Anita Pallenberg: The Woman Who Out-Keithed Keith

Anita Pallenberg: The Woman Who Out-Keithed Keith

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Anita Pallenberg: The Woman Who Out-Keithed Keith

V examines the rise, fall, return, and retirement of actress, model, designer, and rock-and-roll muse Anita Pallenberg.

V examines the rise, fall, return, and retirement of actress, model, designer, and rock-and-roll muse Anita Pallenberg.


I started writing a tribute to Anita Pallenberg over a year ago, thinking that it couldn’t be long. Marianne Faithfull told Vogue in November of 2014 that Anita, her lifelong friend, had recently moved to Jamaica, which reminded me of when my angina-plagued grandfather moved down to Miami on doctor’s orders to escape the insalubrious cold. But as far as I knew, Anita hadn’t been ill. Still, presuming she was born in 1944 (some accounts say 1942), that puts her in her early seventies—not much in terms of human longevity, but up there in rock years. I’m pleased to report that I was wrong: Anita is still with us. But when she goes, I fear she will be remembered, reductively, as the German-Italian paramour and drug buddy of Keith Richards. She was an in-demand model when, in 1965, she got sucked into the Rolling Stones vortex—or caused it, depending on the telling. As Marianne, who predated Anita in the Stones’ inner circle, wrote in her dishy but soulful 1994 autobiography, Faithfull:

"How Anita came to be with Brian is really the story of how the Stones became the Stones. She almost single-handedly engineered a cultural revolution in London by bringing together the Stones and the jeunesse dorée…The Stones came away with a patina of aristocratic decadence that served as a perfect counterfoil to the raw roots blues of their music. This…transformed the Stones from pop stars into cultural icons."

Anita began with fey and frail but violent Brian Jones and left him for Keith in 1967. That was the end of getting beat up, but the beginning of her worst drug excesses. Anita more than kept up with Keith, who said of his first impression, “She knew everything and she could say it in five languages. She scared the pants off me!” Marianne described the experience of entering a room in which Anita held court:

"At the center, like a phoenix on her nest of flames…the wicked Anita….She was the most incredible woman I’d met in my life. Dazzling, beautiful, hypnotic and unsettling. Her smile—those carnivorous teeth!—obliterated everything. Other women evaporated next to her. She spoke in a baffling dada hipsterese. An outlandish Italo-Germanic-Cockney slang that mangled her syntax into surreal fragments….It was all part of her sinister appeal."

All this enticed Keith, who wrote in Life, his 2010 autobiography, “I like a high-spirited woman. And with Anita, you knew you were taking on a Valkyrie—she who decides who dies in battle.”

Anita was a serviceable actress, but directors primarily sought her out for her magnificent features and her legs for miles. She played the Black Queen in 1968’s Barbarella, with Jane Fonda, and Nurse Bollock in 1968’s Candy, with Marlon Brando. (Keith wrote in Life that Brando “kidnapped her one night and read her poetry and, when that failed, tried to seduce Anita and me together.” Not that Keith was sufficiently put off not to name his first child for the actor.)

The high-water mark for Anita’s film career is incontestably Performance (filmed in 1968 but released in 1970), the bohemian splendor-/splatter-fest costarring Mick Jagger, with whom she had an affair at the time, in the spirit of the anything-goes era. (No matter: Keith later slept with Marianne.)

For Anita, the Keith years would include heroin addiction, alcohol abuse, paranoia, drug arrests, the crib death of their infant son, and Keith’s conclusion that their young daughter, Angela, would be better off living with his mother in Dartford, outside London. “I tried to clean up loads of times,” he wrote in Life, “but not Anita. She would go the other way.” Another nadir was the apparent Russian-roulette death of her seventeen-year-old lover, Scott Cantrell, in Keith and Anita’s South Salem, New York, home in 1979. For Keith, who was recording in Paris at the time, that was the end. In Life he concluded his chapters on his years with Anita, “Thanks for the memories, girl.”

Anita lived in the Alray Hotel in New York for a while, and then moved back to London, where it took her longer to get clean than it had taken her to get dirty. When she came out the other side, clutching an AA card, she had lost her looks, but had ostensibly found herself. She turned her focus to fashion, of which she’d once been an icon in Swinging London, with her pairings of shiny, plastic elements with furs and Edwardian frippery. She has been an influence on Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs, Robert Cary-Williams, Bella Freud, and Kim Gordon, not to mention Keith, who used to wear her clothes (they were the same size). In 1994, Anita earned a fashion degree at Central Saint Martins, where her graduate show was hailed, quite perfectly, as “a triumph of style over substance abuse.”

She didn’t stay with it. As Anita said in a long, pulse-taking profile in The Guardian in 2008, “I don’t like the fashion world. It’s too nasty, too rip-off, too hard.” (Keith had left her financially comfortable, so earning a living wasn’t a concern.) And she ultimately gave up on writing an autobiography: “The publishers want to hear only about the Stones and more dirt on Mick Jagger and I’m just not interested….I had several publishers and they were all the same. They all wanted salacious.”

In 2010, The Daily Mail published a gruesome photo of Anita, her blonde hair thinning and her face a contusion of wrinkles, the cigarette in her scowling mouth and the shopping cart before her the ultimate concessions to cronedom. Readers rightly took the paper to task for its mean-spiritedness. But it seems possible that these readers were more undone by the cringe-making image than Anita was. When Courtney Love once asked her whether she would consider getting plastic surgery, Anita reportedly answered, “Darling, I was the most beautiful woman in seventeen countries. I like being ugly!”

Over the past decade or two, Anita has made the occasional public, TV, or film appearance. There she was at a party, draped by Kate Moss. There were Anita and Marianne, winkingly cast as the devil and God, respectively, in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous. There was Anita as an opium-den hostess in the 2009 Stephen Frears film Chéri, looking older than she was in a part that didn’t require it. But word had it that in her last years in London, Anita’s greatest sources of contentment were gardening and grannying. It wasn’t a full-on Greta Garbo: she wasn’t reclusive, and she didn’t necessarily want to be alone. But, she didn’t seem to mind it.

Would she object to being better remembered for her debauchery than for her influence on fashion? Anita, who has on more than one occasion been behind the use of the swastika as a fashion statement, will unlikely be remembered for her kindness, and she shouldn’t be. Philanthropy and spreading joy were never her thing. What would it have taken for her life to have gone a different way? For the book Rock Wives, Anita told author Victoria Balfour that it was loneliness and boredom that made drugs attractive. Marianne, no stranger to indulgence, knew the timeline: “It was right after Performance that Anita really went off her rocker. For years. Into the abyss.”

Not coincidentally, I think, Anita’s descent into drug dependency lined up with the onset of motherhood, beginning in 1969, with Marlon. One can’t reasonably expect Keith Richards to have read The Feminine Mystique (who knows if Anita even read it?), but it’s surprising that in Life he doesn’t consider that new motherhood, especially on the heels of an utterly carefree, capricious existence and a budding movie career, might have at least partly explained her escape into drugs. The tedium of taking care of children can be brutal for many women—many men—but perhaps especially for someone whose partner was in the studio or on the road much of the time. As to why Anita and Keith didn’t hire a round-the-clock nanny, maybe it was less a McCartney-esque statement about the principle of self-sufficiency than reflective of a need to keep prying eyes away from the couple’s ashtrays. Given the circumstances, Anita’s legendary decay would seem almost inevitable.

In the Guardian story, Anita said that Keith offered her £20,000 not to do Barbarella. In Rock Wives, she also noted Keith’s discouragement of her career: “Keith had the same problem as Brian with [my] doing the movies.” When I saw that, I remembered reading somewhere that Keith held the same position regarding current wife Patti Hansen’s modeling career—something along the lines of “I’ll pay you twice as much not to.” Marianne wrote that when she wasn’t working, “I’d be pacing around the house alone or with Anita, both of us bored to tears and feeling rather useless and ornamental.”

After losing her ornamental value, Anita does seem to have found a blend of usefulness and happiness, and the history of rock’s counterculture is more interesting for her having been a part of it. Anita was Keith’s match—at times she out-Keithed him—and for all we know, the Valkyrie will win the longevity war.

Nell Beram is coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies (Abrams, 2013) and a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor. She has written for Salon about Nora Ephron and for Bright Lights Film Journal about Doris Day.







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