Obituary: Elizabeth Harris Aitken, actress and public relations figure who had a tumultuous marriage to Richard Harris

Elizabeth Harris Aitken, who died at the age of 85, began her career as an actress and later founded a successful public relations company; She is better known, however, for her tumultuous marriages to actors Richard Harris and Rex Harrison, which she chronicled in her memoir Love, Honor and Dismay (1976).

She endured further dissatisfaction in the 1980s as the wife of Lord Beaverbrook’s grandson, Peter Aitken, an investment banker, before eventually finding happiness as the second wife of Aitken’s cousin, former Tory Cabinet Secretary and Reformed prison candidate Jonathan Aitken.

Elizabeth Harris Aitken memorably described her life as “a tale of tenderness, betrayal, insanity, adultery, alcohol, ambition and suicide. The Usual Problems of Everyday Life” and when Jonathan Aitken announced their engagement, a journalist on hand remarked that his 66-year-old fiancé had “an elegant hint of world-weariness”.

She was born Elizabeth Rees-Williams on 1 May 1936 in Glamorgan, Wales, the middle child of David Rees-Williams and his wife Constance, daughter of the Lord Mayor of Cardiff. Her father served as Labor MP for Croydon South from 1945 to 1950, when he was created Baron Ogmore, and then served as Minister for Civil Aviation in Clement Attlee’s administration.

She enrolled at the Rada, where her contemporaries included Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Peter O’Toole, and then joined the repertory circle, but her acting career fizzled out after she met a hellish but penniless young redhead Irish actor named Richard Harris met in a coffee bar in Earl’s Court in 1956.

They began an affair during which she spent all of her £50 a month clothing allowance on his rent. When their marriage was celebrated with a glamorous reception in the House of Lords in 1957, the groom’s total fortune was £25.

The couple soon had three sons in quick succession, and Elizabeth put her career on hold to travel with her husband when he was becoming a big star. However, Harris was not ready to play the role of the family man. “Sometimes he would say ‘I’m just going out for a drink’ and forgot to say he was going to a bar in Dublin,” she recalled. “I would wait for him at home in London and not hear from him for a fortnight.”

Once he disappeared for a month only to come home and ask, “Why didn’t you pay the ransom?”

She said: “He was wild and young. There was no structure; I never knew what would happen tomorrow or where he would be.”

As the 1960s progressed, it became increasingly difficult for her to put up with his behavior. Finally, for comfort, she turned to Robin Douglas-Home, the writer, musician, photographer – and nephew of former British Prime Minister Alec.

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When Douglas-Home committed suicide in 1968, the Harris marriage was all but over. They divorced in 1969 but remained good friends. During their marriage, she had left drinking to her husband, but after they split, she recalled in her memoir, “I couldn’t rest until I evened scores with Richard. I behaved appallingly.”

She partied relentlessly, stayed away from home late at night, and was constantly in debt. She briefly dated Christopher Plummer and also spent time with Rex Harrison and his fourth wife, Rachel Roberts.

Despite his checkered romantic past, Elizabeth felt that Harrison, 30 years her senior, could offer her the stability she craved and began an affair with the veteran actor, and the couple called just four weeks after announcing their split announced by Rachel, to Tangier (who attempted suicide in response).

Elizabeth became Harrison’s fifth wife in 1971, but Harrison was a notoriously autocratic, fastidious man with a marked streak of cruelty.

Initially, Elizabeth enjoyed his obsession with order, but soon began to stifle it.

She had to change clothes every night for dinner, even if the couple stayed home; She was to plan menus and set out three trays of drinks in different rooms each night so her husband could make a last-minute decision on where he wanted to be. Once, no doubt encouraged by the example of his employer, Harrison’s butler slapped Elizabeth on the hand as she was taking a plum from a bowl and told her, “These are Master’s plums”. She recalled how much she admired her husband so much that she stood up every time he entered the room.

His behavior became widely known, and when Elizabeth’s first husband, Richard Harris, read that Rex Harrison had thrown wine in her face in a restaurant, he called him and said, “If you do that again, I’ll come over and kick your hairpiece.” off.” When an old friend scolded Harrison for his behavior towards Elizabeth, saying, “I’ve never met a more unfortunate woman in my life,” Harrison replied, “Oh, haven’t you? I have. All my other wives.”

The marriage faltered until the couple finally separated in July 1975, after which Elizabeth, in an attempt at catharsis, began her memoir (which she ambiguously dedicated to “RH”).

She also began an affair with Jonathan Aitken, then an ambitious young Conservative MP, a relationship that ended when she became involved with his cousin Peter. She and Peter Aitken married in 1980, but as she recalled, “It wasn’t really a marriage, it was a mistake.” It ended in bitter bitterness in 1985, and when the dust cleared, Elizabeth found that she was only very much had little money. As soon as she could, she changed her name back to Harris by deed.

Struggling to get her life back on track, she started a PR company that became a success, representing several luxury hotels around the world.

She was in no rush to remarry, but in 2001 she met old flame Jonathan Aitken at a screening of a film with her son Jamie and Aitken’s nephew Jack Davenport, both actors. Aitken, who famously fell on his “sword of truth” after lying during a libel lawsuit and found Christianity after seven months in Belmarsh prison, was a very different man from the ambitious young politician she was in the 1970s years.

They dated for six months before Aitken proposed, during which time Aitken met and befriended Richard Harris, who was dying of Hodgkin’s disease. When she and Aitken became engaged, Harris gave his consent, and when her ex-husband died in October 2002, Aitken was present for the administration of last rites.

They married in St Margaret’s, Westminster, in 2003 and honeymooned in the Bahamas at the home Elizabeth once shared with Richard Harris. They settled down to a content married life and in 2018 Elizabeth found herself the wife of a prison chaplain after Aitken took holy orders to become a chaplain at Pentonville.

However, for the last 10 years of her life, she suffered from worsening health problems that began with a massive stroke, followed by a second stroke, heart failure, and two tumors.

She is survived by her husband and three sons from her marriage to Richard Harris, including Bafta winner Jared Harris.

© Telegraph Media Group Ltd. 2022

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] Obituary: Elizabeth Harris Aitken, actress and public relations figure who had a tumultuous marriage to Richard Harris

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