Van's vale of tears
Published 19/12/2011 | 06:00
IN a world in which celebrities jostle each other for a place in the headlines, revealing every minor detail of their lives in an effort to gain attention, the few who guard their privacy obsessively are generally admired for it.
But even where the instinct for discretion seems so praiseworthy, the reality of the efforts required to secure it are sometimes extraordinary. At what point does a passion for discretion become an obsession?
It has been a remarkably difficult, even devastating, two years for Van Morrison. A time of upheaval, exposure and drama, of new beginnings and tragic endings, culminating in the bizarre news last weekend that the mother of his youngest child, with whom he had recently been living outside Belfast, died more than two months ago. Gigi Lee, from Texas, was Morrison's tour manager in 2009, before becoming mother of his child, George Ivan Morrison III, born on December 28, 2009. Two months ago, she died of inoperable throat cancer at the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast, a fact that Morrison -- said to be devastated at his loss -- managed to conceal from the world, and even from close friends of Gigi's. It was only when probate court records in Texas came to light last week, giving the date of death as October 7, 2011, that news of the tragedy broke.
From the start, Gigi, who Morrison apparently met through her friendship with Jerry Hall's sister Rosy, was to be a dramatic force in his life, involving him in just the kind of media exposure he normally shuns. First there was the "special announcement" on Van's website, describing the new baby as the "spitting image of his daddy", and initially denounced as a hoax by Van himself, with a statement, issued via John Saunders, European president of Fleishman-Hillard, claiming he had never met the woman named as the baby's mother. "For the avoidance of all doubt and in the interests of clarity," the statement went on, "I am very happily married to Michelle Morrison with whom I have two wonderful children." From there, as evidence emerged to contradict that initial, rash denial, Van was involved in an embarrassing public climb-down. It culminated in he and Gigi dropping their attempts at an injunction forbidding any comment on their private lives or relationships, once it was demonstrated that in fact, she was responsible for the internet post, and not malicious hackers, as first claimed.
In retrospect, that "special announcement" -- a very public kind of smoking gun -- looks to be the action of a woman with nothing to lose. And indeed, Gigi, who was just 44 when she died, had already been diagnosed with the throat cancer that would kill her, and told that, due to the position of the tumour, surgery wasn't a possibility. She refused radiation, because she feared it would harm her baby, and only agreed to a course of chemotherapy once she was assured the child would be safe. In one of the few photos that exists of Van and Gigi together, she appears to be wearing an extravagant blonde wig, possibly to cover the loss of her own blonde locks, and heavy make-up, surely aimed at distracting from the fragility of her appearance.
Gigi was a girl from a working-class suburb of Texas who left school without much concrete ambition, seemingly happy to work as a secretarial temp. However, her great love was music, and a chance meeting with Rosy Hall, sister of Jerry, backstage at a Rolling Stones gig, opened up a world far more glamorous than anything she had yet known. She apparently first met Van while visiting London for a Jagger family event.
After the birth of George Ivan, Gigi left Texas, where she had been caring for her mentally impaired brother, Philip, and set up home near Belfast. Van commuted by helicopter between there and Dalkey, where Michelle Rocca lives with their two children, George Ivan's half siblings, Aibhe, 4 and Fionn Ivan, 3. There is an eldest daughter, Shana, from Morrison's first marriage, to Janet Planet, making the 66-year-old singer a father of four.
Very little is known of Gigi and Van's life together in Belfast, except that it was almost pathologically low-key and discreet, but what seems clear is that Gigi was, for much of the time, in denial about the extent of her illness, and unreconciled to the inevitable.
"She tried so hard to beat this," said her friend Carla Higdon. "She was even talking about having another baby, so Little Van would have a friend if anything happened to her. She was scared. It's very sad."
That a child should be left motherless before his second birthday, or that any mother should have to face the fact that she will not be there to see her son grow up, is indeed a tragedy. Within that context,
Morrison's silence on the matter can be readily understood. And, of course, he has form in the keeping of secrets -- happy as well as sad. When his first child with Michelle Rocca, Aibhe, was born, no one outside the couple's most intimate circle knew for almost seven months of her existence, or even that Michelle had been expecting. It's a desire for privacy that informs every aspect of his life.
Van Morrison has been a superstar for almost 40 years now. To his fans he is a legend, a kind of conduit to another reality, with a spiritually transcendent dimension. It's a dimension, a sensibility, that seems matched with a watchfulness that may well be a product of his Belfast Protestant upbringing.
Part of his success has always been his need for control -- quite apart from his allergy to publicity, he is often taciturn and surly even in company with friends, and sufficiently unpredictable that even those close to him are reluctant to tell "Van anecdotes" publicly; he barely speaks during performances, and, in 2008, banned the sale of alcohol at his gigs, because of the disruption caused by audiences getting in and out of their seats.
He met Michelle Rocca in the early Nineties, at a dinner party given by Desmond Guinness at Leixlip Castle, a mix of celebrities, intellectuals and aristos. Michelle, so the story goes, initially thought Van Morrison was Val Doonican. At the time, she was gallantly trying to forge a career and a life for herself as the single mother of three girls, in the aftermath of two high-profile failed relationships.
As a former Miss Ireland, as the ex of footballer John Devine (with whom she had two daughters) and of Cathal Ryan with whom she had a third daughter, she had a degree of notoriety that she wanted to parlay into real work prospects, and was pursuing writing (although her wit often seemed to run much faster than her pen, overtaking her efforts to record it), as well as modelling and TV presenting.
She was physically arresting, with a kind of heavy, lush beauty that spoke loudly of her Italian origins -- she was indeed the Brown Eyed Girl of his 1967 song, and quite unlike the more fey (and blue-eyed) Janet Planet, Van's first wife. But, just like the girl in the song -- "Standing in the sunlight laughing, Hiding behind a rainbow's wall" -- Michelle, in those days, was also great fun. Quick-witted, daring, vibrant; despite the difficulties of her situation, and the many bruises life had left, she rarely complained or dwelt on the bad, instead focusing all her formidable, rather wild, energy on the business of surviving and thriving.
Where so minded, Michelle made friends easily. She understood the exchange of intimacy that goes with friendship, and could let down her guard enough to forge close bonds. In a way, the years after her engagement to Cathal Ryan, were the first opportunity she had to really establish her own personality. She began dating John Devine when she was just 17 and married him aged 20, one year after winning Miss Ireland. They had two children and lived in England, but separated after six years.
Almost immediately she began a difficult relationship with Ryan, son of airline tycoon Tony, whom she met at a party at his father's house, and lived with for two years, separating while pregnant with his child. By then, barely 30, with three children, a degree in archaeology, a couple of pageant titles and some scattered experience of TV presenting, she was ready to discover something of life beyond the close-knit Italian-Irish family she grew up with (her parents, Paddy and Maureen, ran the family business, Rocca tiles, and Michelle was one of six children), and the role of mother that had come so early to her. This was to be a time of fun, of parties and nights out, nightclubs and long lunches.
For a few years, her gregariousness even seemed to encourage a more relaxed and sociable side of Van. It was as if her intense appetite for life infected him with similar enthusiasm, and her warmth provided kindling for the dark corners of his mind. Together they were at the centre of a merry gang, including some of her family, such as Patrick Rocca, then a successful businessman, stylist Ian Galvin and Marianne Faithfull. There were evenings with Mick Jagger and boxer Steve Collins and -- such was Morrison's delight in her -- two iconic album covers. First No Prima Donna in 1994, in which Michelle laughs with irresistibly open, generous hilarity, and then, a year later, Days Like This, dubbed by one paper "almost a Hello! magazine moment", by Van's standards, in which Michelle glows by his side, both holding muzzled greyhounds, against a grainy urban backdrop. She would read poetry on stage at his gigs, and provided inspiration for his remarkable ability to write beautiful, evocative lyrics.
But theirs wasn't always an easy relationship -- there was intensity and obstinacy on both sides -- and the occasional epic row would spill out into public showdowns.
However, in general Michelle was a match for the curmudgeonly side of Van's nature, able to defuse with a well-timed quip much of his unsociable behaviour. Her interventions were usually perfectly judged, and by using the quick wit at her disposal -- such as her standing joke that when Van opened his wallet, "bats flew out," or laughing at his more preposterous ill humours -- she generally circumvented his seeming urge for sabotage. She had a gift for gentle mockery that could take the sting out of some of his darker preoccupations.
However, an inevitable third party in the relationship between the former Miss Ireland and the legendary musician was the press, and in 1996 a story broke that Michelle had been two-timing Van with Angus Gold, dashing racing manager for Sheik Al Maktoum. She and Angus were outed as having spent a night together at the Berkeley Court Hotel, although both insisted that nothing happened. Despite the denials, the story contributed to the end of Gold's 18-month marriage to Kerry Eichorn, and, temporarily, of Michelle's engagement to Van. They reunited within months, but the light-heartedness of the early days was lacking. Michelle spent time at the Rutland centre -- something she later spoke about in court during her gruelling case against Cathal Ryan.
This was a time of considerably unpleasantness for Michelle, during which Van stood publicly staunch beside her. She resolved to pursue Cathal Ryan legally for assault, after he broke her nose during a row at Blackhall Stud in 1992, despite having initially told everyone except her sisters that her bruises were the result of a car accident.
Eventually, outraged that he never admitted to the assault, she decided to confront him through the courts. Refusing to be dissuaded by any of the several mediators, including Tony Ryan himself, who attempted to intervene, the case came to court in 1997 and was a source of irresistible fascination to the media, as well as humiliation for many of those involved.
It was, from the start, an ugly case. Cathal Ryan alleged that, although initially he was "passionately in love" with Michelle, during their time together she was volatile, too intense, anxious and even at times physically abusive. He gave an account of a night when she scratched his face, leaving marks he had to hide with plasters, after an evening spent playing charades.
She countered by saying in fact her actions were self-defence, that he was dragging her up stairs when drunk. He also claimed that she once manhandled his son, Killian, by his first wife -- "she grabbed him by the neck, pushed him out the door and scraped the back of his neck" -- and that by the time she found out she was pregnant with their child, the relationship was effectively over.
Michelle, for her part, insisted that the relationship was still alive, that they had made love just four days before the incident at Blackhall Stud, where she found him in bed asleep, with another woman, Sarah Linton (in an echo of the Angus Gold incident Ryan insisted that "nothing happened" during the night they spent together). A row broke out involving the three of them -- Ryan, Michelle and Sarah Linton -- during which Michelle was "pummelled" and her nose broken. Journalist Barry Egan, a friend of Michelle's, recalled that some years later, on a visit to see her in Booterstown, she put his hand on her nose and that it still "moved like rubber. From left to right and back again. To the touch, there was almost nothing holding it in place".
Michelle won the case, but it was an almost pyrrhic victory. She was awarded just €7,500 in damages, in a case estimated to have cost some €200,000, and described by one lawyer as a "one-all draw." Although Michelle insisted she was pleased with the verdict, that it represented justice, the very low damages seemed curiously pointed. Van Morrison was a silent presence by her side throughout, lending support, and of course an extra layer of public fascination, to the case. But in the aftermath of the case, once the days in court were done, it seemed as if Michelle's return for his loyalty was to be obscurity.
She and Van vanished from the social scene, retreating to their home in Dalkey and to each other. It seemed a strange move to the many friends from their more sociable days, but after the heavy blows dealt in quick succession -- the Gold controversy and the savagery of the court case -- a desire for peace and privacy is entirely understandable. And indeed, there are those who prefer to allow others to be the caretakers of their good intentions.
Such was the isolation in which they chose to live, a kind of Gothic fairytale existence, remote even from her family, that news of their marriage and the birth of their two children, only trickled out slowly. On the very rare occasions when she did make an appearance, Michelle made it clear that her life was now directed towards a more spiritual quest; Deepak Chopra, Jung and Freud absorbed her, rather than charity balls or boozy lunches.
And although even Dalkey residents -- who consider regular celeb-sightings to be their due -- were astonished to find the couple almost never emerged from behind the walls of their property, whatever bargain Michelle had made seemed a fair one; marriage, children and peace, in place of the futility and franticness of the social whirl.
But peace may seem but a distant memory for the moment. The events of the past two years have been both spectacular and overwhelming -- the birth of another child, so close in age to Fionn Ivan; Van's move to Belfast; the steady drip of media stories, and finally, the untimely death of Gigi, and all the devastation attendant on that. For Van Morrison and all the extended , tangled network of his family, these things will have taken a heavy toll. For them, Christmas will be touched with tragedy this year.
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