AUTHENTIC VOICES. James Fox is a British journalist and biographer with an American father and a British-American mother. His books include White Mischief, The Langhorne Sisters, Life – Keith Richards, and most recently Look Again – David Bailey. His work is received with high critical acclaim across the globe.
This interview is also available to listen to here as a podcast.
James Fox, you just published a biography of David Bailey, the title is Look Again. When I read the book, I have the feeling that Bailey is writing the book and is telling his own story, but why is the book punctuated by interviews with other important people in his life. How do you work as a biographer? And was it in the same way for the Keith Richards book with the title Life?
I want to get very close to the subject and David Bailey is not given to much introspection. I recorded interviews with Bailey and his former girlfriends, with me steering them which breaks the usual rules of autobiography, because it was the only way that he would reveal himself. You’ve got to plough up the old, flattened stories. It’s accumulation, and careful listening, and also the voice, to get the way they actually speak. When I had finished writing the Keith book, we sat down and I read the entire book to him out loud, and that’s where his musicality came in. He could tell by the rhythm of the words if his voice was false and he stopped me. We also spent a lot of time laughing at this read through, because it is a very funny book in parts.
Who actually writes these books, David Bailey and Keith Richards or you?
I wrote every line of both those ‘autobiographies’, based of course on their speech and my own research. In Keith’s case, because he’s so passionate about music deep in his soul, that wasn’t so difficult, because he could talk rivettingly about music and musicians, how he rigged and tuned his guitars in completely innovative ways to get that unique sound. When The Times of London serialised that book, they didn’t pick out the stuff about Mick Jagger, they picked up sections of Keith describing how he tuned his guitar, how he actually plays it, why it’s different.
“Penelope Tree was probably Bailey’s great love”
James Fox, why does Bailey insist about his East End of London upbringing? The way he uses the East End is as if he belongs to a military battalion.
His former wife Catherine Deneuve was very funny about that. She was absolutely spot on that he uses it as a weapon and a defence that he hides behind. As a cheeky Cockney he can be as chauvinist and as moody as he likes, use as many swear words as he likes, and get away with it because of the timing and the comedy. The East End is a very forceful upbringing. You can tell a lot of what Bailey is about from that brutal world that he came from, a petri dish for anything from misogyny to violence. You don’t shake it off that easily. Certainly Bailey hasn’t. Not that he’s violent.
In Look Again he says that he didn’t love his parents and was not loved by his father.
He claims that he hated his father and he wouldn’t go to his funeral. There’s a very spooky moment when his father comes to the door – the fashion model Penelope Tree who was in a six year relationship with him at the time describes this – and he hasn’t seen him for a long time. His father was obviously dying and was asking for money. Penelope says that Bailey was horrified and upset by this for days. Bailey wouldn’t have told me about his father’s visit unless Penelope had reminded him during our interview. His mother was very angry, and terrifying.
Would you say that Bailey is a very tough person, or is his toughness an act?
He’s not tough. He tells how he ran away from fights as a kid, preferring wit as a weapon. He can come on quite brusque and ruthless, or plain rude, but he’s also a pussycat underneath who, as everybody else, would like approval and friendship and love. But he’s not brilliant at giving it, I have to say. Not that sentimental. Ask his girlfriends.
The first girlfriend that comes up in his life is Jean Shrimpton, who he invented but at the end of the day he seems to be jealous of her, because she became a top model and more famous than him in America?
Yes. She started getting the gigs and he didn’t, and he couldn’t bear that. He’s got to be in control. He comes from the East End, he’s a male. Also, she left him. He wasn’t going to let that happen again. Penelope Tree left him too, but she was pushed to it by the girlfriends in the background and his bad behaviour. There’s a wonderful moment at the lunch when Bailey says, “Oh, I loved you, Penelope, when you left I was heartbroken and I tried to find you, and I rang everybody.” And Penelope says: “How come I didn’t notice?”
Was he in love with these beautiful women?
He was very attached to them. They were his muses. He changed his style of photography when these various extraordinary looking people came along. That’s how closely he was attached to them. I don’t know about love. If so he never would have told them at the time. He would never answer that question to me.
In the case of Catherine Deneuve did he really he say that she’s not his type of woman because she is small and not very thin and therefore she is not to his taste?
He did say that. Reviewers don’t know whether to be outraged and shocked by his way of talking about women or to go along for the ride with an old character from the East End. Not only did he say that about Catherine, but he said her legs were too short and so on. And they got married! A very odd thing.
But you say in the book that he was very attached and close to Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve’s sister who died in an accident?
Yes, he loved her, in a non-romantic way. He never had an affair with her, exceptionally.
Therefore he is also capable of friendship with women?
Yes. When we went to go and see Penelope or Jean he was so happy. He feels so fond of them, so close to them. What got in the way was the fact that he was always hiding somebody else. It can’t have been very easy; Penelope had a terrible time.
Now he is quite old. Does he feel shy about the fact that he is no longer the man he was?
He just tries to get over it by the giggling and the cracking jokes and so on. He knows that these people are still very attached to him. Jean Shrimpton knows how awful Bailey can be, but she’s deeply fond of him. They’re all devoted to him despite whatever happened. Maybe it’s a kind of long distance Stockholm Syndrome.
He’s from the East End of London, but knows and photographs the Queen. With Catherine Deneuve in Paris they go for weekends with Georges Pompidou. He is constantly in touch with famous people, eating with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor or Diana Vreeland. Is he what in French what would be called a habitué of that kind of world?
That’s what it looks like. As he said, the sixties was only really a hundred people or so and they all knew each other, and Bailey was photographing them. If he was a habitué, he did it on his own terms. He even makes his cockney jokes to the Queen and gets her laughing in that photograph, because Bailey slightly outrageously pointed at her diamonds and asked if they were real. She’s obviously never been asked that before. He can get away with it. Maybe he went to lunch with Pompidou, but can you imagine Bailey actually having any discourse? He didn’t like the French because they couldn’t speak English. That was his objection to them. (laughs) That’s how habitué he was, how integrated.
From the interviews you made with Penelope Tree, Jean Shrimpton, Catherine Deneuve, which one of these women had the greatest influence in his life? Is there one, or are they separate episodes and each one belongs to a certain moment?
The main influence in his life, which is really his art, was Jean Shrimpton. It’s with her that he made the great breakthroughs and with her that he managed to get past the editors -against their judgement – and produce these pre-grunge photographs of Shrimpton wrapped in a Mac and standing in the street. No one had taken pictures like these or published them. On the other hand, Penelope Tree was probably his great love – though she never thought him capable of it on account of his narcissism, as she saw it, and she was a true original. The 18 year old Penelope Tree turned up with these feathers and extraordinary things and put together clothes that no one was actually doing at the time. He loved how she looked. They had a difficult but, in their artistic combination, a great journey together.
Why is there so much of Manolo Blahnik in the book?
I broke some rules in order to get the reader to know something about Bailey that he can’t say himself. He can’t be immodest and say, “I’m funny, I’m brilliant. I can do marvellous pictures.” You’ve got to get someone else to say what fun it was working with him and what jokes we had; and what his relationship was with Anjelica Huston. I chose these interviews very carefully, and I chose Manolo because he’s incredibly funny and very sharp, and he was there at that crucial moment in the 70s while she was supposed to be having an affair with Jack Nicholson.
Bailey had affairs with almost every girl?
If you just delete the word ‘almost’, I think you probably are on the right track.
“You’ve got to plough up the old, flattened stories.“
James Fox, you wrote the biography of Keith Richards and one of David Bailey’s best friends is Mick Jagger. If Jean Shrimpton was the great muse for David Bailey, probably Anita Pallenberg was the equivalent for Keith Richards. How was it to write these two books with these two big icons of that time?
The storytelling magic ingredient with Keith was that, despite his great fame, he had the humility and awe of a true artist for the music and the musicians who came before him, the people that he learnt from, even people only just a bit older than him, like Scotty Moore, Elvis’s guitar player. Bailey’s muse is his women, so it was very different, as were their east end districts – Dartford and East Ham.
Do you think that Anita Pallenberg had a great influence on Keith and his life?
Yes, Anita had the most enormous influence on Keith. Keith was shy and she took him into the world. She kind of styled him, mentally. He began to wear her clothes – the look changed, became utterly exotic. I think she gave Keith the entire creative mainspring of that early great surge of writing and music that you see in Exile on Main Street. What about Wild Horses? That’s all you need to know. Look at the photographs from Exile of Keith sitting between Anita and Gram Parsons, who was his great musical muse, and you’ve got an extraordinary combination of influence which goes all the way through the next few years. Of course, they lived in a protective bubble of smack, and that’s what broke it up in the end.
Bailey is an artisan whose photographic shoots are sometimes over in less than a half an hour, working by himself with very little help?
That is extraordinary. I’ve worked with photographers like Annie Leibovitz, and it’s like a movie set. You have cables running down the corridor, you have catering, make up, hair, the whole thing. A great cast of people for one picture. Bailey has never done that. He’s got one assistant, his son. He knows the technicalities of it so well. When he took those famous pictures of Jean, there was nobody else.
Like Irving Penn, he also at a certain point wants to be rid of the image that he is only a fashion photographer. He wants to go to New Guinea. He goes to Africa, he goes around the world to take other kinds of pictures. Is that part of his work as important?
It might be important to him, but he doesn’t compete as well in that field as he does in the fashion photography field or the portrait. The portrait is really what he was good at. His great technique was to bring these portraits right up into your face. He didn’t learn the white background from Avedon, he learnt from a guy who worked for the Daily Express that newsprint was so absorbent that you had to get really sharp black and white images to make an impression on it. That’s where it started. And then he just got closer and closer to the subject until you get Michael Caine in his black glasses; slightly distorted, but a very sharp image. Nobody was doing it like that.
He also pictured the two gangsters, Ron and Reg Kray. Was he very excited by that?
I was working on the Sunday Times magazine at the time when he was taking those great photographs, and it was exciting. What a scoop! The Krays were proper gangsters who killed people. In fact, they killed somebody while Bailey was actually photographing them one day, described in the book. He was comfortable with them in a sense, because he knew where they came from and they spoke the same language. In fact, it was those photographs Bailey took that provoked the authorities to say enough is enough, we’ve got to go for these guys, they’re getting too much publicity and it’s shaming us that we can’t put them away.
It’s funny that Keith is Keith and Bailey is Bailey. One is known by his first name, the other by his surname.
Bailey claims that it was Jean Shrimpton who invented calling Bailey by his surname, because Shrimpton, being a middle class girl, had all these English private school boyfriends and those characters always called each other by their surnames as if they were at school. So Bailey became Bailey, and it stuck. He found it very useful. But the surviving East End friends of his still call him Dave, which sounds really odd now.
And Keith is Keith.
Keith is Keith, also spelled K E E F in the sort of phonetic, demotic pronunciation.
You published a famous book called White Mischief in 1987, a story of murder, but more than that, of the society in Kenya before the war, and they made a movie out of it. Why did you change the track of your career?
I didn’t really change. When I was working on the Sunday Times magazine, this great magazine was the place for photojournalism, perhaps the best newspaper in the world at the time. I was very lucky to get the job but you had to write about everything. One day I was writing about François-Marie Banier, putting him on the cover of the Sunday Times magazine, and the next I was in Vietnam, reporting on the war. White Mischief came out of one of those articles.
Do you consider yourself a journalist more than a writer or a biographer?
My life is from journalism; all the ideas have really come from journalism, and travelling and talking to people. But I’m a writer; there is really no difference especially with the long-read forms of pieces I have written, or with biography.
What drives you? Is it curiosity?
I’ve always veered between politics and people, listening to the way people actually talk, the way they describe themselves, the way they put themselves on the Earth, as it were. I find that fascinating. If I got the voice of Keith right, who is a folk hero in England, I’m proud of that. When his book came out, there were queues around the street in Hatchards in Piccadilly. If I’d got him across as the authentic Keith then I had done something literary, something to do with good writing.
Penelope Tree © David Bailey
Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey, 1964 © David Bailey
David Bailey with Catherine Deneuve. This was moment they got married, 1965, from the Paris Match archive.
Catherine Deneuve © David Bailey
Keith Richards at his (smartened up) childhood home in Dartford, East London © James Fox
Working with Keith Richards on his book in February 2010 © James Fox
“I’m definitely in the business for some fascinating woman subject.“
James Fox, how did you get interested in David Bailey?
He asked me if I would do it, and I said yes!
Did you enjoy writing Look Again?
It’s good if it works in the end. All writing is chaos for a while, and Bailey didn’t think very reflectively about his life which made it difficult. I had to get behind the stories, which he often repeated. In fact, Jean said to me on the telephone, “Congratulations on this book. You must have a lot of patience.” (laughs) We got on well. When I first went into his office, in front of all his assistants I said: “What I want Bailey is one line added to the contract, and that is a civility clause,” and they all started laughing because they know how rude he can be. From that moment, we didn’t have a problem.
And personally, which one of these women, Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree or his wife, Catherine Deneuve, did you enjoy interviewing the most?
It was fascinating for me to go to see Catherine Deneuve, because she is this extraordinary person, this great actress. I was waiting in the foyer of a hotel. I could see the approach to the hotel, but she couldn’t see me. I watched as Catherine Deneuve, who I had never met before, came up this cobbled path, stopped, took out her bag, did a little bit of makeup, put it back again and entered the hotel. I suddenly felt I was in a movie of the 60s, almost like a Eric Rohmer movie. And also, she’s the nicest person in the world; so modest and so fluent, and charming in the poignant way she talked about Bailey. Penelope Tree was the funniest, so articulate. She’s got this wonderful sense of humour and she was a verbal match for Bailey. She’s a very old friend of mine and I love her.
Are you pleased with Look Again?
Yes, I am. A reviewer wrote that if I’d done it a different way, it could have just been an exercise in mythmaking. It does get underneath Bailey a bit. Despite himself. He’s obviously taken part in this conspiracy because he said, “I haven’t actually read the book.” In fact, that’s not true. I’ve read it to him out loud – because he’s dyslexic – about three times. He knows exactly what’s in the book, but it’s convenient for him to say, “That’s completely wrong. I never read it. I didn’t know that was in the book.” He’s allowed it in because he knows the truth makes a better book.
Do you have a new character in mind? Would you like to write about a woman, for instance?
Yes, I would love that. I’m now announcing on your blog that I’m definitely in the business for some fascinating woman subject. I think that would be a very good idea.
How come when one reads one of your books, it feels as if the subject wrote the book?
I try to get into their way of speaking and thinking. I get very curious about their lives, the things they’re not telling me, and they usually talk well about what they’re best at. In Bailey’s case, about photography and the alchemy of it, and about the East End. Keith talks brilliantly about music and musicians. I first met Keith years ago, when I was on the Sunday Times, and I recognised that he had an economy of phrase that I knew would eventually make a very good book of storytelling. It took 30 years from that moment for me to actually do it.
Mick Jagger is the most famous Stone, but did your book also make Keith as much of a star?
It did definitely shift the ground a bit. In fact, perhaps coincidentally, Mick had a profile written by a very famous woman writer in New York near the time Keith’s book came out, attempting to make a great difference between himself and Keith and to restore the old divisions, which is: “I Mick Jagger am a Renaissance man with lots of friends in the literary world and Keith is a very good guitar player from Dartford.” But things have changed as a result of that book.
Maybe what you did with these two books is to rebuild a world, the world of what was going on at that time in London and New York, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Pop Art and these famous models. Did you try to rebuild this world through the voices of these two protagonists, one a photographer, the other a musician?
That’s exactly what I was trying to do, and to use it as a vehicle for telling the story of the times. You can’t isolate these people from it because they were both so influential, but you have to show the mysterious sides. The real origin of the 60s was Nicky Haslam and David Bailey going down to the East End and dressing in sharp suits like pre-mods. That’s where it really starts. I find it fascinating in Keith’s case, him turning up in the United States knowing their music better than they did. He’d been playing blues, and he met these musicians who had radio stations in the north who’d never heard blues. They heard the blues from the Rolling Stones. All those strange, ironic tales come out once you get into the detail and summon friends to trigger more memories.
In those days these people created the image of the world, from fashion to beauty to style to what was sexy or not sexy. Diana Vreeland would publish a picture of an unknown Mick Jagger by Bailey just because he’s sexy and handsome.
In that time there were many talents and people were taking risks on talents?
That’s absolutely true. And Bailey had a lot of luck in that. Vreeland and other people were taking huge risks.
This doesn’t exist anymore?
No, absolutely not. And you don’t have newspapers like that anymore because you don’t have disinterested proprietors who let people do what they like. But also, the power of the image then. Photographers I travelled with, like Don McCullin, had these enormous spreads in the Sunday Times magazine. It looked extraordinary, and it has never been surpassed since. Bailey used to go down to King’s Cross Station at 1.30 on a Saturday night to get a copy. That’s how exciting it was: to see who was in it, what photographers, what the image was. We lived in that little bubble world of concentrated images in a small place, whereas now you don’t know where to look, except on your own telephone.
Portrait of James Fox, 2018 © David Bailey