Michele Hewitson interview: Tina Grenville

By Michele Hewitson

Tina Grenville has turned her larger-than-life story into a fantastic memoir, A Life in Three Acts. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Tina Grenville has turned her larger-than-life story into a fantastic memoir, A Life in Three Acts. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Tina Grenville, the actress and former model - she won Model of the Year in 1964 wearing a Spanish-inspired, off-the-shoulder number, bare feet and posing in what may have been a seductive way for the times, leaning on a guitar with her derriere sticking out, jauntily - has lived what you might call an interesting life, if you were given to understatement.

"Yes, well, we were a very broad-minded family," she said, mildly. I choked on my wine, not for the first, or the last time. "No! That was a joke!" She'd say, later, "I think you've got to have a sense of humour."

She has written her memoir, A Life in Three Acts, and should you read it - and it really is fantastic, in both senses of the word - I suggest you do so with a stiff drink in hand. I said I was still reeling after reading it and she said: "Oh, are you? Well, I was reeling after writing it!"

I think we should get her mother, the cause of my most extravagant reeling, out of the way early.

Her mother was, according to me, a ghastly woman. Her daughter, aghast, said: "No! She wasn't a ghastly woman! She was a woman in many ways ahead of her time." That's one way of putting it.

Another is this: She was a woman who bonked two of her daughter's husbands, which would certainly make her ahead of most normal people's times. Her daughter calls these episodes "a dalliance".

A dalliance, for heaven's sake! I had been going on about her mother for quite some time, because how could you not? Her daughter said: "I think you're obsessed with mothers. Do you like yours?" I said mine had never bonked my husband.

"No, I never said mummy bonked anyone. All I said was that she had a brief dalliance." With two of her husbands! "Well, there might have been more! No! Did you have a different sort of mother?" Most people do! "They don't! Well, some do; some don't. I don't know. Perhaps I've read too many French novels. I'm not a very good person to ask."

Her mother did other awful things, again, according to me. She had an affair with Grenville's father, and two children with him, while he was married (mind you, he had that affair and an earlier one, which also resulted in a child) but according to his daughter the marriage didn't really count because the wife was in a rest home. So that's all right then. "Oh, yes it is. Because they hadn't been together in a long time."

Then her mother, once married to Grenville's father, took up with a bloke called Ivan and had an affair with him which lasted more than two decades and she, in turn, put her husband in a home. Are you keeping up? We're at page 35 of her book. She had to cut, by the way, in the second edit, 200,000 words. When she sent a copy of the second version to her son, Ashley, he said: "I've read your pamphlet."

She said: "It was as big as War and Peace." The final version, while comparatively anorexic, still requires a pencil in the hand not holding the stiff drink, so that you can, as with War and Peace, keep track of the characters and the timeline and of who is doing what to whom.

I'd better stop banging on about her mother and her bangings on - she said, "I don't belabour the point" - but I did have to ask why she went on having anything to do with her once she knew (the husbands told her, eventually) the truth. She said, "Oh, well, you can't divorce family," which made me choke on the wine again be-cause if anyone had grounds, she did.

I don't know whether her relationship with her mother had anything to do with her much later going around the twist and ending up in the bin. Who could know? I think she's very forgiving, probably too forgiving, but she says, oh, no, she's not and that she simmers away and then goes mad and throws things. "Then they say I'm neurotic!" She said about the bin: "Poor loonies. You wonder what their stories are." Not as mad as hers, I bet.

We went to see her at home at Piha, and she showed us around her little, pretty cottage where she lives with husband number three, Tom Cagwin, and which is stuffed to the rafters with all manner of things: a doll's house and old china and her embroidery, books and photographs and copper pans and all sorts of comforting, homely pretty things.

And you think: Thank goodness she's got such a lovely place to live now, and is settled. I did have to ask: Is this marriage going to last? She said: "Well, all my marriages lasted. I've been married now for 12 years. Michele, that's a lifetime! You have a glass of wine, while you stop reeling."

She had made lunch: pea and ham soup, and custard with marsala and feijoa. She used to run a private supper club from her then house at Karekare and once made a custard for Tony Astle but she ran out of eggs and cheated and used custard powder. She said: "That's a better custard than Tony Astle got!"

She said: "I hope you've noticed the curtain." Well, now that she mentioned it. "The curtain, at the bottom, looked like it had been chewed by rats because I cut all the flowers off the bottom." Then she cut around the flowers and stuck them on the fridge, which she has painted blue, with glue. Why would she do such a thing? "The curtain was too long," she said, as though this is what everyone does with too long curtains.

She showed us her creek where, the last time she stuck her toe in, she was bitten by an eel. She ran inside and told Tom; he said, "Uh huh", and went back to watching the telly. When she met him, she told him some parts of her life story, "and he said: 'Is that all of it?' Little did he know!"

I wasn't a bit surprised (and neither was Tom, obviously) to hear that an eel had bitten her on the toe. Things do seem to happen to her.

Her first husband, Ronald Grenville, a James Dean lookalike, disappeared after he (probably) jumped off the Wellington wharf after a wild night on the tiles. Salacious details of his life (she now thinks he was probably bisexual but she didn't know what that was, then) were read out in the Coroner's Court. She was 19, widowed with a baby, child number one, Ashley.

She met this husband on the beach and then sold her house (this one), which she was running as a bed-and- breakfast, to him but ended up marrying him and staying on. I hoped this was a happy ending because there are a great many unhappy endings in her book, but she doesn't really believe in happiness. She says she might settle for contentment.

I said I hoped Tom was nice to her because she deserves to have somebody who is. She said: "Thank you, Michele. But everyone does. We all do." But she's had such awful men. "But I didn't think they were awful!" But does she now? "No, I don't. The little I've worked out is that if you aren't doing what they think they want you to do, they punish you for it and maybe a woman would do that if a man didn't do what she wanted him to do."

Her men, or some of them, punished her by not letting her learn to drive; by not putting her name on the titles of houses (she has her name on this one, and hooray), but using all her money, not that she ever made much; by not paying child support, and other, even more terrible things.

There is an incredible scene in the book involving her and two of her men and a gun and much swaggering and a mirror being shot. "Oh, yes. That was a bit off." A bit off! The gun-slinger was Robert Bruning, husband number two, whom she married because she felt guilty about not having married him some years before, having said she would, and father of child number three, Sophie, who she had "fervently" hoped was the child of another of her lovers.

The other bloke in the room the night of the gun incident was her great love, John Crawley, whom she never married and who is the father of child number two, Lucie. Blimey. I hope I've got that straight. Where were we? Oh yes: The gun. Which Robert kept in her knicker drawer. "Yes, I don't know what that was about. I think that was very Freudian."

You have to have a sense of humour. There is a line in her book which made me shout with laughter: "Why do men keep taking my pants!" They did, but why did they? "Well, I didn't ask them."

She had and still has, at 72, a face like a very beautiful pixie. She never thought she was beautiful. "No! Never." It seems a shame to be beautiful and not appreciate it, I thought, but she says she does appreciate beauty but "I think beautiful is nothing like me. Maybe it's the dark, olive-skinned, or the delicate Asian women."

Still, you hope she might think she looks all right now. That made her shout with laughter. "For God's sake! I hate it when you read about people like Joan Collins and Jane Fonda who say, 'Oh, of course, when you get older you get so much more confident.' I'm confident about running a house and I'm a very good laundress and I can cook.

But how can you possibly, in your 70s, which are hardly your peak years, say you're confident about how you look? Jane Fonda said: 'Make friends with your wrinkles,' and rushed off and had a facelift!"

She was really rather famous in Australia where she played Louise Archer in The Restless Years and once a woman came up to her and said that she, like Louise, used to drink sherry in the mornings but now that Louise had got off the sherry, so had she. I said I was glad to hear that they'd both got off the sherry.

"Yes! And you know, that was completely because of me and if I hadn't been in the show she'd be dead now!" She quite liked being famous and having people ask for her autograph and getting good service in restaurants. Once she was out at a restaurant and "somebody came up and put a piece of paper down and I was feeling very grand and probably a bit drunk and I said, 'Oh, yes', and signed.

And do you know what it was? The bill! And the person next to me said: 'What are you doing, you fool? It's the bill! They don't want an autograph." We laughed so much we almost cried, and actually she did cry a bit because she does when she laughs - it's one of the very many lovely and loveable things about her.

- NZ Herald

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