'I'm lucky that I grew up poor'
Marsha Hunt -- the Sixties star of 'Hair' and lover of Mick Jagger -- says having one breast makes her like one of the ancient Amazons, and has a surprise for Barry Egan
IREMEMBER meeting Diana Ross in 1991 and the high priestess of soul saying something to me over lunch that turned out to be true in Marsha Hunt's case (and, sadly, untrue in her own case): "Black don't crack."
Seventeen years later, in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin, Marsha doesn't look 62 years of age. It must be the air in Northern France, where she has been living happily on her own for the past 20 years.
Sipping a glass of white wine, Marsha jokes that there will be blood on the carpet if I ask too many questions about Mr Jagger.
She's always been feisty. Having studied at the University of California, Berkeley in the mid-Sixties, she moved to England and was soon making her mark. She caused a frisson in London by posing in the buff for photographer Patrick Lichfield -- a shot that appeared on the front of Vogue in January 1969. (Lichfield revisited the image when Marsha decided to pose naked after she had had her mastectomy. The image was used on the cover of her autobiography Undefeated).
She shot to stardom of sorts in the late Sixties in Hair -- reputedly the first rock musical. Speaking of firsts, I had read that her father was one of the first black psychiatrists in America. Marsha smiles and says she didn't grow up with him.
"My father was in Boston and I was in Philadelphia."
There is -- tragically -- more to it than that.
"He committed suicide in 1958."
She was told that her father died in a car accident. It was three years later, when Marsha was 15, that she overheard what had really happened.
"In those days people weren't open with children about death," she says. "You certainly didn't tell them their parent committed suicide."
There is something ineffably wise about Marsha Hunt and she would have you believe, perhaps rightly, that her wisdom has nothing to do with pain but with joy.
And so to the joy that brought her wisdom. Marsha was brought up by her mother, her aunt and her grandmother. "I had a fabulous three mothers," she says. "Most people get one mother. I got three. And they were each individually very different and very wonderful."
Her Aunt Thelma was "extremely Catholic but very glamorous." Her mother, Ikey, was "extremely intelligent and education-minded." Her grandmother, Edna, was "an extremely aggressive and ass-kicking woman of the South -- very beautiful but totally into 'what you need to get done you can do yourself, and don't take any shit off anybody'."
Asked which of the three she is most like, Marsha says: "Truly, I loved them all, and hopefully I took something from each of them.
"I am big on reading and writing," she says, citing her mother's influence. "I don't like to leave the house without looking my best, which was Aunt Thelma. I run in and out of Catholic churches lighting candles -- I don't go to mass. And I don't take shit off anybody. So I think I am all these three women."
The love of these women "has a huge amount to do with one's happiness and contentment: that is not about what's outside. It is about what you're getting that's inside."
From 90 minutes in her company, the impression I get of what's inside Marsha Hunt is of a lot of heart and soul. In Los Angeles last July, she got talking to a 12-year-old boy about her mastectomy. She told him that the great thing about having a breast removed is that she is now like the Amazons were of old.
The female warriors used to have their breast removed, so that when in battle they shot the bow the breast did not get in the way when they drew back to let the arrow go.
"It was a thing of strength and of power," she adds -- and Marsha today personifies those two virtues. She doesn't wear a prosthesis. "I only have one breast because I had breast cancer and one has been removed," she says plainly. "So I think it is important for myself not to pretend that I have two. Or to make people feel more comfortable because they are not looking at the absence of a breast where there'd be normally two. You asked earlier what am I about -- I think that is important. I am not uncomfortable.
"I had a physical image that was about two breasts," admits the woman whose appearance in Hair on the London stage in 1968 brought her worldwide fame. "But I think it is really important to know that your breasts is not your image. Men love tits!" she laughs.
And they love tit as well, Marsha.
"Yeah!" she says, roaring with laughter.
Marsha's considerable talents also stretched to singing. Her first single, Walk On Gilded Splinters by Dr John, drew the attention of a young dandy called Marc Bolan.
"The two of them just looked at each other and it was like magic," said producer Tony Visconti of Marc and Marsha's first meeting. "You could see the shafts of light pouring out of their eyes into each other. They were eating each other up alive. We finished the session early, and Marc and Marsha walked out into the night hand in hand."
Marsha remembers it almost as poetically. "He was a magical person and we had a wonderful time together."
There was another pop star by the name of Jagger -- by whom she has a daughter. When I ask how she feels that allegedly he wrote Brown Sugar about her, she replies: "It doesn't make me feel any way at all."
She is not so indifferent, however, about the story that she met Jagger at a party in the Sixties and told him she wanted to have his baby.
"You must have read that on the internet. One reason I haven't had it removed is that it is proof that the internet is full of absolute bullshit. Ridiculous things have been written about me so often that we won't even go there."
Do you have any kind of relationship with him now?
"Well," she says laughing ,exasperated, "he is my daughter's father and my grandchildren's granddad. So of course I do."
But didn't you have to battle him for years to get money and recognition that he was Naris's father?
"That is a very long time ago. Do you know what I mean? My daughter is now 38 years old!" she says and laughs uproariously. "She has two children and she is wonderful. She and the kids have just spent some time with grandpa in Mustique. So of course I have a relationship with him."
The Philadelphia-born beauty thinks that perhaps the biggest misconception people have about her is that she is wealthy. "I'm rich in spirit, but not at the bank -- but because of various associations with various men ... they see your picture in the paper, you know?"
She first came to Ireland in 1997 to make a documentary "and went home with the Irish film-maker" she says (referring to her ex, acclaimed director Alan Gilsenan.)
What brings her to Ireland this time, however, is the launch of the Mater Private's Triple Assessment Clinic. Marsha, who was treated successfully in the Mater Private, talks with pride about the hospital being a top centre for diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. "I love the Mater Private. That's not bullshit. I think they kept me alive."
How that happened, she says, is that when she finished her chemo, her oncologist John McCaffrey said to her: "You are so lucky. Just last week, I was in Florida and they have come up with a new drug called Herceptin and you are going to get it." Hunt replied: "I'm not getting this drug. I'm out of here, I've just had six months of chemo." He persuaded her to change her mind and she's grateful.
"Herceptin has probably kept me alive."
She named her book Undefeated because she remained undefeated by the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in 2004. I ask Marsha where the emotional, psychological and physical strength to defeat cancer came from.
"From those three women," she says. "You know what I'm discovering the older I get? Wealth is overrated, and poverty is underrated; and if you were lucky enough to grow up with not a great deal but a great sense of the wealth of life that holds you together for a long, long time."
The poor of Africa might beg to differ about poverty being underrated.
"We were very poor and what I know is that I never have to fear poverty," she says, "because I have been there and had a good life despite the fact that we did not have a great deal. So it wasn't African poverty -- there are different types of poverty, right? I used to work at the Joy," she says referring to her time as writer-in-residence at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.
"And one of the things I came away from that experience really sure of is that crime is about poverty. And that your introduction to life through poverty can be very destructive. But in my case, it was not destructive. It was a positive thing: that I learned to love life without a lot of material possessions and without a notion that I needed what I did not have."
And she has been true to that belief. Marsha has been living a "writing life" in a "funky little house" in the Pas de Calais in France for almost two decades. "I write while I'm there. I garden while I'm there. Other people go to the gym; I have this house that's built on a hill -- and I walk up and down the hill."
As for the solitude of living on her own, she "finds that really nice". Being single means that Marsha "has encounters and experiences that I'm sure I wouldn't have were I part of a couple.
"That's not to eliminate the fact that being in a couple is nice, but when you are with a partner, you are a unit that people tend not to penetrate. Being on my own, whether it's here in Dublin or in France, is that I don't have to ask anybody anything. For instance, when the Mater Private called I didn't have to ask anybody is it ok that I go to Dublin."
She sees her ex, Alan, "all the time". When I ask was she ever married to him, she replies that they were "lovers" -- and then this, out of the blue: "I'm still married. I've been married for 42 years."
To whom? I say bemused at the revelation that Marsha Hunt -- lover of Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan and Alan Gilsenan -- has been married for over four decades.
"To a guy called Michael Ratledge," she says, referring to the keyboard player with Soft Machine.
They never divorced. She laughs and recalls with a mischievous giggle that when they got to their 40th wedding anniversary, she called him up and said, jokingly: "We should renew our vows."
Asked when did she stop being with this man, she says that "this conversation we are not going to have. I'm still married but I'm not married. I married the nicest guy in the world."
What's the secret of your happy marriage?
The Mater Private Specialist Breast Centre brings together existing services and expertise with new digital mammography facilities and triple assessment clinics into one specific operational unit. Contact Mater Private Hospital at (01) 885-8888