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Undefeated after battle with cancer

ME and Marsha Hunt, we've got a thing going on. Nothing that would set Max Clifford's juices flowing you understand. Nor would it have Mick Jagger in a tizzy.

But yes, our "relationship" trails back all of 14 years, when I was getting pressed flowers from her garden in her affectionate missives from Couin in France. She was still saying it with flowers seven years later, from her home in County Wicklow.

These days she's still living between Ireland and the French cottage, a long way from Philadelphia where she was born and raised. We'd been out of touch for years, far too long in fact, until a huggy, emotional reunion in Edinburgh the other evening. She's had troubles enough in the interim, like losing her right breast to cancer last year.

Marsha is a fighter, though, and over pasta at Gordon Scott's Trattoria in the Royal Mile I found her as feisty and gregarious as ever. And she has a book out. Undefeated, a paperback published in Edinburgh by Mainstream, is the intimate story behind her recent TV documentary, Beating Breast Cancer. Which is why she was sitting before me hairless.

Ironically, Marsha achieved national fame at 22 in 1968, starring in the first rock musical, Hair, a box office smash on the London stage. The Queen's cousin, photographer Patrick Lichfield, took the nude shot, replete with that memorable mass of frizz, that made American Vogue's cover.

Now she bares the legacy of chemotherapy, undefeated and defiant. Five weeks after having her right breast and lymph glands removed she posed naked for a second sitting with Lichfield in a shoot for the documentary.

She then threw a haircutting party at her daughter Karis Jagger's Hollywood home. That's the measure of this woman, who has her 60th birthday in April. And she's still the straight talker.

"Look, cancer's been good for me. C'mon, we wouldn't be sitting here but for the documentary. You have to be practical, bite the bullet as you say. When somebody tells you your d***'s going to fall off, this is going to happen whether you like it or not. Life will be a bitch but you have to figure out how you're gonna live it. Life is all hills and valleys. You better be enjoying the hills. There's no point weeping and crying in the valleys."

As soon as she heard she had breast cancer she planned a celebratory Hollywood haircutting party. "Yeah, and guess what? I determined to involve my granddaughter so she'd have no fear seeing her grammy - not granny, grammy, after the Grammy Awards - with a bald head.

"I have a grandson, too, born while I was having a mastectomy. Why make cancer a bad word? That party was a celebration. I was having my hair cut off and everybody participated."

Marsha was busy writing the life story of Jimi Hendrix when she discovered a lump in her breast. But she refused to let it stop her from finishing it. After five months, the lump was the size of an egg. When a Dublin surgeon confirmed that she had cancer, she decided, in typical style, to treat her battle with the disease like a dangerous adventure.

"I told myself that if I was going to die, or be so sick that I couldn't write, I had to finish the book I'd been working on for the past five years. It's about Jimi Hendrix, but also about how and why society changed in the 1960s. I have a unique perspective on the Jimi Hendrix Experience that no-one else alive has because he and I shared something - black Americans who came to London were transformed and re-packaged for the US, although I never became successful there and he did.

"I decided that I would die for this book. It is the most important thing I have to leave behind."

Once it was done though she was "slashed", "burned" and "poisoned" - her words for surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

She also saw it as an opportunity to change perceptions about female beauty - hence her decision to pose naked with a single breast in the Lichfield shoot, and why she supported this month's annual Breast Cancer Awareness campaign.

"Fear is paralysing, so if you can eliminate that you are more secure and confident in your ability to get through," she says. "I hope I can help with that by letting other women know that they too may have my good fortune in not suffering the adverse side-effects of treatment."

After her mastectomy though, she contracted the life-threatening infection MRSA. "It did scare me," she admits. "In the end, I was given Zyrox - a very expensive antibiotic - and the infection started to leave."

There is no man in Marsha's life right now - short of this fleeting reunion with a sentimentalist clinging to her pressed flowers. "It's been so long since I've had sex, I've forgotten what it is." The accompanying laugh sounded typically carefree.

Mention of Mick Jagger - she was the Brown Sugar he sang about - brings an automatic response, one she's obviously used to giving. "When you've had a child with somebody he's part of your life. We meet up on occasion. I'm closer to his mother," she laughs again.

But obviously they are joint grandparents to Karis' kids. When I first met Karis she was still at high school. She was to return to Edinburgh in 1994 to direct her mother at the Assembly Rooms in the play adapted from Marsha's first best-selling novel, Joy.

Marsha was also headline news during the 1997 Book Festival when, as a self-styled patron of the arts and bearing a placard, she staged a one-woman protest, picketing Charlotte Square about the "shoddy administration" of the Festival. Its director, Jan Fairley, was sacked in the wake of that bravura performance.

Edinburgh, reckons this Yale-educated daughter of one of America's first black psychiatrists, is the Paris of the British Isles. "I started hitching here, a student from California's Berkeley, at 19. I hitched on lorries from London, slept in Waverley Station."

She adores Edinburgh - this time she'd rented a New Town flat for three days - but says she couldn't afford to live here. "I'm not impoverished. Comfortable, I'd say. But I've just read in the papers that you need to have 2.6m to consider yourself rich.

"Bull****! What makes you rich is your friends. The banks have conned people into thinking life is all about money. Listen, when I'm in France I can live on 35 euros a day, not counting petrol." She will tell you she's blessed. So is she a believer? "I'm more than a believer. Birth and death are the bookends of life. If you do good in the middle, help people, be nice to them, maybe you'll come in for special consideration at the end."

Cradling a third glass of white - her last, she vowed, and was good as her word - she surveyed the table. We'd been joined by three gentlemen friends. "Okay, I've turned this into a kind of stage show. I'm a truth talker. I want you guys to be honest with me. You couldn't have a situation with a woman short of a breast?"

The response was muffled and a tad embarrassing. Enough for Marsha to refer me to the opening paragraph of Undefeated.

"Quote that word for word, and I'll go home happy." It reads: "Maybe I'll be dead by the time you read this. Maybe not. But should breast cancer be credited with ending my life, know this: cancer didn't kill me. I died for a cause."

I had the last word. "I dare to ask a favour of you Marsha, my love. No more pressed flowers I can't stand the pain."

Undefeated by Marsha Hunt, published by Mainstream, priced 7.99

 
 
 

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