A blog about politics, science, archaeology, human evolution, jazz, culture, and the meaning of life by Michael Balter, a journalist and journalism professor based in Paris and New York (aka The Blog for People Who Don't Have Time to Read Blogs.)
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Separating fact from fiction about David Bowie
Since David Bowie's death last January, a cottage industry of new biographies has quickly cropped up, some more accurate than others. One of the newest is by Lesley-Ann Jones, a British author who has written about numerous celebs. About a week ago the Mail on Sundayran an excerpt from the book about Bowie's childhood, complete with sensationalist headline suggesting that Bowie had killed himself in an assisted suicide. Other claims were made about Bowie's childhood, including that he had become infected with syphilis and that his mother was a prostitute.
As I pointed out when Bowie died, there is no better expert on his childhood than my friend Kristina Amadeus, Bowie's cousin. Kristina submitted a letter to the editor attempting to correct the record, which was published today although buried as usual. Below I have pasted the published letter, and following it, the full text of the original letter that Kristina submitted.
Bowie was a legend, and it is no surprise that myths and legends have sprung up around his memory. But while there are still witnesses alive to testify to actual facts, it is still possible to correct the record. Rock historians, take heed.
Bowie book claims hurtful and wrong
The Scottish Mail on Sunday
The speculation in Lesley-Ann Jones’s book that David Bowie’s eye condition might have been caused by congenital syphilis passed on by his mother, who might have been a prostitute, is completely outrageous.
I am David’s cousin and together we found the letter in question in 1957. I was 15 and David was almost 11. About a week before Christmas, we were looking for hidden presents because nothing was under the tree and we found a tin box in his mother Peggy’s underwear drawer.
The tin contained some curls of blonde hair tied with ribbon, and recent letters from the father of her first son.
Another letter had been written to Peggy by her mother Margaret – our grandmother – in 1943-44, following Peggy’s announcement that she had given up her second child, Myra Ann, for adoption.
Shocked to discover a hitherto unmentioned cousin – David’s halfsister – I read the letter out loud to David, who cried because he was afraid he’d be sent away too if he was bad.
Nanny accused Peggy of behaving like a common prostitute (she did not say that she was a prostitute) by becoming pregnant with yet another man. ‘You’re not worth the parings from under my fingernails’ was a phrase that stuck in my mind.
In the 1990s, Peggy lived with me in Cornwall until she needed residential care. I had full access to all her papers and medical records – there was no mention of syphilis or any STD. She enjoyed exceptionally good health during her life.
Kristina Amadeus, Romney Marsh, Kent
Now here is the full letter that Kristina wrote to the editor, before it was edited down:
Lesley Ann Jones’ feature (Sunday 18 September 2016) excerpted from her up-coming book - Hero: David Bowie- is filled with assumptions based on hearsay about letters supposedly found by David Bowie in his teen years when friends with George Underwood. In fact, David and I found the letter in question in 1957. I was then fifteen and David almost 11. About a week before Christmas we were digging through drawers looking for hidden presents because nothing was showing under the tree, when we found a small tin box hidden in her underwear drawer, along with some curls of blonde hair tied with ribbon, and some letters from his mother’s past lover Jack ‘Wolf Rosenberg’ who’d abandoned her when she was pregnant with his son, Terry.
The letter had been written to Peggy, David’s mum, in 1943/44 by her motherMargaret Burns (aka Nanny) our maternal grandmother, following Peggy’s shock announcement that she’d just given up her second child, Myra Ann, for adoption. I was so shocked to discover that I had another cousin that no one had ever mentioned before, that I read the letter out loud to David who cried because he was afraid he’d be given away too if he was bad. Nanny (as she signed it) accused Peggy of behaving like a common prostitute by having yet another pregnancy with yet another man (her first child being Terence Guy Adair Burns 5 Nov 1937) and once again not taking responsibility. She said Jim, that Peggy’s father, was ‘brought down’ that Myra Ann was given away without any warning. The only sentencefrom that letter of which I have clear memory was: “you’re no better than a common prostitute, you’re like a cat in heat, and not worth the parings from under my fingernails.”
In the nineties, Auntie Peg lived with me in Cornwall until she needed residential nursing care, During this time I had full access to all of her personal papers and medical records which went back to her teens, and there was no mention of syphilis, or any other STD. She enjoyed exceptionally good health over her lifetime until shortly before her death in 2001 at the age of 87.
For Ms Jones to assume that the injury to David’s eye was because, in her jaundiced opinion, he must have been born with congenital syphilis because of this apocryphal prostitution is ludicrous, especially when Moorfield Hospital records can confirm the diagnosis of paralysis caused by bleeding behind the cornea and lens from the injury caused by George Underwood’s well-aimed blow. And for her to solicit such ill-informed medical opinions from Cosmo Hallstrom, psychiatrist and another unnamed ophthalmic specialist without either of them having viewed the medical diagnosis is irresponsible in the extreme.
I’m sure George and other friends, in addition to contemporaneous photographs, will confirm that David’s eye was perfectly normal until that incident. David told me that this is how it happened and he would have had no need to lie to me. Also, David never evidenced any of the other signs of congenital syphilis during his childhood, or later, and if severe enough in Ms Jones’ two experts’ opinions to cause such an eye dysfunction, surely there would have been other neuropathic indicators?
To publish this kind of assumption is irresponsible to say the least, and extremely hurtful to me and other family members. Does she not remember that he has agrieving teenage daughter? And a new grandson who will have to deal with potential bullying from peers? If it is true that Ms Jones and David were ‘good friends over decades’ (although he never mentioned her as a friend to me) and that David loaned her his home in Mustique as a quiet place to write, then I find it truly disgusting that she would repay his kindness with such a callous conjecture just to hype her poorly written and badly researched book.
Indeed, it seems to be true that when there’s a giant present - the pygmies* come out with blowguns.
* Oxford Living Dictionary. Definition # 2‘he saw his brother as a poetic giant among literary pygmies’
I feel that ethics requires that I should correct in your blog my recent description of Lesley-Ann Jones book. That opinion was based solely on the excerpts published in her feature article. I’ve now read the book from cover to cover, and it is not - as I said in my hurt and disappointed letter to the Mail on Sunday – a ‘poorly written book’ overall. In fact, it is quite comprehensive and includes large quotes from his colleagues, most of which I had not run across before. Although the narrative moves along at a manic pace - albeit sometimes a bit jumbled it is, as Ms Jones claims, (for the most part), respectful.
However, I do feel that her research should have been more thorough. Her egregious and vile theory about my Auntie Peggy and David’s damaged eye, is absolutely not true, and certainly not respectful. Because Ms Jones mentions me by name in her book, it would have made sense for her to contact me about something so volatile and damaging. On speaking with George Underwood he tells me that he did not say that David ‘spelled it all out’ for him, because David said little about it. Other factual errors arise from cribbing from Peter & Leni Gillman’s book ‘Alias David Bowie’ and not doing her own research. The misspelling of Terry’s father’s name as ‘Rosemberg’ instead of ‘Rosenberg’ is wholly the Gillman’s. Once again, the major error in her book (as in others) lies in her whole-cloth acceptance of Gillman’s fiction of inherited schizophrenia in our family. However, her reference to ‘first person tense’ when she means ‘present tense’ is her own.
Yes, there has been great tragedy in our family, but having been the family genealogist for over four decades, I’ve found no indication of mental illness or suicide in my grandparents, or great grandparent’s generations. My sweet and brilliant cousin Terry was the first and only one, and his may have derived from hallucinogens secretly tested on servicemen during that era. I look forward to the day when writers stop using other writers’ self-serving biographies of the famous as their sole source material and search out information for themselves. It’s a shame that Lesley-Ann Jones did not contact Kevin Cann (David Bowie: A Chronology 1983) whose compilation of a massive Bowie archive is the place to start. Kevin was one of the many who tried to dissuade Peter Gillman from his inventive and misinformed thesis that schizophrenia informs all of David’s work.
That glorious innovation, relentless creativity and genius were David’s own.
And on a final note, having traced the Jones branch of David’s family back to the mid 17thcentury in their Yorkshire environs, I have found no evidence for the Welsh ancestry Ms Jones claims for David in her book. The Mabinogion being one of our childhood favourites (read under our bedcover with a penlight) I wish such heritage existed.
I am an anthropology, archaeology, and animal cognition writer with 20 years' experience covering these fields for Science, Audubon, Scientific American, SAPIENS, and other publications. I also cover sexual misconduct for The Verge, Scientific American, others.
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