More to the man: Richard Harris
Richard Harris may be most often remembered as a womanising drinker, but he was also a deeply spiritual man and a published poet
Richard Harris with his ex-wives, Welsh socialite Elizabeth Rees-Williams (left) and American actress Ann Turkel, in New York. Photograph: Michael Brennan/Getty Images
Harris flicking through pages of his poetry book with Joe Jackson. Dublin 1987
Richard Harris, who died from Hodgkin’s disease on October 25th 2002, is still too often depicted as a two-fisted, womanising drunk. He did all these things, but that’s not all he was. Besides, having interviewed Harris for 50 hours between 1987-2001 – in part for a biography we never wrote, but that his son Jared and I are now pitching to publishers – questions such as why Harris was thus inclined and who he was, at a core level, fascinate me more than details of his hellraising life.
Let’s look at Harris, singer, songwriter and life long poet. He was born in Limerick on October 1st 1930, the fifth child of Mildred and Ivan Harris, and began writing poems, such as, My Young Brother, when he was nine. “My young brother/was in his pram/I walked along beside him/he looked so white and /peaceful/he also looked so warm/I wonder if I’ll ever /be that small again”.
During our first interview, in 1987, Harris said this poem was meant to depict, “a moment of sublime innocence and sense of purity that may never be recaptured.” Two other poems, written when he was 15, Limerick 245, about his mother, Limerick 245 (Reverse Charge), about his father, make it clear that even from an early age Harris developed the observational powers of a poet, and hypersensitivity that would define his skills as an actor and singer. Each poem also stems from a sense of alienation and sets him at a distance somewhat removed from his parents. In that space was born his desire to become an actor, he once told me. “I was lost in the middle of the Harris brigade, but this makes you fight for the affection of your parents, fight for their attention. You don’t get it for free. You get it from the age of one day to two years; then have to fight for it. You had to put up a flag and say, ‘Hey, I’m here, too, don’t miss me’ and you were passed over.
“I didn’t realise I wanted to be an actor until I had TB in my late teens. But now I think much of it had to do with saying, ‘I may be just number five in the family, but I must assert an identity over and above all that’. I wanted my parents to recognise who I was. That probably is what, ultimately, gave me my energy.”
Harris’s sexuality was similarly influenced by his Catholicism. In his poem, My Blood Reflects Nothing of Me, written when he was 22, he says:
“My blood/reflects nothing of me/It reflects/beer/whiskey/guinness/lack of passion/or/passion held by catholic beads”.
I asked Harris in 1987 how tightly his passion had been corralled by rosary beads.
“I always was a horny bastard,” he responded, laughing. “But in Limerick, there was a tremendous amount of guilt associated with sex. Also, women were not as sexually liberated as now. Growing up in Limerick during the 1930, 1940s, had an inhibiting effect, was dominated by a Catholic influence, but when I went to London, a sense of sexual liberation was there, even in the 1950s. It was less oppressive.”
After moving to London to become an actor Harris “took advantage of every opportunity to indulge”. He also met fellow student actor Elizabeth Rees-Williams and they fell in love. After his death, Rees-Williams recalled that he read poems to her even on their first date and was always writing poetry, often on cigarette boxes, which Harris told her to keep, so they could be published after he became famous.