To celebrate her 83rd birthday this week, the original queen of bohemian living looks back on a life of gold lamé and basement orgies
Taken from the January 2013 issue of Dazed:
“I was born in 1932 among what has been referred to in snootier circles as the ‘valley rabble’ in Pontycymmer, a small Welsh mining village. My grandfather, who taught himself to read and became a clever man, used to take me to the top of the mountain. It was my first awareness of landscape. As I was slipping on the shale coming down, he would say, ‘The hardest thing in life is the downward path, but the joy is the climb, Molly.’ He was talking about success, as I found to my cost later, with the drinking. The person that I became, effortlessly reaching the top in whatever I do, came totally from my grandfather.
“I hated it when I had to come to London and my parents settled in Dollis Hill in Willesden. Each road like every other – it depressed the shite out of me. When I was 17, I won a scholarship to Goldsmiths, and at 19 I went on an art scholarship to Italy, where I saw the Sistine Chapel and the Giottos. It was art school that changed me. The first film I saw was the Buñuel collaboration with Salvador Dalí where they slice the eye – the whole world seemed to open to me then.
“I was an art student in Sunnyhill Road, in the asbestos hovel that was my dad’s sweet shop. My father was smoking the profits, and the doctor said, ‘You’ve got such a chest you’d benefit from going to Dr Brighton,’ as they called it then. I studied at Brighton School of Art and mixed with people I’d never encountered, middle-class and upper-class girls who’d been to Roedean. I was a virgin then because I was going to chapel, so I looked exotic but was like a nun inside.
“James Robertson Justice was in this scarlet, very low sports-car. He took me to the Ivy and had his hand in my knickers the whole way through” – Molly Parkin
“I moved back to London and everything was on offer. At the jazz club started by John Minton, a lecturer and painter at the Royal College of Art, I saw Louis Armstrong perform. It stirred something very basic in me. I was introduced and he put his arms around me and whispered, ‘Hi honey, you’re mine for the night.’ I drew back and said, ‘I have to be up in the morning teaching,’ and he kissed me. My blood started boiling, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it all the way home. Within a fortnight I’d swapped my Yardley’s Lavender and went to Galeries Lafayette and bought Lancôme Trésor.
“Within that fortnight, James Robertson Justice, a huge film star at the time, rang up and asked me to dinner. I nearly died. There he was in this scarlet, very low sports-car. He took me to the Ivy and had his hand in my knickers the whole way through. That affair was the love of my life really. James taught me to be myself. I was a mixture of Wales and Willesden and I said to him, ‘Do you think I should have elocution lessons?’ He said, ‘Don’t let me hear you say anything like that again. Everything about you is utterly, irrevocably adorable.’ He taught me, ‘Do what feels right to you.’
“After my father died, my mother said I needed a man to start a family, and James was already married. Divorce was unheard of in those days. I went to a party where I met my first husband. He was everything my mother asked for, a public schoolboy who studied law at Oxford. (At that time) I painted at home and sold my work through Liberty – big, modern, splashy paintings that went in the window in the morning and sold by lunchtime.
“It turned out he was a womaniser. I kicked him out on the Sunday, and on Monday morning I went to the top of the house, picked up the brush and nothing came. The muse had departed. I chose not to accept him keeping us. I said, ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to be going to that bastard,’ and started making hats and bags for Biba. I opened (Chelsea boutique) The Shop on Easter Sunday, painted it black and put on loud music. By the end of the day the queue was all the way up King’s Road.
“I took on Nova then went on to Harper’s which was horrible, all Tory. Then I started winning prizes from D&AD for my stories. I knew what I was doing with colour and used a different type of model – a street model. Then I met my next husband and he said, ‘You’re wasted doing fashion, you should be writing books.’ I said, ‘What should I write about?’ And he said, ‘What do you enjoy most?’ I said, ‘Sex, obviously,’ being in bed and having a laugh. He said, ‘Write that then.’ It was a joke, but that first book (Love: All) was a global bestseller because the Times Literary Supplement made fun of it – that review alone ensured its bestsellerdom.
“I ended both my marriages. My auntie took me aside after my second divorce and said, ‘Molly love, you’ve done Wales proud having married two Englishmen and made life for them absolute hell. Well done. You don’t have to do it again now.’
“I was introduced to the Colony Room as soon as I came to London. You had a pianist murmuring songs, low light, luscious drinks and Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon or Colin MacInnes. At Muriel’s I had the shock of my life because I’d never seen lived-in faces like that before – people that had really whacked the shit out of life and were bubbling with the highest spirits. My favourite was Francis Bacon. He told amazing stories. At the Colony Room you had to hold your own conversationally, and that’s what taught me how to cut sentences. I saw it as my home, I lived to go there. I’ve led my life according to the ethics of the Colony, where everybody was so utterly themselves with nothing to hide.
“I’d been out for a week, still in gold lamé with the maquillage in place, but smudged of course because I’d pleasured I-don’t-know-how-many meat porters at Smithfield’” – Molly Parkin
“When I was living in Cheyne Walk in the Rolling Stones mansion I gave huge parties. I would create a theme; for instance, a beach party, so people could come in swimsuits. Orgies went on in the basement, conversation on the ground floor, more screwing in bedrooms. A lot of marriages, pregnancies and the passing of a particular bug came out of that. A stripper came to one party and gave it to so-and-so, then we spent the night together and later I had to get in touch with 17 people. Is 17 a lot in ten days? You led a sort of orgy lifestyle, it just felt very friendly. I believe in multiple relationships because sometimes the one person can’t give you everything.
“I did love pubs and boozing, but I ended it in the gutter. I’d been out for a week, still in gold lamé with the maquillage (make-up) in place, but smudged of course because I’d pleasured I-don’t-know-how-many meat porters at Smithfield. It was 7am, and my granny’s voice came to me: ‘The party’s over now, Molly. You’ve just had your last drink.’ I wish someone else had thought to say it, but I only ever moved among alcoholics. That same week, at 55, I went to my first AA meeting.
“The thing about living to 80 is that so many of my closest friends and lovers are dead. Except I did have that lovely encounter when I was 73 with a 23-year-old surfer. That was my sexual swansong. I’d been in Las Vegas in the Bellagio hotel and it was a lyrical coupling, even though it was in the gents.
“That I received the award from the Queen at Jubilee time in my 80th year for my contribution to the arts is flabbergasting, but then it was given to Wordsworth, Byron and James Joyce, and certainly Augustus John was a filthy old bastard. So I suppose I fit in.
“When people ask, ‘What was your happiest time?’, I say, ‘Now.’ I’ve mellowed.”