Anita Pallenberg led the kind of extraordinary life that the average person can only dream of having. She was a style icon. A film star. A model. An international socialite. Most notable of all, she was the creative spark for one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all-time, the Rolling Stones. Sadly, her once-in-a-generation story came to a close on June 13, 2017. She was 73 years old.
Keith Richards, a man who she loved and spent 13 years of her life with between 1967 and 1980 once described her in his autobiography Life as, “One of the prime women in the world.” Adding that, “If there was a genealogical tree, a tree of genesis of London’s hip scene, the one that it was known for in those days, Anita…would be at the top.” She described herself as, “A vagabond. An adventurer. I am not a person with one specific talent.”
Anita Pallenberg was born in Rome in 1944 during the most violent stages of World War II. In her youth, she bounced around the Western World, spending time in Germany, Paris and New York City, where she hung with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd before ultimately settling in London. She quickly entered the art world before meeting Brian Jones of the Stones in 1965 and beginning a two year long relationship that was marked with passion, but also a good deal of abuse. The romance came to a close after a final physical assault in Morocco, and Pallenberg quickly took up with the band’s other guitar player Keith Richards who’d long pined for her.
While she never touched an instrument and her only real musical contributions to the Stones catalog was a little bit of background singing on “Sympathy For The Devil,” Anita lent the band an edge and coolness that separated them from their contemporaries. She directly inspired the songs “You Got The Silver” from Let It Bleed, and “Coming Down Again” on Goats Head Soup, but her influence was much greater than that. “Anita is a Rolling Stone,” the band’s personal assistant Jo Bergman told The Guardian. “She, Mick, Keith and Brian were the Rolling Stones. Her influence has been profound. She keeps things crazy.”
Crazy might be an understatement. Keith Richards’ reputation for excess is both legend and a matter of public record at this point. Anita might’ve been the only person on Earth who was ever able to go toe-to-toe with him. She was there for it all. The drug busts, the parties, and the infamous recording sessions in the South of France that spawned the Stones’ greatest work Exile On Main Street. Author Robert Greenfield who was present for most of those session referred to her as “The Queen of Villa Nellcote.”
Anita made it through car accidents, drug addiction, rehab, court convictions, abortions, hip-replacements, the birth of three children, and the death of one at ten weeks old. She even was rumored to have had a sexual dalliance with Mick Jagger while making the film Performance, something which she denied, but which Keith remains convinced is true. “I never expected anything from Anita,” he wrote in Life. “I mean, hey, I’d stolen her from Brian. So you’ve had Mick now; what do you fancy, that or this? What do you expect? You’ve got an old lady like Anita Pallenberg and expect other guys not to hit on her?”
In his book Exile On Main St.: A Season In Hell With the Rolling Stones, Greenfield wrote that, “At the rock ‘n’ roll round table occupied by the Rolling Stones, Anita is the key. Whoever possesses her has the power. But as time will prove, no one can keep her for long. For in the end, she belongs only to herself.” Adding, “Anita was beautiful and she was crazy and she was crazy beautiful. As the French say, cherchez la femme, meaning that at the heart of every story, including the tale of how the Rolling Stones made what some insist is their greatest album, there is always a woman. Look no further. In all her ruinous glory, here she is.” In other words, it’s no coincidence that the Stones’ creative peak came between the late 1960s and the the mid-1970s came when Anita remained at the heart of their inner-circle.
In her later years after leaving the Stones orbit, Anita eventual got sober. She kept up her traveling ways, crisscrossing the globe, venturing to India, Jamaica, Italy and London. She completed a four year fashion degree in the 1990s, dealt with some physical ailments, and rebuffed any and all offers that came her way to tell her incredible story. “My life has become about little things; it was all about big things at first and now it’s all little things,” she said in 2008.
Anita Pallenberg’s life was about big things. Most people who entered the topsy-turvy world of the Rolling Stones, came away worse from the experience. Not Anita. Though she certainly took her lumps, she managed to retain that signature coolness, charm, and individuality that captured the hearts and minds of some of the coolest, most charming individuals the world has ever known. Her legacy lives on through the life of her children and grandchildren, but also through the soul of the music that captured the imaginations of an entire generation and beyond.