Par mumu2901 le 14 Mai 2015 à 17:23
Music December 2007
California DreamgirlThe world’s most gorgeous grandmother, Michelle Phillips devotes herself to family, friends, and good works. Photographs by Norman Jean Roy.When Denny Doherty died, in January, Michelle Phillips became the last of the Mamas and the Papas, the 60s foursome that made hippie sexy and topped the charts for almost two psychedelic years before breaking up. At 63, the muse of “California Dreamin’ ” tells the real story of her stormy marriage to the group’s leader, John Phillips; her very brief marriage to Dennis Hopper; her liaisons with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty; and the tangled emotions that bound four musicians—Michelle, John, Denny, and Cass Elliot—for life.
When Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty spoke on January 18, they did as they’d done for 40 years: “We made it a point to keep things very professional and not … slip back,” Michelle says in that arch, bemused way of hers. “Slip back” into talking like lovers, she means. Denny was about to undergo surgery for an abdominal aneurysm, and she’d called with moral support, her reliable compassion delivered with its usual frankness. “I was gung-ho and positive. ‘If it has to be done, just get it over with!’ ”
The Mamas and the Papas had always remained a family—a shadow of the old, clamorous family, to be sure (“It was two and a half years of total melodrama,” Michelle fondly recalls), but touchingly close, even through the decades of Sturm und Drang that postdated their breakup. Early on, their ranks had been thinned from four to three (in 1974, Cass Elliot died, at a tragically young 32, of a heart attack); then, much later, from three to two: in 2001, John Phillips, 65, finally succumbed, after decades of drinking and drugs, to heart failure. And so, by last January, only Denny, 66, and Michelle, then 62—like the little Indians in the children’s rhyme—remained standing, their old, red-hot affair, which had nearly torn the group apart, self-protectively excised from their frequent reminiscences.
That two people in the seventh decade of their lives would need to try to bury several months of ancient lust is a testament to the mystique that has long outlived the group’s thin songbook and brief domination of the pop charts. The Mamas and the Papas were cannon-shot onto the airwaves when the country was still shaking off its post-Camelot conventionality; girls were wearing go-go boots, and boys were growing out their early-Beatles haircuts. No group had ever looked like them—a magnetic fat girl, a pouty blonde beauty, two sexy Ichabod Cranes in funny hats—or sounded like them: Cass’s wry-beyond-her-years alto and Denny’s aching choirboy tenor lacing through that creamy, 1950s-prom-worthy close harmony, kissed with all those ba da da das.
The Mamas and the Papas were the first rich hippies, stripping folk rock of its last vestiges of Pete Seeger earnestness and making it ironic and sensual. They made the rock elite part and parcel of Hollywood. (Michelle’s eventual serial conquest of its three top young lions—Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty—nailed for her its femme fatale sweepstakes.) And then, just as fast as they’d streaked across the psychedelic sky, they burned out in some unseen solar system.
The day after her pep talk to Denny, Michelle got a phone call from Cass’s daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell. Denny was dead. He didn’t survive the operation.
“I’ll bury you all!,” Michelle had screamed at the other three one night in 1966, when they’d (temporarily) evicted her from the group for her romantic transgressions. Now that wounded taunt revealed itself as prophecy. Michelle flew to Toronto for Denny’s funeral and then to Halifax for his burial. No one loved the group more than she. For 25 years she had tried to bring a Mamas and the Papas movie to fruition. (The right script is in the process of being written.) She was the group’s impeccably preserved face on a PBS tribute. Now she was the last one standing.
Yet people who have seen Michelle mature into a consummate rescuer know she’s repaid her luck. According to Cass’s sister, Leah Kunkel (who started out “unsure Michelle had my sister’s best interests at heart”), “Michelle has rescued a lot of people over the years. I’ve come to really respect her.” Plastic surgeon Steven Zax, Michelle’s beau of eight years, says, “She is the most generous person I know. She drives hours to visit friends who are shut-ins. Every Saturday and Sunday she packs bags of fruit and sandwiches and money and takes them to the homeless, who know her by name.” And those who watched her mint the shrewd-chick archetype in the midst of the reckless, sexist counterculture don’t doubt her resilience. “I’m not saying Michelle was Helen of Troy, leading men to war while she remained unscathed, but that’s close,” says her onetime musical partner Marshall Brickman. “She was a very clever, centered girl, to have kept afloat in that environment. There’s steel under that angelic smile.” According to Lou Adler, the Mamas and the Papas’ producer and Michelle’s lifelong friend and at one time romantic interest, “Michelle is the ultimate survivor—so loyal and ‘street’ that John and I called her Trixie. And, unlike John—who was swept away … who was a devil, on drugs—Michelle was more logical, more constant. She had an anchor, her dad.”
‘My father was six foot three, dashingly handsome, and so unflappable nothing could rattle him,” Michelle is saying, sitting in her picture-windowed living room in L.A.’s leafy, off-the-status-track Cheviot Hills. In pride of place on the coffee table is a photo album of her three grandchildren from daughter Chynna, 39, and actor Billy Baldwin, yet she’s sipping wine in the early afternoon like any self-respecting sybarite.
Gardner “Gil” Gilliam, a movie-production assistant and self-taught intellectual, was all Michelle and her older sister, known as Rusty, had after their mother, Joyce, a Baptist minister’s daughter turned bohemian bookkeeper, dropped dead of a brain aneurysm when Michelle was five. Gil took the girls to Mexico for several years, then back to L.A. There, as a county probation officer who smoked pot and never made a secret of his love affairs (he would eventually marry five more times), he seemed to model the axiom “Hedonism requires discipline.” “My father had very few rules, but with those he was steadfast. ‘Clean up your messes.’ ‘Be a good citizen.’ ” (The code stuck. “I have never been late for work a day in my life, I refused to ask John for alimony, I have never been in rehab,” she enumerates proudly.) But young Michelle needed more than a male guide. “In retrospect, I see that I was looking for a girlfriend/mother figure.” In 1958 she found, through her sister’s boyfriend, a 23-year-old who had an unsurpassable store of harrowingly acquired female survival skills to impart.
The Black Dahlia Heritage
Tamar Hodel was one of six children—by three different women—of the most pathologically decadent man in Los Angeles: Dr. George Hodel, the city’s venereal-disease czar and a fixture in its A-list demimonde. She’d grown up in her father’s Hollywood house, which resembled a Mayan temple, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, and was the site of wild parties, in which Hodel was sometimes joined by director John Huston and photographer Man Ray.
George Hodel shared with Man Ray a love for the work of the Marquis de Sade and the belief that the pursuit of personal liberty was worth everything—possibly even, for Hodel, gratuitous murder. What has recently come to light, by way of two startling investigative books (2003’s Black Dahlia Avenger, by Hodel’s ex–L.A.P.D. homicide-detective son, Steve Hodel, and—building upon it—Exquisite Corpse, 2006, by art writers Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss), is that George Hodel was a prime suspect in the notorious Black Dahlia murder. (According to Black Dahlia Avenger, Hodel was the killer, and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office conducted extensive surveillance of him. There were numerous arrests, but no one was ever charged with the murder.) A striking, graphic array of evidence in the two books strongly suggests that it was Hodel who, on January 15, 1947, killed actress Elizabeth Short, then surgically cut her in two and transported the halved, nude, exsanguinated corpse—the internal organs kept painstakingly intact—to a vacant lot, where he laid the pieces out as if in imitation of certain Surrealist artworks by Man Ray.
Without knowing any of this, 13-year-old Michelle Gilliam walked through Tamar Hodel’s porch into a room decorated all in lavender and beheld a sultry Kim Novak look-alike. “Tamar was the epitome of glamour,” Michelle recalls. “She was someone who never got out of bed until two p.m., and she looked it. It was late afternoon, and she was dressed in a beautiful lavender suit with her hair in a beehive. I took one look and said, New best friend!” With Tamar was her cocoa-skinned daughter, Debbie, five; folksinger Stan Wilson, an African-American, was Tamar’s current husband. (She’d married her first—who was also black—at 16, in 1951.) “Tamar was so exotic! She was instantly my idol.”
Tamar’s sophistication had a grotesque basis. In her father’s home—where she had often “uncomfortably” posed nude, she recalls, for “dirty-old-man” Man Ray and had once wriggled free from a predatory John Huston—George Hodel had committed incest with her. “When I was 11, my father taught me to perform oral sex on him. I was terrified, I was gagging, and I was embarrassed that I had ‘failed’ him,” Tamar says, telling her version of her long-misreported adolescence. George plied her with erotic books, grooming her for what he touted as their transcendent union. (Tamar says that she told her mother what George had done, and that, when confronted, George denied it.) He had intercourse with Tamar when she was 14. To the girl’s horror, she became pregnant; to her greater horror, she says, “my father wanted me to have his baby.” After a friend took her to get an abortion, an angry George—jealous, Tamar says, of some boys who’d come to see her—struck her on the head with his pistol. Her stepmother, Dorero (who was John Huston’s ex-wife), rushed her into hiding.
George Hodel was arrested, and the tabloid flashbulbs popped during the sensational 1949 incest trial. Hodel’s lawyers, Jerry Geisler and Robert Neeb, painted Tamar as a “troubled” girl who had “fantasies.” Tamar’s treatment by the defense and the press during that time wounds her to this day. George was acquitted.
When Michelle appeared on Tamar’s porch, Tamar saw in her “a gorgeous little Brigitte Bardot” and sensed that she could rewrite her own hideous youth by guiding a protégée through a better one. “Meeting Michelle felt destined, as if we’d known each other in another life,” says Tamar. “I wanted to champion her, because no one had championed me.” Michelle says, “I moved in with Tamar; she ‘adopted’ me right away. Then everything started.”
Tamar took the lower-middle-class bohemian’s daughter and polished her. She bought her the clothes Gil couldn’t afford, enrolled her in modeling school, taught her how to drive her lavender Nash Rambler, and provided her with a fake ID and amphetamines, Michelle says, “so I could make it through a day of eighth grade after staying up all night with her. Tamar introduced me to real music—Bessie Smith and Paul Robeson and Josh White and Leon Bibb. And I, who’d been listening to the Kingston Trio, was just entranced.” To keep Gil from being bent out of shape by the fact that his daughter had been spirited away, Michelle says, “Tamar put on perfect airs around my dad, and when it became necessary she would sleep with him.” One day Tamar’s husband, Stan, made the mistake of crawling into Michelle’s bed. Michelle shoved him out, and Tamar ended the marriage, leaving the two young blonde beauties on their own, with sometimes a third one visiting them, Michelle’s fresh-faced teen-model friend Sue Lyon. “Sue was innocent and naïve, not like us,” Tamar says. Sue’s mother bawled Michelle out for sneaking her daughter a copy of Lolita. Tamar says she had to explain the famous masturbation scene to the sheltered ingénue. (A few years later, Sue was cast in the title role in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film of the novel—a role Tamar insisted should have been played by Michelle.)
In early 1961, Tamar and her teenage sidekick moved to San Francisco. They painted their apartment lavender, and, like two Holly Golightlys on uppers, they did the town, watching Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl spew their subversive humor at the hungry i and the Purple Onion. They got to know the cool guys on the scene; Michelle fell for singer Travis Edmonson, of the folk duo Bud and Travis, and Tamar fell for activist comedian Dick Gregory.
Both girls thought that Scott McKenzie (original name: Phil Blondheim), the wavy-haired lead singer in a folk group called the Journeymen, was, as Michelle puts it, “very, very cute.” Tamar won his heart. She took Scott back to the apartment to listen to La Bohème, and, as Michelle remembers it, with a laugh, they never left the bed. The Journeymen’s leader, whose name was John Phillips, appeared at the door every night, annoyed to have to yank his tenor out of Tamar’s arms to get him to the club by showtime. A native of Alexandria, Virginia, Phillips was tall and lean and exotically handsome: his mother was Cherokee; his secret actual father (whom he never knew) was Jewish, though he’d been raised thinking that the square-jawed Marine captain his mother had married was his father. From the moment Michelle saw him in the hungry i phone booth—long legs stretched out, ankles propped on his guitar case—she knew two things: one, he was married (“You could tell he was making The Call Home”), and, two, she had to have him. “I fell in love with his talent, his poise, his ability to be leader of the pack.”
Michelle “stepped out of a dream,” John Phillips would rhapsodize in his 1986 autobiography, Papa John. She was “the quintessential California girl.… She could look innocent, pouty, girlish, aloof, firey.” Michelle says, “John was 25, married with two children, from an East Coast Catholic military family. He had gone to Annapolis, he performed in a suit and tie—he had never met anyone like me!” Her uniqueness in John’s eyes was no small thing, since he was a habitual trend surfer (“a charismatic snake-oil salesman” is how Marshall Brickman puts it). He’d started a doo-wop group when doo-wop was in, then switched to ballads with his group the Smoothies—just in time for American Bandstand’s body-grinding slow-dancers—then jumped on the folk bandwagon. To John, Tamar Hodel’s protégée was a fascinating hybrid just over the Zeitgeist’s horizon: a street girl, to be sure (“She would have fit into the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las perfectly,” he’d later say), yet seasoned in high culture and political idealism—and with that angelic face. John used to tell Michelle she was the first flower child he had ever met.
Married to a Genius
Gil had recently married a 16-year-old himself, so he couldn’t exactly be indignant about his 17-year-old daughter’s paramour. “She hasn’t finished high school, so if I were you I would throw a book at her now and again” was his paternal blessing. John and Susan Adams, a ballerina from a society family, prepared to divorce in 1962. She had put up for years with his many affairs and never thought that the teenager who’d recently knocked on her Mill Valley door and brazenly announced “I’m in love with your husband” would actually steal him. (With perfect manners, Susan had invited her little visitor in, made her a tuna sandwich—and herself a stiff drink—and then, with deft condescension, informed her that John had a girl like her in every city.)
John and Michelle moved to New York and married. He was so possessive that when he left town on Journeymen tours he’d board her at a supervised dorm for teenage professionals.
To keep her where he could see her (and because he knew her face on posters would rake in the crowds), he pulled her away from the teen-modeling contract she was about to sign and—with the help of voice lessons to shore up her thin soprano—made her a singer alongside him. Jump-starting the New Journeymen, he tapped as its third member Marshall Brickman, of the disbanded group the Tarriers. “I was the polite, grateful Jew from Brooklyn, infatuated with folk music, and now here I was, thrown without a life preserver into the cyclone—the maelstrom—that was John and Michelle,” says Brickman of the day he entered their studio apartment (so tiny “both sides of the bed touched the walls”), which was filled with welcome to the group! balloons. “There were drugs, but not for me, and sex, but not for me.” (Michelle, who’d soon have affairs with all of John’s best friends, says jokingly, “Marshall left the group too soon.”).
‘John lived on his own circadian rhythm—working 40 hours straight and sleeping 10,” Brickman continues. “Everyone fell into his gravitational pull, and it was very seductive and ultimately adolescent, but he emerged from the chaos with brilliant songs. In fact, John was one of the few folksingers in Greenwich Village writing his own songs in the very early 60s.” Another was born-and-bred Villager John Sebastian. “One night I ran into John,” says Sebastian. “We puffed on a joint and walked to his apartment. I was stunned by Michelle’s beauty.” They settled in and started passing a guitar around. Sebastian played the song “Do You Believe in Magic?,” which combined folk with jug-band music (pre-Depression-era blues, hokeyed up for vaudeville), and which eventually launched his group, the Lovin’ Spoonful. After he left, Michelle told John, “That’s the direction we should go in.”
The path from straight folk to something new got an even bigger boost about a year later, when another Village folkie, Roger McGuinn, a friend of Sebastian’s and the Phillipses’, inserted eight notes inspired by Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” into Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and played the song in the beat he says the Beatles had picked up from Phil Spector, the songwriter turned music producer. The result: McGuinn’s group the Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” helped give birth to the phenomenon known as folk rock.
Even before this signal moment, John Phillips—guitar strapped to his chest, prowling the streets on amphetamines—was coming at the folk-plus-other mix a third way: by channeling the smooth balladeers of his early teen years. One day, late in their first autumn in New York, John set a verse—“All the leaves are brown / and the sky is grey / I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day”—to a moody, slightly somber melody. Later, in their room in the Hotel Earl, Michelle recalls, a speed-addled John “woke me and said, ‘Help me write this!’ ” She groggily muttered, “Tomorrow.” “No,” he said. “Help me now. You’ll thank me for this someday.”
Michelle sat up and summoned a recent visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral (her years in Mexico had given her an affection for Catholic churches) and came up with: “Stopped into a church I passed along the way / Well, I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray.” John, who’d loathed parochial school, “hated the line,” Michelle says, but kept it in for lack of anything better. Lucky he did; the line gave the song its arc of desperation to epiphany. Thus was born one of the first clarion calls of a changing culture, “California Dreamin’.”
The more John tried to dominate his young wife, the more she rebelled. “One day when we were in Sausalito they had a fight, and Michelle just got in the car and drove to L.A.,” stranding the other two, Brickman recalls. During another trip home to L.A., Michelle was even more rebellious. Her sister, Rusty, was dating a handsome 19-year-old fledgling songwriter and musician named Russ Titelman. Late one night Michelle was in Gil’s kitchen when Russ walked in—“and here was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. We fell madly in love, standing there at the refrigerator,” recalls Titelman, who later produced hits for Randy Newman, Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton, and Steve Winwood. In December 1963, Michelle moved back to New York, and Russ followed. “I was in love with Russ,” Michelle says. “We put a deposit down on an apartment in Brooklyn Heights.” But the in-over-his-head young man broke up—just in time—with his married girlfriend. John called, warning, “You know, a different kind of guy would be waiting outside your door with a shotgun.” Still, no amount of John’s anger could incite remorse or shame in Michelle, who’d grown up viewing free love as perfectly normal. In frustration, John wrote “Go Where You Wanna Go” about Michelle’s affair with Russ. The narrator’s incredulousness at his girlfriend’s independence—“Three thousand miles, that’s how far you’ll go / And you said to me, ‘Please don’t follow’ ”—captured not only his blithe, guilt-free bride but also the slew of other girls like her, who’d soon tumble into the cities.
Even before Brickman quit the group to become a writer (eventually he worked on screenplays for Annie Hall and other Woody Allen movies and co-wrote the book for the current Broadway-musical hit Jersey Boys), John started wooing Denny Doherty, who looked to him like some “fragile lute player in Elizabethan England,” and whose poignant tenor was a legend on the folk circuit. Denny sang lead for the group John Sebastian briefly played harmonica with, the Mugwumps, whose improbable scene-stealer was the obese daughter of a Baltimore delicatessen owner; she had changed her name from Ellen Naomi Cohen to Cass Elliot. “Here was my big sister,” says Leah Cohen Kunkel, “a fat girl with a 190 I.Q.—so witty she never made the same stage quip twice—who’d come to New York to try to make it on Broadway, knowing no one, living in a cockroach-filled apartment, yet believing in herself. It was her hopefulness that people loved!” John Sebastian adds, “Cass was a star. Whatever room she was in became her salon. She had this wonderful charisma. She was aware of what this moment was going to be—she’d say, ‘Man, if we’re here now, just think where we’ll be in another five years.’ And she was incredibly funny about being madly in love with Denny. I can’t imagine how it took him so long to realize it.”
John, Michelle, and Denny took the vacation to the Virgin Islands that would become the basis of their autobiographical “Creeque Alley” (which starts, “John and Mitchie were gettin’ kind of itchy”). Every morning they drank rum from chopped-open coconuts, Michelle recalls, and then “we might do a little bit of acid and we might snorkel.” Cass flew down (“We knew she’d come e-ven-tu-ally,” the song goes) to waitress in the dive where the three were singing—“she sang the fourth part from the back of the room,” Michelle says. In one recounting (“the Johnist version,” says Leah, who thinks her sister’s overwhelming popularity made John a little jealous), Cass begged to be let into the group. “Not true! Cass did not have to beg!” insists Michelle. According to the account in Papa John, Cass was catcalled “Fatty!” by the customers. Michelle says evenly, “If I had heard anyone say that to Cass, I would have lunged over the table and killed them. I adored Cass. She made our sound, while I could barely sing (although I was the only one of us who could read music). John, a genius at harmonizing, loved the four voices and that huge octave range.” Maxing out their credit cards, high on acid, they got themselves to L.A. They were invited to crash at a place where Cass was staying with her musician friends. One day Cass turned on the TV and saw a biker gang calling their molls their “mamas.” They had found their name: the Mamas and the Papas.
“I closed my eyes and listened to ‘California Dreamin’,” Lou Adler is recalling, in his house atop a Malibu cliff, its wraparound windows serving up what seems like the entire Pacific Ocean. (In the next room, the most famous of his seven sons, starlet-romancing gossip-column staple Cisco Adler, is noisily recording an album.) “You never heard four-part harmony in rock ’n’ roll in late 1965! They reminded me of groups I’d loved—the Hi-Lo’s, the Four Freshmen, the Four Lads. And the girls’ voices—you didn’t have mixed quartets then! John was the tallest rock ’n’ roller I’d ever auditioned; Denny reminded me of Errol Flynn; Cass was in a muumuu; Michelle was this beautiful blonde. I felt like George Martin the first time he met the Beatles.”
‘California Dreamin’ ” became a huge hit, followed by “Monday, Monday” (a song Michelle and Cass thought so dumb that they snickered over their gin-rummy game when John excitedly previewed it for them). Tamar, in San Francisco, received a postcard: “Watch us on Ed Sullivan and meet us at the Fairmont before the concert.” She took her father with her—“If you’re abused, you stay emotionally a little girl until someone helps,” she explains. “Michelle looked him in the eye and said, ‘I’ve heard all about you,’ ” Tamar recalls. Michelle says, “He knew that I knew so much that he didn’t want me to know about, yet he stared at me without a flicker of guilt. He looked like he wanted to kill me—I was also his type!” The evening featured “a hash pipe being passed around, mounds of pot on the table that the dogs were eating, and people knocking on the door every 10 minutes to hand us more dope,” as Tamar sums it up.
“There were so many soap operas,” says Lou Adler, “but it never stopped the artistry. John was the ultimate controller, but as much as he liked to build up, he also tore down, including himself. He was so intelligent and yet so challenged. And Michelle—Mitch, Mitchie, Trixie: we had so many names for her—she could always push John’s buttons.”
Denny and Michelle’s affair began just as fame was hitting. “The four of us would sit around, saying, ‘O.K., you’re gonna sing the third,’ and ‘You’re gonna do the bop da bops,’ and there’d be so much sexual energy between Denny and me that we’d be playing footsie under the table, and Cass and John didn’t notice it,” says Michelle. (But Cass, who had emerged as the fans’ favorite, was no chump, fighting with John all the time, constantly chiding Michelle, “Why do you let him boss you around like that?” In their different ways, the two women were tough-chick bookends.) John’s reaction to his wife’s affair was seethingly pragmatic. Michelle recalls, “He said, ‘You know, Mitch, you can do a lot of things to me, but you don’t fuck my tenor!’ I’m thinking, Am I really hearing this? You can fuck the mailman, the milkman, but not my tenor?” As he had with her Russ Titelman affair, John used Michelle’s infidelity as material, co-writing, with Denny, “I Saw Her Again.” The group got a hit out of it, just as they had with “Go Where You Wanna Go.”
By now John and Michelle were temporarily living apart, and John had a girlfriend, Ann Marshall, a witty, young L.A. socialite who was working as a model and salesgirl for the trendy boutique Paraphernalia, and who would become (and remains) one of Michelle’s best friends. Michelle struck back with what she calls a “quiet affair” with Gene Clark, of the Byrds. It didn’t stay quiet for long. At a Mamas and Papas concert, Clark arrived in a bright-red shirt and sat smack in the middle of the front row, and Michelle (and partner in crime Cass) proceeded to sing right to his beaming-boyfriend face all night. That public cuckolding was too much; after the show, John stormed at Michelle, “I made you who you are, and I can take it away. You’re fired!” The others joined in his decision; Michelle was replaced by Lou’s girlfriend, Jill Gibson.
Michelle didn’t take the expulsion lying down. She crashed the “new” Mamas and Papas’ recording session—“They looked at me as if I’d walked in with an AK-47”—and “when Denny refused to stick up for me, I took a swing at him.” That’s when she screamed that she’d “bury” them all. “I sat in my car, shaking and despondent and crying hysterically. I had just been fired by my husband and my best friends. I thought my life was over.” In short order, Michelle was reinstated in the group. She retaliated against Jill the best way she knew how: she marched into Lou and Jill’s hotel room just as they were celebrating with Dom Pérignon and brightly announced that she was in love with Lou. “Lou and Jill sat there with their champagne flutes frozen mid-toast,” Michelle recalls, laughing. “Then Lou walked over to the big silver ice bucket and stuck his head in it!” Adler says he doesn’t remember the head dousing but comments with a flattered smile, “Anything is possible when she’s on a mission to get even.”
Michelle did eventually seduce Lou, in 1972. “I was in love with Lou,” she says of their “hush-hush” affair, conducted when his serious girlfriend, the actress Britt Ekland, was living in London. “For the first time I felt like a backstreet girl. Then one day Lou said, ‘Britt’s back.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’ He said, ‘And she’s five and a half months pregnant’ ”—with his first son, Nicholai. That ended the affair.
Monterey and a Brief Marriage
John and Michelle bought 30s actress-singer Jeanette McDonald’s grand Bel Air mansion. Lou was already living in that Old Guard hillock of estates, as was Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who’d painted his house purplish-pink. “John and Michelle kept peacocks,” Lou says, “who make a sound like women being raped,” and they would stroll the streets in their shimmery, sultan-worthy Profile du Monde caftans, intriguing the neighbors. They were always having big parties, for not only the Laurel Canyon rockers but also that hitherto separate species: movie stars. “Everyone came: Ryan O’Neal, Marlon Brando, Mia Farrow, Peter Sellers, even Zsa Zsa Gabor,” says Michelle. “One night I had to ask Warren Beatty to leave the house because he was screwing some girl in the nursery [that was being prepared for Chynna’s imminent birth].”
“I didn’t feel comfortable in that house; it was dark—and so was John’s vibe,” says Leah Kunkel. Tamar remembers “John not letting Michelle come out, once when I went to see her.” There was only one incident of domestic violence. “It was serious,” Michelle says. “I ended up in the hospital. That’s all I’ll say about it.”
Still, “spring and summer 1967, that was the moment,” Michelle recalls fondly. And a brief, shining moment it was, when everything that immediately thereafter would be sale-priced as a silly cliché was suddenly wildly glamorous: beautiful sybarites wafting around in clothes from other centuries; life as a sensual, acid-fueled private joke. At a meeting at the house with Lou, John and Michelle were asked by a music promoter to perform at a 12-hour music festival he was organizing. John and Lou, along with singer-songwriters Paul Simon and Johnny Rivers and producer Terry Melcher, bought the investor out, turned the festival into a charitable event, and expanded it to three days. They secured the Monterey Fairgrounds, which had jazz and folk festivals, as the venue in order to validate rock. Michelle manned the phones at the festival’s office on Sunset Boulevard every day, calling record executives, culling sponsors. There was a problem when the San Francisco groups at the heart of the new sensibility balked. “John and I represented what they didn’t like about the business. [We were] slick, we were successful,” and, says Lou, relatively Establishment. Only the persuasiveness of beloved Bay Area music columnist Ralph Gleason enabled the world to view the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. (Janis Joplin was so much still the striving Texas naïf that she performed in a ribbed-knit pantsuit.)
The Monterey Pop Festival also premiered the electrifying sight of Seattle urchin turned 101st Airborne paratrooper turned British sensation Jimi Hendrix (the first psychedelic black sex idol of young white women) making love to his guitar and then immolating it. Laura Nyro, whose amazing soul operatics and zaftig, black-gowned appearance were decidedly non-psychedelic, knew that she had bombed and, worse, was sure she’d heard boos. She left the stage crying hysterically. (“Laura carried the baggage of that booing all her life,” Michelle says. In a tragic irony worthy of Maupassant, in the 1990s Lou and Michelle listened closely to the tapes of Laura’s performance. “It wasn’t booing; it was someone whispering, ‘I looove you,’ ” says Lou. Nyro died of ovarian cancer before they could deliver the news to her.) Michelle, who was newly pregnant, “was at her most beautiful at Monterey,” recalls Lou. John wrote “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” and Scott McKenzie recorded it. It was the Summer of Love’s anthem at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. And it had all started when Tamar and Michelle had their excellent adventure with Scott and John in the lavender apartment.
Not long after Chynna was born, in 1968, John and Michelle divorced and the Mamas and the Papas disbanded. “I was John’s muse, and now I was gone. I was the person John drew all his despair and joy from, and he didn’t know where to go from here,” says Michelle—self-serving, perhaps, but true. He fell in love with a blonde South African gamine, Genevieve Waite, the girl-of-the-hour actress (in the 1968 film Joanna, she daringly starred as a white girl romancing a black man during apartheid) who socialized with the British rock and film elite. John was “like Svengali to me—I fell in love with him immediately,” Genevieve admits today. Despite a weathered face, she is still credulous, fragile, and baby-voiced, years after a bruising on-and-off two-decade relationship with John that included, by her admission, four years of being addicted to drugs with him—mostly Dilaudid, a highly potent narcotic sometimes called “drugstore heroin,” and, for a brief time, heroin itself. John’s addiction was so out of control that once, when they were houseguesting with Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg, and John was shooting cocaine, Genevieve says, “Keith said, ‘This might sound strange coming from me, but you have to leave.’ ”
“Michelle didn’t have those doormat tapes—the man comes first,” says Genevieve with wistful admiration. Genevieve had loved the Mamas and the Papas since hearing them in South Africa (“They were bigger than the Beatles there! They played their songs in the mines!”), and practically from the moment she met John she thought of him as a genius. “Gen loved John to distraction—she was practically his slave,” Michelle says, implying that he could lead her astray. Genevieve contends that she did not take drugs during her pregnancy, but that John did. In his autobiography John says that Genevieve “had been on a low dose of Dilaudid” and went to London for an “emergency cleanout” two months before daughter Bijou was born. (They also had a son, Tamerlane, who was born in 1971.) Genevieve says, “I just wish I had lived in another time, when there were not so many drugs. The early 70s was really a bad time to be a mother. I’ve gone through so much misery over this.” (Bijou Phillips eventually became a tempestuous teenage “It girl”; she had a long-term relationship with John Lennon’s son Sean; she’s now a steadily working actress.) “Gen wanted to fill the void that I’d left,” Michelle continues, “and John made her pay for that.” Genevieve agrees: “John slept with everyone, and he said it was because Michelle had made him feel so bad about himself.”
While John, with Genevieve in tow, was starting his long skid into the dark side, Michelle was trying to make the transition from musical stardom to acting—a task that was harder than it looked. She started to date Jack Nicholson around the time she tested for the role of Susan in Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge, which she lost to Candice Bergen. When Jack went off to star in the film, she signed on as the female lead in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. She flew to Peru to work with Hollywood’s enfant terrible, who was fresh from directing the counterculture epic Easy Rider. In a madness-venerating time, Hopper was madder than most. According to his ex-wife Brooke Hayward’s account in Peter Biskind’s authoritative Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Hopper not only struck her but also once jumped on the hood of the car she was sitting in, shattering the windshield. Hopper told Biskind that he doesn’t recall the incident. (Contacted for this article, Brooke Hayward, who since 1985 has been married to the orchestra leader Peter Duchin, declined to discuss Hopper’s behavior during their marriage because, she said, “we have a child together.”)
Michelle fell in love with Dennis, drawn to him in part, she says, by “this Florence Nightingale instinct. (And, just for the record, girls, it doesn’t work.) I was so overloaded emotionally by this point in my life, I didn’t know what I was doing.” They married in Taos in late 1970; Ann Marshall and her boyfriend, Don Everly, were visiting there, and Don bought the marriage license. (Marshall, the droll, Bel Air–raised sophisticate, had romances with both Everly brothers, the pompadoured Kentucky twangers who’d been worshipped by the Beatles. “Phil left me on my 20th birthday, and I left Don on my 30th birthday,” she says. “I sent their mother a telegram: happy mother’s day. and thank you for not having a third son.”)
In the days after the wedding, Dennis behaved dangerously with Michelle. Whatever Hopper did was “excruciating” is all Michelle will say. She got herself and Chynna back to L.A., where “my father dragged me into his attorney’s office and said, ‘Men like that never change. File for divorce now. It’ll be embarrassing for a few weeks, then it will be over.’ It was embarrassing for more than a few weeks. Everybody had the same question: ‘A divorce after eight days? What kind of tart are you?’ ” When she and Hopper (who married three more times) run into each other, “we are civil,” Michelle says with a freighted crispness.
On the heels of her week-long marriage to Hopper, Michelle picked up with Jack Nicholson when he was casting Drive, He Said. She was now, along with Carly Simon, that rare thing on the early-70s entertainment scene: the female “catch.” Nicholson, not yet having arrived at his Cheshire-cat-smiling Über-coolness, set out to win her. Around this same time, according to Genevieve, “Mick Jagger also had a big crush on Michelle. He was crazy about her. When she’d visit us in Bel Air, he’d come over.” Genevieve pauses, squints, and waxes puzzled at a memory: “Mick and Bianca had the weirdest marriage. They were never together.”
Jack, Warren, et Al.
Michelle and Jack became a couple, and she and Chynna rented a house adjacent to his, making it easy for him “to spy on me,” says Michelle, adding, “I only mean that as a joke. Dear Jack. He was a lovely guy: charming, sweet, and fun to be with.” The relationship went well for a year, she says, “and then, one morning, Jack had a life-changing experience. I was having breakfast in bed with him when the phone rang.” The caller, according to Michelle, was a man from Jack’s New Jersey hometown. “I’m eating my toast and drinking my orange juice and Jack is saying, ‘Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.’ Then he hangs up and dials a number”—that of his sister, Lorraine, with whom he was very close. “He says, ‘Lorraine! Are you my sister? Or my aunt?’ ” Nicholson had just been told that his and Lorraine’s deceased older sister, June, was not his sister but his mother, and that the deceased woman he thought was his mother was his grandmother. Lorraine immediately confessed to the decades-long fiction. “Jack was incredulous,” says Michelle.
The news, she continues, “was horrible for him. Over the weeks, the poor guy had a very, very tough time adjusting to it. He’d been raised in this loving relationship … surrounded by women.… Now I think he felt women were liars.” Even though, she says, “I’m not sure I was aware of it at the time,” in retrospect she believes that the news about his family contributed to a changed atmosphere between them. The actual breakup with Jack, she says, was about “something so minor—some stupid thing like a comb or the car keys—[but it was] the straw that broke the camel’s back.” One day soon after, Chynna recalls, her mother told Jack, “ ‘I’m done.’ She packed up our few things, we got in the car with my nanny, and we never went back.” Lou Adler says, “At this point, she’d been through John and Hopper. She probably saw the signs. She falls, but she doesn’t fall so far that she can’t get up.”
At about this same time, summer 1974, Michelle and Cass were sitting by Cass’s pool one day watching Chynna, six, and Cass’s daughter, Owen, seven, swim. (By now Cass was, as Graham Nash reverentially puts it, “the Gertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon.”) Cass had kept Owen’s paternity a secret. “I said, ‘Come on, tell me who he is,’ ” Michelle says. “Cass laughed and said, ‘I’ll tell you when I get back from London.’ She never got back, of course.” Cass’s sister, Leah, and her then husband, drummer Russ Kunkel, raised Owen as their daughter.
Supporting Chynna alone, Michelle called screenwriter Robert Towne one day and asked him to let her be an extra in the party scene in Warren Beatty’s new movie, Shampoo. After doing the scene, she says, “I went into the trailer, not to start up a romance, just to say hello.” The party boy she’d evicted from Chynna’s nursery now looked considerably more appealing. Beatty was still with Julie Christie. “She had Warren wrapped around her finger,” says Michelle. “He adored her, because she didn’t really go for the big-movie-star thing. Julie was so cool, so beyond the Hollywood scene. He took Julie and me to the Shampoo wrap party.” Then Julie blithely moved on, and Michelle moved in with Beatty. The John-and-Denny friction was replaced by Warren-and-Jack friction. The two men were shooting The Fortune together. “Mike Nichols had to bar me from the set, because I would show up and disappear into the bungalow with Warren, and it was terribly painful for Jack.”
Warren was The One. “I was madly in love with him,” Michelle admits. “She had diamonds in her eyes when she was with Warren; I’d never seen Michelle so happy,” says Tamar. Warren was a good stepfather figure to Chynna, Michelle says. “He helped her with her homework; he talked to her, and he is notorious for talking.” But Michelle bumped up against his passive-aggressiveness. “I wanted to have another child, and we talked about marriage a lot, but he was very noncommittal.” She pauses. “Warren is an old-fashioned man,” she allows. Michelle believes Warren would have married her if she’d found herself pregnant. But whatever else Michelle had done, luring a man into marriage through an intentional “accidental” pregnancy was not her style. “I never pressured him to marry me. I waited for him to ask.” He didn’t. And despite his “carrot dangling” talk about their doing a movie together, she says, no movie materialized.
After a while, she says, “I couldn’t live under the same roof with him; we were fighting all the time.” (Michelle says she “fell off the couch laughing” years later when she watched Beatty tell Barbara Walters words to the effect of “They broke up with me!” “That,” she says, “is what Warren makes his women do!”) According to Michelle, Warren “didn’t want me to act. He wanted me to be with him all the time. When I told him I was going to do Valentino [which would mean six months of filming], he said, ‘Well, that’s probably the end of our relationship.’ ” After she finished the movie, they broke up. On the rebound, Michelle married radio executive Bob Burch, in 1978. “I threw myself at him, as I tend to do,” she says. (Michelle’s last words on Beatty: “I love Annette [Bening] and I pray for her every day! She can manage the guy, and I never could. He drove me nuts!”)
‘My mom always seemed to have a relationship going on, but she was never a chameleon, never an extension of her boyfriends—she never compromised herself,” says Chynna Phillips Baldwin, sitting at a café near the Westchester County, New York, home where she lived with Billy (whom she’s been with for 16 years), their daughters Brooke (known as Chay Chay) and Jameson, and their son, Vance, before they moved to California for his role in TV’s Dirty Sexy Money. “Growing up, I always saw her as Wonder Woman, as a tough cookie. I had respect for her—and fear! She was very passionate and emotional, and I didn’t want to rock the boat.” Chynna’s early childhood was “hard,” she admits with a sigh, “because I didn’t have strong, positive connections with either of my parents.” Her absent father (whom she idolized) was largely on drugs and alcohol, and, though mother and daughter loved each other, Chynna feels she didn’t get all the one-on-one attention she wanted. As a result, she says, “being a mom is challenging for me—my perspective is warped. How much time is enough to spend with your kids? How much is too little? Do they feel intimate with me, and I with them? Are my feelings real?”
In the 90s, Chynna was the most glamorous member of Wilson Phillips, the second-generation-rock-royalty group (Brian Wilson’s daughters Carnie and Wendy were her group-mates); they had four hit songs. But she left the family business for a sensibility foreign to her parents: she’s a fervent born-again Christian. She was baptized in brother-in-law Stephen Baldwin’s bathtub, and she’d love to share “the power of God” with Michelle. “When Mom says she’s coming to town, I say, ‘I’m filling the bathtub.’ We have a good giggle over that.”
Michelle was with Bob Burch for two years. Then, 26 years ago, yearning for another child, she got her beau of six months, the handsome, easygoing actor Grainger Hines, “absolutely smashed on martinis,” she recalls, and proposed a deal: if he fathered a baby for her, she would take full responsibility for it. “The minute you tell a guy that he doesn’t have to parent, he becomes the best parent,” she says of the father of her son, Austin Hines, who is 25. “Grainger has been the greatest!” Michelle purchased her house in Cheviot Hills, and in 1986 she was cast as Nicolette Sheridan’s mother on Knot’s Landing, a role that put her back in the public eye through the beginning of the 90s. Sheridan says, of their “deep and caring” friendship, “I admire Michelle’s zest for life and fearless nature, and I feel blessed to be part of her intoxicating world.” During these years Michelle was involved in a serious relationship with singer-songwriter Geoff Tozer.
After the relationship ended, Michelle accepted, in 1999, a dinner date with Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Steven Zax. “The little hippie chick and the surgeon don’t seem like a real match, but we’ve been able to bring each other closer to the center,” she says. They spend weekends together, and they travel frequently. Lou, Ann, and Genevieve say it’s her best relationship ever. (“She’ll want to slug me for [saying] this,” says Chynna, “but it’s her first truly mature, grown-up relationship.”)
Being a Good Citizen
In the end, the romantic statistics of Michelle Phillips’s last 30 years don’t tell the story of what she has become. Something else does: “Michelle grew into her name,” says Owen Elliot-Kugell. “She became everyone’s Mama Michelle.” As the others flamed out, her character expanded to fill the Mama/Papa role—the parent to the whole burgeoning brood.
First step: rescuing John and Genevieve’s son, Tamerlane. In March 1977, Chynna came home from a visit to her father and Genevieve (who lived on the East Coast) with some pretty heavy memories. “It was your typical heroin scene,” Chynna recalls. “A lot of needles and a lot of blood and very sick people. Genevieve asked me to please not tell my mom what I just saw.” Chynna recalls asking Michelle, “Mommy, can drugs kill people?” Alarmed, Michelle flew out to see John and Genevieve. “I told them, ‘I’d like to take care of Tam.’ They put up a little bit of a fight, but not too great of a one.” (Genevieve concedes that what Chynna says she saw “was right,” and “I knew it would be better for Tam because John was pretty bad off.” However, in her mother’s heart, she says, she believes “Michelle stole Tam.”) A court granted legal custody to John’s sister, Rosie, with the understanding that Tam would remain in Michelle’s care. Tam moved in with Michelle, Chynna, and Bob Burch, and for two years he thrived. “I was in therapy with a really nice therapist in Beverly Hills,” says Tamerlane, a former mortgage broker and now a musician (his upcoming pop-rock album has three tracks produced by Sean Lennon). “His teachers were telling me how great he was doing,” Michelle says. She loved the little boy, and Chynna was happily bonded with her half-brother.
But, for Genevieve, losing her child was painful. “I spent hours and days talking John into kidnapping Tam,” she says. “I said, ‘John, if we do, people will think you have normal feelings.’ ” Genevieve (who was then pregnant with Bijou) flew out to L.A. and, on a ruse to take Tam to Disneyland, spirited him to Las Vegas, where they met up with John. Then they all drove across the country. Child-stealing charges were filed against John and Genevieve in California, and an anguished Michelle flew east with Rosie to try to reclaim Tam. In the Connecticut courtroom, the tension between Michelle and Tam’s parents “was thick enough to cut,” Michelle recalls. “John and Genevieve convinced the judge that I was just a disgruntled ex-wife.” They won custody of Tam. “I left feeling Tam was in a lot of danger. I cried on the plane the whole way home, and, partly because Bob wanted me to get over it and I couldn’t get over it, we divorced soon after.” (Genevieve says a psychiatrist told her that “kidnapping Tam was the best thing we could do, because otherwise he would have felt that we didn’t love him.”) About eight months after John regained custody, he was arrested by federal agents for narcotics trafficking. (He disclosed in his book that he had had an illegal deal with a pharmacy to buy drugs without prescriptions.) Using the promise of anti-drug media outreach, he bargained his maximum-15-year sentence down to a mere 30 days.
Michelle’s next project was less fraught. At some point in the mid-80s, when Owen Elliot was in her late teens, she called Michelle and said, “You have to help me find my father!” Michelle spent a year running down leads through musician friends. Once she had pried loose the name Cass had kept so close to her vest, she placed an ad in a musicians’ publication, urging the man to call an “accountant” (hers), implying a royalty windfall. Like clockwork, Cass’s long-ago secret lover took the bait. When Michelle phoned him, she recalls, “he wasn’t all that shocked,” and, the next day, Owen says, “Michelle gave me a plane ticket and said, ‘Go meet him.’ ” (Owen and Michelle will not reveal the name. Owen says only, “I had envisioned this Norwegian prince.”) The meeting “answered a lot of questions,” says Owen, who is now married to record producer Jack Kugell and has two children. Since then, she says, “there have been times when I’ve been devastatingly upset about things in my personal life, and I’ve really leaned on Michelle. She’s been a mother to me in a way that would make my mom definitely chuckle.”
In the late 80s, Michelle took in a boy, Aron Wilson, and became his foster mother, thereby in effect giving Austin a “twin.” From that day on, Michelle regarded both boys as her sons. There were hairy times (“When the cops come to your door and say, ‘Hello, again, Mrs. Phillips’—after the boys skateboarded after 10 p.m. and put a firecracker in the neighbor’s mailbox—you think you’re all going to jail”), but mostly good ones. And there were many baseball, soccer, and football games that Michelle—who would rather have been shopping or lunching—rooted them through. Michelle adopted Aron when he was 24. Today he is a budding chef, and Austin is an actor and a college student.
‘Why do you do this every weekend?” Steven Zax asked Michelle as she made her sandwiches to take to the homeless. Her answer was immediate: “To be a good citizen.” The man who had instilled that motto in her, her father, died 11 years ago. He was true to form until the end. “He was a dog,” Michelle says, laughing. “I’d say, ‘Dad, why are you going to A.A. meetings to pick up women? You drink!’ He’d say, ‘So?’ ”
Nevertheless, Gil had given her a great foundation—as, in a different way, had another man. And so, on the night of March 17, 2001, she entered the intensive-care unit of U.C.L.A. Medical Center. “There was a blue light on, and he was lying there with his eyes closed, breathing very heavily. I knew he was dying.” But he couldn’t die yet, not until he saw her again. So, just as he had roused her from sleep on that long-ago night in the Hotel Earl, she says, “I woke him up. I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘You made me the woman I am today.’ ” It was not untrue, but if she gave him a little too much credit—well, she let that be her gift.
And John Phillips smiled and closed his eyes and the next day drifted off to his final California dream.
Sheila Weller is a senior contributing editor at Glamour.