Legendary Encounters (from Conversations with Welsh)
I arrive in Welsh’s atelier, I’m confronted by a woman of a certain age and
size, who looks at me as though I’m not there.
‘Where is he?’ she asks Welsh, ‘You know I know you know’.
‘I don’t think he knows where he is himself’. She bounces off in a rage.
‘What was that?’ I say.
‘Edmund Purdom’s daughter. She’s looking for Percy.’
Edmund Purdom was the actor who stood in for Mario Lanza in The Student Prince (1954). Mario Lanza had got too fat, and Edmund Purdom became his body double. Schoolgirls all over the world fell in love with Mario Lanza’s bel canto as embodied by him.
Edmund was the son of a founding father of Welwyn Garden City. The family home was in Beehive Lane, where I lived in the late sixties. When I asked a neighbor about him, she said ‘He was a good boy, a little prince’.
When Elvis Presley stole Mario Lanza’s thunderous ‘O Sole Mio’ with his lightning ‘Now or Never’, even his voice had a stand-in now. Mario’s heart failed him during a brutal weight cure in 1959. He was thirty-eight. Elvis made it to forty-two, preferring hamburgers to deep-fried chicken. Meanwhile Edmund Purdom, dropped by MGM, disappeared into the Italian cinema, and was fleetingly seen in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) as a partygoer (uncredited).
Kathe is a big girl, well fleshed like Mario and Elvis, who when pressed introduces herself with a slightly sheepish, ‘I’m Edmund Purdom’s daughter’. ‘It’s must be as strange’, Welsh muses, ‘as being the ventriloquist, ‘Hallo’ Brough, who controlled the strings of the puppet, for Archie Andrews, on radio’.
Percy is a semi-retired sculptor who, Welsh says, ‘was one of JF Kennedy’s bodyguards. I have a photo.’
‘Not, I hope, of the one behind the grassy knoll?’
‘No, he’s the suit by a swimming pool’.
‘I don’t think Percy would ever tell a lie. Or tell the truth for that matter. He has nothing to say for himself at all, having like so many ex-pats failed to learn French while forgetting his English. But it’s as likely as any braggard in a border town. As Boris Vian said of his novel, Heart-snatcher, ‘It’s all true. I invented it’’.
When I got to meet Percy, he parroted, ‘I’m Edmund Purdom’s daughter’s fancy man’, and nothing more. Nods and winks he has in abundance, and the odd pat on the shoulder. The perpetual pipe in his mouth has absorbed all the functions of his soul, a lost one. ‘Where is it?’ he seems to be saying, ‘I put it down when lighting up, and, puff, it disappeared’. But there is something as honest about him as diamond ore with the precious element removed. He once specialized in marble frogs for swimming pools. These days he’s only up to making plaster copies.
‘Kathe wants out’, Welsh says. ‘At fifty-five she’s twinkling in the twilight of her career. But Percy is proving hard to get rid of. After kicking him out, his washing turns up regularly on her doorstep. He is comfortably ensconced in a wine-hut at the back of Banyuls. She leaves the laundry out by the bins to collect with his weekly allowance, and rants on about ‘Who, or what, is this Percy? And why am I bothering about him’. She has admitted to hitting him to see if he’s there. I don’t think it’s for me to tell her that Percy is a stand-in’s stand-in. Bodyguard, ventriloquist, copyist, and now a substitute father-figure. Kathe controls the money though, and Percy has two pensions.’
The gendarmes have been questioning Kathe. She had gone to visit the wine-hut and only found the bundle of clean linen she had left last time. Some weeks later, Welsh tells me that ‘Percy has been found on the Ramblas in Barcelona, living rough. He didn’t know where or who he was. But the envelope with the allowance in his pocket meant the police were able to contact Edmund Purdom’s daughter.
‘She had him committed to hospital, and contacted his ex-wife. A smart move. Now he has someone else to look after him. The family are interested in his pension-fund. What they don’t know is that Percy will never die. He told me that his great grand-mother was a Native Indian, and she talks to him sometimes.’
‘Kathe has found herself a younger older man, who lives in Collioure and is said to own a nightclub in North Wales. Some say Daffie is not what he seems. But who is? In a border town we’re all stand-ins like Edmund Purdom. Stand-ins for a life that never sang for us, perhaps. Purdom’s groupies in the fifties loved Mario Lanza’s voice not his ventriloquist, and they left him for another puppet called Elvis. The real thing only exists in the imagination’.
Edmund Purdom died in Rome aged eighty-five, surrounded by his wives.