'I was young and foolish...': The truth behind David Bailey's legendary way with women

As his iconic 1960s portraits go on sale at Bonhams, David Bailey, the man who made photography glamorous, reflects on five decades of louche living
Click to follow
The Independent Online

They are all so beautiful. They are all so lovely. There is absolutely nothing in them that I dislike. I love them. Every one of them is a mystery. I don't mind if they are stupid." "That was you," I remind David Bailey, "back in the 1960s, talking about women. 'Stupid women,' you said, 'arouse a kind of amusement in me. I could have a relationship with a stupid woman...'"

"Yes."

"'They are all so beautiful. They are all so lovely.' I mean – what were you on?"

"I think all of that is pretty true. I have never met an ugly woman."

"Do you remember Thora Hird? Admirable in many ways, but... beautiful?"

"I was thinking more of Georgia O'Keefe."

"You went on: 'A really intelligent one manages to appear that bit less intelligent than her man.' That sounds like John Wayne talking."

"Women do do that – avoid showing off. It's a feminine thing. It keeps a relationship together."

What's curious about this eulogy to the fair sex is the way it contrasts with stories I've heard from people who've observed the way Bailey has treated models on shoots.

"I talked to two writers; both told me they had seen you shouting at young models, calling them 'dogs' and worse. One remembered you saying things like: 'Tape those boobs up – you have no cleavage' and, 'I'm not shooting you, you are a dog.' That last remark was supposedly addressed to..."

"Who?"

"Paula Yates."

"It was probably just funny dialogue. It was fun."

"But you had all the power, didn't you, in your relationship with models."

"No more than anybody else."

In any case, Bailey advises, it doesn't pay to take too much notice of journalists' recollections. "'Journalists hear what they want to hear,' you've complained. 'Most that come to see me are short, rotund and menopausal.'"

"I meant the women. They say: 'He used to be good- looking. Now he's fat. And he doesn't breathe properly.'" (There's a slight hoarse tone to Bailey's speech, a legacy of psittacosis.) "'And he's scruffy.' I was always scruffy. Of course I don't look like I did when I was 22. I'm fucking 72."

"You did greet one distinguished male writer by telling him he looked like a long thin streak of piss – was that the phrase?"

"Well, I know you know him. And he does, doesn't he?"

People had warned me about the abrasive welcome I could expect from David Bailey. In the press cuttings, the word "bully" first occurs in 1965. "It's as if you have knocked on Pygmalion's door," the film critic Alexander Walker wrote, "and it is answered by Frankenstein."

So I'm not really prepared for the man I meet, who is charming, relaxed and unconfrontational. The only hint of discord comes when the photographer, who prefers to be called only by his surname, as is the custom when referring to other high-achieving icons such as like Stalin, Jeeves or Maradona, is introduced as "Bailey" and I present myself as "Chalmers". He subsequently addresses me – deliberately or not, I'm not sure – as "Thomas". He lounges on a couch in his studio, in central London. His staff are bright, self-confident young people, which makes it all the stranger that, in his presence, they exhibit a palpable determination not to put a foot wrong, an atmosphere I interpret – perhaps unfairly – as a sign that they have all seen this complex man explode.

And yet – call it irrational – but I can't believe that a man who laughs easily, as David Bailey does, has Bob Dylan's "Workingman's Blues #2" on the sound system and a small dog called Pig nuzzling at his elbow can be all bad.

"I was expecting a Disney witch."

"I am not responsible," Bailey says, "for all the journalists in the past that have told lies. Last year," continues the photographer (whose birth certificate was issued in North Leyton), "one wrote that I was born in Newcastle. I love Newcastle. Especially the bridges. Of course," he adds, with a mutinous look, "I've never been there. Another one claimed that I had slept with 365 women."

"What's the problem with that figure – too many or not enough?"

"Oh." A pause. "I, er... I quite honestly don't know," says Bailey, looking as if he quite honestly might. Somebody once wrote that David Bailey has "slept with as many women as you might find in an airport novel". The final word in that last sentence could probably be deleted as redundant.

"The real number of women I've slept with – it's... a lot. But I was in a good position to be in that position; I mean, er..."

"If you can't remember, you're not especially well-placed to argue about it, are you?"

"No. But it doesn't matter, in a way."

"I suppose that was one of the privileges of being young and famous in the 1960s, wasn't it? If you did it all again now, you'd probably be dead, through HIV or hepatitis C, or..."

"I never caught a thing in my life," Bailey replies, with some warmth. "Except for crabs."

"Fair enough."

"I wasn't as bad as Samuel Pepys."

"Or probably Oscar Wilde."

"How long," he inquires (in relation to Wilde), "has syphilis been around?"

"That's not a question I get asked that often. I know there's a lot about it in Restoration Comedy, so that's 1660-ish."

"I bet it was rampant," he says, "in the 16th century."

The 1960s, Bailey says, "were great if you were in London. Derbyshire – not so good."

David Bailey, Brian Duffy and the late Terence Donovan were the three working-class photographers who finally stormed the bastion of English fashion photography, until then the preserve of a foppish elite typified by Cecil Beaton; people who required no further grooming in etiquette to know which spoon to use at breakfast with the royals. In the context of high-society photography, you might say that David Bailey did for the camera what Jerry Lee Lewis did for the piano: he took an instrument traditionally caressed by the manicured fingers of the upper classes, and annexed it to his own impudent and brazen agenda.

Well before he had released his pictures of Jean Shrimpton, his girlfriend for the first half of the 1960s, and stars such as Mick Jagger and PJ Proby (who appears in a crucifixion pose in the 1964 poster collection Box of Pin-Ups), David Bailey had transcended the photographer's role as mere observer and taken centre stage. More than three decades after he starred in his first Olympus camera ad (where someone asks: "Who does he think he is – David Bailey?") he remains the best-known British photographer, despite the stunning work of younger talents such as portrait photographer Nigel Parry.

"And yet," I suggest, "when people say 'Oh, David Bailey's achievement was to make photography glamorous,' the sensible response to that should really be: so what?"

Bailey nods.

"It's the work," I ask, "that matters, isn't it?"

"Yes. It's like..." He stops himself. "Journalists," he complains, "never make it clear when you are joking."

"That may have to do with the death of the exclamation mark. Maybe you should start a campaign to revive it."

"You see, I was about to do something very dangerous just then. I was about to mention Picasso. But if I say 'Picasso', people think I'm comparing myself with him." '

"Why?"

"Ask your fellow journalists! Anyhow, if you talk to the average person, they don't know what Picasso did!! They don't know the work!!! If they don't know what Picasso did, how the fuck are they going to know what I did? I used to make commercials through Ridley Scott's company. I had paintings on my wall. He liked them. He said: 'Who did those?' I said, 'I did.' He was kind of angry. Because I was 'just a photographer'."

"Talking about your paintings..." "My paintings," he interrupts, "are rubbish. I do them to sell."

"I was going to say that you can probably best express your feeling about someone's work by deciding which piece you'd take home if you could only have one original. With your work, I don't think I'd ask for a photograph. I'd choose one of your paintings: probably the self-portrait of you with your wife, or maybe even your picture of Kate Moss."

"I had dinner with her last night. I couldn't understand a word she said."

"I like that outsider art look they have. You probably think that's insulting."

"No, that's not insulting. I never had any training as a painter. I never had any training as a photographer either."



'Women love him,' in the words of Jean Shrimpton, who now runs the Abbey Hotel in Penzance. "Gays adore him. Children and animals run to him. Mothers dote on him. He is universally attractive, except to fathers." Now that he has three children of his own with his fourth wife, the model Catherine Dyer, he seems to have softened somewhat in his behaviour towards straight men. That said, he does ask me within half an hour whether I'm homosexual or not: a question that, in 20 years, I've only ever been asked once before by an interviewee, and that was Allen Ginsberg, who made the inquiry approximately eight seconds after I'd shaken hands and entered his flat. David Bailey seems to hate everything his father Bert loved, especially football.

"You didn't like him much, did you?"

"He was all right. He was an East End guy."

"Meaning?"

"He was a tailor but he also ran this club in Hackney. He had this big razor scar he got in a fight."

"Did he talk about that?"

"No. I remember I left the door open once and he started screaming at me. He was scared they were coming after him again. I didn't really know him."

Bailey, who has one younger sister, Thelma, was brought up by his mother Gladys and his aunt Dolly. He went to what he describes as a second-rate private school, where dyslexia stifled his progress. The teachers "made me feel stupid" – one adjective that even his worst enemies have never sought to apply to him.

He might have grown up in a house with an outside toilet, but I had assumed that the aspirations of his mother, known, he says, as Glad, resonate from the formality of "Royston", David's middle name, after his father's brother "Roy". (In Who's Who, Royston is omitted from his entry. His parents also have different names: William and Agnes.)

Bailey "knew them as Bert and Gladys" but the other names "could be true, I don't know".

"How old were you when your father left?"

"I don't know. I never saw him when I was a kid. He was always out."

"When did he die?"

"I guess early 1970s."

"Do you go to funerals much?"

"No."

"Did you go to his?"

"Yes."

"Who told you that he died?"

"I'd put him into hospital, you know, so... I was in touch with him at the very end."

"How?"

"By some... chance. He lived in Southend." Bailey's famously impressive memory tends to desert him when applied to his own life, at which point he starts diluting the narrative with phrases such as "I think", "I guess", "I can't remember" and (one of his favourites) "probably". He pauses. "Southend. Or somewhere."

"Did he re-establish contact with you?"

"I forget. I really do. I am not lying. I remember going to see him. He was coughing. I remember thinking, shit, he hasn't got long. He was 61 when he died."

Bailey left school barely literate. He says it was when he enrolled for National Service in 1956 that he first realised some might consider him beneath them. While in the RAF, he developed his interest in photography and taught himself to read. He now has a keen and discerning appetite for fine writing.

After leaving the service, he became what he calls "sweeper up" to the homosexual photographer John French. By 1959, he was working for Vogue in London; a year later he was shooting for them in New York.

His intonation, in BBC archive recordings from the 1960s, is very slightly more refined than it is now.

"And yet, by the standards of the day, you made very little effort to talk 'proper'; this at a time when the Vogue fashion editor was Lady Rendlesham."

"That's true. One photographer took elocution lessons."

He had married typist Rosemary Bramble, "a nice girl from Clapham" in 1960. "What happened to her?"

"We were only together nine months. It was a question of getting away from the East End and keeping all the gays at bay, I guess."

"Where is she?"

"Still alive."

"What's she doing?"

"I don't know. Marry at that age and your life changes. Suddenly you're dining with the ambassador of Wogga Wogga," says Bailey, who has never been a fan of political correctness, gone mad or otherwise, "and the wife doesn't keep up."

His "take me as I am" attitude came fully formed: he insisted on shooting Shrimpton, even though Vogue didn't want her. "I know that Vogue's Sheila Wetton once said: 'I worked in fashion for 57 years and in all those years I only cried twice: both times because of David Bailey.'"

The photographer laughs. "Yeah. In France I'd have been called a perfectionist. In England you're a fucking aggravation. This is the same woman that patted me on the head and said: 'Doesn't he talk cute.'"

"Do you remember that word Lew Grade told you to avoid?"

"I think it was 'fuck'."

"It was 'Animosity'."

"Oh. Yes. You're right."

"Yet you seemed to have radiated that quality from the start." (Wetton, for instance, once claimed that he brought one girl into the studio, shut the door, and emerged saying: 'I got it in one. We don't need to use her again.'")

"How many times did you exploit your position as a photographer in order to seduce a woman?"

"Never. No, no, no. That is a myth. No. Definitely not. Absolutely never. Just the opposite in fact. I didn't have to. I can honestly..." He turns to face me. "...look you straight in the eye..."

"Because you had turned away for a while just then..."

"Never. Ever. No. I didn't have to." By this time, Bailey insists, he was fending girlfriends off rather than pursuing them.

"Then Jean Shrimpton went off with Terence Stamp."

"She had a few, between me and Terry."

"And you married Catherine Deneuve."

"Before that there was Sue Murray, then a model, now a highly accomplished portrait painter in Boston, Massachusetts. He left Murray (now Susan Murray-Stokes) for Deneuve. Bailey uncharacteristically suggests he "treated Sue quite badly".

"At the time," Murray-Stokes tells me, "I was a lost individual who had come from a convent in a remote part of India. I hadn't a clue about the modern world. I admit he wasn't the best person to introduce me to it."

In the studio, she says, "he could cause tears" (Bailey says he doesn't recall doing so, to any model), "but after work he was fine: sweet, and full of humour".

As for his treatment of her: "It's true that he left me for Catherine Deneuve and got someone else to tell me. I can't remember being surprised: he didn't give the impression of someone who would be faithful."

Later, she says, "I foolishly got involved with him again." They travelled to Katmandu, where "we tried the local bangh [traditional cannabis-based beverage]. One other time I gave him cake with the same substance in it. He had great trouble trying to park, because the nose of his car was waving in all directions.

"It was fine," Murray-Stokes adds, "that it worked out the way it did. I was young, unformed and I had to find myself. I could never have made his life my life. I owe him a great deal."

Apart from such occasional experiments, the photographer says, "I never did drugs." Unusually, Bailey, who gave up alcohol and tobacco in his early thirties, managed to observe the 1960s without becoming impaired by the decade's excesses.

I imagine, I tell him, that he was the main inspiration for "Thomas", David Hemmings' priapic snapper in Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-Up.

"Did you work like that? Saying to models: 'That's great, come on, give me more hair, more...'"

"It was a bit sexual, yeah. I think it was Monica Vitti that Antonioni got that from; she told him I photographed her on the floor. But I was never after her."

"You've said that the way you behaved, at one point, was 'diabolical'."

"I wasn't as bad as Caravaggio." (Reputed to have killed a man.)

"When it comes to bad behaviour, there's always someone ahead of you, isn't there, wearing the yellow jersey?"

"Yes."

"You go on: 'I pioneered badness; I did awful things, terrible things. The only reason I did fashion was because of the girls."

"Completely untrue. The reason I did fashion was that it was the only way to be creative and make money. I couldn't do stills advertising, because they wanted to take the picture themselves. I did my first [TV] commercial in 1966. In commercials they liked talent. But I haven't done them for 10 years."

He famously shot Reginald Kray's wedding for no fee.

"I kind of liked Reg. I saw him and Ron take someone apart one night."

"Terminally?"

"I don't know. They put him in the back of a van. That's the last I saw of him. I said, 'Colourful evening, Ron.' There was blood all over his hands!" Bailey laughs at the memory. "Then Ron said: 'Play my favourite song: "When I Leave the World Behind".'" He pauses, overcome with laughter.

"Somebody described you recently as 'the most heterosexual man anyone could meet'. Having spent time with James Brown and Ted Nugent, I have to tell you..."

"I can't bear butch men. I'd rather be with lesbians."

I can't help but ask about the range of his own sexual experience, I tell Bailey. It could be his frequent references to his fondness for homosexuals. It might be because he got into bed naked to interview Andy Warhol for Lew Grade in 1973. Warhol jokingly asked if he was a closet queen; the story of this bizarre but intriguing ABC film, initially banned by the High Court, was recounted in an entertaining interview with Jerry Hall on BBC Radio Four last year.

"You've got that," Bailey said, when he noticed a DVD of the original Warhol documentary in my bag. "Oh dear." (Bailey is an oddly disarming interviewer, but so would Jeremy Paxman be if he operated in a white Afghan coat and brown bobble hat.) "You've implied that you were an 'object of desire' to gays."

"I was. I never did anything about it."

"The last person I remember using that phrase in relation to himself was John Peel, who subsequently revealed he'd been raped."

"No. I had offers from beautiful men. Nureyev. Helmut Berger. But I was never tempted. Never, never, never. I always thought those people were very suspect. In the East End I remember being beaten up and lying unconscious all night in a shop doorway. Then, at 6am, the blackbirds were singing. This guy picked me up. I thought, 'Oh, he's helping me.' The next thing I know he is trying to stick his tongue down my throat. At school there was a teacher always trying to kiss me. You just sort of handled it."

Bailey was introduced to Catherine Deneuve by Roman Polanski, towards the end of the filming of Repulsion, in 1965. Polanski persuaded her to pose for Playboy, photographed by Bailey.

"Catherine and I," he recalls, "just hit it off."

"One source has said that you were sent to photograph Deneuve for that centrefold, and told her: 'Don't worry: I am a homosexual.' Ninety minutes later she is smoking a cigarette and realising he wasn't telling the truth."

Bailey laughs.

"No."

"Did you seduce Deneuve on that shoot?"

"No. It was at her flat, I think. I can't remember. Yes. It was just... things happen."

They were married in November 1965 and separated three years later. (They divorced in 1972.)

Bailey is a man used to dominating a relationship.

"You must have found Deneuve a bit of a handful."

"No. She worked, but so did the other girls. She called me last week. She's not like people think. She's funny."

The 2007 biography of Deneuve by the leading French writer and broadcaster Bernard Violet made international news for its accusation that the actress's father had collaborated with the Nazis. Violet recalls that, before their separation, Bailey expressed himself at some length "in the Daily Mirror, complaining that 'Catherine works non-stop. It's one film after the other. At night, she's too stressed to talk English.' I can't see anywhere," Violet says, "where David Bailey explains why he didn't make the effort to learn a bit of French."

Bailey hasn't read Violet's book on Deneuve. "Probably neither has she. It's like, somebody called me up to ask me if I am angry at [third wife, the Hawaiian-born model] Marie Helvin because she said I slept with two women at once. I said, 'Why would that make me angry? It is probably true. And it doesn't matter.'"

One of the most curious periods of his life was the first few years of the early 1970s, when he shared his house in Primrose Hill, north London, with girlfriend Penelope Tree, a UFO detecting machine left by Rolling Stone Brian Jones, and around 60 parrots. It was around this time that he contracted psittacosis.

"It can kill you," Bailey wheezes, to demonstrate the residual effect. "I sound like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet."

Trying to divide his life up according to relationships, as you might English history by kings, is a complicated business: Bailey's memory for dates tends to be vague in this context, and reigns tend to overlap. Marie Helvin moved in at Primrose Hill in 1975; they married in November of that year, and separated as a couple in 1983, by which time he had already bedded in with current wife Catherine Dyer.

"That's quite a book that Marie Helvin wrote, isn't it. Would it bother you if people thought she was funnier than you?"

"She is not funnier than me. I have never been with a woman that's funnier than me."

There's an oddly inconsistent note that runs through Marie Helvin: The Autobiography (2007), in that her professions of indifference to Bailey's infidelity ("I didn't think about who he was screwing because I knew his heart was mine") are interspersed with bitter if transient expressions of resentment relating to Bailey's publication of intimate photographs, the deals Helvin got on book royalties, and anger at his promiscuity. The line that best sums up the relationship, towards its end, is from Kenneth Tynan: "We seek the teeth to match our wounds."

The photographer is at pains to emphasise the good relationship he now enjoys with Helvin. A cynic would say that certain pictures he took of her – one shows her with her arms bound in ropes and only her pubic hair exposed – don't appear consistent with a photographer who feels nothing but idealised love for women, though of course I do work for The Independent, which Bailey refers to as "Lesbian News".

"I interviewed Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler a few years ago," I tell Bailey. "I asked him about his magazine Beaver Hunt [a periodical which consists of page after page of close-up shots of vaginas]. In his defence, as I recall, he mentioned some of your photographs."

"My cunt pictures? I love those."

"At what point were you sitting at home thinking: I know what I should photograph next..."

"You photograph everything. What made me do it was that this was something nobody ever saw properly. I used a dentist's camera. I did cocks as well, to keep the feminists happy. I used about 32 women subjects. They were all nurses or hookers. The nurses were less inhibited."

Those pictures, Bailey maintains, "were not sexual. They were practically clinical."

David Bailey has achieved and maintained the stature of best-known British photographer for the best part of 50 years: an achievement which wouldn't have been possible had he diversified, and applied his talents equally successfully to some other, related area.

Bailey is not the kind of man to talk about regrets, but it's a matter of record that, almost since he started, he has been talking about making cinema films.

"I want to be a director," he explained in 1965. "I want to make epics." If you think some reporter made that up, you can go to the BBC archives where, in a 1966 radio broadcast, he was asked what he saw as his future. "Film," he replies, without hesitation.

Apart from one film he directed for Channel Four (1993's Who Dealt, starring Juliette Stevenson), his only full-length cinema feature I could find, I tell him, is The Intruder (1999), starring Charlotte Gainsbourg. It's not the first possession I would rescue from a house fire.

"It's the worst thing I have ever done in my life. All they were interested in was that, through me, they could get Nastassja Kinski and Gainsbourg. It was awful. I don't think I have ever watched it."

The requirement to work as part of a team, Bailey says, did not, on that occasion at least, come easily to him.

Catherine, his wife arrives. ("Catherine, this is Thomas. What? Why have I been calling you Thomas?")

The couple divide their time between his house near King's Cross, and a home near Tavistock, Devon. I get the sense that he is a very different person now – probably a more congenial one – than he was 50, or maybe even 10, years ago.

He relaxes visibly once the digital recorder is switched off. "When we were talking about the 1960s, did you feel as if you were being held to account for the actions of a different man?"

"Yes. Because then I was young and foolish. I said a lot of stupid things before I was 25. Things that, ever since, I've had to spend my life adjusting or denying. Maybe 'adjusting' is the better word, because all of those journalists couldn't have made it all up. In all honesty I must have said some of those things. It's a bit like being a Marxist when you are 18 and looking a bit stupid when you are still a Marxist at 72."

It occurs to me that photographers – while they may not attract quite so much public disdain as journalists – tend to generate respect, rather than the sort of affection and national pride that a painter, musician or athlete can inspire. Perhaps it's because even the greatest of them can be perceived, depending on their field of interest, as exploitative voyeurs, war junkies or intruders. It probably doesn't help that photography requires a capacity for clinical detachment and demands (by contrast with fiction-writing, say) a minimum of self-revelation.

David Bailey has seen his accomplishments recognised by people from every strand of British society, from rock stars and princes to strangers who take his picture on their mobile; people who may not own any other kind of camera. His stature as a legend was secure four decades ago. For all that, one question remains, in relation to this man who can't remember quite how many hundreds of women he has seduced: when will he be loved?

Pure Sixties. Pure Bailey, a selling exhibition of David Bailey's iconic images of the 1960s, is on view at Bonhams, London W1 (bonhams.com), from next Sunday to 7 April

Comments