An extract from Adam Andrusier’s memoir, Two Hitlers and a Marilyn, published by Headline on 8 July 2021
Throughout the 1980s my father suffered from a chronic case of sixties mania. The Profumo scandal, the disastrous arrival of Yoko Ono on the scene and the early death of Eddie Cochran were his live concerns. He talked incessantly about those years. ‘Do you remember …?’ he asked friends in a rhetorical tone. Our family parties were sixties themed. Rock’n’roll quizzes were a fixture.
Dad used our Betamax video to record anything that came on about that era, including a documentary in several parts, The History of Rock’n’Roll, which we watched together as a family. Dad delivered side-lectures. At weekends, he stuck on sixties music and twitched his hand in my mother’s direction, and my sister and I would make demented faces at each other while our parents danced. Dad grabbed his curls with one hand, spread the other across his skinny belly and popped his body around like he was a chicken.
In the Volvo during school run he became particularly excitable. He forced us to listen to his favourite songs from the Hit Parade and stroked my cheeks while they played. ‘You like it, Adam be-doobee-doobs?’ he asked. I nodded, then tried putting on one of my own cassettes of the Eurythmics or Prince or ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. But Dad was having none of it.
‘Not really my thing,’ he said, pressing the eject button.
He fumbled again with his own cassettes till a stuttering voice came through the speakers, something about a pretty girl named Peggy Sue, then Dad started thrusting his chin back and forth.
‘Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. Completely tragic. I remember it like it was yesterday.’
In traffic jams in Kenton my sister and I got after-dinner speeches about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Six Day War, Kennedy’s assassination. We also got lectures on how poor Dad’s family had been, how he’d slept in the lounge, how there was a time they’d been evicted. And now – look at him! – driving a Volvo 760, with electric roof and seats that warmed up when you pressed the red button. We drove along the Hendon Way with the windows down, boosting out ‘Love Potion Number Nine’.
‘Where shall we go on holiday this summer, Doobs?’ asked Dad.
I called to mind cardboard cut-outs of Charles and Diana in the back windows of a hire car, people yelling, ‘My God! Your accents!’ and ‘How’s the fog in London, these days?’ One person asked if we personally knew Patrick Macnee of The Avengers. ‘We don’t know him, but we know who he is,’ replied Dad, wagging a finger. Then the boat trip in Disneyland where the figures stood on the banks, singing and dancing, changing nationality. My sister and I felt like a King and Queen surveying our kingdom. ‘It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears, it’s a small world after all.’
As we circled Northwick Park roundabout, Dad laughed and said, ‘You want to go again?’
‘Yes! Can we?’
I shut my eyes for a bit and listened to the music, feeling like I was part of Dad’s new and luxurious lifestyle, and that everything would always be fine – just as long as Yoko Ono didn’t come and screw things up again.
My father was a financial advisor and life insurance broker, which meant he advised people on how to bet against their own deaths. He couldn’t technically stop you from dying but could help you mitigate against it financially, as long as you didn’t mind being dead when the policy paid out. ‘All I know,’ he said, ‘is I get a lot of letters from widows thanking me for the advice I gave their late husbands.’
His office was on Regent Street above a jewellery shop. I always spent a day there during the school holidays. Dad bounced in brandishing postcards of lost synagogues. He stroked the secretaries’ cheeks and told a bad Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman joke before asking his main secretary, Trisha, ‘Would you like to make some tea, Bubbles?’ Her eyes widened as Dad fondled her face, and I nodded empathetically, conveying Stay strong, Trisha – we can get through this together.
Then Dad would turn to me and stroke my cheeks like I was a hamster, which made it Trisha’s turn to nod knowingly.
‘This is my son,’ Dad announced to his staff. ‘My son!’
‘We know, Adrian,’ the staff replied. ‘We’ve met him before.’
My father’s office walls teemed with faded prints of cartoon characters making jokes about dying, scattered paper and calculators on the desks, plus a cracked framed photograph of Dad as Charlton Heston as Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. The main thing, though, was the files. There were heaps of them everywhere, with clients’ names scrawled on in block capitals: files on the floor, files on the windowsills, files on the chairs too, including where the client was meant to sit. If Dad’s study at home conveyed the abandoned ruins of Dresden, his office spoke of the littered, bleached wastelands of Hiroshima.
‘Where’s Howard Spiegel’s file?’ Dad bellowed.
‘Maybe in these?’ A forlorn-looking secretary appeared holding yet more files.
‘It’s not there,’ Dad barked, continuing his frenzied search. ‘Ah, it’s alright, Bubbles. I’ve found it!’
Going to Dad’s office during the school holidays was billed as “fun”. As soon as we arrived, Dad forgot I existed. I was left to my own devices while he spun in his director’s chair, signing documents with a flourish. I figured my sister, Ruth, had made the better choice, ensconced in our living room at home reading the works of Dickens, Mum hoovering around her.
Sometimes a shiny-looking client arrived for an appointment, all smiles and handshakes and ‘How are you, Adrian?’ Dad told them the same joke he’d told the secretaries earlier, then pointed at me and said, ‘That’s my son’. I flicked a smile as he disappeared into his office. Then, within seconds, he pressed a button on his phone and said to whichever secretary answered, ‘Bubbles, you couldn’t get me a quote on Mr Goldfarb’s joint life first-death policy, could you?’ I watched the secretary raise her eyes to heaven at the sound of Dad’s voice, then go in and fake-smile as if she was posing for one of his photos.
Dad must have told Trisha about my autograph of Ronnie Barker, because she had an idea about how I could get more. She went through all the listings in the Evening Standard to see which actors were appearing on stage.
‘You can write to them care of the theatres,’ she suggested.
‘But can you tell me which ones are really famous?’ I demanded.
‘You’re the boss’s son,’ Trisha winked. ‘I’ll do my best.’
We were soon interrupted by Dad’s voice, calling out something about total and permanent disability, and Trisha would say, ‘Gotta go, darling. Dad needs me,’ then she’d disappear. She’d sit at her desk typing letters at a hundred words a minute with her headset on so she could hear my father’s recorded voice; I saw her pause to shake out her fingers. Meanwhile, I handwrote letter after letter to actors I’d never heard of, essentially bored out of my brains against the backdrop of Trisha’s typing, and my father composing yet more letters on his Dictaphone. Full stop. New paragraph.
At lunchtime, Dad remembered I existed. He poked his head around his door and grinned. ‘So, Adam be-doobee-doobs. Shall we take a walk down Carnaby Street, my son?’
Once we were walking, it was like the bit at the office had never happened. We strolled down Regent Street and he told me how good it felt to have an office right in the centre of things. And, someday, perhaps I’d like to join his company?
‘Not really my thing.’
‘Well, you’re young, Doobs. There’s time. Who knows what you’ll end up doing? Frankly, there are so many things I could have done, myself, besides insurance. For instance, I’d have made a great film director.’
In Carnaby Street, Dad shook his head at the T-shirts with Hitler’s face on – ‘World Tour 1939–1945’ – and frowned at the punks with long boots, studs in their faces, and huge coloured, pointy hairdos.
‘They remind me of Toyah,’ I commented, thinking of the scary orange hair I’d seen on Top of the Pops.
‘Toyah, Dad. Don’t you know who she is? She’s a famous popstar!’
‘Oh, I’m not following the pop music,’ explained Dad. ‘Which reminds me. Have you heard of a band called the Thompson Twins?’
‘Thompson Twins? Of course, I have!’
‘Well, I’ve got Tony Smith coming in next week – an accountant friend of mine – and he’s going to introduce them, in case they want some insurance. I’ll ask for their autographs, shall I? I want to help you build your collection.’
‘Really, Dad? That would be amazing.’
I pretty much forgot about the Thompson Twins thing because I was busy writing to actors I’d never heard of. I wrote to people called Alan Bates, Ben Kingsley, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Anthony Sher and Bonnie Langford. I wrote so many letters I got cramp in my hand, just like Trisha, and had to stop to massage my fingers.
‘I’ve got a present for you,’ said Dad, one evening.
He produced a colourful record from a plastic bag. The Thompson Twins were posed at different angles like Dr Seuss characters, and each one had signed the record cover in silver ink adding a special message to me.
I couldn’t believe my father had met these actual people, and that they’d signed their names for me. I stared at all the handwriting – the ‘love always’ and ‘lotsa fun’ — as if they were ancient runes that needed decoding.
‘I must say, I hadn’t expected there to be three of them,’ said Dad. ‘Can’t imagine why they call themselves twins.’
It was an exciting addition to my autograph collection, but also the first record I’d owned, so I put it on all the time. I paid close attention to the spread piano chords, the squelchy low-down baseline and the echoey castanets in the introduction before anyone started singing, ‘Hold me now, warm my heart, stay with me, let loving start.’ I had no idea what the song was about, but it didn’t matter. The woman with the shaved head was the girlfriend of the one with the brown spiky hair, Dad explained, which made me wonder if they might be about to start building a pension pot together. I figured the one with the long spiky black hair was probably after critical illness cover.
‘They liked me,’ Dad added.
Not long after, my father came home with amazing news. He’d been right about the Thompson Twins liking him, because now they’d invited him and Mum to a party in the countryside.
‘I’m not going,’ said Mum. ‘I can’t do the whole insurance broker’s wife thing.’
‘Oh, come on, Lo-lo. It’ll be fun.’
‘Will you get autographs?’ I gasped. ‘There’ll be loads of popstars there!’
‘Oh, I suppose,’ said Dad. ‘I’ll definitely try.’
As the night of the party approached, I had the whole thing planned out. My father would basically work the room and get every famous signature going. I coached him on how to interrupt celebrity conversations.
‘Don’t let me down,’ I warned.
It didn’t seem fair when Mum and Dad disappeared off in the Volvo for their popstar party in the countryside, while Ruth and I were left to play Monopoly with the babysitter and watch the Saturday Show, where Big Daddy threw Giant Haystacks around a wrestling ring, followed by 3-2-1, where the contestants crashed out with Dusty Bin. But I went to bed without a fuss that night because I couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning and see what my father had brought back.
‘It was incredible,’ said Dad. ‘There were jugglers and magicians and midgets serving drinks and fireworks and all sorts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a house that big. Mummy thought it was flashy, but I loved it.’
‘And who was there, Dad? Which popstars?’
‘Oh, there was somebody George.’
‘Not Boy George?’ I gasped. ‘You got his autograph?’
‘That was it – Boy George. And Lionel Richie was there. And a girl band.’
‘Which one?’ I was mentally inserting all the new signatures into my collector’s album.
Dad called out to Mum, who was still in bed, ‘What was the name of that girl band, Anna?’
‘Bananarama,’ Mum called out.
That made even my sister emerge from her bedroom, clutching her Charlotte Brontë.
‘Bananarama?’ we both shrieked.
‘I don’t know them,’ said Dad.
‘So, you got me autographs. Please show me the autographs!’
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Dad, sadly. ‘I couldn’t. I tried to get near Lionel Richie, but it was impossible. And I wasn’t completely sure which one Boy George was. And even though I was standing right next to Bananarama, I didn’t find out who they were until later. Tony Smith told me – the Thompson Twins’ accountant.’
I was devastated. A one-off opportunity, and my father had screwed it up. I pictured him at the party, talking to boring accountants about pension pots and Yoko Ono while all the crazy partying went on around him. I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t tried harder. Imagining my father at the Thompson Twins’ party made me see him differently; it made me see him as smaller.
Not long after, on a week’s holiday in the South of France, I came face to face with the most famous person of all time. Ruth and I were swimming in the pool when I noticed a huge man on one of the balconies doing vigorous exercises. He was fat and blonde and bobbing his head up and down. He looked enormously strong. And familiar. When he paused, he came into focus.
‘Oh my God!’ I yelled at my sister. ‘It’s Big Daddy!’
We stared for a while, but he disappeared from view, back into his bedroom. He looked so much stronger than on television, which made me wonder how my own father would fare in a fight with him. Big Daddy would snap him in half.
My mum suggested I get a piece of hotel-headed paper and a pen just in case Big Daddy came down to the pool. And, later that day, he appeared! He was tall, and hugely fat, and walked like a titan. His biceps were easily three times the size of Dad’s, and his enormous swimming trunks went in a big circle around his belly. When he dropped into the pool, the water rose up around him like he was a hippopotamus. I got ready with my pen and paper. I felt nervous about approaching the megastar but decided I couldn’t be like my dad at the Thompson Twins’ party. I had to succeed.
Eventually, the wrestler got tired of swimming and eased himself slowly up the pool steps.
‘Are you Big Daddy?’ I asked.
‘For my sins,’ he said, smiling. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Adam. Can I have your autograph?’
‘Course you can, son. Let me lean on your back.’
I turned around, and the huge man placed the piece of paper on me and started to write, then he said, ‘There you go.’
He’d written, ‘To Adam from Big Daddy.’
I took the piece of paper back to my parents, waving it over my head like a golden Wonka ticket.
‘Look,’ I said, trying to catch my father’s eye. ‘That’s how you do it!’
‘Marvellous,’ said Mum, looking up from her Latin crossword. ‘Well done.’
‘I got a couple of snaps,’ said Dad, tapping his camera beside him on the sun lounger. ‘My God, the man’s enormous. He’ll have a heart attack if he’s not careful.’
‘Maybe you can sell him some life insurance,’ suggested Mum in a quiet voice.
Dad rearranged his sinewy, svelte body on the lounger and smiled up at the sun. ‘Which reminds me of that joke. What do you call a woman who knows where her husband is all the time?’
‘Dunno,’ we said.
Dad smirked at his own punchline, then patted his bare chest with a flat hand.
‘I’ve heard that joke at least a hundred times,’ said Mum.
‘You know, it was more about boxing in my day,’ Dad continued, as if responding to a question by an interviewer. ‘The Henry Cooper fight against Muhammad Ali in 1963. What a fight that was. Can’t say I remember any wrestling.’
I was trying to tune my father out by staring at the handwriting on the page and its message to me.
‘Oh, and Doobs,’ Dad said, turning his head on the headrest and lowering his voice, ‘you do know that Big Daddy isn’t his real name? His real name’s Shirley Crabtree. Shirley! Can you believe it?’
‘Huh,’ I said. ‘Almost as bad as Adrian.’
‘Adrian’s not bad, is it?’ Dad seemed suddenly anxious and half sat up.
‘It’s not the best,’ said Mum.
But Big Daddy wasn’t Shirley Crabtree. He was Big Daddy. He’d looked like him, he’d behaved like him, and he’d written his name on my piece of paper. I’d managed to puncture a hole between our universe and the parallel one where all the celebrities lived, and I wasn’t going to let my father spoil that. And I definitely wasn’t going to end up spinning in an office chair, muttering into a Dictaphone, sending pointless letters and making secretaries’ eyes roll. For the rest of the holiday, that chance encounter by the pool was pretty much all I thought about. I knew that when we got home and Dad was stuck on a sixties theme, and turning down the volume of ‘California Dreamin’’ to inform me that Mama Cass had choked to death on a ham sandwich, I had a story of my own tucked away to tell my own children someday. A story that had happened right now in the eighties.