The strange case of Eli Wallach, George Brown and the death of JFK

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Tragedy sometimes brings out the best in people. This is often especially true in the case of our political leaders. Ronald Reagan, for example, demonstrated genuine eloquence in the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster. John Major had a rare fine moment as PM when he payed tribute to his Labour opponent John Smith following his sudden death in May 1994.

It does not always work out that way, however. Such eloquence entirely deserted Labour politician George Brown when he appeared on the TV programme ‘This Week’ on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

Brown and JFK

Brown was not a full blown leader: he had been beaten by Harold Wilson for the party leadership the previous February following the death of Hugh Gaitskell. But he was very senior party figure destined to be Foreign Secretary in the forthcoming Labour Government. He had also been closer to Kennedy than almost any other British Labour politician of the time. But his performance was to be hugely embarrassing “a compound of maudlin sentimentality, name dropping and aggression” according to author Peter Paterson.

Agreeing to be interviewed soon after attending a drinks reception, Brown (who had had a dispute with presenter Kenneth Harris in the past), took immediate offence at the perfectly reasonable opening question, “Now, you’re talking about a man who was a very great friend of mine…” he began and immediately began peppering his answers with over-familiar references to “Jack” and “Jackie” Kennedy. At one point tears welled up in his eyes: “Jack Kennedy, who I liked, who I was very near to…I remember it’s not many weeks ago I was over there with my daughter who lives in New York…and she was talking to Jackie across the garden. One is terribly hurt by this loss.”

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In Private Eye magazine parlance, the Deputy Labour leader was (not for the first or last time) “tired and emotional”. His speech was slurred, his arms moved too much. He was “unwell” in the Jeffery Bernard sense of the word.

In short: he was pissed on air.

Worse had actually occurred behind the scenes before filming had begun. Brown had very nearly provoked a physical fight with fellow guest US film actor Eli Wallach, the star of ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

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Having noisily asserted to everyone that the new president Lyndon Johnson (who he had also met) would be a great president, Brown began taunting the actor who was subdued and clearly upset by the day’s news, after he refused to be drawn into Brown’s increasingly tactless and insensitive conversation. Brown loudly asked why actors were so conceited and suggested Wallach was the sort who carried a newspaper around with him with his name in it. Wallach denied this, saying in fact no doubt accurately, that many people recognised him but could not place him or identify him by name.

The film actor attempted then to walk away, before the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party followed him and asked him if he had ever been in a play by Ted Willis (a Labour-supporting British playwright unknown outside the UK). “You’ve never heard of Ted Willis? “ Brown exclaimed before launching into more about the conceit of US actors.

Wallach snapped: “I didn’t come here to be insulted. Is this bastard interviewing me on this programme? If so, I’m leaving now!” Brown said more and Wallach took off his jacket. “Come outside and I’ll knock you off your can!” Brown told him to sit down and shut up.

Wallach ultimately had to be restrained by the other American guests. “I don’t care who he is, I’ll still knock the shit out of him!”

Later, Brown apparently made amends. But he still insisted on having the last word. “And now you’ll know who Ted Willis is!” he shouted at Wallace later.

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Although his behind the scenes row with Wallach was not publicised at the time, ultimately, Brown’s very public drunken TV appearance humiliated him. The fact that he had a tendency to get drunk very quickly on very small amounts was already well known in Westminster circles. Now everyone outside Westminster knew about it as well.

Brown made things worse with a badly phrased apologetic letter written to the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy soon after. The assassination was “particularly harrowing for me” Brown wrote, “since it marked the end of a year which began with the death of my own colleague Hugh Gaitskell.” He seemed to be implying his own suffering was similar in scale to the former First Lady’s, a woman who had very nearly been killed herself when her husband was shot dead while sitting right next to her.

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Ironically, Harold Wilson who had beaten Brown in the February 1963 leadership contest and who would lead Labour both in power and opposition until 1976 was effectively an alcoholic too, drinking much more than Brown but functioning better (at least until the mid-Seventies).

Brown survived the scandal but later described the last week of November 1963 as the “most miserable” of his life.

Thanks to “Tired and Emotional: The Life of Lord George Brown” by Peter Paterson (1993).

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