Did This French Aristocrat Have a Hand in the Deaths of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Other '60s Icons?
Twenty-seven-year-old Jim Morrison was found dead in the bathtub of his Paris apartment in the early morning hours of July 3, 1971. Beyond those few facts, little else is agreed upon. A French medical examiner ruled that a heart attack ended the life of the Doors frontman, but no autopsy was ever performed. Half a century later, fans continue to question the official story. Morrison's death has become the rock 'n' roll equivalent of the JFK assassination, spawning a dizzying array of legends that mix fact and myth. Finding the truth at the heart of these wildly divergent tales becomes less possible with each passing year, but amidst the confusion and misinformation, one man's name appears with startling regularity.
Count Jean de Breteuil is a shadowy figure about which little is known. To some, he was a handsome jet-setting playboy who squandered his life of luxury. To others, he was the snake that slithered into the '60s Garden of Eden. By most accounts, the self-styled "dealer to the stars" pandered to the vices of the rich and famous, enabling the addictions that cost many their lives. Despite his oversized role in rock history, he's been reduced to a footnote due to a code of secrecy that surrounded music's elite and the premature demise of many key players. His own death in 1972 at the age of 22 marked the end of a truly unusual life — simultaneously charmed and cursed.
He was born in 1949 to an aristocratic Parisian family who owned the majority of French newspapers in francophone North Africa. Following the death of his father in 1960, young Breteuil stood to inherit a substantial fortune and a title, making him the latest Count de Breteuil in a lineage that stretched back over 500 years. "He was a handsome and communicative guy," an associate recalled in the Spanish publication El País, "He belonged to a circle of bohemian boys from well-to-do families who smoked hashish, took LSD, and traveled to India. They could afford it." His father's business interests in Africa put Breteuil in contact with operatives at the Moroccan embassy, through which he reportedly began trafficking drugs — first hashish and eventually heroin.
After selling to high-society figures in Paris and London, Breteuil relocated to California in 1967. Enrolled at UCLA, his studies were little more than a cover for his illicit activities. "He had bribed the driver for the Moroccan consulate in LA to bring the diplomatic mail to his apartment in Westwood before bringing it to the embassy," Roger Steffens, who was acquainted with Breteuil, claims to PEOPLE. "There was usually a pound or two of hashish in there, and he was feeding hash to the entire campus of UCLA."
It was likely around this time that Breteuil met Pamela Courson. Though in the midst of her tempestuous (and reportedly open) long-term relationship with Morrison, she was captivated by Breteuil's noble background and loved the idea of dating what she loftily called "real French royalty." On Breteuil's arm, Courson gained entry to the fabulously wealthy French consular crowd, a coterie of exquisitely dressed beautiful people flying high on Lear Jets and the drugs stashed in their diplomatic pouches. Together, she and Breteuil took trips abroad, purchasing exotic fabrics and materials to stock Themis, the clothing store Morrison had bought her.
The Doors singer was less than impressed by his rival for Courson's affections. His 1968 song "Love Street," is said to reference Courson's shopping excursions with Breteuil, whom he loathed: "She has robes and she has junkies, lazy diamond-studded flunkies." (He changed "junkies" to "monkeys" in the final version.) Tensions mounted as Courson began sampling Breteuil's deadly wares. Morrison hated heroin, and his burgeoning alcoholism shortened his temper. Shouting matches were frequent between the two. Courson usually stormed out, often finding solace with Breteuil.
She traveled with him to Marrakesh, the Moroccan haven for high-class hippies like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Graham Nash. Together they stayed at Villa Taylor, the Breteuils' spacious family home in the European quarter just outside the ancient city walls. Built in the '20s by a granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant, the Moorish estate had hosted the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Yves Saint Laurent. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill stayed at Villa Taylor during the Second World War, when the house served as the city's American headquarters. Churchill was so entranced by the sunset over the Atlas Mountains that he had his staff carry the wheelchair-bound FDR to the top of the property's five-story tower to see for himself. By the time Courson arrived at Villa Taylor some 25 years later, Churchill's painting of the vista — the only artwork he completed during the war — hung in the sitting room.
These visits to Morocco allowed Breteuil to collect unusually potent heroin, which he dispensed to his high-profile clients in Los Angeles. One of these may have been Janis Joplin, who was found dead of a heroin overdose in her room at the Landmark Hotel on October 4, 1970.
According to Mercy Fontenot (a.k.a Miss Mercy) of the pioneering all-female rock band the GTOs, Breteuil dropped by shortly after selling Joplin her fatal dose. "Jean came to visit me, bringing me the same heroin he had just given Janis," she claims in her 2021 memoir, Permanent Damage, "He wanted to test the smack on me, basically use me as his guinea pig…But as soon as he shot me up, I knew something had gone very wrong." As she felt herself slipping into drugged unconsciousness, Breteuil revived her with a blast of cocaine, known to counteract the effects of opioids. Joplin was not so lucky.
"Neither of us knew at the time that Janis would overdose from this same batch of heroin," Fontenot continues. "Jean left the smack with me, but it was so strong, I couldn't handle it." She says she gave the remaining heroin to musician Gram Parsons, who shared with a friend. The friend nearly overdosed. (Parsons himself would fatally OD in 1973.)
That weekend, nine people across Los Angeles died from nearly pure heroin. Joplin was one of them. "When I heard the news on the radio, I said, 'Oh, yikes. Whoops.' It was very sad. Janis was only two blocks away from me," Fontenot added. "Jean was seriously freaked out. I know he did not mean for that to happen to Janis." There were whispers throughout the underground that someone had gotten sloppy. No responsible dealer would spread that kind of uncut junk without diluting it, or at least warning customers.
Having abandoned his studies at UCLA, Breteuil's status as an "illegal alien" would compound any judicial wrath if the police linked him to Joplin's death. In terror, he fled to Paris. Courson accompanied him. She left a note for Morrison, which he supposedly burned upon reading at her request. Doubly troubled by the death his fellow rock comrade and the departure of his girlfriend, he drowned his sorrows at Barney's Beanery, an infamous Hollywood watering hole where Joplin had enjoyed her last meal. As Morrison's friends mourned the loss of Joplin and the recently departed Jimi Hendrix, he was heard to mutter, "You're drinking with number three."
Courson returned to Los Angeles in December 1970. Morrison was busy recording L.A. Woman, the final album the Doors owed their label before their contract was up. With Morrison now a free agent, the couple decided to settle in Paris. The move was intended as fresh start. Fed up with the show business rat race, Morrison could leave behind the noxious influences of Los Angeles and reconnect with his muse in the City of Light. That was the theory, at least. According to one report, Courson told Morrison she was going to Paris with or without him.
She left on Valentine's Day 1971. Morrison would follow weeks later when work on L.A. Woman was complete. Alone in Paris, Courson is said to have hooked up with Breteuil and sank into the city's heroin underworld. Before long, she was using daily.
With assistance from Breteuil, she found a well-appointed three-bedroom sublet for Morrison at 17 Rue Beautreillis in the fashionable bohemian district known as Le Marais. Despite the spacious accommodations, Courson initially kept her own address. Her five-year relationship with Morrison was so combustible that they had mostly lived separately. When she finally moved into 17 Rue Beautreillis, Breteuil and his clique of wealthy addicts were regular guests. Morrison would make himself scare upon their arrival, retreating to the opposite end of the apartment as they snorted lines of fluffy pink "Cotton Candy," an especially potent variety of heroin that had recently arrived from the Far East.
A major trafficking hub, Paris in 1971 was awash with exceptionally pure heroin smuggled into the country through the port city of Marseilles — the famous "French Connection" immortalized in William Friedkin's Oscar-winning film of the same name. Shortly before Morrison's death, he pored over the Newsweek cover story "The Heroin Plague," which traced the abnormally high number of overdoses across Europe and the United States. The magazine issue was dated July 5, 1971. Morrison wouldn't live to see that date.
That summer, Breteuil's customer list had grown. He'd impressed Keith Richards by presenting him with a women's compact filled with pink powder. While the Rolling Stones camped out on the French Riviera recording the album that would become their double-disc masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, Richards gave Breteuil full use of his London townhouse on Cheyne Walk, one of the city's most exclusive rows. The prime real estate led to a boom in business. Just a few doors down lived Talitha Getty, the glamorous Dutch actress and estranged wife of Getty Oil heir John Paul Getty Jr. She reportedly became a regular customer and the two began an affair.
Breteuil also became involved with another neighbor: Marianne Faithfull. The rock queen was living in the Cheyne Walk home belonging to longtime boyfriend Mick Jagger, but their relationship had recently disintegrated. During a party at Getty's house, Faithfull met Breteuil. "He was a horrible guy, someone who had crawled out from under a stone," she would write of Breteuil in her 1994 memoir. "He was Talitha's lover, and somehow I ended up with him…It was all about drugs and sex. He was with me only because I'd been involved with Mick Jagger. In that froggy way he was obsessed with all that. To him I was très le type rock 'n' roll. I knew this species well, but as I said, he had a lot of drugs."
While juggling these numerous affairs, Breteuil somehow also found time to entertain Courson, who visited that June. Soon after, at the beginning of July, Breteuil and Faithfull traveled to Paris. They were in bed at L'Hotel, the five-star accommodations where Oscar Wilde lived out his last days, when the phone rang. It was after midnight on Saturday, July 3. "[Breteuil] got a call from Pamela Morrison [sic] and he had to leave very suddenly," Faithfull wrote. She begged to go too, desperate to meet the Doors rock god in the flesh, but Breteuil abruptly refused. "'Not now. Je t'explique later, okay? Be right back.' He slammed out of the room. But he didn't come right back. He returned in the early hours of the morning in a very agitated state and woke me up." He ordered the groggy Faithfull to get packed at once — they were heading to Morocco. "He was scared for his life," she continues. "Jim Morrison had OD'd and he had provided the smack. Jean saw himself as dealer to the stars. Now he was a small-time heroin dealer in big trouble."
It's unclear when — or even if — Morrison began to use the drug he professed to hate. In years to come, Courson would offer wildly inconsistent, and often conflicting, accounts of Morrison's death, rendering each one suspect. In some versions, she told friends he began using heroin during their stay in Paris as a way to cement their relationship. In others, he died the first night he tried it. In the most chilling retelling, the needle-phobic Morrison snorted Courson's heroin by mistake, believing it to be cocaine. Other times, Courson would deny that heroin played any role in Morrison's death whatsoever.
Breteuil's actions after leaving Faithfull in the predawn hours of July 3 are impossible to prove. Courson never mentioned Breteuil in her detailed statement to French authorities, but his presence at her apartment that morning is confirmed by Alain Ronay, a friend of Morrison's who came to assist after his body was found. In an interview with Paris-Match in 1991, Ronay says he was approached by a long-haired man in a silk scarf and leather jacket outside the door to Courson's home at 17 Rue Beautreillis.
"He looked like a ruffian," Ronay noted. "I wanted to spank his tailor." After introducing himself, Breteuil demanded to speak to Courson. "Look, she was the one who called me." he reportedly said. "I know everything. I really do." Once inside, he told Courson that he was leaving for Marrakesh. She was welcome to join him, or keep a low profile at Keith Richards' London apartment. With that, he was gone.
By nightfall, he and Faithfull were ensconced at Villa Taylor with Breteuil's mother, Countess Madeline. "It was a disaster," Faithfull wrote. "We stayed a week, both horribly strung out." They were in a bad state two days later on Monday, when they had dinner with the Countess and her young American friends, an expatriated Vietnam vet named Roger Steffens and his wife Cynthia Cottle. "The two of them were just stoned out of their minds," Steffens, now a world-renowned musicologist, author and broadcaster, tells PEOPLE. "Their eyes were all bloodshot. They were semi-coherent."
After dinner, the two couples retired to the tower to smoke some of Steffen's kif and take in the view that had so inspired Churchill. As they settled, Faithfull and Breteuil unloaded about the nightmare in Paris days earlier. "As the story was told to us by them, Pam had called Jean to her apartment early Saturday morning and said, 'Jim's in the bathtub and he's locked himself in there and I can't get any response. Will you come right over?'" Steffens recalls. "And they said they broke down the bathroom door and found him dead in the bathtub." Considering the news of Morrison's death hadn't yet made it to press, the story sounded like pure fantasy to Steffens. "I thought, 'Well, maybe they're so stoned, they hallucinated this whole thing,'" he says. "Finally, days later, the news broke that he was dead." Steffens recounted the incident in a letter to his family dated July 9, 1971 — the same day Morrison's death was announced to the public.
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Morrison's last hours — and Breteuil's involvement in them — remain a mystery. Fifty years have woven a complex web of contradictory timelines. The most radical challenge to the official narrative comes from Sam Bernett, who claims that Morrison died at the Left Bank nightclub he managed, The Rock 'n' Roll Circus. Bernett, who came forward with the story in his 2007 book The End: Jim Morrison, says that Morrison was a regular at the establishment, which catered to both celebrities and local cartels. Morrison allegedly showed up after 1 a.m. on July 3 and met with two dealers working for Breteuil looking to purchase heroin for Courson. ("Scoring is a man's job," he supposedly said.)
Bernett says he found Morrison later that night, locked in a bathroom stall unconscious — the victim of an overdose. "He had his head between his legs," he tells PEOPLE. "He had white fluid around the lips and the nose, and his eyes were closed. I saw that something was very wrong." Though obviously dead, Bernett says Breteuil's henchmen appeared and insisted otherwise. Eager to avoid a scandal, they apparently moved the body back to Morrison's apartment and dumped him a hot bath in an effort to raise his body temperature and disguise his time of death. Courson left these details out of her statement to the authorities, Bernett says, to protect Breteuil, her paramour.
What drove Morrison to allegedly try heroin is up for debate. Curiosity? Depressed after a fight with Courson? An ongoing secret dalliance with the drug? All have been speculated, but it can never be known for certain. Because no autopsy was ever performed, exactly what Morrison had in his system on July 3, 1971, will never be known. Under French law, an autopsy wasn't required because the medical examiner found no obvious evidence of foul play. With his death attributed to natural causes — a heart attack "possibly aggravated by excessive drinking" — Morrison's body was released for burial and the case was officially closed.
Most of the major characters in the scene are dead. Talitha Getty died two weeks after Morrison at age 30 of a suspected heroin overdose. Courson succumbed to her addiction in April 1974, just weeks after a court declared her Morrison's legal heir. Breteuil himself died less than a year after Morrison in Tangier on June 25, 1972, at age 22. The enormous quantity of heroin in his system reportedly led police to rule his death a suicide — or an unsolved murder.
One of the only survivors in this story is Faithfull, who regained her health and career after a lengthy period of addiction, anorexia and homelessness. In a 2014 interview with Mojo, she once again implicated Breteuil in the death of the Doors legend. "He went to see Jim Morrison and killed him," she claimed. "I mean, I'm sure it was an accident. Poor bastard. The smack was too strong and he died. Anyway, everybody connected to the death of this poor guy is dead now. Except me."
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