Khaleej Times Magazine - Remembering Quinn: Legacy of a Legend

Khaleej Times Magazine

Karen Ann Monsy (Senior Sub Editor) Friday, January 30, 2015  

Kathy Quinn, widow of acclaimed actor Anthony Quinn, on her husband’s lust for life and why encouraging creativity in youngsters is the answer to the questions of the 21st century. 

Katherine Quinn (right) with her and Anthony's son, Ryan Quinn

Katherine Quinn (right) with her and Anthony's son, Ryan Quinn

Kathy Quinn (née Benvin) carries herself with all the grace of a First Lady. Dressed in a blue and white ensemble, she’s just finished delivering a presentation, promoting art scholarships in the region, at an event hosted by The Luxury Council at The Crowne Plaza Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road. But one would not be remiss to say she’s perhaps best known for being the last lady in the life of Oscar-winning, Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn.

The third of the famed bon vivant’s wives, the story of how she first met him for the post of a secretary and then went on to become his spouse is fairly well known. And almost 14 years since the critically acclaimed thespian, painter and sculptor passed away, his legacy and love for the arts continues to be carried on — not least, by the woman with whom he shared the last of those larger-than-life years at their Rhode Island home. 

Kathy’s passion for the Anthony Quinn Foundation is unbridled, reflecting, no doubt, the same zest with which her late husband too approached an illustrious acting career that spanned nearly seven decades and included such classics as Viva Zapata! (1952), Lust for Life (1956), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Zorba the Greek (1964).

She founded it in 2007 as a way to promote the importance of arts education in the lives of young people — particularly when she discovered, as her own children were growing up, that the arts were becoming less and less important in schools everywhere. “Music and art were up to the parents, more than the school,” the mum-of-two explains. It’s a situation that is still prevalent across most academics-centred schools — and one the 52-year-old considers most regrettable.

“When my husband was a child, he was very, very poor — but he still had musical training,” Kathy says. “Dance was important, drawing was important… The arts are an important form of creativity and growth and, left out, leaves children lacking a form of expression and a creative outlet that is very much required. We’ve had several studies to prove this in the past too.”

Anthony himself didn’t have the smoothest start to an arts career, she points out. His father died when he was 11 and he had to take on several odd jobs to support his mother. As a teenager, he was very keen to become an artist and architect, and took up with famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who told him he could never become one because of his speech impediment. “He was devastated,” says Kathy. Recounting a story she’s, no doubt, narrated several times, she goes on to tell of how he then went to a doctor and discovered that his frenulum — the thin membrane under the tongue — was too thick. He underwent surgery, but couldn’t afford speech therapy  — so he went to an acting school and bartered with the teacher for speech lessons in return for cleaning up her theatre.

At the end of 8-9 months of lessons though, the teacher put him in a play — his first experience as an actor — and he loved it. He went for auditions often after that and when he landed a contract with Paramount Pictures for $300 a week, Kathy tells of how he called up Frank for advice — “because he really wanted to become an architect” — but Frank said he could do it later. Anthony took up acting, “still thinking it was just a temporary thing” — only what he accomplished in the end made him a cultural icon and ended up touching millions of lives around the world.

It’s not that everyone should pursue a career in the arts, Kathy clarifies. “But if you have an artistic talent or desire, develop it. You may not become the next Picasso but you’ll begin to do what you do everyday, better. Creativity is required in every sphere of life, and if it isn’t encouraged at a young age, there’s no point trying to introduce it to people in boardrooms or corporate environments when they’re 30 or 40.”

Did she understand this better after meeting Anthony? “Much better,” she responds. “I didn’t have a lot of arts in my life. He went through life as this creative force… lived through the entire 20th century, through the silent picture era… Radios weren’t even invented in his time. But he wasn’t that old man who said, ‘Kids today! I don’t understand them!’ He always tried to understand what was going on, culturally. He didn’t always love it... but he accepted it as a part of life. For him to work with three generations of actors — there aren’t many people who can say they did that. But he loved being involved in the change, always trying to be one step ahead. Even as a writer or sculptor, he’d keep exploring what was new so he wouldn’t get stuck in his medium.”

From secretary to spouse

Kathy laughs when I ask if she remembers the first time she met him. “Very well!” she answers. “I was just a year out of college at the time… I was looking for a job and someone that knew him… knew someone that I knew — it was just one of those things — and said he was looking for someone to help him. I had no idea who he was at the time. I was 23 and not from a ‘film family’. My parents were immigrants from Italy who worked very hard… So, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do but I needed a job, so I went to meet him.”

The meeting was very quick so Kathy couldn’t even go to the library and do some research. It was 1985 (if you can imagine a day without the Internet), when you couldn’t Google somebody either, she smiles. “I went blind to the interview with one piece of paper that listed my school and some odd jobs here and there… I walked in, expecting an old man of 70, getting ready to die — either sitting in a chair or gardening… that was my idea of a 70-year-old. But there he was, dressed in a running suit (he’d just gotten back from running in the park) and telling me: ‘My life is a mess. I’m painting something, I’m going to do a play and I’m making a movie and I’m writing a script and I need somebody to help me.’ I was baffled. I told him I didn’t know anything about the art business but he said those were things I could learn. Then he proceeded to tear up my resume… said it meant nothing because ‘everybody lies on those things’... Just his physical presence and the energy he exuded was mindboggling. But he was interested in me as a person and— just feeling his energy, how much he loved doing all of those different things… I wanted to be part of it.”

Everyday was like an adventure, Kathy reminisces. There were times when he’d be writing a script and would suddenly want to know the name of a poem he’d read a long time ago. So, together, the two would go off on a “treasure hunt” to find the elusive poem. “I’d have to call up the bookstores or look up the encyclopaedias and if I found it, he’d get madly excited and go: ‘Oh, my God! You found it!’ And I’d wonder what the big deal was because wasn’t that what I was supposed to do? But it was like a ‘eureka!’ moment for him… How that makes you feel as a person — that you did something so valid that he was now going to use in his script or painting — was incredible. It was just like being with a little kid, exploring this creativity together, and it was such little things that made him happy everyday.”

Although she met Quinn in 1985, the duo didn’t marry until 1997. “Our kids were already born before that,” she says, candidly, with some sheepish laughter. “We did it the wrong way! Antonio and Ryan were already born [the youngest of 13 children, in ’93 and ’96, respectively] and he was going through a mess in his life [Quinn’s divorce from second wife Iolanda Addolori resulted in much tabloid fodder from 1995-97] — but that’s public information already,” she finishes, with a quiet smile.

The actor died in 2001 at the age of 86, however, leaving Kathy to raise the then eight- and five-year-old on her own. “It was hard,” she acknowledges. “Parenting is hard, no matter what, with two parents, with one… I’d try not to feel sorry for myself because it’s just exhausting.” She didn’t remarry though. At 38, it wasn’t because she couldn’t either — she chose not to. “I wanted to raise them, knowing one father,” Kathy explains. “I’ve seen too many people who grow up with multiple parents, multiple influences… I think remarrying would have been more for my needs than the kids’. So I put my own life on hold for a bit.”

Resolving not to bring “someone new” into the picture was partly due to her husband’s childhood experiences too. “Anthony’s mother remarried and he hated his stepfather. It created a lot of problems in his life, although his mother did what she needed to do… So, yes, it might have been easier for me in some ways — but then you’d have to deal with all these other emotional issues and the kids blaming all their problems on you or your boyfriend or new husband… I was just trying to give them as few excuses as I could for being messed up (if at all they were).”

To most, it might come across as unsurprising that both children are following their father’s footsteps in pursuing various disciplines of filmmaking, but Kathy says though the arts were emphasised in their upbringing — “especially with their father completely immersed and surrounded by it” — both really did choose their career paths for themselves.

Anthony’s vision was for an art-conscious society — and Kathy believes we’re getting there. “It’s like making a sausage,” she quips. “It has to become a mess before you can see the beauty in it, and I think we’re in the messy stage right now. We went from the 20th century to the 21st — and it’s probably harder for people whose cultures are so stuck in tradition and fearful of losing their identity in the change. Keeping connection with the past and merging it with the future — that’s what Anthony did so well. He never forgot his Mexican roots. He embraced all cultures as well as all religions. He didn’t ever dismiss people’s beliefs, and I try to teach my kids this all the time: just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean you have to disrespect it. That’s intolerance.”

It’s time to wrap up the interview so I quickly ask her which of his films is her favourite. It would have to be Zorba the Greek, at this point, Kathy says. “It depends on what I’m going through personally. It was the 50th anniversary of Zorba the Greek last year and I’ve seen it four times in the past few months. Anthony was 48 when he made the movie. I’m 52 now so it’s around the same time — and it’s this whole philosophy about embracing life and free-spiritedness… The Greeks hold that book as one of the most important pieces of literature or of [author] Kazantzakis, anyway. My husband loved that book but what I thought was amazing was how he made Zorba… Anthony Quinn. Some of the schools teaching that literature actually watch the movie first and don’t think of Zorba without thinking of Anthony Quinn. So he really created something magical there, because he didn’t play the character — he became the character.” That’s lust for life for you.  

Katherine Quinn