In a quiet house in a leafy street somewhere in north London, a lady of certain years keeps receiving letters from an American artist, asking the colour of her eyes. "I'm thinking they're blue", he writes. But he never gets a reply from Nova Pilbeam.
At 14, Pilbeam was a child star; at 19, a Hitchcock blonde. She was, for a few short years, a home-grown British screen goddess; our Greta Garbo. But like Garbo, she cut short her glamorous career in the 1940s, and since 1948, Nova Pilbeam hasn't been seen on screen. Her life, once so public, has become entirely private. "She was an iconic figure," says that American artist, Duncan Hannah, as he tries to explain his obsession with this now little-known and long- forgotten star. "It was because she was obscure that I liked her. She belongs to me. She's all mine."
Even as I call Hannah at his Upper West-side studio in Manhattan, he is at work on five new studies of Pilbeam. He has painted her countless times. "The strange thing is that those are the paintings which always sell first," he says. "People seem to respond to her. I think they like the fact that I'm obsessed. They're buying part of the obsession. They don't even know who she is." In fact, people often assume that he made her up.
This is understandable. Hannah's paintings are mysterious compositions. They almost always feature vintage imagery: Brooklands- style racing cars, art deco Odeon cinemas, country houses which look as though they were last tenanted by Ivor Novello. The figures that populate them are schoolboys in shorts or starlets in gowns; their faces seem both familiar and strange. A diver is caught in the act of diving; a naked girl poses full-length. Like Edward Hopper's painting, there's a quiet, surreal theatricality to Hannah's works, an unspoken narrative, as if the viewer is left to supply the words. The New York Sun saw Hannah's paintings as " Brideshead Revisited meets Enid Blyton meets the quirky, tonal aloofness of Walter Richard Sickert". But what is even more extraordinary is that they are the work of a man who hung out with the New York Dolls in the 1970s, who boasted Andy Warhol as a mentor, and who once gave his cat to Patti Smith.
Duncan Hannah's interest in Nova Pilbeam was aroused when he saw her in Young and Innocent, her second film for Alfred Hitchcock, made at Pinewood Studies in 1937. "I was a Hitchcock fan, and I hadn't seen this one", Hannah recalls. "She was 17 years old in it. I just feel in love with her. I kept watching it - I saw it 12 times." Then he began to paint her, again and again; the fresh- faced, very English actress had become a kind of ghostly muse for the American. A friend managed to get her address, and so he began to write, too. Every time he painted her, he would send her a catalogue with her picture in it. "Never heard anything," he says. The one-sidedness of the relationship just made things all the more elusive. "She's the plucky English schoolgirl," rhapsodises Hannah. "She's got such spunk. That iconic face."
Born in Wimbledon in 1919, Pilbeam's career moved quickly from stage school to a starring role in Little Friend - a 1934 film with a screenplay by Christopher Isherwood. The movie broke box-office records, and audiences' hearts. "Even at that time," Hitchcock said of the child-star, "she had the intelligence of a fully grown woman. She had plenty of confidence and ideas of her own."
Nova was still only 15 when Hitchcock cast her in The ManWho Knew Too Much. In Shepperton Babylon, his essential survey of British cinema, Matthew Sweet describes Pilbeam as "a wholesome blonde with dark, accusing eyebrows like Tenniel's Alice". Young and Innocent (1937) is "a love story - but unusually for Hitchcock, it's the sweetest sort of movie," says Hannah. "A young couple are pursued by the police, and fall in love." During the filming of Young and Innocent, …