Icons / July 2016

Single Minded: The Women of Warren Beatty

He couldn’t even commit to dinner, Shirley MacLaine once said of her brother, Warren Beatty. Thirteen thousand women — an estimate of the number of Beatty’s sexual conquests — might…
Portrait series of actor Warren Beatty. Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The song is an early seventies paean to rampant narcissism, a sonnet to self-regard:

You walked into a party/ Like you were walking onto a yacht/ Your hat strategically dipped below one eye/ Your scarf it was apricot/ You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte/ And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner, they’d be your partner, and ...

By the time Carly Simon released You’re So Vain, she’d had relationships with Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson, Kris Kristofferson and Cat Stevens, but, as far as the wider world was concerned, there was only one contender in her pack of previous paramours who more-than-probably thought the song was about him. After all, Warren Beatty had a lot to be vain about. His allure was already legendary. “He was Captain Cool, Mr. Natural,” wrote Peter Biskind in Star, his biography of Beatty. “It cost considerable effort to present a lacquered exterior like his, but you never saw the gears grinding.”

Beatty was also an exceptional filmmaker, who commanded above- and below-the-title billing with his leading-man looks and writing-producing-directing talent, and shared with Orson Welles the distinction of being nominated in four Oscar categories (for 1978’s Heaven Can Wait and 1981’s Reds). And he was an Olympian womaniser. Those who’ve attempted the spreadsheets reckon that a tally of nearly 13,000 conquests — from Natalie Wood to Julie Christie to Madonna to Annette Bening, his wife of the past 23 years — is a conservative estimate.

“He was Captain Cool, Mr. Natural,” wrote Peter Biskind in Star, his biography of Beatty. “It cost considerable effort to present a lacquered exterior like his, but you never saw the gears grinding.”

He approached both scene-making and seduction with the zeal of the late convert. He was born Henry Warren Beaty in Richmond, Virginia. The family was Baptist, and Beatty had an oestrogen-rich childhood, with his mother, sister, aunts, great aunts, and a bevy of female cousins. Despite, or because of, this, he remained a virgin until he was nearly 20, but was always preternaturally receptive to women and their needs. “It was like he heard them calling to him on different frequencies,” Biskind says.

After toying with the idea of pro football, Beatty moved to New York City, where MacLaine was already appearing on Broadway. He declared his seriousness by adding a ‘t’ to his surname and stating that it rhymed with ‘weighty’ rather than ‘wheaty’. By 1959 he was dating Jane Fonda. “He was so cute, I thought he was gay,” she said. “He liked to play piano in a piano bar — what were the odds he was straight? Shows you how dumb I was.” (Later, Beatty returned this sort-of compliment by saying that Fonda gave the best blow-job in L.A., owing to her ability to “virtually unhinge her lower jaw, like a python”.)

Tags

Contributor

Stuart Husband