Sunday, March 21, 2010

Talitha Getty, Beautiful And Damned

Talitha Getty, Patrick Lichfield

This photograph of Talitha Getty, taken by Patrick Lichfield, on a Marrakesh rooftop in 1969, is one of the enduring images of the twentieth century, it is much imitated by fashion stylists all over the world, however the backstory of this photograph although glamourous is also tragic.

I was going to write an article about  it, but whilst doing my research I found this article, written by Justine Picardie, From The Telegraph, 13th July 2008, I cannot possibly improve on it, so here it is:

She was muse to Yves Saint Laurent, queen of 1960s Marrakech and the woman Rudolf Nureyev wanted to marry. But adoration and immense wealth weren't enough for Talitha Getty, fashion icon and addict. By Justine Picardie 
It's the picture that has inspired a thousand fashion collections: Patrick Lichfield's photograph of Talitha Getty on a Marrakech rooftop with her husband, John Paul Getty, at the beginning of 1969, when the couple were the embodiment of a certain kind of 1960s glamour, a hippie-de-luxe look that has flourished ever since.
As such, it's represented an oddly persistent afterlife for Talitha Getty, who died of a heroin overdose in Rome on 14 July 1971 (or possibly 11 July, for the precise details of her death, like much of her life, remain shrouded in mystery). She was just 30, and left behind her a three-year-old son, the whimsically named Tara Gabriel Gramophone Galaxy Getty, and a reclusive husband who grieved in seclusion for a decade afterwards.

The couple, both of them struggling with drug problems, had been living separately in the months leading up to her death - she was installed with Tara in a grand Chelsea townhouse on Cheyne Walk - but Talitha returned to Getty's palazzo in Rome for an attempted reconciliation. They spent the night together, and the following morning her husband awoke, but Talitha did not. She was rushed by ambulance to a clinic, where she died without regaining consciousness.

Her past was as exotic as her looks, with a dark streak threaded through it from the start. Born in Indonesia to Dutch parents on 18 October 1940, Talitha was interned along with her mother in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. Her father, a painter named Willem Pol, was imprisoned in a different camp, and after their release the couple separated. 

Talitha moved to England with her mother, who died in 1948, and was subsequently brought up by her father and his second wife, Poppet John, the daughter of the painter Augustus John. The interior designer Nicky Haslam first encountered Talitha in the 1950s, living with her father and stepmother in the South of France. 'She was the most beautiful child,' he says, 'and she grew into a gorgeous, long-limbed beauty in the 1960s. Everyone fell in love with her.'

Her admirers included the former Conservative minister Lord Lambton (Woodrow Wyatt recalled in his diaries that Lambton 'sent her huge bunches of flowers about every two hours and showered her with presents') and Rudolf Nureyev. 

In her biography of Nureyev, Julie Kavanagh describes how the dancer was 'captivated' by Talitha from the moment they first met at a party in 1965: 'Talitha had alabaster-white skin and high cheekbones and eyes much like his own. Although he did not find her particularly intelligent, she was intuitive and sympathetic, and they instantly seemed to recognise something in each other… what he was actually seeing was an exquisite, androgynous reflection of himself… Nureyev had never felt so erotically stirred by a woman, telling several friends that he wanted to marry Talitha. She was just as enthralled by him.'

As it turned out, when Nureyev's neighbour in Belgravia, Claus von Bulow, invited them both to dinner Nureyev was unable to come, but another of the guests that night was instantly smitten: John Paul Getty Junior, the son of the richest man in the world, and heir to an oil fortune. She was to become his second wife (he had already separated from his first, with whom he had four children), after a wedding ceremony in 1966 at Rome City Hall to which Talitha wore a white mink-trimmed minidress.
The couple travelled to Marrakech for their honeymoon, where they bought the beautiful 19th-century Le Palais du Zahir, thereafter known as the Pleasure Palace. It was here that Lichfield's photograph (now held by the National Portrait Gallery) was taken - John Paul hooded and brooding in a djellaba, Talitha the epitome of rich bohemianism in her ornate silk kaftan over white harem pants - and it was here, too, that Yves Saint Laurent was swept into their orbit.

'When I knew Talitha Getty,' he later recalled, 'my vision completely changed.' He was entranced by her mixture of apparent innocence - the barefoot flower child in ethnic dress - and wild decadence (the drugs, the jewels, the Rolling Stones and Beatles as house guests). 'I knew the youthfulness of the Sixties,' said Saint Laurent, in 1984, almost two decades afterwards, 'Talitha and Paul Getty lying on a starlit terrace in Marrakech, beautiful and damned, and a whole generation assembled as if for eternity where the curtain of the past seemed to lift before an extraordinary future…'

A slightly less romantic view could be glimpsed in the diaries of the writer John Hopkins, whose entry for 1 January 1968 reads: 'Last night Paul and Talitha Getty threw a New Year's Eve party at their palace in the medina. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were there, flat on their backs. They couldn't get off the floor let alone talk. I've never seen so many people out of control.'

Out of these anecdotes, spliced with the brief facts of Talitha's life, has arisen a myth that grows more potent with the passing of the years. There is little concrete evidence to remember her by - a handful of photographs, and a bit part in Barbarella - but out of this absence a layered romance has been conjured by a multitude of fashion designers, who cite her as an icon. 

First and foremost was Yves Saint Laurent, who had the benefit of actually knowing Talitha, unlike his successors, and whose designs were infused with a romanticised vision of her as a night star of Marrakech. 'Yves had never seen anyone like Talitha before,' wrote his biographer, Alicia Drake, describing their initial encounters when Saint Laurent first went on holiday to Marrakech in 1967. 'He took in every visual detail. He was struck by the wildness and high sexuality of it all, at that time so alien to Paris couture. It wasn't just the clothes that affected Yves; the Gettys lived with a degree of indulgence and hedonism that he had never witnessed before.' 

It was under Talitha's influence that he and his partner, Pierre Bergé, bought a house within the walled medina of Marrakech; and her legacy is still apparent in the current summer exhibition at the YSL Fondation in Paris, 'Une Passion Marocaine', a collection of gorgeously decorative kaftans and north African jewellery of the kind that Talitha wore at her parties in the Pleasure Palace.

Since then everyone from Dolce & Gabbana to Dries van Noten has done a take on Talitha, and her style is still reflected in this summer's version of bohemian chic. 'She's a little bit like Jackie O, in that she's an obvious reference to use,' admitted Phoebe Philo in an interview with W magazine at the end of 2001, having been inspired by Talitha for her Chloé collection. 'I guess you could say I got carried away with Talitha's character. Not that all of what I imagined about her was even true. I used her more as a fantasy to dream about.'

There are those who might see Talitha's ending as more nightmarish than alluringly dreamy - the grotesque descent into drug addiction, the Christmas party she gave in a pigsty in Rome - but, as with Jimi Hendrix or Edie Sedgwick, the mythologising is more often than not untouched by the facts.
And of course, like those other dead icons, she never lived long enough for her beauty to be dimmed, nor to witness the tragedies that overtook the Getty family (her husband's son by his first marriage was kidnapped in Italy in 1973, and his ear cut off before the ransom was paid, while his daughter, Aileen Getty, contracted Aids). If Talitha Getty had survived she would be 68 this year, her lovely face wrinkled, if not ravaged by the excesses of her past. 

But instead, she remains forever young, almond-eyed and enticing, on that Marrakech rooftop, with the world at her feet and the Atlas mountains behind her, as if the 1960s hadn't ended, and the sky had never gone cold. 


  1. And what would her life have been if her stepmother had not been Augustus John's daughter...if she had not moved in those circles?
    She would still have been a beautiful girl, but not taken up as an icon.

  2. I completely agree with you fly, she probably would have been just another undiscovered beautiful girl, without her famous connections. But it also goes to show that fabulous wealth, power and celebrity does not bring happiness.

  3. Dash!
    I haven't seen this photo before.. I must have been hiding somewhere.. How incredible.. not just her beauty but the mood of the image.. the muted colours. I was going to say it seems unfair the wealthy also manage to be front on the line when the beauty was handed out.. but then it seems her life was tormented and maybe wealth and beauty aren't all they're cracked up to be.. Interesting post!! xxx Julie

  4. Fly and Ruby, another provoking thought, would she be an icon, if Patrick Litchfield had not taken this photograph?

  5. I wonder what it is like mixing in those circles and being so beautiful that everyone is perpetually looking at you, wherever you go. I guess she was so out of it most of the time that she never even cared.

  6. Yes, I think so but in a more limited circle - if you can be an icon in a more limited circle!

    Her start in a Japanese camp can't have been a help in having a happy, balanced life.

  7. Fly, definitely not a good start, no counselling and probably no grounding, and then being whisked into the spotlight, at one of the most hedonistic times in the twentieth century. No wonder she became a casualty of the period.

  8. Wonderful Dash, I have come across this photo before and it is so nice to read Justine's comments. I enjoy reading her commentaries. I especially liked her book 'Daphne'.
    Jeanne :)

  9. Hey Jeanne, I did not know that Justine had written a book, I like her style of writing, so I have just added Daphne, to my ever growing Amazon wish list.

  10. I have seen the photo before, yet did not know the story behind it. What a tragedy! I wonder whatever happened to her son.

  11. Hi Angie, their son, (according to Wikipedia) Tara Gabriel Gramophone Galaxy, dropped his third and fourth forenames, became a noted ecological conservationist in Africa.

  12. That is awesome! I am happy to hear that he went on and had a productive life. Thank you.

  13. I first saw that image as a child of 7 or 8 (I am now 46!) and thought it was mesmerising even though - the richness of colour and intensity of her beauty are so eye-catching and deep. She is beautiful but has a slightly haunted look. I do not think she would have been an "unknown" even if she hadn't met John Paul Getty - with beauty and allure like that she was destined for heads to turn, fame and fortune - but ended up paying a tragically high price with her life.

  14. Has it ever occurred to anyone reading this, that Talitha Getty's untimely death from a heroin overdose in Rome on that fateful day in July 1971 was the direct result of her returning for an attempted reconciliation with her husband. (and we all know who he was) And just like Claus von Bulow who was tried and then absolved of any wrongdoing for the attempted murder of heiress Martha 'Sunny' von Bulow, is it not ironic that both these men were firm friends. After all it was Claus who introduced John Paul to Talitha. Claus von Bulow was the one who (over a period of time) administered an overdose of insulin for Sunny's low blood sugar dilemma. She lay in a coma for almost 30 years before passing on. Claus is still alive, though very old now. The question raised was why did John Paul leave Italy shortly after Talitha death which was recorded as an unfortunate accident and or suicide. Was it not him who gave his wife the overdose. You've all heard that expression "if I cannot have you nobody else will" After all Talitha had made it very clear that she was no longer happy in their relationship and had been living separately from her husband in the months leading up to her death. Talitha (god rest her soul) was found dead the very next day after returning to Rome. Upon the death of Claus, I wish to write a fictitious chronicle based on these characters and the plot.

  15. Well prove it

    I give you these three gifts: beauty, wealth and happiness.
    But there is one catch - you can only have two, and the one that you reject you will completely be devoid of.
    So which two do you choose?

  16. When was in London a month before her death, I saw her at a party at the home of Lady Catherine Tenant. I was in my early 20's

  17. And well traveled. She was a great beauty and indeed a head turner, even in a crowd of the "beautiful people" as they were known then. I have never told this story before tonight, but when I next saw a member of her crowd they told me that her husband had killed her. All her friends it seemed knew this, but he was too powerful to be indicted for her murder. Anonymous is definitely on to something. I hope to read his book on her story someday.

  18. She was striking, but more importantly seems to have possessed a magnetism that even beauty does not automatically dower. She posthumously influenced style, but her later life was restless and dissipated. It's good to hear that her son has grown up to have a happy and productive life.

    I'd be leery of the murder speculations in the absence of any substantive evidence. Certainly there were rumors, but an accidental or deliberate overdose on Talitha's part seems more likely, her husband was by many accounts devastated by her death for years afterward. Also bear in mind that Talitha and J. Paul were acquainted with Jean de Breteuil, the same dealer whose "good" product allegedly caused the overdose deaths of several individuals, including himself, in the same time period. If Talitha used heroin that was from de Breteuil, I'm not terribly shocked that she overdosed on heroin that was probably less adulterated, and therefore more lethal, than most of the product being sold on the street at the time. If she was routinely using heroin in the period preceding her death, she was doing significant damage to her heart, which would increase her likelihood of heart failure and/or dying from an overdose.

  19. She looked so much like Lee Radziwill, gaunt, half starved and very beautiful with those cheekbones. Nureyev was in love with both of them, but not at the same time. Is it any wonder.

  20. Talitha Getty, growing up in Java during the 1940s with her Dutch family, spent her formative years in a Japanese prison camp. Upon release at age 8, her mother and she moved to London where the former promptly died. No wonder Talitha had that undertone of sadness combined with gung ho attitude about hedonism. Deprivation does that, and who had suspected same in such a wealthy socialite?

  21. how tall was she?

  22. She was 5'7". She really does have a very lost, unhappy look about her in many of her photos. A causality of 60's-70's drug culture--or even worse a murder victim. I think one of the facets of her appeal in regards to men was her ungrounded quality. Combined with extreme beauty it's irresistible.

  23. Too bad she didn't end up with Nureyev. It might of saved both their lives in different ways....he hated drugs and she might of kept him on the straight and narrow....


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