Encounters with legends: 'I was Douglas Adams's flatmate'

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What was Dudley Moore like in bed? How would you feel if you were asked to stand in for Billie Holliday? What kind of man would share a flat with Douglas Adams? And what sort of girl would hit the road with Ernest Hemingway?

John Bassett: 'I Was Dudley Moore's First Bandleader'

Dudley Moore was a prodigious jazz pianist, key member of the 1960s satire movement and star of such Hollywood blockbusters as '10' and 'Arthur'. Born in Dagenham on 19 April 1935, he showed extraordinary musical talent from an early age, and while at grammar school was encouraged to apply for a music scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge. To his surprise, one of his applications was successful, and he became the organ scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford. There, he came into contact with fellow student John Bassett, a trumpeter with a love of jazz and big bands. Soon Moore was playing in Bassett's band, the Bassett Hounds

People talk about Dudley, when he was at Oxford, being worried about coming from Dagenham and about being small. I never saw him show the faintest worry about Dagenham and all that, because he was so sure – without being bossy or big-headed – of his talent. It is true that the organ scholar before Dudley was 6ft 4in and Dudley took over his scholar's gown, and my mother took it up by two foot so that he could walk in it. But, you know, he walked tall, Dudley did, with his ability.

When you play a stunning solo, you get an enormous round of applause. I don't need to tell you that Dudley played stunning solos, so it wasn't long before the entire audience was roaring its approval for what he was playing. And, warming to that applause as any performer does, it wasn't long again before he got off the chair and started doodling about, being silly and joking, and I think that gave him the confidence to do performances. He was busking [as both a pianist and comic], picking up on the audience musically, and humorously and verbally as well.

He used to do "Little Bo Peep" in various styles, of which Benjamin Britten was the most vicious. He worked on those all the time. But I do have one special memory, from our drummer's sister's wedding. As they went to sign the wedding register, he played "Can't Help Lovin' dat Man" as a Bach chorale. He knew every musical reference. He could take the mickey out of every infantile tune he could find.

Dudley's talent was prodigious, but because he was really quite shy, very gentle and extremely warm, it only came upon you ever so gradually, really. I can't remember k being bowled over and knocked out with it; it just seemed to be there. Looking back on it is the astonishing part.

After Oxford, Dudley got picked up by [dance bandleader] Vic Lewis to play with him, and was a brilliant imitator of Vic. They were both quite small men. There was a lot of musical mutiny in Vic's ranks and he kept on saying, "I've had it up to here... I've had it up to here, Dudley," and, of course, "up to here" was a foot above his head!

As well as walking his Bassett Hounds, John moonlighted as the assistant artistic director of the Edinburgh Festival – and passing through his office in the early part of 1960 were fellow Oxonian Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, who had been at Cambridge, and Moore, who was still at the piano. The festival's director, Robert Ponsonby, suggested all three should meet up-and-coming writer Peter Cook, who had penned a successful revue – 'Pieces of Eight' – in the West End for the 'Carry on...' star Kenneth Williams. This legendary meeting has now become the most historic matchmaking since the Three Musketeers, as Bassett recalls...

We met in an Italian restaurant opposite Warren Street Tube station. There ought to be a blue plaque on it. All four met and they were all very wary of saying anything funny in case the others didn't laugh. Of course the three of them apart from Dudley were thinking of witty, perceptive, incisive, intellectual jokes; Dudley broke the lot of them into hysterics by doing a Groucho Marx walk. The restaurant had double-doors into the kitchen. You went in through one with dirty crockery and you came out through another. The waitresses were very pretty and Italian, and Dudley does this walk behind one who's got dark hair, with plates full of rubbish, and immediately comes out with a blonde with full plates, as if he's changed the girl behind the doors, and it broke the atmosphere between them, because we realised that we all laughed at basic practical jokes as well as more intellectual ones. I'm convinced that without that, the other three would have been singularly more guarded.

With the triumph of 'Beyond the Fringe' – and its transfer to Broadway – Moore's path to fame was assured. But his life in New York, while opulent, retained a 'studenty' feel...

Dudley had rented a flat from the star of Kiss Me, Kate. She had an artistic leaning, but only paint-by-numbers; so there was The Blue Boy paint-by-numbers, the Mona Lisa paint by numbers – not repro but paint-by-numbers all over the flat. Dudley had originally rented it for himself and his hoped-for girlfriend, Celia Hammond. Eventually, he said I could stay as I had nowhere to go. He and I slept in two gargantuan double-beds, and if you've ever seen Dudley in an emperor-size bed, he gets lost. There we were, in these beds watching telly, and I was beginning to worry because Celia was due to arrive and I knew he'd want to get me out. So he started dropping a hint or two.

Eventually he agreed I could stay in the double emperor-size bedroom and he would move with Celia into the other single emperor-sized bedroom, but we would have had to make sure there was no sound from one to the other. So Dudley went into the room he was going to share with Celia and made what he thought were female orgasmic noises, while I stayed in the main room to see if I could hear any squeak whatsoever. Now (a) that was ludicrous, and (b) it should have been the other way round. Dudley should have reassured himself that he couldn't hear orgasmic noises by staying in the main bedroom while I made them. I said I hadn't heard a dicky bird.

Dudley Moore went on to have considerable success in America with a string of films, culminating in '10', co-starring Bo Derek, and 'Arthur'. Bassett frequently visited Moore in Los Angeles and they maintained close contact. In 1999 Moore was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder. He died in 2002

There's a sadness at the end of Dudley's life. Not only that he died young, but that he lost the use of his hands first. To realise you can never again play to your standard is horrific. The phone calls to me came to an end. I wrote to him a lot and didn't expect letters back. Sadly, and it may have been his wish – I don't know – but the very kind family he was with wouldn't allow anyone, anyone, to go and see him. I sent him some photos, but he may not want to have been reminded of the fun of long ago while in extremis.

Since I didn't see Dud's illness, every recollection I have of him is of enormous good humour and fun and laughs and hysteria and competitions in seduction.

He always lifted every meeting he was a part of, he lifted it up and made it memorable; musically, humorously, intelligently, warmly, humanely.

Jon Canter: 'I was Douglas Adams's flatmate

The comedy writer Jon Canter met Douglas Adams while they were students at Cambridge University in the 1970s, a dark decade of power cuts and winters of discontent

I was a student at Cambridge from 1971 to 1974, the same time as Douglas; he was reading English, I was reading Law. I remember our first conversation. We were walking across a lawn in Cambridge and he told me his ambition was to be president of [comedy troupe] Footlights, and I said, "No! I want to be president." "No, I want to be..."

It's hard for people to believe this now but in the early 1970s it wasn't cool to have worldly ambition. Douglas really had that. And the first sign was when he came down to London to interview John Cleese for the university newspaper, and we all thought that was so uncool – to be so openly ambitious, to want to meet the great man. Of course, we all wanted to meet John Cleese, but Douglas did it and was an extra on, I think, Monty Python's Life of Brian and got friendly with the Pythons because of that initial contact, which sort of launched him, really.

He was quite a curious cult figure, not least because of the scale of him: 6ft 5in, incredibly large, looming, giraffe-like gestures. He was literally unmissable and had this clever verbal gift from the start. But I didn't really get Douglas until later, when he was working as a script editor on Doctor Who. I understood then what it was that he had which was very unusual – well, to me, anyway: he was an Arts student who had real scientific knowledge and depth of interest, so his breadth was greater than other people's. You couldn't tie him down. His thoughts were bigger because of his knowledge of science, physics. He could think cosmically.

We weren't close friends at university. We became friends later and that was to do with this house we rented in London – in Arlington Avenue, Islington – which is immortalised in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The phone number of that house is in the book as 2 to the power of 267,709, and the phone number there was 226 7709, hilariously. That was a little coded message for all of us who lived in the house, as he used to come and sleep on the floor when he was script-editing Doctor Who and when he was working on the radio series of Hitchhiker, which is when we became friends.

Five people lived at 29 Arlington Avenue: two couples and me. One of the couples, Jonny and Clare – spring 1978 – said they were having a baby and the baby needed my room. So at that point it was an impetus to move out; Douglas didn't have anywhere to live, so I took it upon myself to find a flat we could share. Our stomping ground was Highbury. I found a flat, 19 Kingsdown Road, just off Holloway Road, north of the Odeon, and we moved in together in the autumn of 1978. That was where he wrote Hitchhiker's.

To say we had our own space is a misnomer, because everything in that flat was pinched; he was 6ft 5in, I was 6ft 2in. We could not go into the kitchen side by side. One of us had to go first, followed by the other; if the first in wanted to come out, the other had to withdraw. So it was a very restrictive environment for two oversized youths. It was also fantastically depressing because below us on the ground floor there was a mustachioed woman, about 90 or 95, who used to have this mantra, saying, "He's gone, he's gone!" We worked out that this was her husband who'd been killed in the Second World War, or possibly the First, and he was not going to come back.

Douglas was extremely messy, fantastically ramshackle and accident-prone. He also had enormous gestures; if you put your hands out three foot in front of you and point the palms of your hands towards your own shoulders, and then move the hands up and down, that's the classic Douglas gesture that accompanied lots of his thoughts. He wasn't mad but he was manic, so he would have sudden, huge fits of enthusiasm for things, for people, for words, sounds – this enormous, intellectual, musical excitement, and sexual too. A great man for sex – he taught me.

Maybe because he grew up in the country he had no hang-ups about sex, so he was a cheerful rogerer, whereas I was a neurotic Jewish Woody Allen. Douglas was more like something out of Lady Chatterley's Lover and I remember that was a real gulf between us. Anyway, the sexual excitement, the intellectual excitement and the fascination with famous people, he had that side.

When he himself became famous, he wanted to meet Paul Simon, who was the musician he most admired. Douglas was a lefty and a very good guitarist, and Paul Simon is a left-handed guitarist. So you had Hendrix, Simon, McCartney [all left-handed], all people he'd like to have met. Anyway, when he became famous, living in New York, he tried to meet Paul Simon, who had heard of Douglas and sent a message via his management saying, "How tall are you?" Douglas replied, "I'm six foot five." And the message came back that Paul Simon did not want to meet him, and this is the only evidence Douglas had of why not. Did the fact that Paul Simon was short mean that Douglas was too big to meet him? "I'm too big to meet you... no really, I'm too big!" So that was a disappointment, but he did meet most of his heroes.

Douglas wasn't a great drinker. Drink and drugs were not really what he was about. There was only one incident I remember that was drink-related. In the flat in Highbury after Hitchhiker had come out and been a huge success, he suddenly said to me, "Do you fancy some Coca-Cola?" And I said, "No... I never fancied it." And then he said, "I just think I'll go to the off-licence and get some Coca-Cola." So off he went, with a curious excited gleam, and when he came back 10 minutes later he was carrying two trays of Coca-Cola – there must have been 144 cans. It was a remarkable sight – this great man with this giant store of Coca-Cola. And I realised he'd gone into the off-licence and had thought, "My life is good! I don't have to buy one can of Coca-Cola any more. Off-licence holder, give me all of your Coca Cola!"

I wasn't part of Hitchhiker's creation, although he would tell me of key details that he'd put in that somehow related to me or our common experience. He was also meticulously fair in crediting me with a line I'd written for a monologue I'd done about a miserable Northern git when we were both students. The monologue began, "Life? Don't talk to me about life!" And Douglas said, "I want to use that line," and it became Marvin the Paranoid Android's key line.

I was working as an ad copywriter. When Douglas had got famous and rich as a result of Hitchhiker, he decided to leave the Holloway Road flat and moved to a more sumptuous flat in Highbury New Park, and he said, "You can have a room in my flat." That's a shift in the balance. We were joint tenants. Although he didn't say anything, it did mark a change.

He was always my friend and never made me feel less because he was famous, but things were different. I remember coming back to the flat to hear Douglas sitting on a sofa talking to a woman in her twenties in a particular way. I had walked into something I shouldn't have. He was being interviewed. It was strange. There are certain tones of voice people have when they're being interviewed. Another day, an American producer asked whether Douglas was there. He introduced himself and proceeded to list his credits in the film business, which were considerable. He wanted to make a film of Hitchhiker, but he was too far into the pitch to realise he was talking to the wrong guy. He had started so he was going to finish. I couldn't stop him.

I left the flat in 1981. No reason, really. Douglas wanted to move into another flat in Islington and I felt the time had come. But the friendship was very secure. We only drifted apart later when I moved to Suffolk and he to California.

In my home here in Suffolk a mutual friend, Mary Allen, rang to say he'd died. He'd had a heart attack from over-exercise. My sadness is that the last years of his life hadn't borne the fruit, ie a film of Hitchhiker. He spent a long time on the screenplay. He had been fired, the producers got in someone who wrote like Douglas, and when that didn't work out, they thought it best to get in Douglas to do Douglas. And then Douglas died before the film was ever made, so that was really sad – all his energies that weren't going into lectures were going into the screenplay. The lecture circuit got him going towards the end of his life. He was hailed as a guru. He got standing ovations at Apple Mac conferences and he could go back to being a performer. So towards the end of his life he felt very fulfilled by being on stage.

In the flat in Holloway Road we had a sitting-room that was maybe 10ft by 6ft. My most precious souvenir of Douglas is a photo taken in one corner of that room by the window. I'm standing in front of a poster of Van Gogh's Blue Irises. I've got round John Lennon glasses, a kind of gay, Californian cop moustache and a very hideous paisley-patterned sweater that my sister brought me from the Bologna book festival. Douglas is looking up at me; he's wearing a brown leather jacket. That's the one he really loved. He's got a very fine head of dark hair; he's got a cigarette, which would be a Rothmans, and he's just looking up at me with affection, and it's just delightful.

Annie Ross: 'I was Billie Holiday's stand-in'

The singer Billie Holiday, known as Lady Day, was one of the greats of 20th-century jazz and popular music. But her personal life was traumatic: a heroin addict since the 1940s, she also endured the horror of Catholic reform school. Annie Ross is a singer, too. She was born after a matinée in Mitcham, Surrey, on 25 July 1930, while her parents were touring their Scottish vaudevillian routine around London

I first heard Billie when I was about 14. My uncle bought a record collection which included her singing "Strange Fruit". Accompanied by Billy Eckstein, it was an eye- and ear-opener. I felt the greatest thing to do when you want to do something like singing is to listen. So I listened to everything I could get.

My first break was in London in a private club, the Orchid Room off Bond Street, but it was so snobbish it was horrible; they wouldn't allow me to sit in the room when I wasn't singing. However, I was singing a lot of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and after a while they got me a little light – a spotlight – and then I built up a coterie of people who wanted to hear me. At that time there was such controversy about allowing Lena Horne to come into the club with her husband Lennie Heyton, because they didn't allow black people in the club and Lena Horne was black. This was in London at the Orchid Room!

Years later, I had just signed with a rough, tough American agent called Joe Glaser, who used to handle Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. He was an ex-bootlegger from Chicago who raised poodles. I went to see him; it was the most extraordinary meeting. I went with a friend and walked into this room, and there was a little man behind the desk and nobody had come in to say, "Mr Glaser, this is Annie Ross," and all of a sudden he looked up and shouted "Dave!" and I nearly died. "Get that spot off the wall!" I thought, "Oh no, how am I going to cope with this?"

"They told me you sing and they told me you're pretty good. Well, we'll see what we can do for you. Sign here!"

So I signed. I don't even know what it was I signed, and that was the end of that and the end of my audience with him. So my girlfriend and I walked out all excited and we proceeded to celebrate being taken on by a high-powered agent.

When I got back to Chicago about 8.30 in the morning, the phone rang.

"Annie Ross? This is Joe Glaser. Have you got a gown, music?" k

I said "Yes."

"Have you got a piano player?"

"I can get one."

"OK. I want you to take your gown, your music, your piano player and be at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem for the first show."

I think it started at about 11.30pm. "Great, thank you," and I went to hang up the phone. "What am I doing?"

Joe said, "You're replacing someone."

"Who?"

"Billie Holiday!" and he hung up the phone.

Well, I was so stunned. It was like being hit over the head with a baseball bat. I did what he said. I went up to the Apollo and the early show was for all the hard nuts. They were like, "What can you do?" And I was substituting for Billie Holiday!

It was exciting and frightening and all that. I was sitting in my dressing-room shaking, and Duke Ellington came in and said, "Oh, baby, what's the matter?"

I said, "What's the matter? I'm dying!"

"Have you ever met Lady [Day]?"

"No, and I don't think I want to. If she said anything to me, I'd melt."

"Nonsense!"

He took me to her dressing-room. She was packing up stuff. She said, "Have you got a gown, music and a piano player?" I nodded. Billie said, "OK. You'll be fine anyway." We go down to the stage level and Duke got on the mic and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Billie Holiday will not be performing the first show" – cue pandemonium in the audience. "However, we have a young lady performing..."

And the thing that saved my bacon was we were doing classics like "Twisted Jackie", "Farmers Market", and the crowd loved me. I came off in a stupor into the arms of Billie Holiday, who was standing in the wings because she wanted to check out what was happening. I started to cry, and she started to cry. Ellington said to them, "You two beautiful ladies have got to go on. Take your bow." We did, but no one had a camera. That would have been a fantastic picture, but that was how it occurred. Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday paid me the compliment of standing there and listening.

Valerie Danby-Smith: 'I Was Ernest Hemingway's secretary'

Ernest Hemingway was one of the most successful American novelists of the 20th century but his life was a tortuous one, an endless wrestling match with his own perceived greatness and other writers who might threaten that supremacy. Along the way, he became soaked in alcohol and machismo. Valerie Danby-Smith was the writer's last secretary before he committed suicide in 1961. She was born in Dublin in 1940, and after convent school, moved to Spain to try her luck as a freelance journalist. It was there that a news agency sent her to meet Hemingway and ask him a rather silly question...

the agency didn't realise he'd been back to Spain a few times, but the one question they gave to me was, "Why have you come back to Spain for the first time since the Spanish Civil War? Franco is still in power. Nothing has changed. Has something changed in your life?"

And of course Hemingway looked at me as if I was quite crazy and said he was back in 1956 and 1953 on his way to Africa. So I paused and thought, what do I do now? Well, I'd better talk about what I know about, which was literary Ireland. Now, Hemingway started asking me questions, like what other interviews have you done, whom was I seeing, where have I been. He told me to do things about Spain. And then he started giving me contacts and places I should go to, and I was quickly absorbed into the hurly-burly of his helter-skelter life.

Spain was one long festival. We travelled north, south, east and west. There was always a party, always drinking. I was fascinated by what was going on. I learnt from Hemingway about the bullfight and about literature – it was all completely new to me. Nothing in my background prepared me for this. I was fascinated and didn't mind staying up listening to the stories. Someone would say, "How could you listen to another story he tells?" but somehow each telling was fresh; like being a child and every time you hear a story, you say, "Tell me again, tell me again."

Many of his stories were about what had happened to him or his friends. And his friends sounded larger than life. I would meet them, including one Major General Buck Lanham. You know, "BUCK LANHAM" – you have this image of someone rather large and forceful like Hemingway, and he turned out to be very small and timid and I just couldn't get over that – and other people where he built them up until they were fictional characters. There were always heroes and villains – his friends were the heroes, and the villains were the ones who hadn't measured up over the years. He had this wide cast of characters and they kept cropping up in his stories. For me, at that time, they were just names. Later I met a number of the people but many others were already dead by then. It was fascinating, constant entertainment.

Everybody in the cuadrilla [group of friends] was moving down to Malaga for his birthday party. He asked me if I'd like to come. I didn't have the fare to Malaga and also had to work so I said, "No, I'll be going back to Madrid."

He said, "Well, I'll pay your fare down," and I still said no. I watched these people for a week and they were on a financial plane that I wasn't even aspiring to. I said to myself, "No, enjoy what you've enjoyed and go back to Madrid." It was the next day that he actually said jokingly to his friend Bill Davis, "Don't you think the cuadrilla needs a secretary?" I was flabbergasted. In Ireland I was used to people jesting but this was no joke. "Anyway," he said, "we can pay you $250 a month," which was 10 times what I was earning, so I had to say yes. And at the time it was just for July and August, for the bullfighting. He said, "You'll learn far more about journalism working for me than you will staying in Madrid doing your interviews and things." So there I was, on my way.

Mary [Hemingway's fourth wife] was in the background. Even though she always made Ernest number one, she liked to have a billing that was coming close and she wasn't getting that, so Mary was sickly sweet and sarcastic to me. She would always say, "I hope you're having a lovely time," and you could tell that wasn't what she was hoping at all. In Spain, Mary was very disgruntled with Ernest, and that preceded my appearance on the scene; by September she was considering going home early, talking of divorce with him. It was in that period between when she left [Spain and returned to Cuba alone] and he left [Spain to join Mary in Cuba] that he asked me if I would come down to Cuba after the new year. "I have to take care of Mary – she's my wife and if I've been good to one wife, I'll be good to another wife and I hope that once I get a divorce that you will marry me," he said – but I didn't for a moment believe it or even think that if he had said, "Will you marry me?" and he were free, that I would have said yes. It was preposterous. That whole summer was quite preposterous. When I talked to a couple of friends they said that if Ernest is infatuated with you, he'll get over it very quickly, so why not take the opportunity to go to Cuba and get as much out of it as you can?

Valerie did indeed go with Hemingway to Cuba in January 1960, eventually even befriending Mary. At Hemingway's funeral in 1961, she met the writer's son Greg, from his second marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer – and in 1966 the couple were married. She continues to write as a journalist.

© Andrew McGibbon 2011 (Faber). This article is extracted and edited from 'I Was Douglas Adams's Flatmate: and Other Encounters with Legends' by Andrew McGibbon, published on 3 February, priced £12.99. To order a copy for £10.99, including postage, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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