Following a star from Budleigh Salterton

Matt Lambert: keen to hear from people with any memories of Budleigh-born film star Belinda Lee 

She was a celebrity who tragically met an early death in a car crash. The policeman at the scene described her as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

No, not Princess Grace of Monaco, or even Diana, Princess of Wales.  Although the sight of Diana’s body at the crash scene provoked an uncannily similar comment at the time. “I got shivers up my spine,” recalled photographer Nikola Arsov, who arrived at the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel in Paris, shortly after the accident on 31 August 1997. “You can't imagine how beautiful she was. It was devastating!”

A poster from the 2006 Fairlynch Museum exhibition

The crash victim in the case I’m thinking of was Budleigh Salterton’s own Belinda Lee, the subject of an exhibition at Fairlynch Museum in 2006. 

“Despite her beauty,” wrote the Journal’s Dave Beasley in this full-page article published in June that year, “the greatest mystery about Belinda Lee is that today there is very little interest in her, at a time when there are cults about vacuous, talentless and ridiculous celebrities.”

Things may be about to change, with research for a biography currently being undertaken by a Polish admirer and cinephile. “I am kind of surprised that she is long forgotten,” says Matt Lambert, who is seeking memories of Belinda from her early days in Budleigh.  “She was incredibly beautiful and talented.”
“I have made a lot of progress with my book,” Matt tells me. He has interviewed some of the actors whom Belinda worked with and has even traced her mother’s ancestors as far back as the 17th century. 

Gualtiero Jacopetti, with whom Belinda Lee was romantically involved, seen here with Italian actress Monica Vitti 

One valuable source of information has been the biographer of the Italian film director Gualtiero Jacopetti who was injured in the crash on 12 March 1961 when the pair were travelling together from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

A distant memory of the Rosemullion Hotel from Fairlynch Museum's collection 

As many local people know, Belinda Lee was born in Budleigh Salterton at the Cottage Hospital, on 15 June 1935. Her father Robert was the owner of the Rosemullion Hotel and she grew up in the nearby Cliff Cottage on Cliff Road. An early companion of Belinda at Miss Bannister’s nursery school in Budleigh was the future composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. “She had a toy accordion of which I was extremely jealous,” he told me. 

But Belinda wasn't just lucky with her toys. Even at that early age, the future film star charmed all who met her, recalls Sir Richard's sister, the poet Meg Peacocke who also grew up in Budleigh. "I don’t even remember seeing her," Meg told me, "but know that she was thought to be an astonishingly pretty child who captivated others, like my brother."   

Later, Belinda attended St Margaret’s School in Exeter before a spell at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where she had won two scholarships. She was spotted while performing as a student and in 1954 was signed up by the Rank Studios. 

Her first film was The Runaway Bus. This was the 1954 British comedy in which she starred along with Frankie Howerd, Margaret Rutherford and Petula Clark. It was during the making of the film that Val Guest, the director, introduced Belinda to Cornel Lucas, Rank Studios’ stills photographer and 14 years older than her. The pair fell in love and were married when Belinda was only 18.

While researching this article, by the way, I discovered that I’d been at school with Val Guest’s step-son. But that was a long time ago, and we never kept in touch. But maybe, Chris, if you come across this post you could contact me…   

The marriage lasted until 1959, when the pair were divorced and Belinda moved to Italy. While continuing to play the role of voluptuous temptresses she was also praised for credible dramatic performances in Francesco Rosi's immigration drama I Magliari (1959) and Florestano Vancini's intense war story La lunga notte del '43 (1960).

In 1958, Italian newspapers reported that Belinda Lee had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Three days later, papal prince Filippo Orsini, who had been linked to her by the papers, was reported to have been hospitalised after slashing his wrists. Police refused to comment on the newspaper reports linking the two romantically. 

Orsini, whose injuries were light, refused to tell the police why he had done it.  Belinda said that she had been suffering from insomnia and had taken an overdose by mistake. Both were married to others at the time. The Vatican said that Orsini would lose his title if it were proven that he had attempted suicide, and indeed the Pope did remove Orsini and the Orsini family from their hereditary title of Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne.

Quite a goddess...

A detailed account of Belinda Lee’s life is given in an Ovapedia article at  Its author, Geoff Jones, a former resident of Belinda’s home at Cliff Cottage, evidently felt that she has been misjudged.

Her later and more risqué roles in Italian, French and German films were frowned upon by the British media/establishment but in many respects she had become the most international and most photographed British actress of her day,” he wrote. “She was slated by elements of the UK media, some of whom viewed her as a permissive scourge and the devil incarnate. In this regard, her scandalous affair with an Italian count ‘high up’ in the Vatican, played out in the full glare of the media hardly enhanced her reputation at home. This may also be why her birth has never been recognised in her hometown.” 

For Geoff Jones, Belinda Lee was “a strong-minded, hardworking, ambitious woman, who preferred not to conform to a stereotype, more a woman of the sixties than the fifties.” 

Matt Lambert is still seeking memories that local people may have of Belinda Lee’s early days in Budleigh. 

Many questions remain unanswered, and perhaps in many cases, unspoken. In a small town like ours, “not exactly a hotbed of potential Hollywood starlets” as journalist David Beasley wrote, the short and somewhat scandalous life of its former resident is still viewed by certain people as something best forgotten. 

Budleigh Salterton, after all, is and certainly was in the old days, a conservative sort of place. Meg Peacocke's memories of Belinda and her family are hazy, but they reflect such an outlook, typical perhaps of a small, but comfortable seaside town. All I recall is that Belinda’s mother was considered vulgar, as she was smartly dressed. Respectable Budleigh didn’t do Smart... Poor woman, I doubt she had any friends. I wonder how they arrived in Budleigh: it seems an improbable place for them."

I gather she actually had some talent as an actress – but being exceptionally pretty is likely to have been little more than a curse, specially in those days, unless you had vast abilities to go with it," concludes Meg Peacocke. 

Have those days changed, I wondered. Even recently, when the subject of a commemorative blue plaque for this talented and beautiful actress came up, I was struck by one Budleigh Salterton resident's dismissive comment. "Belinda Lee died very young after a  sordid adolescence.”

Was that all? Thousands would disagree. 

Dig around on the internet and you’ll find that Belinda still has her admirers, fascinated by the story of “the girl from Budleigh who became a stunner.”  


Popular posts from this blog

"A woman who knew her own mind": interview with actress Jenny Coverack on her portrayal of Kathleen Scott

People from the Past: 3. Reg Varney (1916-2008)

Would you like to buy an original Reg Varney painting? (1)