*** Daily Mail 22 Jan 00 ***
The incredible story of the woman Freddie loved
The shy woman who was left the Mercury millions
The world was shocked when the flamboyant Freddie Mercury, who died of Aids in 1991, left the bulk of his multi-million pound fortune to a girlfriend. But for years the Queen front man and Mary Austin had lived together as man and wife and now, for the first time, the woman he loved tells DAVID WIGG how money wasn’t the star’s only legacy. Main photograph by JOHN PAUL BROOKE.
When Freddie Mercury first told his former girlfriend Mary Austin that he intended to leave her his magnificent Georgian mansion in London’s Kensington, her immediate reaction was one of shock and fear. In fact, she was so terrified of taking on such an enormous responsibility that she urged him to place the house, with its beautiful collection of antique furniture and paintings, in trust as a museum.
Freddie considered this option, but decided he wanted Mary – his lover for six years before he decided he preferred male partners – to have something permanent in her life. Not only did he leave her his mansion, which stands behind a walled Japanese garden, but also the bulk of his multi-million pound fortune, with an income for life from his vast record sales and publishing.
In the year up until his death in 1991, Mary juggled looking after her son Richard, now nine, and his father, 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 his pop group Queen that he had Aids, he confided his secret to Mary. From that moment she was there each day to try to comfort him as he gradually became more ill. As he started to lose his sight and his body became 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 – that it was closer than it had ever been before. Then he suddenly said, “I’ve decided that I’ve got to go!”‘ ‘The quality of his life had changed so dramatically and he was in more and 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. He just turned off. 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 pallatial 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 come out of it.’
Mary – who had grown up in a modest terraced house in Fulham, West London – found there was much to cope with; the responsibility of the house and staff and suddenly coming into immense wealth. There were compliations over the will and some of Freddie’s relatives and friends were annoyed that she was left so much.
‘I always had Freddie to turn to and he always had me to turn to if need be. 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 a friend he’d been to me – the fact of just knowing that he was there.’ ‘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.”
Mary dealt with the enormity of Freddie’s generosity by becoming more of a recluse within the secure walls of the rock star’s home. ‘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 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 the house. That hurt. I know several of Freddie’s gay friends were surprised Freddie had left so much to me. There those who thought they should have been left the house. It was like people begrudged me having what he had left me.’
Although Freddie died in 1991, it was eight years before Mary received the bulk of his money from the will. ‘It was a worrying time,’ she says. ‘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, 48, is shy and gives the impression of lacking any real confidence in herself. Completely the opposite to flamboyant Freddie, she is petite and slim, with green eyes and fair hair. ‘I’m certainly no academic,’ she says, as one of Freddie’s exotic cats joins her on a deep, dark-red sofa in the house where nothing has been changed. Mary has kept the decor and furnishings exactly as they were when Freddie died. ‘He had impeccable style, so why change it?’ she says.
His death left a void in her life. ‘I lost somebody who I thought was my eternal love. 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 had let go of Freddie unless he died. Even then it was difficult.’
The couple’s closeness had always caused difficulties for others. None of the boyfriends Mary took after she stopped living with Freddie in 1980 lasted that long. They soon came to realise that they were sharing her affections with the outrageous rock star and that 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 to 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 would want to desert him, ever.’
As another way of keeping her close, Freddie created job for her, making her company secretary to the music and publishing businesses he ran from his home. After Freddie’s tragic death, it took Mary ages to accept that Freddie had finally gone out of her life. 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 untouched.
‘I’d spent so long with him being unwell and there were so many memories in that room. Memories of him suffering. I just saw this very frail man laying 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.’ ‘During those times I did really feel such 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 six hours, whether he was awake or not. He would suddenly wake up and smile and say, “Oh, it’s you, old faithful.”
Only Mary knows where Freddie’s ashes were finally placed. He gave her the responsibilty of dealing with them and made her promise she would never reveal where they were hidden. ‘I was very neglectful over them,’ she says, openly.
‘I left them in the Chapel of Rest for a while. I knew I had this responsibility, but I couldn’t bring myself to finally part with him. I had to do it alone as he asked, and keep it a secret. That was something that didn’t encourage his family to like me any more or any less than they did.’ ‘I found it all a bit spooky. They were in a plastic bag inside the urn. Afterwards I had to put everything back and bolt it together. I suddenly thought, “I think you’ve left just a bit to much for me to do, Freddie.”
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 were deaf and communicated through sign language and lip-reading.
Mary left comprehensive school at 15 without taking her O-levels. Her first job was as a trainee secretary with Remingtons, earning £5 a week, later progressing to Customer PR at the incredibly hip Biba store in Kensington. It was while working at Biba that she met Freddie and Queen drumer, Roger Taylor, who ran a stall in nearby Kensington Market, selling old clothes and Freddie’s artwork.
Guitarist Brian May introduced Freddie and Mary, at a discussion about the group. They were trying to choose a name for themselves. Freddie wanted to call the group Queen, while Brian favoured Built Your Own Boat. ‘I remember Freddie’s massive black hair, which made him look like a cavalier, with his arm resting on the mantelpiece of Brian’s house in Barnes. He was very proud of his new white shoes. Suddenly he turned to me and asked what I thought about the names. I said, “Oh, I think Brian’s Build Your Own Boat.” But Freddie got his own way, as he did with most things. They settled on Queen.’
Although he was quite intimidating, Mary found herself fascinated by this ‘wild-looking artistic musician’. ‘He was like no one I had ever met before. He was very confident and I have never been that confident. We grew together. I liked him and it went on from there.’
‘It took about three years for me to really fall in love. But I had never felt that way before about anyone.’ She first shared a £10-a-week bedsit with Freddie in Victoria Road, Kensington. ‘We had so little money then that we could only afford one pair of curtains and so we hung them in the bedroom. We had to share the bathroom and kitchen with another couple.’
After two years, they moved on to a larger, self-contained flat in Holland Road, which cost then £19 a week. By then the group had signed a record deal and had their fist major hit Bohemian Rhapsody, and all the photographs for the first album were taken at that flat.
It was at a showcase held at Ealing College of Art, Freddie’s old art school, that Mary first recognised his star quality. ‘When he came off the stage all the girls and his friends were crowding round him,’ she recalls.
‘He was so busy I just thought, “I don’t think he needs me now.” I started to walk away and he came running after me. He said “Where are you going?” I told him, “I’m going home.”‘ ‘Things had suddenly taken a turn for him and the band. Freddie was just so good on that stage – like I had never seen 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. He wouldn’t let me go. That night, I realised that I had to go along with this and be a 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 so exciting – I was so happy and proud that he wanted to be with me.’
‘I felt very safe with him. 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.’
‘One Christmas he bought me a ring and put it in the most enormous box. We were going to see his parents for Christmas Day. 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 as very sweet and quite shy about giving it to me.’
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. 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 with the success of the first album and the singles.’ ‘Things were never the 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. The writing was on the wall. We just weren’t as close as we had been.’
As Freddie became an international celebrity, Mary often thought that she might one day lose him to another woman – but never to a male lover. That all changed one day when Freddie told her he had something important to say, something that would change their whole relationship for ever.
‘He said, “I think I’m bisexual.” I told him, “I think you’re gay.” And nothing else was said. We just hugged.’
‘I thought, “He’s been very brave.” Being a bit naive it had taken me a while to realise the truth. Afterwards he felt good about having told me. He said. “I realised I had a choice. The choice was not to tell you, but I think you are entitled to your own life.” And I thought, “Yes, as much as you are entitled to yours.”
She decided it was time for her to move out, but Freddie insisted that she shouldn’t move too far away from him. ‘Eventually we found a place near him, 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. My family were very poor.’, she remembers. ‘There were five of us and my parents had a terrible time making ends meet, but they managed. Life was always a struggle for them.’
Mary’s life today is very far from such struggle. She shares her magnificent house with Nick, the 48-year-old 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.
‘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.”‘ ‘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. I was getting there, but I think I could only have moved on by meeting somebody.’
‘When I met Nick everything came around a lot quicker. I wanted some stability for myself and the children. I felt that this man could give us that – stability in a loving family way. I’d lost my family really when Freddie died. Even the boys that worked in the house for him were my family, but they all moved on. Freddie was everything to me, apart from my sons.’
Freddie had been as thrilled as her about the arrival of her first son and used to visit her in hospital. He taught the little boy to say his first words, ‘tractor’ and ‘guitar’.
Now Freddie’s generosity has allowed Mary to educate both her sons privately. ‘In some ways, I think there was definitely a part of Freddie that would have liked a family life, a happy home and children,’ she says.
‘I don’t know how much of a great heterosexual he would have made.’ ‘I used to think originally that I’d lost him to being gay. But then if he had been totally heterosexual I think I would eventually have lost him to another woman, particuarly when the fame came along. Women followed him even though they suspected he was gay.’
One of Freddie’s favourite things was giving parties. The more outrageous the better. He flew his friends to Munich for a spectacular black and white drag ball; to Ibiza for a colourful, open-air party for more than 1,000 guests; and held a hat party at his Kensington home. By this time, even though he was sharing his home with his partner, former hairdresser Jim Hutton, Mary ws always invited to join in the merriment.
Freddie lived with the knowledge that he was HIV-positive for seven years. He was 45 when he died from Aids-induced bronchial pneumonia.
In the terms of his will, Mary was left a 50 per cent share of all his wealth, then estimated at around £10 million, and of future income. His parents and his sister were to receive 25 per cent each. In addition he left Jim Hutton £500,000 and bought him a plot of land on which to build a house in Jim’s home country of Ireland. He also left £500,000 each to his personal assistant Peter Freestone, and his cook Joe Fannelli, and £100,000 to Terry Giddings, his driver and bodyguard.
Mary is also a trustee of the Aids foundation set up in Freddie’s name. The Pheonix Trust, based in Montruex, Switzerland, where Queen have their own recording studios. As he was such a lively and energetic showman, I finally asked Mary whether perhaps, in a way, it was right that he wasn’t allowed to grow old.
Surprisingly, she replied:
‘No, I’d rather it happened the other way round. I should have gone first – I’d rather he miss me that I miss him.