We are talking in her Kensington flat ahead of an exhibition of her photographs and a series of speaking engagements in Australia in May. I’d spent several minutes on the rather grand doorstep, repeatedly ringing the bell and wondering if I’d got the wrong address. Perhaps she’d been having a nap; she is 74 after all and it is that snoozy, post-lunch time of day when I often feel like one myself. She does seem quite dreamy, half-heartedly remonstrating with a friendly Irish terrier called Freddie who inspects me thoroughly before jumping onto a large pouffe, not quite as pristine white as the matching sofas. “He’s allowed on that one,” she says.
Boyd is wearing skinny jeans on her long, slim legs and a deep blue mohair jumper; a fall of blonde hair frames what is still recognisably the face that launched, not a thousand ships, but three of the greatest love songs of the 20th century.
George Harrison wrote Something in the first flush of his youthful marriage to Boyd; the soaring guitar chords of Layla expressed Clapton’s yearning obsession with his friend’s wife. Then, when he had won her, he wrote Wonderful Tonight – and who hasn’t danced dreamily to that, wrapped in a lover’s arms?
There is a photograph of a 19-year-old Boyd in the flat: blonde fringe, huge blue mascara’d eyes and a tiny Union Jack stuck on the end of her nose. It is from a weighty coffee table book, Birds of Britain, containing portraits of London’s posh totty – society girls who roamed the bars and vintage clothes stalls of Chelsea. Boyd’s face is on the cover.
She was a model then, on the run from her dysfunctional family, broke and living on Birds Eye chicken pies in a shared flat. “You had to go round the photographers persuading them to use you for shoots,” she says. “Norman Parkinson said, ‘Come back when you’ve learned to do your hair.’ It was all DIY hair and make up back then.”
Did photographers hit on her? “Well some might try it on but you didn’t submit and say, ‘Oh must I?’ You’d get out of there and warn the others.” So it wasn’t a #MeToo scene? “No! I don’t know why these women don’t just say, ‘F–k off, I’m not having a meeting with you in your dressing gown with nothing on underneath.'” Is she a feminist? “Well not in the old ‘hate men’ way, but I don’t like women being treated badly. I think the young generation – what are they called, snowflakes? – don’t take responsibility for themselves.”
She met George Harrison on the set of A Hard Day’s Night – she played a schoolgirl – and they married when she was 21. They moved into Friar Park, a gothic pile in Hampshire where the Beatles came to record, friends drove from London to stay and she threw herself into decorating, cooking and entertaining. She was, she says, blissfully in love but often lonely: wives and girlfriends were not allowed on tour and Harrison was frequently absent. After the Beatles had discovered the Maharishi Yogi and they all went to India to learn meditation, Harrison returned gripped by eastern mysticism. “He chanted a lot,” she recalls, “it’s difficult to talk to someone who’s chanting.”
He had also discovered that he was attractive to women: “He was famous, good-looking, had tonnes of money and flash cars – what a combo. Girls were offering themselves everywhere and he loved it. To come home to old wifey must have been a bit dull.”
I took endless photos. It was something to do, otherwise you could feel a bit spare.
Does she think all men would be like that if they could? “Yes I do,” she says firmly. What constrains them? She shrugs: “Society, women, family?”
Eric Clapton had been a frequent visitor to Friar Park, laying siege to Boyd and, famously, playing a guitar “duel” with Harrison in the kitchen: she was the putative prize. “It was John Hurt [the actor] who described it as a duel,” she says, “and he was so on the button. I sensed it but I hadn’t formulated it.”
She was attracted to Clapton, by then a rock deity – the legend “Clapton is God” was spray-painted on city walls – but determined to stay in her marriage. Her parents had split up when she was 10, her stepfather was a cruel and unusual man who tyrannised the family and left her mother for another woman: “As a child I always thought I would do anything to avoid divorce.”
By the time she left Harrison – “He didn’t want us to be together, it was a life of rejection” – Clapton had made good on his threat to take heroin if he couldn’t have her. It would be four years before they got together.
Propped on an easel beside the window of Boyd’s flat is a rather beautiful black and white photograph of John Lennon. Did she take it? “No, I bought it.” Wasn’t he the most interesting of the four? “He was, yes, he was. He was quite volatile, you never knew what he would say next. He was a pretty sexy guy actually.” Did they have a fling? “No!” she exclaims. I explain I’d seen it suggested somewhere in a newspaper article. “How cheeky,” she says comfortably. Later, reading her autobiography published in 2007, I find another reference to the rumoured liaison. True or not, I don’t think she minds the idea.
Boyd and Clapton married in 1979: “I was madly passionate about him,” she says. “We lived at Hurtwood Edge [Clapton’s home for the past 50 years], I was in my 30s and ready to have babies; I used to wander round the house thinking, this will be the baby’s room, the nanny can sleep here.” But it was not to be: despite visits to a series of doctors and several rounds of IVF, the longed-for baby never arrived.
Clapton, meanwhile, had replaced heroin with alcohol and was drinking heroically. Boyd joined him on tour where he and the band would have girls to their rooms after the show. Cruellest of all, two of his extra-marital relationships produced babies: a daughter Ruth and two years later a son, Conor, who would die, aged four, in a fall from the window of his mother’s New York apartment. Boyd and Clapton divorced in 1988.
Asked once who was the great love of her life, Boyd nominated Harrison: “I think he always loved me … Eric loves himself. She admits now: “In both my marriages I had neglected myself, and got lost in a big cloud of fame, I got lost in their lives.”
When the music stopped Boyd found herself with a legacy – cardboard boxes full of photographs which she exhibits and sells as prints from her online gallery. They are the archive of an era: here is an angelic George lying in bed in an Indian ashram, Eric in a woodshed leaning on an axe and looking Lawrentian in corduroy trousers, Paul and Linda McCartney at Boyd’s wedding to Eric, Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull at the Brixton Academy. They are candid and intimate: did anyone ever object? “No, not at all,” she says, surprised, “I would never show a photo where someone’s not looking good.”
The collection has been a useful earner for the girl who left school with three O levels and had no need to work while married to rich men. She has continued to take photographs – portraits of actors for their books and pictures from her travels. Does the contemporary work sell? “No one’s really interested,” she says without rancour.
Freddie needs a walk so we put on coats and set off for Holland Park where the trees are still leafless but there are daffodils and a hint of spring. Boyd has been with her partner, property developer Rod Weston, for 20 years – “we are old friends” – and they wed in 2015. They share the Kensington flat and a cottage in Sussex bought for her by Clapton. Why did they decide to marry? “We have lots of nieces and nephews between us,” she says, “we wanted to put everything in order so there wouldn’t be any tears.” We walk on a few paces: “It’s funny,” she says, “Rod has been much nicer since we married and I am happier and less selfish. I didn’t anticipate that.”
She remained friends with Harrison until his death from cancer in 2001 and has stayed in touch with Clapton, many years sober and married with three more children. Last year she accompanied him to the launch of a documentary about him, A Life in 12 Bars, in which she features, naturally. “He rang me and said, ‘It’s a bit raw Pattie, I hope you’ll be OK.’ I said, ‘I’ll be fine Eric. I’m a grown-up now.”
George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me: An Evening with Pattie Boyd will be held at Sydney’s Four Seasons Hotel on May 15. Boyd’s work will be shown at the Blender Gallery in Paddington from May 5 to June 2 as part of the Head On Photo Festival.
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