Books

Fashion icon Penelope Tree: 'Men really had the upper hand in the 1960s'

The former model's debut novel is set in the swinging Sixties and deals with the trouble with appearances

Penelope Tree with band Procul Harum by David Bailey

Penelope Tree with band Procul Harum by David Bailey

At the close of 1966, in my last year of high school, I was spotted by photographer Richard Avedon at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in New York. Though I was an insecure, introverted 16-year-old, Avedon and Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland inspired me to come out of my shell. Within months I was modelling for Vogue and other American magazines. 

That summer, having graduated from high school, I flew to London to work in a publisher’s office as a reader. I was not a very diligent reader, seeing as I was out every night dancing at Sibylla’s, or queuing for Top of the Pops, where I encountered The Rolling Stones for the first time. In those days, London was a much smaller place; the class system seemed to be dissolving as actors, artists, pop stars, photographers and the fashion crowd mixed freely with establishment figures and aristocrats. The synergy created by these different worlds intersecting for the first time was intoxicating. 

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When I first met David Bailey, he was sitting cross legged on the floor of a British Vogue office working on layouts. A few days later we were shooting a story for Vogue at his studio. The energy between us was cartoon-level electric. Nothing happened that day, but nine months later, I was living with Bailey in Primrose Hill. I was 18, he was 30. What could possibly go wrong?  

Our first day together in London we went to meet the Kray twins in an East End pub called the Blind Beggar. I was escorted upstairs to the Ladies Lounge to drink shandies with the girls while Bailey talked to Ronnie and Reggie Kray about photographing them for The Sunday Times. As I had never heard of the Kray twins (being American), I had some misguided notion they were just two-bit thieves out of an early Peter Sellers film. When they were arrested a few months later, I freaked out when I read in the papers about their ‘activities’.

We were happy together for a while. Bailey was magnetic and wherever we went, in nightclubs, on fashion shoots and in restaurants, women threw themselves at him and he did nothing to stop them. Feminism was just coming into its own, but when the most beautiful girls in the world are making a play for your partner, it is rather difficult to embrace the Sisterhood. It’s impossible to imagine what a misogynistic time it was then and how men really had the upper hand. 

There were models I liked. Jean Shrimpton was the most beautiful girl I have ever seen and she was so straightforward, never two-faced. She’d already done her time with Bailey, and had left him. As far as I was concerned she was safe. I also adored Veruschka, my all-time favourite model, along with Donyale Luna. Not only for their elongated limbs and sublime features, but also their ability to metamorphose into whatever shape or form they desired.

Penelope Tree
Penelope Tree © David Bailey

As a model in the ’60s, I was no one unless I was thin, and I was always on some kind of extreme diet. Then at 22, I suffered a bout of late-onset acne brought on by a hormonal imbalance caused by my eating disorder. The acne was so disfiguring it put a halt to my modelling career. I lost my self-confidence completely and it took a long time before I recovered from the depression caused by my ‘loss of face’. My identity was completely caught up in being a model and what I looked like. Luckily I had a few friends who stuck by me. I also slowly learned how to be happy on my own, and to pursue my own interests.

Now in my 70s and remembering those turbulent years, I decided to write a novel in the hopes of finding some degree of understanding around my early life and relationships. I chose to write fiction (rather than a memoir) because when it comes to looking back, memories are like shifting sands, constantly changing shape, whereas the imagination approaches truth more obliquely, through storytelling. 

So for me the writing was also a process of discovery.

My novel, Piece of My Heart, is broadly about the trouble with appearances. Born into a world of great privilege, my protagonist Ari becomes a top model in the 1960s and the lover of a well-known photographer. Several years later, extreme circumstances compel her to look for a life that doesn’t depend on wealth, image or the man she loves. 

Piece of My Heart by Penelope Tree

Piece of My Heart, the debut novel from Penelope Tree, is out now (Moonflower Books, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops. 

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