The glamorous heiress who chose a seamier world

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The Independent Online

As a scion of one of Britain’s most influential, monied and maverick dynasties, Robin Whitehead would have been pushing at an open door had she wished to enter the worlds of business and politics which have become the natural domains of the Goldsmith clan.

But although the glamorous and striking 27-year-old was just at home as her second cousin, Jemima Khan, wielding a glass of champagne in front of the cameras at an A-list party, she had chosen to immerse herself in a more seamy and unconventional world to further her desire to chronicle celebrity life.

Since at least 2006, the filmmaker and photographer had followed the dissolute fortunes of Pete Doherty, recording on film and in photographic prints the performances and behind-the-scenes life of the heroin addict and rock star in modest surroundings far away from the Mayfair haunts more normally associated with the Goldsmiths.

In so doing, Robin, who preferred to spell her name Robyn, was not following the opportunities offered by the family of her mother, Dido, the daughter of pioneering environmentalist Teddy Goldsmith and the niece of billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith. Instead, she was pursuing a similar path to her father, the 1960s sub-culture filmmaker Peter Whitehead.

Whitehead, 72, described by one commentator as “the Che Guevara of the camera”, was credited with inventing the pop video through his work at the height of Swinging London, making promotional films for a succession of up and coming bands called the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and the Dubliners.

It was while putting the finishing touches to her second documentary about Doherty and his millieu that Robin, one of four sisters, returned to the tower block flat in London’s East End where her body was found on Sunday evening.

Friends paid tribute yesterday to the privately-educated filmmaker’s dedication to her task. She had spent two years making her first film about Doherty and his bands, entitled The Road to Albion, which was released in November. In a blog posting inviting material for the film, Robin wrote: “Strictly no nutbag rubbish allowed.”

It is likely that Robin gained her fascination with some of the more louche characters in the world of music from her father, whose best man at his wedding to Dido Goldsmith was Howard Marks, the Oxford-educated cannabis smuggler who at the height of his illicit activities was said to control a tenth of the world’s hashish trade. In his autobiography, Marks recalled that his life at the time with Whitehead involved “marijuana, LSD, rock music and after-eight philosophy”.

The couple had decided to marry just six weeks after meeting each other in a London nightclub in 1979, during which time Whitehead was conducting an affair with Bianca Jagger. The filmmaker, who has since become a respected falconer, only went ahead with the wedding after visiting his personal shaman, who recommended the union after discovering they had been married in a former life.

Brought up in Northamptonshire, Robin and her three sisters – Charlene, now 34, Leila, 26, and 22-year-old Rosetta – were privately educated. After sitting her GCSEs, Robin, who also worked briefly as a model, moved to a comprehensive school in Kettering to sit her A-levels before attending art college.

Although she apparently chose not to use it, a world of illustrious connections was never far away. Her grandfather, Teddy Goldsmith, was the elder brother of Sir James, who amassed an estimated fortune of £1.2 billion through his banking and pharmaceutical interests before his death in 1997.

Zac Goldsmith, the son of Sir James and a prospective MP who is likely to be a key figure in a David Cameron government, became the editor of The Ecologist magazine between 1998 and 2007. The publication was founded by his uncle Teddy, who is credited with a leading role in forming Britain’s green movement despite a penchant for eccentric right wing views, among them the suggestion that a tragic consequence of industrialisation was that it offered women the opportunity to work outside the home.

Following his death last year, commentators paid tribute to his utopian vision of a self-sustaining world but described many of his ideas as “just crazy”.

Indeed, the Goldsmith clan has long trodden a narrow path between membership of the most privileged strata of the establishment and the expression of dissenting views, not to mention a predilection for multiple marriages. Between them, Teddy and his brother had five wives and 13 children.

Sir James, who founded the eurosceptic Referendum Party in Britain and sat as a French MEP, is mistakenly credited with coining the phrase: “When you marry your mistress, you create a job vacancy.”

In such a context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Robin, who once featured in gossip columns as having had a relationship with Doherty, was described yesterday by friends as a “free spirit”.