By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“It was another world and a very awkward beginning for me,” says Barbara Steele, recalling her own early years as an Anglo-Angeleno. “Who was I? I was basically a student from London. I was hired to do a photo shoot with this dejected-looking black panther, in the blazing sun, with this hideous long stick with electrodes in case it went berserk. And I had to say, ‘The black panther has arrived!’ Here I was, arriving right after what was a 200-year flight in those days. On the planes, they even had beds with little curtains on the place. Then, after the shoot, they took me to some pub where there was Yorkshire pudding and roast beef. So I was suicidal right off the bat. And you want to know something truly amazing? I too stayed at the Beverly Crest in the years of orange shag!”
Steele was soon cast as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the Western Flaming Star. But after a fight with director Don Siegel, Steele walked off the production, and out of L.A. Hollywood’s loss was Europe’s gain, thanks to Fellini and a memorable side trip to Germany for Volker Schlöndorff’s film of Robert Musil’s Young Toerless. But then Steele met and married American screenwriter James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?). So it was back to L.A., this time for good, where Steele went on to achieve cult fame in Roger Corman–produced quickies like Caged Heat and Piranha.
Steele is quick to note that the Anglophile dream of L.A. is not without its dark side. In particular, she’s thinking of Donald Cammell, the brilliant but doomed Brit director whose masterpiece, Performance, was followed by years of sporadic cinematic activity before his suicide in 1996. He was one of the very first men in Steele’s life (“I remember him picking me up at a bus stop when I was an art student”), with a bohemian spirit and intellectual intensity comparable to her own. But while Steele was able to fashion a life for herself here, Cammell found it impossible.
These days, Steele’s name can be found everywhere from the “thank you” list at the end of the indie film The Fluffer to the executive-producer credits of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It’s no surprise, as Steele embodies what drives so many British souls to live here: an instinctive antipathy to the social status quo, a restless intellectual energy, and a desire to explore new things, new ways and new people. And for Steele, nobody embodied that ideal better than?.?.?.
“Cary Grant. He was the best-pressed suit you ever saw. I have several letters from him, and the signature is divine because it’s one of those iconic signatures like Picasso had or the Coca-Cola logo: ‘Cary!’ I met him a thousand years ago in London. There was an article about me in Life magazine because of a movie I was in for about 30 seconds. He wanted to put me in a film with him. He put a bid in on my contract. It was really strange because at the time, I had never seen a Cary Grant movie. My mother was thrilled. He was fabulous. He sent his car around — this cream-and-brown Rolls from the Savoy came to my parents’ house in London, with this ravishing-looking chauffeur. I’d get in and spend the day with Cary. He took me everywhere. I met everyone with him. Playing charades with Tennessee Williams. We just had this fantastic time.
“No, I didn’t have an affair with Cary Grant,” Steele says, answering a question I would never have dared to ask. “But he was the movie star. I remember having dinner with him at the Savoy and somebody trotting over to him and saying, ‘So sorry, Mr. Grant,’ and having an autograph book all ready, and he said, ‘I’m sorry too.’?”
Despite her fond memories of London, Steele says she’d never move back. “Europe gets further away every year,” she muses. “We [Brits] have this rapturous life here, which is like an insane drug, an incredible mistress. But it’s so much better here now than when I first came. It’s much more global. And it’s timeless. There’s not a deep sense of time. It just sort of glides along and you don’t have a sense of urgency. Maybe that’s why the most difficult journey you can make is from here to the airport.
“I don’t know what it is about this town,” she says, with a deep, rich chuckle. “We’re all trapped in its golden arms!”
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