Like many young Irish couples, my parents moved to England in the mid-1960s when its capital city just happened to be the coolest point on the planet.
My father saw The Beatles in Liverpool’s Cavern (“rubbish”) and The Rolling Stones in Kentish Town (“brilliant”). The soundtrack of our Sunday lunchtimes when we, their children, entered the picture was a BBC radio programme that played the music of what my mother and father wistfully called “the good old days”. It might explain why I grew up feeling oddly nostalgic for a period of history that I never lived through.
We had the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album in the house. I used to listen to it on my father's Sharp three-in-one stereo, my clumsy little hands trying to slip the record from the sleeve without scratching it.
Being young I had a sweet tooth and usually dropped the needle on With a Little Help from My Friends or When I'm Sixty-Four. I don't remember the first time I listened to A Day in the Life. But the moment I heard John Lennon singing in a strangely disembodied voice about a lucky man who died in a horrific car crash was probably the moment I discovered music.
I often wondered about the subject of those haunting opening lines. Years later, I discovered that the song was inspired a real-life accident that Lennon read about in the Daily Mail and the man who blew his mind out in a car was an Irishman, a Guinness heir, named Tara Browne.
Party with the Rolling Stones
Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary of his death, I set out to write a feature about his short and gilded life for the Sunday Tribune. I met his older brother Garech at Luggala, the extraordinary house, reminiscent of a wedding cake, at the bottom of a valley in the Wicklow Mountains. It was where Browne had celebrated his 21st birthday – attended by Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and the house band for the night, The Lovin' Spoonful – and where, eight months later, he was laid to rest on the shore of Lough Tay under a stone bearing the two dates – 1945 and 1966 – that told of a life cut tragically short.
The piece I wrote touched on all the interesting biographical notes of his life, especially the period towards the end, when he was one of Swinging London's best-known faces – a snappy dresser, a friend of the Stones, a Vogue model, a husband and father-of-two, a racing car driver, the heir to a £1 million fortune, the owner of a psychedelically coloured AC Cobra, the man who introduced Paul McCartney to LSD and the proprietor of a clothes shop on the King's Road called Dandie Fashions. But I was unhappy with the published piece. The nature of newspaper deadlines means you sometimes have to serve something up before it's properly cooked.
Over the weeks that followed, several of Browne's friends who I'd asked for interviews returned my calls, including Mike McCartney, younger brother of Paul and a member of The Scaffold, who was annoyed with himself for not getting back to me before the piece was published. If ever I found myself in Liverpool, he said, he'd buy me lunch and tell me some stories about his old friend. And while the feature was done and dusted, I was on a Ryanair flight to – appropriately enough – John Lennon Airport the following day.
Over a long lunch, Mike spent hours telling me tales about Tara and Swinging London and a picture emerged of a far more substantial figure than the playboy prince I’d described. Browne, he explained, was an icon of the times because of what he symbolised. He was at the centre of the London scene when, for one brief moment, social barriers ceased to matter. The Right Hons and the right-on were rubbing shoulders in the clubs of London’s West End in a new spirit of classlessness. Often it was Browne, with his louche smile, mop-top hair and Carnaby Street clobber, making the important introductions.
The end of an era
The other reason he was remembered so fondly, he said, was the timing of his death. For many people who knew him, the moment Browne crashed his friend’s Lotus Elan into a stationary van in West London marked the end of the 1960s. It offended the narrative of happy-go-lucky young people changing the world with their colourful clothes and positive vibes. It happened on the cusp of the moment when the cultural focus of the 1960s began to switch from London to the west coast of America. The later 1960s were about revolution, drugs (the heavy kind), Charles Manson, Altamont festival deaths, violent street protests, Vietnam and political assassinations. But Browne died while it was all still happy and optimistic, which made him a perfect icon of the times.
My lunch with McCartney persuaded me that the story of Browne’s life was worthy of a fuller telling. And so began a project to which I dedicated almost 10 years, a research job that took me into the lives of scores of people who knew the man, among them lords and ladies, rock and rollers, farmers, motor racing enthusiasts, poets, traditional Irish musicians and psychedelic artists.
But first I returned to Luggala to ask Garech how he’d feel about me writing a biography of his brother. I was sensitive to the fact that Tara’s death was a scar on his life and that a book would involve disinterring a lot of painful memories for him. And for others, too. At the time of his death, Browne was involved in a highly fractious divorce case with Nicki, his wife of three years, and a custody battle for their two children, which was eventually won by Browne’s mother, the redoubtable Oonagh Guinness.
I made contact with Nicki in Spain, where she’d lived for the past 40 years. It was clear that her love for Browne remained undiminished, although she, too, had reservations about the idea of summoning up old ghosts. But I got to know Garech and Nicki well over the course of a year. Eventually, they agreed to help me with the book.
Memories at Luggala
Garech sat me down in the small dining room at Luggala and opened up a cabinet containing approximately 40 large, leather-bound photograph albums, which Oonagh faithfully kept updated every year over the course of half a century. She subscribed to a press-cuttings service, which meant that, in between the pictures of weddings, Christenings and other happy occasions, there were newspaper articles about her and her family, sometimes of a scandalous nature.
Nothing was censored, as if Oonagh saw everything as simply part of life’s undulating narrative. I spent months turning the pages of these albums, and 60 more in the home of Dorian, Browne’s eldest son, in Surrey. They allowed me to sketch out the lineaments of the story but, more importantly, helped me understand more about the aristocratic tradition into which Browne was born.
One hot summer’s day in 2010, I visited Castlemacgarrett, near Claremorris, in Co Mayo, where Browne spent his early childhood in the dwindling twilight of the Anglo-Irish way of life. The castle became a nursing home in the early 1960s after Tara’s father, Dominick, Lord Oranmore and Browne – popularly known as Dom – could no longer afford its upkeep. It was now vacant. Dom’s former secretary, Philomena Flatley, showed me around the big, empty rooms that once hosted great house parties and formal dinners for European royals who came to Mayo to hunt or shoot birds.
Tara lived here until his parents split in 1949. Oonagh took Garech and Tara and retreated to Luggala, which had been a wedding gift from her father, Ernest Guinness. In the 1950s, her drawing room in Wicklow became a sort of salon for artists, writers, poets and aristocratic black sheep. Her reputation as a hostess was legendary and Tara's childhood was coloured by her circle of clever, bohemian and very liberated friends, including Brendan Behan, Lucian Freud, John Huston, Cyril Connolly and her niece, Caroline Blackwood.
This, I discovered, was where Browne received his education, for he refused to go to school. He was 11 before any serious attempt was made to get him into a classroom. He spent a year-and-a-half at St Stephen’s, a former prep school in Goatstown in south Dublin, that had an Anglocentric ethos. I met several of his school friends, who remembered him arriving each day in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, until one day he decided he’d had enough and left in a taxi, aged 12, never to return. Shortly afterwards, young master Browne’s refusal to go to Eton in defiance of his father’s wishes made newspaper headlines in Britain.
In 1958, in New York, Oonagh met Miguel Ferreras, a bisexual, Spanish-American couturier with a shady War past. She married him six weeks later in her suite in the Drake Hotel, then took Tara to live with them in Paris, where she bankrolled her new husband’s ambition to become the new Christian Dior to the tune of several million pounds.
It was in Paris that Browne blossomed into the young and confident man-about-town who Lennon recognised on the London scene. While Oonagh set Miguel up in a premises opposite Lanvin-Castillo on the prestigious Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Browne ingratiated himself with a circle of much older English debutant girls attending finishing schools and boys on language courses in the French capital. I met many of them. They remembered Browne as a delightful little man-child who “looked like he’d just fallen from the roof of the Sistine Chapel” in the words of one, but who swore like a docker, and seemed to have already lived a full life before they got to him. He was precocious to a degree that disarmed older people.
"I remember talking to him once," said Judith Keppel, star of BBC's Eggheads and the first ever £1 million prizewinner on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, "and he dropped into the conversation that he'd been in Venice and he was talking to Igor Stravinsky, you know, at age 14 or something."
By the age of 16, he was showing his finishing-school friends around the jazz dives of Paris, where he would sit with a rum and coke and a Gauloises burning between his fingers, listening to Bud Powell and other legends of modern jazz.
And then, as if somehow attuned to the mood of the moment, he decided at the age of 17 that he wanted to live in London. The bomb-scarred city was about to become the hip capital of the world, with Browne as one of its best-known faces.
As London began to swing, he was navigating his way around the West End in an Alfa Romeo Giuletta, a 17th birthday present from his mother. He drove like he lived his life – as if in a hurry. Glen Kidston, probably his closest friend at that time, remembered a petrol-station attendant, who had watched him taking roundabouts at full pelt, saying, “If he carries on driving like that, he’ll kill himself.”
He was running with a fast crowd, too, in the clubs of Wardour Street. It was through this group of friends that he met Nicki, the wild-child daughter of a Co Down postman. Oonagh was convinced she was on the make. Within a year, Nicki became pregnant with the first of their two children and the rush to “legitimise” the birth pushed them into a marriage for which neither was ready. The 1960s wasn’t a time for teenagers to commit themselves to monogamous relationships.
Tara and Nicki's mews house in Eaton Row, Belgravia, became the setting for an after-hours scene, where their hip London friends, including Paul McCartney, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Roman Polanski, Peter Sellers and, once or twice, John Lennon, would go after the clubs had closed to drink cognac, take acid and listen to Browne's beloved Beach Boys or Bob Dylan. The following morning, Nicki reminisced to me one day, "the house was always strewn with bodies. You never knew who was a Beatle, who was an Animal, who was a Trogg and who was a Pretty Thing."
But, like the 1960s, it couldn’t last forever, this life of ceaseless fun and no responsibilities, especially when Nicki became pregnant again. Browne’s affair with Amanda Lear, a muse of Salvador Dali, who was rumoured to have been born a man – a claim she has always denied – was the final straw. Just weeks later, while lawyers began the job of extricating Browne from the marriage, he crashed his friend’s Lotus Elan while out on a date with a model named Suki Poitier. In the final act of his life, he pulled the steering wheel to ensure that he and not Suki bore the full brunt of the collision.
A few weeks later, in January 1967, John Lennon was sitting at his upright piano, trying to write a song for the album that would become Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club. Feeling creatively bereft, he did what he often did and sought inspiration in the morning's newspaper headlines. He propped a copy of the Daily Mail on the music stand. On page three was a report on the child custody battle between Browne's mini-skirted widow and his fur-coated mother. He fingered the keys and out came the opening lines – "I read the news today, oh boy . . . " – of what would become a kind of epitaph to Browne.
One day in 2010, Nicki phoned me excitedly to tell me that Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to the song had just sold for $1.2 million at auction. She always had mixed feelings about the song, though. The fictionalised account of his death immortalised Browne but also reduced the extraordinary story of his life to just a couple of verses of a song, albeit the closing track on the most important album of the 1960s. She hoped my book would redress that.
I never got to meet Nicki, which saddens me greatly. Twice, I arranged to go to Spain to see her, but she had cancer at the time and was too ill. As her illness tightened its hold on her, our phone conversations became less frequent. Once, when she was too sick to come to the phone, she sent me a postcard of Mr Jeremy Fischer, Beatrix Potter’s frog, sitting on a lily pad, dangling a line into a lake. On the reverse, she wrote, “Dear Paul, Keep on fishing! All the best, Nicki.”
Then one afternoon she phoned me out of the blue. It was the last conversation we ever had and I think she was aware it was going to be, because she offered me, unprompted, her own succinct obituary of her husband, perhaps as an alternative to the one that Lennon wrote.
“He epitomised the spirit of the 1960s,” she said, “which was: try everything once, make the world a little bit better for other people if you can; try not to hurt anyone if you can avoid it; wear pretty clothes, and, most importantly, live your life.”