As her iconic photograph goes on show in a new exhibition, Sixties model Marsha Hunt tells Barbara Hodgson about her rock ’n’ roll life.
IT becomes clear from the start that there’s little you could tell Marsha Hunt about Jimi Hendrix that she doesn’t already know. The petite American-born model turned writer can quote dates, times and places concerning the musician famously managed by The Animals’ Chas Chandler.
She was in Newcastle yesterday to re-trace the footsteps of Hendrix, about whom she’s written a book.
“Jimi came to stay with Chas’s family in December 1966,” she tells me, ahead of her visit to Chandler’s former home in Heaton.
She adds: “A literary agent told me I was born to write Jimi Hendrix’s biography.”
Marsha, mother of Mick Jagger’s first child, Karis, reckons her mix of American roots and rock ’n’ roll life means she is uniquely placed to write about the guitarist, as many aspects of his life mirror her own.
“There have been many books written about Jimi,” she says, “but nobody’s writing what I’m writing; nobody can.”
She had already written several books, including novels and her own life story, when she was asked to write the biography.
“But when I researched it I found coincidences in our lives that were extraordinary and bizarre.
“He came to Britain in 1966, six months after I did. The first place he put foot into was an apartment I’d lived in. And he died in the house next door to the house which had been my first home in London.”
She says Hendrix had also lived in Berkeley, California, where she’s from.
Marsha’s first novel featured a character called Celestine, based on a real person. Researching the book, she discovered Hendrix had lived in Berkeley at one time with a woman called Celestine, though she hasn’t established if it’s the same person. “Now this is not a biography,” she says. “When I was looking, what I found was a history of our race and a history of sexuality, racism and rock ’n’ roll. It’s taken eight years but I don’t think one of them was wasted.”
She hopes the book will be published next year but won’t reveal its title. Before coming to England, she’d had plans for an academic career “but I got into rock ’n’ roll”.
Now she feels her writing has brought her to the point she should have been at. “It’s like I’m back on track. The book required serious research about modern history and knowledge about the rock ’n’ roll business between the US and UK in the 60s of which I was a part.”
During that time she also became a singer and was signed to the Track Records label, home to The Jimi Hendrix Experience and, like Jimi, she’s been to Newcastle, performing at its famous Club A Go Go. Did she meet him? “Oh, yeah,” she says but adds they were very different people.
Martha’s career has also taken in acting and radio presenting but she sees motherhood as her greatest achievement, suggesting that having a child protected her from rock ’n’ roll excesses. She had Karis when she was 24 during her relationship with Jagger who is said to have written his hit Brown Sugar about Marsha.
This new responsibility limited what she could get up to and, she says: “A lot of people did drugs and I didn’t do drugs; I was a parent.”
Karis, now 37, works for a charity in Los Angeles which collects and distributes baby clothes and equipment to needy mothers. Of Jagger, she says: “We won’t talk about it.” But she confirms Karis does see her famous father: “Oh, sure.” Karis is a mother herself, with a daughter and son, making Marsha – a youthful- looking 62 – a grandmother to a seven- and a three- year-old. Marsha lives between Ireland and France. She has flown in from Paris on a fleeting visit, firstly to attend the opening of a retrospective of work by Lord Patrick Lichfield at Nunnington Hall, the National Trust property in North Yorkshire. It’s there that the late photographer’s famous naked image of her is being displayed.
It’s now 40 years since it was taken but Marsha recalls the day clearly. At the time she’d been in the cast of the musical Hair. She says: “It was 1968 and Patrick Lichfield (who’d been commissioned by American Vogue) had a reputation not only as a good photographer but as photographer to the Royal Family.
“For me to get a call from Patrick Lichfield to do a fashion shoot, you think I’m going to say no?” she laughs. “I was a chorus girl getting £35 a week!” She posed with and without clothes. “In those days models did their own make-up and hair so I was expected to do all that.
“You can see bangles on my ankles and wrists – they were just from my Hair costume.”
It was a pose she recreated for Lichfield in 2004, following surgery to remove her right breast and lymph glands after she contracted cancer.
It’s an experience she’s written about but she tells me the disease neither traumatised nor stressed her: “A lot of people get it and I did. I just thought, how do I deal with it?
“I’d been filming a documentary about it when Patrick asked me to do that picture again. It was six weeks after my mastectomy. I think he really felt he was doing me a kindness, taking this picture of me. He was trustworthy and I felt totally secure. I was sure nothing would be seen that I didn’t want seen.”
Three months after taking the second picture, Lichfield was dead.
“That was in the November and he died in January, 2005,” says Marsha. “He was not even sick. It was just unbelievable.”
Over his 40-year career, Patrick Lichfield photographed every Royal Family in Europe and many of the world’s most beautiful women.
The exhibition of his photographs, on show at Nunnington Hall, near Helmsley, North Yorkshire, contains about 50 images, many rarely-seen.
The exhibition runs until November 2. For details call (01439) 748283.