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Freddie Mercury would dominate a stage with all the force of a hurricane. But
offstage an entirely different kind of man existed. All the flamboyance was
replaced by someone who was very shy, suspicious of people, and guarded
his privacy almost as much as the late Howard Hughes. He had a demonic sense
of humour and would explode and scream when he didn't get his own way. In
fact, woe betide anyone if they dared to upset the Queen singer. Towards
the end of his life, however, he surrounded himself with a small close-knit
group of friends he felt he could trust. After a run of disastrous,
tempestuous relationships around the world, he confided how he had felt
betrayed by many of his male relationships, but had never lost his
admiration for the loyalty of one woman.
That woman was Mary Austin, whom he had described in the past as the 'love of his life'. Mary had been the rock star's lover for six years before he decided he preferred male partners. Shortly before his death, he became anxious to provide her and her two children with some security. For this reason, he decided to leave her his most prized possession - his 'dream home'.
Having agreed to be godfather to her eldest son Richard, now aged nine, he liked the idea of his house one day becoming a family home. Much of Freddie's personal life was as dramatic as his stage performances. His wealth and stardom did not help with matters of the heart.
'Love is the hardest thing to achieve and the one thing in this business that can let you down the most,' he said. 'I have built up an immense bond with Mary. She has gone through just about everything and always been there for me.'
Not only did Freddie leave his magnificent Georgian mansion, in London's Kensington, to Mary, but also the bulk of his multi-million pound fortune, with an income for life from his vast record sales and publishing. The house stands behind an expansive walled Japanese garden. Freddie was particularly fond of Japanese art and had encouraged his last boyfriend Jim Hutton to create the garden, which is still filled with flowering trees and multi-coloured roses. Freddie always had a flair for style and spent a fortune transforming the house into a splendid palatial home. Even his adored five cats were of the exotic variety!
Mary talked to OK'! in the music room, which is dominated by his black grand piano, on which he composed many of Queen's hits. The top of the piano is covered in silver framed pictures of Mary and her family, and many with Freddie which capture the happy days she shared with him.
The main focus of the room is a massive window which filters the daylight onto a gigantic, exquisitely cut chandelier and mirrors.
The house has lovely marble and wooden floors, and mahogany staircases. Each of the sitting rooms and the spacious hall are bedecked with fine Japanese and Chinese furniture and art, oil paintings and the Dresden china Freddie collected. He would like nothing more than to tour the King's Road antique markets near his home to see what beautiful pieces of china he could discover for his beloved home.
Freddie's master bedroom is hidden behind a mirrored hallway leading to two bathroom suites - one with a Jacuzzi, the other with a bath large enough for two people. The yellow bedroom is Roman-styled with a balcony, and an illuminated ceiling which can be switched to sunset, twilight or sunrise.
There is a dramatic minstrel gallery where Freddie used to sometimes hide and unsuspectingly watch with amusement the behaviour of his party guests in the large drawing room below, furnished in gold and peony red silks.
Nothing in the house has been changed. Mary has kept the decor and furnishings exactly as they were when I Freddie died. Her feeling was that he had impeccable style, so why change it?
But when Freddie first told Mary he intended to leave her his wonderful home with all its glorious contents, her immediate reaction was of shock. In fact she was so terrified of taking on such an enormous responsibility that she urged him to place the house in trust as a museum. But Freddie was adamant. Mary had been his bedrock and a particular comfort in his final years, leading up to his death in 1991. Mary juggled looking after her son Richard and spending time with her then partner, Piers Cameron, with attending to Freddie as he suffered the final stages of AIDS. At the same time she was preparing for the birth of a second baby, Jamie, now eight.
Long before he told any of his close friends or the fellow members of Queen that he had AIDS, Freddie confided his secret to Mary. From that moment she was there each day to try to comfort him as he gradually became more ill. Realising he was starting to lose his sight and with his body becoming so weak that finally he couldn't even get out of bed, Freddie decided to face up to dying by refusing to take his medication.
'It was Freddie's decision to finally end it all. He chose the time to die,' Mary recalls in a whisper. 'He knew it was coming. The quality of his life had changed so dramatically and he was in more pain every day. He was losing his sight. His body became weaker as he suffered mild fits. It was so distressing to see him deteriorating in this way. One day he decided enough was enough and stopped all the medical supplements that were keeping him going. The overwhelming thing for me was that he was just so incredibly brave. He looked death in the face and said, "Fine, I'll accept it now - I'll go." But it was peaceful and he died with a smile on his face.'
After his death on November 24, 1991, Mary moved into his palatial home, but as she wandered through the huge galleried sitting rooms, surrounded by Freddie's treasures, her feelings were of confusion and loneliness. 'It was the loneliest and most difficult time of my life after Freddie died.' she says. 'I knew I was having trouble coming to terms with his death and everything he had left me. I was best left to myself in order to come out of it.'
Mary discovered that there was much to cope with - the responsibility of the house and staff and suddenly coming into immense wealth. There were complications over the will and some of Freddie's relatives and friends were annoyed that she inherited so much - although Freddie had warned her that what he intended to leave her would probably cause problems in some areas. 'Before, I always had Freddie to turn to and he always had me to turn to if need be,' she says. 'Suddenly, there wasn't anyone to help me. It made me realise that I wasn't as self-sufficient as I would have liked to have been. As much as I'd been a friend to him, I realised how much of a friend he'd been to me as well. He was always very protective of me. I only realised, after he died, quite how protective he'd been. If something happened, he'd say, "Oh darling, don't worry - we'll get over that." He was uplifting. At other times, when he was aware he had AIDS and only had a limited time to live, there'd be the odd serious conversation when he'd say to me, "Let's go and sit, we don't know how long we have."'
'I felt very much out of my depth really,' she explains. 'Freddie's staff had been like family to me, but after his death most of them had left because he'd been so financially generous to them. I had sleepless nights worrying about everything. I felt as if I'd done something wrong and paranoia set in. Some of the fans even told me I was only the keeper of die house. That hurt.'
It was eight years after Freddie's death before Mary received the bulk of his money from the will. 'It was a worrying time,' she admits. 'The taxman had been paid, but without the money coming through I didn't know if I could afford to keep the house. I felt under a lot of pressure.'
In contrast to the outrageous rock idol, Mary is totally unassuming. Petite and slim, with green eyes and fair hair, she is shy and gives the impression that she lacks confidence in herself. Completely the opposite to flamboyant Freddie. His death clearly left a huge void in her life.
'I lost somebody who I thought was my eternal love,' she confirms. 'When he died I felt we'd had a marriage. We'd lived our vows. We'd done it for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. You could never have let go of Freddie unless he died - and even then it was difficult.'
The couple's closeness had always caused difficulties with others. None of the boyfriends Mary took after she stopped living with Freddie in 1980 lasted very long. They soon came to realise that they were sharing her affections with an extraordinary rock star and that their special bond of loyalty and close friendship could never be penetrated by a newcomer.
Even the father of Mary's two children, painter Piers Cameron, eventually found the unusual circumstances all too much and dropped out of Mary's life altogether.
'He had always felt overshadowed by Freddie,' says Mary. 'Freddie had widened the tapestry of my life so much by introducing me to the world of ballet, opera and art, I learned so much from him and he's given me personally so much. There was no way I'd want to desert him, ever.'
It took Mary ages to accept that Freddie had finally gone out of her life for good. It was five years before she could bring herself to sleep in his enormous yellow master bedroom. Before then, she just left everything in it completely untouched.
'I'd spent so long with him being unwell and there were so many memories in that room,' she recalls. 'Memories of him suffering. I just saw this very frail man lying in his bed and remembered all the little things that I used to do for him; combing his hair, because he'd lie back and all his hair would be sticking up.'
She adds, 'During those times I did really feel much love for him. They were the moments I remembered every time I looked at his bed. I would sit every day next to the bed for hours, whether he was awake or not. He would wake up and smile and say, "Oh it's you, old faithful."'
Freddie lived with the knowledge chat he was HIV positive for seven years, but it was some time before he confided to his closest friends how ill he might become if AIDS developed. When he did, he demanded that his illness be kept a secret.
He hated the idea of his family being distressed, and of the house being besieged by the media if his illness were made public. Only friends he thoroughly trusted were told. At the time he said, 'It's nobody's business except mine.'
Before Freddie became too weak to travel, he decided he wanted to make one more visit to the new flat he had bought in Montreux, Switzerland, with its magnificent views of the lake and surrounding snow-capped mountains. Queen also had their own recording studios in Montreux and, acknowledging that he was running out of time, Freddie wanted to attempt to record as many new songs as he could to leave behind for his fans. It was during this period that he somehow managed to record the poignant hit These Are The Days of Our Lives.
Mary was 19 when she first met Freddie. Until then her life had been deprived. Her parents were poor. Her father worked as a hand-trimmer for wallpaper specialists and her mother was a domestic for a small company. Both parents were deaf and communicated through sign language and lip-reading.
It was while working as a customer PR at the trendy Biba store in London, where her customers included Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, that she met Freddie and Queen drummer Roger Taylor, who ran a stall in nearby Kensington Market, selling old clothes and Freddie's artwork. Mary still has one of his excellent drawings of Jimi Hendrix. Although Freddie was quite intimidating, Mary found herself fascinated by this 'wild-looking artistic musician'. She says, 'He was like no one I had ever met before. He was very confident and I have never been confident. We grew together. I liked him - and it went on from there.'
But when Freddie first asked her for a date on his 24th birthday, Mary pretended she was busy on that particular night.
'I was trying to be cool,' she recalls with a smile, 'not because there was any real reason I couldn't go. But Freddie wasn't put off. We went out the next day instead. He wanted to go and see Mott The Hoople at the Marquee Club in Soho. Freddie didn't have much money then and so we just did normal things like any other young people. There were no fancy dinners - they came later when he hit the big time. It took about three years for me to really fall in love. But I had never felt that way about anyone.'
She first shared a £10-a-week bedsit with Freddie in Victoria Road, Kensington. After two years together they moved to a larger, self-contained flat in Holland Road, which cost them £19 a week. By then Queen had signed a record deal and had their first big hit, Seven Seas Of Rhye.
It was at a showcase held at Ealing College of Art, Freddie's old art school, that Mary first recognised his star quality.
'Things had suddenly taken a turn for him and the band. Freddie was just so good on that stage, like I had never seen him before, as if it was something he'd stored up. For the first time I felt, "Here is a star in the making. He's on his way. I don't think he needs me any more." I didn't feel tearful or upset. I was happy that it was at last happening for him because of his talent.
'When he came off the stage all the girls and his friends were crowding around him,' she says. 'He was so busy. I started to walk away and he came running after me. He said, "Where are you going?" I told him I was going home. But he wouldn't let me go. That night, I realised that I had to go along with this and be part of it. As everything took off I was watching him flower. It was wonderful to observe. There was something about seeing that happen that was exciting. I was so happy that he wanted to be with me.
'I felt very safe with him,' she adds. 'The more I got to know him, the more I loved him for himself. He had quality as a person, which I think is rare in life these days. One thing which was always constant was the love. We knew we could trust each other and we were safe with each other. We knew that we would never hurt each other on purpose,' she says.
'One Christmas he bought me a ring and put it in the most enormous box. I opened the box and inside was another box, and so it went on until I got to this very tiny box. When I opened it, there was this beautiful Egyptian scarab ring. It's supposed to bring good luck. He was very sweet and quite shy about giving it to me.'
Mary laughs for a moment, as she remembers the first time she took Freddie, with his thick mane of long, black hair, home to meet her father in their terraced Fulham home. "I hadn't warned my father how extraordinary looking Freddie was and so I think my father handled the situation very well. Sadly, my mother never met Freddie as she had died four years earlier. My father opened the door and just stayed very calm and treated Freddie very warmly. There were a few glances and comments from the neighbours. Afterwards I realised bringing home this musician must have been quite a shock for him.'
It was after they had moved to their second flat in Holland Road that Mary first started to think something was going wrong with their six-year relationship.
'Even if I didn't want to fully admit it, I had realised that something was going on,' she recalls. 'Although I didn't know what it was I decided to discuss it with Freddie. I told him, "Something is going on and I just feel like a noose around your neck. I think it's time for me to go." But he insisted nothing was wrong. Then his life rocketed - the band got successful. Things were never me same after that. Our relationship cooled. I felt that he was avoiding any confrontation with me. When I came home from work he just wouldn't be there. He would come in late. We just weren't as close as we had been in the past.'
Everything changed one day when Freddie told her he had something important to say, something that would change their whole relationship forever.
Mary explains, 'Being a bit naive, it had taken me a while to realise the truth. Afterwards he felt good about having finally told me he was bisexual.' Mary decided to move out, but Freddie insisted she shouldn't move too far from him. 'Eventually I found a place nearby, which he wanted me to have. It was perfect for a single person such as myself. His music publishing company bought it for me for £30,000. I could see Freddie's own flat from my bathroom. I thought, "Oh, I'm never going to get away!"
But I didn't mind. I was very happy there. It was small, but I'm quite happy with small places.'
Mary, whose life is no longer such a struggle, today shares her magnificent house with Nick, the London businessman she married two years ago. Without telling anyone, they wed on Long Island with just Mary's two sons, Richard and Jamie, by their side.
Mary admits, 'I think Nick was very brave to take me on, really. I come with a lot of baggage, a huge chapter in my life. At first, because of the past and the broken affairs, I wasn't entirely sure about marriage. Then someone said, "You don't know until you try."' A happy and contented Mary adds, 'But as life unfolds, I can now be happy with him. I can appreciate what I had and what I now have and move on with my life. I could only have moved on by meeting somebody.'
FEATURE BY DAVID WIGG; PICTURES BY REX, CAMERA PRESS, JOHN PAUL BROOKE; HAIR BY LORRAINE OF ERROL DOUGLAS; MAKE-UP BY SUE MOXLEY
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