‘The longest suicide in Hollywood history’: who was the real Montgomery Clift?

Martin Chilton
·15 min read
'Like he had the angel of death walking alongside him': Montgomery Clift in 1953 - Film STills
'Like he had the angel of death walking alongside him': Montgomery Clift in 1953 - Film STills

“Montgomery Clift always looked as though he had the angel of death walking along beside him,” remarked Alfred Hitchcock, in his characteristically macabre way. Clift, who would die at 45, certainly pushed his own chances of survival to the limits. He drove “much too fast, like a daredevil”, according to his friend Kevin McCarthy. On a warm May evening in 1956, just after leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s Beverly Hills house, Clift raced off a steep, winding canyon road and smashed into an electricity pole. Photographs of the wrecked Chevrolet Bel Air sedan only make you consider how remarkable it was that he even lived.

“Monty’s face was torn away; it was a bloody pulp. I thought he was dead,” actor McCarthy told Film Talk in 2018. Clift owed his life to Taylor, who rushed from her home to help him. “In a strange voice, he told Elizabeth that his front teeth had been knocked out and they were stuck in his throat, choking him, and he asked her to get them out. Very gently she put her fingers down into his throat and pulled them out. Then the ambulance arrived.”

At the time, 35-year-old Clift was world famous for his Oscar-nominated roles in The Search, A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. In their 1979 song The Right Profile, a track on the album London Calling, The Clash sang about that crash: “I see a car smashed at night / Cut the applause and dim the light / Monty’s face is broken on a wheel.”

Clift’s face was indeed shattered. His head was grotesquely swollen, his nose was split in two, his jaw was broken in four places, his cheekbones were cracked, two front teeth were missing and he had severe facial lacerations. “When I first saw him I almost went into shock,” the actor Jack Larson recalled. “the only feature that remained the same were his eyes – they were still glittering, but they were now brim-full of pain.”

In 1963, recalling the trauma, Clift blamed a long day’s shoot as the reason for being “half-asleep” when he crashed on a “dangerous road”. He said “I didn’t recognise myself” when he was shown his face in a mirror. Clift, who had been filming Raintree County with Taylor and Lee Marvin, was in the hospital for months. He had extensive plastic surgery. For a private man, it must have been agony to know that his physical appearance would be a source of national speculation when Raintree County was released in December 1957. Even writer Christopher Isherwood chipped in with his verdict that “Montgomery Clift has a ghastly, shattered expression… nearly all his good looks are gone.”

Adele Mailer, wife of the writer Norman, recalled meeting her friend for the first time since the accident when he visited their Greenwich Village home. “When I opened the door, I didn’t recognise him,” she said in 2001. “I was shocked. It was a different face. You see it in Raintree County; his face was all patched together. But the crash was something you didn’t talk about. You didn’t bring it up, and he didn’t bring it up.”

REM’s Michael Stipe also wrote a song about Clift, called “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, which dealt with the actor’s tribulations in the “Hollywood” system. Stipe told NPR that he met Taylor in 1997 at Elton John’s 50th birthday dinner at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles (the hotel where Clift recuperated after leaving hospital) and told her about his song. “She turned around, grabbed my arm and said, ‘The love that we shared then did not have a name then, and it doesn’t have a name now. It was the deepest love I’ve ever experienced.’”

The young Clift, pre-crash, was renowned for his beauty and powers of seduction - CC
The young Clift, pre-crash, was renowned for his beauty and powers of seduction - CC

Clift and his twin sister Ethel were born on October 17 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska. Their parents William and Ethel (who was always known as “Sunny”) gave the twins and their elder brother William (known as Brooks) an itinerant childhood, travelling around Europe. By the time they returned to New York in the early 1930s, Clift already had ambitions to be an actor.

He got his stage start at 13 and worked in the theatre for over a decade before his movie debut in 1948’s The Search. “I had lots of offers for film. The money was better than being in a play, but at that age I would have to have signed a contract where they told me what I was going to play,” he told Hy Gardner in January 1963, in his only television interview. “I figure my career would have been over. I always trusted myself enough and am willing to gamble on my own taste in selecting a role. In a movie you have no control once the producer and director take over; on the stage you are your own boss.”

In 1948, he also starred alongside John Wayne in the Western, Red River. Wayne told a Life magazine editor that he thought Clift was “an arrogant little bastard” and joked to the cast about the problems of faking a realistic fistfight with such a “wimp”. Clift hated the behaviour of Wayne and his cronies. “They laughed and drank and told dirty jokes and slapped each other on the back. The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary,” he said. Macho behaviour never impressed Clift. After meeting Ernest Hemingway, he described the bullfight-and-boxing-loving author as “a self-important, transcendent bore”.

Clift has been the subject of two major biographies – by Robert LaGuardia and then Patricia Bosworth – both of which popularised the image of the actor as closet homosexual, full of “self-hatred”. It was a distorted portrait. “Monty was a good kisser – I can tell you that. Certainly, he was interested in women. He may have been bi,” said Adele Mailer. She was right: he cheerfully romanced men and women, including Judy Balaban, the 18-year-old daughter of the former president of Paramount Pictures. He dated Balaban in 1949, the same year he was arrested for soliciting a young man on 42nd Street in New York (charges Paramount managed to get dropped without publicity).

The 2018 documentary Making Montgomery Clift, directed by Robert Clift (his nephew) and Hillary Demmon, offers a nuanced portrait of an actor at ease with his sexuality. “His life has been defined through a lens that’s informed by outdated and homophobic ideas,” said the actor’s nephew. Larson recalled that the first time he met Clift, the star unexpectedly grabbed the back of his head and kissed him. “He was one of the most affectionate people I have ever known, and he was affectionate in public… it didn’t matter what sex you were. If Monty really liked you – man or woman – you ultimately went to bed with him,” added Larson, who starred in the Superman television series.

Keeping his bisexuality secret was a practical matter of playing the film-industry game in a conservative post-war era. Clift’s brother Brooks held on to extensive tapes of Montgomery’s private conversations, and they show the actor’s sexuality was no secret to his own family. During a taped telephone call with Brooks, their mother Sunny breezily notes that: “Monty was a homosexual very early. Oh, I think it was about 12 or 13.” Clift’s twin Ethel, a charity worker who was 94 when she died in 2014, never spoke publicly about her brother.

There is a section in the documentary which features audio of a journalist probing the actor about whether he leads a “murky life.” “That sounds so f---ing dismal, I must say,” Montgomery replied, bemoaning that he couldn’t be left to simply be “just melancholy or just sad or just anything.” The prurient interest in his love life fostered a hatred of the press. “Most columnists thrive on hate, the majority, and I would put 99 per cent in that bracket, just think up things,” he told Gardner. “I refer to the Fourth Estate now as the Ninth Estate, because they don’t care about the truth; the truth no longer interests them. When you do really give of yourself, they fabricate and fit your answers into an angle. They don’t come openly. They don’t want to hear the answers.”

It wasn’t only the press who directed animosity Clift’s way. Isherwood called him a “dismal kind of degenerate”, and in 1961 the times were such that Clift’s co-star Clark Gable was free to loudly exclaim “that f----t is a hell of an actor”, during a screening of The Misfits dailies, without drawing any criticism.

Frank Sinatra and Clift became friends during the making of From Here to Eternity; they were close enough for the singer to give his pal an engraved solid gold cigarette lighter. Their friendship ended abruptly when a drunken Clift came on sexually to a male guest at a party. “Sinatra witnessed the incident and had his bodyguards throw Clift out,” recalled Bosworth in Montgomery Clift: A Biography. It speaks to Sinatra’s hypocrisy that he later attended Clift’s funeral in New York.

Clift had some horrible times with film directors. In 1959, in the immediate post-accident period when co-star Taylor said her friend was still feeling “vulnerable and introverted”, he was castigated by Joseph Mankiewicz during the making of Suddenly Last Summer. Fellow cast member Katharine Hepburn was so appalled by the director’s brutal treatment of Clift that she spat in Mankiewicz’s face immediately after the final cut of filming was announced.

Clift with Frank Sinatra (r), his co-star in From Here to Eternity - AFP
Clift with Frank Sinatra (r), his co-star in From Here to Eternity - AFP

Clift’s worst experience was with John Huston. After working together with Huston on The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe warned Clift not to collaborate ever again with that “sadist”. By 1962, in dire need of a major role, Clift signed up to star as Sigmund Freud in Huston’s biopic Freud: The Secret Passion. Huston was reportedly homophobic towards Clift – his animosity triggered after discovering that the actor had slept with a male journalist while staying at Huston’s Irish country mansion, St Clerans – and insulted his star in front of the cast, made jibes about the $300,000 fee Clift was receiving. He forced Clift to film numerous takes of difficult scenes, including one in which the actor bloodied up his hands having to repeatedly climb a rope. Once again, an actress saw red. One particular innuendo about Clift infuriated co-star Susannah York. “I just saw red and laid into Huston,” she recalled in 2011. “I hit Huston with tremendous force and he staggered back against the wall.”

Huston tried to control the narrative, claiming that working with Clift had been “an ordeal”. He said the actor was frequently drunk, forgetting his lines so often that they had to tape cue cards all over the set. Huston subsequently lost a lawsuit against Clift that alleged the actor’s behaviour “impeded” the making of the film. “On Freud, the executives tried to hide their tracks by blaming it on the actor,” was Clift’s only public comment.

Clift’s drinking was well known within the industry, although he brushed it off by joking that he was no match for the notorious alcoholic comedian WC Fields – “you must admire someone able to drink two quarts of gin a day,” he joked – Clift’s boozing saddened his friends. “When Monty drank he seemed to lose his identity and melt before your eyes,” said director Fred Zinnemann. The crew of Raintree County even came up with code words for Clift’s level of drunkenness: “Georgia” was bad, “Florida” was very bad and “Zanzibar” was unworkable.

While making I Confess for Hitchcock in 1961, in which he played the guilt-ridden priest Father Michael Logan, Clift’s co-star Anne Baxter said he was sometimes unresponsive due to alcohol. It’s worth noting that Baxter had no axe to grind. She had been friends with Clift since their teenage stage days. She once humorously recalled their audition for David Selznick’s production of Tom Sawyer in 1938. “Monty had bad acne right then. David had me open my mouth and examined my teeth like I was a prize horse. And both of us flunked our tests,” she said.

Clift with Elizabeth Taylor, a staunch friend and defender, and his saviour in the 1956 crash - CC
Clift with Elizabeth Taylor, a staunch friend and defender, and his saviour in the 1956 crash - CC

By the time Clift worked with Monroe in 1961, when the superstar actress was going through her own addiction problems with amphetamines, barbiturates and alcohol, he was in a bad way. Monroe described Clift as “the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am”.

Clift tried to spend as little time in Hollywood as possible. He enjoyed staying in his New York townhouse, eating the same meal of steak, eggs and orange juice most days. He was a voracious reader, fond of history books, the stories of Anton Chekhov and the philosophical works of Aristotle, whom he praised for his belief in the “gentle art of the soul”. He always travelled with a small framed photograph of Franz Kafka. He disliked large social gatherings, commenting once that “the reason I don’t go to nightclubs is because that is where you find the really lonely.” When he couldn’t sleep, Clift would sometimes attend the local night court to study the behaviour of people.

Clift’s drinking exacerbated other health problems. By 1961, his once dazzling green eyes now had cataracts and bulged slightly due to a thyroid condition. He had a longstanding colitis problem, a result of a dodgy meal in Mexico in the 1940s that gave him chronic amoebic dysentery. He became reliant on painkillers. “Because he was in pain very frequently, Monty would go in the drugstore, go behind the counter where the pills were, and he would charm his way with the clerks, so he’d get his pills to kill the pain. All his life, it was misery,” said McCarthy.

Clift’s reputation in the 1960s was coloured by the brutal comment of Robert Lewis, Clift’s teacher at the Actors Studio, who called his late career “the longest suicide in Hollywood history”. The charge is unfair. In 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg, Clift took on the role of Rudolph Peterson, a baker’s assistant sterilised by Nazi doctors for supposedly being “feeble-minded”.

His brilliantly powerful performance on the stand, lasting just 15 minutes, earned him an Oscar nomination for best-supporting actor. During the rehearsals at Revue Studios in Hollywood a nervous Clift kept fluffing his lines. Spencer Tracy, who played the judge, helped him out. “Tracy ambled over and said, ‘F--k the lines – just play to me,’” director Stanley Kramer recalled. “Monty did play to him, and the words poured out of his mouth – the results were shattering.” When the stunningly tense scene was over, Tracy threw his arms around Clift and praised his tour-de-force display.

In an age when many actors settled for being little more than studio serfs, Clift fought for his own creativity, resisting roles he thought were not right for him (he even turned down parts in East of Eden, On the Waterfront and Sunset Boulevard), and in the process made magnificent successes of the characters he took on. In the book Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors, Peter Bogdanovich went as far as to say that Clift’s performances in Red River, A Place in the Sun, I Confess and From Here to Eternity “remain among the finest anyone has given in the movies”.

Clift’s final film was The Defector, which was filmed in Germany. The actor insisted on performing his own stunts, including swimming in the Elbe in March. Although there were ongoing insurance problems around the actor – Taylor put up her salary as a guarantee to have Clift cast as her co-star in the next project called Reflections in a Golden Eye – he returned to Manhattan in June 1966 in good spirits.

He died in the early hours of 23 July 1966. His final words were to his companion and nurse Lorenzo James, who had spotted that The Misfits was on television and asked Clift if he wanted to watch it with him. “Absolutely not!”, was the reply. Clift took a bath instead, in which he had a fatal heart attack.

Asked by columnist Hedda Hopper to sum up the story of his life in one sentence, Clift replied “I’ve been knifed”. A few years ago, HBO were reportedly planning a biopic of Clift, starring Matt Bomer. It would have been interesting to see if the film would have just reinforced the image of a conflicted, addicted mess, or whether it would have explored the independent-minded, witty man masked by the clichés.

Clift always maintained that his image did not fit the truth. He described himself as “verbose, gregarious and talkative”, insisting that he had “a rather large capacity for life”. James, the companion who discovered his body, said that being with Clift was “like standing in front of a fireplace in the dead of winter.”