Malice of Alyce: the ex who made a fool of Cleese

Time of article published Aug 21, 2009

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Those people who like Alyce Faye Eichelberger describe this short, determined blonde as a loyal, courageous and highly-intelligent friend. Her detractors, though, have nicknamed her Poison Alyce. The film director Michael Winner tells me: "She never stops talking. That voice alone could tear the testicles out of a rabbit."

Alyce, 64, is now a millionairess, thanks to her determined pursuit of the juiciest possible settlement following her 16-year marriage to comedian John Cleese. In a deal which was finalised in California last week, Cleese agreed to give her £8-million (R100-million) in cash and assets, plus £600 000 a year for the next seven years.

The deal has astonished many, especially given the fact that the pair did not have children together. But there was a long and ugly legal wrangle earlier this year when her lawyers demanded to have sight of 1 400 papers belonging to Cleese.

Alyce at least twice rejected pleas by Cleese that they should dispense with their lawyers and reach an amicable accord. I'm told Cleese, 69, asked her last year if she would take £500 000 to pay her legal bills and just sit down with him to hammer out a deal. She refused.

And so it is now over, after two painful years. Cleese jokes: "At least I will know in future if I go out with a lady, they will not be after me for my money."

He adds: "Think what I'd have had to pay Alyce if she'd contributed anything to the relationship."

His friends, such as Winner, are furious on his behalf - they say that he has been left with "a fraction" of the fortune she has. They ask if it is fair that Cleese will need to be earning £600 000 a year until he is 76, just to satisfy her demands?

"She has got the mews house in Kensington and also has an apartment at the Carlyle Hotel in New York - but John is left with a rented flat in Covent Garden and a cottage in the New Forest, also rented. The only property he has left is a cottage in Santa Monica. You tell me how that is fair" Winner told me yesterday. "It is absolutely unjust and crazy."

Perhaps it is not fair, but it seems Alyce is extremely tough. Born into a family which was dirt poor and semi-literate, she glories in her status as a therapist with several degrees.

She seems to have developed - presumably during her period with Cleese - a taste for fine wines and hotels. The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok is her favourite- the Author Suite there, which she loves, costs £819 per night.

Speaking to friends of the couple, the picture which emerges is of a woman of polarising extremes: she is either your best friend or worst enemy.

One thing on which everyone is agreed, though, is that she seems to be full of sexual confidence - Cleese seemed to find her assurance in this department dazzling. "Look at that beautiful blonde!" he would be wont to exclaim as she entered the room.

In happier times, she posed nude for a painting as a birthday surprise for him. Not every woman her age would feel confident enough for such behaviour.

Although, in 1994, she did consult lawyers when Alyce was suspicious about Cleese's friendship with former model Lisa Hogan. Hogan had been helping Cleese write the script of the movie Fierce Creatures. Alyce was troubled by the amount of time his Rolls-Royce was spending outside her flat. Cleese always denied, and continues to deny, any sexual liaison. He still has a working relationship with Hogan.

Things went even further downhill after 2001 - with the pair basically living in separate ends of their enormous Santa Barbara ranch, hardly seeing each other.

In 2007, Cleese eventually told Alyce: "It's clear to me that you and I want different things, so there is no point in continuing."

Winner says: "John can be testy and Alyce would always rise to the bait when she did not need to. Michael Palin (Cleese's fellow Python) said to me that every time he saw them together, the atmosphere would be terrible. There was a feeling of a mismatch from the start. I always felt a bit uneasy about her."

So why did this respected psychoanalyst, who ironically specialised in family therapy, make such a miserable fist of being married to John Cleese?

Alyce Faye was born in "cattle country" in Frederick, Oklahoma. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a cabinet maker who could barely read.

When Alyce came to England with her children, she had nothing. She studied psychotherapy at the Tavistock clinic under Anna Freud's instruction and lived in a third-floor council flat in North London. She met Cleese when they both attended a party in London.

There were good times - he threw a huge party for her 60th birthday in London, for instance. And when John was suffering from depression, he credited her with helping him.

The couple had no children together and moved to California following Cleese's success in A Fish Called Wanda.

John liked the sunshine, finding it a tonic for his mood. They shared their house with a menagerie of animals including llamas, goats, chinchillas and horses. John also wanted to be closer to Camilla, his teenage daughter, who was, at the time, addicted to drugs.

Outwardly, then, Alyce and Cleese seemed well-matched, sharing interests in literature and therapy.

Such was her happiness, Alyce told an interviewer: "When we went to Anthony Hopkins' wedding, somebody said to the bride 'You are Cinderella'. I thought: 'I feel that.' "

But there was conflict. Alyce wanted to spend time alone with Cleese and was put out when his daughter Camilla relocated from Chicago to California to be closer to her father.

"I would like Camilla to go to college so John and I could have some time together alone,"she said bluntly.

Camilla later said: "Alyce competed with me for Dad's affections and I never felt confident with her. She was never exactly supportive of me."

Cleese says now that Alyce did not have much of a sense of humour.

"Alyce Faye's sense of humour was not very European, because she was from Oklahoma and I used to joke that the Oklahoma sense of irony is one of the world's shortest books."

Theirs was a lifestyle awash with money, though, thanks to royalties from Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, Cleese's business making corporate videos and his acting work.

When they broke up, Cleese was convinced that this divorce, while sad, would not be unpleasant.

"When I got divorced from Connie and when I got divorced from Barbara , I didn't need lawyers, because I just said 'Why don't I give you this?' and they said: 'That's fair, very generous. Thank you.' End of story." Cleese added: "When I divorced Barbara in around 1988, that cost me £2.5m."

But it was a different story with Alyce Faye. At first she demanded £106 000 a month - and said in court papers that they regularly took private jets and stayed in castles. Cleese says they took private flights only twice and that she overstated the opulence which they enjoyed.

Winner says:"At the start, John said to me: 'I think this will be a simple, quiet divorce.' I knew he was mad to say it, because I know this woman. When they had a turnaround previously, she'd hired Fiona Shackleton and said she was going to take him for every penny.

"John is a very decent human being. They went into therapy because John always wants to put things right. He should have called it quits six years earlier and saved himself $10 million.

"Alyce did not accept that she was not the star. She was always spouting on about her minor achievements. I think the wives of stars need to accept that they are married to a star - but Alyce was always competitive.

"A lot of people out there will not be speaking to her any more. That may be why she is feeling bad - they both are. You don't go through two years of lawyers without coming out the other end feeling bruised. John will be fine. I'm sure that Alyce will want to get married again and what I would say to that unsuspecting man is make sure you get a pre-nup." - Daily Mail

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