Sandra Cooke: 'I always liked asking about his other women'

When Sandra Cooke bumped into David Lean in Harrods, she had no idea that she would one day become his sixth (and last) wife. She talks to Julia Llewelyn Smith
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Lady Sandra Lean, widow of the late film director Sir David, sounds a most venerable type. I imagine her to be an elderly version of Celia Johnson in his first film Brief Encounter, in a moth-eaten mink coat, pouring Lapsang into my porcelain cup and reminiscing about her husband's brilliance.

We are meeting at her predictably grand stucco-fronted London house a stone's from Harrods, but when I ring the doorbell there is no reply. One glimpse through the curtains of a vast pile of Lean books convinces me I've come to right address. I've forgotten her mobile number and after 20 minutes loitering on the doorstep, I'm just about to leave when a taxi hurtles around the corner and brakes before me.

"So sorry I'm late," pants the woman getting out of the cab. She has dark hair, hypnotic almond eyes and wears a sleeveless top and a pair of combat trousers. She moves like a dancer and speaks in the languid tones of someone advertising expensive liqueurs. I know she is 61, but she looks about 45 – the age she was when she first met Lean. At once you can see how captivated Lean must have been by this woman who was to become his sixth wife. He described her as a "fascinating oriental", although, in fact, Sandra Lean is English with Russian blood.

Such exotic beauty could be intimidating, but Lady Lean is disarmingly down-to-earth as she rushes around offering me water and searching for her cat. In fact, I'd already warmed to her after reading her book David Lean: An Intimate Portrait. Often such memoirs are tedious hagiographies, but this is different. For a start, there are the pictures: dozens of beautiful stills from films such as Bridge over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago, a tribute to a man who much preferred images to word.

"David often said to me: 'Please babe, if anyone is going to write a book about me, all I want is bloody good pictures." Yet the pictures are accompanied by a text that gives a fascinating insight into Lean's tortured psyche.

"The problem was David didn't open up to anyone, and as a result he was frequently described as a cold, unfeeling perfectionist. But how could a man like that have translated such extraordinary emotions onto the screen? I decided I wanted to capture the spirit of the real David Lean, as opposed to the reel David Lean." She chuckles huskily at the pun.

Sandra Cooke, as she was, first met Lean in 1985 at their mutual local grocers – Harrods Food Hall. "I had no idea who he was, but I was struck by his marvellous Phoenician profile," she recalls. An assistant informed her of his identity, and, as Sandra was leaving, she bumped into him. "Don't ask me what made me do it, because if I thought about it, I'd have been too scared, but I found myself telling him how much I admired his work." Lean responded pleasantly, and they parted. "I wasn't being flirtatious. I had a boyfriend. I never expected to see him again."

Soon afterwards, Sandra was chatting to an acquaintance about her recent visit to a clairvoyant who told her she would have a "wonderful few years" with a man whose name started "Da". Jokingly, she mentioned her encounter with Lean. Amazed, the friend told her that only last night he had had dinner with a pensive Lean, who eventually admitted he'd met a "girl" in Harrod's and couldn't get her face out of his head. "It really was fate," Lady Lean says.

They met, began an affair, and shortly afterwards Lean divorced his fifth wife, Sandy. For the next six years the couple based themselves at their olive mill in the south of France, with long periods in exotic locations. They eventually married in 1991, six months before Lean died, aged 83.

Lady Lean was far from an ingénue. A successful art dealer, with the house in Knightsbridge, she had two failed marriages behind her and a vibrant social life. Her experience seems to have given her an insight into Lean, which helped her succeed where five others had failed.

"Maybe I was just more mature than they were," she says. "They were jealous of his movies. He was so obsessional and if you weren't a real woman you thought, 'I'm second best, he's ignoring me.' When he was working he just withdrew, but at the same time he still needed an enormous amount of affection, which was why he kept going from woman to woman. To keep him happy you had to talk to him about his work and give him the constant attention he craved."

When Lean asked her to abandon her old life, she pandered to him immediately.

"He said to me: 'I want you to call any men you have in your life and tell them you're not going to see them again.' I didn't think, 'Is it too soon?' I just went with it. Then I left my job, because there was no way I could do what I was doing and still be with David. He would say, 'We are off to Kenya tomorrow for six weeks', and you would have to drop everything and go."

As husband material, Lean was not promising. His cantankerous nature was legendary. His five marriages had been short, his affairs long. Her tolerance of her husband's "flaws" came after close analysis of his childhood. Brought up in Croydon, Lean's Quaker parents showed him little affection, and his dreamy nature led to him being labelled a "dud" at school. The result was a lifelong insecurity. "He was a genius and like all geniuses he was never satisfied," says Lady Lean. "I remember once, when he was very down about his work, saying, 'Come on, you are a living legend!' He said: 'Babe, it's very sweet of you to say that but do you know something? I'm a near miss."

When Lean was 16, his accountant father ran off with another woman. From then on, his mother cried constantly. "That left him with a horror of feelings," his widow says. "All his emotions were bottled up and transferred to celluloid."

A genius at editing film, Lean applied the same principles to his personal life. If a relationship began to interfere with his work, he simply cut it out. The crew of Lawrence of Arabia were astonished, when Lean refused to stop filming in Jordan to attend his mother's funeral. "He knew it would evoke emotions he couldn't cope with," Sandra explains. "He also refused to go to the funeral of his brother, Edward, who had been the director of the BBC World Service, because he had a huge inferiority complex about his success."

Towards the end of his life, Lady Lean worked to reunite her husband with his only child, Peter, from his first marriage. "Peter wasn't as creative as his father would have liked and, in any case, David hated seeing him because it evoked all the guilt he felt about walking out on his mother when he was a tiny child. Eventually Peter and his daughter visited us in France, but it was a total disaster. David was a nightmare and they left after a few days. They never saw each other again."

Lean was equally brutal with his lovers. "Once a relationship was over, David simply never thought about it again. There was one terrible occasion when a woman ran up to him at a premiere, kissed him and they talked for a while. When she'd gone, he turned to me and said: 'Who the hell was that?' There was a pause and then I said: 'Babe, that was Ann Todd, one of your wives.' He said: 'Really, which one?' and started counting on his fingers."

If Lady Lean is the jealous type, she is careful not to show it. "People often ask me if I felt in the shadow of David's other wives," she muses. "But I always liked asking about them. It made me understand him much better. I think it helped that I am a free spirit. I just lived for the moment, instead of thinking, 'He's left five women, he's going to leave me.'"

Yet life with Lean was far from idyllic. For almost the whole of their relationship, he was working on a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad's complex novel Nostromo, a project that frequently drove him to despair. "If he was under stress, he would take it out by needling until you rose. Once we were in a lift and he made some comment that was completely below the belt. I just dug my nails into my hands and he said 'Did you hear me?' I said: 'Sorry, I was miles away', and he realised I'd called his bluff. He patted me on the shoulder and said: 'Well done, babe.'"

The picture Lady Lean paints is unappealing, yet her fierce love for her husband is palpable, her knowledge of his films encyclopaedic ("Do you have the American or the English DVD of Lawrence?" she quizzes me. "Hmmmm, the American's better.")

Life has moved on. She has a new boyfriend ("much younger"), is a yoga fanatic, and is planning a cook book. Yet her voice still rises in indignation when she talks about the rumours that reached her after Lean's death. "People were saying that I'd jumped on the bandwagon, that I must have known he was going to go soon. Well, I didn't and I didn't fall in love with him because he was David Lean. I fell in love with him because he was the most sensual, passionate, tactile man, with a wonderful spontaneity and a black sense of humour. All the qualities that made his movies so wonderful existed in him as a person. You just had to work hard to see them. I'm under no illusions. I know he may have left me just like he left the others, but it didn't stop us from having what we had. When he died, I felt like half a person."

'David Lean An Intimate Portrait' by Sandra Lean and Barry Chattington, Carlton Books £25. The DVD of 'Dr Zhivago' is released on 21 November 2001