Updated 26 May 2016

For want of nothing better to write about this week, I thought I’d share a little story which involves pathetic name-dropping and also show what a complete idiot I used to be. Let’s go back to 1972, to South Kensington, a swanky part of Swinging London where I used to share a one-bedroom apartment with two mates. That’s how we used to live in those days, all squeezed in together, one sleeping in the living room and two packed into our tiny bedroom. An expensive area then, rents are astronomical now – billionaire territory.

GV, foreground top left, wangled us a great flat in ritzy South Kensington. Above: shooting the movie, Two Lane Black Top

Another drawback was the kitchen, bathroom and toilet were split level, separated from the living area by the communal stairs, so the girls in the apartments above, ventured through our first floor home to get to their homes. That we barely saw them I put down to the blue fug of substances enveloping our part of the stairs.

Fortunately, my flatmate Graham managed to get us a good deal off the kindly old aristocrat who owned the flat, or we could never have afforded the rent. The old girl wanted to let it to ‘nice young gentlemen’, she said. Graham was a banker so formally dressed in those days (but not any more). It’s a good job Lady Whatsit didn’t see me, with my waist-long hair, afghan coat and purple boots.Graham had just returned from LA where he had been on location with his American actor cousin-in-law, the late Warren Oates, shooting the now cult road film ‘Two Lane Black Top’. This also starred the Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson and the folk rock singer, James Taylor
The actress Laurie Bird in Two Lane Blacktop

Graham got to know James Taylor quite well, possibly because James was constantly dipping into Warren Oates’ portable drugs cabinet. Taylor’s love interest at the time, Joni Mitchell, was there too. In fact, I answered our London flat’s telephone one day and who was on the end but James Taylor … looking for Graham. James was performing that evening at the South Kensington’s Royal Albert Hall just down the road. Or was it the London Palladium? It all blurs into one.

(That’s the American actress Laurie Bird in the montage above, by the way, in stills from Two Lane Blacktop. She died tragically young, aged just 25, in 1979.)
Indeed, South Kensington was so swanky then, the great American chanteuse, Eartha Kitt, was a neighbour. I used to see Eartha every morning on my late-morning walk to work. Every day Eartha would be in Gloucester Road, rain or shine, looking a million dollars near the tube station. It was winter, so she was swathed in fur, walking her tiny dog; or just standing by a lamp post while it sniffed about. I can see her there to this day.
Now, if you weren’t around in the 70s, you won’t know how enormously famous Eartha Kitt was. A blend of black, white and Cherokee Native American, Eartha’s stage persona was one of scaring men half to death with her blatant sexuality.
Ladies and gentlemen, the legendary Miss Eartha Kitt

I saw Eartha  many times as a child in the 1960s, on ITV’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium. Always squeezed into the tightest, slinkiest of dresses, Eartha would purr like a cat, growl, pout and roll her Rs as she spoke or sang. If anyone deemed to annoy her, she would surely scratch their eyes out.

Eartha Kitt’s string of 1950s hit records included ‘Let’s Do It’, ‘C’est si Bon’, ‘Just an Old Fashioned Girl’ and ‘I Want To Be Evil’. One of her earlier hits, from the 1952 Broadway show written specifically about her life, produced the song ‘Monotonous’. This included a routine where Eartha crawled panther-like across the stage, (in full evening gown) between three chaise longues. This demonstrated her flexibility, sexuality and dance training with that famous ‘Queen Mother of Black Dance’, Katherine Dunham, in whose troupe Eartha danced in the 1940s. Indeed, I saw Eartha perform so many times on TV, I half expected her to drop to the pavement and start crawling up Gloucester Road every time I saw her. After all, she was still only about 45 then, in the prime of womanhood.

So that’s the scenario. I’d been passing Eartha Kitt in Gloucester Road every day for months. If she recognised me, she never let on, and why would she? She was an international star and I was a young, hairy nobody in the street.

Every day, Eartha’s cat-like face would be in repose, looking, as I said, like she’d scratch one’s eyes out, should anyone dare to approach her. The one day, their was a spark of recognition.

It was at a Leonard Cohen reception, held by CBS Records at the Dorchester, or some equally fancy London hotel. I floated in late that night, high on the usual substances of the era. A curved stairway, about 40 feet wide, swept one down to where Leonard’s reception was being held – except I didn’t sweep down. I rolled down, head over heels or, as we say in Britain, arse over tit.

Leonard Cohen in 1972 – That year was the first and last time I met him

I rolled and rolled down the staircase until, unbelievably, I landed squarely on my feet at the bottom, where I continued walking as if nothing untoward had had happened, maintaining my stride, and strolling casually to where drinks were being served.

I had landed a bit like a cat lands, actually, since we were talking felines a moment ago. In my memory, my tumble consisted of somersault rolls as  neat as a circus acrobat would produce. I’m sure the reality was vastly different.

“Ah, Paul, I’d like you to meet Leonard Cohen,” said my boss Maurie Oberstein as I sipped my freshly poured beer. Now Maurie Oberstein, CBS London’s colourful American deputy MD at the time, deserves a post all of his own. Instead, here’s his Wikipedia Link for anyone interested in bygone record company executives:




As I shook hands with Leonard Cohen, three things struck me.
1. I was shaking hands with the great Leonard Cohen.
2. Leonard was looking with some concern at my right leg.
3. There was a cool draft blowing up my right leg into my crotch.
Looking down, I saw my tight right trouser leg had split from ankle to fly, no doubt ruptured during the tumble. Looking up I saw Eartha Kit raise a sculptured eyebrow, and caught a flash of recognition in those cat-like eyes. Eartha, also a guest at Leonard Cohen’s reception, had watched my undignified (or spectacular – depending on your viewpoint) entrance with, no doubt, astonishment.
Eartha was also Catwoman in TV’s Batman

Too embarrassed to renew acquaintances, I made my excuses to Messrs. Oberstein and Cohen and left with my tail between my legs. P.J. Proby, the American pop singer big in Britain in the 1960s, might have had the front to stand around in split trousers, but not this pussy. Just in case you’re interested in who P.J. Proby was (and still is), here’s a link to his Wikipedia page.

However, every cloud has a silver lining, I thought, and now that I knew Eartha recognised me, we’d have something to chat and laugh over, next time I saw her in Gloucester Road. Maybe we could even go for a drink!
But though I looked for her in vain after that, I never did see Eartha Kitt again, only on television.