Archive for October, 2008

Mayfair, and the Deaths of Harry Nilsson, Mama Cass and Keith Moon

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

 


Mama Cass in London

Mama Cass Elliot famously died choking on a ham sandwich, everybody knows that. Except she didn’t. The myth started because the first doctor who examined her after her death, a Dr Anthony Greenburgh, told the press the next day:

“From what I saw when I got to the flat she appeared to have been eating a ham sandwich and drinking Coca-Cola while lying down – a very dangerous thing to do…she seemed to have choked on a ham sandwich”.

Dr Greenbugh overlooked the rather important fact that the sandwich was by the side of her bed and lay untouched but by then it was too late. The press reported his initial comments and the doctor unwittingly gave rise to the sandwich myth.

Elliot actually died from the far more prosaic “fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity” in other words natural causes due to being overweight – she was prone to going on crash diets which in the end fatally weakened her heart. The sandwich story was a famous case of when “the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Mama Cass in Soho Square

Mama Cass in Soho Square 1969

Mama Cass in Soho Square

Mama Cass at Crockford's Casino in Mayfair

Mama Cass at Crockford's Casino, round the corner from Nilsson's flat in Mayfair

On 29 July 1974 Cass Elliot had just finished two nights at the Palladium and was pleased with the several standing ovations she had received. Before she went to bed she called her former band member Michelle Phillips who later recounted:
“She had had a little champagne, and was crying. She felt she had finally made the transition from Mama Cass”.

Cass Elliot was just 33 when she died.

9 Curzon Place in Mayfair (now 1 Curzon Square)

9 Curzon Place in Mayfair (now 1 Curzon Square)

harry-nilsson-from-mojo-425

The small one-bedroom Mayfair flat at 12 Curzon Place (now 1 Curzon Square after some rather revolting 1980s redevelopment in the area) in which Cass Elliot died belonged to her friend the singer Harry Nilsson. He had bought it impressed with the location, it was near Apple Records (he was a good friend of The Beatles) but more importantly near the Playboy Club and Tramps disco.

The top floor flat, behind the relatively nondescript exterior, had been designed by a trendy company called ROR which was run by Nilsson’s friend Ringo Starr and the designer Robin Cruikshank. Nilsson was away from London a lot and was very happy lending his place to his musician friends, of which he had many.

Robin Cruikshank interior

Robin Cruikshank interior

Playboy Club in London 1969

Playboy Club in London 1969

Hugh Hefner at London's Playboy Club in Park Lane

Hugh Hefner at London's Playboy Club in Park Lane

Keith Moon with Annette Walter Lax 1977

Keith Moon with Annette Walter Lax 1977

Keith and Annette the evening he died

Keith and Annette the evening he died

Four years after Cass Elliot died at Harry Nilsson’s flat, Keith Moon, after fitting in enough partying and convivial nights in his short life for about a hundred people, died of an overdose of Heminevrin tablets in the very same bed. On the day he died Moon had woken at 7.30am and he asked his girlfriend Annette Walter-Lax to cook him a steak.

After she complained about cooking him another meal he said,

“If you don’t like it, you can fuck off”

Unfortunately for Keith these ended up being his last words. He ate the steak while he watched the film The Abominable Dr Phibes but he fell back to sleep after taking 32 Heminevrin tablets which were prescribed to help alcohol withdrawal. Unfortunately six are enough to be fatal and Moon never regained consciousness. He was found dead by his girlfriend Annette later that afternoon and he was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium a week later.

Moon the Loon was only thirty two when he died, but dying young didn’t come to anyone’s great surprise – he was one of the greatest partiers ever. He once outlined his typical daily diet to a doctor:

“I always get up about six in the morning. I have my bangers and eggs. And I drink a bottle of Dom Perignon and half a bottle of brandy. Then I take a couple of downers. Then it’s about 10 and I’ll have a nice nap until five. I get up, have a couple of black beauties [also known as Black Birds or Black Bombers and are a combination of Amphetamine (Speed) and Dextroamphetamine], some brandy, a little champagne and go out on the town. Then we boogie. We’ll wrap it up about four”.

All in all not the usual recipe for a long and healthy life but he sure fitted in some fun while he was around.

Carousing

Carousing

more carousing

more carousing

Mama's Got A Squeeze box

Mama's Got A Squeeze box

Harry and Keith became friends in the first place because of their mutual love of the booze. They met on a set of a film produced by Ringo Starr called Son Of Dracula with a number of other musicians. Keith remembered:

“We were supposed to be on the set at six, but it was nine before everyone was there. Then somebody brought out a bottle of brandy. Me, I think. Ah-Ha-Ha-HAHAHA! And Peter Frampton said no, no, too early, and some of the others said no. But ‘Arry was standing there with an ‘alf-pint mug. I knew at that moment it was destiny put us together. Ahhhh-HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

After the death of a second friend in his bed Nilsson quickly sold his flat to fellow Who member Pete Townsend and moved back to Los Angeles permanently. Of course like Cass, and especially Moon, Harry Nilsson liked having a good time and his consumption of drink and drugs were once described as Herculean, which is one way of describing pissing your talent away for over twenty years.

Marianne Faithfull once said about Harry

“we used to do drugs together. And when I say drugs, I don’t mean those airy-fairy drugs they do nowadays. I’m talking about narcotics.”

Elton John once described seeing Nilsson in a recording studio,

‘He opened his mouth to sing, and blood poured out, he had done so much coke that his throat just haemorrhaged. And do you know what? He didn’t even notice.’

Compared with his two friends however, he managed to live to a relatively grand old age of fifty two before his body gave up. After surviving one the previous year he died of a second heart attack in 1994. At his funeral it was said that aftershocks from the recent Northridge Earthquake rumbled in the background. A joke made the rounds during the funeral that the earthquake was the result of Harry getting to Heaven and discovering that there were no bars.

It’s perhaps interesting to note that Mama Cass, a person it would be fair to say liked a bit of food, died from trying not to eat with a heart fatally weakened by too many diets. Coincidentally Keith Moon, a man with a prodigious appetite for booze, died from an overdose of medicine prescribed in an attempt to stop him drinking.

I’m not sure if Nilsson died from anything that was the opposite of what he liked to do, but not long before his first heartattack he found out that his entire $5 million fortune had been embezzled leaving him and his family almost destitute.

It was said that he never really recovered from the shock. In 2001 the building at Curzon Place containing Harry Nilsson’s old flat was bought by a developer who completely changed the interior and the three flats on Harry’s floor were knocked into two luxury flats. In 2002 these were placed up for sale at one million pounds each.

harry-nilsson-425

More information of the three deaths at www.findadeath.com

More information about Harry Nilsson at fortheloveofharry.blogspot.com

Harry Nilsson – Lazy Moon
Dr Hook – Mama’s Got A Squeezebox
The Mama and The Papas – 12.30 (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)
Badfinger – Without You
Harry Nilsson – Wasting My Time
Ella and Louis – Dream A Little Dream About Me
Peter and the Test Tube Babies – Spirit Of Keith Moon
Mama Cass – Make Your Own Kind Of Music
Harry Nilsson – Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
Harry Nilsson – Jumping Into The Fire

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Mayfair, the Duchess of Argyll and the Headless Man polaroids

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

“She is a highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities.”

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll

48 Upper Grosvenor Street was once dubbed by John Paul Getty as “Number One, London” and it was the Mayfair house where one of the most celebrated sex scandals of the Sixties took place.

A series of Polaroid photographs were used as evidence in the bitter and acrimonious divorce case between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll in 1963. They featured Margaret the Duchess, a former debutante of the year, in her Art Deco-style bathroom at her Upper Grosvenor Street home dressed in nothing but her signature three-strand pearl necklace. More shockingly they showed her performing fellatio on a naked man whose identity was concealed because his head was not captured within the frame. Other polaroid photographs showed a man masturbating for the camera in the same bathroom.

The press, overexcited with the ongoing Profumo affair, started to question who exactly was the headless man? There were very strong rumours that it might be be a cabinet minister or even a famous film star.

Number One, London

Number One, London

Duke and Duchess of Argyll not long after their wedding

Duke and Duchess of Argyll not long after their wedding

The Duke and the Duchess, both divorcees, had met on a blind date in 1950 and married in 1951 at Caxton Hall registry office. The marriage quickly crumbled however and the Duchess later admitted that she was having affairs by 1954 and the Duke filed for divorce in 1959 after finding his wife’s salacious diaries and the compromising polaroids. After four years of legal wrangling the case reached the court in 1962 but it wasn’t until May 1963 that the judge Lord Wheatley issued his damning verdict and in a four-and-a-half hour judgement, read out:

“She is a highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities and has started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite. A completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied by a number of men, whose promiscuity had extended to perversion and whose attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call enlightened, but which in plain language was wholly immoral.”

The press had a field day and the Duchess’s reputation was ruined, not only because of the polaroid photos, but that she was accused of sleeping with eighty eight men including two cabinet ministers and two members of the royal family.

It was said that an accidental fall, forty feet down a lift-shaft during the war, left her not only with a lack of taste and smell but with a voracious sexual appetite bordering on nymphomania.

The Duchess in July 1963

The Duchess in July 1963

Within two weeks of the judge Wheatley’s verdict on June 5 John Profumo resigned after admitting that he had slept with Christine Keeler. The Duke and Duchess and the headless man photos were for a short while almost forgotten. However, at a stormy cabinet meeting on June 20, the Defence Secretary Duncan Sandys (pronounced Sands), incidentally the son-in-law of Winston Churchill, confessed that he was rumoured to be the headless man.

Sandys offered to resign, but he was dissuaded by Prime Minister Macmillian who, because of the Profumo affair, was frightened of even more scandal for the Government. Lord Denning, who had already been commissioned to investigate the Profumo scandal, was also asked to investigate the identity of the headless lover as part of the remit.

Lord Justice Denning on the day his report was published

Lord Justice Denning on the day his report was published

Duncan Sandys

Duncan Sandys

Douglas Fairbanks Jnr around the time of the affair

Douglas Fairbanks Jnr around the time of the affair

There were four polaroids of a man in different states of arousal each with handwritten captions: “before”, “thinking of you”, “during – oh”, and “finished”. Denning knew that if he could match the handwriting, he would find his man. He cunningly invited the five key suspects – Sandys, the American actor Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, American businessman John Cohane, Peter Combe, an ex-press officer at the Savoy, and Sigismund von Braun, the diplomat brother of the Nazi scientist Werner von Braun – to the Treasury and asked for their help in a “very delicate matter”.

On arriving they all signed the visitor’s register and their handwriting was analysed by a graphologist. The result proved conclusive. Although Denning didn’t include the result in his report the headless man was identified by the handwriting expert as the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Duncan Sandys, much to his relief, appeared to be in the clear, but thirty seven years later in the year 2000 a Channel 4 documentary about the case featured a man called Paul Vaughan, a friend of the Duchess’s. He reported that she had once said to him;

“Of course, sweetie, the only Polaroid camera in the country at this time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence.”

The programme analysed the film and found that it was taken in 1957 (Sandys was the Defence Minister at this time) and concluded with this new evidence that there had been two men in the photos and that Duncan Sandys had been one of them.

Although I admit that I haven’t seen the documentary, but in 1957 Polaroid cameras had been selling commercially for eight years and Polaroid had actually sold their millionth camera the year before in 1956. It therefore defies credibility that the Ministry of Defence had had the only Polaroid camera in the entire country. So it seems to me that the documentary’s conclusion is on very shaky ground and perhaps Sandys was completely innocent after all.

Early Polaraoid Camera from 1949

Early Polaraoid Camera from 1949

Polaroid Camera model 95B - probably the type used in the Duchess's bedroom

Polaroid Camera model 95B - probably the type used in the Duchess's bedroom

The Duchess’s reputation, of course, was ruined after the divorce case and ensuing scandal, but she was also ruined financially and eventually had to sell her house in Upper Grosvenor Street. She died in a Pimlico nursing home in July 1993 and was buried next to her first husband, the amateur American golfer Charles Sweeney.

Duchess of Argyll at her house in Upper Grosvenor Street

Duchess of Argyll at her house in Upper Grosvenor Street

Incidentally, before she died the duchess wrote:

“I had wealth, I had good looks. As a young woman I had been constantly photographed, written about, flattered, admired, included in the Ten Best-Dressed Women in the World list, and mentioned by Cole Porter in the words of his hit song ‘You’re the Top’.”

She was indeed mentioned in the Porter’s classic song, under her name from her first marriage to Charles Sweeny, but the lyrics were from PG Wodehouse’s slightly rewritten and quietly forgotten British version of the song which changed Porter’s lyrics from:

You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire
You’re an O’Neill drama,
You’re Whistler’s mama!
You’re camembert.

to

You’re Mussolini
You’re Mrs Sweeny
You’re Camembert.

Mussolini with his pet lion cub Ras

Mussolini with his pet lion cub Ras

PG Wodehouse, although one of the wittiest writers ever, was always slightly politically suspect especially when it came to accidentally appeasing fascists. He didn’t really do himself any favours in that respect when he rhymed Mrs Sweeny with Mussolini in his version of You’re The Top.

TheLondon transfer of Porter’s musical Anything Goes opened on June 14, 1935 and it was only three months later that the Italian dictator, who had been in power since 1922, ordered the bombing and the use of poisonous mustard-gas in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

If Wodehouse thought Mussolini was the top, God only knows what he considered the bottom. There again perhaps it was just playful irony from Wodehouse and he just enjoyed comparing Mrs Sweeny with Mussolini.

Ethel Merman – You’re The Top
Ethel Merman – Blow, Gabriel, Blow
Frank Sinatra – Anything Goes
Eileen Rodgers – I Get A Kick Out Of You
Divine Comedy – A Lady Of A Certain Age

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