Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Groovy Bob - Robert Fraser

Dr Robert - The Beatles Illuminati Guru

Groovy Bob - Robert Fraser
Catalyst, Gallery owner, art director of the Sgt. Pepper sleeve, the man whom inspired the Apple Records logo and the song Gimme Shelter, supplier of exotica to the stars, one of the first men die of AIDS in the UK. He went from being perhaps the pivotal 60s figure to a squalid existence preying on young boys in Leicester Square amusement arcades. It was Robert who was handcuffed to Jagger in the back of the car in the famous Redlands drug bust.
Robert hated the soubriquet Groovy Bob and would have detested the idea that anyone thought he was a drug dealer because he would never sell you any drugs; he’d just have a whole range of them in a box that you could dip in to. “Try one of these dear boy; they’re simply splendid”. He wouldn’t take any money, although God knows he seemed short of it but then he would occasionally try and sell you a Magritte. Ask McCartney who bought several from him. Even when he was flogging you a painting, he did it with incredible old Etonian panache. After talking with McCartney about a logo for the Beatles’ new Apple Records label, he’d visited McCartney’s big house in Cavendish Avenue and discreetly left a small, framed picture of an apple by Magritte on McCartney’s table. Paul commented, “I thought that was the coolest thing anyone’s ever done with me. When I saw it, I just thought ‘Robert’. Nobody else could have done that”.

Robert was so cool, he was quoted in the 1965 Swinging London article in Time Magazine: “Right now, London has something that New York used to have: everybody wants to be there. There’s no place else. Paris is calcified. There’s an indefinable thing about London that makes people want to go there”.

His gallery was a rainbow flash in a then drab Duke Street, one of the only sources of contemporary art – Andy Warhol, Jim Dine and the like – in a West End packed with galleries knocking out fox hunting scenes. The Robert Fraser gallery was the White Cube of its day. In fact, Lord Snowdon took a photograph of Robert Fraser in which it is hard to tell that he is not White Cube’s Jay Jopling – another Old Etonian with a glamourous celebrity client list and a very small discreet nameplate on the door of his gallery.

The appearance of the gallery was sensational; one day there would be a conventional window display, the next, the window had been taken out and an AC Cobra sports car, belonging to Tara Browne and painted in psychedelic colours would be nosing out onto the street.
Fraser was the son of a Scottish merchant banker, who was turn the son of the butler to Gordon Selfridge the department store magnate and he was thus identified at Eton as being nouveau riche and developed that unique kind of snobbery the newly moneyed oft acquire. He coupled this with outrageous social climbing and an utter disregard for the rules. He liked the company of toffs and yobs in equal measure. He loathed sport but loved sportsmen.
Robert was of course gay, it was almost compulsory as Eton fellow old Etonian, the writer Derek Raymond commented “It was an absolute hotbed of buggery and an excellent preparation for vice of any kind”. It was also where you went to get that tremendous self-assurance with which its old boys are shot through. Eton “formed him to a great extent”, added Paul Getty. “Formed his style, his personality. It’s still one of the best places to learn arrogance”.

Flung out of Eton for smoking cigarettes, he was conscripted into the army and joined the Kings African Rifles stationed in Uganda, in charge of a regiment of black soldiers. Here a young boxing champion caught his eye, a 6 feet 4 inch sergeant major in the army and a fine physical specimen. Robert and the junior officer Idi Amin, later to be President of Uganda (and the last king of Scotland), became friends and rather strange bedfellows – there is speculation that is exactly what they became. It was the last days Empire and the east coast of Africa was alive with goings on – white mischief. Later, when Amin had seized power and was threatening Britain, Robert would get hot with pride whenever he saw the strutting figure on the television.
After the army, Fraser went to New York and immediately fell into fell into an artsy set in Manhattan, working in galleries and setting up exhibitions. Here he started to foster the healthy contempt for money that only those who can write home for a few quid whenever necessary can have. His parents seem to have coughed up every time this happened right until the end although his relationship with his father must have been a strain on him since he would become almost overwhelmed by stuttering whenever they spoke together. School friend Christopher Gibbs reasons that perhaps Fraser felt over indulged and to some extent it annoyed him. “I think it was a little bit of a disappointment to him that his father was so understanding, he said. “I think it deprived him a little of the agonies of being misunderstood”.

Having networked the art scene of NYC, Robert became convinced that taking modern American art to London was a potential money-spinner. He acquired the investment to open his Duke Street gallery from his parents and returned to England in the early 60’s with big plans and a bulging address book. The artist Jim Dine commented, “Robert knew everyone in the world at that point”. He’d made the acquaintance of all the movers and shakers in the New York art scene and he already knew all the West End’s well heeled. Soon he would be able to add the rising new wealthy of pop to his client list.

Fraser’s promiscuity was a current undercurrent. He would apparently discuss the manhood of a Puerto Rican boy with the same gusto with which he might describe a fine wine. In London, he haunted sleazy clubs with Christopher Gibbs. He had a regular boyfriend but it was the bits of rough that interested him, rent boys and louts. On one occasion they swayed into Muriel Belcher’s Colony Room in Soho and Francis Bacon remarked, “Here come the Belgravia pansies”, although he and Robert were great friends; Bacon even wanted to paint him. Fraser had high artistic standards but low morals and he could be incredibly snobbish; sometimes he wouldn’t sell someone a painting merely because he didn’t his or her look or thought the person was vulgar.

Of course the libertines of the pop world didn’t mind all the bright coloured suits, buggery and hep cat talk. McCartney said of him: “For me and many others, Robert Fraser was one of the most influential people of the London 60s scene”.
When young film director Dennis Hopper visited London, he fell into that Fraser scene. “That 60s time in London was the greatest. I knew I was in a place where all the creation of the world was happening. The Beatles and the Stones had just happened... It was just sensational. The art world, the fashion world, they were exploding. It was the most creative place I’ve ever seen. I said all this to Billy Wilder and he said, ‘It sounds like your describing Berlin just before the Second World War’”.

Later, Fraser band Hopper would tour Mexico together looking at art and hovering up all the cocaine the country could offer.

Fraser’s flat at 23 Mount Street (only a few yards from the gallery but Robert would only ever go to work in the Rolls Royce – and was frequently late) was for many years the hub of the 60s, the place to be if you weren’t in Courtfield Road before its demise. In fact if Brian Jones wasn’t on the road with the Stones or at home then he was invariably in Mount Street. Michael Cooper who photographed the Sgt. Pepper sleeve was always at hand with his camera to record the comings and goings. Terry Southern (who wrote Candy in which Ringo Starr had a small part, and the screen play for Barbarella) would be arguing with Brian Jones drinking Turkish coffee and smoking a pipe of Morrocan. The Bonham Carters would be talking to Robert who was trying to sell Mick Jagger a Magritte but Jagger was still not yet in ther art buying league although McCartney was, and so was J. P. Getty Jr., son of the richest man in the world. Getty liked art and hash and coke and heroin and whiskey and beautiful women and anything else he could get his hands on. 

Peter Blake, the artist who actually put the Sgt. Pepper sleeve together with his then wife Jann Haworth watched the way that the riff raff of rock radiated around the Fraser apartment. As much as the pop stars were adored and feted and mobbed in the street, conversely bohemians like Fraser had pop stars sitting at his feet.

“You could just as well say that Mick Jagger and the others were interested in hanging around Robert”, said Blake. “Mick at the time was still a ruffian, although famous. In a way he got more from Robert than Robert got from him. He learned a certain sophistication from those people. The rock people were glamorous too, but Robert was very glamorous. He was handsome, incredibly well dressed. He kind of tutored them”. And he did it in an incredibly plumy Richard Burton kind of way.

One of things Fraser undoubtedly taught them was how to acquire premier grade drugs. ‘Spanish’ Tony Sanchez appeared on the scene, nobody knows quite from where save that Christopher Gibbs thinks Fraser might have found him in an amusement arcade and taken him home for some hanky panky. Sanchez makes no mention of being gay in his own book Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, indded he himself had an up and down relationship with Marianne Faithfull at some point but a little bit of bi-sexuality was de rigueur in those days.
A visitor with a stash from Italy introduced Fraser to cocaine and clearly Fraser introduced it everyone else, starting with McCartney. When that ran out, Spanish Tony found a local supplier and was from then on in high demand; so impressed was Keith Richards with Tony’s resourcefulness that he was taken on a personal assistant/driver just so Keith would have him on tap.

Prone to flying off to Los Angeles at the drop of a hat, Fraser was also instrumental in introducing the drug there. It’s a dubious claim to fame but now every dollar bill in the town is impregnated with the stuff.

Robert had his first acid trip one night in Rome and was found hours later, collapsed under a tree in a square with no idea where he was or indeed who he was. Undeterred by the traumatic trip, Fraser the sensualist somehow sniffed out the drug in London and shared it around his friends. Anita Pallenberg says he was the first man in London to have it; Christopher Gibbs says that Robert had it before anyone else and then took more of it than anyone else, although the truth probably is that the source of the drug was Michael Hollingshead an extraordinary Englishmen who had been experimenting with LSD for years in the USA and who wrote The Man Who Turned on the World about his mind frazzling experiences.

With the ever present top quality stimulants and hallucinogens as lure, Robert’s glittering modern art exhibitions were becoming more star-studded than ever. At one, Jagger and Faithfull, the latest, hottest couple in town were giggling and having a mock fight that involved Mick pouring his champagne down her cleavage. Marlon Brando accompanied by a couple of young Thai girls was acting as a doorman, standing by the gallery entrance and bowing to incredulous latecomers as they entered. Robert had Brando’s belt in his hand, which seemed to hold an enormous sexual charge for him. When the VIP guests went back to the Mount Street apartment for drinks, drugs and dalliances they saw Tony Curtis chatting with Tom Wolfe and Donald Cammell still going on and on about this film idea he had with his tame crazy criminal David Litvinoff, who was a friend of the Krays, in tow. It was the networking centre of the universe.

When the Warhol circus came to London with a print of Andy’s film Chelsea Girl, it was of course to Robert’s apartment that they headed. The address of the flat was on the international grapevine. Fraser asked Keith Richards’ sidekick Stash (Prince Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, son of the painter Balthus) to go and get hold of McCartney’s film projectors so they could all view it. The Beatles all had projectors; it was their custom to hire in movies for private shows for themselves, friends and girlfriends; they thus avoided the hullabaloo that would have been caused by them turning up at the cinemas. Ringo was a particular home movie fan with left field tastes; he liked Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner and other stuff from the strange end of the American spectrum.

Semi-Royals, of course, constantly dazzled Mick, and Fraser acted as his entree into their world. He once took Jagger and Pallenberg to Wilton, the Palladian mansion outside Salisbury owned by the Herbert family. The assembled guests stood slack-jawed as Henry Herbert showed off the family’s Rembrandts, Reynolds and Reubens. 

The Herbert family owned a villa in Tangier in Morocco. Robert frequently went to Morocco, as did many others in the clique; some went for the sun and others went for the sodomy; Noel Coward referred to Tangier as, “a sunny place for shady people”. Paul Getty owned a palace in Marrakesh where Brian Jones was a houseguest as was the playboy drug dealer Comte Jean de Bretuil; one New Year’s Eve, Lennon and McCartney just popped in to sing Auld Langs Syne in the desert. Availing themselves of the local dope, a writer who was also in attendance commented that the two Beatles were laid on the floor unable to stand or speak and that he had never seen so many out of control of people in his life.

Talitha Getty and husband Paul had their photo taken on the roof with the Atlas Mountains and the massive mosque tower as a backdrop. Anita Pallenberg says that once when she was in Tangier with Robert and Keith Richards, they spotted two perspiring men in dark suits wandering along the beach in the brilliant sunshine. Robert recognised them and chatted to them warmly, introducing Anita and Keith to his old mates Reggie and Ronnie Kray.
Robert Fraser’s hopelessness with money meant that despite, or perhaps because of the opulence of his lifestyle, he was always broke. He had plenty of super-rich pop star friends and the temptation to hit on them for loans or to persuade them to buy a picture from him proved irresistible, and he often used or attempted to use them as a way out of his troubles. Christopher Gibbs used to buy things from him and then Robert would buy something from him in return but invariably Fraser’s cheques bounced and Gibbs would sue his friend and not talk to him for months. Then, Gibbs says, he would forget that he wasn’t supposed to be talking to Robert and they would resume relations, such was his character.

Mick Jagger says that although he knew that Robert was a hustler, he didn’t really steal or perpetuate frauds but that Fraser’s pictures always seemed a little too expensive. But, Jagger says, Fraser used to hit on the Beatles more than the Stones anyway, mainly because the Beatles had more money and possibly McCartney in particular had more taste and was in the market. But Jagger lived to rue the fact he hadn’t bought some of Fraser’s ‘expensive’ pictures as he watched the price of them soar in the years to come. Robert did, after all, have immaculate taste.

Fraser’s connections would always prove invaluable. Another member of the Guinness clan regularly provided the Stones and their posh but broke friends with a stopover was Desmond, who ruled over the estate in Leixlep in Ireland. Desmond’s mother Diana Mitford, regarded as the most beautiful of the Mitford sisters, divorced his father in the 30’s and married the fascist leader Oswald Moseley. Robert Fraser, Jagger, Christopher Gibbs and Paul Getty and his wife Talitha had also been regular visitors and savoured the opulence of the great house.
Fraser’s relationship with his manservant Mohammed kept the tongues wagging. The handsome young man would act the role of driver, gallery helper and butler but a visitor to the flat talks of a time when they had once walked past the toilet door in the apartment and seen Mohammed sitting ostentatiously on the pan with his trousers around his ankles reading the paper; and how Mohammed would frequently go off on clothes shopping expeditions with Fraser’s credit cards.

Then came the well-chronicled Redlands bust. It was all the usual suspects, Jagger, Richards, Marianne Faithfull, a phantom Mars bar, Christopher Gibbs, Fraser plus an unwitting hippie from the Kings Road and a mysterious figure known as the Acid King or David Schneiderman who split the scene of the crime at almost the same moment as the police who mysteriously hadn’t been searched, never to be seen again. This led to endless speculation that the band had been set up by the News of the World who had been working hand in glove with a jittery establishment’s police force keen on taking a big pop star’s scalp as a warning to us all.
Mick and Keith took the rap for some pills and some hash and were given prison sentences, reduced on appeal to conditional discharges. Unfortunately for Robert, he was caught with a bottle of pharmaceutical heroin that the others present couldn’t believe he had with him; they hadn’t suspected a thing. Heroin was so far still off the menu for the Stones.

Spanish Tony had boasted to Fraser and the Stones that for £6,000 popped in the right pocket, it might be possible for the charges to be made to go away. In the event the charges stayed right they were, just the money went away. Fraser got six months in Wormwood Scrubs.
Prison was for Robert, having already ensured the travails of Eton and the army, a breeze. The pain came with his eventual release, the gallery was bust. But he rallied around; he still had the building; he could still depend on his highly influential friends and he knew how to sensationally tweak the tails of the art establishment and the press.

One of those friends was John Lennon who had left his wife and moved with Yoko into 34 Montagu Square, Ringo’s flat. The couple made plans for an exhibition by John at the reincarnated Fraser gallery. The exhibition would be a collection of charity collection boxes, disabled mannequins wearing polio callipers and models of dogs with bandaged legs. There were a few drawings by Lennon and some of Yoko’s; there were also 365 white helium filled balloons that were released, each with a tag asking the finder to get in touch with the couple at the Savile Row Apple HQ. It was a proper hippie ‘Happening’ and prompted Yoko to comment that, “The Robert Fraser Gallery was the driving force of the European avant-garde scene in the art world”.

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