ART / A model bohemian life: She was once the favourite subject of Bacon and Freud. Here, Henrietta Moraes tells her side of the story at last

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'I LOVE you, Henrietta,' I said. 'What would you like for pudding and why does everyone else love you too?'

Henrietta Moraes doesn't understand why she has always been popular but she is clear about the sweets of the world. 'I want two puddings.' So first she had a baked toffee pie and then a big dish of ice-cream spiced with ginger.

She gave up her extravagant reliance on drink and drugs five years ago, only to find that her cleansed-out body was diabetic. 'That wasn't fair.' So once a week she has a tiny binge on sugary things, evidence of a personality that has never liked half-measures.

Life has perhaps not been fair to Henrietta but she has also had luck. She could have died in the gutter or been killed by a dealer. She could have spent a lot more time in Holloway but served only three months. Obviously she owes a lot to the kind, stern doctor who got her off the booze and pills just in time. And were it not for this rescue Henrietta Moraes would not have discovered that she is a natural writer. Like many such guileless authors, she instinctively knows that it's best to leave out things that are hard to explain. So Henrietta, her autobiography, is lucid, comic, full of gaps, doesn't ramble and has a kind of innocence.

She was born Audrey Wendy Abbott in India 63 years ago. Her father went off somewhere and she was cared for, after a fashion, by relatives in Britain. A grandmother beat her while her mother and aunt looked on. 'It was my birthday.' There was a succession of girls' schools. She learnt to ride and found out that she was clever. Then she went to Paris, drank a lot and started to dominate parties. 'I didn't know how people behaved, so I just did as I wished, probably the best thing to do anyway.'

She became part of bohemian London around 1950, via jazz clubs and work as a model at Camberwell and Chelsea art schools. At the age of 19 she moved in with a small-time film director who gave her the name Henrietta. They lived in Soho, and made a routine of visits to the Cafe Torino, the French Pub and the Gargoyle Club. Suddenly she met 'everyone' - Cyril Connolly, Francis Wyndham, Brian Howard, Philip Toynbee, Humphrey Slater, 'Johnny Minton and 20 sailors' - and became especially friendly with a couple of artists who were to paint her many times. They were Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

The best models bewitch artists through personality as much as looks.

Obviously Bacon and Freud found her fascinating, clothes on or off. It's not simply that she's unconventional, funny, a good talker. Bacon didn't really need models and painted Henrietta via dirty photographs taken by John Deakin. Freud, a more visual artist, could not take his eyes off her. He was far and away the most interesting man she ever met, Henrietta recalls, and this caused a bit of trouble with her film-director husband.

Henrietta talks about her marriages as though they were moderately amusing escapades of little interest to anyone else. The actor Norman Bowler (of Emmerdale Farm) is the father of her two children. She has her present surname from the Indian poet Dom Moraes, whom she met at David Archer's bookshop in Greek Street. He was an Oxford undergraduate, but successful, winning the Hawthornden Prize for A Beginning. Does she have any contact with Moraes, now living in Bombay? 'None.' But 'we became lovers and remained lovers for 10 years.'

Those were the days before hippiedom. Many bohemian memoirs hardly stray from Soho. Henrietta's book tells how she became part of the drug scene and went on the long treks, beloved by hippies, to the Celtic lands of the West Country, Wales and Ireland. When it describes such things the book becomes rueful and frightening. Henrietta was very deep into drugs. She wouldn't touch heroin because she had lived with the jazzman Phil Seamon and had seen what it did to him. Her preferences were for 'lots of amphetamines, darling, washed down with bottles of wine during the day. Hashish I still miss, but it's such an evening drug'. (Heads turn in the restaurant.) Though she didn't know it, Henrietta was suffering from acute amphetamine psychosis. 'Burglary became my obsession, cat burglary.' It helped her drug habit to steal but she recalls that the thrill of breaking into people's houses - 'tiptoeing through an occupied bedroom, and making off with a couple of bathroom towels' - was its own reward, so to speak. She wasn't very competent, hence the spell in Holloway. And then came the injections of Methedrine and the almost final descent.

Today she lives in a little room in Edith Grove, Chelsea, with her dog Max.

She goes to AA meetings four nights a week and, in another little room lent by a friend, writes two hours a day. Doing the autobiography enabled her to see how she could form short stories. So maybe she should have been writing all her life. What fun it would be if she became a literary figure rather than being renowned as a model. Everyone would have to buy her puddings] 'Henrietta' is published on Thursday by Hamish Hamilton (pounds 16.99, hardback).

(Photographs omitted)