David Bailey was the celebrated photographer at the heart of the Swinging Sixties. Jean Shrimpton, Mary Quant, Andy Warhol, The Beatles, Manolo Blahnik and The Rolling Stones were all contemporaries. Freddie Mercury French-kissed him backstage at Band Aid.
Mercury’s spontaneous act was uninvited, but not unwelcome. Bailey was flattered. He was notoriously heterosexual and yet extraordinarily magnetic to both men and women. Warhol refused to be interviewed by the photographer unless the interview was done in his bed. Bailey complied.
He was a proud East Ender who didn’t lose sight of his roots. Throughout his stellar career trajectory upwards through rigidly class-conscious UK, he appeared not to care what others thought of him. Yet beneath the bravado was a boy born during WWII who endured, not only the blackouts and the bombing but an indifferent mother and a cruel father and the stigma of undiagnosed dyslexia.
Bailey loathed his father and refused to have anything to do with him until he was near death when -both famous and rich - the prodigal son paid for his father’s expensive terminal care and loudly resented every cent spent. In keeping with Bailey’s East End upbringing he described his father as a proper c*#t.
He uses the word liberally throughout the book to describe both good c*#ts and bad ones. Sometimes it’s a mark of respect, other times it’s the highest insult afforded. The word was (and is) simply the lingua franca of the day and the reader easily gets the drift.
James Fox, the book’s co-author, go-between, call him what you will, arranges interviews with other key players in Bailey’s life – most notably his numerous ex-wives which included the actress Catherine Deneuve and models Marie Helvin and Catherine Dyer.
He married Dyer in the mid-80s and they have three adult children. Bailey claims to have told her at the outset that he didn’t want children and his three loves (not necessarily in any order of preference) were “parrots, pussy and photography”.
In fact, when Dyer moved in to his house at the beginning of their affair, Bailey had 60 parrots. The birds had the run of the house. Dyer described it as filthy. She is a self-confessed clean freak and Bailey too busy to care. Yet their marriage has lasted more than 40 years, which nobody who knew Bailey in the early days would have thought possible.
For younger readers, the promiscuity and patriarchal attitudes may be alienating. Taken in context against a time of massive social upheaval, it is soon seen that Bailey was not just a product of his times, but a key driver of change.
He has been a vegetarian for much of his adult life and has spear-headed campaigns for both Greenpeace and PETA. And in his fashion photography Bailey was a fearless rule breaker, bringing both new equipment and fresh, unstructured styling to the fore, against the wishes of the stylists and fearsome editors of the time.
He’s also been a documentarist, film-maker, painter, author and inveterate traveller to some of the most remote and terrifying places on the planet. As an octogenarian, he continues to be a campaigner for social change.
Even if you’re younger than the suspected reader demographic, you’ll recognise the majority of the names throughout. And there are plenty. Some of them - Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall and Grace Coddington, for example - are still alive. But David Bailey has outlived most of them.
The fact that he gave up his daily bottle of whisky habit early on may have helped, but after reading the book I think that it might have a great deal more to do with his unquenchable thirst for life.
Reviewer: Peta Stavelli
Pan Macmillan Paperback $39.99