In 1996, following the announcement of Adrian Lyne’s new film adaptation of Lolita, Sue Lyon, the star of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film, broke many years of press silence. Lyon, a year younger than the new Lolita (15-year-old Dominique Swain) when she played the part, said: “My destruction as a person dates from that movie. Lolita exposed me to temptations no girl of that age should undergo. I defy any pretty girl who is rocketed to stardom at 14 in a sex nymphet role to stay on a level path thereafter.”
Lolita made Lyon a star. It was also the beginning of an undoing similar to the one Nabokov’s nymphet endures. Her future included decades of mental instability, five marriages, a child she would end up abandoning, and protracted physical decline culminating in her death, at 73, in 2019. Though Lyon credited the early stardom for her own “destruction,” it’s long been rumored that what occurred during filming—and what broke her—was a sexual relationship with the film’s producer, James B. Harris. If Lyon’s destruction began with Lolita, was it possible a single individual could have caused this level of damage?
Lyon Before Lolita
Lyon hadn’t wanted to audition for Lolita. She was in the middle of a game of Monopoly with her childhood best friend, Michelle Gilliam (later Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas), when, as Phillips remembered, Lyon’s mother burst in, carrying a fresh dress and a clean pair of socks. There was a go-see, and she insisted 13-year-old Sue should go. A week later, Lyon met up with Phillips. “You aren’t going to believe this. But I just got a starring role in a movie!” It was Lolita. The girls broke into hysterics.
Coincidentally, weeks earlier Lyon’s mother had discovered a copy of the novel in Lyon’s bedroom. She and Phillips had taken turns reading from Lolita. “Take that back to your house,” Lyon’s mother had said to Phillips, “and never bring that book back here again.” Phillips did as she was told. She and Lyon never finished reading Nabokov’s novel.
Now Lyon would be playing the part of Dolores Haze on-screen, opposite James Mason as Humbert Humbert, Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty, and Shelley Winters as the girl’s mother, Charlotte Haze. The director would be Stanley Kubrick, still high on the critical acclaim of earlier films such as The Killing and Paths of Glory, and finishing up a director-for-hire stint on Spartacus.
Kubrick told Look magazine of Lyon: “Even in the way she walked in for her interview, casually sat down, walked out. She was cool and non-giggly. She was enigmatic without being dull. She could keep people guessing about how much Lolita knew about life.”
Casting the seemingly wiser-than-her-years Lyon meant absolving the filmmakers, and the audience, of any complicity when Dolores Haze is repeatedly violated by her stepfather. She’s a teenager, she knows what she’s doing, the sympathy lies with James Mason—the doomed romanticism could be juxtaposed against the wild satire embodied by Peter Sellers. The end result would resemble the “bizarre love story” the filmmakers wanted. The cost to Lyon, though, was immeasurable.
“I defy any pretty girl who is rocketed to stardom at 14 in a sex nymphet role to stay on a level path thereafter.”
Lyon got the part two months after her 14th birthday. She flew to London in the fall of 1960 for filming, which lasted well into the spring of 1961. Largely, she kept to herself, by Kubrick and Harris’s design. They didn’t want the paparazzi finding out a thing about her. But the photographers were not deterred, with one British newspaper stalking Lyon as she shopped for groceries.
Within a few days of filming, in what was intended as a joke, Lyon sent Harris a letter purporting to give him permission to “attain the position of Exclusive Superintendent of The Elstree School for Girls District.” Salary was set at “ten (10) pieces of gum per week so that you may cope with our excellent student body.” Lyon signed the letter as “Head Pupil – (pupe).”
“[Sue Lyon] was enigmatic without being dull. She could keep people guessing about how much Lolita knew about life,” said Stanley Kubrick.
When Lyon came home to Los Angeles, Phillips, who would move to San Francisco and marry folk musician John Phillips the following year (she was four years older than Lyon), found her friend “completely changed.” Then Lyon revealed her secret: she’d lost her virginity to James Harris, the producer.
Phillips was shocked. “I saw a picture of him. He looked like her grandfather.”
The age of consent in England was 16 at the time, and 18 in California. If events happened as Phillips described them to me, Lyon would have been 14 to Harris’s 32. And she was under contract to the Kubrick-Harris company for six more years.
Husbands One Through Five
Jim Maxwell, best man at Lyon’s wedding to her first husband, Hampton Fancher, had a slightly different version of the story. Maxwell, who worked as a carpenter at the time, told me—unprompted—that there was a relationship between Lyon and the Lolita producer, and that Lyon told him that Harris was her first lover. “It was, to say the least, an interesting revelation.”
Maxwell said he found out in the summer of 1965. “We were discussing her career. And she mentioned that after the release of Lolita she went on a national tour with Jim [Harris], and that during the tour, they had sex.” It was Maxwell’s impression that Harris took up with Lyon, sexually, sometime in the summer of 1962, after Lolita’s New York and Hollywood premieres.
I also spoke with Fancher (who co-wrote the screenplays for Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049) about this. He was eloquent, erudite, and self-lacerating about his brief romance and collapsed marriage (his second, her first). When I asked what he knew about Lyon’s involvement with Harris, Fancher paused. “I shouldn’t say anything. Because he is around.... And these days, my God. It was weird enough then. So I don’t have anything to say about that.”
“I saw a picture of him. He looked like her grandfather,” says Michelle Phillips.
Gossip columnists of the time covered Sue Lyon and James Harris’s relationship as a conventional romance, one made mildly scandalous by the age difference rather than off-putting because of the power differential. The items play differently now, akin to how long-standing acceptance of French writer Gabriel Matzneff’s unrepentant pedophilia persisted for decades before the recent publication of Vanessa Springora’s memoir, Le Consentement (Consent, to be published in the U.S. in December), ripped the mask off his grooming and abuse.
A July 14, 1962, column by Dorothy Kilgallen carried the headline Lolita Virus Catching for Sue Lyon? The item reads: “Sue Lyon, the pretty star of ‘Lolita,’ has bowled over her producer, James B. Harris.... Her age is 16, according to her studio, and he’s an old man of 33. She prefers the company of mature men, and James may be her cup of tea when she’s a little older and decides it’s proper to court her.”
When Kilgallen’s item ran, Lyon had been 16 for a mere four days. And, according to Phillips and Maxwell, she’d already lost her virginity to Harris.
More than a year would pass before Lyon’s and Harris’s names were linked in print again. By that point, Lyon’s marriage to Fancher was over, the divorce final by December 1964. Her older brother, Mike, had died of an overdose in Tijuana, Mexico, leaving behind a note reading “Sue, I love you.” A talk-show host had the temerity to quiz Lyon on whether playing Lolita had led to her brother’s suicide. Lyon got up and left the show, mid-interview.
In early November 1964, the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham caught up with Harris over lunch with Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark, stars of his forthcoming directorial debut, The Bedford Incident. Graham questioned Harris about his “resumed romance” with Lyon—who would have been 18 at the time—after the two had been sighted in London. “We’re not getting married, if that’s what you mean,” Harris said. “But we are very good friends.”
That was the last contemporaneous mention of Lyon and Harris as a couple. Scant references persisted until the early 1970s, and then disappeared entirely. There was only one more person left to ask.
“I shouldn’t say anything. Because he is around.... And these days, my God. It was weird enough then. So I don’t have anything to say about that.”
James Harris picked up the phone after four rings. The line was patchy, but his voice was lucid.
Harris’s career has garnered more attention over the past few years. Like Kubrick, his friend and producing partner, Harris’s output as director was sparse, a feature every few years. Most of them had a noir or suspense element, like The Bedford Incident—a more serious treatment of nuclear war and U.S.-Soviet tensions, material mined for satire in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—and Fast-Walking (1982) and Cop (1988), both starring James Woods. He also directed an erotic drama, Some Call It Loving, that is hard to classify and harder to watch.
When I explained to Harris, now 92, why I was calling, he said he wasn’t inclined to talk. He mentioned a documentary film in progress and that he didn’t want to undercut it by talking to a journalist.
Knowing I might not get another chance, I asked straight out: Was he Sue Lyon’s first lover? “I’m just not going to talk about it,” he said. It was a statement, without underlying emotion or self-reflection, not confirming but definitely not denying. Our conversation ended shortly thereafter.
Stardom can never compensate for life, especially when it’s doomed to disappear. Sue Lyon’s career persisted through The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, and 7 Women, John Ford’s final film, but by the early 1970s the roles were fewer, and the press attention was focused on her personal life. A December 1965 car accident shattered Lyon’s knee and injured her mother, who took her own life shortly after. She spent part of 1968 stumping for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and fundraising for Synanon (before it went full cult.) She turned over her New York penthouse apartment to poor people in need, and, briefly, founded her own nonprofit, SUEPAXINC. A brief marriage to Roland Harrison, onetime player for the San Diego Chargers, produced a daughter, Nona, in 1972.
A year later Lyon confused Hollywood with a sudden marriage to Gary “Cotton” Adamson, who was serving time in a Colorado prison for bank robbery and second-degree murder. (They’d met through a mutual friend who knew Lyon from her volunteer work.) Before their divorce, in 1976, Adamson had already escaped from prison, committed another bank heist, and gotten arrested again. Lyon blamed the marriage for her career’s evaporation; with a small daughter to raise, she took television roles on Fantasy Island and Mantrap, and a small part in Alligator, with Robert Forster, and quit the business in 1980.
Nona says she remembers that, as young as age three, she would leave home and walk several blocks to the Colorado bars where her mother worked and drank. Lyon’s mental instability worsened through brief marriages to a man Nona told me was abusive, and, finally, to radio engineer Richard Rudman. Rudman, Lyon’s fifth husband, acted as press agent and shield, necessary to dodge interview requests and to hide the extent of his wife’s physical and mental decline, slaked by pills, cigarettes, and cheap wine. Lyon and Rudman divorced in 2002. “I was an enabler,” Rudman told me. “I’m not proud of it.”
Lyon’s final two decades on earth were a relative blur. “She was lost in her life,” says Michelle Phillips. “And who could blame her?… The life she had lived would lead her into this unfortunate place in her mind where she really didn’t think much of herself.”
“We’re not getting married, if that’s what you mean. But we are very good friends.”
There is one photograph of Sue Lyon seared into my brain. It’s taken on the set of Lolita, where Lyon, clad in a yellow nightgown, lies on a bed, head propped up by her right arm. She stares at the camera at an angle, her contest-winning white teeth visible in a half-smile. Looming over Lyon is James Harris. His left arm drapes over her hips. Lyon’s head leans back against him. Harris stares directly into the camera with a closed-mouthed smirk. The blankets are ruffled.
Photographs lie, but they also reveal. We can’t know what Stanley Kubrick knew or when, exactly, Harris took up with Sue Lyon. But we do know that the filming of Lolita became a haunted reality, one more in keeping with Nabokov’s novel than Kubrick’s film. What allegedly happened between Lyon and Harris was no light, frothy comedy. Neither was the remainder of her life, which more resembled film noir.
There is no guarantee, with the level of mental illness in her family, that Lyon’s life would have stayed on course had she never made Lolita. But by doing so, Lyon became a clear example of art making a sucker out of a girl’s life, one whose price was too high to pay.
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita