Molly Parkin, now 87, is a painter, erotic novelist and former fashion editor who is the epitome of British bohemianism, never without a bejewelled turban on her head or a saucy anecdote at hand. She is, without question, the inspiration for this series.
Kate first encountered Molly ten years ago, when she was looking for some erotic poetry to read at a literary salon in London. Her poems were brilliantly witty and brazen. At the time, Molly was also hosting a club night in Soho with her daughter and granddaughter, which they had called it The Parkin Lot. She sent Kate two poems, Viagra and Cock-Size, to read.
Today Molly focuses on her art, which she does from her kaleidoscopic bedsit on the World’s End estate in Chelsea and which The Last Bohemians visited for the first – and fairly explicit! – episode.
This episode was produced by Alannah Chance.
TRANSCRIPT: Molly Parkin
Kate Hutchinson: Molly, when did you… did you ever have an inkling that your life was going to turn out to be extraordinary?
Molly Parkin: Do you think it is extraordinary? When people say that I don't quite know what they're referring to.
Molly: I was a bohemian, I am a bohemian – you can see by this place, it's not normal is it?
Kate intro: I first encountered 86-year-old Molly Parkin a few years ago when I was looking for some erotic poetry to read at a literary event in London. I'd seen Molly in a magazine and her poems were brilliantly witty and brazen. At the time she was also hosting a club night in Soho with her daughter and her granddaughter, which they had called The Parkin Lot.
[arriving at Molly’s house]
Kate: Knock knock? Hi!
Molly: Hello! Did you get lost from the lift?
Kate: I did. We had to go and get the stuff out.
Molly: Who’s the cleverest?
Kate: I’m Kate, hi, I’m not the cleverest.
[Background talking continues, laughing is heard]
Kate intro: Molly is the grand dame of British bohemianism, never without a bejewelled turban on her head or a saucy anecdote at hand, and she really is the inspiration for this new series, celebrating those who have lived life on the edge and who even now refuse to play by the rules.
Molly: In you come.
[Group comment on her house]
Kate: Wonderful, Molly.
Molly: So all of you are very clever and totally stupid! I’m like that, extremely clever and hopeless with directions.
Kate intro: Today Molly focuses on her painting, which she does from her kaleidoscopic bedsit on the World's End estate in Chelsea. Finally, all these years later, I got to meet her.
[City noises, an aeroplane flies above]
Molly: My painting time is four o'clock in the morning. For writing poetry or painting I wake up at four o'clock but that's the hour that I was born in the night. I wake up and I have sex with myself, and I look out and see the sunshine, and it makes a lovely day, or I put warm clothing on and I go into my wonderful garden and I sit in my wonderful chairs and wait for the sun to come up.
Molly: And while I'm waiting or a painting will form in my mind, and I find that very spiritual. And then when the sun comes up I come in and I start writing or I start painting. That's what I like about the freedom of living on my own.
Kate: Do you recall your first kiss?
Molly: My first proper kiss – well, that was Louis Armstrong, wasn’t it? Dill, who was a well- known pianist in jazz circles, introduced me and Louis took one look at me and said, "Hello, honey, you're mine for the night". "Oh no", I said, "I'm teaching in Elephant and Castle to children in the morning, I'm sorry". His jaw dropped. I don't think anybody had ever said no to Louis Armstrong before! And so he pulled me to him and then he kissed me and my nose and my chin – he's got a big mouth, you know – went into this kiss as well, and it so disturbed me I pulled myself away and ran all the way to the tube station and got on the tube and I thought, "This is different. My heart is pounding, something has happened to me". When I got on the tube all the men were looking at me. And I only had a little cotton frock on. No make up. I'd been sexually aroused. And within a week I'd given my virginity to James Robertson Justice, who was a big actor at the time.
Kate: What are some of the many jobs that you've had over the years? Many things that you've done.
Molly: Well, the opportunities present themselves sometimes. The first fashion editor was Nova, then I went to Harper's – horrible, horrible, I hated it there. And then I went to The Sunday Times, where they taught me how to write, and I became fashion editor there. Then it ended and I moved into writing books.
Molly: Ah, what can I say about art? It's like a drug. I wake in the morning and that's all I want to do, is paint, I go to sleep and I hope to go to sleep and I can't, so I get up and, you know, I painted that lovely one, ah, Organising Orgies [laughing], which I did in the Chelsea Hotel when I lived in New York, that was good fun. Most of my life, if you think of it like that, I was deprived of my painting. Because when I kicked that first husband out for infidelity I was so shocked, we had two little girls under the age of six! And I'd thought that we had an idyllic... everybody thought we had an idyllic marriage. But there's something about public school boys which seem to think that when you get married to a person then you have a mistress as well, it's like a normal thing. When I kicked him out I went upstairs to my studio and I had all of these commissions, big canvases lined up there, and I had my paintbrush and my palette and nothing came. I had a creative block, if you can believe it, for 30 years.
Molly: I was introduced to a little tiny shop off Kensington high street called Biba and the girl who was running it was Barbara Hulanicki and her husband Fitz. And I was taken by a friend to meet her because my friend said, "You know you could have a job doing things for them, you know making bags or hats or something, Mol". She and I were not of the norm, and we just saw each other and we'd been the closest of friends for life. So I started making hats and bags, sewing them at night when I put the kids to bed, and for Barbara and Fitz. And then I thought, "What are you doing all of this for another boutique? You could design a whole set of clothes, for christ's sake", so that's what I did. I opened the shop the next day, it was Easter Sunday so no shops were open at all, and by the end of the day because I was the only one in there selling, I'd sold every single garment. The queue to buy was all the way up to the King's Road. My reputation was made then as somebody a little side-stepping the ordinary.
Kate: What was that era like in Soho and Chelsea in London?
Molly: It was very sexy.
Kate: Can you tell me a bit about those nights at The Colony Club? Have you got a specific night?
Molly: I loved The Colony because when I went into it the first time, ah, Muriel who ran it, it was her club, she said, "Ooh, I see a kindred spirit", she said, "come and sit on my lap", and everybody worshiped her. For me I just loved the way they were all fucking and blinding and they were all outsiders but very famous writers and poets and people like that. And the most famous was Francis Bacon.
Kate: Do you remember the exact moment that you met Francis Bacon?
Molly: Yes I do. He was giving a particularly ribald talk of what had happened the night before with some boy or other or whatever it was, and it was full of words that I didn't know it was possible to be using. You know, "the cock was up the arse", and everything, I found it absolutely enthralling. He was immensely attractive. He was in, would be in a room, and you wouldn't be aware of anybody other than him. That's what I loved about him, it's the energy. One time, and this was the last time I saw him, we went to the Coach and Horses which was just on the corner there, and it was a place where only boys and men went and sex was still illegal then for men. Any little boys, you know, who'd struggled with their upbringing feeling they were gay, when they were 16 or so just left and got on the train and came straight to the Coach and Horses. Because he was so lucky with his gambling he had five pound notes, they were white, he had those in his pocket, we went in there and he just threw them in the air.
Molly: We were there for hours and I took all the telephone numbers, because they said, "We don't only do it for money with men, Mol, we do it for women, we'll fuck anything". I was living at the Chelsea Arts Club at that time and he hailed the taxi and he said, "Now I want you to look after this very precious cargo for me, will you?". And that's the last time I saw him. Within a few days I'd been out all night and just became too much for me. I was in the gutter at, in the morning, trying to get a cab and nobody would take me. And, ah, my Granny's voice came to me and she said, "This is the end now, Mol, darling girl", she said, "You've had your fun now and that's the end. Get yourself back home and have a nice sleep". I went home and I slept for the whole of that day and the next night without waking. Then when I woke she said, "Now", she said, "You're going to go to a place which will help you to stop that drinking. It runs in the family". And that was the change in my life 30 years ago.
Kate: Some of those encounters with ah, especially men over the years, sound like they've been particularly fun. Can you tell us about the night that you met Bo Diddley?
Molly: I went to that place in Brixton which was a big music centre, I was all dressed up because I’d just done... was doing a huge amount of television at that time, and everybody else there were youngsters and they were just in jeans, and he took one look at me and he took the whole of the concert on his knees just singing straight to me. There was a big limo, you know, came to collect him, and he wouldn't let go of my hand and then we went to that huge hotel just by Gloucester Road tube station. I assumed that he, when he was in the bathroom, that he'd given himself a jab of something, because when he came out he was naked, and Bo Diddley naked is, is something [laughing]. That was the biggest cock I'd ever, ever had. And we started making love then, of all of the sex I've ever had, that was, like, made in heaven. It didn't stop [laughing]. And he said, you know, "We're taking the plane now". "No, sweetheart", I said, "I'm on stage as well and I've got to be the other side of England", you know. "You're not coming to the States with me?". I mean, it was just like that! And if I regret anything, I think that that's what I regret, you know, saying no to Bo.
Kate: Was that time in London a real period of sexual liberation?
Molly: Well, when I kicked that first husband out I was absolutely clobbered with all of these men who were wanting to go to bed with me, and it hadn't occurred to me. Because my first lover was somebody who was the age of my grandfather, really. I liked men who were educated, who could help me educate myself. And I did like much, much older people. I was very close to both of my grandfathers who taught me a lot about independence and listening to the inner voice, so it wasn't a normal upbringing if you like, and also I had been molested consistently through early childhood, sexually by my own father. [Long pause] So I had a complicated view of lovers. God stepped in and saved me with the war, because I was then sent down to be with my grandparents.
Kate: A lot of the stories that you tell of back in your career are about your liaisons with men, are about your sexual experiences. How do you feel when you look back at that?
Molly: I feel proud. I feel proud, you know, and that I'd said yes. It's made me what I am, it's an appetite. I don't have that appetite anymore, but I, you know, that doesn't mean to say that I'm not asked by men, you know, "Can we have an affair?". I say, "For christ's sake, I'm 80-", what am I, 86 or 87? What am I, 87 or 86?
Kate: 86, I think.
Molly: 1932 I was born, so 86.
Kate: Can you tell me the moment when you decided to switch to erotic writing?
Molly: I'd had enough when I was on The Sunday Times. So I said to them I've had a guts full now of doing all of this with the fucking clothes and all of that, I don't like it anymore, and that was the year that I was made fashion editor of the year, for my originality and everything! And I said you know, now I've been rewarded for doing this paltry job I said I have to go. I've never read anything by a woman of comic erotica and ah, I know what to write you know technically speaking, and that was on best seller lists everywhere, because it was about sex. Only the sex that I was having, only my own. I had three constant lovers, the same ones, for years and years, but I had extras as well, whoever I picked up. So I just wrote about it.
Kate: What was the reaction, the first reaction from people to your erotic novels? I know you said they were best-selling, but were people shocked? Did you care?
Molly: Very shocked. My mother was very shocked. She said, ah, she said "This is horrible stuff, isn't it?". And one of my aunties who was in her eighties, she had it, she was in a nursing home and she'd been a teacher and very religious, and because she couldn't read anymore she had the nurse read it out to her, the whole of the book! I turned in my grave when I was told that! She got them to write a letter to me saying, "We're utterly ashamed of you writing such filth and using such language", because it was all fucking and blinding.
Kate: But were you aware that you were sort of laying the groundwork for feminism? That you were being this strong, independent –
Molly: No, I wasn't really. Because I was so used to being in the valley where everybody speaks as they, we were taught to speak the truth.
Kate: At what point did you decide that you wanted to remain single, that you didn't need another man?
Molly: That was when all my lovers died. You see they were still drinkers, my lovers, alcoholics, all died with the alcohol. And because I'd been with them for so many years, three I had for so many years, the same ones, but when those died because we knew each other, you know, I mourned the loss of them. And I've been approached with people and, um, I've not been drawn to have sex with a man. I read, well I read on the internet about the parts of a woman's body, and I was interested to see that it said that ‘one part of the woman's body, the clitoris, is in working order right through to their death so that they can enjoy sex themselves’. I thought, I've never heard that! I've never seen it before, for a chapel girl to touch what's inside your knickers was absolutely, you know, out of order. I went to bed immediately and I started fingering my own clitoris. And if you do it in a sensitive way you can absolutely reach orgasm, which I certainly didn't know before, and it's got a spiritual quality to it.
Kate: Talking to you about romancing yourself and masturbating and all these things, how important is it for people to be –
Molly: You're the first one I'm telling all this to.
Kate: Oh, ok, well, thank you. That's –
Molly: Well I just want other women to know that, you know, I read so many articles which say you know women, you know, at a certain time in life don't have sex anymore, and it absolutely works for me, that's why I'm perky all the time!
Molly: I can't say because I know how fate is and fate very possibly has got a partner in it for me, and you know, now that the doctors said that I'm one who'll go to 100 and I'm only 86, that's a lot of life left for having a relationship. I think that a kindred spirit will come along.
Kate: I just found my favourite one, Molly, and I just wondered whether you could read this, this one. Would that be possible?
Molly: Let's have a look.
Kate: Thank you.
Molly: [Excerpt] In my day, in my day I lose count of how many lovers I had in my day, embracing them all as they came my way. I'd never refuse the chance to amuse, to tickle their chin or tousle their hair, to admire their muscles and stroke them down there. I was fantastic in bed, that's what they all said, and knew how to kiss from all the practice. More than that I was kind and attentive, and would listen and tenderly wipe each tear as it glistened. Grown men, weeping silently, wretched with grief at the death of their dog, or their father or mother. And to soften the blow would give them another cuddle and squeeze down again on my knees. Sometimes in bed now that I'm old and my passion's grown cold, I laughed at myself recalling those lovers and all the hijinks beneath the covers, proud that I'd shared my beauty and youth, that my generosity of spirit had been put to good use. So strange and so sad, that not one of those lovers has survived to this day. Famous chaps, great careers, now all passed away. I wonder if I had sapped their kernel of strength, devoured their resources to build up my own, like a sensual queen bee on my sexual throne. [Laughing].
Alannah Chance: This episode of The Last Bohemians was produced by me, Alannah Chance. For more in the series, follow us on iTunes or see the portrait series at thelastbohemians.co.uk