Saucy secret letters that brought my love for Larry back to life: She was 18, he was 53. Now Sarah Miles reveals the truth about her illicit affair with Sir Laurence Olivier
Sarah Miles, pictured, reveals the details of her affair with legendary actor Sir Lawrence Olivier
Nearly half a century after she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Ryan’s Daughter, Sarah Miles is skipping about her 12th-century manor house in West Sussex like a young girl.
Her full cheeks are rosy and glow with vitality — at 77 she has far better skin than me.
Her wiry hair is all her own, and her smile is wide and warm and naughty as she swears, shouts, waves her arms about and laughs.
She laughs all the time — consciously — and especially when she’s sitting on the loo. ‘You should laugh deep from the bottom of the tummy while you’re there to flush up all the energy,’ she tells me.
And she hoots when she recalls the time actor Omar Sharif stripped to his pants and socks in her hotel room in Madrid in the Eighties.
The legendary lothario was expecting a night of passion with the winsome British actress.
‘I felt I should after all those nice dinners, but I just couldn’t,’ she reveals. ‘Oh dear. He was standing there by the door like a spaniel!’
She giggles as she tells me about falling for movie mogul Steven Spielberg, with whom she lived, briefly in LA. ‘He was charming, just like a little boy — though it was our dogs who fell in love first.’ But the memory that really fires her up is her affair with Laurence Olivier, which lasted on and off for 20 years from 1962.
It spanned one of her two marriages — more of which later — to British playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Bolt, and extended deep into Olivier’s third marriage to actress Dame Joan Plowright.
She called him ‘Lionel’ because ‘he was obsessed with Richard the Lion heart!’ while he called her ‘Pussycat’. And just thinking of him brings back his ‘naughtinesses’.
‘Yes, he was bisexual! He had great fun with lots of people,’ she says. ‘But he wasn’t doing any harm to anyone. We all play a part in life and, underneath it, he was just a naughty schoolboy.’
Lawrence Olivier, left, appeared with Sarah Miles in the 1962 movie Term of Trial
At first, they rented a basement apartment near London’s Victoria station for their secret assignations.
‘It was such fun. He was such a funny man. Everyone got him wrong.
‘They think he was obsessed with his career and acting, but most of the time we just laughed,’ she says.
‘And he loved Hoovering — often in his dressing gown.’
She boasts about ‘always being a very good masseuse’. ‘He loved my touch. Oh what fun we had!’
So when, a couple of weeks ago, during a clear-out, Sarah found a bundle of Olivier’s love letters in a box with an assortment of other love letters — ‘No, no, no. I can’t tell you who the other letters were from!’ — it all came flooding back.
There are 13 letters written in her ‘Darling Larry’s’ spidery hand, full of crossings out, annotations and declarations of love, sent during the second tranche of their affair. She was then living in LA after the collapse of her marriage to Bolt (although they remarried later) .
‘I had completely forgotten about them,’ she says and rather regrets making public their existence.
‘But I wouldn’t want them published because he was writing about how unhappy he was with Joanie [Plowright] towards the end there,’ she says. ‘And I wouldn’t want to upset her.’
Given that details of their affair have circulated since Olivier died in 1989, some might say it is too late to spare the feelings of Dame Joan, 89. But Sarah will only give a gist of what they’re about.
‘There was a lot about how he was looking forward to seeing me. A lot about my “touch” . . . ’
She says she had always known she would be with Olivier. That is because one of her many life philosophies — along with the importance of sharing, kindness, forgiveness (‘You get terrible wrinkles if you don’t forgive’), the wonder of silence and, infamously, the benefits of drinking your own urine — is the importance of visualisation. ‘This is my message to humanity. ‘‘Thought is the seed of all things!’’ ’ she says dramatically. ‘So if you visualise something, and I mean really visualise it, it comes about.’
Sarah, pictured, met Olivier when he was 53 and she was 18 and went on to have a 20-year relationship. She said: ‘I’ve never cared about age,. He was terribly like my father, but Larry took the biscuit when it comes to energy. He just never stopped. He had an energy you would not believe from anyone but avatars.’
She started picturing her future with Olivier aged 11, after being bewitched by his Heathcliff to his second wife, Vivien Leigh’s Cathy, in 1939 film Wuthering Heights. ‘When he cried “Cathy, Cathy!” something happened in my tummy that went “bonk”. It changed from girlhood to womanhood,’ she says.
She kept a photo of him under her mattress in the dormitory at her boarding school, Roedean, dreamed about him every night and visualised them doing all manner of things together.
So when, finally, they met at a film casting for the 1962 film Term Of Trial (for which she earned a Bafta Best Newcomer nomination for playing a pupil to his alcoholic teacher — she was ripe for the plucking and so it began. He was 53 to her 18.
‘I’ve never cared about age,’ she says. ‘He was terribly like my father, but Larry took the biscuit when it comes to energy. He just never stopped. He had an energy you would not believe from anyone but avatars.’
Sarah has always had a lot to say about avatars — which she defines as divine incarnations or spirit guides — energy levels and ghosts. She spends 20 minutes every evening in front of a shrine in her conservatory and regularly converses with her late husband Robert Bolt, who is buried in a grave that she helped dig (‘it was terribly hard work’) at the end of her croquet lawn.
The other day, she says that he took her arm when she stumbled in the dusk. ‘He was so tender.’
And she insists it was a divine spirit that saved her when, in 2011, she was knocked flying by a double-decker bus in Trafalgar Square.
‘I was told by the ‘‘Force’’ above to go limp so I did and was shot in the air, caught in the cosmic butterfly net and landed on the kerb,’ she says. ‘I was looking very good that day, too — such an effort these days! — and as I lay there everyone recognised me from Ryan’s Daughter!’
Despite smashing both hips and a shoulder, after a two-year recovery, she was bouncing around again. Today, she plays tennis, croquet, is a ‘demon’ at table tennis, has just written two plays, a book on money-saving beauty tips, another about her experiences with her spiritual guide.
She also loathes mobile phones and tells me more than once that ‘they’re a contraceptive to life!’
Anyway, back to Olivier.
When they met, she was in a relationship with the actor Willy Fox (who later changed his name to James and is a member of the famous Fox acting dynasty), whom she immediately chucked.
Despite a glittering career and countless achievements, Larry was still fiercely ambitious.
‘I remember sitting in an empty restaurant and him saying grandly: ‘‘One day, I will be the first lord of the theatre!’’ (He was awarded a life peerage in 1970 for his services to theatre.)
She fell deeply in love, but says she never wanted to break up his marriage. ‘I never wanted to be married to him, though towards the end he definitely wanted to be married to me!’ Even so, it must have been pretty dismal waiting for him to find a window as he juggled his career, third wife, children and so many professional commitments.
She says she learned lessons from being a ‘mistress’.
‘You have to learn unconditional love. I had to wait by the phone because he was so busy.’
Not that she was entirely alone.
‘I did have lovers,’ she concedes. ‘Larry used to say: “No, no, no, you can’t be sitting here all alone, Pussycat!” ’
So on it rumbled — a lot of secret trysts filled with massages, laughter, love-making and Hoovering — until she met Robert Bolt at a dinner party in 1965. She thought, ‘Well, this mistress thing isn’t going to go anywhere’ and broke with Olivier.
She and Robert, who’d just won back-to-back Oscars for his screenplays of Doctor Zhivago and A Man For All Seasons, married in 1967 and had a son, Tom.
Robert started writing parts for Sarah, including the role of Rosy in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, for which she earned that Oscar nomination. And then everything crashed.
In 1973, Time magazine sent journalist David Whiting to write an in-depth piece on Sarah. The rest is a bit of a blur. There was an alleged one-night stand. David became obsessed and deeply jealous of her onset friendship with Burt Reynolds — her co-star in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing — and, after a party, David and Sarah had a 3am struggle in her Arizona hotel room.
She fled to Reynolds and the next morning Whiting was found dead in her room. While the death was ruled an overdose, questions remained for years. As well as having drugs in his body, Whiting had a head wound and other evidence of violence.
Sarah’s marriage to Bolt had weathered much drama, but it was sorely tested as the Press called her a murderess. Her well-to-do parents were hounded out of their Essex village. Even her father asked her if she’d ‘done’ it.
All these decades on she still can’t reveal what happened because, she says sphinx-like, that ‘it’s linked to something else that is happening and one will destroy the other’.
After laying low in Los Angeles in a house she describes as a shack, afraid to come home, she rekindled her affair with Olivier — by now Sir Laurence.
He was in his 70s and suffering dermatomyositis, a nasty condition that led to suppurating sores on his hands and meant he often had to sleep in a sitting position. Not that it affected his enthusiasm for accompanying her to parties in her clapped out Beetle, or joining her in bed in the tepee on her roof of her shack.
‘He thought it was stupendous! And he was still Hoovering!’ she bursts out laughing.
David Whiting’s death blighted Sarah’s career, but her spirited rejections of lecherous directors and producers also closed many doors. ‘I’m going to write a book on #Metoo next. My God! I’ve been treated so, so badly,’ she fumes. ‘I wasn’t the victim, but I lost all the f****** jobs.’
She names two top Hollywood producers who got her famous ‘knee in the balls’. There was also a famous British theatre director who fired her because, as she puts it, ‘I wouldn’t open my legs’.
Things got worse when, in 1970, in revenge after she freed some live lobsters intended to be eaten for a dinner he was hosting, Robert Mitchum, her Ryan’s Daughter co-star and eventual lover, let slip to the media about her practice of drinking her own urine. Immediately, she was dismissed as a nutcase.
And so she is, brilliantly so. But also, behind all the puff and drama and ostentatious eccentricity, she’s incredibly kind, warm — her house sees a constant flow of visitors seeking her healing hands or accommodation — and impossible not to like.
I’d read that she’s sensitive to journalists raising the subject, but within five minutes she’s eulogising about the benefits. ‘I’ve been ostracised for my pee-drinking, but it if you drink your own pee, you’ll stay young. It protects against allergies.’
The habit began in LA when her singing coach suggested a ‘urine therapist’ to help with sinus problems. She took her asthmatic son, too. ‘We were sent to urinate, mid-flow, in a silver chalice, then told to take it to a Hungarian doctor who would inject it into your bum,’ she says.
It did the trick. Her sinuses and her son’s asthma cleared up, but it was expensive. When she asked the doctor for a cheaper alternative, he told her to drink it.
So she does. Twice a day, an inch or two, gathered mid-flow from her first and last pee.
‘It is fantastic. I put it on my face — it is very pale and odourless. I put it in my hair. I just rub it in.’
And wash it off? ‘No, no! I just let it sink in. It’s the essence of who we are,’ she says.
She’s drunk it pretty much ever since, looks amazing — I bet she’d look even better without make-up — and strenuously denies face-lifts, Botox or anything else.
Her other tip is to remain chipper despite endless knocks.
‘I’ve always been happy,’ she beams. ‘You’ve got to stay up. You’ve got to forgive and be kind. But it’s mostly been c**p, really.’
As well as the terrible death of David Whiting, her son Tom battled heroin addiction for ten years. He is long clean, a watch expert and father to Sarah’s beloved grandson, Billy, 18.
Also, in 1979, her ex-husband Robert Bolt, a 20 st hedonist who spent extravagantly, suffered a stroke which left him partially paralysed and affected his speech. Two years later, she remarried him and looked after him until he died in 1995.
‘I am very steadfast,’ she says. ‘I like caring.’ (And not just for people. Her dog and cat have their own ramp to access her bed.)
She would have loved to have tended ‘Darling Larry’ in his old age, too, but wasn’t allowed. ‘The dying process is so beautiful.’
Her last lover was a chap she’d met through the local monastery. ‘He was a walking encyclopaedia of the esoteric arts and so, so kind,’ she sighs. ‘But sadly he was also a gambling addict and he cleaned me out completely.’
The experience put her off lovers, but not people and, despite all the flak she’s received over the years, she refuses to be bitter.
‘I feel people have always underestimated me,’ she says. ‘But you can’t just give up! You have to move on.’
So she now spends her time healing and housing anyone in need, playing table tennis, tennis and croquet and chattering in her garden to Robert and, quite possibly, Larry, too.
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