Ken and Elize Russell: Their extraordinary love story

He was the maverick film director who advertised for a wife; she was the obsessed fan who couldn't resist. Ken and Elize Russell talk - for the first time - to Louise Jury about their partnership
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The Independent Online

It would not have been the sort of romance Ken Russell would ever have directed. The storyline seems almost quaintly innocent, while the director of Women in Love and Gothic has a reputation for an almost prurient obsession with sex. Yet it happens to be the story of his life.

Today, the muse of the 78-year-old director is Elize, a quirky blonde American who is 52 and was once a genuinely obsessive fan. Five years ago, Ken Russell made the then Ms Tribble the fourth Mrs Russell, and they could not be happier.

"We met about 25 years ago for 10 minutes in New York and we never forgot each other. It's a true story, a love story," he says. "We really are soul mates." Observing the film director and his leading lady together, it is easy to see why they claim it as if they have never been apart. She is an extrovert performer who wraps herself around him in adoration, at ease in the glare of the London Book Fair launch of his latest novel.

Elize was at college when she saw her first Ken Russell film, Savage Messiah. "I immediately got a job at a movie theatre on Saturdays so I could get in free to see everything," she recalls. "And I went to a restaurant and wrote a long letter on the back of a place mat saying I was going to be in New York studying and this was where I was going to be staying and if he wanted to, I would love to meet him. I was just crazy. I sent it to the studio and it got to him." He was impressed. "I get lots of fan letters but hers was talking so intelligently about my films. She knew more about them than I did," he says.

So while in New York for the premiere of the 1975 rock opera Tommy, he made a 9am visit to the young film buff. She recalls: "I went to the door buzzer and said, 'Yes?', and he said, 'It's Ken Russell.' I freaked out. My mother had told me that I couldn't take a man into the bedroom, the only place with a good chair, so we stood in the kitchen and just talked." Studying the ruddy-faced, wild-haired Ken sitting in socks and sandals at her side today, it doesn't seem rude to ponder the attraction. "I just adored him," she says. "I loved the man who made these movies."

They had only a few minutes - he says 10, she says 20 - and he invited her to the premiere that evening. But she got lost en route to the cinema and never arrived. Afterwards, they wrote to each other, and he even suggested she take a part in one of his films. "But my mother said, 'Over my dead body'."

So that appeared to have been that. He was in the final year of his first marriage, to Shirley Russell. He would marry again within a few years, and then for a third time, producing "eight or nine" children along the way, he says vaguely. But Elize retained hope. "I kept his picture for 20 years and then I said, 'He's never going to call me', and I threw it away. It took me 20 years to get mad!"

But after the break-up of his third marriage, Ken decided to try alternative means of finding a partner - the internet. "Unbankable film director Ken Russell seeks soul mate - mad about movies, music and Moët et Chandon champagne," read his advert. Only one woman replied. "A mezzo-soprano from Swansea sent me a CD of German lieder and I sent her my autobiography, but nothing happened," he says.

Then a national newspaper asked his three former wives about living with Russell, and the article was re-published in America. The two bouts of publicity attracted 1,000 responses - including one from Elize. "Her boyfriend hid the article when it was reprinted in America because he knew she would be off," Ken says. "But eventually he gave it to her and she left on the next flight."

Well, not quite. "I thought it was a joke, but at least I could contact him again," she says. She faxed over a letter, recalling how their first meeting had changed her forever. "I'm already your soul mate," she wrote. Ken called back. "You missed the first premiere, why don't you come to another one?" It was for a small film, Lion's Mouth, which he had produced at home in Hampshire. "And that was that," she says.

Elize, now a folk-singer, healer and actress, extricated herself from her long-term relationship, and she and Ken married five years ago. "It's just proof that affinity will cut through time, space, decades, personalities," she says.

Now they are inseparable. They walk their dog on the heath near their 400-year-old thatched cottage in the New Forest, watch Masterchef and DVDs and join the regulars in their local pub. And they are working partners. "She helps me with my scripts - she's extremely literate," he says.

They have just finished three short films called Hotpants - "sexy shorts" - and have embarked on a new film called Brave Tart versus the Loch Ness Monster. "My wife's Brave Tart, a saggy Scottish prostitute, and I'm the Loch Ness monster," Ken says. He has also just returned from Canada where he directed his latest erotic horror movie, The Girl with the Golden Breasts, which is scheduled for release at the Cannes Film Festival.

In May, the pair go to the Philippines where Ken has been engaged to direct Pearl of the Orient, based on the true story of a Filipino woman who tried to escape the Japanese during the Second World War by running away into the jungle with a preacher. As well as directing, Ken will play the British ambassador, while Elize is the vicar's wife.

Later in the year he has a series of books coming out on the sex lives of four composers - Elgar and Delius, the two men whose lives he brilliantly documented on film in the 1960s, and Beethoven and Brahms, about whom he once planned to make films but never succeeded (though Anthony Hopkins was scheduled to play the part of Beethoven).

"Brahms played honky-tonk piano in brothels in Hamburg and got lots of free samples," he confides. Delius, whose sexual proclivities are being immortalised in a book entitled A Moment with Venus, contracted syphilis and went blind, he adds with relish.

And this month he has launched Violation, publishing it himself with the company Authorhouse after conventional publishers repeatedly turned it down. Most thought it "distasteful", Ken admits cheerfully. "It's pretty erotic. I think some may call it pornographic. I wrote it after my divorce from my last wife." He insists he is not obsessed with sex. "No more than anyone else," he adds, which begs more questions than it answers.

Set in 2030, Violation is an updated but politically incorrect version of George Orwell's 1984 in which Britain's obsession with football has led the repressive authorities to enforce it as the official religion.

Elize evidently found it a shocking read. "I did a lot of the typing for Violation. It's a really great satire. But I did sit there wondering, 'Is this what you're thinking?' Because it doesn't go with his personality at all. I was thinking, 'Where does he keep that? What piece of the brain is that in?'" she says with a bemused smile. "When I read it, I think, 'This is a dangerous man.' But he's so lovely. I salute that side of him. He's braver than I am."

Their only regret appears to be a sadness that neither of them acted to find the other sooner. "When we first got together, I was horrified I had waited so long. I thought what an idiot I had been," Elize says. "Then I became aware of all these sensational stories about him being a wild man and I was quite apprehensive. But he's so much better than I thought. He is the love of my life."