Montecito resident Brook Ashley talks about her friendship with Disney star Hayley Mills
By CALLA JONES CORNER
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-PRESS
If you are the goddaughter of Tallulah Bankhead, a child actress and gifted writer, you have quite a tale to tell.
And tell Brook Ashley did in the one-act play she wrote for Erica Heller’s 2020 bestseller, “One Last Lunch: A Final Meal with Those Who Meant So Much to Us.”
Two years ago, Ms. Ashley, a Montecito resident, was working on her book, “Dare Wright And The Lonely Doll,” about her other famous godmother — the bestselling children’s book author, Dare Wright, a celebrated photographer (whose black-and-white photographs have enthralled three generations), a Broadway actress and cover page fashion model — when Ms. Heller called and asked her to write a chapter for her book about Tallulah.
Now, with the Sept. 7 release of “Forever Young,” the New York Times bestselling autobiography of Ms. Ashley’s childhood friend, Hayley Mills, the Montecito resident recounts another chapter in her childhood revolving around Ms. Mills and her friendship.
I sat down with Ms. Ashley recently to record another delicious tale from her life, involving a 1959 movie.
“My godmother, the actress Tallulah Bankhead, phoned my parents on a raw December day,” Ms. Ashley told me. “There’s a child named Hayley Mills in the New York Times who looks exactly like Brook! The film is called ‘Tiger Bay,’ and I’m taking Brook to see it on Saturday.’
“The movie theater was just around the corner from Tallulah’s New York townhouse. There was no line for the late afternoon showing, and the grey-haired woman at the box office window seemed enraptured to see us. ‘Miss Bankhead!’ she exclaimed. Then, smiling at me, she added, ‘And Miss Mills!’
“Hayley was marvelous in the film, which was a relief. Having a British twin seemed like a lark, but only if she were a fine actress. I had been acting professionally myself—on Broadway and television—since I was 7 and there were thespian standards to uphold.
“Not long after ‘Tiger Bay’ opened, a dear family friend, the actress Anne Seymour, wrote my mother from Los Angeles where she was shooting a Disney film called ‘Pollyanna’: ‘The British child playing Pollyanna is Brook’s double!’
“Anne arranged for us to meet the next time Hayley and her family came through New York.
“A black limousine picked me up in front of my family’s apartment and headed to the Mills’ hotel on Central Park South. I might have only been 12, but I was used to getting around the city by myself via cab, bus or subway. Having a driver on this occasion was a lovely luxury. Waiting in the hotel lobby, I wondered if this meeting might turn out to be an excruciating embarrassment. What if Hayley and I had nothing more in common than theatrical backgrounds and the ability to make funny faces? Would she even think we looked alike?
“I didn’t need to worry. When the elevator doors opened, Hayley and her mother both ran over to hug me and the three of us piled into the back of the limo, giggling and chatting like old friends. Hayley saw me looking quizzically at the lining of her winter coat. It had tiny fur pelts sewn together, each one smaller than a playing card.
“ ‘Hamsters,’ Hayley whispered. ‘Quite awful. Try not to think about it.’
“The car dropped us off at my family’s apartment where my mother had tea ready. She was a Broadway actress who did not pretend to cook, but someone had prepared platters of cucumber sandwiches and purchased an array of pastries. It was a proper British tea, served in the living room from a silver tea set my father had purchased in London. He was a theatrical attorney and stage producer with offices in both London and New York.
“Hayley and I were allowed to drift away from the tea table after stuffing ourselves while our equally intense mothers discussed theatre friends — Tallulah, Tennessee Williams, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Trevor Howard, Noël Coward, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Hayley and I were born into theatrical tribes, whose origins stretched back way before our time. We spoke the same theatrical language, knew the tangled histories — who had been in which plays (sometimes dating back to the turn of the century) and what affairs and marriages had foundered or triumphed. It gave us a lingua franca that didn’t exist among our peers and an immediate shared connection for a friendship.
“Hayley and I agreed that we did look remarkably alike. She thought her nose looked like a lump of putty, and I countered that mine resembled a boiled potato. Hayley had me stand against the dining room wall, licked a somewhat grubby finger and marked my height with a grey streak. Then she lined herself up, repeated the process and checked our differences. I was younger, but taller.
“ ‘You know,’ she said, heading back to the sandwiches, ‘I’ve just started keeping a diary. You need to do that as well so that when we’re very old we can look back and see what we were doing on any day.’
“Hayley went back to her despised British boarding school, and I returned to my equally loathed New York girls’ school. Neither institution approved of accommodating the schedules of child actors. Within a year, Hayley would be gloriously expelled and forever free of academic shackles, but I had to trudge through the entire 12-year Dickensian saga.
“ ‘The Parent Trap’ was Hayley’s next Disney film, where she played her own identical twin. As always, she did a brilliant job, accommodating to the challenges of acting with her split-screen self and singing the memorable earworm ‘Let’s Get Together!’
“Director/producer Otto Preminger was bringing the best-seller ‘Exodus’ to the screen and thought Hayley would be perfect for the role of Karen — the Danish/Jewish girl caught up in the fight for Israel’s independence. Hayley’s parents disagreed. They thought she was too young and even rejected Preminger’s offer of a Renoir painting if they’d change their minds.
“Preminger’s search widened to New York where I was tapped to audition for him. The history of the state of Israel wasn’t new to me — my father had drafted its 1948 Charter of Independence with David Ben-Gurion — but I had no insight into the fictional character of Karen. Fortunately, our neighborhood pharmacy had the 600-page paperback on its spin rack. The font was tiny, but I stayed up all night devouring the story.
“I had never wanted a part more than this one. Karen not only got to have a boyfriend, but was murdered (tastefully, with only a drop of blood showing) by Arab miscreants! One thing was certain, I would have to add a year or two to my actual age since I was a young-looking 13. Hundreds of girls were auditioned, and I kept getting called back as most were cut from the herd.
“Finally, my agent told me that there were only six of us left. I was discarded in the final cull. The part went to a British girl two years older and looking light-years more sophisticated. Jill Haworth was a blue-eyed blonde, like Hayley and me, but with an affectless demeanor and a dreadful attempt at a Danish accent. She sounded like the Swedish chef on ‘Sesame Street.’
“Hayley and I had both capitalized on our ability to convey emotion with our facial expressions. I’d once received a soul-shattering review that stated, ‘Brook isn’t pretty, but she has a glowing, mobile face that is better than mere prettiness.’
“Sometimes the life of a child actor is just one carnival dunk tank after another.
“Hayley’s family lived in a 14th-century farmhouse on four hundred acres south of London. There were cows and ponies and an algae-filled swimming pool into which one might dip a cautious toe. I described one visit in a letter to my father: ‘Hayley and I never stopped going for a minute. We rode all over their farm, which is enormous, then rounded up a lost heifer, found a baby bird, had a barbecue when her aunt, sister (Juliet), brother (Jonathan) and brother-in-law arrived, saw home movies of Tahiti with shots from Mr. Mills’ new flick ‘Tiara Tahiti’ and did a thousand other things. We spent one night deciding which would be her next recording and listening to dozens of possibilities.’
“Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier’s tempestuous marriage was over. The love affair of these two beautiful and complicated stars had been ground to shards by ego, infidelity and Leigh’s mental illness. Olivier married the young actress Joan Plowright and Vivien Leigh forged a caring partnership with the young actor Jack Merivale. Olivier and Leigh were long-time friends of the Mills and godparents to Hayley’s siblings.
“My own godmother, Tallulah Bankhead knew them as well. Tennessee Williams whom Tallulah had me call ‘Uncle Tenn’ had written the part of Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ for Tallulah. Leigh played it in London with Olivier directing and again in the film version. When Tallulah starred in the New York revival, Uncle Tenn wrote her a love letter in the New York Times.
“Vivien Leigh and Jack Merivale lived in a lovely estate called ‘Tickerage Mill’ not too far from Hayley’s farm. On a beautiful summer’s day, Mrs. Mills drove Hayley, her aunt and me down some winding country lanes to have tea there. Vivien Leigh could not have been more beautiful or soft-spoken. …
“I asked Vivien Leigh if I could please use the powder room before we drove home. She held out her hand and said to come with her. We walked down the hallway to her ground floor bedroom and she gestured to her own bathroom. My teenage heart skipped a beat when I looked at her bedside table. There was a large silver frame with a photograph of Olivier signed ‘Love always, Larry.’ My god, she still loved him in spite of all the misery and madness. Not to mention sharing her bed with Jack Merivale.
“Mrs. Mills drove us back to the farmhouse with a bit of unsteadiness and a tendency to hug the American side of the road.
“ ‘Left, Mary!’ Hayley’s aunt implored. ‘Stay left!”’
“The Mills also owned a tiny home in London’s Wilton Mews and invited me to stay with them there so we could attend the gala opening of Tennessee William’s play ‘Period of Adjustment.’ As it happened, I not only knew the playwright ‘Uncle Tenn,’ but also the director and one of the featured actors. …
“Jack Hawkins, the lovely actor from ‘The Bridge on The River Kwai’ and dozens of classic British films, invited us to a post-theater supper at the Café de Paris within walking distance of the Aldwych Theatre. He had the most beautifully resonant speaking voice that had once been described as sounding like a dinner gong. Tragically he would soon lose that voice to throat cancer, but on this evening we marched to the restaurant in high (very high in Hayley’s and my case) spirits. Jack Hawkins and his wife headed down the sidewalk first. Mr. Mills took my hand and we strolled behind them followed by Hayley and her mother.
“Mr. Hawkins gave Hayley and me our own table along with two bottles of excellent wine while the grownups dined nearby. We were sober enough to discuss the merits of the play before the wine kicked in. Both of us liked it, but agreed with Vivien Leigh’s opinion (she had seen it in previews) that one of the actors spoiled the show with her terrible performance. The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur.
“We returned to the mews house, but Hayley and I weren’t able to get off the living room floor. Our legs were floppy noodles, which we found terribly funny as they seemed incapable of getting us to the second floor. Mr. Mills took charge, and I watched as he took Hayley by the ankles and dragged her up the stairs. Then it was my turn to play Winnie The Pooh and be bumped up the steps backwards. Hayley’s father tossed us in our beds, and the room went spinning into oblivion. Thanks to the resilience of youth, we were up for breakfast and ready to go on a shopping spree.
“Hayley wrote me from Hollywood where she was filming her next Disney film ‘Summer Magic’:
“ ‘Dear Old Brookie, I’m really enjoying myself this time. Last time there seemed to be so many problems, but now I’m getting to meet more kids who are really sweet. And I’ve had a proposal! Do you remember talking about driver’s licenses? Well, I’ve had my first driving lesson!! Mummy steeled herself for the blast and round and round and round again this one block we went!!! She was slightly green around the mouth but held out valiantly till the end, then shrieked hysterically when I put my foot on the (accelerator) instead of the brake!!!!
“ ‘I can’t wait till October when we go home, because I’m going to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, India, Mandalay … In India we are going to stay with the Governor and the Maharaja of Jaipur! Please give my love to your sweet family.
“ ‘All my love, Hayley.’ ”
Ms. Ashley told me Hayley’s sister, Juliet, lives in Ojai and remains as lovely and gracious as she was in their childhood. They get together to promote the animal organization Born Free and reminisce about absent friends.
Ms. Ashley is thrilled that Broadway World recently announced that a new musical based on Dare Wright’s life is being written. She thinks British actress Lily Travers has Dare’s ethereal qualities and could play Dare. Lily’s grandparents, Virgina McKenna and Bill Travers of “Born Free” fame, have been “like family since my childhood.”
Calla Jones Corner is a Montecito resident and former foreign correspondent. She writes a monthly column for The Spectator, a British magazine.