- The Complete Biography of Cassandra Harris (Part 1)
This article is Part 2 of a multi-part series. Please see the above link for Part 1.
Sydney to London
Sandra has given several accounts as to what brought her to London. The first was an intention to join the National Theatre. The Theatre, however, much like Sydney's Independent Theatre prior, has no record of her among their alumni despite her claims that she had stayed for one play (which, according to multiple sources, was Day of the Sabre). Other sources have her stating that it was the offer of a screen test that prompted her leave from her native Australia, to audition for the part of a "Bond bird" in the then-upcoming installment to the franchise, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, starring fellow Aussie George Lazenby. By the time she arrived, however, "all the parts had gone," she said.
Instead, she went straight into the hospital, where she stayed for two months, plagued by a defective heart valve. "It has caused me a lot of trouble," she revealed several years later. "I've been in hospital five times in the past three years."
Once out of the hospital, she joined Arts Lab for acting and writing, followed by a role in a production of Fando and Lis staged at Oxford University. She subsequently performed the lead role in the British TV play, All Out For Kangaroo Valley. It was a fitting role for Sandra; the play, as its title suggests, was about Australians living in London, and aired on BBC in 1969.
It was only four months into Sandra's arrival in London when she was approached one day outside of the London Palladium by world-acclaimed entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. "He said I was one of the loveliest girls he had ever seen, was I a model or an actress, and could he photograph me," Sandra later recalled with a laugh. "I was a bit green, having only recently arrived in London from Australia, wasn't even sure who he was, and referred him to my agent."
The result was that Davis' photo appeared on the front cover of the Sunday Times color magazine, captioned, "My Ideal Woman, by Sammy Davis Jr."
A modelling career soon followed, and even though Sandra was primarily an actress, she accepted many of the offers received, as the money and publicity were a plus. Among these offers was the highly exclusive modelling agency, Lumley's, with just twenty girls in its books. Sandra was asked to replace their model, Sarah, who was giving up the business to marry the Aga Khan.
Sandra also became a regular on London's social scene, where her good looks and outgoing personality kept her in the public eye. It was here where she began associating with the town's so-called "smart set" and calling herself Cassandra.
"She was absolutely stunning. But she was also very bright," said one friend who got to know her at the time. "She had a great sense of humor, was fun to be with and had men buzzing around her all the time. She was much more than a pretty face."
Between modeling £800 dresses and life as a socialite, Cassandra's pretty face became one of the most photographed in London. "She was beautiful, hung out with beautiful people, and was just the sort of pretty girl whose picture brightened up a newspaper," said one former gossip column editor.
Harris Family Romance
It was at one such "smart set" party, on the social scene in early 1970, where Cassandra met Dermot Harris, the younger brother of legendary Irish actor Richard Harris. Dermot was a music publisher and film producer for his brother's Limbridge film company.
Roughly a year into their courtship, Cassandra exclaimed, "For the first time, I am really, really in love," citing an unabashed penchant for Irish men with a particular fondness for their "unpredictable temperaments" and their "treatment of women."
"Everything's beautiful one minute and a fantastic fight the next. Also, the Irish are very possessive about their women, rather old fashioned, and I like that," she added, and recalled becoming "more or less engaged" to Dermot the first week they met.
Despite the tone of her early musings, however, friends say it was a volatile relationship from the start, characterized by frequent arguments, and periodic break-ups, after which a great reconciliation would inevitably follow. Cassandra may not have immediately realized it, but there was more to Dermot's tendency toward "fantastic fights" than just old fashioned "Irishness." This was all no surprise to those who knew the younger Harris; Dermot was in some ways even more intense than his brother, whose heavy drinking and "hell raiser" lifestyle had become somewhat of a trademark. Said one acquaintance, "Dermot was a piss artist and anyone living with him was guaranteed a rough ride."
Seemingly undeterred by these setbacks and her new fiance's reputation, Cassandra moved in with Dermot at his Child's Walk home in Chelsea later that year. She frequently served as an answering service and general assistant to Dermot and prospective brother-in-law Richard at their Limbridge production company. And though they had yet to follow through with marriage, Cassandra would change her name by deed poll to Harris and she and Dermot would go on to have two children in the space of less than a year ("Dermot was keen for me to have babies," she said). The first to arrive was a daughter, Charlotte Emily, born November 27, 1971 at St. Teresa's, a private hospital in Wimbledon that has since closed. Big brother Richard was named the child's godfather, and flew straight in from New York to see her. Following was a son, Christopher Ivan, on November 11, 1972, also at St. Teresa's.
Meanwhile, Cassandra would continue to be a prized target for tabloids and mid-market newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express. For the most part, she didn't mind -- even delighted in all the attention she aroused. The attention would soon take a more invasive turn, however, as her relationship with Dermot grew cold. Though there had been contretemps in the past, none were so dire as what transpired after the children were born. By Seprember of 1975, The Daily Express reported that Cassandra was to sue Dermot for maintenance payments for their children, and that she had left his Child's Walk home and moved into a South Kensington flat.
"The nearest we got to marriage was last summer," she told the paper. "I felt we ought to get married for the sake of the children and Dermot told me to go ahead and make arrangements at Kensington registry office. But we never went through with it. After that our relationship deteriorated. It's all very sad that this has happened because we both love the children. I hope the situation can be settled amicably."
Cassandra was subsequently awarded over £1,000-a-year maintenance at London's Marlborough Street Court.
Redemptions of the Heart
In the spring of 1976, still separated from Dermot Harris, Cassandra collapsed in the middle of a modelling session and was rushed to the hospital still wearing the full-length white fox fur she'd donned for the photoshoot. The heart condition she'd complained of years earlier had by then reached emergency status as specialists diagnosed a seriously deformed heart valve, requiring surgery.
Cassandra would spend the next month recuperating in London's Guy's Hospital, and would speak candidly about the experience with the Australian Women's Weekly in the autumn of that year.
She recounted a deep resentment for the institutionalized life -- however temporary -- with the most dismal aspect being the "depressing" atmosphere. "Someone died almost everyday. Many had become my friends," she said. "But gradually I came to accept death."
Cassandra's feelings quickly changed, however, when she made some new friends including two Cockney girls. "I slowly came to appreciate the emotional security of the routine. When it came time to go, I really didn't want to leave," she admitted.
Her brush with death inspired her creative energies, and she wrote a play of the tragicomedy variety chronicling her emotions during the ordeal. These events also brought Dermot Harris back into Cassandra's life once more, and she told the Daily Mail, "I shall be staying at his house until I am fully recovered, but I am not sure about the future."
By June of 1976, the couple seemed fully reconciled. For her convalescence, Dermot took her and the children to the Bahamas, where they spent six weeks at Klikee House, brother Richard's holiday retreat. Cassandra began to look towards broadening her career horizons, and wrote two more literary works in the shape of a book and TV series from her aforementioned play. Later on, she claimed to have turned down a part in the forthcoming Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, lamenting its explicitness. "There are too many sex scenes of every kind -- and I only got through half the script," she said at the time.
What seemed of greater interest to both the London social scene and friends of the couple alike, however, was whether they were finally planning to wed. One newspaper reported that it was only a matter of time before the once row-prone couple would tie the knot before their three-month notice expired.
As it turned out, Cassandra and Dermot never made it to the registry office in time, and Cassandra, likely fearing that the relationship would return to its previous turbulence, took the two children and walked out of his life forever.
- The Complete Biography of Cassandra Harris (Part 3)
See part 3 of this series.
- IMDB Profile - British Film Credits Under Name Sandra Gleeson
The beginning of Cassandra's career in England, under the name Sandra Gleeson.