Byline: LESTER MIDDLEHURST
THERE are only two dates that I remember in my life,' declares Rita Moreno.
`The day I was born and the day I won my Oscar.'
She was born in 1932 and won her Oscar, for her role as Anita in West Side Story, in 1962. But there is, in fact, another date in between that she will never forget: the day she tried to kill herself.
It was in April, 1961 that she was taken to hospital to have her stomach pumped after taking an overdose of tablets.
`It wasn't just an attempt. I meant business. It was the most awful time of my life. When you reach that state of despair you think that life will be that miserable, wretched and horrible for as long as you live.What I didn't understand at the time was that things do change.
`Even now I can't bear to think what it did to my family. But I was extremely fortunate. I woke up to something that some people don't ever wake up to . . . the fact that you can die in the act of trying to kill the bad side of yourself but you also kill the good side.
`After that attempt I made a right turn and I found my good side. I was soon able to carry on with my own life without anybody else's help.'
Moreno prefers not to give into the specific reasons for her suicide attempt - indeed it's the first time she has talked about it - but a clue to what drove her to such a desperate act is that she was taken to hospital from Marlon Brando's home in Hollywood.
It was a publicly humiliating end to what had previously been a discreet and, for the most part, secretive affair that had lasted for eight years.
Moreno knew Brando's reputation as a womaniser but had endured his infidelities. Their relationship began before he met his first wife, British actress and model Anna Kashfi, and continued while he was dating her. Even while he was bombarding Kashfi with letters of love during the filming of The Teahouse Of The August Moon in Japan, Moreno was with him.
Their affair continued after Brando's divorce in 1959 but it appeared to be his second marriage to Mexican actress Movita Castaneda - a woman he had previously been involved with during his liaison with Moreno - and the birth of their son Miko in 1961 which finally seemed to push Moreno over the edge.
Neither Brando nor Moreno have since talked about their relationship but they have remained friends. In fact, eight years after her suicide attempt, the actress co-starred with Brandon in the film The Night Of The Following Day.
`There is falling in love and falling in love. You don't want the kind of love where you feel you are falling off a cliff but sometimes you can't tell the difference.'
But her relationship with Brando was not the sole reason for her suicide attempt. She had endured a troubled childhood and adolescence. She was five years old when she arrived in New York from Puerto Rico with her mother. She immediately met the anti-Hispanic racism that her character Anita experienced in West Side Story.
Even when she was established as an actress the only roles that were offered her were those that required her to live up to her image as Miss Spitfire, The Puerto Rican Pepper Pot and Rita The Cheetah - labels which she still depsises.
`I remember rehearsing that scene in the candy store in West Side Story and there came a point where I couldn't take being called those terrible names any more. I sat at the candy store counter, put my head on my arms and started to cry. I couldn't stop crying.
`It was too close to the bone. All the old wounds were re-opened.'
Moreno also experienced a disturbing succession of stepfathers due to the fact that her mother married five times. …