On Anita Pallenberg & The Deaths of Rock Star Wives

by: Marlena Williams

“We may know how to write the male side of the story, as so many, perhaps too many, rock star biographies can testify, but we are less comfortable with the other side of things.” Memorializing Anita Pallenberg, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enigmatic and compelling personalities, whose power seemed almost cosmic…

On June 13th  2017, Anita Pallenberg, the Italian-German ex-wife of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, died at age seventy-five from complications related to Hepatitis C. Her obituary appeared in the New York Times alongside British Grand Dame Lady Patricia Knatchbull, poet Edith Shiffert, and playwright A.R Gurney. Anita Pallenberg, a woman known for shooting heroin and casting spells, appeared marvelously out of place alongside those rife with upper class decorum and restraint. Though she was certainly not the first rock star wife/ex-wife/girlfriend to die, Anita’s passing came at a very particular moment in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. After a year marked by the deaths of a seemingly endless string of musical legends — David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, and George Michael to name the most exuberantly mourned — the death of such a high-profile ex-wife went seemingly unnoticed.

Pallenberg’s passing barely graced mainstream radars, to the point where it took me almost a day before I learned of her death. In contrast, only moments after the official announcement of the deaths of both Prince and Bowie, my phone was exploding with text messages, and countless adoring eulogies were already spreading across the web. Sure, Anita garnered that New York Times obit and several short tributes in a handful of other publications, but overall the world was otherwise silent to her passing. There was no Rolling Stone cover, no trending news item in my Facebook sidebar, and none of the impassioned public grieving that happened in the wake of those other iconic deaths. Suffice to say, Anita’s absence was hardly felt.

Even as a great lover of rock ‘n’ roll, its colossal problems related to sexism, cultural appropriation, and commercialism can not be dismissed, and truth be told I did not know how to react when I heard the news of Anita Pallenberg’s death. I’d been transfixed by her since I’d discovered who she was. I’d never seen someone whose presence had such force, even in an old photograph. It wasn’t just her startling beauty that drew me in, though that certainly helped. Anita’s power seemed cosmic. If Keith Richards is a rock God, then Anita was certainly a Goddess, and she seemed as important an element in the Stones’ story as anyone or anything else. As Jo Bergman, the Rolling Stones’ personal assistant from 1967 to 1973, once said, “Anita is a Rolling Stones. She, Mick, Keith and Brian were the Rolling Stones. Her influence has been profound. She keeps things crazy.”

Anita’s passing was both sad and serious to me in a way that the world at large didn’t seem to share. It felt as significant as when the aforementioned rock stars passed. However, no one, not even me, lit a candle in Anita’s honor. I wanted to memorialize her, but I didn’t know how. Sadly, there seems to be no blueprint for memorializing a muse.

As a society we are, and always have been, fascinated by the girlfriends, wives, and ex-wives of rock stars. These were the women desired by the men everyone desired, and worshipped by the men everyone worshipped. These women knew these Rock Gods as lovers, confidants, enemies, friends, courtroom foes, and all too often, battering rams. These were women who shared their beds, toilets, children, and bank accounts. Who heard the sounds they made at night and smelt their breath in the morning. They knew as simple, vulnerable humans the men we only know as stars. Yet despite its undeniable perks (mansions, shopping sprees, those tails of zeros at the end of alimony checks), the life of a rock star wife could hardly be considered a fairy tale. These women endured chronic infidelity, intense public scrutiny, and that strange mixture of fascination and loathing that seemed particularly reserved for them. They were objects of desire, but more often than not, they became objects of hate by all the adoring fans that felt protective over these men and, in their all-consuming devotion, foolishly believed that no one but themselves was worthy of their love. They were spit on, their hair pulled at, they were pelted with sticks (or if you were Yoko Ono, rice), and tricky fans thrust roses into their palms, thorns first. As much as we may want to make these rock ‘n’ roll “love stories” fit a fantasy narrative, they seldom do. The romances were often violent, tumultuous, and blackened by the dark forces of wealth and fame. We may know how to write the male side of the story, as so many, perhaps too many, rock star biographies can testify. But we are less comfortable with the other side of things.

I write this now as a question, not a particularly urgent one, but one that will become more relevant in the years to come: How do we write about these women? And when we do, what do we say?

Like many mysterious figures of history, the details of Anita Pallenberg’s birth are a matter of debate. She was either born on January 25th, 1944 in Nazi-occupied Italy, as she claimed, or in Hamburg, Germany on April 6th, 1942, according to her son. Most sources go with the later. Anita spent her early life hopping from country to country, scene to scene. She hung out with the Dolce Vita crowd in Rome and Warhol’s Factory in New York City before making her way to Swinging London and being engulfed by (or engulfing, depending on how you see it) the Rolling Stones.

She met the Stones after one of their concerts in Munich in either 1965 or 1966, before the Stones really became the Stones. This was back when their guitars still jangled, when Brian Jones was still the band’s de facto leader, when Mick still cut his hair short and wore crewneck sweaters on stage, and when Keith was still (more or less) clean. At this point, many young women, and many young men, were driven to the brink of madness by the Stones: fainting, crying, throwing punches, wetting themselves, shrieking so loudly they drowned out the music, and storming the stage in a Dionysian frenzy, desperate to touch those beautiful, prancing boys. Anita, in contrast, kept her cool. She snuck back-stage and offered Brian, still at this point in the habit of impregnating (and quickly abandoning) good little English girls, some pot and hashish. Within three months, she was living with him in his Chelsea flat and, as Stones’ biographer Philip Norman writes, “already creating havoc with the band’s internal politics.”

Anita was an aberration because she seemed immune to Mick’s sex appeal. Even when performing very believable sex scenes with him in the crime drama Performance, she attributed their on-screen chemistry to method acting and marijuana. While everyone, men and women alike, greeted Mick with adulation and desire, Anita treated him with haughty indifference and instead chose to be with the short, elfin Brian, arguably cementing his decline into addiction and paranoia.

Up to this point, Brian and the Stones were still used to dating shy, prim English girls. Anita, on the other hand, was beautiful and dangerous, with that very specific sex appeal that terrifies as it seduces. She had an appetite for devilment and destruction and seemed drenched in death, even in life. Anita was somehow both rangy and gorgeous, with matted hair, long, slender legs, and a mischievous, fang-like grin. She was reckless and cosmopolitan, sinister but also inviting. She was unconcerned with petty things like morals and emotions. Just looking at her, you got the sense that she could coax you into some place warm and then spring a trap on you she might never let you out of. Many suspected her to be a witch and she did what she could to encourage this perception. She carried around strands of garlic and vials of holy water, conducted secret ceremonies with animal bones she kept in a secret drawer, and placed hexes on anyone she disliked, including Mick’s future wife Bianca. Keith’s bodyguard, Spanish Tony Sanchez once said, Anita was “a life-force, a woman so powerful, so full of strength and determination, that men leaned on her.” If the Stones became the sinister, darkly sexual antidote to the cheery, feel-good Beatles, some of this has to be attributed to Anita.

Anita and Brian quickly became Swinging London’s most famous couple. They took to King’s Road and Carnaby Street with hair nearly the same shade of blonde and virtually interchangeable wardrobes: ruffled Edwardian blouses, crushed velvet bell bottoms, tall suede boots, floppy wide-brimmed hats, feathered boas, and layers of beads, bangles, and amulets, messily blending London mod with California flower child. She introduced Brian to a world of drugs, the occult, and twisted sexuality. She made him wear lipstick and Nazi SS uniforms. Sometimes, she whipped him. In this way, Anita assumed the role of both victim and dominatrix. As his decent into drugs and mental instability worsened, Brian would hit Anita, but she would always hit back. As Keith wrote in his biography Life, “The one woman in the world you did not want to try and beat up on was Anita Pallenberg” (let’s momentarily ignore the fact that the one woman in the world you do not want to try and beat up should be all women). Both Anita and Brian would emerge from their drug-addled rows battled, bruised, and black-eyed, ready for another round. That is, until Keith “saved her.”

As Keith tells it, after Anita and Brian got in an especially violent fight, he whisked Anita away to the safety of rock ‘n’ roll and ever-increasing heroin addiction. While Brian was convalescing in a hospital in Toulon, France Anita gave Keith that fabled blowjob in the backseat of Keith’s Bentley while the chauffeur demurely averted his eyes — and the rest is history. Brian lost his girlfriend, his sanity, his place in the Rolling Stones, and eventually, his life. Two years after Anita and Keith married, Brian was found floating dead in a swimming pool.

“But what about her career? Her interests? Her passions?” you may ask. Shouldn’t I try to define this woman outside the wild orbit of the Rolling Stones? Maybe, but as Anita herself has said, “I’ve always been a hanger-on. Whenever I liked something, I really got into it. How better to get into it than be with them, you know?” Her passion in life seemed to be finding the coolest, most influential scene and embedding herself deeply within it. She seemed to relish her role as “hanger-on,” seemed to like grinning devilishly in the shadows, on the corners of the spotlight’s hot glare.

But Anita did have a career to some degree. Even The New York Times obituary mentioned that she was an “actress” along with a “Stones’ Muse.” Throughout the late 60s, she appeared in several oddball cult films: as a girl who accidentally kills her boyfriend in the German film A Degree of Murder (1967), as a sexy nurse in the film adaptation of Terry Southern’s novel Candy (1968), as a brunette dictator in black lace in Roger Vadim’s sci-fi sexploitation film Barbarella, and as a woman possibly plotting her husband’s death in Dillinger is Dead (1969). But her most well-known role occured in Performance (1970), a film that is often talked about more than it is actually seen.

Directed by Donald Cammell and Nick Roeg, Performance follows an ultra-masculine British gangster played by James Fox who takes refuge in the home of an androgynous retired rock star named Turner, played by Mick Jagger, and his girlfriend Pherber, played by Anita. Performance was Easy Rider before Easy Rider, with its rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, jump cuts, non-linear narrative, and (for the time) graphic portrayal of sex, drugs, and violence. The film questioned notions of heterosexuality, monogamy, and the gender binary, back before the term was in common usage. In one scene, when Fox’s gangster character hotly denies any feminine impulses by saying “I’m all man,” Pherber replies, “That’s too bad.”

People mainly went to see the film because it was rumored that they would catch a glimpse of Mick Jagger’s penis. The penis shot was excluded from the final cut of the film, though apparently you can find grainy versions of it somewhere in the deep recesses of YouTube (Not easily though. Trust me, I have tried). During the shoot, Keith would apparently park his car outside the set and sit there all day with his fists clenched, fuming about what was happening between his girlfriend and band mate inside. Anita insists nothing happened between them, but the shoot seemed to contribute to the ever-increasing tension between Mick and Keith and likely sparked Keith’s oft-quoted comment about Mick’s “enormous balls” but “tiny todger.” Again, if I ever find the lost footage, I’ll let you know.

Anita and Keith stayed married until 1980, long for celebrity marriages but hardly impressive, especially when you think about how ten of those years were spent hopelessly addicted to hard drugs. They went to rehab together in 1977 and divorced three years later, apparently unable to stomach each other while clean. Somewhere in between, seventeen year-old Scott Cantrell was found with a bullet through his head in the master bedroom at Anita and Keith’s South Salem New York estate. Anita and Scott were having an affair. Though his death was ruled a suicide, people still like to claim that Anita shot him, or that he killed himself during a sexually charged game of Russian Roulette. A few years earlier, Anita and Keith’s son was found dead in his crib, prompting outcry that Anita was not a suitable mother but not too much criticism over Keith’s capabilities as a father (perhaps this was assumed). Anita could never quite escape that cloak of sex, death, and destruction that followed her to the end. Maybe she didn’t want too.

In her later years, Anita kept a low profile. She did a little more acting: a Harmony Korine film, a cameo in Absolutely Fabulous where she played a devil to Marianne Faithful’s god, and occasionally she agreed to an interview or two about her past. But she never wrote a tell-all memoir, one that most likely would have been the juiciest of them all.

“If young Posh Spice can write a memoir,” she said, “then I don’t want to write one.”

Instead, she went to fashion school, decided she wasn’t really into it, and then spent the rest of her years taking classes in things like watercolors and botanical drawing. This is basically all of the information we have about Anita’s life after her role as “Stones’ muse” had played out.

In 2010, The Daily Mail published a photo of Anita, at age sixty-nine, with a headline that read “What a Drag: Retired rock chick Anita Pallenberg shows her age after years of wild partying with the Rolling Stones.” In the photo, Anita, dressed in a winter coat with a fur hood, stands in front of a shopping cart lighting a cigarette. There seems the vague implication that she is homeless, though she is, of course, not. The article later points out that she was taken to Waitrose, a British grocery store, in a chauffeur-driven car. But the statement of the image remains. Anita, once sexy and young, is now haggard and old. She has become grotesque. The tabloids like to tear apart the aging rock gods, running photos of their wrinkled and sagging faces under headlines like “Night of the Living Dead,” but they are still able to escape the sort of disgust and disdain aimed at women who are no longer considered worthy. The tabloids mock the male rock stars for performing on stage past their prime, but they shamed Anita for daring to step out on the streets at all. She made the fatal mistake of “showing her age.”

This was the last and most striking image the public had of Anita before her death. And when her death did come, it passed with barely a murmur.

So this is Anita’s story, in a parsed, insufficient form. But what about the others?

Yoko Ono’s death will certainly be an event. Whatever you think about Yoko, she is an icon and pop cultural figure in her own right. Sure, her name will always be mentioned in conjunction with John Lennon and the Beatles; this she will never be able to escape, even if she wanted too. We may never be able to shake images of John and Yoko camped out in bed together “protesting” the war, or of John’s naked body curled around a fully dressed Yoko on the cover of Rolling Stone. But after the debate over whether Yoko is the reason the Beatles got political, experimental, and took their music to new heights or whether she is the reason it all went to shit, people might start to mention other things, like her artwork, her poetry, her feminism, the music her and John made together, and the way their love endured, outside of anything that had to do with celebrity and rock ‘n’ roll.

It might not be so easy for the others.

What about Mick Jagger’s first wife, Bianca, the Nicaraguan model and socialite who helped put Studio 54 on the map, riding in on a white horse and holding court on the basement couches with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and sometimes, even her husband?

Or Mick’s second wife, Jerry Hall, that blue collar Texas girl with the long blonde hair and megawatt smile who worked at the Dairy Queen before running off to Paris to become a model?

Or the girlfriend before them all, Marianne Faithful, whose genius is so often eclipsed by a trashy tabloid story about a shag rug and a Mars bar, but who was a talented performer, gifted songwriter, hedonistic philosopher, and brilliant and brutally honest memoirist in her own right?   

Or Angie Bowie, who was bi-sexual, gender fluid, and glam right alongside her husband, maybe even before?

And what about Sara Dylan, Bob Dylan’s sad-eyed lady, his radiant jewel, his mystical wife, perhaps the most mysterious and muse-like of them all? The woman (married when they first met, soon to be divorced) who coaxed Bob away from fame and the road to become a dad in woods, and made him stay that way for much longer than anyone would have expected? Who, when she met him while working as a Playboy waitress in 1964, was the only person in the world who didn’t seem impressed? Who was “so easy to look at, so hard to define,” even from the man who wrote song after song trying to define her?

Or Bob’s other wife, gospel singer Carolyn Dennis, who he married during his Christian years and kept even more a secret, perhaps because he didn’t want his marriage public, but perhaps because of something else? Perhaps something to do with the color of her skin?

What about the groupies: Llana Loyd, Bebe Buell, Sable Starr, and the reigning Queen of them all, Pamela DeBarres?

And the others, the ones I don’t know about or am forgetting to mention here? There’s certainly more, more than we would ever be able to list. Will we even try?

Likely these women will go the way of the Great Muses of Literature, the Fanny Brawnes, the Zeldas, the Beatrices, the Dark Ladies, the Maude Gonnes. We will appreciate them, we will mention them in books, we may even cite them as important sources of inspiration and creative energy for these Great Men. We will name them in lists. But they will forever be locked in their role as muse, forever significant because of who they slept with, dated, or married. I’ve even done it here. I’ve found it impossible to write about Anita Pallenberg without writing about the Stones. It’s hard not to find it the most significant thing about her because, well, isn’t it? Maybe I could have done better in writing this, and maybe I’ll do better again in the future. No matter how hard I grasp, a conclusion defies me. All I can ask is that we remember and write about these women and that when we do, we honor them as both a part of and apart from the crazy worlds they inhabited and the wild men they loved.

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