A FACE THAT IGNITED A GENERATION, MOD SQUAD MUSE PENELOPE TREE TALKS CAPOTE'S BLACK AND WHITE BALL, THE THRILL OF DATING DAVID BAILEY, AND WHY SHE DOESN'T MISS THE SPOTLIGHT
Seen from behind, she could have been any ole shopper, perusing the racks at Liberty London. But after a tap on the shoulder the woman turns, and the big, brown, wide-set eyes gazing out from under her trademark fringe are instantly recognizable. It’s Penelope Tree, whose face remains a hallmark of the 1960s. When John Lennon was asked to describe her in three words, he replied: “Hot, hot, hot, smart, smart, smart!” When she came to Richard Avedon’s studio for the first time, he sighed: “She’s perfect. Don’t touch her.” We head to the Liberty Café, a nondescript eatery which happens to overlook the site and scene with which she will always be synonymous: Carnaby Street. She’s happy to take a trip down memory lane. Like many stories of that era, this one begins with Diana Vreeland.
When did you first meet Vreeland?
PENELOPE TREE When I was 13. I was peering at her through the balustrades of the staircase at my parents’ house. They had given a big party and I could hear her in the hallway making all these pronouncements. I was a very rebellious teenager at the time, and I thought, Who is that woman? She’s so affected!
A few years later you were in her office at Vogue.
PT We met again at Capote’s Black and White Ball, and afterward she invited me up to that famous red office. The peanut butter sandwich and glass of scotch that she had every day for lunch were on her desk. Within three minutes I was having the best time you could imagine. We became great friends.
Did you have fun at the Black and White Ball?
PT No, not really. It wasn’t fun. It was a spectacle. Everyone was blowing kisses and telling each other they looked wonderful, but it was more people looking at each other.
The picture of you coming down the stairs has become an iconic image.
PT I don’t really remember it being taken. The only thing I remember is that I had never seen paparazzi before. It was very scary. But it was also very exciting.
From that moment, your whole world changed.
PT Vreeland sent me to see Dick Avedon a few days later, he did some test shots and we hit it off. The concept of fame in those days was different than now. Back then someone could be famous without being such a towering figure of adoration, whereas now someone can be famous for nothing. Dick was very alive, very in the present, incredibly good company.
What got you to London?
PT Unfortunately I fell in love. I fell in love with someone highly inappropriate: David Bailey.
He’s still inappropriate.
PT He would love that. “Fuck all that political correctness,” I can hear him saying. He was my first boyfriend. We had met when I was 16 and an intern at a publishing house in London. I met him at a party and it was like, Wow. He was just electrifying. It was exactly what I was looking for at the time, because I was a rebel.
What were you rebelling against? Your family?
PT It was a very complicated family. They weren’t exactly stiff, but they were smart. My father had been an MP during the war and my mother was an ambassador to the UN and a city planner. They had great taste, style, everything that a person could possibly want. But my mother was very different at home. She wasn’t really a mother at all. She had no maternal instinct. In England I went to do a photo shoot with Bailey and there was a lot of chemistry, but I refused to go near him because he was married to Catherine Deneuve. A year later, though, he was unmarried to her, and he came to New York to collect me.
Just like that?
PT Yep. When he showed up, my mother opened the door and tried to close it on him. He stuck his pointy-toed Cuban boot inside and said, “Don’t worry. It could have been much worse. It could have been a Rolling Stone.” Such a great line. So Bailey.
What did you wear at this time?
PT Miniskirts. I can remember my favorite piece of clothing was this belt with foxtails hanging from it. I find it kind of revolting now, but it was just 10 foxtails dangling from my waist. I wore it with everything. I never went out of the house without drawing those black eyelashes on, which took about three minutes.
Had you thought about being a model?
PT It was nothing I considered before I turned 15. But I remember being in the library in my boring boarding school and staring at that famous Time magazine article “Swinging London.” I looked at it and thought, I’m going to have another life, I’m going to be there. And I was right.
My generation glamorizes that era, but I have to ask, were you aware it was such a fantastical moment while you were living in it?
PT There was something in the air. It felt like something was happening that hadn’t happened before. It started with the music, and it was something that adults didn’t understand and all the young people did. Suddenly it turned into a culture.
How did that era draw to a close?
PT Bailey and I split up, then I stayed in England until 1978. London went from being the happiest, most exciting place to miners’ strikes and grim conditions. I moved to L.A. for a few years, and then to Australia for 17 years, in 1981.
When did you stop modeling?
PT I developed this skin ailment. It left scars, ended my career as a model, and no one wanted to talk to me. It forced me to look into myself and figure out what the hell was going on and why I had reacted to life in that extreme way.
That must have been frustrating.
PT More than that I was ashamed. It was painful, especially when I would see Bailey’s new girlfriends on the cover of Vogue and I knew that I had lost my outward glow. It had been generated by my own body too, which was very strange. It wasn’t like it was a car crash. So I went into analysis, which started to help. I started dancing. I wasn’t very good. But I had been very clumsy and dyspraxic, and somehow dancing got me in a different headspace and centered me. I started studying anthropology of religion and I got my head back together again.
After spending so much time focusing on the outside, you started to look within.
PT I needed to do that. My whole life was lived through another person. Bailey is a very powerful, magnetic person, and he took all his energy from those around him. He just demands it and you can’t do anything about it. As much as I still love the old geezer, it wasn’t very healthy. So, it was a difficult time, but who doesn’t go through difficult times in their lives? It’s hard to grow from getting everything. I had to learn some humility over the years, and so did that entire generation.
Are you flattered when you hear that your face ignited a generation?
PT I don’t identify with it much anymore. It feels like a different person, even though I’m glad that those images exist and that girl lived. Honestly and truly, even though it doesn’t appear to be exciting to be 62 years old, I would rather be my age now than that girl then. I wouldn’t be 18 again for anything. I have more awareness. I know what I’m interested in and I know exactly what I don’t want. Life is clear now, and it wasn’t then.
So you are happy that you were an It Girl?
PT But I’m much more fulfilled as a woman.