Michael White in the early 1970s. All photos courtesy of Michael White unless otherwise stated
How do you begin to tell the story of a man who’s spent his life telling the stories of others? I'm sitting on the floor of impresario Michael White’s home in London's fashionable Westbourne Grove, sifting through an endless collection of photo albums and trying to work out the answer.
“I have 20,000 photographs of people. I only like to take pictures of people, not places,” says Michael, casually ignoring the fact that the “people” he’s talking about happen to be some of the most iconic figures from the past four decades of popular culture.
Bruce Anderson, Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Thatcher, Naomi Watts
Here’s a picture of a young Bob Geldof holding a pair of Easter eggs; there’s a photo of Jack Nicholson flexing his muscles by a pool; a few pages down, Naomi Watts, conservative columnist Bruce Anderson, and Margaret Thatcher are leafing through books next to a Christmas tree. On his mantelpiece there’s a tiny framed picture of Kate Moss with Michael’s son in her lap, taken on vacation sometime in the 1990s.
“Michael White is the most famous person you’ve never heard of,” says actress Greta Scacchi in The Last Impresario, an upcoming documentary about his life. You might not have heard of him, but there’s no doubt you’ll be familiar with his work.
Michael White, Susan Sarandon, Boy George
Having basically discovered men like John Cleese—as well as introducing women like Yoko Ono and Pina Bausch to Britain—he’s had a hand in shaping the sensibilities of both your generation and your parents’. Meanwhile, his productions Oh! Calcutta, The Rocky Horror Show and Polyester liberated the concept of camp and elevated it to a mainstream aesthetic.
As profiled in The Last Impresario, Michael White is, despite his impressive social life, remarkably shy and not particularly interested in talking about himself. The Michael I’ve come to know over the past month, is a heavily asthmatic 78-year-old man I wish I’d met ten years ago—before all the parties I’d love to have been invited to took a toll on his health.
Michael White at the Electric Cinema in August 2014. Photo by Jake Lewis
I first met Michael in August at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, there to interview him about the UK release of The Last Impresario. Indeed, I hadn’t heard of him before reading the promo email, and chances are I wouldn’t have because I’m prone to deleting PR emails before I’ve even opened them. But the mention of The Rocky Horror Show grabbed my attention; I saw a (possibly not amazing) production of the show in Athens when I was 16, and its shamelessness scandalized me in all the right ways.
So along I went to the documentary’s press preview, realizing during the screening that basically everything I like had been made possible by Michael White.
The film begins at the opening of the 2010 Cannes festival, where director Gracie Otto noticed that “everyone gravitated towards an elegant old man holding court at the center of this huge party.”
The next 90 minutes or so are a narration of his life and an analysis of his character, based largely on a series of interviews with some pretty influential people—John Waters, Yoko Ono, Kate Moss, music producer Lou Adler, John Cleese, actor Wallace Shawn, and the Icelandic artist Erró—to name a few.
I guess that was Otto’s way of telling Michael’s story—for a directorial debut, her list of characters is pretty fucking impressive.
Anna Wintour, John Galliano
Then again, maybe it was White's character that had inclined all these personalities to talk. I wanted to see for myself how the magnetism described in the film comes across in person. So we found ourselves sitting on a red leather couch at the back of a theater, trying to have a conversation. His ability to talk has been severely impaired since an almost fatal stroke in 2005, and I have a heavy foreign accent, so communication shouldn’t have been easy. Yet, by the end of the day, I was in some kind of love.
But Michael, who’s been married twice, doesn’t believe in monogamy. He says, “It’s human nature to desire ‘the new’.” In the film, he’s described by both friends and ex-lovers as a playboy—though more funny than suave. A guy who embraces women and is able to spot that special something in someone. According to Vogue EIC Anna Wintour, he was the first person to talk to her about Kate Moss.
Kate Moss, Michael White and his youngest son, Ben
“I’m the best person to invite to a party,” he tells me. “Because I will always come with a pretty girl.”
And yet you’ve stayed friends with all your ex-girlfriends, I respond. How did you manage to keep all these women devoted to you for so long?
Jerry Hall, Helmut Newton
He says this is a question he can’t answer but I think I can: He’s fun. He came to our first meeting wearing a blue embroidered jacket, tartan pants, and tennis shoes, and told me I “dress well.” I asked about the parties he hosted and attended in his heyday, and he told me the best one was the opening of Studio 54, despite the fact he couldn’t remember anything about it.
He suggested I check out his photographs from the night instead, so I gave him my number and three days later he got in touch. I wasn’t really expecting the call, but I should have been; Michael is a genuine social creature—one of those people whose existence seems to be reliant on human interaction.
Since then, every time I’ve met him he’s listened carefully and taken the time to talk to me about all the places he’s seen. He uses very few words, but those he manages to utter say a lot.
Meg Matthews, Noel Gallagher, Lisa Moorish
Michael was born in Glasgow in 1936 to a relatively affluent family, but was sent to boarding school in Switzerland at the age of seven. There, he learned how to speak French—and later German and Italian—simply because none of the other boys spoke English. He studied at the Sorbonne and his first theater job was as an assistant to the legendary impresario Peter Daubeney.
“Peter was working on the World Theatre Season festival at the time, which brought foreign plays to London. I saw Comédie-Française, the Berliner Ensemble… it made me want to keep on watching.”
Recalling those early days, he’s delightfully unapologetic about misbehaving. “My first play was The Connection in 1961,” he says. “It’s by Jack Gelber and it’s about a group of drug-addicted jazz musicians waiting for their dealer. Theater then was censored by Lord Chamberlain, and in The Connection the actors pretended to inject themselves with heroin.”
A series of similarly controversial projects followed, including Son of Oblomov with comedian Spike Milligan; the Cambridge Circus revue with Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, David Hatch, Bill Oddie, Chris Stuart-Clark, and Jo Kendall; and Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta!, which featured the greatest amount of nudity audiences of the time had seen, possibly even in their private lives.
Michael White, Andrew Lloyd Webber
“David Merrick once told me that people want to see sex. ‘Put sex on stage – a pretty girl – and the audience will come.’ And so they came for Oh! Calcutta!. I didn’t know it was going to be so big, and some reviews were terrible, but it ran in London for seven years, and in New York for 13.”
The crowds kept on coming for the next 20 years or so, both to the theater and subsequently the screens. There was The Rocky Horror Show and its film adaptation; A Chorus Line; Annie; Monty Python and the Holy Grail; My Dinner with Andre; Polyester; The Comic Strip Presents; Widow’s Peak; even 1990 comedy Nuns on the Run.
Roman Polanski, Anjelica Huston
Does he have a favorite? “I love all my productions, even those that didn’t do well. I don’t like to focus on the bad stuff.”
That doesn’t mean the disappointments have been few. On the contrary; in addition to a succession of flops—like the New York staging of Barry Humphries’ Housewife Superstar—Michael famously lost the rights of The Rocky Horror Show to Lou Adler and was later forced to sell a vast amount of his personal archive to survive bankruptcy. Still, the party carried on for a while, until it all caught up with him in a series of strokes.
Hunter S. Thompson
In The Last Impresario, Kate Moss maintains that Michael “probably goes out more than me these days,” but my impression is that, in the past few years at least, he’s gradually retired from public life. And it’s obvious he’s not OK with it. He usually cuts our meetings short saying he’s tired, but calls a few days later to arrange another.
Jack Nicholson, Dodi Fayed
The walls of his one-bedroom home are covered with posters of his work, and every other surface is consumed by photographs of his friends and family. He didn’t go to Cannes this summer, which had been a lifelong habit of his, but will be spending this winter enjoying his second ex-wife Louise’s garden in California.
Michael White in London, 1983
Back in April, Michael was presented with the Olivier Award for Lifetime Achievement, but remains “very unprejudiced. People of my generation tend to look down on new work, or say young people don’t take risks, but I don’t think anything was better before or now. I think there will always be good people doing good things.”
I trust him on that. If there’s anyone to convince you that cynicism is for losers, it’s Michael White.
The Last Impresario is out now in UK theaters and On Demand.
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