She was a symbol of the Swinging Sixties - a singer, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones, and then it all went bad for Marianne Faithfull. With a biopic about her life under way, Barry Egan tells the story of the iconinc singer who has also just recovered from the coronavirus.
Marianne Faithfull was recently discharged from hospital in London, 22 days after being admitted with symptoms of Covid-19 and having contracted pneumonia. Now 73, she was not going to be done in by a virus…
This is possibly because Marianne Faithfull has seen off, in her time, heroin addiction in the 1970s and the mid-80s, breast cancer (she underwent surgery in 2006), hepatitis C, liver disease, clinical depression (culminating in several suicide attempts in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and anorexia, as well as two abortions, three miscarriages, a nervous breakdown, three marriages and a coma. The beautiful ingenue who sang her first hit As Tears Go By as a 17-year-old was even homeless, dossing in squats and on the streets of London for a few years in the early 1970s.
"Suddenly," she recalled, "when I was living on the streets in St Anne's Court (in Soho), I realised that human beings were really good. The Chinese restaurant let me wash my clothes there. The man who had the tea stall gave me cups of tea. The meth drinkers looked out for me."
The angelic-looking blonde who for a moment personified the cool of the Sixties was on an NHS drugs programme and got her daily fix on prescription from a chemist. "She had one of the highest dosages going - 25 jacks of heroin a day. It left her with poor circulation which is still evident in her angry red, mottled arms," wrote The Observer's Lynn Barber a tad bitchily in 2001.
In 2006, at the Cannes Film Festival, Marianne collapsed from a kidney infection and was in a coma for three days. On waking, she was delighted to be told she had lost 10 kilograms. "It's almost worth a near-death experience to lose 10 kilos!" she laughed.
She also nearly died when she fell down the stairs of her house in Wicklow in 2000 after an intimate supper with Daniel Day-Lewis and his wife Rebecca Miller. She thought she was going to break her neck and die. She managed, she said, at the last minute to turn her body in mid-air and land on her shoulder instead. "It was sheer vanity," she told the Evening Standard. "I couldn't bear the thought of being found dead upside down in red fishnets."
The term survivor is one Marianne has a particular disdain for. "I hate that word. I am very strong physically. My mother must have looked after herself when she was pregnant," she said of Eva von Sacher-Masoch, who died in 1991.
Eva, who was a ballerina in Berlin before the Second World War broke out, moved to live with her aristocratic parents in Vienna, where she met Major Robert Glynn Faithfull, a British army officer and spy. Married in 1946, they separated in 1951. It was said Eva only married him to escape occupied Austria to England. Marianne was born on December 29, 1946, in London.
Marianne said that when she left home to be with The Beatles' favourite art dealer John Dunbar, whom she married on May 6, 1965, when she was a mere 18-year-old, it broke her ultra-possessive mother's heart, "but I couldn't help it. A legacy of my convent school days, though, is that I still feel so much guilt about it".
There was more guilt too that the son, Nicholas, she had with Dunbar on November 10, 1965, would be taken away from her when she "disappeared down the rabbit hole of heroin" after her relationship with Rolling Stone Mick Jagger - whom she left Dunbar for in 1966 - ended brutally after a suicide attempt in late 1969 (she swallowed 150 Tuinal barbiturates.)
"None of us has ever got over it, really, not even Nicholas," Marianne said later. "I always thought maybe they did the right thing, but now I think that having Nicholas with me through those difficult years might have helped me. Perhaps it wouldn't have helped him? But people have to do what they have to do."
Life went downhill after her relationship with Jagger ended and she was homeless for four years. Things started to improve in 1985 after treatment for heroin addiction at Hazelden, the Minnesota clinic, when Marianne permanently stopped "the desire to destroy myself daily".
Even allowing for exaggeration, Marianne has lived an extraordinary life. Unsurprisingly, a film is being made based on her 1994 memoir, starring Bohemian Rhapsody star Lucy Boynton. "Marianne is an extraordinary woman who rebelled against the male-dominated music industry," director Ian Bonhote said. "The film will explore female issues as well as the injustices she suffered in her quest to be recognised as an artist."
She was the inspiration for Wild Horses and You Can't Always Get What You Want, two Rolling Stone masterpieces. Marianne was "the epicentre of what Diana Vreeland named the 'youthquake'", Salman Rushdie wrote in the introduction to her 2014 photobook, Marianne: A Life On Record, "with the voice of a slightly zoned-out chorister."
She told Vogue a few years ago that her pal Nick Cave wrote Late Victorian Holocaust (from her 2014 album Give My Love To London) "just for me, and it meant so much to me, it's such an incredible song. You know, we're both ex-junkies, we've both kicked smack, and it's okay for us to make a song about it now".
The list of artists who have worked with Faithfull over the years gives some indication of the respect in which she is held. Further back in the mists of time, Marianne as an inter-galactic nun opposite David Bowie, in drag as Ziggy Stardust, duetted on a slightly bonkers rendering of Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe. Cave, Mick Harvey and Warren Ellis from the Bad Seeds performed on her 2005 album Before the Poison; on 2018's Negative Capability, her 21st album, she worked with Cave and Ellis again. "She's like a punk rocker in a way," Ellis said, "she's always been at odds with the world that surrounded her. She sings in spite of herself."
On Sliding Through Life On Charm from her sublime 2002 album Kissin' Time (which featured everyone from Beck to Damon Albarn to Jarvis Cocker), she sang: "I wonder why schools don't teach anything useful these days/ Like how to fall from grace/ And slide with elegance from a pedestal/ I never asked to be on in the first place."
"Jarvis wrote that," Marianne told me, proudly, in 2002. "There are one or two really key lines: 'I am a muse, not a mistress, not a whore'. And the other one that is terribly important is, 'I had to know how far was going too far'."
Over lunch in a 5-star hotel in Dublin in August 2002, Marianne smoked Marlboro constantly and was brittle if highly entertaining company. She was very open to being asked about her past, even though I was nervous she was going to snap at any moment and order me out of the restaurant.
"In my real life, in my love life - and that is still going on - I am aware that I am easy to love. I know how to love, and I have got fantastic good points," she said, "but I am quite difficult, and I know that, but the thing about choosing the wrong person is you can't blame them. They can't help that if they are not right for me. I should have known better."
When I said that she was the original rock chick who helped make the Sixties in London swing - and as such paved the way for Kate Moss and other Brit supermodels - Marianne cackled like one of Macbeth's witches.
"We never got a penny! If that were Kate or Christy now they would be paid. It wasn't like that then! My parents didn't bring me up to be interested in money. They didn't have any money," she said, adding that she was brought up in "a sort of 1940s Iris Murdoch house, but it suited me perfectly".
I said to Marianne in between the plumes of smoke that without her there possibly would be no Annie Lennox, no Debbie Harry, no Courtney Love. "I do have pity and compassion for Courtney," she replied. "She is doing the best she can. When I met her I said, 'straighten up and fly right'."
It's a pity nobody ever said that to you in 1970, I said. "Nobody knew about it then," she smiled, "we didn't know about mental health then. I was anorexic. I was on heroin and I was homeless. I am again homeless!" she laughed, "but it is completely different. And I am certainly not anorexic!" she laughed again, gazing at the healthy dimensions of her thighs.
When talk turned to her home life, Marianne said: "I just had to let go of my lovely, lovely flat in Ballsbridge."
You had to sell your apartment?
"Sell?" she gasped with laughter, Marlboro aglow, at my naivete with her regard to her financial savvy. "I never owned an apartment. I owned nothing".
In Marianne's art-deco apartment in Montparnasse in Paris, there is a framed letter from her father, sent to her in 1994, in which he writes after reading her autobiography: "It was a strange wartime marriage of two people that produced you, darling. I feel proud, not only of your achievement in making a successful career, but of your success in growing into such a nice and mature person."
The late Anita Pallenberg was probably closer to the truth when she wrote in the blurb for the book about her friend: "Marianne has always been cruel - especially to herself."
Marianne, however, nailed the misogyny of the so-called liberating Sixties when she wrote in the book about the infamous police raid at Rolling Stone Keith Richards's home in 1967, when, so the story goes, she was wearing nothing but a fur rug: "They (Richards and Jagger) emerged with their reputations amplified as dangerous, glamorous outlaws. I was destroyed by the very things that enhanced them."
There was also a bit of self-destruction. The convent girl led a Dionysian life that almost ruined her. In 1968 at the Roundhouse in London, when she played Ophelia in Hamlet, with Anjelica Huston as her understudy, Marianne threw herself into the role. "Just before the mad scene, I took smack," she told Time Out. "I could have done the mad scene just as well without it."
However, she said in 2002: "One of the misconceptions about me is that I am sort of a tragedy queen. It's so sad. I am not that at all. My life has not been tragic. I have had the most amazing life."
In a 1980 interview with Ann Bardach of High Times, Marianne said that contrary to myth, she was not some sort of victim-waif in the aftermath of her breakdown with Jagger.
"Our conditioning is that you're a victim," she explained. "There is another thing I can talk about till I'm blue in the face but no one will ever believe it, and I don't want to hurt Mick because it's important for his macho trip. He likes people to think I was left miserable. But in fact it was mutual… it wasn't really mutual because I did go off to do something else, which was to be an addict (laughs). I never felt that I'd been betrayed and lost and left at all."
Marianne also talked about how at that time she heard that when people would ask, 'How is Marianne?', he would say, "It's so sad, she's gone mad. She is just crazy now."
"I was so angry about it. Then after Australia," Marianne said - Jagger had been starring in the movie Ned Kelly in 1969, "it was quite clear I was very sick . My mother came to Australia and Mick had to go on working. I went to Switzerland with my mother and Nicholas. And I went to see this doctor, who I told about the miscarriage (she had been pregnant with Jagger's baby). She checked me out and found out when I had Nicholas they hadn't gotten my muscles back together. So when the baby got to seven months I lost it. It was dreadful because I felt very guilty about it, you see…"
Her pain could only have hardened when, not long after their break-up, Jagger married model Bianca Perez-Mora Macias in 1971. After that marriage fell apart, Marianne told People magazine in 1980 that Bianca's heavy divorce litigation was not her style: "I've never been somebody to crawl to men for money."
Never for money, Marianne was married to musician Ben Brierley from 1979 to 1985, and then to writer Giorgio Della Terza from 1988 until 1991. She had a 15-year relationship with record producer Francois Ravard until 2009.
In the mid-1990s, my friend Ian Galvin took me with him to visit Marianne in hospital in Dublin. A few weeks later we were invited to a party at Marianne's rented abode, Shell Cottage in Co Wicklow.
In 2005 Marianne had surgery for breast cancer. There is a story she tells that upon regaining consciousness in hospital at 2am, she was handed the phone. "This voice came on: 'Hello, Marian, how are you?' I'd know that voice anywhere, and he's the only one who ever called me Marian."
"Rebellion," she once said, "is the only thing that keeps us alive." Whatever it is, Marianne Faithfull appears to have nine lives. Long may she purr.