Why I Blame Myself for the Murder of Joe Orton; It Was a Sixties Cause Celebre- the Bludgeoning of an Outrageous Playwright Byhis Gay Lover. Now,with His Best-Known Work Revived in the West End, Comes This Startling Confession

Daily Mail (London), April 4, 2009 | Go to article overview

Why I Blame Myself for the Murder of Joe Orton; It Was a Sixties Cause Celebre- the Bludgeoning of an Outrageous Playwright Byhis Gay Lover. Now,with His Best-Known Work Revived in the West End, Comes This Startling Confession


Byline: by Michael Thornton

THE horrifying spectacle of grisly carnage in the tiny, spartan bedsitter in Islington, North London, on that August afternoon in 1967, was one that made even hardened policemen turn pale.

Lying in bed, his face caked with dried blood, his head 'cratered like a burnt candle', was the body of Joe Orton, the 34-year-old playwright whose anarchic, outrageous and often shocking black comedies had made him the idol of the West End theatre.

The hammer that was used to batter him to death, with nine frenzied blows to his skull, lay above the bed cover on Orton's chest.

On the floor, naked, his hands, chest and bald head streaked with his victim's blood, lay the body of Orton's 41-year-old gay lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who had died within 30 seconds from a massive overdose of Nembutal, pre-deceasing the murdered man by several hours.

Entertaining Mr Sloane, the glittering, dark comedy about love, death and violence, which Orton dedicated to Halliwell, his lover and killer, is once again running in London's West End in an acclaimed revival starring Oscar-nominated actress Imelda Staunton and Mathew Horne of the television sitcom, Gavin And Stacey.

But for all the critical praise heaped upon the new production, I have resisted going to see it. The life and death of Joe Orton, and his startlingly autobiographical plays, are matters I have steadfastly avoided for four decades.

During all that time, I have been haunted by a dreadful possibility. Was it a disastrous error of judgment on my part that provoked Kenneth Halliwell to commit one of the most terrible murders in recent memory, and to extinguish brutally one of the brightest creative talents the theatre has ever known? The story begins in London in the Swinging Sixties, in the elegant Belgravia penthouse of the legendary American-born musical star, Dorothy Dickson, an intimate friend of the Royal Family and one of the great beauties of the Broadway and London stage in the years between the two world wars.

After her retirement from the theatre in the mid- 1950s, D.D., as her friends called her, transformed herself into an accomplished and discerning hostess.

At the parties held in her yellow chartreuse drawing-room in Eaton Square, there would be an eclectic assortment of guests, ranging from the Queen Mother, one of Dorothy's lifelong friends, to actors, ambassadors, writers and composers.

And it was there, in 1966, that I, then London's youngest film and theatre critic, first met Joe Orton, whose fourth play, Loot, was attracting packed houses in the West End. Dorothy had been to see it and pronounced herself 'electrified' by Orton's audacious talent.

Joe, brought up on Leicester council estates, the son of a council gardener -- 'I'm from the gutter,' he would say, 'and don't you ever forget it because I won't' -- seemed conspicuously out of place at the grand glitterati gatherings convened by Dickson, and he made no discernible effort to adjust to his entry into high life. .

YET it was impossible not to like him. Orton was the high priest of tease.

Mischievous to the point of being wicked, unscrupulous and utterly amoral, he was a predatory gay who was defiantly 'out' long before it was considered safe or fashionable to be so, and also before homosexuality had been decriminalised.

Often clad from head to foot in black leather, Joe revelled in lowlife sleaze, constantly cruising the red-light districts of London in search of anonymous roughtrade sex, returning home to fill his diaries with shocking details of 'frenzied homosexual saturnalia' in public lavatories.

He would proposition any attractive male who took his fancy, myself included, regardless of their persuasion. Yet, though many disapproved of his excesses, I never met one who did not like him.

Dickson was charmed and amused by him. Whether she knew that he had been to prison, I have no idea. …

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