Actress who died in 1961 car crash commemorated in Devon

She was regarded as Britain’s answer to Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, leading a glamorous and sometimes scandalous life in Italy and the US. This weekend Belinda Lee, who died in a car crash in California in 1961 aged 25, is being celebrated in her home town, the rather less glitzy Devon seaside resort of Budleigh Salterton.

Lee, the daughter of a hotel owner and florist, left the town – dismissed in a Noël Coward play as a place of potted palms with a damp golf course – in search of fame and fortune. She found it in London, continental Europe and Hollywood but was also saddled with a degree of notoriety over events in her private life, such as having relationship with a married aristocrat.

On Saturday, the date of her birth, film academics, local museum leaders and Budleigh Salterton residents who remember “Billie”, as she was known in the town, will come together to unveil a blue plaque in her memory near where she lived. A hotel will put on a special Italian menu as a nod to her life there.

Phil Wickham, the curator of the University of Exeter’s Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, said he was delighted Lee was being remembered in her home town. “She is a fascinating figure who deserves to be better known. She was a star who challenged the ways in which women were constrained in the postwar years. We are proud she came from Devon and this plaque will help her to be remembered.”
Lee’s career began with roles in films starring comedians such as Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Norman Wisdom but she said she wanted to break away from “glamour parts” and “films with custard pies”. She went to Europe and made films in Italy, France and Germany, such as The Nights of Lucretia Borgia. She had a relationship with Prince Filippo Orsini, which caused a scandal.

Lee once told reporters: “I had a strict and very ladylike upbringing. When I went to Rome it was the first time I had been abroad on my own. It was marvellous. I even learned to swear.”

Wickham said: “In the Britain of the 1950s she was limited by a stereotype of demure and unthreatening beauty that fitted expectations of femininity at the time, at least for middle-class young women. The British press disapproved of her Italian career and private life, condemning Lee for being open about her desires.

“She appeared in much more overtly sexual roles than British producers had ever contemplated for her. If she had lived, perhaps she would have better fitted into the changing ethos of the 1960s.”

Mike Terry, a local actor who will be speaking at the plaque’s unveiling, said: “I can’t help reflecting that had she lived she may have become one of the greats of British theatre and film.”

Michael Downes, a volunteer at the town’s Fairlynch Museum, said some local people remembered playing with Lee on the streets of the town. “I think she blazed a trail and helped sweep away some of the stuffiness.”

He said Budleigh Salterton was sometimes seen as a little fusty, but “she brings a bit of a stardust and sparkle to the place”.

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