Secret memoir of a starlet, by Joan Collins (aged 15)

Secret memoir of a starlet, by Joan Collins (aged 15): Mysterious suitcase left on her friend’s doorstep contained treasured memorabilia of her early showbiz years… but the best part was her teenage diary

Dame Joan insists her youthful looks are down to ‘luck, good genes and make-up. When I see my age [written down], I always think: ‘That’s a joke, that can’t be!’ I feel 39.’ But as she reads aloud from her old diary, filled with the names of her crushes, including movie star Richard Burton, she looks and feels like a teenager again

The faded green teenage diary is a little dog-eared and the brown-tinged pages bear the unmistakable patina of age. 

Inside, the spidery handwriting is so tiny, Dame Joan Collins needs a magnifying glass to decipher the words, written by a star-struck schoolgirl dreaming of fame.

Dated March 1951, the words were written after a day spent auditioning for a part in a forthcoming comedy about a beauty pageant. There’s pride in there, along with excitement. Self-doubt is peppered through her awkward teenage musings.

‘Fitted on gorgeous bathing costume for ‘Beauty Queen’,’ she writes. 

‘Saw BW (Bill Watts her agent). He said I was the only girl he knew who could look attractive with no make-up on.’

And there’s more as the insecure teen vents her frustrations at school, teachers and adults in general: ‘Everyone keeps telling me to grow up and develop character. How can you do it just like that? Miss Duff was simply beastly in dictation. She made fun of my jeans. Said I was seen with a different boy each day!’

You can just imagine this fresh-faced teen scribbling in her bedroom in post-war London, as she struggles with faltering self-confidence and the confusing world of boys and dating.

Dame Joan can, too. For these words were written by her in the early 1950s. 

And here, for the first time, Dame Joan is sharing extracts from the diary she wrote, never imagining she would go on to become one of Britain’s best-loved stars of stage and screen.

They offer an insight into a much more innocent world, one where actresses were expected to be beautiful but demure; curvy not skeletal; glamorous but maintain a mystique.

Dame Joan smiles wistfully as she pores over the words scribbled by her teenage self. 

‘Was this written by an elf?’ she laughs, peering intently at the minuscule jottings in the five-year diary she started as a 15-year-old.

This battered old diary went missing 34 years ago from her Beverly Hills home at the height of her fame, when she was starring as Alexis Carrington Colby in the hit television series Dynasty.

Remarkably, it was only returned to her a few years ago, after a Louis Vuitton suitcase containing a treasure trove of her memorabilia was mysteriously dumped on the doorstep of one of the star’s oldest friends in Barnes, South-West London.

Even Dame Joan admits it sounds like a plot worthy of a mini-series, complete with such compelling ingredients as passion, heartbreak and lust, with a bitter divorce courtroom battle as the finale.

‘Was this written by an elf?’ she laughs, peering intently at the minuscule jottings in the five-year diary she started as a 15-year-old

As for whoever may have had her diary, scrapbooks and letters for all this time, well, Joan has her suspicions. Let’s just say they centre on ‘The Swede’. We’ll get to him later. But back to the intrigue.

Dame Joan was with her fifth husband, film producer Percy Gibson, 56, in St Tropez when she received a phone call from theatrical agent Barry Langford, 61, her former assistant and close friend.

He told her a man with what sounded like a ‘Scandinavian’ accent had called him out of the blue to ask: ‘Do you still work for Joan Collins?’ Then he asked: ‘Is this still your address?’ He hung up when Mr Langford confirmed it was.

‘The next day I opened the door to find a Louis Vuitton suitcase on my doorstep, with the initials JC, which I instantly recognised as one of Joan’s,’ says Mr Langford.

‘She was very excited when I called her, saying: ‘Open it, open it’, and I could hear Percy’s voice in the background going: ‘Don’t — it might be a bomb!’

‘I opened it anyway, and was amazed to find all of Joan’s memorabilia. It was quite bizarre.’

Dame Joan continues: ‘When Barry told me what was there, I said: ‘Oh my God, can you send it to me?’ And so he did, by courier.

‘When it arrived at my home in the South of France, I opened it and there was all my diaries, scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings, photographs and private letters from my parents, younger sister, Jackie, and various boyfriends.’

There were 51 letters alone from former fiancé Warren Beatty, who was a 22-year-old unknown about to start National Service when they fell madly in love.

‘It was very moving to see all the letters my sister had sent to me in Hollywood from London, when she was 15 or 16,’ says Dame Joan.

‘I had them all copied and sent to her daughters in Los Angeles — they were thrilled.’

Dame Joan’s younger sister, best-selling novelist Jackie Collins, died from breast cancer in 2015 and Joan treasures those airmail letters.

To celebrate her 70th year as a working actress, Dame Joan has decided to share her teenage diary and scrapbooks with the Mail and revisit the turbulent era in her personal life, in which they mysteriously vanished. 

At the elegant London flat she shares with Percy, her adored husband of 19 years, Dame Joan looks glossy, glamorous, and impossibly evergreen at 87.

Dressed in slinky black trousers, a black polo-neck and a fur-trimmed gilet, she appears far younger than the ancient diary in her hand, which charts the genesis of a career that began as a 17-year-old starlet signed by the Rank Organisation.

Transported back to the childhood bedroom of her parents’ London flat, she recalls jotting down her dreams of becoming a serious theatre actress

She now has 76 films, 17 books and a string of television and theatre credits to her name, and boasts one of the most enduring of careers.

Married five times with three children and three grandchildren, she was given the OBE in 1997 for services to acting and received a Damehood from Prince Charles in 2015 for services to charity.

Dame Joan insists her youthful looks are down to ‘luck, good genes and make-up. When I see my age [written down], I always think: ‘That’s a joke, that can’t be!’ I feel 39.’

But as she reads aloud from her old diary, filled with the names of her crushes, including movie star Richard Burton, she looks and feels like a teenager again.

Transported back to the childhood bedroom of her parents’ London flat, she recalls jotting down her dreams of becoming a serious theatre actress.

Stuck to its pages is her very first newspaper cutting, featuring a picture of herself as a 16-year-old drama student at Rada with her hero, the legendary John Gielgud.

‘Back then I never wanted to be a star, but a leading lady on the stage,’ she says ‘and if I could go back and give 15-year-old Joan advice, it would be to have more confidence in herself.’

After being taken on by Rank at 17, however, her career took a different path and the diary records her very first film audition for a starring role as a bathing beauty.

The part went to another girl, Pauline Stroud, but it was Joan — given a bit-part –— who was hailed as the ‘new Ava Gardner’. It was she who would go to Hollywood aged 20 with a contract from major studio 20th Century Fox. She returns to the diary: ‘Filming in a bathing costume. What a day. Was exhausted at the end of it. Came home. Tried to tidy room. I don’t like filming,’ Dame Joan reads aloud, nostalgically recalling the dire warnings of her father, Joe, a theatrical agent, who told her she’d be washed up by 23 if she became an actress.

‘My parents didn’t exactly lavish me with praise. My father didn’t think I was good enough and told me to give up all this acting nonsense, as he referred to it and go to secretarial college,’ she recalls.

‘When I was voted the Most Beautiful Girl in Britain by the Photographers Association aged 18, Daddy said: ‘She’s a nice looking girl, but nothing special.’

Others did not agree, and Dame Joan was in much demand as a model for advertisements.

She has famously never been short of admirers either. Until she met Percy, she admits men were a bit of a blind spot; her Achilles’ heel. ‘The first time I went on a date, I think I was 15 or 16, Daddy warned: ‘Be back by 10pm.’ 

When we returned from the cinema 20 minutes late, Daddy was leaning out of the window with a bayonet rifle, shouting: ‘You get my daughter in here, otherwise I’ll kill you!’.’

At 18, Dame Joan married Northern Irish film star Maxwell Reed, who was in his 30s. She would later reveal in her autobiography that on their first date, Reed — who died of cancer in 1974 — forced himself on her after plying her with whisky.

‘He took my virginity and if that happened in the 1950s, you had to get married,’ she says of their miserable four-year marriage which ended in divorce after he tried to persuade her to sleep with an elderly admirer for a £10,000 fee.

Horrified, Joan fled to Hollywood where she fell in love with Warren Beatty, partied with Marlon Brando and James Dean and fended off movie moguls who tried to lure her on to the casting couch.

In 1963, she married West End theatre sensation Anthony Newley, father of her children Tara and Alexander, whom she divorced in 1970 because of his ‘sordid’ womanising. He died in 1999, aged 67.

Her 1972 marriage to U.S. businessman Ron Kass, head of The Beatles’ record label Apple and father to their daughter, Katy, also ended in divorce in 1983.

Kass, who died from cancer three years later, aged 51, was reported to have blown a large chunk of his wife’s fortune on a drug habit.

Enter ‘The Swede’. A handsome, blond former pop star, Peter Holm was 14 years her junior, but sparks flew when they met at a pool party in 1983 — the year she won a Golden Globe for Dynasty.

A dazzling couple, he became her lover, manager and then fourth husband in 1985. But it was all over in less than two years.

‘The Swede inveigled his way into my life with enormous charm when I was very raw after the break-up of my marriage to Ron,’ says Joan, who still can’t bring herself to use his name.

‘I had a lot of problems and my life was unravelling. My daughter, Katy, was recovering from a serious accident and a lot of people resented my success on Dynasty.

‘John Forsythe, who played Blake Carrington, was so appalled I’d done a Playboy photoshoot in my 40s, he held the magazine up like it was a dog turd, said: ‘How can you let this woman be on our show?’

‘As my fame grew, I had too many people working for me. I was so busy doing 12-hour days, I was signing documents without reading them and being ripped off.

‘I’d just been landed with a huge tax bill, because my returns hadn’t been filed and, suddenly, here was someone telling me: ‘I can do it.’ He cleared the decks of all these people and sorted everything out.

‘But then he said: ‘If you don’t marry me, I’m leaving you.’ My sister, Jackie, went mad when I told her, but I said: ‘Well, he’s doing the most wonderful things for my finances.’

‘She was very angry and we had one of our sisterly rages, but she was right and I soon realised it was a terrible mistake.’

When Dame Joan ended the marriage, Holm contested their pre-nuptial agreement and reportedly demanded a sizeable chunk of marital assets and alimony.

Refusing to leave one of their two Hollywood properties, an ugly court battle ensued, in the midst of which Dame Joan’s treasured memorabilia vanished.

‘During my career, I’d moved around 55 times and a beat-up old case containing my diaries, scrapbooks and letters had followed me everywhere,’ she says.

‘It was on a shelf in the walk-in closet at our family home in Bowmont Drive and, after the judge decreed that The Swede could stay in the property, I was given just one hour to remove all my possessions. In my rush, I forgot to take the suitcase.’

When Dame Joan realised, she asked for it back through her lawyer — but it was another few months before a judge granted her permission to return to the property.

‘There was the suitcase on the shelf and I was so thrilled. But when I opened it, I found it stuffed with old newspapers,’ she says.

‘Everything was gone. The lawyers got involved and The Swede totally denied having anything to do with their disappearance.

‘I was terribly upset, but decided to move on, and I didn’t really think about them again for many years until that call from Barry.’

Whoever made the call, why did they decide to return the memorabilia after so long?

‘I have absolutely no idea, or even if The Swede is still alive, and I’m not interested in trying to find him to ask,’ says Dame Joan.

‘You ask yourself, were they returned out of guilt? Did someone else have them all along? Or were they found by someone who wanted them to go back to their rightful owner?

‘But I really don’t care who returned them or why or where they’ve been for 30 years. I’m just thrilled to have them back.’

Today, the suitcase is safely locked away, but Dame Joan is far too busy to dwell on the past when the present is so interesting, if rather uncertain in these unsettling times.

Indeed, Dame Joan has been writing a Covid memoir and, later this year, hopes to publish the explosive diaries she kept during her Hollywood years. Expect some big names to be dropped.

A film biopic of the famous Collins sisters’ lives is also being planned, drawing on her old letters recovered, diary and scrapbooks.

Closing her battered old diary, Dame Joan says: ‘After 70 years in the business, I have sometimes wondered during lockdown: ‘Will I ever work again?’ but I’m hoping the best is yet to come.’

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