THERE IS QUITE a procedure surrounding meeting Tippi Hedren at Shambala, her California home, because it is in a gated community. But not in the conventional Beverly Hills sense. The "gates" are 15-foot security fences and the "community" is Hedren's own safari-style sanctuary, a reserve for more than 50 big cats formerly used in the entertainment industry. It includes lions, one of Michael Jackson's tigers, and a couple of leopards.
Hedren has several domestic cats too. These are kept at a safe distance from their larger cousins, and all appear to be named after sexy film stars. "Where's Johnny Depp?" coos Hedren as we arrive, referring to a grey tabby who whisks past onto the netted roof of the conservatory.
Hedren, tiny, blond, booted in knee-length leather, and, at 82, still beautiful, once had the world at her feet. She was christened Nathalie: The nickname came from her Swedish father and derives from tupsa — meaning adorable. Hollywood certainly adored her. Cool and ice-blond, she stepped into the public domain as if she had always been there: a fully fledged star after just one film; a working woman — and single mother to boot — whose poise had caused Alfred Hitchcock to summon her after a single sighting in a television ad for a diet drink.
When the call came from Hitchcock, her only child, Melanie, was a toddler, and Hedren a successful model who had spent the 1950s making pots of money under the care of Eileen Ford at the famous Ford modeling agency in New York. "I had a very successful career going on as a fashion model," she says. "And of course with the advent of television came the commercials." These commercials paid well, and it was easy work for Hedren, then married to the actor/producer Peter Griffith, three years younger than her. The union was short-lived. In 1961, they divorced, and Hedren decided to head back to the West with Melanie. She was 31 and had no fears.
"I thought I could continue my career as it had been in New York, so I rented a very expensive home. I thought everything would be just fine, and it wasn't. So I thought, 'Well, I don't type, what shall I do?'"
Fortunately, TV commercials have a long shelf life, and Hedren was in a particularly good one, for Sego, a diet drink. On Friday, Oct. 13, 1961, after the ad had been running on TV, the phone rang. It was a man from Universal Studios. "He said, 'Are you the woman in the Sego advert? There is a producer here who is interested to meet you.'" Who was the producer? The man would not say. When she discovered the mystery producer was Hitchcock, she was thrilled, thinking that perhaps he might want her to work on one of his television projects. Hitchcock honored her with a personal welcome to Universal. "He opened the door and stood there with his hands over his belly. We had tea. We talked about everything; food, travel, wine, all sorts of things, everything other than making a motion picture."
There were screen tests and wardrobe fittings. Finally, four months later, Hedren was invited to lunch with Hitchcock, his wife, Alma, and Lew Wasserman, head of Universal. The venue was Chasen's, the starriest restaurant in Hollywood. The table was Hitchcock's.
"Hitch placed a beautifully wrapped parcel from this wonderful gift shop, Gump's of San Francisco, on my plate. I opened it and it was this beautiful gold and seed-pearl pin of three birds in flight. And he said, 'We want you to play Melanie Daniels in The Birds.' I was so stunned. It never occurred to me that I would be given a leading role in a major motion picture. I had great big tears in my eyes," says Hedren.
"I looked over at Mrs. Hitchcock and she was tearing up, and even Lew Wasserman was affected. I looked over at Hitch, and he was sitting there looking very pleased with himself."
Hedren is wearing the actual pin. One of the pearls has been lost, but I can understand why she has not replaced it. One wouldn't want to tamper with it. It is the symbol both of her springboard to fame and her eventual prison. From then on, she was at the mercy of her Svengali.
By the time of The Birds, Hitchcock was lauded and untouchable. Both physically and creatively the director had become one of Hollywood's colossal personalities. "On set he always held court," recalls Hedren. "We would hear the announcement 'Alfred Hitchcock has arrived.' He was always the most important entity. Wherever he went." And what he wanted was what he got. Always.
It started at the end of The Birds. To depict the notorious final sequence, when Melanie is attacked by dozens of birds on her own in an upstairs bedroom, Hedren was reassured that mechanical birds would be used. Yet Hitchcock had always planned otherwise. She arrived on set to discover cages of live birds were being put in position for the terrifying denouement. "They put bands around my waist and these bands had elastics pulled in different places through my dress. And the bird trainers tied the elastics to the feet of the birds, so they were all around me. One was even tied to my shoulder. At one point, it jumped up and almost clawed my eye."
Hedren's torment went on for five days. "At the end, I was so exhausted I just sat in the middle of the stage, sobbing."
WHEN THE MOVIE was released, Hedren was the toast of the film world. Hitchcock, always keen to appear in his own fictions, presented himself as the director who had invented her. There is a photograph of them both standing at the Palais in Cannes, Hitchcock looking like the cat who got the cream.
A star was indeed born, but Hedren was an experienced woman in her 30s. "I wasn't a little girl," she says. So when Hitchcock sought to draw her onto his casting couch, she rejected him. "It was horrifying. A horrible situation in which to be," she says and shudders. "There were women who would have gone along with it, but I wasn't one of those."
Having created a star who had the temerity to reject him, Hitchcock made sure she paid for it. Hedren was informed that she had received a Best Newcomer award, and was invited to accept it live on The Tonight Show in New York. It would have been a moment of national acclaim for her. Hitchcock refused to let her leave the L.A. set of Marnie, her next starring role. "That was when things came to a horrible, horrible fight," says Hedren. "He made these demands on me, and no way could I acquiesce to them."
After Marnie finished shooting, she'd had enough. "I said I wanted to get out of my contract. He said, 'You can't. You have your daughter to support, and your parents are getting older.' I said, 'Nobody would want me to be in this situation, I want to get out.' And he said, 'I'll ruin your career.' I said, 'Do what you have to do,'" says Hedren. "And he did ruin my career. He kept me under contract, paid me to do nothing for close to two years."
Directors, including François Truffaut, came knocking. They were all sent away. Hitchcock informed them that Hedren, the hottest actress in Hollywood, was "not available" for work. When she was finally let go by Hitchcock, she was no longer the woman of the moment. Her moment had come; she was unable to exploit it, and it had gone.
"All I wanted to do was to get out of the horrible situation," she says. "I didn't hear about things like Truffaut asking for me until years later. Yes, I felt like I had been cheated. It was like, 'He giveth and he taketh away.'" She shrugs. Was she ever tempted to relent? "Not for one minute," she says. "I would have been unable to live with myself."
HE NEVER IMPORTUNED her again, and she never discussed it with anyone. The story only came out years later, after Hitchcock's biographer Donald Spoto asked her about it. "I saved myself. I know that," she says. "I feel good about that. I wish I had gone on to do all those other films. But I couldn't. I replaced the films with other things."
She married her agent, Noel Marshall. She made some low-budget movies. She spent 11 years working on her own personal saga, Roar. Directed by Marshall and starring herself, Marshall, and Melanie, Roar is the story of a family who live alongside more than 100 leopards, lions, and tigers. It cost $17 million, made $2 million when it was eventually released, and was once described as "the most expensive home movie ever made." Afterward, Hedren transformed the Roar set into Shambala, the sanctuary where she now lives.
Her movie career stalled, she sailed around the South China Sea giving food and clothes to refugees from Vietnam — the Boat People — and sending them to safe havens. In America, she taught Vietnamese women how to do manicures, and sent them to beauty school. Last year, Hedren went to Washington, D.C., to receive a humanitarian award for her efforts. "I'm regarded as the patron saint of manicurists," she says. "Tee hee hee!"
Yet it is those two films, made more than 50 years ago, that fascinate the public even now. Recently, a playful poll on Twitter asking, "Who was Hitchcock's greatest leading lady?" came up with one name above all: Hedren. She knows it and accepts it. Her own house reflects it. There are pictures from Marnie, stills from The Birds (on wine labels), books about Hitchcock on the coffee table, and stuffed birds perched in almost every corner.
How does she avoid feeling bitter? Years in therapy? She looks at me as if I am mad. "I don't have time for counseling!" she says. "I'm very busy. Self-belief? My parents gave it to me. I know so many people who are eaten up by regret. It manifests itself in so many ways. They either become mentally a bit off, or they get very fat, or they are just horribly depressed. And there is also that thing called age. They don't write movies for older people," she says, laughing.
She is the least vain Hollywood personality I have ever met. She's not interested in hiding her age. Invitations to her 70th and 80th birthday parties (each one thrown by Melanie) are framed and hung on her living room wall. She refuses to take herself too seriously. "I went through Passports at L.A. airport the other day," she says, "and the security lady said, 'Oh, your name is Tippi Hedren. Do you know we had the real Tippi Hedren through here last year.'" She snorts with laughter. "I like going into town with no makeup on. And people say, 'You remind me so much of that Tippi Hedren!' 'Happens all the time,' I tell them."
From the Financial Times. ©2012 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- George W. Bush 'ran the country like a cable network,' and other political insights from Chris Rock
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- How Wall Street is chipping away at reform
- How I lost all my money
- A brief history of the Christmas present
- The age of miracles is over — even for the religious
Subscribe to the Week