Peter and the wolves

Peter and the wolves

When Hugh Jackman struts on stage as Peter Allen in the musical, The Boy From Oz , he’s performing a suitably over-glitzed, over-inflated version of a remarkable story: how a gay boy from Tenterfield became the prot? of Judy Garland, married her daughter, soared into stardom and died from AIDS. Boy, talk about over-egging the pudding. Ah, but if you only knew the real story -¦

Well, now you can. Here it is -“ in Peter Allen’s own words.

In the unlikely event that you were there the night that Peter Allen lured Judy Garland into Tokyo’s notorious Shir?ay bar on Shinjuku San-chome, you might have noticed a quiet little guy sitting at the bar, sipping his beer while legions of Japanese queens from surrounding bars stormed the stairs to catch a glimpse of their idol.

That little guy was me. I was there because my friend Peter had involved me in the three-ring circus that was Frances Gumm’s visit to Japan in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, and the subsequent hoopla that led to his marriage with Liza.

Peter and I were mates -“ nothing more -“ who’d discovered we enjoyed each other’s company after meeting one night in Shir?He’d soon enough decided he was going to call me Kate -“ why, I’ll never really know -“ and, in return, I decided he should be Grace, after the comedienne Gracie Allen. His real name, of course, was Peter Woolnough.

Peter was playing the Asian circuit as part of an act, The Allen Brothers (Chris Allen was the other half), along with a female dancer and their manager, known to everyone as Father.

Peter loved letter-writing almost as much as he loved performing and when the troupe headed off to other cities, like Hong Kong, he’d keep me informed about what was happening in a stream of letters on hotel letter-head. All were erudite, perceptive and, usually, full of joy, with perhaps just a little too much enthusiasm for exclamation points.

In May 1964, while The Allen Brothers were performing in the Eagle’s Nest night club at the old, lamented, Hong Kong Hilton, a letter arrived that almost vibrated with excitement.

Dearest Kate, it began, in my hour of need I call for your spiritual guidance. The following story is abridged but you’ll get the full story when I arrive in Tokyo about 17 June.

Not out of my usual pattern, I have done something very stupid!! Firstly, I fell in love -“ the man is not entirely gay because he is being kept by a woman.

The whole thing started out in friendship but has reached Pyramus and Thisbe proportions, [in classical mythology, a youth and maiden of Babylon, whose parents opposed their marriage] with both of us having stolen moments at 3 in the afternoon and, rarely, at 3 or 4 in the morning.

It was simple to start with because the lady was sick and had nurses, so he could sneak away, but now she is better so he cannot sneak away.

Yesterday she discovered she is pregnant by him so she wants to marry him when her divorce is final. For the past two nights they have come to the show together and on the first night she said to him, -˜That tall one has a crush on you,’ which was strange because she had never mentioned the boys before.

Last night she invited me to her hotel room and we all got drunk and he and I were very careful not to even look at each other. But he called about 5 this morning to tell me that she is not angry because she likes me so much that she knows now that he loves me too. I also adore her.

They leave tomorrow so I have this last day to see him and try not to use tired clich?but they are the only ones that fit.

She invited me over again after the show tonight and I’ll go and say goodbye. I am really awfully in love, so get ready for a trembling shell of your former sister when she arrives in Tokyo.

The man’s name is Mark Herron. The woman is Judy Garland. My Gawd! Love, Grace.

My Gawd indeed.

Mark Herron was a bit player in a few movies, most notably a few moments in Fellini’s 8 1/2 . The divorce Judy was waiting for was from husband No. 3, Sidney Luft, while her illness could have been the combined effects of her latest suicide attempt -“ this one at the Hong Kong Mandarin Hotel -“ and the pregnancy Peter mentions (and of which no more is heard).

The suicide followed Judy’s disastrous tour where she was booed off stage.

I have often wondered what on earth motivated Miss Garland to set out, with the determination of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, to marry her daughter off to a guy who, according to Peter, she knew was gay and, even more alarmingly, was being screwed by the man she wanted to (and eventually did) marry herself.

Perhaps she was not as distressed as some biographies maintain about the bisexuality of husband No. 1,Vincente Minnelli -“ Liza’s father. Surely, it couldn’t have been some sort of grotesque pay back. Could it?

Anyway, as things turned out, Judy and Mark decided to travel with Peter back to Tokyo. They sailed on the aging, sad old President Roosevelt liner, arriving in Yokohama on 16 June, the day of Japan’s dreadful Niigata earthquake, in which more than 200 people died.

My diary records: I rushed on board as soon as the gangplank was down and Peter thrust me into the ship’s photo shop where Mark and Judy were buying some snapshots of themselves. -˜Hello,’ she said. -˜This is my husband, Mark Herron.’

During an on-board media conference, Judy and Mark announced they had been married by a Buddhist priest at the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong -“ which created a bit of a stir because she was still in the process of divorcing Sid Luft.

I had hired a car to pick them up from the wharf and travel with them to the Tokyo Hilton [that’s the splendid old Tokyo Hilton, not the present one]. Whether it was because of the ingestion of vodka en route or the car’s superior suspension, the Niigata earthquake made no impression at all.

My diary reads: Peter promised me that if they decided to tell the truth about [the marriage] I would know first. Louella [Parsons] has nothing to do with it.

But Judy later released a statement through her lawyers in America saying she had never even said she was married to Mark -“ just blessed by a Buddhist priest.

In reality, the priest was a Hong Kong-based, Australian dressmaker named Hall Ludlow who Peter said had performed a bit of campery in their hotel suite during one particularly booze-fuelled evening.

Mark eventually called me to arrange an interview, which she conducted in a pink nightdress, black negligee, pearl earrings, pearl choker -“ and vodka tonic. Mark was dressed in a three-quarter length bathrobe.

The diary notes: Judy gave impressions of her exit from the Melbourne concert and how she slapped the face of the entrepreneur on the way out. She said, -˜Fuck ’em all.’

We later went to the Starlight Room club on the top of the Okura Hotel but were asked to leave the empty room at 2am.

I remember Pearl Harbour, Miss Garland roared at the Japanese staff and when the room manager appeared -“ a German -“ she told him, You’re all enemies!

Whatever it was Judy had done to herself in her suicide attempt, it had a profound effect on her voice and she was still unable to sing when she arrived in Tokyo.

That changed one day after she and Mark moved from the Hilton to the much grander Okura hotel, close to the American Embassy. Unlike many performers, she very much liked to play recordings of her own voice in private, and did so with considerable frequency. The diary I kept at the time records:

Suddenly from the bathroom we heard her singing. Everybody -“ Mark, Peter and I -“ jumped about -¦ When she came out Mark cried: -˜Your voice is back!!!’ She then gave us . . . a concert plus excerpts from The Wizard Of Oz . Too much. Then off to Shinjuku san-chome to Shir?

And this, I think, is where we all came in.

© The New Write 2006

Ted Josephs was working as a freelance journalist in Tokyo prior to the 1964 Olympic Games. He is now retired.

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