From the archives: Marianne Faithfull - cleaning up her act

01 May 2007

Celebrated rock chick Marianne Faithfull said goodbye to the excesses of the past in this 2007 interview with Martyn Palmer for Saga Magazine.

On the night of her recent 60th birthday, Marianne Faithfull, one-time pin-up of the Sixties sex, drugs and rock'n'roll generation, had a quiet dinner with friends at a well-known Parisian restaurant. 

Those present included her best buddy, the Hollywood actress Carrie Fisher, and Francois Ravard, who Faithfull refers to in that bewitching, gravelly-toned voice of hers as "My lover". 

It was, she says, a restrained affair, particularly as she is now a non-drinker and relishes nothing more than an early night. 

"I have retreated socially because it’s so boring going out with friends who are drinking when you are not yourself. My trick is to stay for a bit and then **** off," she says, making that word sound, somehow, seductively urbane. "I always make sure I have my own key. That's the answer, really." 

At one time, of course, both drink and drugs would have been her props. In the early Seventies, after the demise of her legendary relationship with Mick Jagger, she was on a self-destructive spiral of addiction that left her destitute and living on the streets of London. 

The Berlin Film Festival, where we’re meeting, might be a tempting occasion to fall off the wagon. It can't be easy to deal with the level of curiosity that attends women who have been either very, very beautiful, or very, very wild. Or in Faithfull's case, both. 

"But it's my job to turn up here and promote my film and to be cool and to be myself," she says. "And having a hangover is not good for me and it's not good for you. Besides, I have been there, got the t-shirt and the video. Obviously I have this self-destructive streak. I've always had it. But it's got much, much better and I'm managing pretty well. I think I got over my death wish years ago."

Faithfull is not keen on being described as "a survivor", although she has indeed, lived to tell a tale that has included not just the destructive rock'n'roll rollercoaster but more recently a brush with breast cancer that has made her re-evaluate her life. She prefers instead to think of herself as "a winner", and these days looks and behaves that way.

During the festival, there to promote the film Irina Palm, in which she stars, she has been a model of professionalism. And today she arrives at Berlin's Regent Hotel for our interview smartly dressed in blue crushed-velvet jacket, sharp white blouse and well-cut jeans. Her ash-blonde hair is carefully coiffed. 

True, there are laughter lines now around her periwinkle blue eyes and her bones are more cushioned than in the days when she was Jagger's muse and the subject, too, of Leonard Cohen's haunting song So Long Marianne. She is no longer the catatonically beautiful 17-year-old waif mouthing the words of As Tears Go By on Top of the Pops. 

Read an interview with Leonard Cohen

She knows this better than anyone, of course. At one point we talk about her first film, Girl on a Motorcycle, the risque – or so it was billed at the time – tale of a woman who leaves her husband to run off with a good-looking fella (Alain Delon) on the back of his Harley. 

"I did not enjoy it," she says now. "It was like a Harley-Davidson commercial. But I'm glad I did it because at least there's a record on film of how gorgeous I was. Otherwise I would definitely not have remembered."

She remains, however, immensely attractive with an expressive, animated face, a droll sense of humour and the urbane manner acquired not least by living mostly in Paris for the past two decades. 

Was she not fazed by the whole subject matter of Irina Palm – the tale of a woman of a certain age who enters the oldest profession, providing "massage" in a seedy London sex club in order to pay for life-saving medical treatment for her grandson? 

"Not at all," she says, clearly finding the question rather narrow-minded and provincial. 

"Despite the plot line, this is not a dirty movie. Actually, it is a rather moving and complex tale of a woman who will do anything for her son and grandson – a theme that I can very much identify with. It's a very good film and my part in it is complex. I'm actually very proud of it."

To research the role, Faithfull spoke to two friends in the sex industry. How does she know such people? "Through drugs," she says simply. "If you're a prostitute you're almost invariably an addict too, because that's how you get through it. You can't do it straight. So I was able to ask them a bit but not much, because work is not something they really like to talk about. 

"It might surprise you but I don't know very much about the sex industry at all and I have never, for example, been inside a sex club. I don't like being around that sort of thing. Sex is all right, I suppose, but I'm much more interested in love to tell you the truth."

I tell her that her own life would make a fascinating biopic. "You've got to be kidding! I don't like biopics. No, I'm afraid not. My life is my life and I'm still living it and it's by no means over. I did write an autobiography, yes, and that's grand. And my book is my book. Let it stay there."

She is unexpectedly guarded about her love life, which aside from the Jagger affair has included three marriages. One to John Dunbar, who is the father of her now grown-up son, Nicholas, and two others, to Ben Brierly and Giorgio Della Terza. Both ended in divorce but she has been happily ensconced with Ravard, also her manager, for the past 15 years. "It took me a while to find the right man," she smiles. 

Ravard was by her side while she battled with breast cancer last year, receiving treatment at the Gustav Roussy Institute in Paris from the same celebrated team of surgeons and consultants who recently attended Kylie Minogue.

Despite the rigours of the treatment and what she describes as "a truly horrible year", she declares herself to be absolutely fine. "I'm really well, thank you," she says, "And really, really lucky. They found my breast cancer very early, which makes all the difference."

For all that, she says, being diagnosed with the disease was among the most frightening experiences of her life. "But, then, I grew up in an age where if you got cancer it was very final. You got it and you died. Now, though, it's changed so much and you can be saved. But it's taught me that the most important thing is to keep checking so that whatever is happening, they can catch it as quickly as possible. 

"For men at this age it's prostate cancer, for women it's breast cancer and although the tests aren't pleasant I would urge everyone to have them because it's a matter of life and death and I want to see my grandchildren grow up."

The two grandsons in question - "Nicholas's boys" – are now aged 13 and 10. She is close to both and, indeed, to her son, who edits a finance magazine. 

"I didn't have very much in common with my character Maggie, in Irina Palm. She's a suburban woman from the shires. Not like me at all. But, like her, I do love my son very much. And like her, too, I had him when I was just 18. I adore my grandsons too, all the more so since having breast cancer. But then that whole experience has made love and life, friends and family so much more precious."

She was told as much by Marsha Hunt, who, you may recall, also dated Mick Jagger in the Seventies, having a child with him some time after he had broken up with Faithfull. The two had not talked for years but Hunt, who also recently suffered breast cancer, got back in touch, "and we got very close over this experience that we had in common. Marsha, in fact, had a really, really serious experience of breast cancer, much worse than me.

"She wrote to me and then we started talking and she really helped me through it. She said, 'Listen, they caught it early and you'll see that out of something so dark and frightening something good will come.' And, in fact, she was absolutely right. It has just made me so much more appreciative of all the blessings in my life."

During the dark days of her illness Jagger was also in contact. "He called me while I was having treatment in hospital, which was extremely thoughtful of him," she says. 

Over the years they have stayed in touch, watching each other's activities from a healthy distance. While she loved Mick, in hindsight she sees that the relationship and, indeed, the world that went with it, was connected to the self-destructive side of her personality. 

"By the end of the relationship I just wanted out of that world," she says. "It wasn't that I didn't love Mick or the other people in my life. I did. But I wasn't cut out for all that. I certainly wasn't cut out – although it's a great honour – to be a muse. That is a very hard job."

Instead, she has preferred to be a creative person in her own right. She has run parallel careers as an actress, recently appearing in films like Intimacy (based on Hanif Kureishi’s story) and Sophia Coppola's lavish biopic of Marie Antoinette, and as a singer-songwriter. June sees her in Paris, Je T’Aime, a film of vignettes about the city of love, and she is also working on a film called House of Boys with Debbie Harry and Stephen Fry.

Read an interview with Debbie Harry

Recently, she has been working on a new batch of songs and has just embarked on the Songs of Innocence and Experience European tour that was postponed last year due to her breast cancer. On May 4 she will be headlining at the Women's Arts International Festival at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, Cumbria.

"And I'm really looking forward to reconnecting with my audience," she says. "I had so many wonderful messages of support during my illness. I can't wait to thank people personally."

The new material is largely acoustic and will showcase a mellowing talent. But, at the same time, Faithfull is thrilled that a generation of younger fans now show up at her gigs. "They are there for the music and not because of anything in my past," she smiles. "And that is very good for me."

It helps in her endeavour to look to the future. And her experiences with breast cancer made her aware, for example, that she had not made provision financially for the old age she is now so determined to experience. 

"I realised last year that I have no safety net at all and I'm going to have to get one. I'm not prepared to be 70 and absolutely broke. So I need to change my attitude to life, which means I have to put 10 per cent away every year for my old age. 

"Not that I'm going to stop work at 70. I'll probably carry on. But I want to be in a position where I don't have to work. I should have thought about it a long time ago, but I didn't." 

Is she afraid of growing older? "Are you crazy? Let us never forget the wonderful story about Bette Davis. I think it was Carrie who told it to me. A young reporter goes up to Bette with a microphone and says, 'So, Miss Davis, what's it like getting older?' And there she is with her whisky and water in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She looks at her and takes a sip, takes a long, long drag and gives her that look and says 'Well, it’s not for pussies.' And it's not."

The advancing years, she says, have made her reflective. She has been considering, for example, what traits she shares with her parents. Her father, Major Glynn Faithfull, was a philologist and Utopian who ran a commune in Oxfordshire. Her mother was a half-Jewish, Austro-Hungarian aristocrat, the Baroness Von Sacher-Masoch.

"It was a colourful upbringing," she smiles, "and I dare say I have traits from both my parents. I'm like my mother in that I like to lie in bed and watch telly. I don't like to see a lot of people. I read a lot and I think a lot. But, unlike her, I'm not drinking water and whisky at 10 in the morning or smoking three packs of old Woodbines a day.

"Dear Ma," she laughs, "she was like that. But then, of course, I didn’t make her life very easy."

Were she still alive, she'd have been amazed by her daughter in her later years. "I remain aware of my self-destructive streak," she says, "and the fact that I have it is something that I need to learn again and again. But the truth is that these days, while I remain non-conformist I am much more conventional than you would think. Last night, for example, I went out to dinner with my lover and then we watched The Devil Wears Prada. Almost my perfect night. And what a wonderful part. I'd love to play a really fantastically well-dressed, incredibly wicked, but secretly rather wonderful person like that. Sadly, Meryl got there first."

In future, of course, all things remain possible for Faithfull. For now, though, she would settle for conquering her one remaining addiction. "I'm still a smoker," she confesses, "but I'm trying very hard to stop."

Smoking, she says, is in itself an exercise in self-destruction. "But," she says drily, "that's the thing, isn't it? As you get older you don't need to be self-destructive any more – it's coming anyway." 

This interview was first published in the May 2007 issue of Saga Magazine.

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