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Color Him Kubrick!
Highlights from Issue 23: The Auteur Issue
(R) Stanley Kubrick in the kitchen of his estate in Hertfordshire, 1998
Photograph by Christiane
Friday, March 30, 2007
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Anthony Frewin is the screenwriter of Color Me Kubrick. For more on the film, click here
The following piece originally ran in Issue 23: The Auteur Issue
COLOR HIM KUBRICK!
The legendary director's longtime assistant unveils the infamous Kubrick impostor who swindled London
By Anthony Frewin
“Stanley Kubrick seems to be avoiding me and I can’t understand it. After all, I’m a very personal friend of Stanley’s. I’ve been to his house and we are very close.” So said the truculent voice on the other end of the phone. It belonged to Rupert (not his real name), a young fashion designer in Brighton. “I just can’t understand it. I really can’t!” He sounded achingly sincere and continued in a similar vein while I pondered what the differences were between a friend, a personal friend, and a very personal friend. “Please get him to call me. Please. He’s changed his number and won’t answer my letters!”
Thus it all began in May 1991, and it’s a story that is still unravelling today. Every so often a little narrative twist or turn arrives and I wonder what more there can possibly be. But there’s always something.
May 1991: Stanley’s Vietnam film, Full Metal Jacket, was four years behind us and he was working on a Holocaust project that was subsequently abandoned (“Schindler’s List is a hard act to follow,” he said), as well as the film that would eventually be bequeathed to Steven Spielberg as AI: Artificial Intelligence. Kubrick further agonized over his updating and transformation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, the basis of Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, his final picture.
Later that afternoon I saw Stanley and relayed Rupert’s message. “Rupert? Brighton? Never heard of him.” I said he claimed they had met in a wine bar in Kensington and that he had been to the house. “He obviously met an idiot pretending to be me,” Stanley replied. And there we left it. Some chancer had bamboozled poor Rupert. End of story. Except it wasn’t. Ten days later the floodgates opened.
Rupert had phoned Warner Bros., the company that financed and distributed Stanley’s films, at Pinewood Studios. They had relayed the message to me, as they were under strict instructions never to give out any of the numbers at Stanley’s estate in Hertfordshire from whence his production company was run.
Now Warner Bros. was phoning almost every day with messages from “friends” of “Stanley Kubrick” who were trying to contact him.
There was Mark from North London, who was in a rock group. He’d given up his day job as “Stanley” was going to get his group a contract with WEA Records and fly him out to the States. There was the actor, Grange, who had been promised a part in the next film. There was a Nigerian who was going to put on an all-black production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and “Stanley” was going to bankroll it. And there were others. Lots of others.
What soon became apparent from most but not all of these “friends” was that they were gay, as, indeed, was the fake Stanley.
Then I got a call from Keith Denny, who had been the costume designer on Full Metal Jacket. Two of his gay friends had met “Stanley” in a Soho restaurant. “Stanley” was so “entranced” by them he pledged to use them in his next film and take them to see Kiss of the Spider Woman at the theater the following evening — providing they turned up dressed in something “salacious.” They turned up, he didn’t. Keith said the two of them were upset when he pointed out they had been conned.
“My God,” said Stanley, “he’s a serial impostor!” Then he added, with a frown, “And he’s gay?” Stanley was not homophobic, but he thought an impostor could at least pay him the courtesy of respecting his heterosexuality.
Anyway, who was the impostor? Stanley said it was time for me to do some sleuthing. An aside: just after my 17th birthday, when I started work for Stanley on 2001: A Space Odyssey at the MGM Studios in Boreham Wood, he said to me, “You can find out anything if you go about it the right way.” This advice fell on fertile ground, and by example and instruction Stanley showed me how to research, how to really research. I was looking forward to the sleuthing.
And more and more calls were coming in. The impostor was playing Stanley full time, seven days a week.
I phoned one of the “friends” who had visited “Stanley” at home and got the impostor’s address. It was on Canning Road in Wealdstone, a dingy suburb by Harrow in northwest London (an address that meant something to me; I’ll return to it below). From this I went to the electoral rolls and got a name: Alan Conway. He was our impostor.
One morning a colleague’s car wouldn’t start at our offices. He called out the AA and the mechanic who arrived, upon finding that the estate was Stanley Kubrick’s, said, “I met him the other evening on the last train out of Euston. He just introduced himself to me. Said his brand-new BMW had been stolen. That’s why he was on the train. He got out at Harrow and Wealdstone.” Our man, all right.
Further inquiries revealed that Conway, born in 1934, had a long criminal record that started with stealing money and clothing in 1951, and was followed by a spell in an approved school.
Let’s take some of his record at random: There were arrests for burglary and false pretences and a term in Borstal, an arrest in Switzerland, another in Australia for which he got three months in prison prior to being deported, six months hard labor in Eire, stolen check books, fraud in Edinburgh, 18 months at Winchester Crown Court, four years for swindling in France handed down in absentia, and so on. And then there were the other offenses, the ones for gross indecency and importuning in lavatories, most of which took place on his doorstep in Harrow.
And the county court judgments! Almost a daily occurrence. “I don’t even open them now, dear boy!” Conway supposedly boasted to one of his young men.
Conway had married in 1971 (only one gross indecency offense that year) and with his wife ran a travel agency business with several branches in the Harrow area. This subsequently went bust, and his wife disappeared. Conway told different people that she was dead, went off with a lesbian lover, had a sex change, was murdered, emigrated, killed in a car crash. Who knows?
I also discovered that while Conway was his legal name, he had earlier been known as Conn (two aptly Nabokovian names) but he had actually been born Jabolowsky (Alan). His Jewish parents had fled Poland in the early ’30s and settled in Whitechapel in the East End, where he was born. Despite his birthplace, he had no problem telling people the high adventures he had escaping from the Nazis after Poland had been invaded.
What else? He was an alcoholic, loved taking pills and was banned from driving for life.
What could we do? Stanley decided to get some legal advice from a barrister he knew in Lincoln’s Inn. He explained that Stanley could seek an injunction against Conway, but in order to do so he would have to establish in court that Conway was indeed doing what he claimed. To do that he had to get witnesses in court who had been conned by Conway. Well, of course, it was one thing being conned, but another to go into court and let the whole world know you had gone to bed with a man on the promise of a recording contract. As Stanley said, “That’s a non-starter. Even if we got an injunction, the barrister said you could never enforce it and this ‘exercise in futility’ would cost about £30,000.” So, we were stuck. Or were we?
Let me return to Canning Road, Wealdstone for a moment. When my partner Charlene Page and I and our young son returned to London from Kent in 1973, we rented a cheap flat for about nine months on Canning Road. I became friendly with a girl, Eileen, who lived a couple of doors down and I remained in touch with her after we moved away.
So, consider this: There are upwards of 70,000 streets in the Greater London area and Alan Conway, who is impersonating Stanley Kubrick, lives opposite a girl who knows someone who works for him. Could Conway be a bigger loser?
I had phoned Eileen right after getting Conway’s address. She explained that he lived in a maisonette block run by a housing association for ex-mental patients and others of a “fragile” disposition (as Conway was neither we figured he had scammed his way in). Eileen recognized him from my description and over the ensuing years would provide us with regular reports on the comings and goings at Chez Conway: two black guys shouting Conway’s name and trying to kick the door down, a couple of thugs frog-marching Conway into a local bank, the police called for a disturbance, an ambulance called, Conway being chased down the road by a couple of rent boys. It never stopped.
Stanley had an idea. If legal action was not open to him, how about calling in a journalist I knew, Martin Short, to write an article exposing Conway? Could the oxygen of publicity extinguish his activities? It was worth a try. I duly got in touch with Martin and handed over the thick file I had put together on Conway. Let’s see what he could come up with.
The “friends” were still popping up on a regular basis.
Stanley received a letter from an eloquent ex-public school boy who had worked unashamedly as a rent boy in Amsterdam. “Kubrick” had careened through the town running up bar bills, borrowing money and causing a gay bar to go bankrupt after he told the owners to say no to a brewery’s offer and accept his instead. The writer himself had lost everything after Conway promised to buy him a house if he returned to England to console him on the death of his son (a fabrication).
To top this, a letter arrived from the Dutch film actress Renée Soutendijk in Amsterdam. Stanley was considering using her in his Holocaust project. She kept on getting reports of Stanley being in town and she was surprised that he hadn’t looked her up. I had to write back and explain the situation.
Then we heard about the entertainer Joe Longthorne, who had met Conway backstage on a tour of south coast resorts. “Stanley” had said he would use him in his next film and get him into Vegas, make him a U.S. coast-to-coast sensation. Longthorne believed him, and Conway accompanied him on his tour, with the entertainer picking up the hotel and bar bills. Eventually Longthorne’s manager made a couple of calls and found out Conway wasn’t who he said he was. They threw him off a pier into the sea.
Jim Davidson told me he had bumped into Longthorne and his entourage at this time and met Conway. He saw through him right away, but Longthorne wasn’t listening.
In May 1993 the serial “gay slayer,” Colin Ireland, murdered the second of his five victims just around the corner from Conway’s flat. The Old Bill were all over the place and paid a visit to a local minicab firm where my friend Eileen had a part-time job. The police questioned the drivers. Did they know anything? Could they help in any way? The drivers replied in unison that the weirdest character in the neighborhood was “that film director Stanley Kubrick.” He was bound to know something or be implicated in some way. The police’s eyes must have lit up. Famous film director! Gay slayings! That would get some headlines. But then Eileen pointed out who he really was. The police must have been mightily disappointed.
Meanwhile, other events were happening that would result in his exposure.
In July 1993 Frank Rich, then the drama critic of the New York Times, was having dinner at Joe Allen’s restaurant in Covent Garden with his wife and a couple of friends. At an adjoining table was a foursome consisting of the ubiquitous Conway as “Stanley” together with a Tory MP, Sir Fergus Montgomery, and two youths variously described as Clockwork Orange-style droogs or “rough trade.”
Conway, who had been ear-wigging the other table, went over, somewhat sloshed, and said he had considered suing the New York Times for saying that he was a “recluse” and “creatively dormant.” The table was astounded to have finally met Kubrick and were eager to interview him. Conway left his home phone number and said to call him in a couple of days after he returned from Dublin. Then he scampered off.
Later that evening doubts about “Kubrick” began to rise. The following day, via Warner Bros., Frank Rich called me up and I explained who he had really met. Rich wrote the evening up for a piece in The New York Times that was later reprinted in a national U.K. daily. So, the exposure had begun. Rich’s article was titled, “Stanley, I Presume?” Stanley thought a better title would have been, certainly from Conway’s point of view, “A Table Too Far.” Shortly after this, one of Conway’s young male friends shopped him to the police. Conway had signed a legal document (possibly a lease) in the name of Stanley Kubrick for the owners of a gay bar in Soho. This being a criminal offense, the Old Bill got into action, made some inquiries and turned over Conway’s flat. He was arrested and released on bail. Even in his alcohol-fuelled state Conway realized this could seriously clip his wings. So, being the ever resourceful confidence man, he checked himself into the psychiatric wing of a local hospital, knowing full well that once the Crown Prosecution Service got wind of this they would drop the case and leave him undisturbed to enjoy his “holiday” away from the pressures of being Stanley Kubrick and cruising the gay bars of Soho. News of the arrest leaked out and that, combined with the piece by Frank Rich and Martin Short’s article in Vanity Fair, meant the game was up. So much for what a local newspaper described as “Canning Road’s most colorful character.’”
Some journalists found their way to Conway’s door. Being one to take advantage of whatever situation presented itself, he told his story for a fee and explained how he was a “recovering” victim of a mental disorder (“It was uncanny. Kubrick just took me over. I really did believe I was him!”). He told another paper it was a result of alcoholic abuse (a victim again). He even appeared on television a few times, once in a BBC program in 1997 that covertly filmed him blagging his way into the Groucho Club as “Stanley,” along with interviews with Julie Walters and Patricia Hayes, who had been introduced to him backstage in a London theater under the impression he was the real thing. He also said the impersonation had cost him dearly and that he had spent his life savings because “people thought I was Stanley and expected me to pay.” Another lie, but it was believed.
After this, things went quiet. If Conway was still acting Stanley, he was doing it very sparingly. We heard rumors that he was now pretending to be John Schlesinger (the sexuality aligned) and meeting big names at Knightsbridge Alcoholics Anonymous.
To be taken for Stanley Kubrick must have required a great knowledge of him and his work, a similar appearance, a New York accent. Wrong on all accounts. Conway didn’t look like Stanley, his accent was strained local radio station Mid-Atlantic (when he could be bothered to exercise it) and he dressed like a used car dealer.
Stanley was somewhat miffed after reading a newspaper article. “It says here that Conway had only ever seen a ‘bit’ of one of my movies and he didn’t like it! Gee! My films aren’t good enough for him but I am! What an ingrate! And look at this. It also says he knew next to nothing about me!” Then, with a smile, “More courtesies he didn’t extend!”
So, how then did he get away with it? The answer is down to the gullibility and vanity of those he conned, with the latter having the upper hand.
Why did Conway do it? Gain obviously. But all his cons were short ones: drinks, meals, sex. He didn’t play a long con and probably couldn’t. It would have required too much concentration and planning. The other reason must surely be that it enabled him to escape from himself. This was confirmed to us by a report of him appearing in a Harrow pub and telling everyone that he was Stanley Kubrick, even though nobody knew the name. It had become a habit.
Stanley Kubrick was, in some ways, an accident waiting to happen. His name was widely known through his films. But because he didn’t play the celebrity game — TV appearances, magazine articles, and so on — not many people knew what he looked like. Conway stepped into this void.
But why Stanley? Conway only ever gave one explanation, and that isn’t too convincing. He said he was drunk and bored one evening at a bar and someone asked him who he was and he just flippantly said Stanley Kubrick, off the top of his head. But why? He didn’t say he was Pierce Brosnan or Michael Caine, did he? He chose someone who was known but would not be recognized. Surely some forethought had gone into this? Psychology, according to Stanley, failed, because it couldn’t contain, reduce or eliminate behavior like Conway’s. It couldn’t even explain why it occurred in the first place. We’re not just talking about the impersonation, but rather the petty criminal behavior that characterized Conway from the get-go. The subject fascinated Stanley. Was it some arcane shuffle of the genes, or was it environment, or was it some alchemy of chemicals? Would we ever know?
Inasmuch as one could reduce the question, it seemed to Stanley to come down to a form of autism, an inability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, an inability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Once you had achieved that, the rest flowed naturally from it. You lived in an egocentric world without consequences, and Conway never seemed to be aware of consequences.
Despite the newspaper and magazine articles and the TV appearances, we were sure there were still people who believed they had met Stanley and that he was gay. Indeed, some weeks after his death, Christiane, his widow, got a letter from an elderly couple saying that they were sorry to hear of Stanley’s death, but did she know he had seduced their son? Did she know what he was really like?
Before setting out on the quest for Conway, I already had a fascination with con men. Thus I never tired of researching the story. I had amassed so much material on Conway I thought it a waste to just file it away so I turned it into a screenplay, Color Me Kubrick. Brian Cook, an old associate of Stanley’s, liked the treatment and produced and directed the film earlier his year. John Malkovich is the lead as Conway, and his performance is a tour de force. This was my way of exorcizing Conway, who now has the fame, posthumously, that he sought and was denied during his lifetime.
Stanley Kubrick died in his sleep at his Hertfordshire home in March 1999 after completing Eyes Wide Shut. That day a colleague of mine said, “I guess Conway’s career as Stanley is really over now.” It was some months later that we learned that Conway had actually predeceased Stanley by some four months. He had died alone and penniless in his Wealdstone flat of cardiac thrombosis in December 1998.
I said at the beginning that the story continues. It does. Every so often someone phones me up saying they met someone who once met Stanley. Or there’s a newspaper clipping. In every case it’s in an impossible place at an impossible time with “Stanley” making impossible promises.
Thus it continues. The concluding chapter in the life and times of Alan Conway of Wealdstone has yet to be written.
But let’s leave the last word with the real Stanley, who could always see the humorous side of things: “I’ll get my own back on this guy. I’ll go around pretending I’m him!”
Anthony Frewin was Stanley Kubrick’s assistant for over 30 years and worked on such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. He continues to work for the Kubrick Estate.
Click here for more on Issue 23: The Autuer Issue