Caroline Coon, the drugs campaigner and artist, was born in London. As well as being a painter for over 30 years, she has also been a journalist and, in 1979, manager of The Clash. In 1968 she founded the drug advice service Release. Aged 50, she lives alone in west London
MARSHA HUNT: I met Caroline in David Hockney's flat in Powis Square in 1966, while we were shooting an experimental Sixties film for some American film students. Caroline was in black underwear and I was in white - I remember that there was a gun involved, and that there was no dialogue. But we got talking.
I was 19 then, and had just arrived in London from California, where I had been studying. I had no money at all - I got on the plane with five bucks, bought a carton of cigarettes and by the time I got off the plane, all I had was the change. When I got to London, I bumped into an old tutor of mine from Berkeley, and he introduced me to the young American Kaffe Fassett, who let me sleep on his floor temporarily.
I thought immediately that Caroline was very pretty, very stylish. Her hair was dark and her eyes were a deep brown. She was not at all this slim, trim girl that she is now. What was best about meeting Caroline was that she was English; and she was the first real friend here that I made. Also, at a time when lots of people were still very prejudiced about black people, Caroline was not - she was aware of the problems. I couldn't have found a flat in London. Anyway, Caroline just said: "Up the system. Come and live at my house."
She had a terrific flat in Shepherd's Bush, with a painting studio that overlooked the garden. You could walk through the back garden, get on to the railway lines at Olympia and walk down the tracks.
Caroline was hugely influential in terms of my sense of dress. Where I came from, students wore jeans and big sweaters in blues and drab greens. Caroline was involved with painters like Derek Boshier, who were also setting the fashion in the city. Suddenly, I had access to all her clothing. If you look at pictures of me at the time, I'm wearing her clothes - her blue shoes and polka dot skirt: her red shoes and red earrings. I went from being a girl in a dark blue coat to one in a red, white and yellow jacket with red stockings. I got false eyelashes, and had my hair straightened at Vidal Sassoon.
Both of us were frugal about heat and food. Here I was in a place where people put milk bottles out on the windowsill, because there was no fridge. If you wanted gas, you put money in the meter. And switching off the lights every time you left a room seemed extraordinary to me. Neither of us was party animals or hugely social; we were kind of workaholics. I had this desire to write songs and sing, and I would go out in the garden with my little notebook, while Caroline would be inside painting. Her paintings were quite sexual.
We have never really talked about men. We shared political views, and in the Sixties there was always a cause that we could both get involved with. Around 1969, we both made the cover of Harper's - me as a model, and Caroline because of founding the drug advice agency Release two years earlier. Release was a completely new venture - if you got arrested for drugs and didn't know how to get legal help, you could call the helpline.
At the time, I was in the music business, when a lot of people took drugs. But I had a foreign passport, and if I got arrested I'd have been deported, so I was careful not to get involved. I'm also fastidious about my body and don't like being out of control. Caroline is the same - we've never been drinkers or dope-takers.
Caroline is somebody that I always see alone - we've never mixed friends. We maybe sense that we actually like different types of people and have respect for that. When we talk nowadays, it's usually on the phone. We both get up early to do our work, and are canny about calling each other before 8am, so that we don't pay large telephone bills. If I'm in France, Caroline will call and say, "Now, darling, this is my treat. We'll have a good chat - don't think about how long it's going to be."
The support Caroline gave me through writing my new book was immense. Repossessing Ernestine is about my 96-year-old grandmother, who had been 52 years in a mental institution and virtually abandoned by her family. I was given an opportunity to bring her back to England. But when my grandmother got here, I realised her guardian wasn't going to forward her pension to keep her in the nursing home. Caroline would call me frequently to make sure that I was all right. And when I had qualms about what I was writing, she would reassure me and tell me that I had to fire on.
I could call Caroline in the middle of the night and I know she'd be there. If I ever got some kind of emergency call from her, I'd get up and go. Caroline is like a sister to me. Both of us are estranged from our families; and we are still family for each other, as we were when we were 19.
When we were younger, Caroline and I were very aggressive. I'm sure it's difficult for people to imagine how we can ever be friends, because we're both so forceful. But we're never critical. We're extremely supportive of each other, like people shouting from the sidelines, "Go! Go! Go!"
CAROLINE COON: It was 1966. I was 20, and a student at Central School of Art. One of my friends had a film student friend doing one of those student movies. They asked me to do a part. They wanted some nudity, and at the time I was supplementing my grant by nude modelling in Soho. So I said "Yes, sure, fine." It was very Sixties - naked women with guns running around, that kind of stuff. They were filming one scene at David Hockney's house in Powis Terrace.
The students all turned up with the equipment and were waiting around because the young actress who was going to be the star hadn't turned up. She was playing an extra in a big movie up at Pinewood. There was a phone call and she said, "I can't come. The director mistook me for the stunt girl and asked me to jump off a balcony and I did. And I broke my leg."
So they said, "Caroline, you've got to play her part. But we need another girl - what are we going to do?" And someone said, "Well, there's a very beautiful girl that moved into Kaffe Fassett's house at the weekend. Ring up Kaffe and see if she's there." Within 10 minutes, this young woman walks in. There I was, on one side of the studio, in my black bra and panties, and there on the other side was Marsha - in her white bra and panties.
We got chatting and Marsha told me she had just arrived in London with 7/6d in her pocket, was going to try to become a singer and hadn't got anywhere to stay. I had a studio, a bedroom, a sitting room and a kitchen in Shepherd's Bush. So I said, "Here's my address and phone number, come round this evening and be my guest."
Marsha was one of the first Americans that I'd ever met. She had this wonderful, warm charisma. I come from a country, upper class farming family; I was born in London and educated at the Royal Ballet School. Marsha was such a contrast to my Englishness; she was outgoing and adventurous.
When I met her, there was already a multi-cultural mix in Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill Gate. But also in those days, there were still notices up in many houses saying: "No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs". And I remember when Marsha began looking for her own place. We would buy the Evening Standard and check through the ads for flats. Marsha would ring up with her American accent, and get to the front door of the house only to have it slammed in her face. What I love about Marsha is her humour and courage in putting two fingers up to all that bullshit. She never complained or had an ounce of self-pity.
I can't remember how long Marsha stayed with me. We were two young women, very ambitious, who took it for granted that we were going to earn our own living. The very fact that we wanted careers and to express our sexuality was highly contentious - we were thrown out of restaurants for wearing trouser-suits.
I was painting and Marsha was writing songs, and we were both utterly broke. I remember, once, we were sitting on the floor of my studio thinking, "We can't eat." I was picking out the dirt between the floorboards and found a penny. That evening we crawled up and down the floorboards picking out pennies and finally we had a handful, enough for a strawberry mousse. We also used to make what Marsha called Spade Bread - flour and water fried in the frying pan.
Marsha and I didn't socialise together. She was escaping the white stereotype negatives of black culture and finding refuge in white middle class, "respectable" society. I, on the other hand, was escaping from respectable society which was a hotbed of bigotry and double standards. And we had different tastes in men - which is to a certain extent why we stayed friends for 30 years.
A lot of our relationship was to do with body juices and hair. We spent a lot of the time in the bathroom, dealing with our appearances, which were an expression of our liberation. Marsha tried to straighten her hair. Mine is that very English fine hair without a curl in it. I was sitting there trying to frizz my hair, and Marsha was sitting next to me, ironing her hair flat.
It was obvious that Marsha was going to be a star. From the age of five I had been training to be on stage. I had danced at Covent Garden when I was 16. I can recognise star quality. In Hair, Marsha was the talk of the town. She was on the cover of every magazine. Glamorous men were bound to come to her door - and they came in droves. Jagger was among them. People then in the most sexist way would say Marsha was a groupie, but in fact Jagger was her groupie. He pursued her.
Jagger was the father of Marsha's child, but he denied it. Marsha was a single working mother and gave her child a fantastic education and it was only when Karis had an accident with boiling water that Marsha decided: "This child has a father and I'm going to do something about it now."
I feel that Marsha really knows me, knows how distressed I can be. There are times when things have been bad for me and I can call Marsha and be revived by her confidence. I can ring her up at 2am, and she wouldn't be fazed. We'll see each other a lot one year and might not see each other for three years. When you have that real empathy with somebody, even if you haven't seen them for a while, all you have to do is debrief and update. What's interesting is that we haven't changed very much, except we're more experienced.
Because we've been friends for so long, I have a real sense of trust with Marsha. I have confidence in her. Now when I see Marsha we just have very big grins on our faces because, for all the struggle, we are doing exactly what we wanted to do.
It's not much different from when we first met. I look forward in 30 years time to us both sitting around the kitchen table, eating better food than we might have done in the past, discussing what our next project may be. It's our work which has been the enduring thread of friendship. !Reuse content