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Susan Elliott; Washingtonian Who Married British Actor

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Susan Robinson Elliott, who died April 12 in London at age 65, was a Catholic schoolgirl from Washington in the 1950s and an enthusiastic participant in the sexual revolution of the 1960s after her marriage to acclaimed British character actor Denholm Elliott. Relying on a wheelchair toward the end of her life, she succumbed to injuries from a fire that engulfed her fourth-floor London flat.

Mrs. Elliott was born in Cleveland, where her grandfather was editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and grew up in Washington, where her father was a movie and book critic for Newsweek. After graduating from Sacred Heart Academy, she enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. According to the Daily Telegraph of London, the city held no fears for her, since she had survived a mugging in Washington by a gang of eight girls and a boy. Despite scars on her face and crowns on her teeth, her dream of being an actress remained intact.

On the cusp of the 1960s, Susan Robinson was a 19-year-old singing waitress at the Strollers' Club in midtown Manhattan. It was there she met Elliott, already an accomplished actor in movies and on television. His big break had come in the 1949 movie "The Sound Barrier," directed by David Lean. In later years, Elliott played the back-street abortionist in the 1966 film "Alfie" and appeared in "A Room with a View" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," among a number of other films.

Known as an inveterate scene-stealer, the likable Elliott's antics inspired his fellow British actors to warn each other, "Never act with children, dogs or Denholm Elliott." He also stole the heart of the young Miss Robinson, despite being 20 years her senior and a wildly promiscuous bisexual man about town.

The actor and the "devastating 20-year-old, slender Susan Robinson" -- to quote a gossip columnist of the day -- married in London in 1962 and embarked on what she called "our lunatic, nomadic life." After an extended honeymoon through Europe, they built a hillside villa on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, where they lived together until Elliott died of AIDS-related tuberculosis in 1992.

Mrs. Elliott and her husband were fixtures on the London nightclub scene. In its obituary of Mrs. Elliott, the Telegraph recalled the night not long after her marriage when she was out with the artist Francis Bacon and his boyfriend Jonathan Edwards. The two handcuffed her to a bar stool and then went home with the key.

Mrs. Elliott got home and managed to slide into bed beside her husband without disturbing him, the stool beside her on the floor. He left the next morning without ever seeing it, and Mrs. Elliott took a cab to Bacon's studio, where the practical jokers freed her from her oversized accessory and then treated her to lunch.

For Mrs. Elliott, the 1960s were, as the Telegraph noted, "a whirlwind of parties, films, tourings and babies." Along with attending to the couple's two children, she spent a great deal of time shuttling between London, Ibiza and the United States.

She was aware of her husband's affairs, exclusively with men as the years went by and, as the Telegraph reported, often rather exotic -- Moroccan gigolos, Chinese waiters, Spanish garage attendants, a hunchbacked Haitian dwarf.

Mrs. Elliott was not averse to her own dalliances and had at least one extended affair, with a Belgian named Marcel, as she detailed in "Denholm Elliott: Quest for Love" (1994).

"With Denholm away so often working, there were long periods when I was on my own in Ibiza," she wrote. "Denholm was never in any doubt that I missed him, but there were always people calling round and more party invitations than I could handle. There were also a few one-night stands."

Mrs. Elliott's husband tolerated her affairs, telling her "as long as you don't fall in love and as long as you don't have someone else's baby."

In 1987, Elliott told her that he was HIV positive. She had recently bought a bar on Ibiza but sold it and moved back to London so her husband could receive the best treatment. Five years later, she decided she wanted him to spend his final days on Ibiza, so she emptied her bank account and hired a private jet to take him home. He died at the couple's villa at 70.

In his memory, Mrs. Elliott opened an Ibiza hotel where people who were HIV positive could enjoy a free stay. She moved back to London in 2003, after her daughter, Jennifer, addicted to heroin, hanged herself on Ibiza. In London, Mrs. Elliott lived in a rented one-bedroom flat.

Survivors include her son, Mark Elliott; and a brother and sister.


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