Part of Charles Bronson's success was his reluctance to go public with his private life. It seems hard to believe in the era of Charlie Sheen that there once was an era in which celebrities valued their privacy and dignity. Bronson overcame a predestined fate to follow his family members in working in the mines of Pennsylvania. Through quiet, but hard-nosed determination, he gained a foothold in Hollywood and became a reliable supporting actor before his unlikely emergence as one of the world's most bankable leading men. Even at the height of his fame and popularity, Bronson's fans knew little about his personal life beyond the prerequisite studio-issued biographies. He rarely attended Hollywood functions, almost never promoted his films and only fleetingly gave interviews. I once asked Michael Winner, the director with whom he had some great successes, if he could say he really knew Bronson and the answer was a resounding "No."
There were reasons for Bronson's reluctance to open up his personal life and some of them revolved around his messy marital problems and affairs. These are painfully recounted in Charlie and Me, a memoir by his first wife Harriett. In the early years of their courtship, she found Bronson to be attentive and thoughtful, even if he harbored a lifelong insecurity about the women in his life that made him obsessively jealous. Harriett Bronson's book is a true page-turner, as it gives a different perspective from what little has been relayed to date about his personality. Harriett Bronson's story is the same as so many Hollywood wives: they stuck with their husband during the lean years and when success finally came, they were unceremoniously dumped for another woman. In this case, the other woman was British actress Jill Ireland, who was married to Bronson's best friend, David McCallum. The two men bonded in Germany on the set of The Great Escape, and these stories provide the basis for some of the book's most intriguing elements. Although Bronson claimed he considered McCallum as "a god" for being so kind to him, he didn't hesitate to initiate an affair with Ireland. While Harriett stewed about the constant delays on the film caused by Steve McQueen's perfectionism, Bronson relished the extra time "on location" with Jill. Though Bronson denied there was anything beyond friendship, Harriett used the services of a private detective to unveil the truth.
The result was a long, torturous break-up of two marriages, though both couples ignored the gossip columns and put on the pretense of a stable family environment. Bronson even argued against divorce, but Harriett insisted that she would not be the other woman in her own marriage. The book paints McCallum as largely disinterested in the dissolution of his own relationship with Ireland, something she resented. The implication is that McCallum secretly welcomed the development. (He went on to marry model Kathy Carpenter shortly after his divorce from Ireland and the two remain a couple today). Harriett soon found that Bronson could be vindictive and heartless in his dealings with her. She describes Ireland as a Lady MacBeth-type of shrew, who revels in trying to steal custody of Harriett's own children. A highlight of the book is a literal cat fight between the two, as Bronson stands passively by wiping up some debris from his carpet.
There are obviously two sides to every story and Jill Ireland told hers in two books prior to her death from cancer in 1990. Naturally, she presented a very different side of events, though there were rather pained observations that Bronson resented her writing about her battles with cancer, despite the fact that the books inspired many people. The only suriviving person who knows exactly what happened in these situations is Harriett Bronson, so one has to accept her memoir from the standpoint that there is no one to contradict her versions of events. However, they do ring true. The book is disappointingly short on any observations about Bronson's films. Harriett relates a few anecdotes about being on the set of The Magnificent Seven, but the entire film is dismissed in a few sentences. It would have been wonderful to hear her recount the general atmosphere on the set and the relationships between the actors. Still, this isn't a book about filmmaking, but rather, one woman's rise from being a discarded wife of a famous actor to reaching a level of independence as a successful author and radio talk show host, despite having to overcome considerable physical and mental challenges. At the book's conclusion, there is a reconciliation of sorts between Harriett, Bronson and the dying Jill- but after Bronson marries for a third time following Jill's death, another "new wife" excludes Harriett from her former husband's funeral. It's a tough, gritty and emotional story well-told and minus the sugary content many of these memoirs are noted for. If there's a major flaw with the book it's that it's on the thin side and leaves us hungry for more. As it stands, it's probably the most comprehensive portrait of the elusive superstar we are likely to see.
(The book features an abundance of rare family photos from Bronson's early years).