Few people have made their mark quite so colourfully as jazz singer George Melly. Now approaching 80, he talks to Nigel Farndale about his life, his loves and his famous open marriage
Aside from his increasing deafness, weakening eyesight, incipient emphysema, difficulty with stairs, impotence, incontinence and feelings of faintness whenever he stands up too quickly, George Melly is, he tells me, feeling remarkably well.
“I’m about to turn 80,” he adds in a drawl that manages to be both booming and languorous. “Seventy-nine-year-olds always like to tell people that.”
His age, I am happy to report, has not compromised his flamboyant dress sense. He is wearing a sun-patterned kaftan, a handbag over his shoulder and an eyepatch.
In other respects he is still much as he was in 1961, the year he met his wife, Diana. As she recalled recently: “George was quite short and just getting to be rather plump; his feet were tiny so he minced slightly; he had brown eyes, a big nose, a huge smile and was famous for singing in a jazz band, and being bisexual.”
They were both married with children at the time of that meeting. In fact, she was on her second marriage and had two children by different fathers. She had a third the day after she married George in 1963.
They then threw themselves headlong into the Swinging Sixties – and theirs became a story of breakdown, sexual voracity, druggy decadence, therapy, trips to Morocco and, of course, famously, open marriage. It was the stuff of which good memoirs are made: Diana published hers this summer; George’s are published this week.
It is mid-morning and, diehard Bohemian that he is, George is enjoying his first Irish whiskey of the day. He is seated in a wooden object that is more contraption than chair. It complements the room, which swirls with surrealist paintings and dust motes caught in shafts of sunlight. He used to have a Picasso and a Magritte, he tells me, but he had to sell them to meet a tax demand and now his most precious treasure is a collage by Kurt Schwitters.
“This is very much my room,” he adds. “My taste. Diana has told me there’s no way she’s going to keep it as a shrine.” He studies his fingernails. “Our marriage is an elastic band that stretches but does not break. It began passionately and is finishing with compassion. She looks after me; makes sure I do what I have to; gets me to Ronnie Scott’s whenever I’m singing there. I suppose she has lived in my shadow a little, but only in public. Here she’s the WingCo. The Wing Commander. I still love her very much. We meet usually at suppertime.”
They are something of a double act, George and Diana Melly. She, arrives with a steaming cafetière on a tray, and two yappy dogs at her heels.
“Can we clear a space here,” George says, “and push back the…”
“George. I can see what to do.”
“Thank you, darling. Real coffee, what a luxury.”
“If you like real coffee, why don’t you ever make it?”
“I haven’t learnt. Do you have to grind the beans?”
“Yes, George.” She rolls her eyes. “You grind them underfoot.” When she leaves, he says: “It’s true, I’m not terribly practical. Diana gave me a vibrating pager once and when I failed to respond to it we discovered that I had been carrying around an electric razor I had picked up by mistake. It’s the burden of age, like checking your flies. At first you forget to do them up, then you reach the stage where you forget to undo them.”
He emits a bass chuckle. “Sorry. I make jokes. I can’t help it. Laughing away in the face of my demise. Diana describes me as maddeningly cheerful. She’s had 44 years of me being maddeningly cheerful, so she quite likes it when I’m not.”
Now that he is impotent, he says matter-of-factly, his two remaining pleasures are fly fishing and listening to Bessie Smith, the blues singer who inspired his own singing style. He has to use what he calls a “Granny mobile” nowadays, for the trout fishing. “The trouble is I can’t wade any more. Now I do the chalk rivers from the bank.”
George Melly is aware that part of his enduring appeal is his ability to shock. His party piece used to be to strip off naked and do an impression of a bulldog (don’t ask). And in his latest volume of autobiography, Slowing Down, he writes nonchalantly: “I am not a rapist, although on a few occasions, usually frustrated with brewer’s droop, I have got a bit violent.” His candour, I note, borders on the eccentric. “Well I don’t see why not. I don’t deliberately try to shock, I try to liberate.”
Has reckless honesty become an addiction for him? “No, ask Diana, I tell endless lies. I also have an annoying tendency to turn everything into an anecdote. At least, it annoys Diana because she’s heard them all. I tend to recycle them a lot.”
He was born in Liverpool, to middle-class parents. His father was a wool broker. “I loved him. He was witty, clever and idle. He hated business. His motto was ‘as long as they’re happy’. My mother was a fag hag. To win her approval, I became camp.
She would have liked me to become a Noel Coward type.” After school (Stowe), Melly joined the Royal Navy – “because I liked the uniform” – but was almost court martialled for distributing anarchist literature. He was mainly gay in his adolescence, he says, bisexual in the Navy and heterosexual in later life.
How does that work, exactly, this shifting orientation? “Mulligan, my first band leader, thought I wasn’t gay at all. He thought I hadn’t had enough of the other, and he might have been right. It wasn’t a moral decision. It may have been to do with my mother. Diana disagrees. She says that people are gay, no matter what. I think I realised I had become straight one day in my mid-thirties when some beautiful young people rode past on bicycles and I suddenly realised that I had looked at the girls, not the boys. ”
How, I ask, does an open marriage work? “Well, it worked quite well for me. I was able to juggle two or three mistresses at a time. But Diana managed to choose men who were horrible to her and tortured her mentally. They weren’t nice to her, but she refused any comfort from me at any point. We went to a Freudian marriage guidance analyst, who hated me. He hated me making jokes and suddenly said: ‘Look, your wife is crying, why don’t you put an arm around her?’ and I said, ‘Because I will be pushed halfway across the room if I tried.’ He didn’t grasp that. There wasn’t even any holding hands between us.”
Diana Melly has said that George always went for “mad, difficult women”, herself included (she tried to commit suicide, after her son from an earlier marriage died of a heroin overdose). “Yes, neurotic and chaotic women,” George clarifies. “Diana puts it down to my needing needy people. Well, she was one of them, so she should know. I think it probably did make me feel protective, which I enjoy, or like, or want, or need – choose whichever word you want from that list.”
Is it possible, I ask, to be in love with more than one person at a time? “Yes. I’m still in love with Diana. I do love her. You do know that. It’s important you understand that. I sometimes watch her out of this window, putting things in the car…” He doesn’t finish the thought.
“But I was in love with others at the same time. Heather I think I was in love with. I suppose I enjoy playing two people off at the same time. There was a Venetia, who was posh, and a Heather who was not posh. She kept her socks on in bed, a fetish of mine.”
He is desperate for a cigarette, he says, but Diana allows him to smoke only in his bedroom, so we repair up there. It is painted dark green and looks like a bordello.
Melly coughs as he lights his cigarette. “I have chronic bronchitis,” he says, “which is why I have inhalers. But I thought at my age if it carries me off, well so be it. Smoking kills, but so does life. I think it helps my singing voice a bit, the growling. See that lot up there?” – he points to a line of pill bottles – “I call that my Damien Hirst installation. I have to take a bucket load of them every day. I don’t understand people panicking about death. It’s inevitable. I’m an atheist; you’d think it would make it worse, but it doesn’t. I’ve done quite a lot in the world, not necessarily of great significance, but I have done it.”
Downstairs in the kitchen, I meet Diana again. “Marriage is a complicated thing,” she says with impressive understatement. “Sometimes there were four in this marriage. It evolves from the passion of first encounter to companionship; I now describe myself as caring for him. Caring about him as well. He’s a very good person. Impossible but charismatic. He’s the definitive exhibitionist. He takes up a lot of space. He even manages to be cheerful about his illnesses. He never complains. Did you see his pill box?
“I do think we’re very lucky still to be together, because we could easily not have been. I think money helps. George was very generous. He’s never said: ‘You can’t take him out to dinner because it’s my money.’ The combination of taking other lovers and arguing about money would be death to an open marriage. The trick is not to quarrel about money.
“You can quarrel about the lovers a bit. I never minded Venetia. And Heather I like very much. And Louisa I like. But the Greckle I don’t like. [Not her real name. It’s what Diana calls George’s mistress of the past quarter century, naming her after a screeching West Indian bird.] I found all that humiliating. He was always saying he was going to leave me for her. She was a nightmare. I felt she was dangerous. I felt threatened by her. ”
Is the secret to an open marriage making a distinction between love and sex? “No, because I think George was in love with Heather and Louisa. I got a letter from a woman the other day who was worried that her husband was having an affair, and I wrote back and said: ‘Get a dog, something else to love and care for, then you can stop worrying about your husband.’ That I think, is the secret to a successful open marriage – get a dog.”