Maureen Donaldson would tell such outrageous stories you’d swear she was making it all up. Who packs all this into one life: a May-September affair with Cary Grant? A parrot that once belonged to Muhammad Ali? A first job with The Beatles?

Word came via a Facebook posting this week from mutual friend Ray Bennett that Maureen, who we both first knew back when she was a LA-based celebrity photographer, had passed away in The UK. She was 77, dead, apparently, from a lung disease.

I was a twenty-something photo editor at TV Guide Canada when I first encountered Maureen’s chipper English accent on the phone from Los Angeles. Maureen was charming, incredibly charismatic and had a wicked sense of humour. Those qualities helped her book photo shoots with Hollywood soap stars and other television personalities. It was her personal friendships with several A-listers in the film and music business, however, that opened even bigger doors.

Not that Donaldson and fame were ever strangers. She was born Maureen Payne back in England. As a 16-year-old, she quit school to work for Brian Epstein at the Beatles’ fan club as part of NEMs Enterprises. 

Maureen Payne (centre left) and Val Sumpter with Paul, John, George and Ringo at the Beatles Fan Club headquarters, circa 1963.

John Lennon, she claimed, was her first consummated crush. Later in the ‘60s, she accompanied Beatles’ press agent Derek Taylor and his family to America where she worked as their nanny.

UPDATED: Soon after arriving in America, Maureen landed a job interviewing pop singers for American Bandstand host Dick Clark. While working on his daytime series Where Ther Action Is, she met house band leader Dee Robb Donaldson of The Robbs. [not Bo Donaldson of The Heywoods fame as I earlier erroniously reported.] Their marriage did not last and in 1973 Maureen found work doing interviews and writing for celebrity gossip maven Rona Barrett (still alive!). She also worked for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous host Robin Leach. Leach gave Maureen a parrot that once belonged to Muhammad Ali. 

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Has to be true. Who would make that up?

I met Maureen (and Robin the parrot) in person on my first trip to Los Angeles in 1984. I was there to meet photographers contributing to the Canadian TV Guide. She shared a house in LA’s well-heeled Hancock Park neighbourhood. She took me to a pizza joint in the Hollywood Hills where she expected we’d see many stars. We didn’t see any, and the place, to my embarrassment, did not take American Express travellers cheques.

Seeing stars would have been a let down anyway. Maureen regaled me with so many stories about her celebrity conquests that she had to keep stooping over to pick up all the names she kept dropping.

The biggest name was Cary Grant, the Hollywood icon with whom Maureen had a three-year affair to remember. She was 27, he was 69 when it began. It’s all in the book she wrote, co-authored by William Royce (although the more sensational true story should have been written, as originally intended, by Toronto friends and journalists Rob Salem and Rita Zekas). The book came out in 1989, a few comfortable years after Grant’s death at 82 in 1986.

She had stayed friends with Grant, enough so that, when I expressed an interest to try to get into LA’s famed, members-only Magic Castle, she phoned the movie star to see if he could put me on the list. I could hear Grant boom “Affirmative!” on the phone, which was a bigger thrill than even getting into the Hollywood landmark.

Back in the day, Maureen would go to Dodger games with Grant, Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland. Former Mets’ manager Casey Stengel taught her all about baseball. Alice Cooper used to take her to parties at Groucho’s house.

And these are just the stories I can tell.

Her rock and roll conquests were right out of “I’m with the Band.” As she once quipped, she had been with “two of the four Beau Brummels.”

She alleged that the Eagles hit, “Lyin’ Eyes,” was written about her. (Not that flattering when you listen to the lyrics). 

Ever the reporter, I tried to confirm that with Glenn Frey at the end of a late-’80s phone interview. At the time he was trying to break through as an actor on shows such as Miami Vice. Frey didn’t deny it when I surprised him with the question. He said Maureen was probably one of three or four women in question, and I’d have to reach “the other guy” (Eagles’ band mate Don Henley) to get the full story.

It was indirectly through Maureen that I interviewed another rock luminary. I was living in LA in the mid-’80s and getting set to pack up and move to a new place in The Valley. Maureen’s boyfriend at the time, Timmy, kindly volunteered to help. 

When he heard I was writing a short item for TV Guide about the revised theme music for a CBS re-boot of The Twilight Zone, he volunteered to put me on the phone with the musician who performed it. I chatted with this gentleman and we talked about television in general, our shared love of the old Rod Serling series and how he gave the well-known theme an electronic twist.

The musician’s name? Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. 

Catching up with Maureen sometime in the ’90s near Montecito, Calif. Better photos are packed in boxes at the moment, a fact that would make her laugh

Later, things got a lot more challenging for Maureen in LA. A life spent living on the edge had become less comfortable. She became celebrity-adjacent for a few years near Santa Barbara. A visit during that time found her head high and sense of humour undimmed.

Eventually she found an opportunity to return to her mother’s home in England. There she would occasionally receive visits from old friends such as Alice Cooper and Patti Boyd. I tried to arrange a reunion with her and Ray a half dozen years ago on a short trip to London, but, alas, with her down in Devon, it did not work out.

You always think there will be another time, a chance to introduce Maureen Donaldson to someone else and watch their eyes go wide. Condolences to all her friends and family and to all the names she never got a chance to drop.

2 Comments

  1. Dee Joseph Levine Reply

    Dear Bill,
    Thank you for the piece on my dearest and life-time friend….. we were friends for over 50 years. To know Maureen was to love her. You captured the essence of Maureen beautifully, thank you! She would have loved it…..
    Warmly,
    Dee

    • Bill Brioux Reply

      How lucky were you to have Maureen as a life-time friend. She was truly one-of-a-kind and condolences on your loss. How far back did the two of you go?

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