The Rolling Stones muse formed one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most unforgettable love triangles—one steeped in elegance and tragedy

By Jordan Runtagh
June 14, 2017 07:30 PM
Credit: J Wilds/Getty; McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

With the death of Anita Pallenberg, the world lost an icon of the Swinging Sixties. The Italian-German model became a fashion It Girl of the age and her friendship with Andy Warhol integrated her into the cutting edge art world. She appeared in cult movie classics including Candy (featuring Ringo Starr) and Jane Fonda’s Barbarella, but her most famous role is undoubtedly that of muse for the Rolling Stones. Her high-profile relationships with two of the band’s guitarists, Brian Jones and Keith Richards, made her an enduring part of the Stones’ mythology. It became one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most unforgettable love triangles—one steeped in elegance and tragedy.

Pallenberg first crossed paths with the Rolling Stones in 1965, when she snuck into one of the band’s concerts in Munich, Germany. The exquisitely beautiful 21-year-old model was able to talk her way backstage, where she quickly hit it off with Jones, the enigmatic rhythm guitarist and founder of the group. The fact that he spoke German certainly helped. She produced amyl nitrates—poppers—from her purse and offered them around. Jones was the only one who accepted. “I don’t know who you are, but I need you,” the besotted guitarist told her. They returned to his hotel, but instead of a night of torrid passion, Pallenberg held Jones while he apparently sobbed, hurt by a perceived slight by his band mates, Richards and Mick Jagger. The rift between Jones and the two Stones frontmen, dubbed the Glimmer Twins in the press, would intensify.

Pallenberg and Jones quickly became an item. Or, as she later recalled, “I decided to kidnap Brian. Brian seemed sexually the most flexible.” The fashionista would have a marked effect on the reticent Jones’ style, cutting his hair into a delicate blonde bob, and encouraging him to don flamboyant, androgynous attire. They swapped outfits and jewelry on regular basis, setting trends in the hip fashion districts of Carnaby Street and King’s Road. She once summed up her style as “Boots, belts, cashmere, hats, sunglasses, furs as well.”

For all the colorful clothes, she introduced a dark edge to the band, turning them on to occult imagery and encouraging them to embrace “evil” as a subject matter. The Rolling Stones’ 1968 hit “Sympathy for the Devil” is largely her inspiration—she lends her voice to the “hoo hoo!” on the backing vocals. Filmmaker Kenneth Anger, no stranger to the demonic (Lucifer Rising is arguably his most famous work), once said, “I believe Anita is, for want of a better word, a witch.” Photographer Tony Sanchez, a longtime assistant to the band, agreed. “She was obsessed with black magic and began to carry a string of garlic with her everywhere — even to bed — to ward off vampires,” he wrote. “She also had a strange mysterious old shaker for holy water, which she used for some of her rituals. Her ceremonies became increasingly secret, and she warned me never to interrupt her when she was working on a spell.”

By 1967, Jones and Pallenberg were one of the hottest couples in London, but their drug use took a toll on the relationship. They began to experiment with LSD, which had a disastrous effect on Jones’ tenuous mental state, giving him horrendous nightmares. He was also prone to jealous rages that often turned violent. “He was short but very strong and his assaults were terrible,” she later said. “For days afterwards, I’d have lumps and bruises all over me. In his tantrums he would throw things at me, whatever he could pick up—lamps, clocks, chairs, a plate of food—then when the storm inside him died down he’d feel guilty and beg me to forgive him.” At one point he punched her face with such force that it broke his own hand.

Richards moved into the South Kensington home Jones shared with Pallenberg that spring while his own estate was being renovated. Richards found himself drawn to the enigmatic model’s worldly nature. “She knew everything and she could say it in five languages,” he once marveled. “She scared the pants off me!” He began to question whether she was with the right man. “The first time I saw Anita my obvious reaction was ‘What the f— is a chick like that doing with Brian?’ Anita’s incredibly strong, a much stronger personality than Brian, more confident, with no reservations, whereas Brian was full of doubts.”

That March, the threesome decided to make a trip to Morocco, where Jones had previously fallen in love with the music, food and laid back lifestyle. Unfortunately, on this trip, Richards fell in love Pallenberg. “We went by car, a Bentley with a driver, and Brian got sick and ended up in the hospital,” she remembered. “He had asthma. He was very sickly, fragile. So Keith and I drove on and left him there, and that was when we had a physical relationship.” Richards says the affair began in the backseat of his luxury car as it cruised through southern Europe. “I still remember the smell of the orange trees in Valencia. When you get laid with Anita Pallenberg for the first time, you remember things.”

Pallenberg split with Jones for good soon after, further straining relations within the band. Jones, alienated from Richards and Jagger, sought solace in drugs and alcohol, wreaking havoc on his health. By the following year he was a shadow of his former self, abdicating his role as a co-creator in the Rolling Stones. His musical contributions had dwindled by the time they recorded 1969’s Let It Bleed, and he was asked to leave the band that June. Within a month he was found dead in the swimming pool of his East Sussex estate, a farm formerly owned by Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne. He was an early entry into the infamous 27 Club. “Having to deal with his jealousy— it becomes intolerable, and you can get really nasty about it,” Richards reflected. “I tried to be fair to him. But to be honest, he was a bit of a bastard. And it doesn’t surprise me that he came to a sticky end.”

The band soldiered on, as did Pallenberg’s relationship with Richards. She became pregnant while filming the 1970 film Performance, which starred Jagger. “In those days we did not plan families,” she later said. “I certainly did not want to get married, but I got pregnant. And then because I had to do a film, Performance, I had to have a termination to do the film. I resented it very much.” Rumors persisted for decades that Pallenberg and Jagger had an affair during filming—Richards alludes to it in his 2010 autobiography, Life—but she repeatedly claimed that bedroom scenes with the singer were strictly onscreen. Regardless, the day the sex scenes were filmed, a gloomy Richards penned the haunting “Gimme Shelter.”

After the filming wrapped she became pregnant once again, giving birth to son Marlon Leon Sundeep in August 1969. Daughter Dandelion Angela was born in April 1972, and son Tara Jo Jo Gunne followed in March 1976. Though their fast living was not always conducive to parenthood, their family was shattered when 10-week-old Tara was found dead in his crib, a victim of pneumonia caused by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Richards, who was away on tour, faced criticism for performing the night he learned of his son’s death. “It was such a shock at the time,” he told the BBC in 2015. “I’m getting a phone call in Paris and this happened in Geneva, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go mad unless I do this show tonight. If I just sit here with this idea, I don’t know what I’ll do.’ Maybe it was just a sense of self-preservation … it was a rough, rough thing. I had a feeling: ‘This is a show and I must go on stage. I’ll worry and grieve and think about this all after the show.’ Because if didn’t go on the stage I’d have probably shot myself.”

Credit: McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

Richards’ mother held Pallenberg responsible for the infant’s death and sought custody of young Angela. Pallenberg continued to raise Marlon but descended deeper into a haze of drug addiction. In 1977 the couple were busted in Toronto for possession of heroin. The Canadian Mounties charged Richards with “possession for the purpose of trafficking” — an offense that carried a prison sentence of seven years to life. Although the charges were later reduced to mere possession—for which he received a suspended sentence and one year prohibition—the incident was damaging to his relationship with the Rolling Stones, and also with his partnership with Pallenberg.

The longtime couple, never married, had drifted apart by 1979 when Pallenberg became close with Scott Cantrell, the 17-year-old groundskeeper of the home she had shared with Richards in South Salem, New York. The exact nature of their relationship is disputed, but Cantrell reportedly confided in friends that he and Pallenberg, 20 years his senior, had fallen in love while Richards was away in Paris.

On the night of July 20, the teen was found dead in Pallenberg’s bed. While it was rumored that he had been playing Russian roulette, Pallenberg told police that Cantrell “was lying on top of the bed, over the covers” watching television and that she “was tidying up” with her back toward him when she heard a shot. “He was lying on his back and I turned him over,” she said. “I heard a gurgling sound. He was choking on his blood. I picked up the revolver and put it on the chest of drawers. I don’t like guns.”

Cantrell’s family vehemently rejected the idea that he had taken his own life. “Scott could be depressed and mad at someone, but 10 minutes later he’d be fine,” his brother Jim told PEOPLE at the time. “I don’t believe Scott deliberately pulled the trigger.” Regardless, police deemed the death a suicide.

The romance between Richards and Pallenberg had cooled by the dawn of the ‘80s, but their friendship remained warm for the rest of her life. “She’s still one of my best friends,” Richards told Rolling Stone in 2010. “We’ve been through the mill. And she admits she could be Vampirella when she wanted. It was tough. At the same time, there is an underlying love that goes beyond all of that other stuff. I can say, ‘I love you, I just won’t live with you.’”