David Hartnell interview

by Diana Wichtel / 18 June, 2011
Diana Wichtel talks with the gossip columnist who, with his memoir on the shelves, made the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
David White
David Hartnell at home/photo David White

It was 1985. Pre-crash Auckland was busy reinventing itself as a brazen hussy, and local celebrity culture was still wobbling along on training wheels. But at Auckland’s Regent Hotel, the Telethon stars were out: Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard; my old milkman Alan Dale, who had somehow ended up on Neighbours; a couple of guys from Hill Street Blues; Mike Baldwin from Coronation Street … There was, with terrible inevitability, Kamahl.

The stars beamed expectantly. The press lurked diffidently. Then, through a sea of awkward chat, with all the forward thrust of the Queen Mary at full throttle, advanced David Hartnell. Bow tie, big glasses, hide of an elephant. Gliding up to a star with photographer in tow, he’d extend a hand, rotate slightly with the practised grace of a ballet dancer – or, in his case, champion roller skater – get his picture taken with his bemused new best friend and steam off to his next port of call. Who, the stars enquired, was that?

And yet, such is the nature of showbiz, here I am, nearly a quarter of a century later, asking for his autograph. Well, he kindly signs his new book, Memoirs of a Gossip Columnist. It’s a rollicking read and a highly idiosyncratic slice of Kiwi cultural history, in which the war against cliché – “Hello!”; “Heaven forbid!” – is comprehensively lost.

We meet at his Auckland house. It is, as you’d expect, a shrine to faded glamour – “Should I turn on the chandelier?” – and crammed with the paraphernalia of a life lived in the slipstream of celebrity. On the wall is an arresting mock Warhol of Hartnell and his partner of 18 years, Somboon. There’s a canvas by Phyllis Diller, a comedienne who made a career out of being no oil painting herself. Also at home – the interview is punctuated by cries of “Cele! Enough!” – is a sweet, vocal Australian terrier.

Hartnell doesn’t mind the Telethon story. He’s been mocked by … everyone. As long as you remembered to put the two “l”s in Hartnell there would always be a call to say thanks for the mention. “I mean Barry Shaw hated me,” beams Hartnell, of the former New Zealand Herald television critic, “but he gave me column inch after column inch. It’s all grist to the mill!”

After all, he has made his living dishing it out. Most people took it well. Though Hartnell reports that Peta Mathias, post inclusion in Hartnell’s feared Worst Dressed list, wrote in her book about a “dated wannabe queen” and “lump of ectoplasm” whose photo served as a useful cure for constipation. “But she didn’t mention me by name in the book, you see,” says Hartnell, “which I was brassed off about.”

Hartnell’s book misses no opportunity to drop names. “Over the years the media have called me a publicity slut, a media tart,” he writes. “It’s all true!” So Hartnell meets Liz Taylor. Hartnell spots Marlene Dietrich at a hamburger cart. Hartnell visits Mae West. “Her fingers were like little sausages,” he writes thrillingly. Not one to gossip, he confides, “I still think she was a hermaphrodite.”

He describes a lunch at the home of the late, great costume designer Edith Head with Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis and someone in a duffle coat who turned out to be Greta Garbo. “An unlikely group,” observes Hartnell. Davis smoked, Garbo spoke. Hartnell was told to pretend he was a sheep farmer.

Mad. But not bad for a fatherless boy who found refuge from bullies at the Deluxe roller rink in Khyber Pass. “I had nothing,” he says. “I left school when I was 15 so I had nothing to do but create a demand and then fill it.” He abandoned his stepfather’s surname, Ward, early on and wrote to the fashion designer Norman Hartnell for permission to use his. These days that sort of thing might lead to a charge of stalking. Instead Hartnell and Hartnell became friends. And David Hartnell Inc was born. “One thing I’ve always done in my career,” he writes, “is consider myself a product rather than a person.” He started out as a make-up artist. Then one day he saw gossip columnist Rona Barrett on television. “I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

As for the stars he met, some – Edith Head, Phyllis Diller, Michael Barrymore – did become friends. The book recounts how Hartnell once threw a bread and butter pudding brought around by Barrymore in the bin for fear it was laced with drugs. But for the most part the celebrities were a job. “I would never have met them if they weren’t flogging a television series or I wasn’t flogging a book,” he says unsentimentally. “It’s that sort of relationship. We wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t flogging a book.”

‘It’s all smoke and mirrors,” writes Hartnell, of the gossip game. Well, he had experience of a certain amount of illusion early on. His father left when Hartnell was a toddler. His mother cut him out of every family photo. “I saw Mommy Dearest about Joan Crawford and she did the same. A friend of mine said, ‘How dramatic!’ I said, ‘No, that’s real life.’” Secrets and lies: the mythical golden age of the nuclear family was never quite what it seemed. “It was just all buried then,” sighs Hartnell. “As they say in Hollywood, scratch the tinsel and you get down to the muck.”

He has never spoken to his mother about his father. Not a word. “She’s 87. Why should I ask now?” And although she’s said it to others, his mother has never told him she’s proud of him. “It would have been nice at some point. That’s very wanting, isn’t it?” he says. “I just go okay, whatever, move on.”

Hartnell made contact with his father later in life and, after his father’s death, with the half-brother and half-sister who didn’t know he existed. There’s a classic scene in the book, a very Hartnell-esque mix of Hollywood and ham, recounting how he staged a Missing Pieces-style reunion with his half-brother at a lunch bar in, of all places, Pokeno. When he subsequently met his half-sister, he discovered they’d worked in the same building when Hartnell was with Woman’s Day. “Her auntie used to say to her, ‘If you dyed your hair white, you’d look just like that David Hartnell!” Spooky.

Photo David White

Hartnell is on good terms with his new family, and with Somboon’s. They have a place in northern Thailand where they spend a few weeks most winters. He’s 67, so he grew up in an age when consensual sex between men was a crime. He never came out, he’s fond of saying, because he was never in. “Being gay,” he says enigmatically, “is a pinhead in my life.” Despite an early foray into homemade high heels and the world of drag acts – he was once part of something terrifying-looking called “Bob and Dave La Rue” – Hartnell says he never marketed himself to a gay audience. The one time he did was a disaster. As gossip columnist on gay programme The Express Report he lasted for one series. All hell broke loose when he announced in an interview that he didn’t approve of gay parenting. It’s a view he has since revised but, suffice to say, he didn’t fit in. “I’m not politically correct. It just got pedantic.”

He’s not one to bitch – “cross the bridge, don’t burn it” is his motto – but there is an element of utu, you feel, in his enjoyment of the small flurry of attention he’s currently getting. He writes about once copping a car full of verbal abuse – “‘You f---ing faggot! F---ing queer!” – while crossing the road. He ignored it and sailed on but an old lady on the other side of the road said, “Mr Hartnell … you don’t have to put up with that kind of behaviour.” One of the few regrets he’ll admit to is that he didn’t fight his corner more often. “I wish I’d been stronger and more aggressive to the people who said, ‘You’re a wanker, you’ll never exist writing gossip.’ When I look back,” he says airily, “I don’t know where any of those people are now.”

Fair point. Hartnell is a patron of the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand. After we speak comes the happy news that he has been appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to entertainment. “All grist to the mill!” he says.

But then, sealed lips notwithstanding, he has a way of getting the last word. There was the Fickle Finger of Fate statue he would award to the great and the gaffe-prone, including an apparently grateful Robert Muldoon. The mock Oscar with its alarmingly prominent extended digit is a one-fingered salute to the naysayers, cobbled, much like the David Hartnell persona, out of whatever he had to hand. He pinched the idea from American show Laugh-In. The base is a bit of an old skating trophy and the lid of some Max Factor pancake make-up. A potter friend made the figure. “Then we stuck the fickle finger of fate on and there he is,” says Hartnell, as we contemplate what is, in a way, the story of his life.

Like his old mate Liberace, Hudson and Halls in their time or the more political Topp Twins in theirs, Hartnell found a way to market himself to a mainstream audience in still-repressive times in a manner that was comic, high camp and unthreatening. Hiding, you might say, in plain sight. “Yes,” he allows. “I think that’s true.” But he’s not one for self-­analysis. “Oh God, no,” he cries. “No, no, no. You’d go round the twist! Heavens above! Just do it, have a laugh and move on.”

In flight from introspection, he segues abruptly into musing about what will happen to all his ageing mementoes when he dies. “Who cares? They’ll all go in the trash or they’ll be burnt and it doesn’t really worry me. They’ve served their use.”

Meanwhile, they’ll stay right where they are, a nostalgic nightmare to dust. But Hartnell is off. We leave him packing to go on his book tour. “Palmerston North and points south!” he cries. The show must go on.

MEMOIRS OF A GOSSIP COLUMNIST, by David Hartnell (Penguin NZ, $45).
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