Thursday, 25 July 2013

From Hollywood to Devon...and a goose named Pâté

She's been a Hollywood star, a war reporter - even an inventor. But in this enchanting memoir, Brianne Leary reveals how she (and her pet dog Lulu) found real happiness on a humble Devon farm...

The other morning, I put on my coat, bracing myself for an unseasonably chilly, early-summer wind. I reached into my pocket looking for some gloves and found… lamb nuts. In my other life, I would have found my New York City MetroCard. I glanced down at my feet. Wellies, not Manolos. And once out of the door, I looked up at the crisp, ice-blue sky. Not one skyscraper. Instead of taxi horns, the geese, Pâté and Foie Gras, honked away. No sound of brakes screeching, just Casserole, my tame sheep, baa-ing at her newborn lambs, Stew and Kabob. The pungent odour of freshly scattered dung smacked my nose and stung my eyes. No trace of my favourite smell, the sweet, melted-caramel aroma wafting from the nut man’s stand, on Central Park South, seductively beckoning me to buy a bag or two.

So how, in my 50s, did I end up on a farm in Devon, an ocean away from my cushy, earlier life in Manhattan? Britain had never been in my plans, but then John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’. How right he was.

Well, like most tales, it’s best to start this one at the beginning. After all, as big a jump as it was for me to go from NY to the UK, it was easier than the giant leap of faith I took when, at 17, I moved from Tucson, Arizona to Los Angeles. I was making a determined attempt to escape my childhood – and what better place to run to than Hollywood, where all is make-believe and I would be one of a million dreamers?

My one-room apartment in Los Angeles was a long, long way from the foster homes where my sister, Seana, and I shared a couch or a twin bed from the age of five or six. Strange homes with even stranger people who never let us forget that we weren’t the real kids. Mother deposited us in these places every time she went through another divorce, marriage, hospitalisation and/or job loss. As she waved goodbye, she promised she’d be back. Just a week, she’d say. But it was never just a week… a week turned into a month or months. I stopped keeping track after a while. Unlike puppies, humans (children) have an acute awareness of the passage of time. They can only hold their breath under-water for so long before it becomes too painful.

On the rare occasions we physically lived with our mother, we never knew what we would come home to: furniture being repossessed, or the two of us being shocked out of sleep in the middle of the night, a new boyfriend raging out of control.

‘Girls, pack your things’ – that was Mother’s mantra, for each and every incident. I ended the cycle when I was 14, during her fourth or fifth marriage (we never knew the exact number). His name was Richard. Our new dad never even bothered to learn to pronounce my name correctly. Brianne – pronounced Bree-un. All he could manage was Bran. Two years in, he told me he didn’t feel comfortable with me calling him Dad.

After one particularly violent night (he drank) I was invited to my best friend Lisa Salazar’s house for a taco dinner. I stayed for two years, and learned to speak Spanish. I never lived with my mother or her husbands again.

Next stop, Hollywood, with the requisite stars in my eyes, an unfortunate teenage complexion and about $200 earned working at McDonald’s. But by the time I was 19, I had my first real acting job. I played Nurse Susan in the television series Black Sheep Squadron, starring Robert Conrad. Nurse Susan was the token brunette in a sea of beautiful, buxom blondes. No matter, I had a personality. I was over the moon and quit my night job as a cocktail waitress.
HollywoodToDevon-Jul26-02-590Left: In 1978 US TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep (third from left). Right: Brianne on patron as Officer Sindy Cahill in 1970s hit CHiPS

But after a year, Black Sheep Squadron was cancelled. A few weeks into my unemployment, however, CHiPs, a huge hit in the late 1970s, was auditioning for a female patrol officer – and I was cast as Officer Sindy Cahill. My stint on CHiPs was short lived. Seems I wasn’t star Erik Estrada’s cup of tea… or any beverage for that matter. And being that Erik was one of the leads of the show, I had to go. NBC put me under contract and I continued to work. Nothing like a pay cheque to soothe a bruised ego.

Inevitably, auditions and offers began to wane. I was closing in on 30. And for a woman at that time, it was not a good thing in the entertainment industry.

I had to figure out a way to make a living – and decided writing would be perfect. It doesn’t matter what you look like if you’re a writer. I bought an electric typewriter and began pounding out a new chapter in my life, literally and figuratively.

I submitted pitches for stories to various magazines. One, TV Guide, sparked to my idea of covering a movie being cast in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was given the assignment, but with a catch: no expenses or money upfront. Not a problem, as I had an American Express card and a valid passport. Off I went, not giving one thought to stepping headfirst into a war zone. I returned to the States, having found my calling along with lifelong friends. The piece was published and a new career was launched.

My journalism would take me to Cambodia, Vietnam, Cuba and Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Ironically, it would also bring me back to television. An on-camera person who can write, apparently, is a rare commodity. Soon I was offered jobs as a presenter for various American television networks. One such offer was to host a latenight chat show. Being the host, I was given a choice of locations: LA, Chicago or New York. Without missing a beat, I chose New York.

Moving to New York is a good thing to do as you reach 40. The big 4-0 is the kiss of death in Los Angeles, unless you’re willing to mortgage your house to pay for breast implants and Botox. New Yorkers, however, appreciate a woman with some vintage. From the minute I touched down, I knew this magnificent city was where I belonged.

I bought an apartment on the Upper West Side, a one-bedroom slice of heaven. Perhaps some wealthy New Yorkers might consider it more like servants’ quarters, but it was a palace to me. More than that, it was my home. My nest. A nurturing space I created, worked hard for and absolutely treasured. This was a place I would never have to leave… or so I thought.

By 1998, for the first time when watching a plane fly overhead, I didn’t wish I was on it. My real life had finally begun. I was working as a correspondent for ABC News, on the morning news/chat show, Good Morning America. I rubbed shoulders with legends and never knew who I would meet in the lift. One day, NY Mayor Rudy Guiliani, the next, Hillary Clinton. After ABC, I was hired as the entertainment co-anchor on the Fox morning show, Good Day New York. Life was good.
HollywoodToDevon-Jul26-03-590Left: off duty in Cuba. Right: Brianne the journalist, in Afghanistan in the 1980s

On the most beautiful September morning, I left the Good Day set a few minutes early to head into the city and cover the mayoral elections. The sky was clear blue, leaves were turning lipstick-red and there was a slight hint of an autumn chill in the air. Perfect.

On my way out, I glanced up at the television monitors and saw… I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings. How could that be? It was a pristine day, not a cloud in the sky. It was Tuesday 11 September 2001.

In mere minutes another plane hit the other tower. The city went into lock-down and the world was forever changed. I did a couple of stories from Ground Zero, but the serious news was saved for the ‘serious’ reporters. It didn’t matter that I was the only one at Fox who had ever been to Afghanistan and knew the diff erence between Shiite and Sunni. I was told I was hired to entertain, not to educate.

On 18 September, I went to the Pakistan Consulate and applied for a visa. I didn’t know how I would get to Afghanistan, but when someone gave me the OK, I was going to be ready. That someone would be Eason Jordan, International Bureau Chief for CNN. I walked out of my Fox contract, packed my bags, wrote a will and boarded a plane bound for Islamabad, Pakistan.

After a gruelling 20-hour flight, I staggered out of the terminal praying, praying, praying there would be someone to meet me. It was four in the morning… no one. I lit up a cigarette and took a deep breath. The air was a toxic blend of diesel fumes, cumin and perspiration. Several cigarettes later, I saw a man walking towards me holding up a handwritten sign that read: BLEARY – CNN.

Within days, I would be in a bullet-riddled van on the Khyber Pass headed to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Just in time for the hunt for Bin Laden and Tora Bora. I returned from Afghanistan knowing I had made the right decision to go. However, work was hard to come by. I had a mortgage to pay and LuLu, my new puppy, to feed.

I spent much of my free (unemployed) time on long walks with LuLu in Central Park. One particularly rainy day, as I was bringing my mud-magnet of a dog into my apartment, I had one of those eureka moments. LuLu’s paws were covered with half of Central Park. I couldn’t let her in and couldn’t leave her out in the hallway. I had no choice but to carry all 50lb of her across the living room and down the hall to the bathroom.

I plopped her in the tub and gave her paws a good scrub – 20 minutes later, LuLu was back to looking like a proper Wheaten Terrier: creamy, wheaty, white. I, however, was soaked and my bathtub looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. There had to be an easier way. Eureka.

I set my sights on inventing something that would quickly and easily clean her paws. It had to be something I could leave at the front door and use before she brought the outdoors in. If I needed something like this, there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of other desperate dog owners like me out there.
HollywoodToDevon-Jul26-04-382Lulu with her mistress

Thus, the PawPlunger was born. I patented my idea and within a year it was selling worldwide. All was going brilliantly until one morning I woke up to discover my partner and his partner had stolen the money that was to have paid for the next big shipment out of China. All told, about $250,000 in cash and goods was gone. I had nothing. Cleaned out.

But this is another story, a cautionary tale, to be written another time. Working title: So little time… so many people to sue.

I had two goals after this disaster struck. The first was to get production going again. The second was not to lose my home. With no money coming in, the bank was closing in. The only solution was to rent my apartment to cover the mortgage payments. This solved the immediate financial crisis. However, it left LuLu and me homeless. Which brings me full circle to this cold May day, finding lamb nuts in my coat pocket and not one skyscraper to be seen.

About a week before my tenants were to move in, I received a call from an old friend, Martin. He was calling for a catch-up as it had been a year since we’d spoken. An hour later, he insisted I come to England and stay with his family in Devon. I am indeed blessed. I thanked him with all my heart but declined the invite. I couldn’t leave LuLu, it would break her heart and mine. Having both of us was just too much to ask of anyone.

‘Bring her along!’ he said cheerfully. ‘She’ll have acres of country to run in.’

It was mid-November, the leaves in Central Park had turned and, as I hung up the phone, I could smell the nut man’s stand. ‘Come on, LuLu.’ I sighed. ‘Time to pack our things.’

Read the final part of Brianne’s Hollywood To Devon story in the 2 August issue.


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