Jill Ireland had made the fights of her life her strongest roles. The actress was struggling on two fronts. Breast cancer first, diagnosed in 1984, defeated at the cost of a mastectomy, then relentlessly fought in the field of prevention. In her bestseller “Life Wish”, she had described the battle hour by hour: “I want people to know where I went. And if thanks to my book I helped at least one person, then it will not have been written in vain. »
This "life drive" ("Life Wish") was a nod to his great love, Charles Bronson, hero of the "Justice in the city" saga ("Death Wish" in the original version). These two had met in 1962 on the set of "The Great Escape", when she came to see her first husband, David McCallum. Jill and Charles had dumped everything for each other. To never move away, they shot about fifteen films together. Twenty-five years after love at first sight, the couple, more united than ever, faced the worst trials.
In 1985, another war broke out. The one to save Jill's adopted son from drug hell. She tried everything. In vain. Jason died of an overdose, aged 27, in November 1989. Jill Ireland died six months later, on May 18, 1990, struck down by cancer. She was 54 years old.
Here is the story of the disappearance of Jill Ireland, originally published in Paris Match in 1990; followed by excerpts from his book “The Break” devoted to the drug problems of his son Jason McCallum, published in Match in November 1989…
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Paris Match n°2140, May 31, 1990
Jill facing her doctors: “Now only God will decide the date of my departure”
By Dany Jucaud
Until the last second, he gave her his tenderness and what he could transmit to her of his strength. Jill Ireland arrived at the end of the road on Friday, which she walked standing with her eyes open, hugging her husband, Charles Bronson. After losing a drugged son, while she was struggling against her own despair, she had imposed on herself an ultimate duty, for the honor of living: to attend in style, on May 5, the wedding of her second son.
“This moment that we are experiencing is a unique moment in the history of humanity. Never forget! With these words, the priest - on a background of pink hydrangeas - declares united by the bonds of marriage Paul McCallum (thirty-one years old) and Christine Larivière (twenty-three years old). The scene takes place in the garden of the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, on Saturday May 5, at 11 am. The guests - around a hundred, mostly young, tanned, with silky hair - rise to applaud the newlyweds. In the very first row, a woman, very elegant, very frail, almost transparent in a black taffeta dress with white polka dots, her face hidden under a huge black capeline, remained seated, like a wounded bird. The man next to her whispers something in her ear. Even from behind, we recognize his stature. He is Charles Bronson; she, Jill Ireland. We are in Hollywood. But this is not cinema.
The ceremony lasted less than half an hour. Friends flock to the refreshments served under white tents. It's over thirty degrees. With very small steps, her back arched, Jill advances like a shadow, supported by her husband. A few seconds, she stops and poses for the family photo. She manages to sit up and makes a desperate effort to smile. I hear her, in a very small, weakened voice, murmur: "Do you realize... I'm a mother-in-law!" She stands upright like a ghost, a sick doll dressed and made up for a party. She is there, but she is already absent. His gaze is unbearable. She only has a few days left to live and she knows it. Here, no one is fooled. A few weeks ago, she stopped chemotherapy: “I no longer want to follow treatment. It exhausts me too much. God alone will decide the date of my departure. In the last six months, she has lost thirty kilos. Four days before the ceremony (originally scheduled for the end of the year, but brought forward at her request), Jill is rushed to Cedar Sinai Hospital for a blood transfusion. Against the advice of the doctors, she insists on going out for her son's wedding: “Afterwards, I can leave in peace. »
When her brother, John, and her husband help her into the black limo that will take her back to the hospital, all of their guests know they will never see her again.
Flashback. Jill, sumptuous in a white silk dress from Chanel, a white fox coat thrown over her shoulders, diamond pendants in her ears, walks proudly, all smiles, on her husband's arm. They came especially from Los Angeles for the Cesar ceremony. We cheer them. We envy them. They have everything to be happy: a united family, five children from their respective first marriages and a daughter born from their union, to whom they have given an adoptive sister. They are rich, famous and, in addition, the height of insolence, since their first meeting, in 1962, on the set of "The Great Escape", they love each other!
Three months later, on May 31, 1984, during a banal routine examination at her gynecologist's, Jill learned that she had a cancerous tumor in her right breast. You have to operate. In a second, the world changes. Forty thousand women in the United States die of breast cancer every year. But it only happens to others... It's well known. Bette Davis, Betty Ford and Nancy Rockefeller know it: if she manages to go beyond five years without the appearance of new metastases, she will then enter the period of remission and get out of it. His oncologists promised him. “Having a breast removed is a cheap price to stay alive. I never thought for a moment that I would be less desirable with one breast less. If there's anything attractive about me, that's the essence of who I am. And then, with the fear of death, suddenly, my life took on another meaning. »
She loves it so much, this life, that she fights like crazy. She underwent six months of intense chemotherapy. Homeopathic medicine, macrobiotic diet, meditation three times a day, she tries everything. In 1986, she returned to the screen in "Close Protection", alongside her husband. She plays the First Lady of the United States. Ironically, when we know that Nancy Reagan also underwent a mastectomy. “I want people to see that I'm fine and I can still play. No one wants to have cancer to be famous. »
Recognized for her talent, she is acclaimed everywhere for her strength of character (Reagan awarded her the Medal of Courage in 1988). Courage to live... To say... In “Life Wish” which quickly became a bestseller, she describes her fight hour by hour: “I want people to know where I went. And if thanks to my book I helped at least one person, then it will not have been written in vain. »
Faced with her own destiny, she holds on, but suddenly another part of her life collapses. In January 1985, shortly after the publication of her book, she learned that her adopted son, Jason, who would be twenty-seven today, was a heroin addict. Jason had always had problems: unstable, fragile, he was introduced to cocaine by a married woman, older than him. He was just fourteen. Jill is consumed with guilt. If Jason is bad, she is responsible. When she adopted him as a baby, she knew nothing of his origins. It was not until 1987 that she met her natural mother. She thus learns that Jason's father died of an overdose and that his mother took drugs during her pregnancy. “We both know what it's like to suffer. He's fighting old drug demons, and I'm fighting my cancer. I communicate a little of my strength to him, and he inspires me with his courage. »
To help parents going through the same ordeal, Jill writes "Life Lines." As she desperately clings to life, Jason continues to destroy himself with drugs. On November 8, 1989, he was found dead of an overdose in his bathroom.
A few months earlier, during an evening in Palm Springs in honor of Elizabeth Taylor, accompanied by Betty Ford (her "inspiration"), she had terrible fits of coughing. It is discovered that his right lung is now suffering from cancer. An operation is no longer even possible. Jill collapses. Once again, her body betrays her. The evil spreads rapidly, reaching his hip, his femur and his thyroid. In April, she begins treatment with radiation, eight hours a day, in a hospital in Dallas. It's a tumble, but she keeps her head up! If, at home, she walks with her head shaved (she lost all her hair during the treatments), in front of a stranger, Jill puts on a wig so that no one feels sorry for her fate.
Bronson behaves exactly like the man any woman would dream of having in the ordeal. He stays with her twenty-four hours a day, spends his nights in the hospital, accompanies her to her chemotherapy sessions. "I can't imagine myself being any other way. I can't share his pain, but I know what's going on in his head. Despite all his love, he will not be able to save her. She always said, “I'm not afraid of dying, but of how I'm going to die. »
Jill Ireland died at 54 on Friday, May 18, at 11:30 a.m. at her home in Malibu. She was surrounded by her husband and children. She always said of herself, “I'm a cancer survivor, not a victim. »
Hollywood is crying. Sammy Davis will no longer sing. We will never again see the frail silhouette of Jill Ireland lean on the arm of her husband.
Last June, in an essay she wrote for "Life Magazine", Jill described the kind of funeral she wanted: "A real wake, with balloons, champagne, everyone dressed in bright colors, lots of food and music. A real fiesta, a celebration of my life. »
She describes her return to public life after her first victory over cancer.
For the grand ball on the night of the Hundred Stars, I chose a dress of refined simplicity, but it represents a real challenge. It leaves my back completely bare. (...) Impossible, with this cut, to wear any bra. (...) Amputated right breast, how can I do to wear this kind of clothing? I have chosen, and there is no question of backing down.
“So I sewed padding on the right side, a soft, pink, comfortable foam breast. I call her "Rosemary". I can also sew it into my clothes whenever necessary. Needless to say how much I'd rather he was a part of me...
Thus, "Rosemary" is in its place, firmly fixed by seamstress thread, but really points with too much pride! My dress seems to float on my remaining breast! It is not going well at all. I need to find some duct tape to hold reality up to fiction.
"Oh! Jill, I thought, you're so embarrassed for wanting to prove to yourself that you could still wear a sexy dress." It looks good to me. All you have to do is tell me: "You will never be able to", and I move heaven and earth to get there!
The relapse. July 1989.
She testifies in “Life”:
Charlie (Charles Bronson) cut my hair. I had almost completely lost them, except for a few strands that he cut, before completely shaving me. Charlie thinks I look like Gandhi, with my white cotton nightgown and my little round metal-rimmed glasses. (...)
“I am not afraid of death. I also believe that Charlie and I deserve to spend more time together. We ended up giving shape and strength to our couple, and it wouldn't be fair to break up this old team. He won't let me give up. Sometimes I say to him, "Charlie, we're going to take out my jewelry and put it in bags with labels on our friends' names to give them." So he says, "I don't want to, Jill. It's not funny." He is right. What nonsense to say that I am going to die! How can such a thing happen? To me ! Finished. More Jill.
“In four years, will they all be used to my death? My clothes and belongings distributed, my grieving family trying to get back to normal life after the funeral. (...)
I can't get enough of living, even when I'm in pain. It is my body that suffers, and it is the sign that I am alive.
Paris Match n°2116, December 14, 1989
Bronson, the broken family
At the Forest Lawn cemetery in Los Angeles, Jill Ireland and Charles Bronson are overwhelmed with grief: their son, Jason, has just died at the age of twenty-seven of an overdose, while his mother is once again fighting against the old enemy she believed to have struck down the cancer. Jill had shocked America by publishing, in 1987, - "Jill: a woman recounts her fight against cancer". Her new book, - "The Break" - (to be published in January), dedicated to Jason, explains how she tried everything to save her son from drugs. “Paris Match” presents, exclusively, on the following pages, extracts from this terrible testimony.
Jill Ireland: "Jason says to me: 'Mom, I see nothing but death and black around me'"
Excerpt from "The Break", by Jill Ireland (Presses de la Cité)
“The phone bell rings. Charlie took the call in the kitchen. - Who? Who is that ? What's he got? I raced up the stairs and rushed to get the other camera. I then heard an unknown voice say very clearly: - We have found traces of heroin in his blood. This child is stinging.- My wife is listening to you, Doctor Levis. Would you like to repeat to him what you have just told me? My legs gave way and I sat down on the edge of the bed. - I'm sorry, Madame. I know how you feel, having children of my own. But Jason suffers from hepatitis B. It is a serious and contagious disease. I advise you to get yourself and your husband to the nearest hospital as soon as possible to get vaccinated against the virus. Your chemotherapy treatment puts you at even greater risk. I fear for your son's life. He must be hospitalized immediately. - But that cannot be. How could he? Dr. Levis broke off: - Excuse me, Madame. But I have no choice. We found traces of morphine and cocaine in his blood, which means this kid is shooting himself. He's a drug addict.
Jason was a drug addict and addicted to heroin. I suspected it and also suspected him of drinking. During the hardest moments of my illness, I had blamed him for it. But a special bond united me to him. When he was in pain, I suffered, and his happiness was more important to me than anything. I was unable to control my feelings. I had decided to let things take their course during my chemotherapy treatment. I had no choice. I had to resign myself or die.
Jason had realized this and had preferred to distance himself. I learned later that during that endless summer, he had overdosed on heroin. He had survived thanks to the intervention of his friend, Moira, who had found him in their apartment, his face cyanotic and foam at the corner of his mouth. She immediately called an ambulance and had him taken to the hospital. (...)
After overcoming the ordeal of cancer, I had to go through the tunnel again. But this time I was struggling as much for my life as for my son's.
Jill Ireland then, in January 1985, arrived in Vermont where she had to rest after her fight against cancer. She must not return immediately to Los Angeles where Jason, her twenty-three-year-old adopted son, ends up entering the clinic.
“The real nightmare was just beginning. The next day, the phone calls followed. We received six or seven times a day his pathetic calls: - Mom, I see nothing but death and darkness around me. You don't know what I'm going through. I will never make it. I want to die!
Moira fought her best for Jason. She hid her shoes to prevent him from leaving the clinic, then she took off his clothes. Then she hid her car and emptied the closet in their apartment, in case Jason came back. Then, one day, our friend Ray Weston called us: - Moira has just brought Jason back to the hospital.
He had managed to escape to go to Randgy Street, in Hollywood, where drug addicts go to get supplies. Unable to bear his cravings any longer, Jason had had only one obsession: getting drugs, which he had injected in the middle of the street. After which, he asked Moira to pick him up.
Ray had arrived at the same time. Thanks to his influence with the management of the clinic, he had succeeded in having Jason reinstated. There were other calls. - Hold on, Jason! Wait a little longer. In two days I'm going home and I'll take care of you.- I can't wait that long, mum! I can not stand it anymore ! - I will never be able to wait until then, mum! I can not stand it anymore ! I was terrified.- Jason, if you do it again, I'll just have a headstone erected in your name and act like you're dead! Can you hear me, Jason? Charlie snatched the device from me: - Do you see the harm you are doing to your mother? I'll tell you a good thing, you little bastard! If she gets sick again, I'll get you. You understood ? I won't miss it, Jason. This is my wife; So stop torturing her!
He hung up on those words. Our couple suffered from these calls. Every night I cried and every night Charlie got angry. »
Back in Los Angeles, Jill reunites with Jason
“Even though I expected the worst. I was all the same shocked on seeing him after ten days of separation. Very thin, he had yellow eyes, burning with fever, and sores everywhere. His hands were shaking. He couldn't meet our gaze. I reached out to hug him, but Charlie stopped me. - No, Jill, don't touch him. He's still contagious and you can't afford to catch his hepatitis. Jason, go to the bedroom. - I love you, honey. - Me too, mom. He walked slowly, staggering slightly, and his legs sometimes gave way under him. - I feel so guilty for everything I've done, he stammered. With that, he started to cry and I followed him to his room. - Mum, I tried several times to tell you. , but I was ashamed. A drug addict hates himself so much that he refuses to admit that he is a drug addict. But I wanted to talk to you about it. I scrutinized my son's face: - I don't understand how you could have come to this. I've taken so many medications to treat myself that I can't believe anyone can take them for fun. How can you destroy yourself like this? - To tell you the truth, mum, I didn't know it myself the first time. I thought I was snorting cocaine, but it had been mixed with heroin. The next time, I did it again for a laugh. I burst into tears. »
One evening, Jill finds Jason's door locked. He finally opens.
“Jason was slurring and didn't seem to realize he was standing in front of me. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he was putting on his terry cloth socks, the same ones he wore as a child. - What are you doing? Surprised that I ask him such a question, he replied: - I'm putting on my socks because I don't want to catch cold. I looked at him, unable to add a word. Jason had almost canceled himself and now he was afraid of catching a cold! Drugs are evil. I remember the words of a doctor: – They only live for drugs. They know how to be sneaky and lie to better manipulate others. Never trust him. Watch him closely and remember that he may die if he continues to destroy his liver.
Now, in the simplest form and smoking an imaginary cigarette, he thought he was at the restaurant and was ordering for the two of us. As in a nightmare, I played the game. He asked me: - Which dish do you choose? Me, I'm going to take a fish and some water from Perrier. Then, speaking to an invisible servant: - No, thank you. No wine. He turned to me and said in a stilted voice: - I don't drink because alcohol hurts my liver.
He drew again on his nonexistent cigarette and stubbed it out in an ashtray on an equally invisible table. Then his mood changed. He looked at me with his big fake sad eyes: - Please, I'm in pain. You have to help me. I want you to go to Carl's Market on Randgy Street. There, you ask to speak to Stan and you buy him some dope. Stan will prepare it for you. Only, I don't want you to go alone. He gestured towards an imaginary man, at his side. - Take him with you. added: - Oh! mom. I beg your pardon. I didn't want anyone to know. I had decided to fend for myself, but I was in so much pain that I had to take "medicine". That's what he called drugs. Jason fell back into his delirium. I ran to get my husband. - Charlie, he's very bad. We have to take him to the hospital.
Then I ran to find Jason who was trying to grab something from the ceiling. He said that there were huge ants on the walls of his room and that these big flying beasts had to be captured. At one point, he approached the wall, turned around and urinated.
Crazy with anguish, Jason refuses to be hospitalized. His parents decide to wait until the next day.
I spent a sleepless night on the couch in Jason's room. He was pacing and sinking more and more into unconsciousness. Exhausted, I fell asleep. While I slept, he cut his toe and wandered around the house, leaving traces of blood behind him. I woke up, distraught, and followed the tracks that led to the front door. Naked in the driveway, Jason seemed to be looking for something in the bushes in the garden. His injury was serious.
I took him home, put him in clean pajamas and bandaged his toe. Then I sat down waiting for daylight. I knew Jason would go to the hospital without protest, without understanding where he was going. He came out after two weeks, completely detoxified and cured of his hepatitis.
During his brief stay at home, and despite my vigilance, Jason had managed to take a large dose of marijuana. The medical team assumed that he had a supply of drugs hidden in his room and that he had eaten it like a child devours a cake. I later discovered his hiding place in a bush. »
But the relapses will now follow one another. So, in 1986, just before a TV interview with Jill…
“I think immediately that Jason had started doing drugs again. Why hadn't I noticed it earlier? He had all the symptoms. When he spoke, his eyes had a painful expression, his skin had taken on a deathly pallor, and he was constantly sweating. He seemed perpetually in a hurry. He had resumed a whiny voice and found himself out of work and covered in debt. (...)
- Mom, call Larry (Martindale, our manager). I have to adjust the notes of the "Nippers". It was a nightclub that Jason frequented. - I already told you to bring them to me. He took a plaintive tone: - I'm sorry, but I made a mistake.
At that moment, Charlie entered. Jason and he immediately left in a verbal contest in which no one would emerge victorious. I had tried to avoid this confrontation by paying the Nippers' bills without Charlie knowing. Unfortunately, Jason had mistakenly sent them to Larry Martindale, and the notes had landed on Charlie's desk.
I couldn't control my anxiety seeing them go up to Charlie's office, knowing that Jason was very vulnerable. First I heard shouts, then the dull sound of punches. They were fighting. I forced myself not to interfere, as I had done so often. Suddenly an eerie silence fell and I feared the worst. Jason came back down, brandishing three hundred dollars.
"Here," he said, looking smug. Charlie gave me that and some money to pay the bills. Discouragement seized me when I saw the tickets in my son's hand. I didn't understand Charlie's approach, except perhaps if it was a matter of making peace. In the hand of a drug addict, money has the same effect as razor blades in those of a monkey. »
However, some time later, Jill, too, will crack.
“Jason looked leaner and more emaciated than ever. I asked him to step on the scale. He weighed only fifty-seven kilos fully dressed. I saw his ribs and his emaciated limbs. He constantly complained of pain in his legs. He expressed the desire to dine at the restaurant: - I want lobster, mum.
With the meal, he ordered a vodka and grape juice. But when the lobster arrived, Jason didn't touch it. He showed me the canker sores in his mouth, saying it burned him so much he couldn't swallow anything. It reminded me of my suffering during my chemotherapy.
During the meal, Jason left the table to make a long phone call. Before joining us, he made several trips back and forth between the toilets and the bar, - Mom, you have forty dollars? - What for? And suddenly, I lost courage: - Here, Jason, I said opening my door -cash. »
Then Jill raises her head. She tries again, by all means, to save Jason. One evening, he calls her.
- Jason, you have to go to the hospital. - No. - Please, go home. He seemed exhausted and dazed by drugs. - I want you to sleep in clean sheets, that you eat a little and get your strength back.- I refuse to come back because I can't have visitors after eleven o'clock at night.- Jason, I accept that you come with your friend. Take it with you. I'll pay for both of you to rehab. Please. Something clicked in his head. - How? - Take her with you and share the same room. I'll pay for her too. There was a silence and, once again, I heard him draw on his cigarette. - I'll talk to him about it. I didn't know where he called me from, but I was getting used to it. (...)
Two days later, I learned that Jason had been discharged from the hospital after barely ten hours. He had found a way out to buy marijuana and a nurse caught him and his friend smoking in the rehab ward.
Detoxification cures follow each other without success. In 1987, Jill organizes the meeting of Jason and Vicky, the natural mother of the young man from whom he was separated at birth. Jason tells Jill the story of this interview.
“She told me that my father's family belonged to the Mafia and that I have three brothers, one of whom is dead. She told me crazy things, but I believed her, because everything matches. My father was a heroin addict and he left her before I was born to join his legitimate wife and two children. He later succumbed to an overdose. Vicky had three other sons, all from different fathers. Mom, I have two half-brothers who live here somewhere in Los Angeles. Vicky couldn't keep me because she didn't have a penny for herself and her children. She believed that I would have a better life if a family adopted me.
More than ever, continues Jill, I was convinced that Jason was a drug addict from birth, at least psychologically. He shared this opinion.
The psychological shock is such that hope is reborn. Jason, writes then Jill, seems on the road to recovery. But she adds, in the epilogue, that her son is still a drug addict. And, at the end of the French edition of his work, published in the USA in the spring of 89, a precise note: Jason, twenty-seven, was found dead in the family bathroom on November 22, 1989. The death was due to an overdose.
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