The slim silver-haired woman sat by the side of the vast swimming pool and looked out over the wind-flecked water of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Behind her, diners in the fashionable restaurant ate under umbrellas which shielded them from the still-hot evening sun.
This was the Italian island of Capri in mid-summer. The pool and restaurant, a playground for the rich and famous, belonged to the woman with silver hair, a woman with money, mature beauty and the adulation of millions. It was hard to believe that such a woman could at that moment be lonely, depressed and yearning for the streets of her childhood a thousand miles away. But for Gracie Fields, at 54 still one of the highest-paid entertainers in the world, England was still really home.
She remembered the day when her father, holidaying with Gracie in the Californian sun, woke up on his 70th birthday, looked at the cloudless sky and said: "It's no good, lass. I want to go home." Now, in the summer of 1951, Gracie felt the same about Capri. Suddenly she was a stranger. There was nothing to keep her there. She had arrived in Capri five years earlier with her second husband, Monty Banks, and it was Monty who had built the pool and restaurant at Cazone del Mare, where presidents, kings millionaires and filmstars could eat the best food that Italy could provide.
But Monty had been dead over a year — collapsing with a sudden heart attack — and now, though surrounded by friends and admirers, Gracie was alone without anyone who really cared. "I don't expect I'll find love again at my time of life," she told her close friend and former secretary, Neva Hecker. "Monty had his faults but I do miss him. I don't like being a widow."
She could never have guessed that her days of widowhood were already strictly numbered and that just down the hill from her restaurant lived the man who was to give her the 27 happiest years of her life. It began with something as mundane as a broken tape-recorder. Grace was preparing a trip to Naples to have it mended when someone suggested a handyman down the road. He was 49-year-old Boris Alperovici, a Slav engineer and inventor, who had come to Capri 30 years earlier, a gifted but unambitious man who spoke five languages and made a living building and repairing electrical equipment.
On their first meeting, Gracie liked the look of the large dark-haired man who was so quiet and unassuming. And Boris later told friends that the famous singing star he'd heard so much about was "a nice, down-to-earth woman." He asked her to tea in his little villa and she was enchanted with his garden. In the following days they were often out together, swimming in Gracie's pool, enjoying quiet dinners in out-of-the-way cafes, walking together by the sea.
Boris found himself falling in love, which was a disturbing experience for this reserved bachelor. Later he was to remember: "I was just a normal grey person living quietly in Capri. She was a big star. I couldn't believe there could be any future for us." But Gracie already had other ideas and Neva Hecker guessed what they were. She recalled: "I went to stay with Gracie in 1951 and I knew then she was very interested in Boris. He came to lunch most days and I knew something was developing between them."
But it needed a push — and Gracie provided it. At a party she astounded guests by suddenly announcing: "Listen everyone — I've just proposed to Boris and we're engaged!"
Later, after everyone had gone, Gracie sat alone looking out over the bay. She was going to marry a man she hardly knew. It would be her third marriage and she wanted it to be her last. She knew Boris was the right man.
Her friends didn't agree. When her long-time agent Lilian Aza heard about the engagement she flew to Capri to try to persuade Gracie not to marry Boris for at least a year, to make sure she was doing the right thing. "She promised she would ... then the moment I left she went and married him!" Boris, who had never seen Gracie at work, flew to England with her for a London Palladium season which was one of the biggest triumphs of her long career. "I've got my husband with me," she told audiences. "He's come to see how his old lady earns the brass."
"After the first night, Boris was waiting in the dressing room. "Gracie," he said, "You are a very great artiste." Gracie, in tears, whispered: "I just wanted you to be proud of me..." As the years passed, Gracie Fields, now a Dame, finally found the happiness that fame and two other marriages had never given her. She died aged 81 in the autumn of 1979 and was buried, at her request, high on a Capri hillside overlooking the sea. It was the hill on which she and Boris had walked and talked during their courtship. "I've been a big star," she said shortly before she died. "But its the years I've been with Boris that I'll be thinking about on my dying day."
(Susan French/Tony James Features)