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Hollywood adored her - the beautiful daughter of an English actor who went on to become a gun-toting, LA bounty hunter. Later this year, a major film based on her life and starring Keira Knightley will be released. But Domino Harvey will never see it: earlier this week she was found dead in her bathtub. Aida Edemariam on the strange life and sorry death of a wild child
Thursday June 30, 2005
A very strange career ... Domino Harvey, as played by Keira Knightley in New Line's forthcoming biopic
They've already had to re-shoot the ending once. They may have to do it again - not to mention reconsider such cod-profound, Hollywood-judgment lines as "There's only one conclusion to every story. We all fall down." On Monday night the makers of Domino, a new film starring Keira Knightley scheduled for release in the autumn, must have been somewhat discomfited to find that the 35-year-old inspiration for their $30m action flick - about a beautiful, public school-educated English girl turned gun-toting LA bounty hunter - had provided one last plot twist: she was found dead in her bath in West Hollywood, suspected drowned after a drug overdose.
Then again, they may not. Domino Harvey was already upset about the fact that the film-makers to whom she had sold her story were taking liberties with it: cleaning it up, augmenting it, making her purely heterosexual when she wasn't, allowing rumour to circulate about raunchy scenes. According to one friend, interviewed anonymously earlier this year, "She feels that they have stolen her life from her."
This would have been particularly galling for someone who lived so fiercely on her own precedent-upsetting terms - at least according to the version of her life that she allowed to be widely reported during her lifetime. Harvey was the product of an affair between her married father, the actor Laurence Harvey - who starred in the Manchurian Candidate, in The Room at the Top, appeared in Of Human Bondage and Dial M for Murder - and the 60s Vogue model Paulene Stone. She seems to have always been aggressive, ungirly, charging around as soon as she could walk in the dungarees her father bought her, wanting to play "only with Action Men", as she said in a rare interview about 10 years ago. "If I was given dolls I cut their hair and pulled their heads off. I was fighting boys by the age of 10. I was a natural ringleader and troublemaker."
Her father died when she was four, when her parents had been married for only a year; her mother then met and married the Hard Rock Cafe founder Peter Morton and left for the US. Harvey was sent to boarding school, where she displayed a great talent for getting expelled. "When you're young and on your own in an English boarding school, you have to fend for yourself. I think it was fear of the unknown and being alone that made me so aggressive," she told the Mail on Sunday.
She clocked up four schools, but has also said that some of her happiest moments were spent at Dartington Hall, in Devon, where she did her O-levels. "It was really relaxed. I spent my time making canoes and studying martial arts." (Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to have been a somewhat anarchic establishment: shortly after Harvey's time there, the headmaster's wife was found to have posed for pornographic pictures, a girl was drowned, and the head himself brought in the police to deal with his school's drug and drink problem; the school was forced to close in 1987. On a website kept by what appears to be a nostalgic former student, Harvey appears on a list of pupils headed "The lost ones.")
After school she DJed, designed and sold T-shirts in Kensington market while living in Notting Hill. But Harvey, who had inherited her parents' good looks, was also apparently tempted by the usual range of activities open to the privileged beautiful: modelling (represented by the Ford agency, so she told reporters); acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Studio. Once managed by Jo Miller, Sienna Miller's mother, it closed in 1996.
But no one who was there remembers her attending a single class, not even Don Fellows, an actor who taught at the Studio from the beginning and knew Laurence Harvey slightly, so would have registered her presence. At Ford, too, no one has any recollection of a Domino Harvey. "I know the name, and I can vaguely see a face," says Patricia Lagrange, head booker at Ford Models Europe, who then changes her mind and says she doesn't remember her at all. Patty Sicular, who has worked for the company since 1980, doesn't recall her either.
Modelling, she always said, didn't suit her. "I was so unhappy, trying to be someone I wasn't," she has said. "When I was modelling they were trying to manipulate me. I realised I would never be able to take orders from idiots. I remember thinking one night that my life was meaningless." She left for the US in 1989.
There, she said, she tried being a ranchhand in the mountains around San Diego, where she acquired a taste for weapons, before graduating to firefighting in the San Diego fire department, where they called her "Dagger Bailey's" because of her 10in hunting knife and favourite tipple.
But the next step was the strangest of all for an expensively educated nice girl from England: she became a bounty hunter. In 1993, Harvey began working for the Celes King Bail Bonds agency in south central Los Angeles, spending her days bringing in drug dealers, robbers and the occasional murderer, and apparently living, at least for a time, in opulence with her mother. The following year, when she was 24, a reporter tracked her down in the ghettos of LA and watched as the tall blonde girl aimed a shotgun at the stomach of a bail-jumper sprawled at her feet, and calmly handcuffed him.
She finally seemed to have found something that employed her particular mix of beauty, cut-glass exoticism ("With her English accent they think she's some lost tourist until she arrests them," her hunting partner Ed Martinez once told a reporter), aggression, and need for adrenaline. She seems to have enjoyed the image that came with it, keeping a cupboardful of samurai swords and knives. And she appears to have been good at it: "Domino is one of the best in the business," her one-time boss told reporters. "It can be a tough job and not many women are up to it." In a much-quoted line that she might as well have been uttered with the movies in mind, she once said, "If I was doing this for the money, I'd have stopped a long time ago. The real satisfaction is putting the sleazebags in jail." Her story became a tale of harsh romance, from the little privileged girl, if you want to see it that way, to a kind of twisted feminine emancipation. Little wonder Hollywood came calling.
But there is also sadness to the Domino Harvey story, hinted at in comments made by both her friends and Harvey herself. Men who might have been interested in her, she once said, found her job threatening. A family friend has told the press about a teenager who "was always on her own. She never seemed to have many friends." And Martinez, a Vietnam veteran, has been open about some of what fuelled them - heroin, marijuana and cocaine. In April 1997, Harvey checked into a rehab clinic in Hawaii, emaciated. "Her background was somehow to blame for her addiction," a fellow rehab patient has said. "We call it 'enabling', where your parents are always giving you money but they don't give you firm conditions on how to live your life."
Two years ago Harvey sold her story, but even that quickly went sour when the production company New Line Cinema denied her script approval and began to embroider upon what she regarded as the truth. In the film version of her life, Harvey has two sidekicks: Ed, played by Mickey Rourke, and Choco, named for his predilection for choking as a method of persuasion. The fact that she had relationships with women as well as men was also written out, something that made her particularly angry. "Domino sees it as an insult that the producers are selling it as her life story, when they are completely overlooking what she regards as a pretty basic part of her life," a newspaper diarist quoted a friend as saying this year. "Domino is not happy," added her mother. "She is a recluse and she wants absolutely nothing to do with the film or anyone who has anything to do with it."
The supposed recluse never really managed to stay out of the public eye, however. Last month, Harvey was arrested, charged with conspiracy to distribute drugs (methamphetamine), possession, interstate trafficking and racketeering, and jailed. If the allegations, the result of an investigation by the US drug enforcement agency and the FBI, are true, it would mean that Harvey was, in the end, sucked into the life she encountered every working day. She denied all charges and was released on $1m bail - to house arrest and electronic tagging, drug and alcohol testing. It was an improvement on jail, where bounty hunters are not kindly received, but there has been speculation that she may have been forced to sell her West Hollywood home to pay the bail, and much legal worry about whether the film's release would prejudice her case. If convicted, she would probably have faced life imprisonment.
At 10:30pm on Monday night the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department received a call regarding a person who had drowned. By the time the police arrived at Harvey's home, the fire department was already there and trying, in vain, to deliver emergency first aid. "She was taken to Cedar Sinai hospital, where she was pronounced dead," says lieutenant Keith Swensson. The hospital reported that they suspected a drug overdose, and the LA coroner is expected to perform a toxicology test. There is another niggling mystery, too: "There was apparently somebody with her at the time," says Swensson, "but we don't know the circumstances."
Yesterday the receptionist at the Celes King Bail Bond agency had not yet heard the news about Harvey's death; nobody at the agency was subsequently available to talk. Both her lawyer, Anthony Salerno, and her former boss, Harry Fratkin, were also unavailable for comment.
New Line Cinema will not be drawn on whether the film will change, providing only a prepared statement. It provides all the required saccharine, but also distances the film from the woman it is named after. "We were enormously saddened to hear of Domino's untimely passing," reads the paragraph from Samuel Hadida, its producer. "She and I had been conferring about the music to be used in the film only weeks ago. I know I speak for all of us on the movie's cast and crew when I say how much we enjoyed her presence on set when she visited.
"And although our film is not intended as a biographical piece, hers was the dynamic personality and indomitable spirit that spawned an exciting adventure, not just on screen, but in real life." One wonders what Domino herself would have had to say to that.