Anita Pallenberg obituary

Actor and model who played a vital role in the famously debauched court of the Rolling Stones during the 60s and 70s

Anita Pallenberg, who has died aged 73, will always be remembered for her close liaison with the Rolling Stones, and particularly for her long-term relationship with Keith Richards. However, it would be a mistake to consider her a mere supporting player at the court of the famously debauched rock’n’roll band, since she became a vital part of their mystique and internal chemistry. As the band’s personal assistant Jo Bergman told the Observer in 2008: “She, Mick, Keith and Brian were the Rolling Stones. Her influence has been profound. She keeps things crazy.”

Pallenberg became renowned as an actor and model in her own right, and in the early 1960s had lived in New York and become part of the trendsetting pop art milieu that orbited around Andy Warhol and his Factory studio. Decades later she returned to the fashion world, and in 1994 completed a fashion and textile degree at Central Saint Martins in London.

Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg arriving at court in London on drugs charges in 1973.
Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg arriving at court in London on drugs charges in 1973. Photograph: Frank Barratt/Getty Images

Pallenberg’s adventures with the Rolling Stones began in September 1965, when she went backstage after a gig in Munich and met the guitarist Brian Jones. She moved to London and became Jones’s lover, but their relationship became violent and abusive. However, Pallenberg was no mere victim and gave as good as she got. “Every time they had a fight, Brian would come out bandaged and bruised,” recalled Richards in his autobiography, Life.

She decided enough was enough on a trip to Morocco with Jones and Richards in 1967, returning to London with Richards in his Bentley. He recalled the impact Pallenberg made. “My first impression was of a woman who was very strong … Also an extremely bright woman, that’s one of the reasons she sparked me. Let alone that she was so entertaining and such a great beauty to look at.”

Anita Pallenberg and Brian Jones at a party in 1967.
Anita Pallenberg and Brian Jones at a party in 1967. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Pallenberg herself ran a shrewdly perceptive eye over the Stones. “From when I first met them I saw Mick was in love with Keith,” she recalled. “It’s like they’re married and they’ll probably be that way for the rest of their lives.”

The strange and incestuous chemistry between them came to an explosive head when Mick Jagger and Pallenberg starred in Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s film Performance (1970). In one infamous scene, Jagger and Pallenberg apparently made love for real. Richards later claimed: “I’m not that jealous kind of guy,” and put the blame on Cammell, who, he believed, “was more interested in manipulation than actually directing”.

Recalling the Performance shoot in 2007, Pallenberg insisted the notorious act never took place. “I was a one-man girl at the time and Keith was the man for me. I loved him. And anyway, Jagger was the last guy I would have done that with.”

In any event her relationship with Richards survived, and the couple had three children, a son, Marlon, born in 1969, daughter, Dandelion Angela, three years later, and another son, Tara, in 1976, who died of pneumonia at 10 weeks old.

Anita Pallenberg and Mick Jagger in a scene from the 1970 film Performance.
Anita Pallenberg and Mick Jagger in a scene from the 1970 film Performance. Photograph: Andrew Maclear/Getty Images

It was drug abuse that eventually drove the couple apart. Richards had become a regular user of cocaine and heroin, and Pallenberg also fell into addiction, which intensified while they were at Nellcôte, a villa in the south of France, where the Stones recorded Exile on Main St in 1971. The death of Tara some years later proved a turning point. “I’m sure that the drugs had something to do with it, and I always felt very, very bad about the whole thing,” Pallenberg later said. In 1979, a final macabre event signalled the end of the affair. Seventeen-year-old Scott Cantrell, who was having a sexual relationship with Pallenberg at the time, died of a gunshot wound to the head at Richards’ and Pallenberg’s home in South Salem, Massachusetts; Richards was recording in Paris with the Stones. It was rumoured the pair had been playing Russian roulette. Cantrell’s death was ruled a suicide in 1980, and Richards and Pallenberg broke up for good.

Anita Pallenberg in September last year.
Anita Pallenberg in September last year. Photograph: Eamonn M McCormack/Getty Images

Born in German-occupied Rome towards the end of the second world war, Anita was the daughter of Arnold “Arnaldo” Pallenberg, an Italian travel agent and amateur artist, singer and piano player, and his wife, Paula (nee Wiederhold), a secretary at the German embassy. Owing to wartime separation, Anita did not set eyes on her father until she was three years old. She attended a Swiss school in Rome, then later was sent to a boarding school in Bavaria, in Germany, which had 180 boys but only 20 girls. Thanks to her pan-European upbringing she was able to speak four languages.

She was expelled from school at 16. “I was in Rome in 1960 just as La Dolce Vita was happening and met Fellini, Alberto Moravia, Visconti and Pasolini,” she recalled. In 1963 she moved to New York, where she modelled and “hung out with all the pop artists, and met the beat poets”, then moved to Paris on a modelling assignment.

It was in Paris that she got a start in films, being cast by Volker Schlöndorff in Degree of Murder (1967), and where she first met Cammell. She appeared as The Great Tyrant in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella and in the sex comedy Candy, alongside James Coburn, Marlon Brando and Richard Burton (both 1968). She featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s film about the Stones, Sympathy for the Devil (1968) – and also sang backing vocals on the song of the same name.

After Cantrell’s death she went through detox and moved back to London, though she often spent her winters in Jamaica. Her drug-taking days left her infected with hepatitis C, and she underwent two hip operations, which left her with a limp. As well as taking a degree, she resumed her acting work, appearing in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales and Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (both 2007), and in Stephen Frears’ drama Chéri (2009). In 2001 she appeared as the devil in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, in which Marianne Faithfull played God.

She is survived by her children, Marlon and Angela.

• Anita Pallenberg, actor and model, born 6 April 1944; died 13 June 2017


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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