Constance Smith was born in 1928 at 46 Wolfe Tone Street, just a short walk from Limerick train station. It was to be an auspicious sign for the little girl who would grow to be a celebrated actor; her extraordinary life would transport her from that small terraced house in Limerick to a convent in Dublin, from a Hollywood mansion to an Italian villa and finally, from Holloway Prison to a sad, troubled end in a London hostel.
While most film fans are familiar with Irish movie stars of the past such as Maureen O’Hara, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, few people, even in Limerick, are aware of Constance Smith and her short-lived Hollywood career. Ruth Barton is an academic and author of Acting Irish in Hollywood: from Fitzgerald to Farrell in which she dedicates a chapter to Constance Smith, to retrieve her and other lost stars “from historical oblivion”. Much of what you’ll read below emanates from her painstaking research.
Constance Smith was born to Mary Biggane, a Limerick native, and Sylvester Smith, a former British soldier and veteran of World War One. Initially, her father, a Dubliner, worked as a labourer at the Ardnacrusha plant, but when the project was completed in 1929, he moved his family back to the capital. There they settled in a one-room tenement in Mount Pleasant Buildings, Ranelagh, described by the Irish Times as a ghetto, “used by the Corporation as dumping grounds for problem families.”
Life was arduous and often dangerous in the slums of Mount Pleasant. Communal toilets were poorly maintained, overflowing rubbish bins were infested with rats, and cold, lung-choking air seeped through the damp brick walls; it was little wonder that Irish infant mortality rates were among the highest in Europe at the time. Indeed, many of Constance’s ten siblings did not make it to adulthood.
The only respite from the grinding poverty was a sort of ad-hoc community theatre which developed among the residents. Groups gathered together in the evenings, sang songs from penny-sheets, performed skits for one another and, if the owner was feeling generous, listened through open windows to the street’s one wireless radio. It was in this way that Constance likely received her first training in the dramatic arts.
Constance’s father died when she fifteen. Unable to support her surviving children on her own, Mary Biggane sent her daughter to St. Louis Convent School in Rathmines. The headstrong teenager escaped early, however, taking casual jobs as a shop girl and housemaid to support herself.
It was this latter position that set her on the path to stardom. In 1945 she was placed in a ‘big house’ in Rathmines and the family for whom she worked encouraged her to enter a ‘Film Star Doubles’ contest in The Screen, an Irish film-industry publication. She went on to take first place – dressed as Hedy Lamarr in a borrowed dress – at the magazine’s ball, attended by local actors, theatre producers and crucially, international talent scouts.
She was invited to screen-test at Denham Studios in England by Rank Organisation, who saw potential in the beautiful, sultry-eyed young woman. In 1946 she signed a seven year contract with the group and was put through the rigours of their ‘charm school’ at Highbury, in London. This was essentially a factory for starlets, in which young ingénues were taught elocution, breathing exercises and comportment, along with more traditional drama lessons and script rehearsals. Objecting, perhaps, to spending her time balancing books on her head, Constance lasted only a few years in the school. She resisted attempts to change her name (‘Tamara Hickey’ was suggested, straddling the line between thrillingly exotic and reassuringly local) and steadfastly clung to her Irish accent, a refusal which eventually led to her dismissal from Rank Organisation. Her private life was faring better, however, as she became engaged to British film producer John Boulting.
Once again, life was to take a fortuitous turn for Constance. She won a small part playing an Irish maid in the film The Mudlark in 1950, receiving £20 per day for five weeks. In four short years, she had come a long way from a position as a housemaid for £2 a week. She was spotted in this film by Darryl Zanuck, a legendary Hollywood mogul and co-founder of the movie studio 20th Century Fox. He took a close interest in her – whether his intentions were purely professional is unknown – and championed her as an undiscovered star. She was granted a seven year contract with the studio and placed opposite Tyrone Power in The House in the Square, to begin shooting in London in 1950. The movie was a big, all-star production, and the media fanfare began early.
However, the young, untrained actor struggled to perform alongside experienced heavy-weights such as Power. Midway through filming she found herself unceremoniously dumped from the picture, losing all the publicity and career momentum it had brought. The studio cited illness, and replaced her with Ann Blyth, reshooting all her scenes at a rumoured cost of £100,000. Constance was devastated, but found comfort on the shoulder of a successful British actor named Bryan Forbes (best known for directing The Stepford Wives, 1975), whom she married in 1951.
Back in Hollywood, she found herself packaged and presented as a beautiful but feisty Irish ‘colleen’, the new Maureen O’Sullivan (remembered as Jane in the Tarzan movies). Whether acting on her own volition or that of the studio’s, Constance had an abortion just before Christmas of 1951. 20th Century Fox paid the $3,000 fee.
Her marriage failed soon after, but her career was steady. She shot a number of films, receiving praise for her sensuous, noirish performances from fellow actors (Jack Palance referred to her as the ‘Dublin Dietrich’) and the occasional breathless review from critics. One paper, in the parlance of the time, noted that she possessed “a pair of the nicest gams to ever leave the Old Sod.” In 1952 she was invited to present a trophy at the Annual Academy Awards.
Having parted company with 20th Century Fox, she signed with Bob Goldstein in 1954, who promptly put her to work filming the thriller Tiger in the Tail, in London. Frustrated by the lack of first-rate roles, she left for Italy in 1955, casting off her rebel charm to reinvent herself as the descendent of Irish aristocrats. There, she met an Italian photographer named Araldo di Crollolanza and married him a year later, at the age of twenty-eight. His father – a Fascist senator who had served under Mussolini – reportedly disinherited his son upon learning of the union, even going so far as to refer to his new daughter-in-law as a ‘barefoot Irish peasant’. She made four films in Italy, but her career began to falter and she took an overdose of sleeping tablets in 1958. Her husband left her and she returned to England.
In 1959 she met Paul Rotha, a married man of fifty-two and a much-celebrated filmmaker and writer. They couldn’t have made a more different pair; a neat, precise and serious Englishman, who fell in love with a tempestuous, free-spirited and creative Irishwoman. Theirs was a predictably fiery relationship, only made more difficult by their mutual propensity for hard drinking. They shared similar socialist-leaning political beliefs though, both avowedly anti-fascist and anti-imperialist. Constance was no longer acting, but she remained well-known in film-industry circles in London. She was, one contemporary noted, ‘an intelligent man’s Elizabeth Taylor’.
Together, she and Rotha travelled to Germany to research a documentary on Adolf Hitler’s life. There, they met close aides to the dictator, as well as survivors of the concentration camps. She was said to be greatly affected by this experience.
In 1961, the couple visited Constance’s birthplace, calling to the house on Wolfe Tone Street in Limerick. They were greeted with much fanfare by Constance’s former neighbours, many of whom clamoured for photographs and autographs. The purpose of the visit, Rotha told reporters, was for research – he intended to write a book on his Constance’s life, entitled ‘A Weed in the Ground’, a project which failed to materialise.
Back in London, the couple’s relationship was growing increasingly turbulent. Their fights were frequent and quite often physical; after one altercation Rotha’s face was so badly bruised that he had to postpone an overseas trip. In 1961 a particularly nasty row very nearly turned fatal when Constance stabbed Rotha, leaving him lying on the floor of his flat, bleeding heavily. She also tried to slash her own wrists.
Rotha recovered from his extensive injuries, and supported his lover during her trial in 1962. In court, Constance’s defence team made much of her poverty-stricken childhood, her failed movie career and her traumatic experience in post-war Germany. She was given a three month sentence, and upon her release from Holloway Prison she was met at the gates by Rotha.
They were reunited, but the period was not a happy one. They sold their story to a tabloid newspaper, which salaciously reported their living together out of wedlock. Constance’s mental health deteriorated and she spent time in psychiatric care. In 1968, she stabbed Rotha again, this time sinking a steak knife into his back. The court placed a restraining order against Constance but again, Rotha stood by her. They eventually married in 1974, some fifteen years since they had first met. It was to be her third and final marriage.
Time in prison hadn’t quietened her demons however, and Constance was back in Holloway Prison in 1975, for yet another stabbing offence. While she made a half-hearted attempt to leave Rotha, she quickly returned to him, and together, they descended into a spiral of alcohol abuse, poverty and physical violence. The once highly-respected author and filmmaker took to charging visitors £50 for interviews, along with a bottle of Scotch for himself and Vodka for his wife.
By 1978 they were effectively homeless, and Constance had taken a job as a hospital cleaner. Around this time, after almost twenty years together, the couple broke up. Rotha wrote at the time, “my wild Irish wife has finally left me, gone God knows where.”
Constance Smith’s final act was slow to play out, despite the fiercely harsh circumstances of the latter years of her life. She lived for a while in destitution, losing toes to frostbite and drinking on the streets of Soho. She spent the next two decades on a miserable carousel of psychiatric hospitals, hostels and homelessness, before eventually dying of natural causes in Islington in 2003.
She lived through a fascinating era of modern history; born in the infancy of the Irish Free State, she found herself living in a Blitz-ravaged London a year after VE Day. She went on to work with black-listed artists during the infamous Red Scare in Hollywood and married the son of a Fascist Senator in Italy. She worked with one of Britain’s best-known documentary makers and interviewed survivors of the Holocaust. The life of Constance Smith is more interesting, more dramatic and more poignant than any Hollywood blockbuster. Perhaps it was just too much, too soon for the girl from Wolfe Tone Street.
In her book, Ruth Barton writes perhaps the most sympathetic and understanding epitaph for the Irish actor who flew too close to the sun. Constance, she writes, was, like many almost-stars of the period, “overwhelmed by an unforgiving system for which their background left them unprepared.”
Today, Constance Smith is fondly remembered by those neighbours for whom she signed autographs in 1960, and her memory is maintained by Ms Barton and her fellow academics, by interest groups such as the Limerick Film Archive and by artists like Kate Hennessey.
If you happen to pass Ms Hennessey’s mural on Clontarf Place, stop for a moment and cast your eyes upwards. Among the many Limerick women celebrated there, you’ll find the dark-haired, smiling face of Constance Smith, just a stone’s throw from her family home.