Frightening and traumatic, the day I aborted my baby…JOAN COLLINS opens up in an unflinching and revealing memoir

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  • Behind The Shoulder Pads by JOAN COLLINS: Starting a major serialisation of the unflinching and deliciously revealing memoir by a true showbiz legend

The first time I saw Gene Kelly, in the movie For Me And My Gal, I can only have been about 11 – but I totally fell in love with him.

Imagine how thrilled I was when, a decade later, my then boyfriend, the actor Sydney Chaplin, took me for lunch to Gene’s Cape Cod-style house on Rodeo Drive. I was overwhelmed, totally star-struck, almost tongue-tied.

I left Sydney a year later. He was moaning a lot about not working and spending all his days drinking, golfing and playing tennis, and I had lent him my car to drive to Palm Springs for the weekend to meet Gene Kelly and the gang. I was to take a creaky old prop plane there, as I was shooting The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing on Saturday morning. Sydney promised to meet me at the airport.

Arriving at Palm Springs airport in sweltering weather, I found no sign of him. There was no car and no taxis available either. Fuming, I called the Racquet Club. No answer from his room.

Eventually a cab appeared and, sweating and hot, I got to the club where the desk clerk informed me that Mr Chaplin was in the bar. Oh, really, I thought.

How typical. In the bar, quite a pretty sight greeted my eyes. Syd, Gene Kelly and a few other cronies had decided to imbibe after-lunch liquors. They thought it would be fun to sample the bartender’s selection alphabetically.

Dame Joan Collins goes Behind The Shoulder Pads in new book and autumn tour

Dame Joan Collins goes Behind The Shoulder Pads in new book and autumn tour

Accordingly, they had gone from Amaretto to brandy to creme de menthe to Drambuie, and were obviously now on to V for vodka, when I appeared, flushed and furious. ‘Sydney Chaplin,’ I hissed, ‘I let you borrow my car, I paid to fly on a bumpy two-engine plane to this godforsaken hole for ageing tennis bums. This was supposed to be a relaxing weekend and you don’t even meet the plane!’

My voice started rising to a crescendo, much to the embarrassment of Gene Kelly and company. Syd, smashed as he was, managed to look sheepish but, unable to answer me, picked up his Smirnoff and downed it in a gulp, not meeting my eyes. ‘F*** you, Sydney,’ I screamed. ‘F*** you. F*** you. F*** you. F*** you!’

The select members of the Racquet Club looked aghast at such foul language coming from the lips of such a dainty English girl. Sydney turned slowly on his barstool to finally face me and staggered to his feet. ‘And f*** you too,’ he blurted out before keeling over.

‘Well, that,’ I enunciated clearly in my best Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art diction, ‘will be the last time you will ever f*** me.’

If women ruled the world there wouldn’t be so many wars – and if men got pregnant and had to have babies, there wouldn’t be nearly as many people in the world.

I screamed in rage at the TV when I heard the news that the majority of justices in the U.S. Supreme Court (mostly white men) had passed an amendment withholding and banning a woman’s right to an abortion, even if it was by incest, if she had been raped, or was a minor.

Even though it wouldn’t be the law in all U.S. states, it was a gross affront to all females. These legal dinosaurs have curtailed the freedoms and rights of women that our female ancestors fought and died for.

Maybe these old men should now ban Viagra so men can’t have fake erections. It seems the power of the penis trumps women’s rights.

Joan Collins and Warren Beatty. The pair were engaged and living together when Joan fell pregnant

Joan Collins and Warren Beatty. The pair were engaged and living together when Joan fell pregnant 

Why do so many women have to suffer, when so often we are the ones who have more empathy, humanity and compassion?

A long time ago I had an abortion. I was living with my then fiance Warren Beatty, at the time a young, unknown actor. Even though I was careful, I fell pregnant.

‘I think I’m pregnant,’ I said, coming into the kitchen one day, where he was preparing one of his health concoctions in the blender.

He stopped slicing bananas and pouring wheatgerm, took off his glasses and stared at me. Without his glasses he was quite myopic and I wondered why he didn’t want to look at me. ‘Pregnant?’ he asked in his puzzled little boy voice. ‘How did that happen?’

‘The butler did it,’ I said sarcastically. ‘Or maybe it’s an immaculate conception.’ ‘This is terrible,’ he said, putting his glasses back on and looking at me as if for the first time. ‘Terrible!’

‘I know,’ I said in a small voice. ‘I’m sorry.’ But why was I sorry? He was just as complicit.

We sat on the faded red sofa in the living room of the apartment I had rented in New York. I had a stiff vodka, he had his health drink and we discussed what to do.

Abortion was a dirty word in the early 1960s. In fact, so was sex.

Even living together as Warren and I did was considered sinful. Abortions of a kind were available, but I shuddered at the memory of the screams of pain I’d heard a year earlier. I had travelled with my married friend Susan and her married lover Nicky to a revolting hovel in Tijuana, Mexico.

I huddled with Nicky in the connecting room while Susan’s body was put through the most invasive and agonising procedure to rip out the foetus.

I had listened, horrified, to her screams of agony as a Mexican ‘doctor’ performed the operation without an anaesthetic.

Joan Collins, pictured in the 1950's with Sydney Chaplin (son of the legendary Charlie Chaplin)

Joan Collins, pictured in the 1950’s with Sydney Chaplin (son of the legendary Charlie Chaplin)

READ MORE: Hollywood icon Joan Collins, 90, shops up a storm in her favourite high-street store M&S with husband Percy Gibson, 58, after becoming a brand ambassador – and even pushes her own trolley! 

Spot of shopping: Dame Joan Collins, 90, headed out with her husband Percy Gibson to do their weekly food shop at M&S on Wednesday

Spot of shopping: Dame Joan Collins, 90, headed out with her husband Percy Gibson to do their weekly food shop at M&S on Wednesday

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I cried bitterly for her pain but understood that this was a last resort for her as she already had four children and she and her husband were no longer cohabiting.

Warren and I were engaged, so we could get married, of course, but I was not in favour of ‘shotgun’ weddings. The few times we had discussed marriage we had both decided that we were too immature to make it work.

He was only 23, a struggling wannabe actor with a potentially great career as a sex symbol ahead of him if the future movies he was angling for came to fruition.

As a successful 26-year-old actress under contract to 20th Century Fox, having a baby out of wedlock would have been for me career suicide.

Fox would have immediately dropped me as an immoral whore, my acting career would be over and I would spend the rest of my life raising and supporting a child I was not ready for – at that time.

I had recently turned down a very good role in Sons And Lovers because Warren thought the script was ‘crap’. I was in the middle of finishing shooting a rather exciting film noir called Seven Thieves and potentially lined up by Fox was a movie in Italy called Esther And The King in which I would play the lead role.

After that I would hopefully be starring opposite Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in The Road To Hong Kong in London. My future was looking rosy – but not if I was expecting a baby. There was only one solution.

The early 1960s were dark days for women and girls. Abortion was illegal practically everywhere, even though the new popular freedoms of expression in music, fashions and attitudes were raising their head in the UK.

When I was at RADA a few years earlier, my classmate Jacqui had gone for a backstreet termination in East London. Her description of the agony and humiliation she suffered as a result, not to mention that, because it was botched, she was never able to have children, chilled me to the bone.

With the two frightening examples of Jacqui and Susan in my head, I still knew I must get rid of these few tiny cells which, if allowed to blossom, would potentially ruin my life and career.

I couldn’t possibly think of it as a baby or even a human being as I had only been aware of it for less than a week. We had heard that in some places an abortion could be performed in clinical circumstances without any risk to health. Warren contacted a sophisticated man of the world who, with great secrecy and a lot of my money, arranged an appointment with a highly recommended ex-surgeon who worked in New Jersey.

The morning of the procedure I woke up trembling after a particularly vivid nightmare. ‘What is it? What’s the matter?’ Warren was groggy with sleep.

‘I can’t go through with it,’ I sobbed. ‘I can’t. I can’t. Please don’t make me go there, Warren. I’m scared. I’ll have the baby, we’ll get it adopted — but I can’t go there.’ He comforted me as I sobbed hysterically.

It was true. It is an ironic fact of life that the metabolic and hormonal changes women go through when pregnant bring them closer each day to a protective feeling toward the life inside them.

I had been feeling – perish the thought – broody for a couple of weeks now, almost accepting what was happening to me, and now that it was going to be taken from me, I wanted to keep it.

‘Butterfly, we can’t. We can’t do it,’ Warren said helplessly, trying to comfort me. ‘Having a baby now will wreck both of our careers. You know it will.’ He was right and I knew it. Ingrid Bergman, a far bigger star than I, had almost destroyed her career by having an out-of-wedlock child by Roberto Rossellini. It was a very serious and far-reaching step.

There had been rumours of various film actresses throughout the years who had disappeared for several months and a few months after their reappearance had ‘adopted’ a tiny baby, but it was all extremely hush-hush.

With the eyes of the gossip columnists on us, nagging in print for us to ‘tie the knot’, it would have been an impossibility. So, I dried my tears, putting his ambition and my career first, and mooched about until it was time to drive to New Jersey.

She convinced herself. She dried her eyes and blew her nose as the car drew to a halt in front of an ominous-looking maroon high-rise apartment building

She convinced herself. She dried her eyes and blew her nose as the car drew to a halt in front of an ominous-looking maroon high-rise apartment building

THERE WAS NO ONE LIKE HER MAJESTY 

I was lucky enough to meet the late Queen Elizabeth II several times and she was always extremely friendly, giving me a firm handshake and a lovely smile.

At the Royal Variety Performance in 1985 I shared a dressing room with, among others, the salty-tongued Lauren Bacall.

She was wearing a plain black pantsuit and I was done up in a beaded full-length gown with a matching feather-trimmed cape.

When I was called onstage to present, Bacall said: ‘Eighty-six [get rid of] the feathers, Collins.’

‘What?’ I spluttered. ‘Why?’

‘Over the top, honey,’ she said. ‘Too much for the Queen.’

Since I knew the Queen was tiaraed and diamond necklaced and brooched to the nines, I chose to ignore Miss Bacall.

The following day, all the papers featured my feathers and me meeting the Queen, with Miss Bacall just a blurry figure in the background! The Queen always looked immaculate and was impeccably composed.

No lipstick on the teeth, a heel caught in a hem, or a dress that blew up in the wind, which happens to most mere mortals.

She neither fidgeted nor looked bored, she never yawned nor sneezed and there was never ever a hair out of place beneath a stylish hat. I often wonder what hairspray she used to guarantee that those well-coiffed curls didn’t move.

I would have loved to know her beauty and make-up regime. Her skin was admirably free of any freckles or sun damage at all, even though her face often had to be exposed to the full glare of the sun (she could never wear sunglasses to protect her eyes, as the public had to be able to see her) and, in fact, to the elements in all weathers.

There was simply no one in the world like Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and there never will be.

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My eyes, which were swollen and red from crying, were hidden by my biggest black sunglasses and a headscarf covered my untidy hair. I did not wish to be recognised by anyone. I chain-smoked as Warren drove a rented station wagon to Newark. We spoke little.

He glanced at me with concern several times. I wished again I could keep the baby.

But I felt no support coming my way. He was a man. He took none of the responsibility for me becoming pregnant. That was the woman’s department.

I tried to convince myself that we were doing the right thing as Warren consulted a piece of paper on which were written the directions. I was in my mid-20s. I had a thriving career, which, if not exactly to my liking as far as the roles I was playing were concerned, was still lucrative and rewarding in many ways.

But a baby would change all that. I would have to stop working. Fox would cancel my contract. I might lose my figure. I might be a lousy mother. He and I were not suited to each other in the long run.

Was our love just a physical thing? We were both selfish, careless, argumentative, combative and just plain immature. It was stupid to think otherwise.

Thus, I convinced myself – while my mind shrieked: ‘No!’ I dried my eyes and blew my nose as the car drew to a halt in front of an ominous-looking maroon high-rise apartment building.

We’re … um … here,’ said my fiance, nervously wiping his glasses on the sleeve of his tweed jacket, his face covered with perspiration. He was probably more scared than I was. We looked at each other and I swallowed hard.

‘If anything goes wrong… ‘ I started to say, but he interrupted me, almost screaming.

‘Nothing’s going to go wrong. Nothing. He’s the best doctor around for this. Don’t even think about that, Butterfly.’

He was close to tears himself. My maternal instinct went into comforting him and hand in hand we walked inside.

I awoke to hear someone pounding on the door of my room. ‘Are you still there?’ yelled a coarse voice.

I looked at my watch. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. I pulled the covers back over my head and tried to sleep again. The voice kept on yelling.

‘Open up in there. I’ve gotta clean the room.’ ‘Oh, go to hell,’ I yelled back. ‘I don’t want it cleaned. Leave me alone.’

The scenario of what my future life would have been like if I had gone to term and delivered a child was too depressing, she writes

The scenario of what my future life would have been like if I had gone to term and delivered a child was too depressing, she writes

The voice sniffed: ‘If that’s what y’all want, you just go ahead and sleep all day, see if I care.’ It shuffled off down the corridor.

I tried to go back to sleep. Warren had gone to a rehearsal and I didn’t want to think about what had happened last night. It was too vivid and too painful.

But the next day I felt much better and full of energy again. I pushed the horrifying abortion out of my head. Done. Over. Forgotten.

That was yesterday — no point in brooding about it and, oh good — I didn’t feel maternal any more. Not even to Warren.

It was a beautiful, clear, crisp day, rare in New York. I felt newborn myself, as though a great weight had been lifted and I could get back to living.

I was lucky to have had an expert doctor. I had no pain and recovered within two days and was able to get on with my life. This may make me sound callous, but I just thought of the episode as a delayed period and put it to the back of my mind.

The scenario of what my future life would have been like if I had gone to term and delivered a child was too depressing.

I would have been vilified by the media and my career absolutely ruined.

Behind The Shoulder Pads by Joan Collins (Seven Dials, £22) is to be published on September 28

Behind The Shoulder Pads by Joan Collins (Seven Dials, £22) is to be published on September 28

Since I have strong maternal instincts, I would certainly have grown terribly attached to the child and in its early days devoted myself to its welfare, much as my Dynasty on-screen sister Kate O’Mara did when she gave birth to a son while unmarried in the mid-60s. Once Kate had Dickon, she became devoted to him and let her career slide. If I’d had the baby, I wouldn’t have married the supremely talented actor and songwriter Anthony Newley, my second husband, and wouldn’t have had my dearest children Tara and Alexander.

I would never have met his friend and tailor Doug Hayward, who introduced me to my third husband Ron Kass in 1970. So, I would never have married Ron, nor would I have had my beloved daughter Katyana.

The ramifications of ‘what if?’ go on and on.

If I was lucky, I would probably have eked out a career in the British theatre, but certainly my movie career at that time would have been kaput.

I know I will be judged by many for having an abortion, but my three wonderful children and four fabulous grandchildren would never have been born if I hadn’t, so, in the words of Piaf, je ne regrette rien.

Behind The Shoulder Pads by Joan Collins (Seven Dials, £22) to be published September 28. © Gibson Girl UK Ltd 2023. To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid to 02/10/2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.




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