that she turned in her final hour of need.

Taking place over the course of three weeks in Turner’s larger-than-life working-class family home, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is an affectionate, moving, and wryly humorous memoir of friendship, love, and stardom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250136855
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 606,354
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 4.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Peter Turner was born in Liverpool in 1952 the youngest of nine children. He was educated at a local comprehensive school and started acting at the age of sixteen with The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. He worked extensively in British theatre both in London and the regions. He played Terry Adams in three seasons of the hit television drama series Spearhead and his film parts included playing Trinculo in Derek Jarman’s version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He met the Academy Award–winning American film star Gloria Grahame in London in 1978. They became lovers and their relationship lasted until the end of her life, dying from cancer in 1981. He wrote his memoir Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool in 1984. Peter has also written screenplays and devised and written scripts, British television, plays, and serials.

Read an Excerpt

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

A True Story

By Peter Turner


Copyright © 1986 Peter Turner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-13687-9


'It's got Manila on the tickets,' she said when I walked into the kitchen.

'Really. When did they arrive?' I said, sitting down at the table and opening up the paper wallet stuffed with airline tickets and counterfoils.

My mother didn't reply. She looked troubled and uncertain as she filled the kettle and took it over to the gas stove. Then she lit the grill and I knew she was about to cook me breakfast.

She spends most of her time in the kitchen; it's her domain and completely under her control. Anyone who enters is automatically given something to eat and drink – a habit left over from the days of bringing up her nine children, my elder brothers and sisters who, like me, had long since left home.

'Would you like bacon?'

'No thanks, Mum. I don't like to eat in the morning.' She'd been asking me the same question every day for the past six weeks.

'You could have fooled me.' She looked at me and smiled, obviously having heard me get home after two in the morning. 'Anyway, the morning's nearly the afternoon. Will you have toast?'

'Okay. All right then, Mum. I'll have toast.'

She came and sat down at the table and rested her head in her hands. I knew that she wanted to talk.

'I was never told anything about spending a night in Manila,' she frowned.

'It's probably just a stop-over,' I tried to reassure her. 'You might not leave the plane.'

'Oh, no. We're spending the night there. That's what it says. The travel agents have sent me a letter.'

I looked again through the tickets and found the letter which explained that they would be spending a night and a day in Manila on the way back from Australia.

'You're right,' I said. 'That's wonderful. They've arranged a hotel. You'll be staying the night.'

'I don't think it's wonderful.' My mother shook her head from side to side. 'I wish that woman in the travel agents would have let me know before now. I'll have to go and have a word with her about this.'

'Do you want me to phone and find out more?'

'Oh, no. I'll go in and see her,' she replied. 'Joe and Jessie are coming down in the car. We're all going into town shopping. I'll go in and see her.' She stood up from the table and started to make the toast.

It had been a very good summer, but over the last few days I felt it was coming to an end. The days were still bright but less sunny and it was beginning to get cold. The leaves were changing colour and some had already fallen off the plane tree in the back garden which leant dangerously towards the house.

'That tree looks as if it's getting worse,' I said.

'I know that it is, I keep on telling your father,' she said as she brought the well-done toast over to the table. 'I just hope that nothing happens to it while we're away. It could fall down. Anything might happen! I don't want to get back from Australia and find the house in ruins. It's things like that which put me off going.'

I buttered the toast and started to eat while my mother fell back into her thoughts. She sat as before, with her head resting on the palm of her left hand.

'Where exactly is Manila?' she sighed after a while.

'It's in the Philippines,' I answered.

'Oh my God. What am I going to tell your father?' she said in a sudden explosion of panic. 'He hates anything like that.'

'You're getting yourself too worked up about this journey,' I told her. 'Don't worry about it.'

'It's your father that I'm worried about. You know what he's like.'

She stood up to clear the table and just then the doorbell rang.

'It'll be Joe. Will you open the door?'

'All right. Mum. I'll go.'

It wasn't Joe. It was Jessie, his wife.

'Hi, Pete. I didn't expect to see you, I thought you'd still be in bed.' She leant towards me and lowered her voice. 'We're taking your mother for a meal and Joe wants to buy her a suitcase. It's the last chance we'll get before she goes to Australia. Why don't you come with us?'

Although it was only an ordinary weekday morning, Jessie was dressed as if for a special occasion. I supposed the reason she had on her crimplene two-piece was to show us all just how nice it looked, for she'd also made my mother one to take away on her trip. Not normally one who wears a lot of makeup, Jessie had MaxFactor'd her face, and was wearing her gold-plated watch-chain around her neck.

'You look nice,' I said. 'Where's Joe?'

'Oh, he's in the road doing something to the car.'

I looked towards the street and could see my oldest brother, dressed in his best suit, examining the engine. As I passed Jessie to walk down the path towards Joe, she called after me. 'There's the phone. Shall I get it?'

'No, it's all right. I will,' I said, and went back into the house.

* * *

When I returned to the kitchen Joe was sitting by the table reading the Daily Mirror, studying the racing form. Jessie was standing by the sink holding the wallet of tickets.

'You'll be staying in a luxury hotel.'

'I wouldn't like to stay in a hotel.'

'You'll be waited on hand and foot.'

'I don't want to be waited on hand and foot.'

'Well, it will be lovely to have a day in Manila,' she was trying to reason with my mother.

'No, Jessie, it won't,' my mother decreed. 'I don't want to be spending a day walking around the Philippines. I'll just want to get back home, especially after saying goodbye to Billy, I might never see him again. Who was that on the phone?' she turned to me and asked, trying to change the subject.

They all looked towards me for a reply but at first I said nothing.

'Who was on the phone?' my mother asked again.

'It ... it was a call from Lancaster,' I replied.

'Oh, it's Gloria! It must be Gloria!' Jessie sounded delighted. 'Is she coming to stay?'

'No, Jessie. There's something wrong, I've got to go and see her right away.'

Instead of taking my mother into town, Joe and Jessie took me to Lancaster in their car.

* * *

It was a silent journey, Joe was concentrating on his driving and Jessie looked as if she was too frightened to speak because he was driving very fast; at one point I leant over from the back seat to look at the speed clock and realized that we were travelling way over the limit. I sat quietly, admiring my brother's motorway driving, but also anxious that the journey wasn't going to be a waste of his day. It had happened before that I'd been telephoned from a theatre where Gloria was appearing, asking if I could get there quickly. She sometimes got nervous before an opening night and I would be asked to do a bit of coaxing. I wondered if this was the case now.

And I remembered the time that Gloria telephoned from New York, asking me to get to her as soon as possible.

'I've had a terrible accident, Peter. I'm all alone, I can't walk. It's my legs.'

When I got to her two days later I could see that there was nothing wrong with her legs but her foot was swollen and looked a bit sore. The terrible accident turned out to be a splinter.

But as I looked out of the window of Joe's car, almost hypnotized by the colours the rain was making on the surface of the road, I went over in my mind the telephone conversation that I'd had with the person from Lancaster.

'Gloria is ill. It really is important that you get here,' he said.

'What's wrong with her?' I'd asked.

'I can't say. I think you ought to come.'

'That's going to be difficult. I have to be back in Liverpool by six-thirty to do my own show. I'm appearing in a play here.'

'Don't worry about that,' he said. 'Just come to Gloria's hotel. We'll make sure that you get back to Liverpool in time. We'll have a fast car waiting to take you.'

When we arrived in Lancaster we went straight to the hotel, where I was told that Gloria had been having pains in her stomach ever since she had arrived but she dismissed them and carried on working.

'She even travelled to Manchester on Friday night to see a play', I was told. 'Then the next day she collapsed in rehearsals and was taken to the hospital. She stayed there until Sunday. Then she left. Against the advice of the doctor she just signed herself out and came back here.'

It was a small hotel. The lounge was in the hallway and beyond it the reception area served as a dining room. Leaving Joe and Jessie standing at the desk, I followed the proprietor up a back stairway to Gloria's room.

'She's been here like this for two days now,' he told me as we arrived at the door to her room. 'It's difficult to know what to do.'

I knocked.

'Gloria, it's me,' I called. There was no reply, so I opened the door.

I couldn't see her, just an empty bed with an open suitcase on it. Then I heard the familiar American drawl.

'Peter,' she said. 'You're here.'

I opened the door wider, expecting to find her standing behind it, but realized she was lying in another bed that was up against the wall. I went in and shut the door behind me. The room was small. The curtains were half closed. It was almost dark. Except for a tangle of blonde hair, I couldn't actually see Gloria. She was completely covered by a blanket.

'Gloria,' I said. 'They've told me that you're sick.'

'Oh no, Peter. It's nothing. I fainted so they took me to the hospital. Huh,' she murmured, 'have you ever heard of such a thing?' I walked towards her but she stopped me.

'No! Don't come close, honey. Sit on the other bed.'

I sat down next to the suitcase.

'Why didn't you tell me you were here? Why didn't you call me? I would have come sooner.'

'I've been so busy, Peter. I've been working on a play.'

'Gloria, what's wrong?' I asked. 'Let me see your face.'

'Don't look at me,' she said, but slowly pulled away the blanket.

I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was wearing old makeup and her face was thin and grey. Her hair was knotted and the brown roots showed. I had to look away.

There beside me in the suitcase were publicity photographs of her looking as one would expect; just like a glamorous Hollywood star. The photographs were from a film she'd made the previous year in Georgia. I remembered how we spent a long time together one night in the New York apartment carefully choosing the ones that were to be printed up from the contact sheet. They were some of the best recent photographs that she had had taken. Lying a few feet away in the other bed, Gloria was almost unrecognisable.

'I had gas in my stomach,' she continued. 'The doctor gave me a shot. I can't stand up. He's made me sick, Peter.'

She started to cough so I went to her and held her till she stopped.

'Don't touch my stomach, Peter, but help me sit up. Let me have some juice.'

On the table next to the bed, amongst a collection of paper towels and vitamin pills, was a jug of grape juice. I fed her through a straw. In between sips she spoke.

'Don't take me back to that hospital, Peter.'

'No, I won't,' I said. 'It's going to be okay.'

We sat on the bed together in silence until Jessie came into the room.

'Gloria. Hello. It's me.' Jessie's smile froze, she seemed uncertain what to say. 'We all travelled here together. Joe's downstairs.' She turned towards me and whispered, 'Peter, he wants to speak to you.'

* * *

'There's someone on the telephone,' Joe said when I joined him at the desk. 'He wants to have a word.'

He handed me the receiver and then he walked away.

'I'm a consultant from the hospital here. I understand that you're a friend and so I've been asked to have a word with you.' He paused. 'I'm afraid Miss Grahame has a cancer. It's about the size of a football. She should be operated on immediately.'

'Is she going to be all right?' I asked.

'Well,' he answered, 'I'm afraid that it's quite serious.'

Everything else evaporated, only the taste of nicotine and stale breath lingered on the mouth piece.

* * *

I returned to Gloria's room.

'Everything okay?' Joe was standing just inside the doorway.

I could tell by the way he spoke that he knew what I'd just been told. I nodded my head in reply.

'Gloria –' I sat close to her on the bed – 'you need to be looked after. You can't stay here alone.'

'Are you gonna stay here with me, Peter?'

'No, not that,' I said. 'I think you should go to the hospital.'

'I'm not going to do that, Peter.' Her voice turned earnest and fearful. 'That doctor's done this to me. He doesn't like me,' she cried. 'Don't take me to that hospital. I'm gonna open in the play.'

'Gloria.' I held her hand and stopped her. 'I've just spoken to the doctor. He's told me that you're ill.'

She fell silent and started to listen.

'He wants to get you better. Then you can do the play. We all want you to do the play but we want you to get better. Then you'll be able to do the play.'

She looked round at Jessie and then at Joe until she rested her eyes upon me.

'Okay, Peter,' she said. 'Take me to Liverpool.'

* * *

'You make it sound romantic.'

'But it is. It's just gotta be.' Then she did it again. Beginning with a slow intake of breath, after which her lips began to quiver and then took shape for a passionate release of sound. 'Liverpooool,' she said. 'I'd really like to live there.'

I laughed.

'Peter,' she snapped. 'Don't be so mean.' Then she snatched hold of the shade of the table lamp and twisted it round so that the letters were facing the wall, 'I don't like people staring.'

'You wanted to come here,' I reminded her.

'Well, now I want to go home again. Fancy putting my name on a lamp.'

The practice did seem bizarre. This wasn't a place in which to be discreet but the restaurant was fun and flashy and part of the whole New York glamorous showbiz scene. Most of the tables had lamps on them, lit up, advertising the names of the famous faces who occasionally would be seen sitting there. Sometimes the wrong person would be seated beside the wrong lamp causing a lot of displeasure and confusion or, for some, absolute delight – as was the case with the two people at the next table, wide-eyed and selfconscious, sitting on either side of LIZA MINNELLI. However, sitting opposite was the real Ethel Merman, as well as her lamp, surrounded by admirers. One of them had accidentally knocked her shade askew so that the 'R' had fallen down between the ketchup and the napkins.

'Look. That's really funny,' I said. 'Somebody's knocked off her "R".'

Gloria livened up. 'That's a good idea,' she said and began pulling off the stick-on letters from around the side of her shade. Then she twisted it round into view.

'G O IA RAHAM', it read.

Sabotage proved to be ineffective. Just then a man with an entourage passed by the table and stopped to say hello.

'You look faabulous!' he screamed. 'Welcome back to New York.'

'Oh, thank you. Thank you.' Gloria smiled and looked seductive. Then instantly, almost automatically, she clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and threw her hair back, then to one side. That was her look – the 'Grahame' look.

Though some people might not distinguish her name or maybe had forgotten it, most knew her face from countless films of the 1950s, skulking up to Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place, or mixing drinks for Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, before getting scalding coffee thrown at her. She was always regarded as a film actress of considerable worth. Although her best work was in little known films such as Crossfire and Sudden Fear, she received recognition for her performances in the famous ones, winning an Oscar for her part in The Bad and the Beautiful. She was as funny as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! and wisecracking as the elephant girl in DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. Good at playing the floosie and the moll, she was the epitome of the tart with the heart.

'Peter,' she said, when the group had passed by, 'I think I'd like to go.'

We left by way of the lavatories and avoided having to go round the famous tables saying innumerable goodbyes.

'That's not a restaurant. It's an anti-restaurant,' she said and marched away.

I lit a cigarette then followed her along the street.

'Hey,' she said when I caught up with her. 'Let me take a blow.'

'You look like Lauren Bacall when you smoke,' I told her and passed the cigarette.

'Oh thanks,' she replied, then threw it in the gutter. 'Fancy being labelled on a table,' she continued. 'I feel like some kind of freak.'

We stopped when we reached 9th Avenue and waited for the night dustcarts to pass before we crossed the street. A fast shiver, almost orgasmic, vibrated my body. I was excited to be in New York.

In just over a year so much had changed dramatically. From living alone in London, working in a junk shop at the corner of the street whilst trying to find work as an actor, now I was in New York and involved in a relationship which had changed my life.

Gloria held on to my arm while we sauntered over the road to walk the few blocks down to 43rd.


Excerpted from Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool by Peter Turner. Copyright © 1986 Peter Turner. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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