To Mary’s legion of fans, her death on 19 August 1979 seemed like a wholly unexpected event. Few, if any of them, knew of her cocaine addiction, her long-term battle with acute depression or the difficulties she was experiencing in her marriage. Such was the nature of Mary’s career, her death was not reported on BBC1’s Nine O’Clock News, but most of the daily newspapers – from tabloids like The Sun and Daily Mirror right through to broadsheets such as the Daily Telegraph – did cover the story. A few national and local radio stations reported on Mary’s passing too. DJ Dave Cash spoke movingly of his ex-lover on his Capital Radio show, and played the Three Degrees’ song ‘When Will I see You Again’, as well as Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ in tribute to her.
Within days of Mary’s death sack-loads of condolence letters started arriving at David Sullivan’s Upton Lane offices, in East London. Within seven days he had received several thousand letters, cards, cheques and floral tributes. As I’ve written before, the outpouring of grief from Mary’s fans, was almost akin to her being some sort of pornographic Princess Diana. In the wake of her death, David Sullivan took the decision to publish the first of many ‘tribute magazines’. Now, I have very mixed feelings about these publications – as I do about the posthumous film biography Mary Millington’s True Blue Confessions (1980) – but what cannot be denied is the fact that these magazines were purchased by fans in staggering quantities.
Between 1979 and 1984 there were thirteen ‘tribute titles’ published, under the Whitehouse, Playbirds, Playbirds Continental and Cockade umbrellas. Several of the titles featured abridged versions of Mary’s 1978 autobiography The Amazing Mary Millington, or her wholly-fabricated The Sexploits of Mary Millington (1977). In addition, Listen with Playbirds was launched not long after her death; the premier issue featured a free flexi-disc of Mary speaking, recorded two years earlier. The magazines never shied away from the circumstances surrounding Mary’s death, and many reproduced a stark black & white photograph of her grave on the day of her funeral. The editorials were also remarkably candid in their approach to Mary’s ‘real life’, mentioning, for the first time, her childhood, mother, marriage and other aspects of her early career; even re-printing her 1974 cover-girl appearance on Knave (vol. 6 no. 3), originally published by David Sullivan’s one-time, top-shelf rival, Russell Gay.
David and I talked about these magazines quite recently, and although he admits he probably wouldn’t take the same approach nowadays, he stressed that Mary’s fans were “demanding as much souvenir material as possible” relating to Mary. The sales figures for these magazines certainly cannot be denied: well over two million copies were sold during a 5 year period. “You have to understand I almost wanted to make Mary more famous in death, than when she was alive,” David told me. “I didn’t want anybody to forget her, or what she stood for.”
All words and photos strictly © Simon Sheridan 2014-2015