'The doctors would always say, "She wants to beat it, she's doing well."'
In December 1995, Linda called to tell me that a malignant tumour had been found in her breast. 'I wasn't feeling well, so I went to the local doctor. He told me I had some kind of cold, and to take some pills and wait two weeks. Two weeks later, I still didn't feel better. So we went to London and they tested it, and it's cancer.' I was stunned. 'What's going to happen?' 'They'll take out the lump, and we'll see.' 'Could you feel it?' 'Yes.'
'Had you had a mammogram or whatever?' 'No.'
'They just cut it out, and it's over. They told you that, right?' 'Yeah, that's what we hope.'
Well, Linda lived another sixteen months and died of metastasized breast cancer on 17 April 1998 at the age of fifty-six. We saw each other several times in those months, sometimes on the fly, sometimes laid back, but she never ever mentioned her cancer to me again. The McCartneys made the diagnosis public, announced a positive prognosis in 1997, and never talked to the press about the cancer until after Linda's death.
In fact, the prognosis was grim after the doctors looked at Linda's lymph nodes when they removed the tumour. Many were affected. The cancer had spread before it was discovered, but nothing is or was hopeless, and Linda and Paul kept hoping. They had the best doctors in London, New York and Los Angeles, and relied mainly on traditional medicine with an overlay of holistic therapies. If there was a slim chance that something might work, short of nonsense like swimming with a dolphin (which the anguished couple had been asked to consider), they took it. As Paul told Chrissie Hynde, as long as they didn't hear the dreaded word 'aggressive', they wanted to believe they might come out OK, that there was a chance - and indeed, there is always a chance.
I approach this subject with great caution. This is for many reasons, and the first of them is that, I'm sorry, but I cannot find out everything that happened, every treatment, every surgical procedure. The records are confidential and locked away, as everyone would hope theirs would be; the doctors who treated Linda of course won't talk about it, nor would one ever expect them to; and, what's more, people who claim they are telling me about the true course of Linda's final sickness often contradict each other.
Sometimes Paul has said that he knew more than Linda about the gravity of her situation; close girlfriends of hers whom I've interviewed say that there was nothing Linda didn't know, that she in fact knew more than Paul. Some have said that she knew how fragile Paul was in the face of her illness; his mother had died of breast cancer when he was fourteen. These are two very, very strong people, but cancer rearranges things, it seems. Again, what is the truth? Are we going to play who-knew-what-and-when-did-they-know-it? Or, will we salute a very brave little group of people who suffered elegantly and privately, and hoped powerfully?
I have more close friends with breast cancer right now than I ever would have imagined. My mother had lots of friends and sisters and there were women all around when I was a child, and I never heard of one of them having breast cancer. Other cancer, but not that. Or perhaps it was simply not 'mentionable'. Is it an epidemic? I ask doctors, cancer specialists; some say no, others say it's too soon to know. Is it horribly hopeless? One doctor told me it's among the most treatable of cancers, that there's an excellent survival rate, especially if it's detected early on. Another doctor told me it's always very alarming. No surprise here - as anyone knows who has sought opinions from specialists about an existing or potential condition.
It struck me that there was a parallel between the way Linda dealt with her cancer and the way she dealt with the overwhelmingly hostile reaction to her marriage to Paul. She looked very carefully at her situation, considered the indignities and the possibilities, and although there were moments when it seemed she might go under, she came out of her corner fully expecting to win in the end. What's more, Linda McCartney, who was certainly not shy when speaking to the public, who had risked and experienced scorn and scepticism for her activities and beliefs and who would never back down in her advocacy of highly unpopular subjects - Linda chose to keep the details to herself and her husband. She and Paul had obviously decided not to tell people about her medical progress unless it was necessary for them to know.
When this crisis first came upon them, they divided their world, and the people in it, into those who had to know what was happening at all times and those for whom it would serve no purpose to know. This was not a matter of 'closeness', although clearly those who were indeed closest, the family and those who worked for and with them in crucial positions, had to know. It had nothing to do with affection; in fact, when possible, they preferred to have very close friends believe that recovery was at hand.
Says Chrissie Hynde, recalling the photo session she did with Linda one month before her death, 'When she said goodbye, and that she'd be back in a few weeks, she didn't embrace me like she always did. I knew there was something going on in her mind, and when I thought about it, it didn't surprise me that that was how she behaved when she knew it was going to be the last time she was going to see me. She didn't want to be sentimental about it, she didn't want me to be sad, she certainly didn't want pity. She wanted, I guess, our last memories of each other to be a dynamite photo session.'
Tim Treharne recalls a phone call early in 1998, when Linda told him she was losing the fight. There were a lot of things about the future of her food business that they had to talk about, and soon, so that continuity would be assured in the absence of the person whose name and image would be forever on the product.
Me, I got the party line. 'She's fabulous, she's doing great.' From her daughters, for example: in 1996 there was a huge reception at New York's International Center of Photography for Linda's 'Roadworks' show. It was crowded, and of course people were looking for McCartneys. Mary was in charge, very much so; when I asked where her mother was, she told me they'd just had dinner and Mum and Dad were outside in a car, not wanting to deal with what would happen if they walked in.
'How's she feeling?'
Linda Stein introduced me to Evelyn Lauder (of the make-up empire), who had donated the breast cancer centre named for her at Sloan Kettering Hospital, cancer treatment centre of the world and the home base of Linda's treatment. Evelyn, a photographer herself, was eager to meet Mary, and so I brought her over. Mary instantly thanked Ms Lauder for the beautiful and comfortable clinic where she often accompanied her mother for chemotherapy sessions. 'Everyone loves your mother there,' Mary was told. 'She radiates hope.' (More than that, Linda was actually thought of by the other patients as someone who had beaten the disease and was showing them it could be done. She never said that, but she seemed that way.) Mary's tone and manner were gracious and warm, like Linda's when she met someone she liked; Mary and Evelyn were soon talking about different kinds of 35mm black and white films. Two women, I thought, so beautiful, so rich, so blessed, and it's goddamn cancer that's brought them together.
I am very fond of Jody Eastman, Linda's brother's wife, who seems aristocratically formidable but is really a lot of laughs. I literally cornered her at a party and said, 'Look, Jody, nothing on earth is that fabulous; what's really going on?'
'She's doing great,' Jody answered, looking me right in the eye. 'Great.'
It was from Paul that I learned how things really were. Paul Morrissey, Linda Stein and I had driven from the compound Morrissey and Andy Warhol had shared in Montauk to the McCartney house in East Hampton. Linda McCartney, who had shaved her head rather than having to see her hair fall out because of the drugs she was taking, was wearing a bandana. She took Morrissey and Stein on a tour of edible flowers in the gardens behind the house (I dropped out after chomping on something quite unpleasant), while Paul was tending to the barbecue. Courgettes and peppers, I think, but I was shocked to see Paul starting the charcoals with lighter fluid.
'You? A "friend of the earth"? You're burning gasoline!'
'This is the way to start a fire, Danny.'
'It's a lousy way, that's poison!'
And we were actually having a barbecue argument, just like any two guys in any garden, each of whom thinks only he knows how to start a good fire. We were mock-yelling at each other, and it seemed a good time to broach another subject. 'So, Paul, how's Linda doing? She looks great.'
'Well,' he answered, 'the first round of chemotherapy sort of didn't turn out all that well, so we're going to go through it again, and this time it's going to work.'
That's when I knew the situation was very far from fabulous.
Prior to her diagnosis, Linda and Paul had been primarily reliant on orthodox medicine, yet hopeful that alternatives existed, or might be found. At a 1989 party at the restaurant Lucky Strike, in New York's SoHo neighbourhood, they were regaling my baffled room-mate Michael Fisher with theories, apparently learned rather recently, about the mystical aspects of the 'water balance' in the human body, how all health concerns were a function of this water thing, which modern science had completely - and to its shame - ignored. But, as Paul told Chrissie Hynde in the interview she did with him about six months after Linda died, 'Everyone's got a miracle cure. And some of them say what you really don't want to do is go the traditional medical route. I hate to tell you, I still don't know the answer. For instance, when Stella was born we had to go the traditional medical route, as there were complications at the birth. If we hadn't, both Linda and the baby would have died. So we'd learned that there were times when you need traditional modern medical science and we opted for that route.'
Threading through the entire course of Linda's illness and her treatment was the issue of animal testing on the drugs that were being administered, and the added complication, as if there weren't already an overwhelming amount, of the implications of her diagnosis for her advocacy of vegetarianism and the loyal consumers of her food products.
When she first introduced her frozen foods, Linda listed, among the benefits of 'going veggie', a reduced risk of cancer. Other advertisers making a similar claim tend to put it much more equivocally, as in 'some studies have shown that eating a certain amount of this cereal may reduce the possibility of getting some forms of cancer', but Linda had never been equivocal; and what always mattered most to her was getting people to eat less meat, thereby saving the lives of animals. To be sure, vegetables are healthier than red meat, but no food can come with a guarantee of being anything other than what it simply is - certainly it seems extravagant to claim that anything will prevent cancer.
Candace Carell had become friendly with the McCartneys when she designed the disguises they wore to sit in the audience at George Harrison's 1974 Madison Square Garden concert. They met again in 1992, when Linda and Paul were in New York shooting footage for the documentary Behind the Lens; Candace at the time was the girlfriend of Noel Redding, bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Noel was working with Linda re-creating the photo session she'd done with the group in Central Park in 1968. The two couples became friendly enough for Candace to tell Linda that she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer and was having chemotherapy. When she heard that Linda was stricken, she wrote her a long letter from Ireland; Linda in return sent Candace and Noel a scarf and a blanket made from the wool of their own sheep. (I had once asked Linda if they made wool from their own sheep; 'No, it's cruel,' she said. 'They nick the sheep terribly when they're shearing them. We're trying to find a way of getting the wool without cutting their skin.' I guess they found a way.) Candace told me,
We talked on the phone a lot. I was always complaining, and she never was. You know you're not in great shape when you're getting chemotherapy, but her spirit was so profound and so strong, and we'd agree that hot baths made you feel better, things like that, but she never talked about being in pain. I'd ask if she was eating, and she'd say, 'Are you kidding? I eat all the time!' She was putting on weight and she didn't like that at all, but I told her that was an effect of the therapy and it would pass.
In New York we were both being treated by the same doctors, and I would ask how she was doing, and of course they're not allowed to talk about other patients, but the doctors would always say, 'She wants to beat it, she's doing well.' There was a period when it seemed hopeful, but then in September 1997 she said to me, 'I get so depressed,' and I knew from the tone of her voice that there had been bad news. I'd been carrying on and complaining as usual, and she said that, and I just got scared. I put Noel on the phone, and he said, 'How are you, lovey?' and she said she was all right, she was looking forward to getting a call from Paul, who was doing a charity concert in London, so Noel told her to just smoke a joint and that we were thinking of her and loved her. She didn't tell me what she'd heard, but fighting cancer, you get very intuitive, you get the message, whether or not it's put into words.
Candace confronted her doctors with her intuitions about the progress of Linda's condition, and, again not in words, they confirmed her belief that Linda had been told the cancer was terminal - barring the miracle which both Linda and Paul never stopped believing would happen. What amazed the doctors, inasmuch as they would discuss the matter with Candace, was Linda's reaction to bad tidings. 'She was asking them what to tell people,' Carell says. 'And she meant what to tell people who had stopped eating meat because she had convinced them to! Would they think they'd been deceived?' Worst of all, Linda worried, would they become so cynical about the benefits of a vegetarian diet that they'd start eating meat again?
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Linda could deal, somehow, with her own death sentence. But to think that it might turn into a death sentence for animals unknown and probably unborn was a thing, one of the few ever in her life, that she could not deal with.
I would never suggest that Linda was not afraid of dying, but I do think she was far less obsessed with it than are many physically sound people. Like everything else in her very organized and attentive existence, dying was added to her agenda, and not, if this can be understood, for morbid or self-pitying reasons, but because it affected so powerfully everything else in the programme. What would Paul and the children and the animals do without her, or rather, what will they do? -and let's be prepared. Plans for the food business, for the photography show, for Mary's imminent wedding - plans even for the first Christmas she would not be there for her family and what gifts they would be getting from her. It looked as if dying was a likely and not very distant end to this hateful disease; her legacy was to be that the work, and the love, went on.
The last time I saw Linda was on 19 November 1997 at Carnegie Hall in New York, at the premiere of Paul's Standing Stone. My date that night was my dear friend and colleague Bonnie Bordins, one of the world's great Paul-fans and, when I'd first met her, a Linda-hater since childhood. Bonnie literally wore mourning clothes to school for weeks after Linda and Paul were married, and referred to her as 'Beast Woman', which was not a reference to her animal rights advocacy. When Linda walked into the party, we hugged each other and I introduced her to Bonnie. 'This is my friend who wore black when you married Paul; she really hated you,' I announced, in my customary way of breaking the ice.
'That's OK, I'm almost over it now,' Bonnie said, faintly mortified, as I'd planned.
With a great smile, Linda shook Bonnie's hand, pointed to her dress and remarked, 'You're still wearing black! All these years, Bonnie?'
I whispered to Linda that I never got to be alone with her, that we always met at some 'occasion' or talked on the phone for a few minutes every few weeks, at best. 'Let's do it now,' she said. We sat down at a little table in the corner, were surrounded by security guards, chatted about the concert we'd just heard, were joined by Bonnie and then by Paul, and in less than ten minutes Linda and Paul were summoned away by someone on their staff and were out the door. The last memory I have is of her and Paul walking through the corridors of Carnegie Hall, surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, and of Linda turning around and waving goodbye. We never did get to talk much that night; I asked her once how she was feeling, and of course she said, 'Fine.' What else could she say? There were about 200 people staring at our little tete-a-tete, and even if we'd really been alone, I think she'd have said the same thing. We left each other a bunch of phone messages over the next few months, and talked a few times, always with the understanding that we'd talk again soon. It was all the usual:
'Hi, how are you?'
'Great, how are you?'
'I think of you.'
'I think of you too.'
'Will I see you soon?'
'Oh, I hope so, we'll figure it out.'
'Goodbye, I love you.'
'I love you too.'
This routine was so standard, just an affirmation of an old friendship, that it doesn't matter who said what, except there was always an exhortation to 'go veggie' somewhere in there.
On a Sunday in April, I came back to New York City from my little house at the beach, the first time I'd been there since October, when it had been closed for the winter. There was no phone and the TV sets were wrapped in their blankets, and I had spent the weekend sweeping away the parting presents of all the little forest creatures who'd invaded in my absence and eaten some books and the labels off the canned food. When I got back to my apartment in New York the phone was ringing, and a gentleman identified himself as someone from the New York Daily News. I began to tell him I didn't want a subscription, when he interrupted me and said, 'No, no, that's not why I called. I wonder if you have any anecdotes about Linda McCartney?'
'Linda McCartney? Why?'
I had that awful hollow feeling even before he answered, 'Oh my God! I guess you didn't know and I have to tell you this. She's dead.'
I apologized for being unable to speak to him at that moment, and called Laura Gross in Los Angeles; she was the producer of almost everything Linda ever did for television, and in fact we'd met because Linda suggested that we'd like each other. I wondered if she thought I should call Paul, and she said by all means, so I did. When he took the phone, the first thing he said was, 'Wasn't she beautiful, Danny? Wasn't she beautiful?'
Paul told me about Linda's last days and ended up consoling me, when I had called to console him. At the end of the conversation, he said, 'By the way, we've told the press it happened in Santa Barbara instead of Tucson. Don't want a bunch of reporters swarming around down there, you know; just a little fib, so will you back us up on that?'
I did the obligatory round of television, radio and print interviews over the next few days, the press having been steered my way by Paul's New York public relations company. For the first time since Linda had become famous, the media were inclined to say kindly things about her; it was neither unexpected nor inappropriate that the coverage was about 'the love of Paul's life', but if I had something to add to that, I was absolutely going to do so. I was dismayed to see people who barely knew the McCartneys being interviewed by the cable networks about their dear friends Linda and Paul, but all I could control was what I had to say, not the list of chosen vultures.
Very unfortunately, the decision to place the scene of Linda's death in Santa Barbara had some rather unforeseen consequences when the coroner in that city said he had no record of Linda's passing there -where a memorial service was held, and innovative scoundrels were charging money to show people 'the house where Linda died'. The name 'Santa Barbara' was a code word, and not a very serious one, used by the McCartney staff as a substitute for Tucson, Arizona, where the family had a ranch - the region was among Linda's favourites on earth and was where she lived when she briefly attended the University of Arizona. 'Oh, when will they be coming back from Santa Barbara?' was the kind of thing people in the organization would be able to say comfortably to each other, not having to mind the snoopy computer repair person waiting to tell his family where he'd spent the day. But very famous people caught in little lies are automatically going to be suspected of concealing bigger ones, and at the end of the week the tabloids were theorizing that Paul's office had misidentified the place of Linda's death because it had been an assisted suicide. Why else would they not say where it happened, unless they were trying to cover something up, and what else would they be trying to cover up but that? (Naturally, once the press found out that Tucson was where Linda had died, there was virtual helicopter gridlock over the McCartney ranch and photographs of their desert home in every paper: just the thing the family had wanted so badly to avoid.) In any case, I was back on the air at the end of the week dealing with this revolting speculation.
I had one simple response to the whole matter: Linda had wanted more than anything to live long enough to be at Mary's wedding to Alistair Donald, and in fact the date of the wedding was moved back when it was known that Linda had only months to live. I cannot imagine that a mother planning for the first time the marriage of one of her children one would choose to die beforehand. It makes no sense on any level; furthermore, Linda was not in great pain at the end and was on the phone that very week, for example to Bonnie Benrubi in New York discussing her upcoming photo exhibition. And that was the case I made: 'I have no problem if someone makes that choice, but I have a very great problem believing that Linda did; it fits in with nothing we know.' Take it or leave it - and the whole issue faded away after two days in the headlines, not because of what I said, but because it so obviously lacked any merit whatsoever.
It was a great honour to be asked to speak at Linda's memorial in New York, and I found it touching that the McCartney office followed up that invitation by inquiring if what I planned to say was going to be 'original', as opposed, I assumed, to reading a poem - in which case they wanted to make sure that no two people were going to use the same literary source. This was pure Paul, the perfection of all arrangements, and indeed it showed in the magnificence (there is no other word for it) of the event itself. I was even asked to call him to discuss what I would say - he suggested I speak 'from the heart' (and to keep it at three minutes or less). I assured him that my heart was the only place I could come from, and not to worry; I had, alas, spoken at many services, in front of many distinguished mourners, in memory of many beloved friends. Still, this was the 'biggest' one of all and I was terrified. Fashion-fright even sent me to Brooks Brothers, where I hadn't shopped since college days, for a shirt and tie, an alien costume these many years.
Laura Gross, staying at an uptown hotel, sent her car for Mike Fisher and me, and we had drinks before heading to the Riverside church, one of the most beautiful in America, in a quiet neighbourhood 'way uptown', overlooking the Hudson River. I was agonizing about memorizing my speech or reading it; an actor friend told me to memorize it, but others warned me that an actor would say that and that I should have the assurance of a written text. I also had, in my little black overnight bag, a two-pint Evian bottle filled with ice-cold vodka.
The very select crowd of several hundred (Paul had cut the guest list several times) was awed by the interior of Riverside Church itself (most, like myself, had never been there), the flower arrangements (there were something like 400,000 blossoms) and the gravity of the ceremony, but by the third speaker there started to be a smattering of applause at the end of each eulogy. Not for me, and although Paul gave me a thumb's up when I caught his eye as I was coming down from the podium, I was convinced I had made no sense at all. 'It's because everyone was crying,' someone told me afterwards, and I thought, 'Good, job well done after all, they should be crying.'
I certainly was - back in my seat I broke down, to hell with dignity, and didn't recover myself until Stella McCartney, walking past me as the family left the church ahead of the crowd, punched me in the shoulder and said, 'Stop it! Stop it! She wouldn't want to see you like that.'
I was one of the first to arrive, in a car provided by the organizers of the event, at a restaurant called Zen Palate in the theatre district, where a very small party was held for family and participants in the ceremony only. The proprietor of the restaurant greeted the arriving guests standing next to a niche where sat a statue of the Buddha, to which I made a hesitant ritual bow. 'You like the Buddha?' she said with a beautiful smile, and I replied, 'Yes, I love the Buddha, and I'd also love a drink.'
'Ah,' she returned, 'no alcohol, no liquor licence, you bring your own.'
Mary McCartney, who'd come in at the same time, said, 'Uh oh, Dad is not going to like that,' and summoned Paul's personal assistant, John Hamill, to remedy the situation as soon as possible.
'There's a temporary solution in my bag,' I told Mary, and poured three stiff ones for her, Alistair and myself. What a good idea that had been.
It was truly a party, with a high level of good cheer and laughter (especially after John returned with cases of wine and Scotch). I remember most of all looking down the table at Linda's sister Laura, now married to a fabulous Italian landscape architect and living near Florence, and being staggered at her resemblance to Linda. I had the same rush months later at a Linda memorial concert to benefit animal rights charities, produced by Chrissie Hynde at London's Royal Albert Hall; Heather had brought me into the family box to say hello to Paul and to meet Arthur, Mary's son, the first grandchild, then just a few weeks old. Heather bent over to kiss Paul, and when she turned around and looked at me, I saw Linda - and told her so. 'That's the nicest thing anyone could say,' she responded.
In the summer of 1998, I set aside a corner of my garden at the beach for white flowers only, as a little shrine to Linda's memory. I'd buy or plant anything as long as it was white - something I'd never done before, having been afraid of white flowers, that they'd never really be truly white; but they were, and it was great. I told Paul about it and he wanted to know what I was growing, so I sent him pictures and labelled them; things like, 'JFK rose, smells beautiful too'. The rose bush came back, by the way, after a winter planted in the sand behind the house, more beautiful than ever.