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Arts and Life

New documentary chronicles life of journalist Ivor Davis

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Ivor Davis / Twitter
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A new documentary which recently aired at the Ojai Film Festival chronicles the life of journalist Ivor Davis, who was a witness to pivotal moments in Southern California and U.S. history as an international correspondent for the London Daily Express.

According to the Pew Research Center, the chance of witnessing another human being murdered is less than a percent of a percent. It would be rarer still to witness the murder of someone as famous as the brother of a U.S. president. And yet, that event is just one of many in the life of journalist Ivor Davis.

“Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel kitchen, and I was there to see it. I was a very lucky, odd fellow because I was around when a lot of these stories unfolded, and I had a front row seat to most of them," Davis said.

Davis was born in the East End of London, during the Blitz of WWII. Together, his family spent their nights in a bomb shelter under their garden.

“My family were working class. My dad, my father was a baker, my mother cooked. I had three other siblings all younger than me. And it was not easy, but it was an interesting way to grow up. Because when you grow up, and then you get a few more, you suddenly discover the luxuries of life. You realize there's more to life than just the way I grew up," Davis said.

After the war, Davis decided to move to California. By his own admission, he knew no one or nothing there.

“I took about $100 with me, and moved to Southern California where I heard the weather was nice. I didn't hear about the earthquakes and the fires and whatever," Davis said.

Davis soon received an offer from the London Daily Express to write for their new West Coast bureau. And it was here that he received his first big opportunity.

"In 1964, my editor called me and said, ‘You've got to join the boys in San Francisco.’ And I said, ‘the boys?’ He said. ‘the Beatles, silly.’"

A meeting with their manager got Davis exclusive access to the Beatles' apartment while they were on tour. Here he was able to listen to first and second drafts of their songs, and even played games with some of them. But then Elvis Presley invited the Beatles over, and Davis was able to tag along.

"Long story short, Elvis was there. Priscilla was there and he introduced him to the Beatles. And strangely enough, there was no conversation until Elvis jumped up and said, ‘Hey, you guys, you got to give Elvis a sense of humor.' He said, ‘did you guys come here to jam? If you know what if you don't want to jam with me, I'm going to bed.’ Well, of course that broke the ice. And the Beatles jammed with Elvis. And they started talking and it was much more fun."

But darker moments followed. His next big assignment came in 1965, to cover the Watts Riots in downtown Los Angeles.

“I was scared out of my mind, because I hid in the gutter under the car while snipers were shooting at us, and Harry Benson, this intrepid crazy photographer, was running around taking pictures. And I was scared… It was insanity. And it was the only time really in my career that I thought I was going to die.”

Three years later, in 1968, came a chance encounter with assassination.

“It is shortly before midnight at the Ambassador Hotel. Bobby makes a short speech in the ballroom, and he's going to go through the kitchen to another area where he's going to have a press conference. So I follow him as he walks about 15 paces, 15 yards ahead. Suddenly I hear balloons popping. And I think they're balloons, but then immediately there's somebody screaming, I push my way into the kitchen. And there on the floor is Bobby Kennedy.”

Davis also saw other witnesses dogpiling the shooter, Sirhan Sirhan, to keep him from escaping. But events were still unfolding throughout the night.

“We go to the hospital, and in the early hours of the next morning, Tom Mankiewicz, Bobby Kennedy's press guy, announces that Bobby is dead. Wow. It's unbelievable. Another Kennedy assassinated.”

And then, in 1969, he was one of the first on the scene of the murder of actress Sharon Tate by members of the cult known as the Manson Family.

“In August of 1969, I was told to go to a house in Beverly Hills in a canyon. Because there's been they believe, some murders... So I call my story in and Philip said to me, 'I know who lives there. The actress Sharon Tate and her husband, the film director Roman Polanski. And they live with a bunch of friends.' And then I realized, you know, 'Good heavens, were they all murdered?'"

Sharon Tate was murdered that day, along with four others at her house on Cielo Drive. Davis would later go on to cover the arrests and trials of the Manson Family members who carried out the murders. During the investigation, things ended up coming back around to the start of his career.

“And they played Helter Skelter. And so it was a kind of a coming together again, the most infamous murder of the 20th century, which had been orchestrated apparently by The Beatles' music. And then, to cut a long story short, I covered the trial — it was a circus.”

When asked about what he has considered the best part of his career, Davis gave a humble answer.

"The highlight of my career is marrying my late wife. I was a lucky, lucky man, and then I've got I've got great kids. And I had terrific grandchildren."

The documentary about Davis is called “I Was There — A Reporter’s Story” and it was produced by Ventura County director and filmmaker John Zilles.