Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Iris, Violet and other fleurs du mal

Facebook. People slag it off. But the most magical thing has just happened to me via Facebook. Through the profile of a friend, I saw a long lost name from way back, Pleasant Gehman. And through her, I saw the name of my best friend, when I lived in Los Angeles, Iris Berry. For years I have wondered if Iris were still alive. During the years that I lived in L.A. she, influenced by the likes of Chuck E. Weiss (1), became a heroin (2) addict. Although to be fair, I remember a conversation at Cantors deli (3) where he tried to warn her off.
One mutual friend and her lover at the time, Jules Bates, a talented and successful photographer, who had employed me as a photographer at the L.A. Weekly, had already died on a motorbike, strung out on heroin. (I think I was the last person to speak to him). 
Iris has one of the most beautiful faces I have ever seen: heart shaped, the palest blue eyes (which looked even paler when her pupils were 'pinned' on heroin), black hair and white skin. A California punk Snow White. We met soon after I arrived and eventually had apartments in the same building off Hollywood boulevard. Hollywood boulevard was rough at the time, you'd hear gunshots every night. 
I had a huge and cheap studio but was driven out by rats, rapists and a free-basing building manager who would let himself into my flat whenever he felt like it. The rapist was always 'passing' my door and finally broke in one night. I was sleeping in an alcove and saw a silhouette creeping around. In that brief moment when I had to ponder my options, I learnt a great deal about myself, I'm a fighter, not a victim. I sprang up and screamed with all my might like a 'fury'. He panicked and made up some excuse that my door was left ajar. Confused by the hour, I wondered whether to believe him. He left. 
Months later, when I had returned to London, Iris called and told me that this guy was wanted in another state for rape.
Around the same time, a young woman was found dead upstairs, her body bloated, undiscovered for days.
I never slept in that apartment again. Hollywood seediness got a bit too real, rather too James Ellroy. Instead I moved in with an opera singer friend of mine who taught me all about Maria Callas (oh that exquisite animal sound). 
On another floor lived Violet, another blue-eyed beauty who introduced herself as a photographer and a film director. She was going out with this older man, an actor, who turned out to be Anthony Kiedis' dad 'Blackie'. I briefly dated Anthony, an intense brown-eyed and compact young man,  who will be familiar to those of you who are fans of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. 
Violet, it emerged, was involved in porn movies and was trying to transform her career to behind the camera rather than in front of it. Her brother was a bit of a psycho who also tried to batter my door down one night. Scary times. (4)
Iris was the LA 'it' girl of the underground scene. Everybody knew her. She had endless boyfriends and adorers, Charles Bukowski, the band 'X', even Jodie Foster (5). Iris took me under her wing, sometimes taking me to see her Jewish parents in the valley. They'd always make me feel at home, feeding me and providing a link to normality and family life.
We spent all night in clubs. Garage music had just arrived, as had hip-hop and rap 'White lines'. I worked the graveyard shift in photo labs, getting the bus home at 4 am then going straight out. My attitude was, you can sleep when you are dead. I did have a car when I first lived in Los Angeles, but after it broke down, I got the bus everywhere for 2 years. I know Los Angeles. I learnt about it the hard way. From the bus window I saw a prostitute running away from her pimps across a busy Sunset Boulevard. They caught her and bashed in her head in broad daylight with baseball bats. Nobody did a thing. Nobody moved. 
Sundays, forcing myself out of a lonely black fog, you know the kind that starts before you have even opened your eyes, I would wander the streets taking pictures of tramps, the old, the shabbily glamorous, the 1930's architecture, the steak houses, the observatory where James Dean was filmed (6), the blacks in hair rollers, the kids on roller blades, the beach, the rooftops, the gigs. Photographs looked amazing, courtesy of the wonderful filter the orange smog provided. 
I became an aerobics obsessive, spending my time at the Hollywood YMCA and the Jane Fonda studio. I exercised 4 hours a day, to stave away the homesickness. I was so tired I could barely climb stairs. There were other women like me, who would not go out, because they might eat or drink, or get tired which would make them eat or drink. They wondered why they were single. In a city where perfection is the norm, anything ordinary feels inadequate. 
On a later visit to Los Angeles, in 1986, I stayed with Iris who was living with Pleasant. Jet lagged, my friend Elissa and I woke up in the middle of the night. A 'kid from Fame', one of the dancers, was visiting, still partying from the night before. He introduced us to this new drug 'Ecstasy'. Never a big drugs taker, I thought what the hell. Fantastic stuff, Elissa and I went straight out shopping, as soon as it was light, hitting all the most expensive boutiques on Melrose Avenue. Not a good idea. I spent a fortune.  It will be no surprise to learn that I looked damn good in everything.
Iris Berry, it turns out, is alive and well and an actress, published writer and poet. She's alive, I'm so pleased. 
(1) Chuck E. Weiss of the song 'Chuck E's in love' by Rikki Lee Jones. We often hung out with Chuck at Cantors deli, open 24/7, specialities...'kasha and bows', lox and coca-cola floats.

(2) Iris and I went to see Nico perform at the Whisky Agogo. Iris breathlessly informed me that she and Nico shared the same dealer. Fame eh?

(3) I once saw a frumpily dressed woman in the Cantors queue. When she turned, I saw it was Bette Midler, lining up just like everybody else. A few months later, at a party, I spotted an attractive young man on the other side of the food table. To get his attention, I did something rather out of character, I threw a piece of food at him. He became incredibly angry screaming 'That's what I do. That's my job' over and over again. I thought at first he was joking. I tried to escape but he pursued me all around the party, throwing food at me. In the end, it got so frightening I had to leave. I later found out that he was a performance artist named Harry Kipper née Martin Von Haselberg, who threw food as part of his act. He married Bette Midler.

(4) I had Pluto going over my ascendant and was attracting the dark side. Fortunately, with a well-aspected natal Pluto, I came out of it unscathed. 

(5) Strange synchronicity: Iris and Jodie Foster looked very alike. Jodie's most famous role up to that point was 'Iris' the child prostitute in 'Taxi Driver'. Jodie became a regular at a fashionable Tex-Mex restaurant where Iris waitressed. She was entranced by Iris. It was obvious to everyone in the know, even back then, that Jodie Foster was gay. I waitressed later in the same restaurant. On the try-out night, I bumped into Suggs of Madness and his wife. Disconcerted and somewhat embarrassed, I screwed up so badly, I never got the job.

(6) East of Eden.


  1. I followed a link to your Twitter from John Cleese's stream, and followed the link to your blog from there, and nearly choked when I saw Pleasant's name because A) I know her, as Princess Farhana, and B) it's the second time I've stumbled across her on a blog I'd never visited before.

    And this is a wonderfully sad and scary story, beautifully told.

  2. Thank you ChiaLynn and welcome to my blog.
    Synchronicity eh?
    Pleasant is looking amazing, having seen her photos. I seem to remember dimly her mother is also a writer and friend of Elaine Dundy who wrote 'The Dud Avocado', a fantastic little novel about an American girl visiting Paris, which should most definitely be made into a movie. Elissa and I wanted to option it, but never got round to it. Do you know it?

  3. sometimes living in the past,
    reveals the future.
    as distasteful as that may be.

  4. I have it on good authority
    that Nancy was done in by a
    heroin dealer owed money.
    by them both.
    no one stepped forward,
    though everyone knew,
    as they were all junkies.
    twitter to blog yes.
    but I'm just say'n.

  5. I have heard that theory. After all heroin, I believe, does not make you violent does it?

  6. never had the pleasure myself
    dealers are not junkies though...
    I wasn't there
    and even if I was I would not know

  7. You are my most glamourous friend...

  8. Canal Explorer: you still wearing that Dior makeup ? Then so are you.

    Corbin: I've never done and would never try Heroin. I meant that Sid Vicious would likely have been too doped up to stab someone.
    I have tried opium when riding on a camel through the rajasthan desert. I was so uncomfortable, camels are WIDE, that I would have taken anything. It was just a little brown ball. Spent next 3 days in a comfortable haze.

  9. I'm not familiar with the book, but I'll check it out.

  10. A propos the Sid n Nancy mystery. I recently met a guy, friend of John Ritchie's/Sid Vicious' who witnessed Sid kill a cat. It brings him to tears if you even mention it.
    So Sid was capable of violence. He also put out a guy's eye at the 100 club.

  11. Love your blog!!!!
    Your writing is wonderful- awesome the descriptions of Old Hollywood...or Old Rock 'n' Roll Hollywood, as the case may be!


  12. Hi Princess!
    Thank you so much for your comment. I've got a bunch of other material to write up about my Hollywood days...

  13. Leave a comment? Wow! So much to say... you remember things that I don't and I love that.. if it wasn't for you i would have never lived in The Cliffwood Manor, you got me that apartment and you also nursed me back to health when i hurt my leg moving.. do you remember that? God we were young, and your writing of that time is beautiful and eloquent, I can still remember the view from my 4th story window of the whole entire city at twilight, as the sun went down and the lights came on across Hollywood Blvd, sparkling and twinkling, promising things that it could never produce, from an era that had long since passed… it was a million dollar view for $275.00 a month… those days are long gone… and now I'm happy to say I've escaped the ravages of heroin, I was running to Hollywood and punk rock with a broken heart... from a broken family life... we were so young and so vulnerable, and yet we appeared so bullet proof... I have been looking for you for years, I'm so glad to be reconnected... your talent was and is such an inspiration... as dark as it was, we did have a lot of fun, didn’t we? Lot’s of love to you... Iris xo

  14. Er Woman?! Just read this - write a biography! I'd buy it and read it! Such rich life experiences! xxx


I would love to hear what you think of this post! I try to reply to every comment (if there is a delay, I am probably away from an internet connection or abroad)