Molly Parkin is all about colour. Her clothes are awash with it, her paintings ablaze with it, and she’s lived a long and colourful life. Artist, fashion editor, novelist and flamboyant style icon, Parkin was never one to live in the shade. And after her cataract operations this year, she sees “everything in technicolor”.
Dressed in rainbow tones with her Vidal Sassoon hair and black eyeliner she trailed a blaze through the Sixties, when her bright abstract oils inspired by landscapes and seascapes hung in Liberty’s windows and she designed hats for Biba – think Carmen Miranda on acid – then through the Seventies when she turned to fashion writing and won awards with the Sunday Times. When she turned her legendary sexual experiences into raunchy novels, she was Jackie Collins with laughs. Friends included the likes of Quentin Crisp, Barbara Hulanicki and Zandra Rhodes while lovers numbered the only slightly less sartorially flamboyant George Melly, John Mortimer, John Thaw and Bo Diddley to name a very few as she enjoyed the freedom of the sexual revolution to the full. Now at the age of 83, with her joie de vivre undimmed, she’s heading north to give Scotland’s fashionistas her take on the “Art of Style” at Harvey Nichols next week.
When we talk, Parkin is fresh from Newsnight, where dressed in a robe decorated with a Frida Kahlo self-portrait that encapsulated both her love of art and fashion, she was discussing Andy Warhol ahead of his Tate Modern retrospective. Most of all she is thrilled to have met US civil rights activist Jesse Jackson on the show.
“At 83, to shake hands with Jesse Jackson. What an amazing life I have had and I am having!” she says.
Meeting Warhol, which she did often, was somewhat less thrilling for Parkin, although she’s the first to acknowledge his influence on the art world.
“I was introduced by a friend of his who said you two should get together. I looked at him. He was so pale and had a cold handshake. I didn’t talk to him at all. It was spooky. I didn’t ever hear his voice. He was difficult, remote, silent and very pale faced. Then I knew him when we lived at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, saw him most days, at edgy parties and he photographed me non-stop, but I didn’t feel he was my friend. He kept himself to himself. He was a virgin all his life,” she says.
“But he had skill and projection. He did make things happen and had huge influence. I’m painting in Warhol acid brights now, so there you are. So I knew him as far as it was something. It’s no big deal, I was just there at the right time.” Parkin’s art is bolder and brighter than ever before thanks to her recent cataract operations and the Warhol connection is apposite. An exhibition of her art, including a mix of old and new work, ranging from those early oil paintings to more recent acrylics, opens in Swansea this month.
“They do one eye first then a month after that the other one. After the first one I looked at my garden and half was green and half sparkling emerald. It’s like looking through magic glasses. That explains why my work has radically changed. Now I’m doing all acid colours and it’s had huge publicity everywhere.”
Originally from Pontycymer in South Wales, Parkin’s first love was art and at 17 she won a scholarship to Goldsmith’s College in London then studied at Brighton School of Art where she trained in oil painting. She went on to become an art teacher, determined to get her pupils into art school on scholarships too. It was around this time, unknown to her parents, that the chapel-going Parkin began an affair with James Robertson Justice, at that time one of the country’s best known TV and film stars. Thirty years her senior, he was a friend of her flatmate’s parents, and Parkin was smitten.
“He phoned up looking for my flatmate but she was out so we went on a date instead. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in The Ivy. He had his hand inside my knickers the whole time. We left together and he took me to a hotel in Belgravia. As soon as I got into the lift he started kissing me and we got out into the corridor and he chucked my knickers into the fire bucket. We laughed and laughed. At 3am I went to retrieve them and they weren’t there. I was annoyed because they were Janet Reger,” she laughs.
Far from feeling taken advantage of by the Doctor in the House actor, Parkin is still grateful for his attention.
“He gave me Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and The Erotic Gentleman’s Journals to read on the Tube. He trained my way of thinking and encouraged every idiosyncratic urge that I might have. He told me not to change my accent, to be myself. He gave me confidence. It was immensely formative because my father had so undermined me.”
Parkin is referring to the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and which she revealed in her autobiography Moll in 1993 and in her memoirs Welcome to Mollywood in 2010.
“When I was 60 I wrote about it in detail. I had to get it out of me because every time I went to paint, I heard his voice, saying ‘another useless daub’, and felt hopeless. I thought I’m going to write you out of my life. I was so ill writing it, puking, that I had a bucket by my side. But I had to get it out.
Parkin’s elder sister and mother would sit crying at the top of the stairs outside the bedroom when her father was beating her.
“When it went silent, that was the worst part,” she says. “I felt guilt that there was something about me that attracted it. That’s what it does to you. It stains the childhood. After that whatever anyone could do to me, say to me, couldn’t be worse than that feeling of guilt all the time.
“One day he said he was taking me to visit someone the next day and my heart sank because I knew what that meant. I was very religious and in bed that night I prayed to God, please, please let something happen that I can’t go. That night my periods started. Paedophiles are not interested in you when you start menstruating.”
It was thoughts of her father that hastened the end of her relationship with Justice, something she now says she regrets.
“He was the love of my life and I remained in love with him all of my life. Looking back I regret ending it.
“But after my father died I went on a date with him and said I can’t do it any more. My mother had said I needed to find a husband, they were counting on me. James was married but they lost a child and he wanted me to give him one. I said ‘I can’t do that’, I was brought up in chapel and the whole thing was steeped with guilt.
“On that date with James I was looking at his hands on the table, and they reminded me of my father. I had a feeling I didn’t want it to go on. I regret it now.”
With Robertson Justice out of her life and a flourishing career as an art teacher, Parkin set about having fun. In 1957 she found a husband, a former Irish guardsman who drove a Riley and ticked her mother’s boxes. Michael Parkin didn’t want her to work and with two young daughters Sarah and Sophie to look after, Parkin was happy to comply, painting away at home. Her paintings didn’t hang long in the windows of Liberty before they were snapped up by hipsters who wanted something bright and bold against their minimalist white walls.
“With that you needed a large splashing abstract by Molly Parkin,” she says. “I was earning an enormous amount from that.”
This happy state of affairs was shattered by her husband’s infidelity and Parkin divorced him. With her husband went her muse and she was unable to paint for the next 25 years. Instead she made her living through fashion, journalism and TV.
“I was at a party and someone offered me a job as fashion editor on Nova magazine. I didn’t want to take any money from my ex-husband. I thought ‘f*** you, I can earn my own money. I started to have lovers. I thought how wonderful the single life was, with my job and my two little girls.”
Barbara Hulanicki [founder of iconic clothes store Biba, the boutique that clothed Swinging Sixties London] is one of Parkin’s closest friends and it was she who ushered the young Welsh artist into the world of fashion when she asked her to design hats like the ones she wore for her legendary boutique.
“Then because of the way I dressed, I started being on chat shows. Fashion was very exciting in the 1970s and the designers were my friends. I discovered Manolo Blahnik and put him in print when I went on to be fashion editor at the Sunday Times. Since I had a fall I haven’t been able to wear his shoes, so now the hats I make are very tall to give me extra height.”
Parkin’s love of clothes was there in her childhood, along with the painting, sparked by the discovery of the fabulous wardrobe in her grandmother’s house.
“I’ve been dressing this way since I was about seven when I found my grandmother’s silky things, beautiful laces, sequins and satin shoes. Her family had owned a castle and had money, but her father lost it on a hand of cards. I’d wear the clothes to collect the rents from houses she owned, but one day my grandfather saw me and said you mustn’t do that, you’re making an exhibition of yourself. He said you can dress up in the house, but never go out like that. I didn’t listen to the last bit,” she laughs, having worn turbans on and off ever since.
“I have never given a shit quite frankly. I’ve always done things for myself, never so other people would follow.”
Success at the Sunday Times and awards weren’t what Parkin wanted, however, and she left to be at home with second husband, the artist Patrick Hughes, writing novels.
“People said you can’t make money out of novels and I said I’m not doing it to make money. I’m interested in comic writing and since I have had so many lovers in between marriages, I would like it to be erotic.”
Her first book Love All, was published in 1974. The Irish Times called it ‘disgusting’. They wouldn’t have liked the second novel either. More sexually-oriented, Up Tight followed the next year and its cover shot of a French model wearing see-through knickers meant some booksellers kept it under the counter. Breast Stroke followed in 1983.
”I had every possible experience of eroticism so I wasn’t writing from total ignorance,” says Parkin.
In 1979 Parkin moved to New York with her husband and took up residence in the legendary Chelsea Hotel. The former home of Bob Dylan, Brendan Behan, Charles Bukowski, Janis Joplin, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Robert Mapplethorpe, it’s where Dylan Thomas died and Sid killed Nancy. Of course that’s where Parkin would lay her miraculous hat. There she lived in a ménage à trois with her husband and a young singer called Ariel and hosted orgies. The orgies were a blast, but the ménage à trois, not so much.
“It was exhausting,” she says. “There was some jealousy and it didn’t feel like fun because both were in love with me.”
Does Parkin think it may have led to the end of her marriage in 1980 on their return from New York to London?
She considers for a moment, then says, “No, the marriage had run its course. When we had orgies in our room he and I still held hands when we were with other people. But later on he did tell me that he was very jealous of Ariel.”
For her part, Parkin was never jealous.
“It’s not a thing I struggle with. Why would I feel jealous when life had given me so much? I was taught in the Welsh chapel that God gives us ourselves which is very different to everybody else and you have to celebrate and investigate your urges and decisions no matter what anybody else says.”
Investigate her urges she did, and after the return from New York she moved into the absent Mick Jagger’s mansion in Cheyne Walk.
Was the Rolling Stone a friend?
“No, we didn’t move in the same circles,” she says, oblivious to the irony.
“It was Anita [Pallenberg] who arranged it and gave me the key. Anita and I were friends from the orgies I organised at the Chelsea Hotel. She and I had had so much sex that we couldn’t be bothered and started chatting and laughing on the sidelines, not looking much at what was going on, occasionally slapping people on the bum with a stick, in a Cecil B DeMille way.”
Parkin opened up the Cheyne Walk house for parties, with “people screwing on all of the different levels, it was a good time,” she reminisces fondly.
However, the good times began to fade and alcoholism took over in the mid 1980s, culminating in a final bender in 1987.
“I was in the gutter by that time,” she says. We’d go to Ronnie Scott’s till 3am, then to a Greek place, then to Smithfield [meat market] where the bars opened at 5am. This must have been the eighth night in a row and someone said Mol, you have been out for a week, go home and go to bed. So I went out and got to the kerb and was tired – I’d pleasured I don’t know how many of those meat porters before that in the ladies lav because they’re jolly boys – so I thought I’m going to have a lie down. I thought ‘you’re in the gutter now Moll you can’t go lower than that.’ Then another voice said, ‘Bach, you have had your last drink’. It was my grandmother. And I said ‘All right’.
Molly joined Alcoholics Anonymous and hasn’t had a drink since. That was 28 years ago. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to wonder whether her drinking was an attempt to blot out memories of her childhood abuse. Parkin agrees.
“Yes, it certainly drowned the childhood experience. Early on was bad, so I knew to grab anything that felt fantastic, to get that out of my mind, to layer it. And I just loved drink. I liked what it did to me and what it did to other people, heightened this recklessness.
“It wasn’t until I stopped drinking that I faced the abuse and writing about it got rid of it. I had such a response globally. I recently published a photo of myself on Facebook as a delicious tiny baby and labelled it ‘a paedophile’s daughter’. That’s had a huge response too,” she says.
Sobriety has brought Parkin back to her art, and with her energies poured into that, her hedonistic social whirl has slowed down.
“In the last 28 years I have had four lovers. I have just lost it altogether now, the urge. I do have people willing to sleep with me but I say ‘you have come too late’.
Of the hundreds of lovers she’s had over her lifetime, who did she think was the best?
“Bo Diddley,” she shoots back straight away without hesitation. “I went to see him in Brixton, and we were both in gold lamé. He was the best lover in every possible sense. He was very well-equipped, had a sense of himself, and we laughed all the way through it.”
When Parkin talks of her sexploits, it’s always with humour, never regret or a sense she was in any way exploited. She was a living, breathing exponent of the sexual revolution and the feminist idea that women were in control of their own bodies.
“It was an equal exchange,” she says. “I would say that I was a feminist, yes of course. And I was surrounded by them, Germaine Greer for example,” she says.
“All the people I slept with were kindred spirits. There was an energy that was a reflection of my own. There were many more overtures to me that I turned down.”
One overture she didn’t turn down was one of her last, when she was 73, with a 23-year-old Australian in Las Vegas.
“That was a lovely one,” she says. “I was with my friends in a casino and he approached. I had never had a surfer before, lovely boy, shaved blond hair, blue eyes. He came up and said ‘wow you’re gorgeous’. I said ‘thank you very much. He said ‘any chance of a f***?’ I said ‘excuse me I’m 73 coming up for 74. I’m as cold as a toad and as dry as a moth’s wing’ but he shoved his tongue right into my mouth and it had a tremendous effect on me. It was one of the loveliest f***s I have ever had. He gave hope to a 73 year old. That was my swan song,” she laughs.
Nowadays based in sheltered housing in a council flat on the World’s End Estate in central London after losing her Welsh home to bankruptcy, Parkin is in a happy place. Surrounded by the laughter of children and refugees from all over the world, and with her art once again recognised, she has no regrets. Well, perhaps just the one.
“I really do regret not having given my virginity to Louis Armstrong,” she says. “I was at a show and he gave me this kiss and everything perked up in me. I was 22 and very childlike and he was the star of the show, but he took one look and said ‘you’re mine for the night honey’. I was taken aback, I was the innocent and said no. I do regret that. Because I love jazz.”
• Molly Parkin will be at Harvey Nichols for the Edinburgh Art of Style panel discussion event, along with Darren Skey, Harvey Nichols Senior Buying Manager, Mal Burkinshaw, Programme Director of Fashion from the Edinburgh College of Art and Annie Lyden, Curator of Photography for National Galleries of Scotland on Tuesday, 7pm-9pm, tickets £10, available from Harvey Nichols (0131-524 8388, www.harveynichols.com).
• Molly Parkin’s work is at Galerie Simpson, 222 High Street, Swansea until 14 November.