Marsha Hunt (actress, born 1946)
Hunt in September 2005
|Born||(1946-04-15) April 15, 1946
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Alma mater||University of California, Berkeley|
|Occupation||Actress, singer, novelist, model|
|Partner(s)||Marc Bolan (1969)
Mick Jagger (1969—70)
Marsha Hunt (born April 15, 1946) is an American actress, novelist, singer and former model, who has lived mostly in Britain and Ireland. She achieved national fame when she appeared in London as Dionne in the long-running rock musical Hair. She enjoyed close relationships with Marc Bolan and Mick Jagger, who is the father of her only child Karis.
According to Hunt, The Rolling Stones‘ controversial hit song “Brown Sugar” was based on her. She has written three novels, as well as three volumes of autobiography, which include a frank account of life as a breast cancer sufferer.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Move to London
- 3 Writing
- 4 Acting
- 5 Cancer
- 6 Personal life
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Hunt was born in Philadelphia, in 1946 and lived in North Philadelphia, near 23rd and Columbia, then in Germantown and Mount Airy, for the first 13 years of her life. Hunt remembers Philadelphia with affection, particularly the “Philadelphia steak sandwiches and the bad boys on the basketball court”.
Hunt’s mother, Inez, was her primary parent and worked as a librarian in a local library. Hunt’s father, Blaire Theodore Hunt, Jr., was one of America’s first black psychiatrists but he did not live with Hunt; she found out when she was 15 years old that he had committed suicide three years previously. Hunt was brought up by her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother; three strong but very different women. Hunt describes her mother Inez as “extremely intelligent and education-minded”, her Aunt Thelma as “extremely Catholic but very glamorous”, and her grandmother Edna as an “extremely aggressive…ass-kicking” independent Southern woman.
Hunt credits the experience of having been poor with teaching her not to be materialistic. Her family put a great deal of emphasis on academic performance, and Hunt did very well in school. In 1960, the family moved to Kensington, California, which Hunt still regards as home, so that her brother and sister could attend Oakland High School and prepare to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Hunt also went to Berkeley, in 1964, where she joined Jerry Rubin on protest marches against the Vietnam War. In her book Undefeated she recalled that during her time at Berkeley they “were sitting in for the Free Speech Movement, smoking pot, experimenting with acid, lining up to take Oriental philosophy courses, daring to cohabit, and going to dances in San Francisco.”
Move to London
Marriage to Mike Ratledge
In late 1966, Hunt met Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine. Hunt was having trouble getting a visa extension to stay in England and proposed to Ratledge. Ratledge and Hunt were married on April 15, 1967. The Soft Machine were heavily booked and there was no time for a honeymoon, but Ratledge and Hunt were able to spend two months together before the band headed for France later that year. Hunt said in 1991 that she and Ratledge never held hands and never kissed, but that “…he comes for Easter. But that’s what we called married.” While the two have remained good friends, Hunt says the secret to a happy marriage is to “separate immediately.” When Hunt and Ratledge reached their 40th wedding anniversary, Hunt called Ratledge up and said, jokingly, “We should renew our vows.”
Although Hunt indicates that she had no great musical talent, she worked as a singer for 18 months after arriving in England. In February 1967, Hunt took a singing job with Alexis Korner‘s trio “Free at Last” so that she could earn her fare back home. She did not use it, but remained, and in 1968, joined the group The Ferris Wheel. That same year, Hunt achieved national fame in England when she appeared as “Dionne” in the rock musical Hair, a box-office smash on the London stage. Hunt only had two lines of dialogue in Hair, but she attracted a lot of media attention and her photo appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her photograph was used on the poster and playbill of the original London production, photographed by Justin de Villeneuve. Her 1968 photo also replaced the original LP artwork when Readers Digest reissued the LP in Europe in 1976. Hunt says that the role was a perfect fit for her, expressing who she actually was. She was one of three Americans featured in the London show, and when the show began she had no contract to perform. When the show opened she was featured in so many stories that she was offered a contract right away. Hunt played at the Jazz Bilzen and Isle of Wight music festivals in August 1969 with her backup band “White Trash”. Hunt’s first single, a cover of Dr John‘s “Walk on Gilded Splinters“, was released on Track Records in 1969; it became a minor hit. An album, Woman Child (in Germany released under the title Desdemona), followed in 1971. In May 1977, an album with disco songs was released in Germany with the title Marsha. It was recorded at Musicland Studios in Munich and produced by Pete Belotte (co-producer with Giorgio Moroder of many Donna Summer albums)
Hunt met Marc Bolan in 1969 when she went to the studio where Bolan’s group was recording “Unicorn”. Tony Visconti said that when Bolan and Hunt met, “[y]ou could see the shafts of light pouring out of their eyes into each other…. We finished the session unusually early, and Marc and Marsha walked out into the night hand in hand.” According to Hunt, the relationship between the two was based on more than physical attraction, though she also recalled that her commercial visibility put her in opposition to Bolan’s philosophy that “the serious art of music…was validated by obscurity.”
In 1973, as a member of a panel organized by British magazine Melody Maker to discuss women in music and options open to black women, Hunt suggested that black women needed to make use of the “side-door” in the industry, entering as “the statuary representative” before they could make music under their own terms.
In the 1970s, for a while, Hunt had a late night radio show, “Marsha and Friends”, on London’s Capital Radio.
Three months after Hair opened, Hunt was on the cover of British high-fashion magazine Queen, the first black model to appear on their cover. In 1968, Hunt posed nude for photographer Patrick Lichfield after the opening night for Hair and the photo appeared on the cover of British Vogue′s January 1969 issue. Almost 40 years later Hunt again posed nude for Litchfield, recreating the pose for her Vogue Magazine cover five weeks after she had had her right breast and lymph glands removed to halt the spread of cancer. The photo appeared on the cover of her 2005 book Undefeated, about her battle with cancer. She was pleased to work with the photographer under such differing circumstances, though in her autobiography she expressed confusion as to why the photo has been so often reprinted. Hunt has also been photographed by Lewis Morley, Horace Ové, and Robert Taylor.
Relationship with Mick Jagger
In 1991, Hunt said that she met Mick Jagger when The Rolling Stones asked her to pose for an ad for “Honky Tonk Women“, which she refused to do because she “didn’t want to look like [she’d] just been had by all the Rolling Stones.” Jagger called her later, and their nine or ten-month affair began. According to Christopher Sanford’s book Mick Jagger: Rebel Knight, Hunt told journalist Frankie McGowan that Jagger’s shyness and awkwardness won her over, but that their relationship was conducted mostly in private because their social scenes were very different. In London, November 1970, Hunt gave birth to Jagger’s first and her only child, Karis. According to Hunt, the pair planned the child but never intended to live together. According to Tony Sanchez in Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, Jagger considered proposing to Hunt but did not because he did not think he loved Hunt enough to spend the rest of his life with her, while Hunt, for her part, did not think they were sufficiently compatible to cohabit satisfactorily.
In 1973, When Karis was two years old, Hunt asked the courts in London for an affiliation order against Jagger and eventually settled out of court. Jagger called the suit “silly.” He agreed to set up a trust fund for Karis and pay $17 a week for her support until she reached 21, but he was allowed to deny his paternity on record. In 1978, Hunt filed a paternity suit in Los Angeles asking for $580 a week and for Jagger to publicly claim their daughter. At the time Hunt was unemployed and received welfare payments from Aid to Dependent Children. In 1979, Hunt won the paternity suit saying she wanted “only to be able to say to my daughter, when she’s 21, that I didn’t allow her father to neglect his responsibilities.” Through the years Jagger became close to Karis; he took her on holiday with his family when she was a teenager, attended her Yale University graduation and her 2000 wedding, and he was at the hospital for the birth of her son in 2004. As of 2008, he continued to see her and her family. Citing the binding tie of a child, Hunt says she still sees Jagger, but has a closer relationship with Jagger’s mother. In 1991, Hunt indicated that she left the door open for Jagger to come back to his child and admired the fact that he did.
Commenting on rumors about her life, Hunt said of an apocryphal story: “You must have read that on the internet. One reason I haven’t had it removed is that it is proof that the Internet is full of absolute bullshit. Ridiculous things have been written about me so often that we won’t even go there.”
In December 2012, Hunt sold a series of love letters written to her in the summer of 1969 by Mick Jagger. The letters were sold by Sotheby’s of London. The letters fetched £182,250 ($301,000).
Christopher Sanford writes in his book Mick Jagger that when the Rolling Stones released the song “Brown Sugar” there was immediate speculation that it referred to Hunt or to soul singer Claudia Lennear. In her autobiography, Real Life (1985), Hunt acknowledged that “Brown Sugar” is about her, among a few other songs, a fact she reiterated in her book Undefeated (2006). When Hunt was asked for an interview with the Irish Times in 2008 how she felt about the song, she said: “it doesn’t make me feel any way at all.”
Hunt began writing in 1985, and her first book was her autobiography, Real Life: The Story of a Survivor (1986). She found the process of writing more difficult than she expected, but did not stop there, continuing in 1996 with another autobiography, Repossessing Ernestine: A Granddaughter Uncovers the Secret History of Her American Family, about her search for her father’s mother Ernestine who was placed in an asylum for nearly 50 years. After Hunt’s father committed suicide when she was twelve years old, Hunt’s contact with her father’s family was sporadic. Hunt tracked down her father’s father Blair Hunt shortly before he died in 1978 to find him living sedately in a seedy part of town with his companion of 60 years. Hunt discovered that her grandfather had been a public school administrator and a leading member of Memphis’s black community. Blair Hunt talked about his “poor dear sick wife” who he had “put away” many years before. Hunt discovered that her father’s mother, Ernestine, had been born in 1896 as a free black and that she grew up in Memphis, “an intelligent, remarkably beautiful young woman who excelled in school and was greatly envied for her pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair.” Hunt tracked her grandmother down to a rundown nursing home, and although Hunt was unable to discover why Ernestine spent 50 years behind bars, Hunt wrote that the reasons may have had more to do with racism and sexism than insanity.
In 1990, Hunt published her first novel, Joy, about a woman who grew up to join a singing group reminiscent of The Supremes before dying an early death. Set in a posh New York apartment in the course of one day in the spring of 1987, the novel contains frequent flashbacks that describe life in a black neighbourhood in the 1950s and 1960s. The book also deals with stardom in the music business and some people’s inability, despite their riches, to make their own American Dream come true and to lead fulfilled lives. Hunt indicates that within her novel, all the characters are victims who are also guilty, a reflection of real life where “[w]e get hurt, but we’re also hurting each other all the time.” Hunt wrote Joy while touring England with a group performing Othello and said her fellow actors made fun of her while she was writing the book; given her reputation, she feels, they may have thought her an aspiring Joan Collins. Hunt says Joy is also about the colorism that existed within black society at the time, where girls with fairer skin and longer hair were preferred to girls with kinky hair and more stereotypically Black characteristics. Hunt said that living in England and exploring its accents taught her how beautiful Black language was, a “culturally important” feature she preserved in her novel.
Hunt’s second novel, Free, published in 1992, tells the story of freed slaves and their children living in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1913. Hunt’s novel Like Venus Fading (1998) is inspired by the lives of Adelaide Hall, known as the “lightly-tanned Venus”, Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge.
Hunt wrote her first four books living in isolation in a remote hideaway in France called La montagne. With no company but a barn cat who came to eat each morning and the people she saw once a day at a nearby patisserie, she was inspired to write by silence and boredom.
In 1999, Hunt sought a job of writer-in-residence at Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison and later collected selected writings from the prisoners and edited The Junk Yard: Voices From An Irish Prison. The book contains 15 stories divided into five sections: Childhood, Family Life, The Score, Criminal Life and Prison Life. One publisher was critical of the repetitive themes of urban poverty, addiction, and life in prison, but Hunt responded by asserting that it is worth considering why the inmates had such similar tales to tell. The Junk Yard: Voices From An Irish Prison became a number-one bestseller in Ireland in 1999.
In 1995, Hunt set up the Saga Prize, to unearth new British-born black literary talent and recognise the literature emerging from indigenous black Britons’ experiences. Awarded to “the best unpublished novel by a writer born in Great Britain or The Republic of Ireland having a black African ancestor”, the prize while attracting criticism from the Commission for Racial Equality ran for four years until 1998, winners including Diran Adebayo and Joanna Traynor.
During the 1997 Edinburgh International Book Festival, Hunt staged a one-woman protest, picketing Charlotte Square about the “shoddy administration” of the festival. The director of the festival was fired in the aftermath of her protest.
Hunt has been working on a book about Jimi Hendrix that she considers her life work. She indicates that no one alive can share her perspective on the matter, “because he and I shared something – black Americans who came to London were transformed and re-packaged for the U.S., although I never became successful there and he did.” No release date has been given.
In 1971, Hunt played Bianca in Catch My Soul, the rock-and-roll stage version of Othello produced by Jack Good. In 1973, she wrote, produced and directed a new London show entitled “Man to Woman”, the music from which was released on vinyl in 1982 by Virgin Records, featuring vocals by Robert Wyatt. In 1975, Hunt appeared as Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. In 1991, Hunt appeared as Nurse Logan in the world premier of Arthur Miller‘s The Ride Down Mount Morgan at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre. Hunt became a member of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In 1994, Hunt performed a one-woman play in Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival playing Baby Palatine, a 60-year-old woman who becomes the wardrobe mistress to a female pop group. The play is based on Hunt’s novel Joy (1990). Hunt was directed in the play by her daughter Karis Jagger, who has said that it was her mother’s idea. Jagger says that the pair “spent six weeks rehearsing in France. Because the weather was so good we marked out the shape of the stage with my teddy bears and rehearsed in the garden.”
Hunt’s film career included appearances in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), Britannia Hospital (1982) directed by Lindsay Anderson, The Sender (1982), Never Say Never Again (1983), Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985), and Tank Malling (1989). In 1990, Hunt played Bianca in the BBC television production of Othello directed by Trevor Nunn.
In 1997, when Irish documentary filmmaker Alan Gilsenan made God Bless America, consisting of six American cities seen through the eyes of six American authors, Hunt was invited to participate. Her participation resulted in Marsha Hunt’s Philadelphia. According to Gilsenan, Hunt attributes the success of American democracy and capitalism to the crime of slavery, a crime that must be understood if America is to have peace. Hunt fell in love with Gilsenan and moved to the Wicklow mountains near Dublin with him, where in 1999 she helped him fight colon cancer, drawing on her own experiences with the disease. Hunt is no longer romantically involved with Gilsenan, who has since married and fathered a child, but as of 2008 still sees him.
In late 2004, Hunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and told to have surgery to remove her right breast and her lymph nodes. Hunt postponed seeking treatment for five months, later wondering if she would have faced first stage rather than third stage cancer had she not. When she chose to have surgery, she decided to have it done in Ireland, because she felt that the Irish are more supportive and comfortable with illness than people in the U.S.; she envisaged that treatment in the U.S. would feel impersonal. Hunt decided to have a complete mastectomy with no following reconstruction. She says, “Reconstruction – as if the breast is miraculously put back to the way it was. In fact, pretty much all you get is your cleavage back; you don’t get any feeling or sensitivity… They take muscles from your back, skin from your thighs, fat from your stomach. You had a breast removed, but the rest of you was fine. Now half your body is hacked about – and for what?” The day of her operation Hunt wrote a note on her breast to the surgical team, telling them to have fun, make sure they took the right breast off and drew them a flower.
Once the operation was over Hunt says she did not mourn the loss of her breast, but felt happy that the cancer had been removed. Her view of the experience of mastectomy and states that the surgery left her a “battle scar” that makes her feel sexier, as it is a memento of what she has survived. In July 2007, Hunt got to talking about her breast removal with a twelve-year-old boy and told the boy that now she is like the Amazons of old who would have a breast removed so that when they went into battle they could use their bow without their breast getting in the way when they let their arrows fly.
After her mastectomy, she contracted the superbug MRSA and had to be treated with Zyvox. She also had chemotherapy. Not wanting to wait for her hair to fall out naturally, she decided to control it herself, throwing a party where her guests took turns cutting off locks of her hair.
The Irish Independent reported on August 27, 2008, that Hunt stood on a table at the opening of the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin to let everyone see that she had survived third-stage breast cancer after a treatment of chemotherapy, radiation and Herceptin therapy at the hospital.
Hunt says that the biggest misconception people have about her is that she is wealthy, though she describes herself as “rich in spirit”. Hunt has been true to her belief that wealth is not necessary for happiness and has lived the “writing life” for last two decades. Hunt enjoys the solitude of living on her own and finds that being single means she has encounters and experiences that she would not have if she were part of a couple, where others might choose not to intrude and where she would have to coordinate her schedule with another. Hunt has lived in Ireland since 1995. She also lives in France, where she owns a home in the countryside about 60 miles from Paris.
When Hunt came to live in Europe she found that people there called her an American, not an African American or Black. She herself describes her skin color as “oak with a hint of maple”, and notes that “[o]f the various races I know I comprise—African, American Indian, German Jew and Irish—only the African was acknowledged.” Hunt invented her own word to describe herself, based on the French word melange (mixture) and the word melanin: Melangian.
Hunt said in 1991 that there is a pain inflicted by the black community on itself, which it fears to communicate openly. She also says that living overseas for most of her life has made her a foreigner in the US. She said, “I’m scared to walk through Harlem… more scared than you, because if I walked through Harlem with the weird shoes and the weird accent, I’d get my butt kicked faster than you. In a way, I’m the betrayer.”
Hunt is featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington D.C., which was opened by President Barack Obama.