Unaccompanied Minor by Alexander Newley

Reviewed by Annabel

The children of celebrity couples inevitably have a hard time growing up, especially when their parents split. You need only think of the late Carrie Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher as a prime example. Carrie was later canny and secure enough in her writing and performing – and her stage-show Wishful Drinking was transformed into a book, followed by other volumes of memoir. We all felt for Carrie, sympathised with her and her health issues, yet we really needed to read all about those behind the scenes life with the stars too. Carrie milked it, and we loved her for it, and it grew to become about her rather than her parents.

Alexander Newley has a similar yet completely different tale to tell. The son of British superstars Joan Collins and the late Anthony Newley, he has become an artist, and has poured all his angst and insecurities into his paintings. Quartet, his publisher is to be congratulated on producing this superb volume: he has written a memoir about his growing up, including more than twenty of his paintings and portraits in full colour and using quality stock throughout.

Before the book starts, Newley gives us a dramatis personae full of pithy one- or two-liners about everyone. Here is how he describes his mother and father (Newley’s capitals):

ANTHONY NEWLEY: Holey Father. Artful Reality Dodger. Cockney Colossus of Stage and Screen. Unflagging Lover of Women. Unsurpassable Source of Paternal Warmth (when he was there).

JOAN COLLINS: UnVirginal Mother. Stargazer/Starlet/Star. Dynastic Diva. Conspicuous Absence. Tense Presence.

After a short prologue in which Newley blames his fractured childhood on an ‘ogre called Show Business’, his life story begins with the family’s arrival in Hollywood in 1965. Alexander was just six months old, his sister Tara was two. Newley père had decided that Hollywood was where it was at, no more Broadway musicals, he wanted to make films. Joan, now in her thirties, had been there before as a starlet in the 1950s – now she was to play wife and mother.

Newley shows this in his painting ‘Self-Portrait with Happy Family’ (below right), and as in common with many of the self-portraits in this book, he paints himself as he is now, observing him as he was then. The picture is based on a photo he found but was troubled by – he couldn’t recognise the relationship it portrayed between his doting parents.

Eventually Doctor Doolittle came his father’s way and when Anthony comes home from filming, he takes Alexander and Tara to the toy store.

At home we open the toys Daddy’s bought us and study the instructions. He takes the directions from us and dramatically throws them away, then starts building intuitively, making the thing through trial and error, which is far more thrilling for us. This is the way of Art, which I inherited from him: the way I endeavour to do everything in life. Without signposts – my way – for good and for ill.

Anthony Newley struggled to find movie roles however; his stage persona, full of grand gestures, was too much for film. So he devised his own project, hoping to replicate the success of his autobiographical stage show Stop the World I Want to Get Off but sexier, it being the permissive late 1960s. The film’s awful title was Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?  It co-starred Joan Collins as Polyester Poontang, but was a flop – and it finally broke Newley and Collins’ relationship. Both Alexander and Tara also had small roles in this X-rated film.

If I had been old enough to grasp what was happening, I might have asked my father what he thought he was doing, exposing his kids to all this filth. As it was, I was just a three-year-old witness for the prosecution, conveniently mute.

Self-Portrait with Happy Family by Alexander Newley

This marked the beginning of a peripatetic lifestyle for Alexander and Tara, shuttling between mother and father. They moved back to London living with Joan and her new man Ron Kass, who was a ‘non-event’ as a stepfather to Alexander. They only bonded over Ron’s Maserati. This period is when ‘Fat Sue’ comes into the picture – a giant of a woman, who bullied the kids with her own contorted brand of tough love. Eventually, Sue was gone, and, unable to cope with Joan, Alexander decides to return to the States to live with his father and Cathy, Anthony’s girlfriend. It’s from this period that the book’s title comes, as Alexander jets across the Atlantic between parents as an ‘unaccompanied minor’.

Anthony and Joan were both full to the brim with insecurities, which came out in different ways. Anthony was ever the tortured obsessive genius, eternally child-like, searching for that elusive success and meaning of life. Joan, instead, hid her vulnerability behind armour which effectively shielded Alexander out too. He says, ‘The little boy has never forgiven Tinseltown for toying with his mother’s heart.’

Since the book’s publication, there has been a rather public row about things Alexander allegedly said about Anthony’s sex-life during the Hieronymous Merkin period in the newspapers, which upset Joan. I gather they are now reconciled, and that the interviewer in question had twisted Alexander’s words.

This is a brutally honest memoir of an artist trying to come to terms with, and make sense of, his growing up. It was fascinating to view the 1960s and 1970s, the excesses, the glamour, the highs and the lows, seen through an artist’s eye, but written with a sense humour too. This memoir ends as Newley goes off to boarding school for the sixth form, leaving me with a feeling that there was a sort of void in the middle. While he uses his artworks effectively as a framing device for looking back, we don’t really know yet how Newley, now 52, got there…

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Alexander Newley, Unaccompanied Minor (Quartet, 2017). 978-0704374461, 264pp.,  hardback (illus.).

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