The Passion of JC (thats John Cleese, not the other JC)

24 Aug
John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda

John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda

Two summers back I found myself in the front row at the Festival Hall in Edinburgh, with my brother beside me, watching and listening to one of my all time comedy heroes – John Cleese. The man best known for his work with Monty Python, was in full swing on his ‘Alimony Tour’ – a tour of UK theatres doing his first one man show, in a bid to raise money to pay off the £12 million owing to his ex-wife following a bitter divorce.

I felt for him, as my own legal partner had made all sorts of grumblings and threats before I made my trip over and had at various points promised to clean me out in the event of a divorce. A lot of couples probably make such threats, possibly even jokily, during the course of heated rows and disputes in a bid for power or attention. In JC’s case however, it turns out that the threats weren’t without substance.

At the age of 53, he married Alyce Faye Eichelberger on 28 December 1992. Eichelberger was an American psychotherapist, four years his junior, and Cleese’s third wife. He had met her in 1990, when she was living in a third floor council flat in London with two children from her previous marriage. Film director Michael Winner accompanied them on their honeymoon. The couple announced their separation at the start of 2008, divorcing that December after 16 years of marriage. The divorce was fraught with tension, and Cleese was ordered to pay £8million in cash and assets plus £600,000 a year for 7 years (ie. until 2016). At which stage Cleese will be 77 years old.

Eichelberger was represented in court by Fiona Shakleton, who had represented the Prince of Wales and Paul McCartney in their divorces.

Cleese’s first two divorces reportedly passed off amicably, with the wives remaining friends, with the terms of his divorce from Connie Booth (married 1968-1978, one child) remained private, and his second wife Barbara Trentham (married 1981-1990, one child) ended in a £2.5 million settlement. JC could be forgiven for thinking that things might have gone smoothly the third time too,

In the wake of the drawn out divorce process much attention has been focussed on the negative aspects – something which is easier to do in a period of hurt than during the time of being together. Distance allows both colour and objectivity. In a 1994 interview with the Daily Mail (uggh) the picture painted was one of idyllic bliss (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-178537/Mrs-Cleese-life-John.html#) and of Alyce’s calming influence. She did however admit to the fairytale appeal of the relationship: “Earlier this year we went to Anthony Hopkins’ wedding and somebody said to the bride, ‘You are Cinderella’. I thought, ‘I feel that’,” says Alyce. “When I met John I was living in a third-floor council flat without a car.”

During the divorce she claimed she was used to “being entertained by royalty and dignitaries in castles”, declaring Cleese to be a world class talent. And undoubtedly at the time she married JC his star was at a high point, still enjoying the successes of A Fish Called Wanda and the renewed interest in the Pythons following their 20th anniversary celebrations in 1989. But the next 15 years saw diminishing returns, a star slowly burning its way into retirement.

It does strike me that in his 70s Cleese should be able to retire – the man worked for decades to achieve the comfort that should have accompanied old age. While Cleese’s idea of work may not measure up with the concept as understood by most of us (he talks about having to work for two months a year when he doesn’t want to – which may seem cheeky, but he is in his 70s!, beyond retirement age), it doesn’t seem right that he could easily be working to the grave to pay off a woman he spent his latter years with.

As Michael Winner vocalised at the time, the settlement was such that it would actually leave Cleese with less money than his ex-wife – she claimed half of his property portfolio, and half of his earnings since their marriage. Somewhere along the way the balance of these things seems a little unfair. Why should she take full benefit from his earnings (which would presumably include residuals from projects over the thirty years of work before they were married) when it was he who did the work?

Add to that the fact that there was clearly tension within the marriage from an early stage. In 1994 lawyers were reportedly consulted (not even two years into the marriage) over Eichelberger’s fears of JC’s working relationship with Lisa Hogan (a relationship which apparently continues to today).  The couple had been seeing marriage guidance counsellors since 2001, and had effectively been living in separate wings in their Santa Monica ranch.

Eichelberger continued to work as a psychotherapist, publishing a couple of books, appearing in a DVD with Cleese and collating a bundle of celebrity interviews (no harm there… *cough*).

Considering that there were no children from the relationship, the vast claim over JC seems excessively unfair, doubly so that Cleese now has to provide over £600,000 each year. Dragging out divorce settlements over years can only breed contempt and anger, and a strange psychological tie which will only be removed once the final payment is made. Eichelberger reportedly refused repeatedly to reach a private settlement with JC – demanding to see financial papers before the bid was made.

If one compares the settlement to the other huge celebrity divorce of 2008 – Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. In that instance, McCartney’s wealth was valued at £450 million. The couple had one daughter, and the eventual settlement was for some £24.3 million (far short of Mill’s original demand of £125 million), plus £35k per annum for childcare and schooling for their daughter.  While the McCartney divorce was settled in the UK, and the Cleese divorce in the US, there is a gross disproportion between the two agreements. As Cleese demonstrates in the live show, Eichelberger earned a cool $3,500 a day, just for being his wife. How the other half live, eh?!

As an admirer, it is a delight to be able to see Cleese performing – even in the very laid back, easy show that was the Alimony Tour – up close, and we’re going to be treated to an autobiography also a result of the need to pay off the beast that is the settlement. The best line about the situation comes at the start of the show – he feels he got off lightly; imagine if she’d actually contributed anything to the marriage… like a conversation!

Much of the post-marriage discussion seems to centre on her financial ladder climb. There’s another great Michael Winner quote: “She was always interested in associations with celebrities and rich men. She wanted to be the grande dame of London . . . I’m Mrs Cleese and I’ve got the keys to everything. Well, she certainly got the keys to the safe.” I’ve also read the suggestion that part of her aggressive tactics came because John Cleese turned down a knighthood, speculatively just so she wouldn’t be able to adopt the title ‘Lady Cleese’, which post-divorce she could still use (Heather Mills is legally still Lady McCartney as a result of Paul’s knighthood). Wonder would he accept one now?

Personally, you should be able to walk away from a marriage with everything you brought into it. In terms of financial settlements during the marriage time – that needs to be looked into. The anger does drive people to destroy their former partners and make them suffer mentally (and physically if possible) – force them into jobs they don’t want, and situations they don’t need. A child can make it easier or worse – either providing a genuine focus for financial obligation, or a buffer to things getting overly bitter. But half of everything? That’s never sat well with me, especially if both partners still work and keep their own finances separate from the family coffers. But then I believe in independence, even within a mutual relationship.

Ultimately when you go into a marriage, you imply trust. Things like pre-nuptial agreements suggest a level of distrust and arguably put the marriage onto the wrong foot before it even begins, but the reality is that none of us know who or what we are going to end up with. Dating is very different from living with someone, and living with someone is very different from being married and living together. Being cautious and protecting yourself in the event that things turn sour is just common sense. You can still invest totally in the relationship even with that security blanket.

And when things do fail, you owe it to your own sanity to behave with dignity, and try and walk away with as little anguish as possible. If you’ve got as far as discussing divorce, there’s obviously a problem. Boldly struggling on may be viewed as noble by some, but you’re just adding to the pressure, the possible financial obligation, and stress. And of course, somebody in the relationship is likely to be the ‘wronged’ party, and may feel more bitterness and anger and will lash out at you. That JC can turn the anger into comedy is to be admired – even if his reluctance is very evident. And in spite of the pain it hasn’t stopped him marrying again – to Jennifer Wade (a sprite of a thing, 31 years younger than JC) on 2 August 2012. As he commented, he can find some comfort in knowing that any future women aren’t marrying him for his money…

Well JC, you’ve been crucified by the ex… but one hopes your resurrection will follow soon and you can enjoy some of your senior years.

John Cleese’s website is: http://www.thejohncleese.com/
The former Mrs. Cleese is here: http://www.alycefaye.com/

You can buy a DVD of The Alimony Tour 2011 from here.

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