Jean Shrimpton was one of the world’s most famous models of the Sixties. Born in Buckinghamshire in 1942, she was never really happy as a model, even though she was internationally famous by the age of eighteen, was working with all the top photographers on both sides of the Atlantic and appearing on the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair.
Jean Shrimpton's services were in great demand, yet she never made a fraction of the sums earned by the supermodels of today. She has commented, “Today’s models are more concerned with money. We were not. We never earned very much.” She also pointed out that in her day models were expected to arrive on time with their hair done and make-up in place. “Unlike today,” she says, “there were no hairdressers and make-up artists in the sessions.” Shrimpton graduated from the Lucie Clayton modelling school and fell in love with photographer David Bailey, a married man. The naïve girl from the country and the streetwise cockney set up house together in a scruffy London basement stuffed with animals and birds, including 24 finches and lovebirds and two dogs, Monie and Bertie. They worked together as a team, travelling throughout Europe and America on top fashion assignments.
Bailey obtained a divorce from his wife Rosemary in December 1963, but by that time Jean, who was now known as ‘the Shrimp’, had decided she didn’t want to marry him. She also hated the name ‘the Shrimp’, saying, “Shrimps are horrible pink things that get their heads pulled off!” By January 1964 she’d embarked on a three-year affair with film actor Terence Stamp.
Although her face was famous throughout the world, her major contribution to the fashion revolution didn’t occur until 1965 when she was hired to present the prizes for the Melbourne Cup in Australia. The fashion company Orlon, who hired her, didn’t brief her on the assignment. They also sent her some inexpensive dress and suit lengths, rather than ready-made outfits.
Jean was left to design what she wanted and had them made up. She hired a dressmaker, Colin Rolf, who discovered there was not sufficient fabric for her designs. He then said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Make them a bit shorter – no one’s going to notice.” “And that’s how the mini was born,” says the Shrimp. She settled for four outfits, all above the knee.
On the day of the race she didn’t bother wearing any stockings, her dress was short, she had no hat or gloves – and the organisers were cross. The Melbourne Cup was the smartest event in the Australian year; the conservatively dressed members of Australian society who attended were shocked at her appearance, which they considered insulting and disgraceful.
She was surrounded by photographers shooting upwards to make her skirt look even shorter. She became a cause celebre. She appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world. It created a huge controversy in Australia, with half the country for her and half against – with the young people loving it. She was to say, “All over Australia your girls started shortening their skirts. The pictures, which the British newspaper had used, had the same results back home. Suddenly the mini, which had had a half-hearted start in Paris, became fashionable. “Mary Quant rode in on the back of it, immediately making shorter skirts. Many people gave her credit for the new craze, but the truth was that the mini took off because Orlon had been stingy with the fabric.” In 1967, while in New York, she began an affair with photographer Jordan Kalfus, who’d previously lived with Ali McGraw, a model who had begun a new career as a film star. The two lived together for two years, but Jean pined for London. She ended the affair in 1969. She was now 26 years old and had been modelling for eight years.
The new man in her life was Heathcote Williams, an anarchic and virtually penniless writer for the Transatlantic Revue. Their relationship proved to be a volatile one. Jean bought a house in Darnley Terrace, Holland Park, in which there was a study for Williams to work in. However, he kept a virtual open house. She was to comment that he invited many of the people he was working with to stay; “but they did not contribute to the household expenses, not even towards the telephone calls they made. I suppose they couldn’t. I was the only one with any money. I did not take too much notice at first, but when the money began to run out and I was forced to look for work, I began to think differently.” The two argued and split up. Malcolm, a friend of Williams, arrived on her doorstep one day. She told him that Heathcote didn’t live there any more, but invited him to stay. They became lovers and the affair lasted for seven years.
They decided to visit Cornwall where Malcolm had studied at Falmouth Art School. He also had a Cornish wife and a girlfriend who’d had his baby, before leaving him. They initially rented a cottage near Penzance, and then moved on to Wales for a time. The Shrimps’ money was shrinking fast, particularly since she had Malcolm’s wife, girlfriend and two children to consider. After two years in Wales they moved back to London, sold the big house in Holland Park and bought a smaller property near Ladbroke Grove. Malcolm became homesick for Cornwall and because Jean had come to like Cornwall so much, they decided to go and live there. To earn more money she phoned her agent to ask for work and was booked for a modelling assignment in the Algarve. She was working with another model, a young Dutch girl called Willie, who was given the best clothes and more shots. Jean realised she had been superseded. The house in Wales was sold and a cottage in Camborne became their new home.
Jean was now 33 years old and realised her modelling days were over. A friend suggested she open an antiques shop.One of her customers was a tall, handsome blond man, Michael Cox. When Malcolm had become involved with a group of Buddhists who had decided to move on to Cambridgeshire, he opted to go with them. Jean stayed behind in Cornwall and her affair with Michael began. He was to divorce his wife Caroline and the couple were married at Penzance register office in January 1979. Jean was three months pregnant at the time. They held their wedding reception at the Abbey Hotel, an old Gothic-fronted house that overlooked the harbour. Her pregnancy was a difficult one because she has a condition called hyperemesis-gravidarum, which causes acute dehydration. Soon after their son Thaddeus was born, they heard that the Abbey Hotel was up for sale and decided to buy it. That is where Jean, Michael and Thaddeus live today and Jean is happier than she’s ever been.
She was never comfortable with the trappings of success – when David Bailey used to take her to trendy nightclubs, she’d take her knitting with her! – and loved running her hotel. The Abbey Hotel is an enchanting place – and there is not one picture of ‘the Shrimp’ as a model to be found anywhere on the premises!