Michelle Philips (née: Holly Michelle Gilliam) is best known for her role in The Mamas and The Papas, model beauty, turbulent relationship with strange songwriting legend John Philips, and subsequent daughter: 90s pop singer (yes, Wilson Phillips!) Chynna Phillips. But, what few know about Michelle is that she had a disturbingly strange childhood and relationship (a la six degrees of separation) to the Black Dahlia murder, Man Ray, the Manson murders, Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson (a strange list).
Now, as the last surviving member of Mamas and Papas, Philips is 63 and has got to add the worlds sexiest granny to her list of accomplishments.
I found out all of this, reading this old Vanity Fair article, amazed. So, for this muse post I’m going to let the article do the speaking. Its a long one- Vanity Fair style- with all the juicy plot turns of a novel and interview snippets in which to sink your teeth:
The Black Dahlia Heritage
Tamar took the lower-middle-class bohemian’s daughter and polished her. She bought her the clothes Gil couldn’t afford, enrolled her in modeling school, taught her how to drive her lavender Nash Rambler, and provided her with a fake ID and amphetamines, Michelle says, “so I could make it through a day of eighth grade after staying up all night with her. Tamar introduced me to real music—Bessie Smith and Paul Robeson and Josh White and Leon Bibb. And I, who’d been listening to the Kingston Trio, was just entranced.” To keep Gil from being bent out of shape by the fact that his daughter had been spirited away, Michelle says, “Tamar put on perfect airs around my dad, and when it became necessary she would sleep with him.” One day Tamar’s husband, Stan, made the mistake of crawling into Michelle’s bed. Michelle shoved him out, and Tamar ended the marriage, leaving the two young blonde beauties on their own, with sometimes a third one visiting them, Michelle’s fresh-faced teen-model friend Sue Lyon. “Sue was innocent and naïve, not like us,” Tamar says. Sue’s mother bawled Michelle out for sneaking her daughter a copy of Lolita. Tamar says she had to explain the famous masturbation scene to the sheltered ingénue. (A few years later, Sue was cast in the title role in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film of the novel—a role Tamar insisted should have been played by Michelle.)
In early 1961, Tamar and her teenage sidekick moved to San Francisco. They painted their apartment lavender, and, like two Holly Golightlys on uppers, they did the town, watching Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl spew their subversive humor at the hungry i and the Purple Onion. They got to know the cool guys on the scene; Michelle fell for singer Travis Edmonson, of the folk duo Bud and Travis, and Tamar fell for activist comedian Dick Gregory.
Both girls thought that Scott McKenzie (original name: Phil Blondheim), the wavy-haired lead singer in a folk group called the Journeymen, was, as Michelle puts it, “very, very cute.” Tamar won his heart. She took Scott back to the apartment to listen to La Bohème, and, as Michelle remembers it, with a laugh, they never left the bed. The Journeymen’s leader, whose name was John Phillips, appeared at the door every night, annoyed to have to yank his tenor out of Tamar’s arms to get him to the club by showtime. A native of Alexandria, Virginia, Phillips was tall and lean and exotically handsome: his mother was Cherokee; his secret actual father (whom he never knew) was Jewish, though he’d been raised thinking that the square-jawed Marine captain his mother had married was his father. From the moment Michelle saw him in the hungry i phone booth—long legs stretched out, ankles propped on his guitar case—she knew two things: one, he was married (“You could tell he was making The Call Home”), and, two, she had to have him. “I fell in love with his talent, his poise, his ability to be leader of the pack.”
Michelle “stepped out of a dream,” John Phillips would rhapsodize in his 1986 autobiography,Papa John. She was “the quintessential California girl.… She could look innocent, pouty, girlish, aloof, firey.” Michelle says, “John was 25, married with two children, from an East Coast Catholic military family. He had gone to Annapolis, he performed in a suit and tie—he hadnever met anyone like me!” Her uniqueness in John’s eyes was no small thing, since he was a habitual trend surfer (“a charismatic snake-oil salesman” is how Marshall Brickman puts it). He’d started a doo-wop group when doo-wop was in, then switched to ballads with his group the Smoothies—just in time for American Bandstand’s body-grinding slow-dancers—then jumped on the folk bandwagon. To John, Tamar Hodel’s protégée was a fascinating hybrid just over the Zeitgeist’s horizon: a street girl, to be sure (“She would have fit into the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las perfectly,” he’d later say), yet seasoned in high culture and political idealism—and with that angelic face. John used to tell Michelle she was the first flower child he had ever met.
Married to a Genius
Gil had recently married a 16-year-old himself, so he couldn’t exactly be indignant about his 17-year-old daughter’s paramour. “She hasn’t finished high school, so if I were you I would throw a book at her now and again” was his paternal blessing. John and Susan Adams, a ballerina from a society family, prepared to divorce in 1962. She had put up for years with his many affairs and never thought that the teenager who’d recently knocked on her Mill Valley door and brazenly announced “I’m in love with your husband” would actually steal him. (With perfect manners, Susan had invited her little visitor in, made her a tuna sandwich—and herself a stiff drink—and then, with deft condescension, informed her that John had a girl like her in every city.)
John and Michelle moved to New York and married. He was so possessive that when he left town on Journeymen tours he’d board her at a supervised dorm for teenage professionals.
To keep her where he could see her (and because he knew her face on posters would rake in the crowds), he pulled her away from the teen-modeling contract she was about to sign and—with the help of voice lessons to shore up her thin soprano—made her a singer alongside him. Jump-starting the New Journeymen, he tapped as its third member Marshall Brickman, of the disbanded group the Tarriers. “I was the polite, grateful Jew from Brooklyn, infatuated with folk music, and now here I was, thrown without a life preserver into the cyclone—the maelstrom—that was John and Michelle,” says Brickman of the day he entered their studio apartment (so tiny “both sides of the bed touched the walls”), which was filled with welcome to the group!balloons. “There were drugs, but not for me, and sex, but not for me.” (Michelle, who’d soon have affairs with all of John’s best friends, says jokingly, “Marshall left the group too soon.”)
‘John lived on his own circadian rhythm—working 40 hours straight and sleeping 10,” Brickman continues. “Everyone fell into his gravitational pull, and it was very seductive and ultimately adolescent, but he emerged from the chaos with brilliant songs. In fact, John was one of the few folksingers in Greenwich Village writing his own songs in the very early 60s.” Another was born-and-bred Villager John Sebastian. “One night I ran into John,” says Sebastian. “We puffed on a joint and walked to his apartment. I was stunned by Michelle’s beauty.” They settled in and started passing a guitar around. Sebastian played the song “Do You Believe in Magic?,” which combined folk with jug-band music (pre-Depression-era blues, hokeyed up for vaudeville), and which eventually launched his group, the Lovin’ Spoonful. After he left, Michelle told John, “That’s the direction we should go in.”....
(read the rest at the vanity fair link above)
Those doe eyes, that swishy blonde hair, and that sun kissed natural california beauty (make-up less, in fact) made Michelle the fawn pixie dream muse to the likes of surrealist great Man Ray, creepy though legendary hippie scene actor Dennis Hopper, and Laurel Canyon songwriting legend (and also a mega-creepy man, by all accounts) John Philips, the Dahila Killer (creepy to the max), and a host of other 60s scene-sters and transients.
Why did they always have the best group photos? Soft filtered colors, a dreamy wardrobe, and close-knit romping.
PS: Mama Cass can get down like no other in a mini psychedelic choir robe and gogo boots: