Kathy Powell (formerly Kathy Simmonds) has been a good friend of mine over recent years. We first met through our mutual admiration of Harry Nilsson and recently she asked me to design the logo for her new company, Better Than Bunting.
Those of you who know me will be aware of my obsession with Sixties culture, and I definitely find Kathy's role within it fascinating. As well as acting in Robert Freeman's 1968 movie The Touchables, she also worked as a professional model and knew anyone who was anyone in London when it was Swinging. I feel honoured that Kathy would agree to do this interview with me and to share such personal reflections.
Sometimes people who lived in the public eye in their youth seem reluctant to revisit the past. Are you at all reluctant to rehash your youthful public role in the Sixties?
I'm not at all reluctant to talk about my past, although there's nothing more boring than people who harp on about it and live in it! I prefer to keep moving on in the present. I suppose the best thing was leaving school at 15, and becoming a successful photographic model by the time I was nearly 17. I never planned it that way. I always wanted to become a midwife! I had an amazing career which taught me how to be independent, as it involved a lot of traveling, and I learned how to be my own boss. I caught polio when I was 18 months old, like many others during the epidemic in the early Fifties, and couldn't walk without a caliper until I was 10 years old. So climbing into a pair of stilettos was a huge achievement. I would not have walked at all without the total dedication and love of my mother.
How did you come to be a part of the movie The Touchables?
Robert Freeman was an internationally recognized photographer, mainly for his work with The Beatles. He was invited by 20th Century Fox to direct his own movie. He held many casting sessions, looking for the right mix of girls to appear in it. I was eighteen at the time, and I guess I just fitted the bill.
We filmed in and around London and Guilford, Surrey, for about 4 months. We had an absolute ball! Shame none of us could act!! We also did a month long tour of America, appearing as "dolly birds" on all the chat shows, and turning up at film premieres. We even did the Johnny Carson Show alongside Timothy Leary. I never saw the playback, and have tried to trace a copy, but apparently there was a fire at Burbank Studios and it was burnt.
Movies like these were popping up all over the place, kind of "pop cult" films. Marianne Faithful did Girl on a Motorcycle, Jane Birkin did Blow Up with David Hemmingway, and we did The Touchables. I also did another film on my own with Bob Freeman called Greetings Mary Ann which sunk into oblivion, and I don't think it was ever released. Probably a good thing!! All these films were pretty self-indulgent, but even today there is still a cult following for them. I was also offered another lead part in a film that was to be directed by Mike Sarne, called Joanna, but I was already committed to do The Touchables. Scott Walker sang the theme tune for Joanna, which became a big hit. I kind of regret that because Mike Sarne was a good friend.
Not everyone earns the distinction of being an It Girl in their youth. The culture of the Sixties holds a special fascination for the public, which continues to this day. Given the nature of time to change us, and our picture of ourselves, how much of yourself, today, do you see in Kathy Simmonds of The Touchables?
I was only eighteen when I appeared in The Touchables, so now at sixty-four it's quite hard to relate to that part of my life. All I know is that the scene at the time was buzzing with people, all on a mission of some kind whatever their talent. The fashion world was probably at the top of the list, and we all dedicated a great deal of time and effort into looking the part and embracing the social whirl that was the late Sixties.
Was that time as swinging as we're led to believe?
In those days people had a different kind of energy as we didn't have technology in our lives. The world was a much friendlier and more sociable place. Also, we didn't have this awful celebrity curse that exists now. We all seemed to mix and hang out in the same clubs and restaurants together. We didn't need security, as I feel people respected each others' privacy more.
What's the story behind your portrait being on the inside cover of Nilsson's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night?
As long as I was with Harry he would regularly say that he had to do an album of classic songs. We obviously all agreed, of course, and the result was really to be his final triumph, in a way. He wanted Gorden Jenkins to conduct and arrange the album...and no one else! Throughout the years of his career, Gordon had orchestrated all the music for Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and all the major recording artists, but he was now retired. Harry was having none of it and I cannot imagine how much he was paid to come over to England and make Harry's dream come true. The album took no more than a week to record. It was a privilege to sit in the booth witnessing a little bit of history in the night! Harry was in his element and we all know what an amazing achievement it was.
When it came to printing the album sleeve, the story goes that Harry and Derek Taylor (The Beatles' press officer and a very dear friend of mine), were discussing the layout and Harry asked about the inside. Apparently Derek said "Well, we'll put a picture of Kath in one heart and you in the other." That's all I know, really. I have a copy of the album, in a frame, in my kitchen. The spirit of my Harry is with me at all times. He was the only man I ever truly loved. Harry was like the nursery rhyme, "There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid"!
When Aerial Ballet was released in Britain, Harry was already something of an enigma. No one knew who he was or what he looked like. Harry was quite shy and modest when it came to blowing his own trumpet. This came in quite handy when we were together, as no one ever recognised him and we could just about get away with living a normal existence traveling on public transport, eating in restaurants, and shopping without being disturbed. I remember once we were on the Tube and when we got off there was a huge picture of me plastered on the wall, advertising an employment agency called Reeds. Harry starting stopping everyone on the platform to point out that it was me in the picture. Very funny considering that I didn't consider myself famous at all!
When did you actually meet Harry for the first time?
We met in a nightclub called Tramps which was the "in" place to go at the time. A friend of mine was working at RCA as a post boy and was given the job of showing Harry the sights of London during his stay. Everyone by now owned a copy of Aerial Ballet and it was No.1 in the charts. Men, women...everyone was fascinated by this man and would have moved mountains to shake his hand.
As soon as I met Harry in the darkness of the club there was an immediate connection, and by the end of the evening I had agreed to go to Devon with him for a week with my friend and his girl. By the time we came back we were an item. He was quite the wittiest, funniest, and most intelligent man I had ever met. I was in love. This love was to last another five years.
Have you seen the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everyone Talkin' About Him?)?
I have seen the DVD, largely organised by his wife Una, and all the facts are there. It does feel strange that although we played such a large part in each others' lives, I don't seem to exist here.
It does have the feeling of being an "authorised" documentary.
Our love never died, and I like to think that Harry took it to his grave with him. He called me one month before he died to tell me that I was the only woman he had ever truly loved. At the time, I had never felt so helpless. But because he made that call, I am at peace now.
What is happening in your life at the moment?
I live by the sea in Sussex, England, and for the past eleven years I have been working as a nurse at the Royal Alexandra Children's Hospital. At last, here I was, doing what I had always wanted to do from the age of twelve! Not quite a midwife, but near enough. I retired four months ago, and now I am trying to busy myself with all sorts of projects and catch up on house repairs.
I am in the process of setting up a company called Better Than Bunting which creates highly embellished bespoke fabric garlands for weddings, or any other occasion. It's taking a while to do because I have dreadful computer skills! The knowledge of technology just doesn't want to sink in at sixty-four!! Nevertheless I'm sure the penny will eventually drop.
What is happening in Brighton these days that you particularly like?
I am lucky to have some amazing friends from all walks of life, and Brighton is a great place to live. It is known as London-by-the-Sea, and is full of all sorts of different characters making their own journeys through their lives. There is always something to do.
My two beautiful sons have flown the nest and are happy, so really my work is done and I am now free to choose my own old lady path! Not sure where it leads, but that's half the fun of it! My son has said he's going to stick me in an old people's home in Barbados. That'll do!!!!