John Hurt’s ex-wife says she will always love him

A tiny figure, she huddled under a tree against the pouring rain, quietly weeping at the graveside of the man she has always regarded as the great love of her life.

For Donna Hurt, it was the chance to say a proper goodbye to the man she had adored – the film legend Sir John Hurt, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in January this year at the age of 77.

More than that, though, it was the final emotional scene in a relationship that had been every bit as passionate, turbulent and dramatic as any of the big screen love stories in which Hurt had starred.

Donna, a sprightly 69-year-old Texan, still regards their time together in the 1980s as the happiest of her life and says she was left devastated by his death.

What makes that admission so remarkable is that the man she so mourns betrayed her in the cruellest way imaginable, leaving her for another woman just as Donna was undergoing a course of gruelling IVF treatment in an attempt to provide her husband with the child he longed for.

To compound her distress, she only learned the marriage was over when Hurt called from a film set on the other side of the world to tell her he had fallen in love with a younger woman.

Happier days: Dona and John Hurt pictured smiling at their wedding in 1984

She said that she will always love him, even though he betrayed her, leaving her for another woman while she was undergoing IVF. Here they are pictured on Necker Island, Virgin Islands

She said that she will always love him, even though he betrayed her, leaving her for another woman while she was undergoing IVF. Here they are pictured on Necker Island, Virgin Islands

Donna was left alone, friendless and shattered, in Africa, in the house she and John built together in the foothills of Mount Kenya.

Even by the standards of showbusiness separations, it is hard to imagine a more painful end to a marriage.

Yet as she now reveals, she not only came to forgive Hurt’s betrayal but to rebuild a fond friendship from the ashes of their toxic separation.

That is why, earlier this summer, Donna took the decision to travel from her home in Kenya to Hurt’s final resting place in Norfolk to say her own poignant farewell to a man whose stellar career ranged from the West End stage and television classics such as I, Claudius, to movies including The Elephant Man, Indiana Jones and the Harry Potter series.

Today, speaking for the first time since his death, she tells the full emotional story of their volatile, intoxicating relationship and, astonishingly, reveals she blames herself for its collapse.

‘My biggest regret is that John and I didn’t have children,’ she says. ‘I don’t think he would have left me then – and I certainly would not have made it so easy for him to divorce me if the other woman was not pregnant.

‘John was desperate for children, but unfortunately I couldn’t have any and she could. We had tried IVF and we were in the middle of a second attempt when he left me.’

What haunts her, too, is wondering how different things might have been had she decided not to join John in Britain for the filming of Scandal, a fictionalised account of the celebrated Profumo affair, during which he began a real-life affair of his own.

Wining and dining: John and Dona pictured in 1987 at the Standard Drama Awards (left) and dressed up in elaborate fancy dress costume (right)

‘In a way, I blame myself for what happened. I always went on all his film shoots. I knew he didn’t do very well alone,’ she says now. ‘I really don’t think he would have strayed if I had been with him.

‘John had been diagnosed with pancreatitis [a serious and painful medical condition caused by inflammation of the pancreas] just before we met.

‘Doctors warned him to stop drinking or die. So I took it upon myself to keep him in check after we married, and for our first couple of years together, he hardly touched alcohol.

‘But the one time that I didn’t accompany him he started drinking again and ended up having an affair with one of the production girls.

‘John always immersed himself in a role. It was as if the characters he played took over, even after the camera had stopped rolling. It seems that he started drinking a lot and, when that happened, it only took a pretty girl to open her door and he would walk in.’

Four times married and three times divorced, the charismatic Sir John was notorious for his tangled love life and heroic drinking. He was already at the height of his illustrious career when he met Donna in a Los Angeles bar in 1982.

A struggling actress, she had just landed a small part in the popular daytime soap General Hospital, while he was filming a thriller with Sam Peckinpah.

It was, they later claimed, ‘love at first sight’.

‘We just clicked,’ Donna says now. ‘I was managing the bar and at first I didn’t know who he was until someone told me.

‘After that first meeting, he started to come in regularly and we became an item.’

Their romance was not without complication. After just six weeks together, Hurt returned to the picturesque cottage in Ascott-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire, that he shared with former Vogue model Marie-Lise Volpeliere Pierrot, who is often said to have been his great love.

Donna says she had no idea Hurt had a long-term partner until Marie-Lise was killed in a freak horse-riding accident the following year and he returned to her for solace.

‘He just called out of the blue and invited me to visit him in London,’ she says. ‘I was living with Mitch Mitchell, an Englishman who had been Jimi Hendrix’s drummer, but I knew in my heart that John was my soul mate.

‘I had never felt that way about anyone before – and haven’t since. He was a great raconteur and very funny. I wanted to see what would happen between us.’

Donna says she fell completely in love with the charming rogue while he was filming The Hit in Spain, with Terence Stamp and Tim Roth.

The couple settled in London, where they enjoyed the company of showbiz friends, including Ronnie Wood, model Pattie Boyd, Freddie Mercury and Eric Clapton.

‘Life with John was unpredictable but fun and unforgettable,’ she says. ‘He was a very special person who lived life to the full. There was never a dull moment when we were together.

‘There was always a party or a red-carpet event to attend. John insisted I had my teeth fixed for the premiere of his film Champions, then bought me a £3,000 black dress from Browns.

‘He proposed over dinner in London’s L’Escargot restaurant. Afterwards, we went to Freddie Mercury’s birthday party, but he complained that we were stealing his limelight.’

The couple married in 1984, and Donna enjoyed six glorious years at Hurt’s side, travelling to exotic film locations with him and meeting his equally famous friends.

Hurt ran with heavy-drinking thespians Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed and also spent time roistering with painters Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Hurt and actor Richard Burton notoriously went on an extended pub crawl in Céligny, Switzerland – after which Burton collapsed and died from an intracerebral haemorrhage in 1984.

Hurt was devastated, says Donna, who suspects it was the main reason her husband started to cut back on his own drinking.

After filming White Mischief in Zimbabwe, the Hurts fell in love with Africa and began creating a beautiful, £2 million ranch-style home in the tree-covered foothills of Mount Kenya.

The five-bedroom house was christened Mawingu Kenda, Swahili for Cloud Nine, because Hurt told Donna that was how he felt with her.

‘It was because I was putting the final touches to the house that he went to make the film Scandal without me,’ she says.

‘We were very keen to have children and have a family. I had been through one round of IVF, but suffered a miscarriage very early on.’

‘I had just started a new round of treatment and was supposed to join John in London, but just before I got on the plane, he rang me to say he had fallen in love with someone else.’

Hurt’s new lover was Jo Dalton, a film director’s assistant 20 years his junior who – to compound Donna’s pain – was soon pregnant. Wounded as she was, Donna made an astonishing act of self-sacrifice, agreeing to divorce Hurt so that his child would not be born illegitimate.

‘That’s the only reason I let him have a divorce so easily. I loved him very much and was determined at first to fight for him but I couldn’t have a child and I knew that he wanted one.’

It was, she says sadly, a devastating blow from which she has never really recovered. ‘John brought me to Africa, a place where I knew no one and then left me alone,’ she says.

At first, she clung desperately to the hope that he would return to her and their African home – complete with its bust of Hurt as Winston Smith, the character he played in the film of George Orwell’s 1984.

To that end, she kept the house as something of a shrine to Hurt, with acting awards and photographs of him on set plastering the walls.

‘People think I got a lot in the divorce, but all I had was the house and about £200,000,’ Donna says. ‘And I couldn’t sell the house because of a title deed issue, so the money eventually ran out.

‘I lived on credit for a long time before I started a little kitchen-table business selling home-cooked products.’

When, after five years of marriage and two sons, Hurt’s new wife Jo ran off with a gardener, the star did indeed return to Donna to lick his wounds.

The pair had kept in touch and Hurt fitted seamlessly back into his old life. ‘All his stuff was still in the house,’ remembers Donna. ‘It was as if he had not left. He begged me to try again and promised there would be no other affairs. I was happy because I honestly thought we would go all the way.’

It was not to be. Despite his good intentions, Hurt would betray her again within the year. Again, he broke things off with Donna over the phone. It was ‘cowardly’, she says, ‘but I guess he just couldn’t do it to my face.’

He went on to have a seven- year relationship with Dublin- born presenter and writer Sarah Owens, and then married producer and casting director Anwen Rees-Myers in 2005. However, astonishing as it might seem, by then he and Donna had effected an unlikely reconciliation, and Hurt even helped her financially when she struggled to sell the Kenyan house.

‘John once apologised for the way he behaved with me, but I said that nothing could ever change my feelings for him,’ says Donna.

That’s why she recently decided to make her emotional pilgrimage to see his grave. Like so much of their relationship, it was a bittersweet experience.

‘His widow Anwen very kindly invited me to the family home where he is buried,’ says Donna.

‘Unfortunately, I chose a day of torrential rain. John was probably looking down, chuckling at the sight of me standing there with just a raincoat and his old safari hat on my head, because he knows I hate getting wet.’

He knows? Note, even now, she still lapses into the present tense about the man she loved and lost.