Julian Sands' ex-wife Sarah reveals his restless soul
‘Julian was at the peak of his fame and our son was just a baby. Then he felt compelled to dismantle perfection’: Julian Sands’ ex-wife Sarah reveals his restless soul in her first interview since his death while hiking a mountain in a California blizzard
Writer and journalist Sarah Sands speaks with the reticence of a first wife. She treads lightly through the delicate etiquette of mourning; does not presume to grieve with the passion of her successor.
Sarah was married to the actor Julian Sands – whose remains were found in a remote mountain canyon in California this June – for just three years, although for six ‘golden’ years in their youth, they were ‘never out of each other’s sight’.
They had a child together: Henry is now 37 and a dad himself, to their shared grandson, three-year-old Billy.
Sarah went on to edit the Evening Standard and was editor of Today on BBC Radio 4 from 2017 to 2020. She now sits on the board of Channel 4, is deputy chair of the British Council and a trustee of the Science Museum.
And now, as she talks exclusively to the Mail for the first time about Julian’s death, she also reveals how – just as the Oscar-winning film A Room With A View, in which he starred, was garnering universal acclaim – one blissful evening in Venice when their lives seemed almost sublime, he walked out on her and their baby son.
Writer and journalist Sarah Sands (pictured) talks exclusively to the Mail for the first time about her ex-husband Julian Sands’ death
Actor Julian Sands, famous for the Oscar-winning film A Room With A View, body was found in a remote mountain canyon in California this June
‘Julian had to dismantle perfection. Just when all had come good with the film and we had Henry; at that point his restlessness took over,’ she says. ‘He didn’t leave me for anyone else. There wasn’t a plan. He just said he was going to California.’
The revelation is breathtaking, but it also gets to the core of the man he was: ‘He always had to take the hard path. Even at the end he sought the challenge,’ she says. ‘That was why he pushed himself beyond the limits of human endurance on the mountain.’
He died in atrocious weather as he hiked during a snowstorm in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles, where he lived with his second wife of 33 years, American playwright, journalist and author Evgenia Citkowitz and their daughters Natalya, 27 and Imogen, 23.
Sarah was with Henry in Norfolk in January when he learned his father had not returned from a day’s climbing on Mount Baldy.
‘When Evgenia called to say Jules was missing, Henry’s first instinct was to fly out and find him, so then it was about organising him and getting him off. People have been missing and found. It didn’t seem final then. In those early days we thought he’d have been able to dig a snow hole, so there was hope.
‘Henry went with a very experienced climber and, although time and conditions were against them, they tried to retrace his route. But it was getting dangerous. Their hopes diminished over those days.
‘I imagined Jules up that mountain and Henry looking for him.’ Her light voice briefly falters; hazel eyes blur with tears.
‘Then there was this limbo during those freak conditions. With Henry just wanting to bring his dad down. It meant everything to him to find him.’
Sarah (left) was married to the actor Julian Sands for just three years, they had a son called Henry who is now 37
Sarah said there was nowhere else her ex-husband Julian would rather be than in the mountains
Julian was missing for five months as land and air rescue missions, thwarted by avalanches, were forced to suspend searches.
‘Henry finally went back once the snow had melted in early June.
He prepared the climb well; he understood Jules’ route and it was moving when he got to the summit and found thousands of volunteers appearing, and the local mountain rescue teams had been terrific.’ But again, his quest was fruitless. ‘He came back down about two days later, then Julian was found about 100 yards from where he had been looking. Henry made his peace with that. We know now Jules didn’t survive the storm. I don’t want to think about whether he died quickly.’ Her eyes blur again with tears.
READ MORE: Family of British actor Julian Sands say they ‘continue to hold him in our hearts’
‘Then Henry went back with his wife Anna and Billy, for the small funeral that Evgenia and the girls had arranged, and everyone said their goodbyes. They felt close, peaceful.’
The family is planning memorial services in Los Angeles and the UK later this year.
‘Henry was so brave during that time; practical, resourceful. He and Jules had been particularly close towards the end. He was a friend as much as a father and I think Henry felt responsible for him. They’d climbed together and Henry knew that there was nowhere else his dad would rather be than in the mountains.
‘He felt he had a spiritual affinity with them and had earned the right to leave his soul up there.
‘Their relationship of equals, as adults, was easier for Jules. He was tremendously interesting, fun and sweet, but complex; not inclined towards domesticity.
‘It’s hard to think of him being old. He was restless, curious; both artistically and geographically an adventurer. I couldn’t imagine him being imprisoned in any way; through illness or old age. Grounded, he’d call it. He used to refer to home as ‘base camp’.’
Actor Julian Sands (left) pictured with his son Henry who immediately flew out to find his father when he was told he was missing
Julian was missing for five months as land and air rescue missions, thwarted by avalanches, were forced to suspend searches
She last saw him at her beloved father’s funeral. Noel Harvey died, aged 92, in January 2022. His death was to presage a year of grief for Sarah. Her brother, the cabaret performer, lyricist and screenwriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey — who counted the royals among his many fans — died unexpectedly in January this year, aged 65; exhausted by the sheer profusion of his creativity while his heart was only working at 20 per cent of its capacity.
Then, of course, came Julian, also 65.
She charts her father’s decline in a gentle, tender book that interweaves her thoughts on mortality with the fate of a hedgehog she, her husband Kim and Billy find, perilously close to death, in their Norfolk garden.
The Hedgehog Diaries taps into our national affection for these doughty, purposeful little creatures. She drives her own prickly casualty, named Peggy, to a hedgehog hospital and gives bulletins of her progress to cheer her dad.
But it is a year of loss: in Norfolk, her father’s funeral is followed by Kit’s cremation then a stoic and heart-breaking little vigil at Bodney Church, Norfolk, when Julian goes missing.
She shows me a short video of the tiny congregation, huddled against the cold in the small rural church, singing Onward Christian Soldiers with as much gusto as they could muster.
She reflects on the giddy intensity of her early relationship with Julian which reached an apogee when she — aged 25 and pregnant with Henry — went to Florence for the filming of A Room With A View, the picture that placed Julian so firmly in the nation’s affections.
It was later, at the Venice Film Festival — basking in the afterglow of the film’s success — that Julian fled without explanation; their brief, glorious marriage was over.
‘We were having a wonderful meal at a palazzo. Helena Bonham Carter (Sands’ co-star) and Daniel Day Lewis were there. The film’s producer and director, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, were hosts. Then Jules said without lead-up or warning: “I just have to go.”
Julian Sands pictured with his wife Evgenia Citkowitz in 1987
Julian Sands pictured with his co-star Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View
‘There wasn’t a plan. He just went to California. He didn’t leave me for Evgenia so I have nothing but good feelings for her. But we had this little child [Henry was, by then, one]. Jules asked if I’d go with him and I said I was staying in our flat in Kensington. So he literally went, that very night.
‘I wasn’t distraught, just puzzled and sad.
‘The next morning I thought: “I have to get back to Henry.” He was being looked after by friends for the weekend and I didn’t have any money with me, so I had to give my wedding ring to the boatman to get to the airport.
‘Jules went to California temporarily, but temporary separations are tricky because you settle. I settled into my life; he into his, and it became permanent.’
Award-winning American actor John Malkovich, Henry’s godfather, became his ‘Manny’. ‘He adored ironing and washing and he’d sing songs from musical theatre to Henry.
‘Julian never came back, other than once, a couple of months later. He said: ‘Should we try again?’ I was quite cross at the time and said he’d have to have a tent in the garden. But it was too late by then.’
That Julian could leave so peremptorily, just when they had reached a moment of domestic and professional fulfilment, seems almost perverse. But that, explains Sarah, is the point: ‘Julian was exasperated by domesticity. I could see he was restless and he was probably feeling as if he’d been grounded. I couldn’t quite see how the situation could resolve itself.
‘A Room With A View had come out and, looking back, I think how very like him his character in the film, George Emerson, was: that earnest sweetness and the passion. Emerson makes this great declamation about embracing life, and that was genuinely like Jules.
‘Julian had to dismantle perfection. Just when all had come good with the film and we had Henry; at that point his restlessness took over,’ Sarah told the Mail
The rocky snow-swept area in Angeles National Forest where British actor Julian Sands’ remains were found
‘He settled into marriage with Evgenia and brought up their two daughters, to whom he was a precious father.
‘Julian’s happy and lifelong marriage was to Evgenia as mine has been to Kim. But Julian and I did share our youth, so that is where my memories reside.
‘And I was lucky enough to have Henry and my grandson Billy so I shall always be grateful to Julian for those gifts.’
She casts her mind back to their first meeting. Sarah, now 62, was just 18 and an undergraduate at Goldsmiths college, University of London: ‘I’d chosen it because it was punk rock, a very cool place.’
Julian, then 21, was studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama. ‘I was making a cup of tea in the common room at Goldsmiths. Julian, strikingly handsome in a black leather jacket, was visiting a friend, an academic called Godfrey Brandt.
‘He came over and said he’d been watching me and wanted to know a bit more about me.
‘He quoted poetry, Harold Pinter and Seamus Heaney. That was his chat-up line. I was a provincial girl with peroxide punk hair. I’d had a very St Trinian’s-style Home Counties education and I’d gone from there to this very cool, vivid, art school scene. Julian was Yorkshire with southern public school polish.
‘The next day he said: “I’ll see you again.” I was going to see my parents in Kent and he said: “I’ll come with you.” He waited for me while I was visiting them. He was very wholehearted.’
Sarah said she looks back on her ex-husband with ‘total fondness’
Searches for Julian Sands by teams in the San Gabriel mountains in southern California found human remains five months after the actor went missing
Did you fall quickly into bed?
‘I suppose quite quickly.’
He was her first ‘proper’ lover; an irresistible force.
‘Jules used to call me Tinkerbell or Tinks, and the name has stuck. He read a lot. He had piles of poetry books and scripts. He was a protege of Derek Jarman [the late artist, filmmaker and gay rights activist] and I remember staying at his place with Julian.
‘There was only one thing in the fridge: a little pot that I later discovered contained amyl nitrate.
‘Julian was a funny mix; interested in brass rubbings — that was his Yorkshire side — and then there was the cool side: music, art, bands, theatre. But he could also go a bit Rex Harrison: very old‑school gent talking about wines and antiques. And there were his Yorkshire roots, funny and feral. You could never pin him down.’
They moved with a ‘nice’ gang of artistic people including actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Ian Charleson, as well as Lucinda Chambers, who went on to become an eminent fashion designer. ‘She was living in a squat round the corner from us,’ says Sarah.
Within months Julian asked Sarah to move into a bedsit in Kilburn, north-west London, with him: ‘He worked at a youth club and I was a cinema usherette at Swiss Cottage Odeon. He would sit through the evening films. We started a basement cabaret club in Swiss Cottage. We had no money but it was a fine time.’
Julian was also auditioning for acting roles and got his first big break with the Oscar-winning 1984 film The Killing Fields, playing the journalist Jon Swain. ‘That was when I decided to become a journalist. Having met Jon Swain I wanted to be quiet and observant as he was,’ she says.
Her and Jules’ was an intense relationship: ‘We weren’t out of each other’s sight for six years,’ she says. ‘He was very keen we got married. I was 21 when we had a register office ceremony, then later, when I was 22 and pregnant with Henry, we did it officially in church, at St Mary The Boltons in Kensington.’
Searches for actor Julian Sands by teams in the San Gabriel mountains in southern California
Julian Sands pictured the premiere screening of ‘Death Rider In the House of Vampires’ in Los Angeles in 2021
By then they had bought a basement flat in South Kensington on the proceeds of the money Julian earned from The Killing Fields.
‘We were a slightly preposterous couple,’ she says. ‘We were both very, very bad at domesticity. Julian used to joke that white goods drove him mad because if our washing machine broke down, he had no idea how to fix it.
‘I could see he was restless but I couldn’t quite see how the situation would resolve itself.’
Then came the bolt from the blue: ‘At that meal in Venice Julian just said he had to go and wasn’t coming back to Kensington.’
Yet life had seemed blessed: following the success of A Room With A View, its sequel, Maurice, was being planned. Sarah’s brother Kit had collaborated with James Ivory to write the screenplay.
‘We had this nice flat, a lovely child and Julian was very much embedded in the Merchant Ivory family.
‘I wonder if he simply thought: “Is this it?” I put a lot of it down to youth. You don’t behave particularly responsibly when you’re young.
‘He said I’d become “less charming”, which I think meant I’d become more responsible. You have to observe routine for your child. You can’t just take off. All the narrowing of life is actually better for children.
In his ‘haven’: Julian Sands is pictured in his sitting room in 2020
‘After he went to America, he became known as the man who couldn’t say ‘yes’. He was turning a lot of things down. He went off in a different direction and started doing films that were much less mainstream.’ I wonder if she ever considered following him to LA.
‘I really didn’t want to,’ says Sarah. ‘There were too many question marks. I had Henry. I needed a conventional job. I had ambitions. I wanted to be good at what I did.’
Henry continued to see his dad — flying out for visits with his nanny — and Sarah progressed from a local paper in Kent to the London Evening Standard.
While working on the latter she met journalist Kim Fletcher, now 66 and a partner of the international corporate communications firm Brunswick.
‘When Henry first met Kim he hurled himself downstairs and Kim caught him. He’s always been his greatest friend and protector,’ she says.
They went on to have two more children together, Rafe, 31, and Tilly, 29. A granddaughter, Cressida, was born to Rafe and his wife Charlotte just before Kit’s funeral.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s mum Susan, 89, lives stoically on in a home in Norfolk, sometimes reporting that she senses Kit’s presence beside her.
Actor Julian Sands was confirmed dead five month after disappearing while hiking Mount Baldy in California
Sarah’s blissful — and abruptly abridged — years with Julian are now tinged with the glow of nostalgia, all grievances forgotten.
‘I look back on Julian with total fondness. He was beautiful, sweet and so young.
‘But there was a core of the unknowable about him. Even at the end.’
The Hedgehog Diaries: A Story of Faith, Hope and Bristle, by Sarah Sands, will be published by New River Books on September 14, £14.99 © Sarah Sands 2023. To order a copy for £13.49 (offer valid to September 3; UK P&P free on orders over £25), go to mailshop.co.uk/books, or telephone 020 3176 2937.
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