When I arrived in Welsh’s atelier, I was confronted by a woman of a certain age and size, who looked at me as though I wasn’t there. “Where is he?” she asked Welsh, “You know I know you know.”

“I don’t think he knows where he is himself.” She bounced off in a rage.

“What was that?” I said.

“Edmund Purdom’s daughter. She’s looking for Percy.”

Edmund Purdom was the actor who stood in for Mario Lanza in THE STUDENT PRINCE (1954). In his thirties Mario Lanza had gone the way of the flesh, like Elvis Presley, and Edmund Purdom became his body double. Schoolgirls all over the world fell in love with the ridiculously handsome twenty-one year old, rather than Mario Lanza’s disembodied voice.

Edmund Purdom was the son of a founding father of Welwyn Garden City. The family home was in Beehive Lane, where I lived in the late sixties. When I asked a neighbour about him, she said “Like Cary Grant he has become an Elvis fan.” Edmund Purdom had been dropped by MGM. A sequel to THE STUDENT PRINCE was unthinkable in Hollywood - prince marries barmaid and has lots of children (though it has had an afterlife in advertising, “Drink, Drink”). The German film THE TRAP FAMILY SINGERS (1956) is its true sequel, with the barmaid was replaced by an ex-nun. It spawned THE TRAP FAMILY IN AMERICA (1958), and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965). Edmund Purdom disappeared into the Italian cinema, B-movies rarely seen abroad. As did Mario Lanza, briefly. When Elvis Presley stole his thunderous “O Sole Mio” with “Now or Never”, even his voice had a stand-in now. He hadn’t the heart to resume the career Hollywood interrupted, and it failed him in 1959. He was thirty-eight. Elvis Presley made it to forty-two, preferring hamburgers to deep-fried chicken. They were the same age as Lord Byron and Kierkegaard, respectively. Edmund Purdom lived the life between Naples and Rome in Mario Lanza’s stead, and was fleetingly seen in Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (1960) as a partygoer (uncredited).

Kathe is a big girl, well fleshed like Mario and Elvis. She works as a midwife along the coast, and always introduces herself to anglophones with a slightly sheepish, “I’m Edmund Purdom’s daughter.” “It’s must be as strange as being the ventriloquist, Mr ‘Hallo’ Brough, who controlled the strings of the puppet, Archie Andrews, on radio,” says Welsh.

“Or Charlie Drake’s dog?”

“He hadn’t one. Charlie Drake was his own dog.”

Percy is a semi-retired sculptor who, Welsh says, “was JF Kennedy’s bodyguard. I have a photo.”

“Not, I hope, of the one behind the grassy knoll?”

“Good gracious me, no. I don’t think Percy would ever tell a lie. Or the truth for that matter. He has nothing to say for himself at all, having like so many ex-pats failed to learn French while forgetting his English.”

“So it’s bona fide?”

“As likely as anything in a border town. As Boris Vian said of his novels, “It’s all true. I invented it.” He knew these parts well. Raymond Queneau introduced him to Aly Bux of Banyuls, who played sax in his sextet.”

When I got to meet Percy, he said, “I’m Edmund Purdom’s daughter’s fancy man”, and nothing more. Nods and winks he has in abundance, and the odd pat on the shoulder. The perpetual pipe in his mouth has absorbed all the functions of his soul, a lost one. “Where is it?” he seems to be saying, “I put it down when lighting my pipe, and, puff, it disappeared.” But there is something as honest about him as diamond ore with the precious element removed. He once specialised in marble reptiles and scarecrow cats for gardens. Mainly reprises of his teacher Andre Porra. These days he’s only up to making plaster copies using a mould.

“Kathe wants out”, Welsh says. “At fifty-five she’s twinkling in the twilight of her career. But Percy is hard to get rid of. After kicking him out, his washing turns up regularly on her doorstep. Nobody knows where he lives, except me. And I’m not going to tell her he’s comfortably ensconced in a wine-hut at the back of Banyuls. She leaves the laundry out to collect with his weekly allowance, and rants on about “Who, or what, is this Percy? And why am I bothering about him. None of us is getting any younger.” I don’t think it’s for me to tell her that Percy is a stand-in’s stand-in. Bodyguard, ventriloquist, copyist, and now an apology for a man.”

“She controls the money though, and he has two pensions, and the house in his name. Last time we talked, she admitted to me that sometimes she strikes Percy to see if he’s there. I’m minded to report this to the gendarmes, but I have no idea how she finds him, or knows which him it is, or, if she guesses right, he knows what hit him.”

A week later I dropped in on Welsh. “Well, have you reported Edmund Purdom” daughter?”

“I thought about something she said once, ‘There’s no such thing as a natural birth anymore. It’s forced, and I am good at that’”. But there was no need to. Percy was found on the Ramblas in Barcelona living rough. He didn’t know where or who he was. But the envelope with the allowance in his pocket meant the police were able to contact her. She had him committed to hospital, and contacted his ex-wife. Smart move. The family were interested in his money, and he has someone to look after him. What the family don’ know is that Percy will never die. He told me that his great grand mother was a Native Indian, and she talks to him sometimes. Moreover, Kathe has made sure he bequeathed the house to her.

“She has found herself a younger older man, who lives in Collioure and claims to own a nightclub in the North of Scotland. Some say he’s not what he seems. But who is? On a border town we’re all stand-ins after all. For a life perhaps that never sang for us. Like the girls who had a crush on Edmund Purdom in the fifties. They loved and left him, or was it the other way round? The real thing only exists in the imagination.”


THE STUDENT PRINCE is a remake of Lubitsch’s THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG (1927), which drew from a high hat of stage operettas, not to mention Shakespeare’s HENRY THE FOURTH PART 1. Edmund Purdom / Mario Lanza’s princely role was originally played by Ramon Navarro, who rose from being a singing waiter in a Mexican cabaret to be the epitome of Middle European dash and elegance. He danced and sang through CALL OF THE FLESH (1930), making lyrical love to a postulant nun, who makes him a great singer by breaking his heart when she opts for the call of God instead. He spent the rest of his career filming versions for different cultures, a pretty dago prince with his own voice, who drove women into convents. Ramon Navarro came to a bad end. A rent boy robbing his Hollywood house lost his head and cut Ramon’s throat.

Lubitsch’s STUDENT PRINCE is a silent movie.

Edmund Purdom died in Rome last year at eighty-five, surrounded by his wives.