Chapter 3 of Part 1
What was Nellcôte like? It felt like paradise. The house, the gardens, the cool people, the sea, the sunshine, the music and of course the amazing food, courtesy of the chef, Gérard. There were big full house lunches of Cordon Bleu cooking where everyone sort of leapt in and helped themselves. Marlon had a few interesting eating habits as a toddler and Keith would defend his right to do whatever he wanted. Marlon would pick up a whole slab of butter and try to eat it, creating quite a mess. His other odd taste was for ants, which he’d pick off a leaf and of which there were many on the grounds.
Until we arrived at the Cannes film festival I had no real idea of how big was the storm around the eye of this particular hurricane we had flown into at Nellcôte, how madly famous our hosts were. Walking into the reception at the Cannes film festival was like walking into an avalanche of photographers – flash bulbs going off in our faces. Although alarming at first, it wasn’t a bad feeling and I imagine if you were a rock star you could very easily get used to it.
The Flight Over
The first clear memory I have of the flight over from London to Nice was at the check-in counter at Heathrow airport. Tommy was schmoozing with the airport attendant who was helping us. This was pretty standard fare for dad. Although I did notice that on this occasion he’d turned it up all the way. A huge smile appeared on the attendant’s face in response to dad’s winning grin which suddenly dropped as he turned to look down at me and noticed something around my neckline. Apparently the masking tape he’d used to strap the couple of kilos to our bodies had come loose on mine and was riding up over the top of my sweatshirt.
Insisting I suddenly needed to take a pee dad hastily excused us from the check-in attendant and whisked my brother and me off in the direction of the toilets. Once there he reapplied the tape so that it was no longer visible above my neckline, thus ensuring it didn’t give the game away. We then made our way to the boarding area, got on the plane and took our seats. The flight over was uneventful and short. On landing at Nice airport, according to my brother, when going through customs and having our carry ons searched Jake double bluffed the customs officer by asking him if he wanted to search us kids as well. I don’t remember that, but if true it’s certainly a funny detail. The next memory I have is walking through the airport and as we approached the doors Tom was rolling some 16mm film on his fancy compac camera, like a tourist. We passed through the door and there, outside the terminal, was a limousine parked on the curb with a chauffeur standing beside it. Along with Spanish Tony he would later sell his stories to the tabloids.
I remember feeling a little taken aback, confused as to why we weren’t met by mum’s ‘friends’. If not by a group, at least by Anita – whom we knew from the rehab clinic in Oxford – maybe with her partner, Keith Richards. At this point I should add a note: neither Keith nor Anita were aware of the logistics, of exactly how our father smuggled in the contraband. It was only in the last couple of years that I figured out why we weren’t met by Anita and Keith. In case something went wrong and we were busted coming in it probably wouldn’t be wise for one of the world’s most famous and notorious rock stars to show up at the airport meeting a party who were smuggling drugs.
However, that feeling of impersonality at our reception at the airport, being met by a guy who seemed very different from our circle of freaks – he was definitely ex-military – was soon swept away by what awaited us at the Villa Nellcôte. As the limo drove through the open gate and around the circular drive, filled with lush palms and verdant foliage, there were two of the coolest looking people waiting by the huge iron and glass door of the most impressive villa imaginable, smiling from ear to ear while welcoming us like long lost family.
Once they’d welcomed us we were whisked upstairs to remove the bounty strapped to our chests and backs. Getting it off Jake took a little longer. Tommy offered him the choice of slowly and carefully or fast and get it over with quickly. Being more of a sensitive kid Jake chose the first option. After that we had a little look around the garden and the kitchen which felt like Anita’s domain. I quickly figured out I was going to like it there.
Down by the small private jetty of the property Keith kept two boats. Besides a Zephyr he had a small but elegant Chris-Craft, initially called Amanda which he infamously changed to Mandrax by removing and resequencing the letters. The boat was sometimes mistakenly labelled as a Riva because of its classical wooden design. Riding out in Keith’s speedboat across the Villefranche bay was the initial memorable experience for me. It’s hard to describe that first sensation, the blue colour of the sea, the boat’s motion over the water and the feeling of being on the Côte d’Azur. This was not little Britain by any means.
Apart from that Keith would often take everyone out, as an entourage, either to swim and then lunch or to one of the upscale restaurants in the area for dinner. It was on those trips that I got my first taste of French seafood, like steaming bowls of moules marinières and plates of whitebait, which I can remember to this day.
When we went out Keith would always carry a little pocket sized notebook in which he would jot down lines, ideas and notes even when he was in mid conversation in a bustling French restaurant. When he’d get an idea he’d pause, make a note and then pick up wherever the conversation had left off. Presumably these notes went into lyrics for Exile or were later developed into the Rolling Stones Songbook – ‘Goats Head Soup’ being the follow up album.
Going out with the entourage for trips was something we kids looked forward to, particularly if it was in the large old convertible Pontiac where Keith would let us sit up on the backs of the headrests of the 50s chunk of Detroit metal and shout at the top of our little lungs as we passed through the coastal mountain tunnels, the sound bouncing off the walls. That habit of yelling out the sound of the oddly antiquated French police sirens was something we kids particularly latched onto and apparently stretched back to Keith’s time in Paris during the student protests of May 1968 when he observed and transposed the musical notes of the sirens and morphed that ‘music’ into what became the chords for the verse in ‘Street Fighting Man’.
Keith had started growing marijuana in the greenhouse as soon as he arrived and because of the rate at which things grow in that climate soon had to cut a hole in the glass roof to let the tallest plant stretch unencumbered towards the heavens. My brother and I, although we didn’t smoke, became so adept at making any shape or size of joints for the visiting coterie of guests at the Villa Nellcôte that we became known as ‘The Rollies’.
The Wedding in St. Tropez
Anita was a force of nature and disarmingly attractive. A little wild and naughty by nature, but most of the reported wilder behaviour was kept from us kids. It just seemed to be her M.O. Anita kept things interesting. That side of her character came out almost straight away when, as soon as we arrived at the wedding poolside party in St. Tropez, she nudged my brother and me and told us to follow and help her, which we did in tipping Chris Jagger into the pool. He had been innocently reading his newspaper at the time. He looked so much like Mick then. I did wonder if we’d crossed the line. But thankfully everyone laughed.
The wedding ceremony itself was notable for a couple of reasons. As page boys the role for Marlon, my brother and me was to wait for the appropriate moment and then each hand Bianca an oversized flower and kiss her. Jake did his bit, I did mine, but when it came to Marlon he refused to hand her the flower. I think because of the mixed feelings his parents had about the match, which as a very young boy, maybe no more than three years old, he must have picked up on. Sensing a need for action I stepped up, took the flowers from Marlon and kissed the stunning lady for a second time. Keith rarely gave off dark or mixed vibes – the exception may have been his mixed feelings at the time about Mick’s wedding to Bianca, although he now denies he ever disliked Bianca. Someone who’s very hard to anger, unless you cross a line and if you do, you’ll really know it. Conspicuously Keith wore to the wedding the German officer’s uniform he had found in the basement, from the period during the war when the Germans had been headquartered at the Villa. Looking now at the pictures of Keith it was no small statement.
Anita had a maternal side as well, which she showed to us kids and the guests at the villa. Fairly soon after arriving, after a dinner out, we were strolling back to the car along the beach in Cannes, as the light was fading. Marlon and Jake were walking along the pavement behind the adults who were chatting away happily while the kids played with those ripcord little plastic hot rod toys we’d picked up, pulling them off and shooting the cars up the road. I was having fun wandering barefoot along the beach, not noticing how dark it had gotten, when I stepped on something unbelievably painful and let out a screech. It was a sea urchin. The tide had swept a bunch of them onto the beach all around me, but by then it was too dark to see them. Tommy told me to stand still while he made his way down to the beach and carried me out of the urchin minefield.
Back at the Villa Anita took charge and boiled up a huge pot of water which, oddly enough, she filled with garlic – she had a minor obsession with garlic, which is a natural antibiotic, apart from the claim Spanish Tony made that she used to sleep with it to ward off vampires. I didn’t know anything about that, although at the time I thought the huge steaming cauldron of water with the copious amounts of strong smelling garlic was a little strange. Strange or not, as she held my foot over the steaming mixture the broken spikes of urchin needles eased themselves slightly out of my foot and were then removed by Anita with tweezers. There was no infection, which presumably was the point of the garlic.
Sticky Fingers was the record most on the record player at the time. Keith would get sent huge boxes containing the latest records and some back catalogues of releases from what must have been his label at the time, Atlantic Records. According to an interview I did a while ago with Robert Greenfield about his book The Last Sultan, a biography of Ahmet Ertegun, around this time at the Villa there was another big party, to celebrate the signing of Rolling Stones Records to a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Among the handful of albums that Keith pulled out of the hundreds and would stick on replay were: The Leader of the Pack, by the Shangri-Las and The Allman Brothers album recorded at Fillmore East. I love Southern rock and Allman’s slide on Layla, the Muscle Shoals Sound and the culture it all sprang from, but I must confess, whatever Keith and the critics heard in that Allman Brothers Record went right over my head.
The Heart of any House is the Kitchen
After Keith and Anita the first person to arrive at Nellcôte was the chef, Gérard Mosiniak, whose mother was friends with the caretaker. The caretaker asked Gérard’s mother if he might be interested. He had just come off a seasonal gig in the Alps when his mother suggested the work to him and being a rock fan he jumped at the chance.
The assistant cook, Gros Jacques, was brought in from the local region when it became clear that because of all the additional guests the workload was too large for one cook to handle. Later in the season Gros Jacques became the chef after Gérard left. Gros Jacques – who was a heavy guy – was also the direct connection to the Cowboys, a Corsican French dealing outfit from Marseille. Tommy would later regularly go and score from them.
Not long after the Cowboys showed up things began to go missing, the first and most brazen of which was Keith’s ribbed rubber Zephyr boat. Luckily they didn’t take the ‘Mandrax’, which Keith preferred.
Bruce Byall and the Rockets over the bay.
Keith was gracious to everyone, but there were a few people whom he held in particular affection, ones you could tell he really really liked – people like Gram and also Bruce Byall. One of the early arrivals Bruce was an American sound and light engineer who’d worked on the production at Woodstock. Apart from being a genuinely likeable guy and slightly eccentric – he slept in a teepee on the grounds – Bruce endeared himself to us kids and to Keith by bringing a gift of unusual fireworks, a collection of huge custom made rockets from the States. Keith found that particular fun and they served as a sort of house-warming ceremony when a small group of us set them off one night down in the garden, firing them carefully over and across the bay towards Villefranche, where we often had dinner.
The personalities within the Stones were a little different than they may have appeared from the outside. For instance, Keith was pretty focused and driven about work and the business of the Rolling Stones, which is making music and, to an extent, their image. Everything seemed to revolve around that, although in the eye of the storm he was also a great host and at least half, if not more, of the glue binding the band together.
Everyone has a go to story they seem to hark back to and bizarrely, Keith’s was about the time he almost electrocuted himself while carrying an amp onstage in the rain. The sheer force of the shock and how far it launched him from the offending amp seemed to amuse him.
Mick Jagger and Bianca
We weren’t particularly close to Mick. He and Bianca seemed to come and go like royalty, maybe on a cloud or, more exactly, a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. However, he did once spot me eyeing his car and welcomed me into it to take a look at the built in singles record player. It seemed like magic to me at the time, you slipped a single in and somehow it played music while you sat in complete luxury in white leather seats.
A great guy. He once turned up at Nellcôte and completely out of the blue gave me a table tennis set. No one else there was thinking like that at all. I think it must have been his birthday, although it might have been Mick’s, but it certainly wasn’t mine, as we left Nellcôte long before the end of November.
Mick Taylor and Rose
Bizarrely Rose now produces Christian music somewhere in Northern France and was featured in a French magazine article with Gérard Mosiniak.
My father, brother and I went on a road trip to visit Mick Taylor and Rose in the country. They had a new baby and at the time seemed much more calm and down to earth than the Nellcôte crowd. But it just goes to show, you can never judge a book by its cover. According to Rose, who had to drive Mick down to the sessions at Nellcôte, unbeknownst to anyone at the time they were both using smack and ironically she had no sense that Keith was using too. She thought he was doing no more than smoking dope and drinking tequila.
We made a trip out to visit Bill Wyman in his house in the country. As nice as he was, the most notable feeling I can remember coming away with was being shocked about him living with two girlfriends at the same time, both Swedish and very good looking.
Nellcôte was a weekly parade of unusual and interesting people showing up at the front door. Journalists arrived from all parts of the world, usually in cars which we turned out to admire. Like through the closet in the Narnia books people magically materialised at Nellcôte. In the middle of the circular driveway, inside the overgrown fauna, I hid and smoked my very first cigarette – given to me by chef Gros Jacques who, unlike Gérard, was probably not a good influence and was open to and into everything. That first French fag, a running gag and wordplay Anita never seemed to tire of using, caused me to throw up violently and feel dizzy, a sensation which I oddly enjoyed although I didn’t try to smoke again until I was into my double digits.
Robert Greenfield, the Rolling Stone journalist who came to interview Keith and later wrote the book “A Day in the Life” about our family, the Webers, turned up having rented a convertible stick shift at the airport. Never having driven a manual car before, he drove the whole way to the Villa in second gear with a trail of French drivers behind him cursing him all the way from Nice. Much later, in the 2000s, my brother and Robert – who had seen Jake on TV – got together and formulated plans for what would become ‘A Day in the Life’. The plans were to sell the script as a movie, although in my opinion it was not great. It felt like the characters were changed to create a two dimensional representation of the people involved and possibly a hero and some less sympathetic characters to make it stand up as a story. I will get into this in greater detail at a later date.
The only person I got a genuinely spooky feeling from was a visiting doctor who made weekly visits to give Keith and a few other guests vitamin B12 shots. We were told this was to keep them healthy. I would hide as soon as I became aware of the doctor’s presence in the house. He noticed this and although it sounds bizarre it initiated a game of hide and seek, where infuriatingly he more often than not found me hiding behind some curtain. He would throw his syringes like darts at my feet, while never actually hitting me. It properly freaked me out. And even then I was unsure about this story of injections for vitamins, although it may have been true.
There was other mischief going on in and around the house which we kids were not really aware of. Keith had discovered old vials of morphine which the Germans who had occupied the Villa during the war had left down there with other bits and bobs, including the old SS uniform that Keith wore to Mick and Bianca’s wedding.
Although Keith claims he wasn’t using anything that serious earlier on at Nellcôte, at least until he and Tommy got their bodies tangled up in a go-karting incident on a day out, I find it hard to imagine Keith wouldn’t have tried a few of those morphine ampoules, however old they were, before Dominique and Spanish Tony threw them into the sea for fear that they’d poison someone.
The go-karting incident was a pivotal one in dad and Keith’s relationship. While returning from a trip up the coast Keith pulled into a motorway side adult karting track. Different to kids tracks these were proper fast racing karts. The rest of the cars followed suit and once we’d all parked Tommy and Keith agreed to a race. They went at it and after a few laps around the track their wheels touched as Keith was trying to overtake Tommy’s kart. Keith’s kart flipped and he was dragged along the asphalt until his back was raw meat. Holding Tom at least partly responsible Keith saw this as a reason to ask our father to go to Marseilles and score something stronger to ease the pain. I think at this stage they had already exchanged words about Anita, to the effect of: ‘For someone who claims to be a vegetarian, Tommy, you certainly seem to be helping yourself to my meat’. Although it must have hurt like hell, Keith made not a whimper in the journey home in the black 69 Pontiac Camaro. It was extraordinary.
Eric Clapton apparently now runs and operates a rehab clinic. Although a separate enterprise, so does Polly Parsons, Gram’s daughter.
Eric stayed at Nellcôte for a couple of weeks around the time of Mick and Bianca’s wedding. He stayed in his room for most of the time, in a bad way, asking for drugs. A state he’d apparently been in for at least a couple of years, ever since he’d recorded and played Layla, his magnum opus, for Pattie Boyd. Most people know the story but less her reaction: on hearing the song Pattie was speechless, she apparently just left the room without saying a word. This, Eric says, was the start of his heroin habit.
Back to Nellcôte and the virtuoso guitarist being locked away in his room experiencing withdrawal. Keith and the old man, Tommy, exchanged words. Keith being of the opinion that it was Eric’s problem and to let him deal with it. Never in need of much of an excuse to procure drugs, meet a great musician or help a person in need for that matter, Tom went to Marseille and scored, presumably through the contacts of Gros Jacques. Eric was thus saved from cold turkey or, depending on your view, pushed further down the road in his heroin addiction. Unfortunately it didn’t cause him to magically appear from his room and start socialising with everyone or jamming with Keith, which was the secret wish of a lot of people in the Villa.
Arrived in a desert ready Land Rover with all the bells and whistles and his girlfriend, who lived locally and who would drive around the bay topless in her extended Riva speed boat, like Lady Godiva. The Riva had a front cabin and, apart from being thirty foot long, looked just like a speedboat. The boat and I think also a future ‘Bond girl’ certainly made an impression.
Prince Stash was a good friend of Brian’s and arrived in a spanking new racing Corvette smelling of Detroit interior. Chef Gérard, who enjoyed a certain access to everyone and therefore had an awareness of their habits, said that Stash had a diet of cheese, milk and cocaine.
Recording Sessions in the Basement
Watching the band and engineers set up the recording sessions in the basement was like a movie or, to be more precise, like a trip into the great unknown. It took a lot of trial and error to place people, players and mics in different parts of the dark basement and it was as fascinating and alien as if they were exploring new territory. There was only audio and no visual communication between the truck and the players in the basement, which could lead to occasional comical results. On one such an occasion the engineers had set up Bobby Keys and Jim Price to record in a small room down there which apparently had decent acoustics for recording horns, when the recording was interrupted by a grinding noise. No one could figure out where it was coming from. The engineer, Andy Johns, came on the talkback system asking what that awful noise was. ‘Huh, not sure what that is’ responded Jim Price. ‘Oh, don’t worry!’ piped up another voice, presumably Bobby Keys, ’It’s just Jim Price crushing his nuts’. Everyone fell about laughing.
Once they started, watching Keith lay down his guitar parts was something to behold. It had probably taken any number of lucky technical events, being in the right frame of mind and planets being aligned, for Keith to actually be in front of the mics with tape ready to roll. There were also technical issues, such as not having sufficient ampage to power the 24-track mobile truck, which meant the engineers jacked into the electricity cables running along the coastal railway tracks that ran parallel to the exit road from the villa.
The climate in the basement was hot and humid which created another obstacle to overcome. No sooner would Keith start playing, with us getting all excited, then he would have a fit and curse the guitar for slipping out of tune. This happened first with his Gibson SG which to me as a kid looked impossibly cool and seductive in Keith’s hands. But there were more guitars that had their tuning acting up, so that in the end it was clear that the humidity was the problem. The other guitar he used a great deal for those sessions was his Dan Armstrong, a see-through plexiglass guitar.
The heavy intake of drugs at that time probably fed paranoia and affected staying on top of things like security at the Villa. The front door was often open. Anyone could have walked in and taken the guitars or walked down the path to the jetty and made off with one of the speed boats. And there were troublemakers in our midst. The problems weren’t just imagined. Something or someone seemed to be the source of a lot of trouble in the house and at the time it drove Keith up the wall a bit. It seemed hard to pin it on anyone specifically. It also seemed unfair that it fell to Keith to sort it out, as he had a fair amount on his plate with the work at hand. His real job, with Mick, was really about making music and coming up with a new record, no small feat.
Eventually the air of suspicion became too much and Keith and particularly Anita, who was the hostess and MC of the villa, had had enough and kicked the Cowboys out of the house, but not before a number of guitars had disappeared, which left a seed of suspicion in everyone’s mind. It felt a bit like a whodunnit movie where you never really find out whodunnit.
Within Tommy and Anita’s nocturnal escapades lay a knot of important and complicated relationships. It seems they’d first laid eyes on each other when mum and dad took a holiday trip to the South of France where they met Anita and Donald Camel. Keith loathed Camel as he felt he was pushing over the line and manipulating Anita and Mick to have an onscreen affair during the bath scene in ‘Performance’. It was during the filming that Keith, going up the wall thinking of his best mate, his girl and this manipulative director, wrote ‘Gimme Shelter’ – with all the impending threat of the times, the protests, the Vietnam war and the fast approaching end of the innocence of the flower power generation.
It might be argued that Tom and Anita were peas in a pod. They were both incredibly decadent and impossibly good looking who members of the opposite sex found it hard to deny anything. Within that were the interesting avant-garde values of artists which Mick and Keith adopted and which seemed to be left over from people like the Pre-Raphaelites, where ideas and philosophies of freedom in reality got tangled up with a web of confusing love with desire and just taking what you want when you want it. All of that seemed to be at odds with the theoretical, idealistic and at the time ultimately frowned on crime of ‘owning someone, man’ or viewing an individual as a piece of property and not letting them do what they want. And so that was present with Anita and Tom, but also was there for a while between Mick and Keith because of Anita, since the filming of ‘Performance’.
Anyway, Tom stated that the attraction between him and Anita began at that earlier meeting. Although they were with different partners at the time and nothing untoward happened.
Burning the candles at both ends caught up with Tom when driving back from a night gambling in Monte Carlo. Driving along those cliffside roads, through tunnels, along the coast back from Monte Carlo to the Villa early one morning Tom fell asleep at the wheel and broke an arm. Luckily that time there were no serious casualties and no real French police sirens coming out of the tunnels to lock him up.
Heard the News Today
The night before I heard the news about mum passing Gros Jacques had given Jake and me our first beer, a tiny can of Heineken. It made me drunk, I felt quite tipsy. Brown Sugar was on and we were dancing around as usual. I fell into the fountain somewhere out back and dad was not amused. He didn’t look like his usual happy smiling party self. I didn’t think any more of it until the next day when we came back from an outing to the beach and dad told us the news.
There’s a bit of a blackout in memories for a couple of weeks. We were knocked sideways and not happy at all, as was the overall mood in the house.
After we left Nellcôte Tommy would tell us that certain songs were either dedicated to or written for us. ‘Tumbling Dice’ Mick often sang as ‘Tommy, the tumbling dice’, although he says he wrote it after a conversation with the chef. ‘Meet me right outside, if you’ll be my partner in crime’ and the gambling references would seem to be very Tommy in nature. ‘All Down The Line’ he said was for me because I loved cars and in particular Keith’s E-Type, but it actually came from a demo initially written during a session in London, I believe at Olympic studios. It’s hard to say where songs come from exactly, they’re from a place where songs are already written – which explains why some parts of songs seem to come from the air.
Whatever the issue was between Jake and Keith, whether it was Jake following the cameras around or being a bit too needy, some attention seeking issue came to a head and Keith threw him out of the house one afternoon. That’s when I came across my brother and father in a silent funk outside the front door. Whatever it was, it takes a lot to piss off someone like Keith; to be exiled from exile is a whole other realm of exiledom. Although it didn’t last long with Keith. I asked them what had happened and Tommy shrugged, ‘Jake upset Keith ’. But wouldn’t say any more. I gathered later that my brother had been following Keith around with a series of irritating ‘but why is the sky blue’ type of questions, which kids often do. But even that struck me as too slight to make someone like Keith angry enough to chuck him out of the house.
Although for years I projected the mood in the house after mum’s passing to Shine a Light, according to the records it was in fact originally written and recorded by Mick Jagger and Leon Russell at Olympic Studios in 1968 as a tribute to Brian Jones and then called ‘Get a Line on You’. That version wasn’t released until years later in a Leon record. The lyrics however were uncannily similar to mum’s passing: ‘Saw you stretched out in room ten-o-nine, with a smile on your face and a teardrop in your eye’.
At some point the band had a major meeting where the various grievances and frustrations were aired: the endless partying, never starting on time – and where it was decided to try and focus. After that meeting the band tried to do a bit of streamlining, but I doubt they ever fully succeeded.
Tom, Jake and I took off into the mountains to a little chalet jointly owned by Michael Taylor, an old racing and property dealer friend of dad’s. There we kids brushed up on our reading, mostly in French and mostly with our young noses buried in the tales of Asterix and Obelix and Tintin. It was not a great time for our father or to be around him. His temper was short and I think maybe he felt he’d messed things up, although it wasn’t the first time mum had tried to take her life. Then Anita joined us for a while in the valley and Jake and I went to the local school for a time. Tom later said he felt Anita was clearly out of his league. I’m not sure I bought that, but at some point she did go back down the valley of the route Napoléon to Nellcôte and her life with Keith and Marlon. Tom fixed up the ancient Citroën van which had been lying around and bought an old Peugeot. With him blaming himself, heartbroken about mum and never having been paid for the coke we brought over, we couldn’t stay for long.
Stash stayed in the house until the winter when Keith and Anita had long gone, exiled from France. He swears it is haunted and that perhaps because of its history as the former Nazi headquarters in the South of France no one was ever totally at peace or completely happy while living at Nellcôte. I think we did experience some happiness there, although mixed with everything else: sadness and more than a little dark awareness of the madness of growing up.
Post Script – Mum
The time at Bowden House, the rehab clinic in Oxford where Mum and Anita became close, I covered in an earlier instalment – Part II – that sort of sets up how we came to be at Nellcôte. After mum left the clinic she went to live with her sister Jenny and brother-in-law, Alan Ponte, in a village called Ardeley in Hertfordshire. There she regularly visited a doctor and was on quite a lot of medication to get well mentally. The doctor’s diagnosis was ‘drug induced schizophrenia’. It seems on the day she took her life she visited the doctor who, according to our uncle Alan, she persuaded to give her a large amount of sleeping pills which my uncle said was absurd because mum had already tried to take her life a number of times and was a suicide risk.
The policeman who found mum in the small hotel room, laid out in her green Lebanese gown, apparently broke down in floods of tears on the phone to our uncle, saying ‘ I’ve never seen anyone quite so beautiful in all my life’.
Although I never expected her to come out to Nellcôte, much less all the talk of a reunion, because my parents had by then been divorced for some time – the news that she’d passed came as a shock. Ardeley is where she was later buried in the grounds of the local church. It’s also the village where my brother and I went to school for a year or so, after we returned to England in 1974 and before we went to Summerhill, when the old man was falling off the wagon and Alan and Jenny ‘rescued the ragamuffins’. With them we lived in the same old castle where I can still remember waking to find mum one Christmas filling our stockings. In that room, the Peacock room – always mum’s favourite bird – I remember asking her about a picture of a knight slaying a dragon and saving a maiden. ‘Who is that?’ I asked. ‘That’s St. George and the Dragon’, she said. ‘I want to be like him when I grow up’. ‘Ok’, she said’ your secret name will be George and Jake’s will be Michael after another saint’. My brother and I were never baptised as kids, although it was arranged. When the priest showed up to baptise us, on learning of our middle names – mine is Herculese and Jake’s is Talisan, he refused to conduct the ceremony because our names were pagan.
Below is the very end of a ten page letter mum wrote to Tommy from Glastonbury, in an effort to reconcile the two before their divorce in 1969.
NOTE: On the photographs and photographers – with thanks to Dominique Tarlé. Both my brother and I were a little surprised at how many shots of Jake and how few of myself were in what finally appeared as the limited edition photo book Exile. In my brother’s own words, at a dinner we had with our aunt in L.A., ‘It was strange. I always remember you as the happy smiley kid, Charley.’ Maybe beneath the smile I subconsciously sensed the chaos and threat surrounding our family and was carrying that, which Dominique captured. It’s hard to say. But a lot of my childhood shots do show up like that.