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Harrison's mother, Lilli Palmer, was the second of Rex's six wives. After co-starring in The Four Poster, the couple built a villa in Portofino on the Italian Riviera, hosting such glamorous guests as Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, and Greta Garbo. Harrison calls it "a blessed place. A pink stucco villa high on a cliff with a sweeping view of the Bay of Rapallo, looking down toward the Cinque Terre. You don't know what a gift you're being given as a child."
His just-released novel Justice (Dr. Cicero Books, 2013) takes place in the same terrain, though "I didn't set in Portofino, because it became Martha's Vineyard—a playground of the rich and famous. But I did want that rugged coastline and views. It's like a scent preserved in a bottle for me, that landscape. The book allowed me to open the bottle."
Indeed, Justice hums with descriptive detail: mules stumbling up "the old Homeric goat path," with its odors of "crushed figs mingled with dogshit;" the beee-bah, beee-bah of a distant bus horn; pastel houses with "bee-nuzzled cages of wisteria;" the buttery taste of just-gathered pinoli.
Miri Gottlieb is an English-born Jew who married an Italian count—the impossibly handsome, athletic Piero—raising a son with whom she shared a preternatural bond ("two bodies, one person," Harrison writes of his daughter Chiara, crediting her as "the miracle that inspired this book"). As the Nazis encroached, Miri escaped to England, leaving young Vittorio under the vaunted protection of his aristocratic name. But he was deported to Auschwitz by vengeful bureaucrat Renzo Cipriano, and now the grief-destroyed Miri has returned post war, seeking her own brand of justice. Looping backward through time, with meditations on guilt and complicity, the novel builds to an inevitable yet unexpected conclusion.
"Justice was my magical child, just as Chiara was," Harrison says with satisfaction. "It picked me up and carried me, as a book must. You surrender to it and say, 'Please take me home.'" A longtime professor at Brooklyn College, he teaches his students "the ancient concept of the muse informing everything. Creative power belongs to the muse—it doesn't belong to the artist."
He grew up surrounded by artists at work. "I saw my father making up as Henry VIII when I was five," he recalls. "I have very clear memories of his dressing room, of him putting on this ginger-colored beard." His viewing of Anne of the Thousand Days was fraught—at a climactic moment, when Henry slaps Anne Boleyn, he burst into tears and shrieked, "Daddy hit that woman!"
Harrison was 13 when his parents divorced; both remarried promptly. Between stints at boarding schools and Cambridge, he lived with his mother and stepfather (Argentinian actor and novelist Carlos Thompson) or with his father and his subsequent wives. "I adored Kay Kendall, to my mother's grief, because she'd stolen Rex."
Harrison and his German-born mother were rarely in synch. "Like many people, and many Jews, she had no interest in religion at all," he observes. "Yet she was a brilliant novelist and painter, and, of course, an actress, so the spirit expressed itself creatively in her, but she had no interest in religion as such."
By contrast, says Harrison, "I would like to participate in all religions."
This may explain his alter ego, Ustaz Omar Bey of the Moorish Orthodox Church, a syncretic religion claiming connections to Islamic and other teachings, with followers ranging from black militants to beatniks and Radical Faeries. Introduced to the renegade faith by poets Peter Lamborn Wilson and Robert Kelly, Harrison now holds the title Bishop of Woodstock. "Only the entirely tongue-in-cheek is entirely serious; it's a pataphysical concept," he says. "It's a delicious religion, and everything should be delicious, should it not?"
Harrison's back is tattooed from shoulder to waist with a quotation from Theodor W. Adorno's Minima Moralia, in the original German. The inking took "nine hours of absolute hell." It's designed to look like an open book, with his spine as the book's spine. "I love the idea of being a walking book," he beams, adding that when beachgoers ask what it means, "I say 'German philosophy,' and that ends the conversation instantly."
Carey Harrison learned German from his movie-star mother, Italian from childhood summers in Portofino, and French from attending the Lycée Français in New York. "I was just ridiculously, ridiculously lucky," he says with a beatific smile, noting that his brother Noel once told him about "a religion in the South Seas that consists solely of gratefulness. That's my religion. Every day, every hour, you thank your lucky stars."