Sinatra, Marilyn's gravity-defying bosom and the night JFK fixed his magnetic gaze on me… and made Jackie O jealous
21:55 GMT, 7 May 2012
My elder son, Sholto, was conceived in one of Frank Sinatra’s homes in the U.S. and, because of the connection, it seemed appropriate to ask Ol’ Blue Eyes to be his godfather.
Frank graciously agreed. ‘Sure,’ he said, and from then on The Godfather was an attentive and kind godfather to my son. Once, on a trip to London, he invited us both to Claridge’s for tea and presented Sholto with a transistor radio for his seventh birthday. It was typical of his kindness.
It seems glib to say that a man of Sinatra’s enormous wealth was generous, but it was such acts of unassuming thoughtfulness that singled him out.
High life: Sandra relaxes in the sun with
crooner Frank Sinatra, whom she first met in 1961 when she – then just a shy 21-year-old – and her husband
flew out to stay with him in California for three extraordinary weeks
We first met in 1961 when I flew out to California with my first husband, the jazz pianist Robin Douglas-Home, at Frank’s invitation. Sinatra had agreed to give Robin unprecedented access for a book he was writing about his music. We were to be Frank’s guests for three extraordinary weeks.
Looking back, it all seems quite surreal. I was just 21 — reticent, rather shy, encumbered with an inhibiting stammer, yet a successful model with Lucy Clayton’s agency in London. My maiden and professional name was Sandra Paul.
I had never been to America before. We made the 13-and-a-half-hour flight to California, then were whisked out of the airport by limo and pitched into the dazzling world of the Beverly Hills A-list. The glamour and excitement were head-spinning, and I am drawing on these memories — as well as other episodes from my life as a model in London and the U.S. during the Swinging Sixties — as I write my new novel, to be published next year. I can promise it will be a riveting read.
Today, of course, life with my beloved fourth husband, Michael, a former leader of the Conservative Party, is quite a bit more relaxed! But then again, I am now a grandmother in my early 70s: it would be impossible to sustain a life packed with so much incident and action now.
Looking back to that memorable first visit to the U.S., one particular party stands out; not only because the Rat Pack — Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr and Peter Lawford — were among the galaxy of starry guests, but also because Bob Hope asked me to dance.
I recall pinching myself as he piloted me round the dance floor and thinking how delighted my father, an RAF doctor, would be. When I was a child, we had gone together to watch the great actor and comedian’s films at our local cinema: my father had been such a great film fan I could picture him beaming with delight.
We were guests on the inaugural flight of
Sinatra's jet, El Dago, and we flew with him to San Francisco, Palm Springs
and Las Vegas in sumptuous luxury
Sinatra was an absurdly expansive host. We were guests on the inaugural flight of his jet, El Dago, and we flew with him to San Francisco, Palm Springs and Las Vegas in sumptuous luxury. The plane was furnished like a sitting room with its own piano; we were attended by Frank’s valet, George, who was one of the party as well as serving our drinks.
Although this taste of the high-life stays with me, I also remember with affection the times spent in quiet domesticity at Sinatra’s Beverly Hills home.
On one occasion he invited Marilyn Monroe to supper: we ate, without ceremony, on little trays as though in front of the TV. Marilyn was a delight. Shy and warm-hearted, she spoke in her trademark self-deprecating semi-whisper. I warmed to her instantly.
She was wearing white Capri pants and a bright orange sweater cut tight to do full justice to her gravity-defying bosom.
Frank told us discreetly that she needed cheering up but didn’t tell us why. He was inherently caring: out-of-work songwriters were kept in hot dinners; he looked after their widows when they died. He had a very loyal streak — and, of course, he was an open-handed host to us.
In the swim: Sinatra and Sandra in the pool at his home in Palm Springs, Florida
Because Robin’s family was aristocratic and well-connected — his uncle, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was Prime Minister in 1963-64 — we also had an entre into the world of America’s political elite.
I was 22 and working in New York when Robin and I had a weekend in Washington, staying with the then British Ambassador, David Ormsby-Gore, and his wife, Sissie, who were old friends.
As well as their official role, they were personal friends of the Kennedys and the four of us were invited by President Kennedy to an informal supper with him and his wife, Jackie, at the White House on the Sunday night. The only other guest was Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire. We had to catch a very early shuttle flight back to New York the next morning, but couldn’t have missed that wonderful chance.
It was October 1962 and — although I had no idea that it was imminent — the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the major confrontations of the Cold War. I recall how JFK acted as if he had not a care in the world: he was a larger-than-life, compelling presence — affable, engaging and exuding charisma.
Model mum: With son Sholto Douglas-Home, a godson of Ol' Blue Eyes
We were a small, intimate party and the President sat down next to me. I remember the slight froideur of his wife that evening; she was neither especially warm nor welcoming — perhaps because her husband had a way of making me feel I was the most important person in the world. He was tactile, warm and absolutely fascinating.
I’d been on the cover of American Vogue for two months in succession, which apparently qualifies me as a record-holder, and he talked about photographers he knew.
I was wearing my Mary Quant red felt dress with a pinafore top and trapeze skirt, feeling very flattered and not a little over-awed that the most important man in the world should be focusing his magnetic gaze on me.
Our light chatting was only interrupted when he withdrew intermittently behind a curtained-off area to take a succession of phone calls, after which he would arrive back at the dinner table and resume his animated conversation exactly at the point where he had left it.
The next day, he addressed the nation on radio and television, demanding that the Soviet Union dismantle its nuclear missile bases in Cuba. It was a momentous point in history, the moment when the Cold War had come closest to turning into a nuclear conflict. Yet President Kennedy had betrayed not a scintilla of concern or anxiety at that supper party the evening before.
At that time, I’d been working on various modelling assignments. The American photographers and fashion editors — I worked for the illustrious Eileen Ford agency — were slick, formidably well-organised and utterly professional. Decisions were made instantaneously: if you went to a casting, you were told at once if you’d got the job or if you’d failed.
The work was also very lucrative: during my three months in New York I earned around 1,500 — a vast amount in 1962 — which was sufficient to make a down-payment on our first house in England.
Sholto, then a baby, came to New York with us, but I engaged a nanny to look after him because the work was demanding and unpredictable. I’d often be dispatched, with no notice, to the other side of the country for fashion shoots.
On one such occasion, I’d arrived in LA to shoot a magazine fashion spread on the film set of My Fair Lady. On my first trip to LA, the legendary producer David O. Selznick had offered me a screen test. Sadly my stammer — and the shyness that was all connected — scuppered me, or my career might have taken an entirely different course.
But I loved working as a model in the Sixties. London buzzed with creative energy.
Hey day: Sandra was, in her time, one of the world's top models
Three young enfant terribles of the photographic world, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, had changed the face of British fashion photography irrevocably. They had overthrown the stiffness and stilted conventionality that characterised the Fifties, replacing it with freshness and daring sexuality.
Bailey was a lovable rogue; a cheeky East-End boy, adored by the fashion editors for his winning ways and with a wonderfully astute eye for a sexy photograph. He brought in wind machines, tousled hair, sultry eyes and glossed lips. And, of course, women fell at his feet.
When I was working with him, Jean Shrimpton and he were inseparable. Jean, ‘The Shrimp’, was gorgeous, famous for her look of fawn-like innocence, her endless legs and her thick, lustrous hair.
One day she and I were working together with the photographer Cornel ‘Cornie’ Lucas — who was also in charge of the Rank film organisation’s photographic studios — on an outdoor picture shoot in Holland Park, West London. The lunchbreak had ended, but Jean was conspicuous by her absence.
When 2pm came — and went — Cornie looked at me sheepishly and said: ‘Could you go and get Jean She’s in a car in the car park with Bailey.’
So it fell to me to approach the car in which Bailey and Jean were locked together behind some very steamed-up windows. Jean, blushing to the roots of her hair, extricated herself from Bailey’s embrace and I hurried back to hold the fort. She appeared moments later, flushed but collected, and we carried on with our fashion shoot in the park.
It wasn’t the first — or indeed the last — time anyone was caught in a compromising position, but Jean and Bailey weren’t, at that stage, the hot story of the moment that they soon became.
When I began my career as a nave 18-year-old, after a ‘charm course’ at the Lucy Clayton Modelling School, the modelling world was much more staid and conservative. My first commission, with the revered photographer Norman Parkinson, had been a lucky break: I happened to be in the agency when another model called in sick and I was asked to take her place.
Norman duly photographed me for the cover of Young Vogue, which was a regular insert in the main magazine at the time. I wore a Black Watch tartan suit with a revere collar which would have been more suited to a 60-year-old, but it was a wonderful, unexpected and very lucky break for me.
What’s more, Norman seemed to warm to me, and this time it was because of my stammer. His son was a fellow sufferer and he loved to compare my stammer with his son’s.
And so my career was launched, helped by a speech impediment that is still with me.
The quiet life of a politician's wife: But Sandra is able to draw on her outrageous experiences as a model as a writer of fiction
However, a model’s career is transitory. Now, as a politician’s wife — Michael and I have been happily married for more than 35 years — a mother of three and a grandmother, I have plenty of calls on my time and writing has taken me over. It is a whole new career.
As a novelist, I can draw on my colourful past for inspiration. Fiction gives me licence to be indiscreet; I can disguise identities, elaborate and invent.
But when I look back on the Sixties — a decade rich in glamour and incident — it is all there really, in glorious Technicolor. There is no need to gild the lily. The unembroidered truth is exciting enough.
Sandra Howard’s latest novel, Ex-Wives is published by Simon & Schuster (19.99).
Interview by FRANCES HARDY