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Monica Porter

Hollywood Childhood

Daily Mail, 24 October 1997

I smoked at four, drank beer at five and Martinis at six. We had no taboos


EVEN by the outlandish standards of Hollywood, the short item which appeared  in a Los Angeles newspaper in early 1964 was a real eyebrow-raiser. It stated  simply that Morgan Mason, son of film star James Mason, had resolved to cut down  his smoking from two packs a week to one cigarette a month.

His mother Pamela was quoted as saying: ‘I’ll believe it when I see it. I’m  not putting the ashtrays away just yet.’ The item ended with the line: ‘Morgan  is eight years old.’ In the Sixties, Morgan and his elder sister Portland  enjoyed a dubious reputation as the most precocious children in Hollywood. And  for a place as full of precociousness as that, it was quite a distinction.

As Morgan readily admits: ‘I smoked at four, drank beer at five and learned  to make Martinis at six, when I started bartendering at my mother’s all-night  parties.’

By the age of seven his sister was wearing high heels and makeup, and by nine  she was dating boys. His parents, explains Morgan, ‘didn’t believe in taboos’.

One has to admit he looks remarkably well on it. Now 42, he is the epitome of  the successful executive, with a smart suit, a happy marriage, a young son and  the boyish good looks which, in his 20s, propelled him into a series of affairs  with glamorous older women, including – to the disgust of his pop-star wife  Belinda Carlisle – glitz-queen Joan Collins.

Alexander Morgan Mason’s life has come full circle. As the new chief  executive of London Films, he sits at the helm of the company which, in the  Thirties under the legendary Alexander Korda, put British films on the map with  such classics as Henry VIII.

His father, James Mason, made some of his best films for Korda and was very  fond of his early mentor, naming his son after him although he has always been  called by his middle name.

Proud of this legacy, Morgan plans to revive the fortunes of one of the  country’s great brand names in filmmaking.

Morgan’s first offering as a producer was the 1989 small-budget hit sex, lies  and videotape. He hasn’t been short of work since. His current project has  particular personal significance. It is a film version of Playing Sinatra, the  highly acclaimed play by British writer Bernard Kops.

The story of a middle-aged brother and sister who defuse the tensions of  their claustrophobic existence by a mutual obsession with the songs of Frank  Sinatra, the play caught the attention of the singer’s daughter, Tina, a couple  of years ago.

THE SINATRA and Mason families were Hollywood neighbours, and Tina and Morgan  have been pals since childhood. One evening over dinner, she urged him to buy  the film rights. ‘You’ll love it,’ she said. He did.

The actress Mia Farrow is eager to play the sister. As she was once married  to Sinatra, this imaginative bit of casting would give the project a distinctly  piquant flavour.

Morgan has never been interviewed about his life as the son of the couple  whose bitter and costly break-up was the first of the Hollywood mega-divorces.  But because of his new role at London Films, he explains, the time has come to  break his silence.

When Huddersfield-born James Mason moved to America in 1947, he had just  enjoyed three successive years of being voted Britain’s top box-office draw. He  had done more, perhaps, than any other actor to lead British films out of their  wartime darkness.

But it wasn’t enough. The man who had made his name playing a gallery of  suave but vicious villains wanted global fame. So together with his heiress  wife, Pamela, and their vast menagerie of cats, he set up home in Buster  Keaton’s former mansion in Beverly Hills.

In no time at all, he became known as ‘the rudest man in America’.  Outspokenly critical of anything and anyone he didn’t like, he was also  oblivious to the opinions of others. It wasn’t in his nature to be sociable, or  as Morgan puts it: ‘He wasn’t a people-pleaser.’

In contrast, Pamela was immensely popular and soon became the most renowned  socialite in Los Angeles.

The Masons’ daughter, Portland, was born in 1948, and Morgan arrived seven  years later. In the long history of bizarre Hollywood childhoods, theirs was  among the most extraordinary – but, Morgan insists, not at all unhappy.

‘Within a two-block radius of our house were the homes of Jimmy Stewart,  Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Gregory Peck and Jack Palance. They, or their kids,  would often pop in during the day.

‘There was a constant flow of people through our house, with the British  ex-pats being particularly welcome – Olivier, Stewart Grainger, Rex Harrison,  Alistair Cooke. They adored my mother and were always at our place.

‘Each night my mother threw a party for about 50 people. They always went on  until 5am, but at 10pm my father would suddenly get up and, without a word to  anyone, fetch a glass of milk from the kitchen and go to bed.

‘Portland and I were allowed to stay up as late as we wanted. Nothing was  forbidden, as long as we behaved like grownups.’

James Mason was often away filming, but Morgan claims that when he was  around, he was not an unpleasant father.

On one occasion, when Morgan was 18 months old, his father took him onto the  set of Bus Stop to meet its star, Marilyn Monroe. The movie queen wore a  dressing gown, which revealed her sexy hosiery. The sight was not lost on the  toddler. He admits: ‘It was the moment that began my lifelong obsession with  fishnet stockings.’

At nine Morgan made his acting debut, playing Elizabeth Taylor’s son in the  1964 film The Sandpiper. Meanwhile, the Masons were waging their highly public,  and very expensive, divorce battle.

Pamela hired a young, then unknown, lawyer called Marvin Michelson. He won  her a multimillion pound divorce settlement – Hollywood’s biggest at the time.  Pamela Mason took her husband’s entire fortune, and in time was given her own TV  chat show. Michelson went on to become the world’s leading divorce specialist.

James Mason, meanwhile, retreated to a life of exile near Vevey, in  Switzerland. He moved into a flat, earned his living by making commericals for  cheap Italian wines, and began the painful process of rebuilding his career. He  was later married again, to Australian actress Clarissa Kaye.

PAMELA always blamed him for the split, describing him as ‘a very cool and  aloof person, interested only in his career’.

Morgan says this view of his father is inaccurate. ‘My mother was a terrific  woman, but she had a lot of resentment towards my father. She sometimes said  things about him just for effect.

‘The truth is she was a notorious adulteress. I don’t know if my father was  unfaithful to her, but it was well known that whenever he was away, she would  have an affair.

‘She was totally unabashed. In the end, my father got fed up and left her. He  sued for divorce on the grounds of her adultery, but she got all the money  because she had a better lawyer.’

Morgan and his sister continued to live with Pamela in the family home and  enjoyed a loving relationship with the Beverly Hills grande dame, up until her  death last year at 80.

As for his father, Morgan claims he grew closer to him after the break-up,  because Mason tried hard not to lose the bond with his children. ‘For the last  20 years of his life he would write me a long, magnificent letter each week from  Switzerland. By the time of his death in 1984, there was nothing left unsaid.’

Mason had never encouraged either of his children to pursue an acting career.  Today, Portland lives quietly in Beverly Hills with her lawyer husband.

MORGAN was always the high-flyer, despite dropping out of Beverly Hills High  at 16. At 22, in a lucky move which was to change his life, he wrote a ‘fan  letter’ to California’s Governor, Ronald Reagan.

The governor asked to meet him, they hit it off, and when he later launched  his campaign to secure the Republican nomination in the forthcoming presidential  elections, he invited Morgan to work for him.

‘My father was practically a Marxist, so he regarded my working for Reagan as  a bad joke. He said to me,’ – and here Morgan puts on a faultless ‘James Mason’  voice – ‘ “My dear boy, he has absolutely no chance. You’re wasting your time.”  ‘

When Reagan won the nomination, he insisted that Morgan help him to victory  in the White House.

Within months, Morgan Mason was in Washington. At 24, he was appointed  President Reagan’s deputy chief of protocol, later becoming the youngest of his  ten special assistant advisers.

As for James Mason, Morgan says that after his initial distaste at the  prospect of his son working for the Republican administration, he was won over  by Reagan’s charm and the two men became friends.

Morgan, having already enjoyed a romance with film star Jacqueline Bisset,  was having a relationship with Louise Fletcher, the actress who had won an Oscar  for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

She was 20 years his senior and the mother of two teenage sons. Before his  move to Washington, they had all lived together in a beach house in Malibu.

Nancy Reagan advised him on his love life. ‘She wasn’t judgmental, but rather  maternal in the advice she gave me and the prognosis of how the affair would  end.’

As predicted, Morgan and Louise parted company before too long. What was less  expected was that Morgan would become disillusioned with politics. Before  Reagan’s first term in office was over, Morgan was back in Hollywood.

In 1984 matchmaking friends introduced him to Belinda Carlisle, then known as  ‘the wild girl of rock’. Morgan helped Belinda through the dark days of her  addiction and, by the time they married in 1987, she was off drugs.

They moved to London a year ago to give their five-year-old son James a  British education. The child of English parents, Morgan sees it as a kind of  homecoming. ‘I got tired of living in LA,’ he says. ‘Life shouldn’t just be  about running faster and faster.’