When Lauretta Sullivan Feldman died in 2010, the few obituaries of her that were published described her as “the widow of Marty Feldman”. What many missed is that Sullivan, the Bristol-born daughter of a butcher, was largely responsible for Feldman’s success in America and ended her life as one of Los Angeles’s most beloved and quietly influential cultural figures.
But did this impossibly glamorous woman also play a part in the creation of Absolutely Fabulous character Patsy Stone, the chain-smoking, champagne-quaffing socialite who will be making her big screen debut this week, courtesy of Joanna Lumley?
It’s long been known that Patsy was partly modeled on Amanda Lear, the French disco diva, Playboy model and former lover of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Salvador Dali. And creator Jennifer Saunders has revealed that Edina and Patsy’s ability to drunkenly fall bum-first out of a cab was inspired by hard-partying pop stars Bananarama. But in an appearance on the podcast I Was There Too, the US comedian and actor Paul F Tompkins claimed there was another inspiration for Patsy – his late friend Lauretta Feldman.
There are certainly quite a few parallels. For the three decades after the British comedian’s sudden death – he suffered a fatal heart attack while filming comedy pirate film Yellowbeard in 1983 – Sullivan found her own niche as a grande dame of Los Angeles cool.
She surrounded herself with creatives often decades younger than herself, brought people together at boozy, smokey dinner parties, frequented the right clubs, and became a muse and patron to fresh-faced rising stars looking to made it big in Hollywood. Sarah Vaughan sang at her mansion, and the Loretta shout-out in the Beatles song Get Back is rumoured to be aimed at her.
Tompkins was one of the hundreds of young actors on the make who was invited to Lauretta’s house after Marty’s death. He met Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice director Paul Thomas Anderson on the “Largo Scene”, named after the LA comedy club of which the Feldmans were patrons, and the pair stayed friends with Sullivan until her death.
Tompkins recalled Sullivan’s dinner parties fondly: “I can’t describe to you how wonderful they were, even though they were like the simplest thing in the world. To me it was like, ‘This is what it’s like to be a grown-up’… It was just the most amazing thing because she had these great stories…”
These stories had been gathered over the previous five decades in the drinking dens of London’s Soho and studios of Hollywood. Sullivan was working as a secretary in London when she met Feldman in The Mandrake club in April 1958. The comedian, who was then editing TV and radio scripts, described their meeting as “a lightning bolt”, and they married a year later.
According to comedy historian and Feldman’s biographer, Robert Ross, who published Jeepers Creepers, Through the Eyes of Marty Feldman in 2011, Sullivan had been drawn to London in the Fifties and became involved with the scene that had sprung up around the American-influenced jazz clubs and drinking dens in the capital.
Ross recalls, “Marty was this very down-to-earth East End boy and Lauretta was this glamourous, tortured, quite ambitious woman and they fell in love with each other straight away in terms of their differences.”
Sullivan immersed herself in London’s Swinging Sixties as Feldman’s recognition grew, in part thanks to his Bafta-winning BBC series Marty. She was determined to move to America, and, according to Ross, was the one responsible for landing Feldman in with the right Hollywood studios and “pushing him towards writing and directing comedy, not just acting it.”
Despite Feldman’s infidelity – the actor joked that his “success has gone to my crotch” – the pair had a good working relationship. Without Sullivan, Ross says, Marty would have ended up back in England after doing a little acting in America. Instead, she became “the power behind the throne”, her keen understanding of the comedy world – and most importantly, Marty – landing him roles such as Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein in 1974.
While press reports in the mid-Sixties asked of the attractive Sullivan, “What DID she see in him?” even those in the Feldman’s inner circle didn’t truly get their relationship; Feldman’s Jewish mother did not approve, because Sullivan was a Catholic. “There was always this feeling that their relationship was within a bubble. As a couple they were really tight, but nobody outside it could understand why,” explains Ross.
While Feldman would be “happy sitting around in his vest, drinking beer”, the biographer says, Lauretta ramped up the glamour, filling her Beverley Hills home (the couple also had a gothic pile in Hampstead, later owned by Boy George) with beautiful objects and swanning around it wearing gowns and flicking through copies of Vogue. After his death, she left Marty’s drumkit and cherished collectibles in place, as if expecting him to return from filming at some point.
Sullivan brought style and culture to his wayward genius. She loved to throw parties, extending a well-dressed arm to dozens of Los Angeles’ brightest stars, while Feldman would sit around and play drums.
But the pair shared a love of champagne and cigarettes. A director friend once recalled that “Marty would smoke between courses at dinner parties but Lauretta would have one between mouthfuls”, as well as Sullivan’s deep and husky plummy English accent – all very Patsy.
In fact, Sullivan sounded a lot posher than she was. While she partially honed her accent during school, friends of Feldman remarked that she would deploy airs and graces in an attempt to up the couple’s social status, even encouraging Feldman to tell people he was born in Hampstead, rather than Canning Town.
Moving to LA enabled Sullivan to paint a new portrait of herself, as that of an angel of creativity and patron of the arts, beloved by an extended family that included Largo owner Mark Flanagan, musician Jon Brion, British character actor Julian Holloway and director Stanley Dorfman. But her closest friend (her Edina, if you will) was Ann Levy, the ex-wife of Peter Sellers, whom Sullivan had known through the British comedy scene of the Fifties.
Levy, in particular, was treated badly from Sellers. She remarried, to architect Ted Levy, who named a cul de sac Marty’s Yard after Feldman, a couple of years after his death. To Sullivan’s delight, it was located in Hampstead.
Sullivan died in March, 2010, from cancer. It’s thought that she suffered from the “ghastly” disease for only a few months, although she didn’t make the details of her condition public until the very end. Instead, she continued to throw parties, host her friends and live life to the full.
Could these stories about Lauretta have filtered through to Jennifer Saunders as she was writing Absolutely Fabulous in the early 1990s? Given how revered Marty was in British comedy circles, it seems likely. But even if not, you have to admit Lauretta and Patsy would have made excellent drinking buddies. As Ross points out: “There was never a time when Lauretta Feldman’s door was shut to musicians or poets. Pretty much until the very end she was that Queen Bee of in LA.”