Less than a fortnight ago, Sir Sean Connery died in his sleep, aged 90, and those who paid lavish tribute to the screen’s first and greatest James Bond have seemed determined to confer heroic status on him.
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said she was ‘heartbroken’ to hear of his death, adding: ‘Our nation is today mourning one of our best-loved sons.’
Dame Shirley Bassey, who sang the Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever theme songs, said: ‘He was a wonderful person, a true gentleman, and will be forever in our hearts.’
‘He was the hero of our times,’ agreed actor Andy Garcia, his co-star in The Untouchables, for which Connery won his only Oscar.
But how true is that assertion?
The women of the #MeToo movement would not regard Connery as a hero at all.
The women of the #MeToo movement would not regard Sean Connery (pictured with first wife Diane Cilento) as a hero at all
His admissions in two interviews — which he later denied — that he saw nothing wrong with hitting a woman, and would be quite prepared to do so himself, would now generate outrage. He also vehemently denied the allegation from his first wife, Australian actress Diane Cilento, that he had beaten and battered her throughout their 11-year marriage.
But I had every reason to believe Cilento, whom I knew well, was telling the truth, not least because I had witnessed the marks of domestic violence on her face.
I met Cilento when I was a teenager and she was playing the title role of Zuleika Dobson in a 1957 pre-London tour of the musical Zuleika.
Very beautiful and talented but emotionally vulnerable, she was finding the musical numbers beyond her vocal range. After two disastrous performances on a Saturday night in Oxford, her voice simply gave out.
Back in the hotel, she ran a hot bath, slit her wrists under the water and almost died. I visited her in hospital and that was how our friendship began.
In 1965, by which time she was married to Connery, I visited the couple at their home in St John’s Wood, London. They had been married for three years and their baby son, Jason, was two years old.
I had never met Connery, but I knew of his tough-guy reputation, temper and capacity for violence.
In 1958, when he was in Cornwall filming opposite Hollywood legend Lana Turner in the melodrama Another Time, Another Place, Turner’s mobster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, turned up on set, pointed a gun at Connery and told him to stay away from Turner. Connery grabbed the gun and twisted Stompanato’s wrist. The gangster fled.
The first thing I noticed on my arrival was that Diane had a black eye and a badly bruised and swollen cheek, which she had tried to disguise with make-up.
‘What happened?’ I asked her.
‘Oh, it was so stupid,’ she said. ‘I pulled a cupboard door open into my face.’
A file photo shows Sean Connery with his first wife Diane Cilento and their children Gigi, aged nine, and Jason, aged four, before flying to Nice, France
She knew I didn’t believe her and started to speak, but stopped abruptly. Connery had entered the room. Dressed in the briefest pair of shorts imaginable, he had little Jason perched on his shoulder.
I was introduced and my hand was enveloped in a bone-crushing grip.
Connery was in a buoyant mood, bouncing Jason up and down, and showed no sign of unease. Diane, though, was tense, apprehensive even, and watching me closely.
By then Connery had played Bond three times — in Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. He had not been first choice for the role — Cary Grant and Rex Harrison had both turned it down. It was reputedly Dana Broccoli, the wife of Bond producer ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, who persuaded her husband that Connery was right for the role.
Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, was dismayed. He thought Connery was far too common for his hero.
That day, Connery spoke derisively of the ‘Bond hoopla’ and the intrusive publicity that had affected the couple’s life as a result.
‘To tell you the truth,’ he told me, ‘I hate that bastard Bond. I’d kill him if I could get my hands on him.’
What became clear that afternoon was just how dominant Connery was in the marriage. Diane was no doormat but she seemed afraid of him. She had clearly already become a victim of domestic abuse.
It was only months later that their marriage started to unravel, while they were in Spain, where Connery was filming a war drama called The Hill, directed by Sidney Lumet.
Cilento later told me the full horrifying story — but I cannot improve on the account she gave in her 2006 autobiography, My Nine Lives.
She wrote: ‘One weekend, towards the end of the shoot, the hotel hosted a large local wedding party . . . the film crew and actors mingled with the guests and became part of the celebrations, the liquor flowing down throats as fast as the army of waiters could serve it.
‘The actors were introduced to a deadly drink, Fundador, the fiery Spanish brandy . . . the guys were drinking it with beer as a chaser.’
Cilento found herself with a group of excited young Spaniards, none of whom could speak English.
‘My glass of sangria seemed to be bottomless and my Spanish became more fluent, however faulty, the more I drank. I can vaguely remember being whirled about and bent backwards before a crowd of stamping, clapping men . . . I was learning to dance the flamenco, while the crew clapped and cried “Go, girl, go!”.’
She looked for Connery but could not see him ‘yet, later, I could strangely recall seeing his face scowling at me through the blur of faces, although I couldn’t be sure. It was late when I climbed the stairs to our room…
‘Once inside, in the darkness, I felt a blow to my face and was knocked to the floor. I remember screaming and I think we were both shouting. I got to my feet and tried to fight back but another blow sent me flying.
Sir Sean is pictured with his second wife Micheline Roquebrune shortly before his death
‘I managed to get through the bathroom door and locked myself in. I spent the rest of the night sprawled on the bathroom floor, covered with towels, whimpering.’
When she looked in the mirror in the morning, she was appalled.
‘With disbelief and utter horror, I viewed the stranger staring back at me . . . I felt sure my face would never be the same again . . . I was filled with shame, desperate that no one should see me in this condition. I had to hide from the actors, the crew and, above all, the Press. One photo of me in this state would open the floodgates.’
Connery was still sleeping as she collected her possessions and slipped out of the room. She rented a car and drove to Malaga.
‘All I knew was that something had been irreparably damaged . . . my unequivocal conviction that Sean was my loyal protector forever, the one person who had always made me feel safe in the midst of whatever crisis, had been shattered. Although I still loved Sean deeply, he would never be quite the same person . . .
‘When I rang Sean that night to tell him where I was, I said nothing at all about my feelings and I did not cry. He was businesslike when he told me the shoot would be over in a week and that he would join me then. Neither of us mentioned what had happened.
‘The event that had occurred in our hotel room was a taboo subject, too painful to touch upon.
‘I never spoke about it until years later, when I read a quote from an interview Sean had done for Playboy in 1965.’
In that interview, Connery said: ‘I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman — although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man.
‘An open-handed slap is justified, if all alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning. If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it . . .’
Cilento comments in her autobiography: ‘When I read this inflammatory quote, I was incensed by what I felt was a tacit agreement to violence to all the males who used Sean as a role model. The old saying, “A woman, a carpet and a walnut tree, the more you beat ’em, the better they be”, is wrong.’
Connery was later to deny he had made those remarks to Playboy.
In an interview with Vanity Fair in 1993, though, the views he expressed were not dissimilar to those published by Playboy: ‘There are women who take it to the wire. That’s what they are looking for, the ultimate confrontation. They want a smack.’
Sean Connery had first set eyes on Diane Cilento at the 1957 London premiere of The Admirable Crichton, a film in which her performance as a maidservant made her an overnight star.
The daughter of Sir Raphael and Lady Phyllis Cilento, medical practitioners in Queensland, Australia, she had been married first, in 1956, to an ‘impossibly beautiful’ Italian, Andrea Volpe, by whom she had a daughter, Giovanna.
They divorced in 1960. Diane later said of the night she met Connery: ‘What I remember most was the presence of a tall, funny actor who leapt about firing off a barrage of one-liners in a broad Scottish brogue . . . He walked with the peculiar forward-leaning, slightly pigeon-toed gait of a bodybuilder, and his thick eyebrows met between his eyes. He looked dangerous but fun.’
Only weeks later they played opposite each other in an ITV production of Eugene O’Neill’s torrid drama Anna Christie, as a waterfront tart and a rough-hewn sailor who become unlikely lovers.
I have always wondered if Connery’s later hostility towards Diane may have been due to professional jealousy. In 1963, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the film Tom Jones.
She went on to appear with Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison in The Agony And The Ecstasy, and with Paul Newman in Hombre. During their marriage, violence aside, Connery’s treatment of her was parsimonious in the extreme. He disapproved of her continuing to work as an actress and cut off all housekeeping money when she did so, leaving her in debt and almost destitute.
Cilento herself thought she knew why he did so. ‘His plan was to prove that I was an unfit mother,’ she wrote in her memoirs, ‘too irresponsible and flighty to have custody of my children.’
She added: ‘I realised that the house in Putney and the finca in Spain were both in Sean’s name and that, basically, I was a pauper. I had nothing of my own. Now I was no longer working, I was beginning to feel financially powerless . . . It was simply ludicrous that in the midst of the deluge of money pouring in from the Bond films, I was feeling so vulnerable.’
She said the success of Bond destroyed the ‘warm intimacy’ they had once shared as struggling actors. ‘Now that he had achieved stardom as Bond, anything I did became inconsequential. I knew for sure that I could not live the rest of my life in the shadow of 007, and the evidence was weighing heavily on the side of escape.’
They agreed to split and Connery’s main concern was that the Press should not get hold of the idea that she had left him.
Diane agreed and said he was ‘stunned by the fact that I had actually vacated the house, walked out on the whole deal, left Mrs Bond and fame far behind’. She added: ‘Much later it was agreed that Sean would sell the house and I would get half the money for it but that was all I would get, nothing more. I suppose I agreed because it was true that I had left him . . . In my mind I had left the house, not Sean, but in Sean’s mind it amounted to the same thing.’
Connery and Cilento divorced in 1973. In 1975, Connery married the wealthy Moroccan-French painter Micheline Roquebrune. The marriage survived a well-documented affair that Connery had in the late 1980s with the singer and songwriter Lynsey de Paul.
Diane Cilento went on to marry distinguished playwright Anthony Shaffer, author of Sleuth and many other hits, in 1985.
She died from cancer in 2011 at the age of 79 in Cairns, in her native Australia. From her former husband, Sir Sean Connery, there was complete silence.
He had most recently referred to her as ‘this insane woman’ after she alleged he had told their son Jason, a young actor, that he was getting acting work only because his name was Connery, and that he intended to leave him none of his fortune. Connery vehemently denied both allegations.
Sean Connery the legend will continue to live on screen as the apotheosis of handsome, charismatic and virile masculinity. But there was another side to his character that should not be ignored.