My friend Greta Morrison died last month. Here’s her obituary from The Times >>.
When Greta Morrison co-founded the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club, many of its male clientele, even the royal ones, admitted an acquaintance with her of sorts in their teenage years. “She even managed to make the prospect of a day return to Saffron Walden seem exciting,” said Robert Lacey, remembering her in a tight-fitting T-shirt on a poster for Intercity rail travel.
Read The Times >> obituary.
And here is my tribute to Greta at her funeral in Amersham on August 31st:
Greta Morrison – Remembered
I never thought that Greta would ever die. There was something so strong and resilient about her – and beautiful, too. It seems like it was only this morning that the phone rang – ‘Hello, dahling! This is Gret-ta’.
With that cascading of ‘t’s’ and the Canadian twang in her accent.
As well as that eye-contact that mesmerised you, even down the phone-line. God! Greta’s eyes were beautiful . . .
She was a life-force in my own life, as I know that she was in all of yours, so I just didn’t take it that seriously a few years back when I heard that she had cancer – serious pancreatic cancer: the killer. Surely not “our Gret”. Not dear Gret of the prancing Manolo Blahniks – so stretched and vibrant, just like their owner. Gret had struck out for herself with such courage and success after the tragic coma, then death, of Bryan back in 2008. She had even found herself a boyfriend who was one of the country’s leading cancer specialists, for God’s sake. And for a time, it seemed, she had beaten it. Her smile, her spirit, her ‘Greta-ness’ appeared to have triumphed. But it was not to be.
So for the last few weeks it has been my honour and painful privilege to be speaking to the people who knew her best and closest. Some of you are here this morning, and I must thank you very much for your insights which have enriched my own picture of Greta so greatly. Some of you are names going back into the ancient history of the swinging 60s, and particularly the 1970s, which Greta, beautiful Greta helped to shape; some of the era’s greatest photographers and stylists – from London, Paris, Switzerland, Germany, Canada – and all of you agreed on Greta’s specialness, her reliability and her overflowing bounty as a friend, girlfriend, wife and mother.
The extraordinary thing was that no one – NO-ONE – could remember Greta ever uttering one nasty, spiteful or unkind word. There was no malice in this incredibly beautiful woman. Perhaps her extraordinary, physical beauty meant that she never had to envy anyone in her life. But above all, it demonstrated how with her, beauty was very much more than skin-deep.
Having said that, I just discovered this week that her brother Phil’s strongest and abiding early memory of his elder sister is of Greta feeding him a living worm sandwich at the age of five.
Like thousands of red-blooded Englishmen – and I can see a healthy number of them here today – I fell in love with Greta Morrison before I even met her. She was the “Away Day” (Inter-City) girl who advertised British Rail so brilliantly in the mid-1970s. She even managed to make the prospect of a day return to Saffron Walden seem exciting! I remember the wonderful poster of her exploding out of her t-shirt so invitingly. The picture was hanging on the wall outside the kitchen in Bartlett House, where she and Bryan were such generous hosts to Sandi and my family for many summers in the late 1980s and 90s – we were semi-permanent lodgers!! And it seemed uncanny, if you ever caught a glimpse of her standing beside it even twenty or thirty years later, how the essence of Greta was not a single day older.
Greta van Rantwyk was born in Montreal, Canada in July 1944 to Florence and Harry van Rantwyk. Harry was a music professor of Dutch extraction – warm and kindly with handsome cheekbones – a good-looking man and a genial presence when he came to live with Greta and Bryan in their Old Church Street studio with the high windows, beside the Chelsea Arts’ Club.
It seems reasonable to assume that Greta’s warm and outgoing character came from Harry, along with the twinkle in her eye and the incredible good looks. Her mother, Florence, a Canadian of British birth and a former accountant, was also handsome. But the boyfriends I have spoken to found Florence the accountant somewhat severe when they were taken home for audit, and it would certainly seem that Greta’s practical sense of purpose and head for figures came from her.
Phil remembers his sister teaching him how to swim in the bathtub when he was only a few years old and also taking him out in the streets of Montreal in the snow to show him how to ski and to toboggan on old planks of wood. Her parents sent her to Trafalgar School for Girls, known as TRAF, a classy Quebec academy mingling English and French culture that ignited her passion for theatre and the arts that would mark her whole life. When she left school, she started modelling for Eileen Ford and other agents, travelling to New York, then crossing to London later in the 1960s, where her look was seized on by the great photographers of the era, like Harri Peccinotti.
Hans Feurer, the brilliant German photographer who shot some of the most striking images of Greta in the early 1970s, remembers her self-sufficiency, her insistence on earning her own living and on supporting herself. ‘She was always 100 percent organised,’ he recalls. Interestingly, Feurer says he never saw Greta as a ‘model’. He was just drawn to her as a person, as a self-standing entity, that inspired him to photograph her portrait, be it of her body or her face.
‘Her nature was just beautiful, almost saintly,’ he said to me last week. ‘She was always like sunshine – just completely, totally GOOD.’ In those days, in the late 1960s/early 1970s, she was married to a British photographer called Tony Norris, so that became her professional name – Greta Norris. The Norrises shared a house in Bayswater, in Connaught Street, and Greta helped with a lot of her husband’s catalogue work. But the photos that really made her name were taken by Peccinotti and Feurer. Many appeared in Nova, the stylish, rebellious, question-asking magazine of the period, the magazine that broke taboos – the magazine with ‘Attitude’ for thinking, working women.
The thing about models is not just that they happen to be pretty, but that their looks mean something. Great models are successful because their looks explain something about their era. In the case of Greta’s strength and style and poise – the qualities that we are celebrating today – it was a revolt against the itsy-bitsy superficiality of the Swinging Sixties. Fashion had got into a cul-de-sac, and Greta was welcomed by fashion editors like Nova’s Molly Parkin as a refreshing, real-life alternative to the tired and skinny ‘Shrimp and Twiggy’ syndrome – a return to normality ‘She was one of the new wave of better-upholstered body shapes for the 1970s,’ in the words of fashion guru Michael Roberts. ‘Her body expressed her soul and spirit.’
Stephanie McLean, later Mrs Barry Sheen, and Francesca ‘Chechy’ Maskell were part of the same shapely trend. As Stephanie put it to me from Queensland last week in red-blooded Australian terms: ‘We had more breast on us than the average Twiggy.’
‘Greta was just properly made,’ said Harry Peccinotti. ‘In soul and body. She was a professional. I just loved working with her. She was never moody, never a prima donna. I remember an endless shoot in India when she was just so very patient. A saint. One of the pictures finished up on a record sleeve.’
Bryan Morrison, the flamboyant pop music impresario, manager at various times of Pink Floyd, T-Rex and The Pretty Things, then music publisher of The Jam, Wham! and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, swept her off her feet when they met – and vice versa. The thing about Bryan was that he stood for much more than just pop music. He was the M in the creative furniture company OMK, whose chrome and black leather furniture won international awards, and was partner with Rodney Kinsman in the Kinsman Morrison gallery which staged one of London’s earliest exhibitions of an artist from the north called David Hockney.
Greta brought an extra dimension to all of Bryan’s activities, and none more so than to the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club which he founded with Norman Lobell in 1985. Bryan had played polo with Prince Charles, so it was natural that the Prince should become the club’s first honorary member. But it was surely the prospect of galloping across the green sward in front of Greta’s beautiful and admiring eyes that drew the Prince to come and play matches at the Berkshire quite so often. The admiration was mutual.
Following Bryan’s death she became Club Chairman, then President, and in these last twelve months, ailing though she was, she made it her special project to redesign and refurbish the club pavilion to dramatically upgraded standards. That was another of Greta’s talents: she had such taste and a gift for presentation; all her homes were so beautiful – she knew how to make things look good. So this July the Royal Berkshire became the venue for the prestigious Polo International for the very first time, just a few days after the glamorous Sentebale Polo Cup charity match, featuring Prince Harry and his new wife Meghan Markle. Greta was there for both occasions, less than a month from her death, greeting the royal couple from her wheelchair – with both events revolving around the opening of her magnificent new, five-star pavilion, to which we shall be adjourning later.
As Michael Amoore, the long-serving mainstay and general manager of the club, put it: ‘Those were three great achievements for her final weeks – and three wonderful trophies for her to take up there to Bryan.’
Greta’s strengths emerged over the years, as a gentle mother to her children, Jamie and Karina, whose beauty and success keep her memory alive, and also as a support to Bryan following his tragic death. As Michael Amoore says, ‘The very survival of the Royal Berkshire after Bryan’s accident was down to Greta, and to the hard-headed business decisions she took to ensure the club’s survival. “It’s not going to happen on my watch,” she said.’
These were also the years in which, with her friends Sandra Cronan and Francesca Schwarzenbach, Greta founded the charity HITS – Head Injury Through Sport – which had raised more than a quarter of a million pounds before her death, to help sufferers from brain trauma, either from birth, through illness, or from an accident, with particular contributions to the work of the National Brain Appeal and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. The new Neuro Imaging Centre at Queen’s Square has dramatically reduced waiting times for treatment and has produced more positive, clinical outcomes for thousands.
Greta was a person who got things DONE. Karina has told me how she has been amazed on going through her mother’s things in the last few weeks, to discover how ordered everything was. She had a mission to make sure everything was where it should be – all the videos in one place, the photos in another, a box with all Karina’s wedding things and a little book with a single G on the cover. Inside this book were pasted letters and poems and articles that meant a lot to her, including one, an article from The Guardian, in which she had carefully highlighted the sentences expressing what it felt to suffer from the cancer that she fought so hard.
It was her incredible willpower that kept her going. Edina Ronay remembers the party that Greta held to celebrate the end of her second round of chemo, looking so wonderful, and refusing to accept that she was suffering from an ultimately fatal disease. She was still going out to the West End and to fringe theatre events – that legacy of her TRAF years in Montreal – with James, her companion in the final dozen years of her life. They travelled together to Machu Pichu, to the Galapagos Islands and to Antarctica. Greta had always wanted to see those wonders of the world before she died – and she made sure that she did.
My wife Jane and I had lunch with them in the spring, at Michael Parkinson’s pub at Paley Street, where Greta spoke with such pride of Jamie and Karina, and the special private prelude-to-marriage that her grandchildren were staging at home for Jamie and his fiancée Lucy. She took huge delight in showing us a note from her grand-daughter Maha, the next generation – ‘Darling “GG”, I love you more than the stars!’
Well, that’s it, folks. Greta has gone. If I have cried once in the last four weeks since her death, I have cried a dozen times. I have been sitting at a table trying to remember and to talk the words about her, and suddenly the words just won’t come . . . It’s how I feel now.
For those of us who were friends of Bryan and Greta, with all the nonsense and fun of Bartlett House and the building of the Polo Club – the decades of champagne that we drank, the laughs that we had and, yes, the money that we wasted – this is the end of an era. When we walk out of the tent today, it will be over. We wish you luck in the future, dear Jamie and Karina, but you’re on your own now.
And so are we . . . .
But, actually, of course, we are NOT on our own. You two children have all sorts of support systems, many of them put in place by your inspiring mother.
And WE too have her memory to inspire us — Which is why we are here today, to say good-bye to our dear friend, but also to celebrate all that she was and all that she stood for.
You were just the very best, dear Greta. You left us so many wonderful memories to enjoy and to treasure – your beauty, your taste, your sensitivity, and above all your kindness.
All those beautiful things that you looked, and all those beautiful things that you were.
Good-bye, dear friend. Thank you, Greta. We shall never forget.
Robert Lacey: 31st August 2018