Joan Collins was left deeply distressed by her mother’s death

Tuesday October 4,2011
By Cheryl Stonehouse

THINGS change and in the view of Joan Collins not that many of them for the better.

Women’s fashion, modern manners, men, Britain: none are what they used to be.

However on one point very close to her heart she believes modern attitudes have improved on old-fashioned values.

The terminal illness of her beloved mother Elsa almost 50 years ago was surrounded by the silence and even secrecy with which most difficult emotional issues were handled by the adults of her parents’ generation.

Unprepared for her mother’s premature death from breast cancer the young Joan was left deeply distressed.

“I was working in Hollywood when I was first told that she had become ill,” Joan recalls. She is now 78 but the memory is still vivid almost half a century later.

“Transatlantic communication was a very different matter then. It was very expensive. We had perhaps one short phone call a week.
Unprepared for her mother’s premature death from breast cancer the young Joan Collins was left deeply distressed

“During one call I was told my mother was ill but I don’t think I was ever told exactly how ill she was and I was certainly not told the truth about what was making her ill. My father told me she was under the weather because she’d had a very bad bout of flu and it was taking some time for her to recover. It was certainly not something that sounded alarming enough for me to get on a plane and come straight home.”

Elsa was 56 when she died in 1962, to the end a sweet-natured, uncomplaining woman, the perfect foil to her abrasive showbusiness agent husband Joseph.

She lavished on her first-born Joan, second daughter Jackie and son Bill the love that was an ideal antidote to their father’s strict and unsentimental approach to parenthood.

“Almost saint-like” is how Joan remembers the gently smiling, stunningly beautiful woman preserved in one of her family album pictures dating back to the mid-Thirties. “She was just as beautiful on the inside, too,” says Joan looking at the Marcel-waved blonde hair, pencil-thin brows, cupid bow lips and flawless bone structure of the woman being caressed by an equally beautiful little girl, Joan herself, aged about three.

“All her concern was for our health whether it was making sure that we were wrapped up warmly or insisting that we should eat our greens or administering cod liver oil and Virol, a strange-tasting vitamin supplement. We were a very healthy family.”

It may seem strange now that a young woman of 26 or 27 as Joan was then could have unquestioningly accepted her mother’s “flu”. However at the time Elsa first became ill the 1957 Asian flu epidemic was fresh in the memory of Joan’s generation and had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.

It seemed perfectly feasible that her mother was suffering the after effects of something similar.

“It was only when I came back to Britain about six months before she died that I started to understand that she was really very ill indeed. Even then no one talked about her illness. “It’s hard to convey how different attitudes were then. My parents were born at the turn of the century before the First World War.

“I can recall going to the library where I grew up in north London to get a dictionary so that I could look up the word ‘period’ because that’s what I and my girlfriends called the monthly cycle.

“My mother would never have spoken about it. It just wasn’t done.

“When my mother became ill my little brother Bill was only about 15 and I think my father was trying to protect him.

“The word cancer was never used by anyone. I can’t recall hearing the word until after my mother died.”

JOAN suspects that even her mother wasn’t told she had cancer. It was not uncommon for patients with terminal conditions to have their diagnosis kept from them, doctors telling their closest relatives instead and leaving with them the decision about what to tell the patient.

All too often their nearest and dearest couldn’t bring themselves to deliver such terrible news.

An intelligent and sensitive young woman left largely in the dark and yet clearly able to see that her mother’s health was in sharp decline, Joan describes those last few months as “desperately confusing and just awful”. “I was so distressed that I could hardly face what was happening to her.

“It didn’t help that we were all so much more naïve about all aspects of life in those days.

“I always made sure that my own daughters [Tara Newley, now 47, and Katy Kass, 38] were much better informed than I was.”

It was only when she was pregnant, a decade after her mother’s death that Joan was alerted to the fact that with one breast cancer death in such a close family member, she and other women in her family should be particularly vigilant.

She confesses to sharing the loathing that so many women have of mammogram screening.

“It’s awful and painful and I hate it,” says Joan but she has religiously kept her appointments.

“We seem, touch wood, to have been lucky,” she adds.

“My mother was one of 11 children and had seven sisters that I knew of, yet not in that generation, nor mine, nor in my children’s generation, has the condition reappeared.

“Long may it stay that way.”

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