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Talitha Getty: The Myth and the Muse

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July 11, 1971-Rome, Italy.
Just after noon on a stifling Sunday, an ambulance screams towards the 17th century Palazzo Mutti-Bussi in Piazza d’Aracoeli. It is an address notorious for its free-spirited inhabitants and decadent parties. An unconscious young woman with russet hair and almond-shaped eyes, wrapped in a minx cibelina coat is rushed through the narrow antique streets towards the Villa del Resario Clinic. Medics attempt heart massage, but nothing can revive her. Dead at the age of 30, the official cause is reported to be “intoxication by mixture of barbiturates and alcohol.” The following day, her husband (fearing prosecution for manslaughter) flees the country.

If Talitha Getty’s death reads like a Hollywood biopic, it is because her life has been cast in a nostalgia reminiscent of “Almost Famous”, director Cameron Crowe’s celluloid homage to 70s sex, drugs and rock’n'roll. The heroine is a heroin-laced Penny Lane dressed in Valentino instead of vintage. And there is no feel-good ending, no golden-hearted protagonist to save Getty from her demons. She was, as remembered by Diane von Furstenberg in a 2001 W magazine article, “a very bright creature who wanted to dance under the stars—and danced too fast”.

It is noted that Yves Saint Laurent’s first visit to Getty’s Marrakech home in early 1967 inspired him to declare, “When I knew Talitha Getty my vision completely changed.” It was here that newlyweds J.Paul Getty Jr. and Talitha Pol Getty created the exotic and luxurious drug-fueled bohemian kingdom that would become their legacy.

At the time of the couple’s meeting in 1965, Pol was a fixture of London’s Swinging 60s scene: a sometimes model and a C-list actress with a bit part in the 1963 film version of “Cleopatra“. J. Paul, the son of the richest man in the world, Paul Getty Sr., was living in Rome and had recently divorced his college sweetheart, Gail Harris. He was in the midst of a rebellion against his controlling and conservative father and quickly acquiring a taste for the sins of the eternal city: fast cars, women and narcotics.

In Talitha, Paul found the ultimate accomplice. Pol, meanwhile, found the security that had eluded her younger years. Born in 1940 in Java, Indonesia to Dutch parents, Talitha’s childhood was tinged by tragedy. During World War II, she was placed in a Japanese internment camp with her mother while her father, Willem Pol, was held separately. Following the war, her mother died and Talitha moved to England to join Willem, who had since married Poppet John, the daughter of the bohemian painter Augustus John. These early trials would remain shadows in Talitha’s psyche, dark corners that ultimately made her tragically vulnerable. As friend and artist Christopher Gibbs once recalled, “She was completely enchanting, but somehow a bit damaged by things that had happened early on in her life…She stayed very childlike, although a wounded child.”

Initially, her coupling with J.Paul seemed to offer a respite. Within months of their meeting, Talitha was elevated to the international ranks of fashion aristocracy, which included winning the title of Tatler’s “Girl of 1965.” In 1966, the pair married in a paparazzi documented ceremony at Rome’s city hall. The bride wore a white velvet, fur-trimmed, hooded mini-shift and J.Paul sported a suit with psychedelic tie. From the beginning, the couple’s beauty and glamour masked the sinister nature of the budding 60s drug scene. Vows made, the Gettys embarked on the life that was to immortalize and destroy them

In Marrakech’s old city during their honeymoon, the couple was charmed by a residence, which they coined “The Pleasure Palace” and immediately purchased. At the time of the Getty’s arrival, Morocco had long been associated with an Oriental mystique, social experimentation and liberation from stayed European customs. Before long, the favorite vacation spot of Winston Churchill became a realm of wealthy bohemia, a dream-like oasis that inspired the Crosby, Nash and Young song “Marrakech Express”. For the newlyweds, it was the perfect place to embark on a search for the meaning of life or—at very least—the chance to experience it.

Here Talitha’s individual, eclectic style evolved from mod to hippy and from stylish but stayed to mythical. Both shifts were assisted by the prolific use of hallucinogenic drugs. By the time Yves Saint Laurent arrived the following year, Talitha’s appearance was arresting: a marriage of Eastern culture and London youth quake.

Musicians, artists and the rich and young lost their minds and inhibitions at the Getty’s 17th century Moorish palace, a place the Rolling Stones’ memoirs, “According to The Rolling Stones,” remembers fondly. “We would climb up on the roof where we could see the snowy mountains above and the gardens below, full of palm trees, squawking birds and fish in tanks. A lot of music was played, and musicians brought in from the Djemaah El-Fra, the great un-square square full of sounds and stories.”

Tom Hopkins’s “Tangier Diaries” remembers the setting of the Getty’s notorious “1001 Nights” parties as a bit more extreme. “I don’t know what they lace the majoun with down here. Last night Paul and Talitha Getty threw a New Year’s Eve party at their palace in the medina. Ira, Joe and I went to meet the Beatles. John Lennon and Paul McCartney 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.’”

While Talitha lead, hosted and participated in the lavish drug-fueled scene, one thing she never lost control of was her style. In equal or disproportionate parts, she could be seen in couture (YSL, Ossie Clark and Valentino), ethnic (caftans, Balinese wraps, Palestinian wedding dresses, Moroccan djellabas) and loads of costume jewelry—a style that designer Phoebe Philo one recalled as “couture of the souks”.

The Gettys’ notoriety and irresistible combination of wealth, style, beauty and decadence didn’t remain a Moroccan secret for long. U.S. Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland was among many style-makers who believed that Talitha symbolized something rare and exceptional. She sent the celebrated photographer Horst and a Vogue staff writer to immortalize the Marrakech scene and its mistress for American readers. An excerpt from the article describes scene’s heady nature:

“A welcoming, fantastical, joyous life, at once sensible and sybaritic…Mrs. Getty prowls the marketplace, bringing back delights for the house and table. Best she brings back entertainers—dancers, acrobats, storytellers, geomancers and magicians. A day that began with a picnic on a great flat rock near a waterfall in the Atlas Mountains may end with a dinner for a houseful of young Moroccan and European friends by the light of candles, among roses wound with mint. While Salome is playing in the background, snake charmers charm and tea boys dance, balancing on their feet trays freighted with mint tea and burning candles.”

It was during this same period that photographer Patrick Lichfield shot the image that became the visual manifesto of luxurious bohemian style: a manifesto that chronically resurfaces on fashion’s runways. In the photo, Talitha is on the roof of The Pleasure Palace adorned in white pantaloons, a multi-colored silk brocade robe and white boots, a ring on every finger. J. Paul looks on from the background. She is ethereal, alluring, sophisticated—and drugged out of her mind. As Saint Laurent nostalgically recalled, “I knew the youthfulness of the sixties: 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.”

It was a vision that never came to fruition. The privileged Getty set had little connection with the outside world or a greater reality. Living in Morocco meant a paradise free of the political riots, anti-war demonstrations and mounting racial tension at home. While protestors took to the streets worldwide, the Getty home and lifestyle applied a hippy aesthetic rather than an ethos. The principal philosophy was habitual Class-A drug use. Gibbs recalled, “Drugs were around—as they are now—but people didn’t know so much about them then. It was…fun. It was part of being a sophisticated person.”

In the end, the Marrakech collective was not impervious to the dangers of overindulgence and by 1968, it began to pay the price of excess. Friends and colleagues rocker Frankie Lymon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein were among those who died of drug overdoses. As life gained gravity, the members gradually split off in search of a less extreme lifestyle.

Paul and Talitha refused to curb their extravagance and—in the name of an ever more arcane search for significance—traveled to various spiritual settings, returning to Talitha’s roots in Bali before venturing to Indonesia and Thailand. While aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean, Talitha was photographed in a skin-tight diving suit with a knife strapped to her leg, a real life Bond Girl. Around the world, she left a trail of sumptuous style—the kind of nonchalant panache achieved with a little creativity and loads of beauty and cash. While the couple failed to uncover the key to enlightenment, Talitha’s fashion finds certainly enriched her wardrobe. The Getty’s worldwide adventure came to an end when, upon discovering Talitha’s pregnancy in late 1968, they returned to Rome.

Having achieved a certain international celebrity, the couple was daily fodder for attentive paparazzi. Talitha was often photographed in see-through dresses and mink. In kimonos, she would arrive at Rome’s Spanish Steps—her son Tara Gabriel Galaxy Gramophone Getty strapped to her back—and cavort with genuine, anti-establishment hippies. She also posed for French Vogue in see-through animal print chiffon, much to the chagrin of Paul Getty Sr. Her increasingly rebellious conduct culminated in her separation from J. Paul Jr. in 1971. She may have been a growing style icon but she was also a deteriorating, smack-addicted soul.

The day before her death, Talitha returned to Rome from her London home with the purpose of reconciling with J.Paul. In was here in their rooftop apartment—surrounded by black and white marble floors, Venetian furniture, William Morris wallpaper, Art Nouveau fixtures, Balinese umbrellas and elephant saddle chairs—that the woman Diane von Furstenberg described as “ethereal” took a massive dose of heroin and truly became otherworldly.

J.Paul fled Italy the next day, fearful that he would be charged with a role in Talitha’s death. In England, he became a hermit, shutting himself inside his home, drinking a lot and eating little. Tara was placed in the care of his first wife, Gail. Italian authorities strongly encouraged J. Paul to return to Rome for the inquest into Talitha’s death, but he has never revisited the city. (J.Paul’s name has since been cleared of criminal negligence.) In 1994, he paid homage to his wife by christening his yacht “My Talitha G”.

Despite her untimely death at the age of 30, more than 35 years ago, her style legacy continues to grow. In the fashion world she is an inexhaustible muse, name-checked by designers with points of view as disparate as Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors. Starting with Yves Saint Laurent in Morocco, Talitha also inspired 60s style stars Valentino, Ossie Clark and Kenzo. More recently, she has been the safety net and saving grace of the debut collections of Tom Ford at Gucci (1990) and Phoebe Philo at Chloe (2002). In some permeation or another she returns every Spring and Cruise season, as noted in John Galliano’s 2008 Dior cruise collection and Frida Giannini’s 2009 Gucci cruise collection.

Philo once called her “a fantasy to dream about.” And in fact, Talitha Getty is the ideal enigma of the decadent Swinging 60s: she is whoever you wish her to be. Her short life and car crash trajectory only serve to heighten the mystique, ensuring that she will forever be associated with those key components of fashion—youth, beauty and glamour.

Author’s Note: While the post’s lead image (found in a late-60s French Vogue) is not a standard style photo of Talitha Getty, it was the catalyst for this article. The authentic energy it exudes sparked an obsession with the style icon, which resulted in this in-depth look at the woman behind the bangles, caftans and fur.

One Trackback

  1. By style inspiration | talitha getty on February 16, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    [...] -Erin Dixon, Dossier To read more about Talitha Getty’s beautiful but doomed trajectory, definitely check out this article by Dossier Journal. Share and Enjoy: [...]

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