Magical mystery tour and morality tale
By Martin Rubin
May 31, 2009
A DAY IN THE LIFE: ONE FAMILY, THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, & THE END OF THE '60's
By Robert Greenfield
Da Capo Press, $24.95, 338 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
Oh, London in the Sixties, that fabled place and time of freewheeling
existences and all manner of extravagant experiences where, so the
saying goes, "if you were actually there, you won't remember it."
Tommy Weber and Susan "Puss" Coriat, the couple at the heart of this
extraordinary story, part magical mystery tour and part morality
tale, are unsurprisingly no longer alive, but chances are, given the
activities they indulged in chronicled here, their recall would
probably be spotty at best.
Fortunately for us, Robert Greenfield, the author of "A Day in the
Life," has done a marvelous job of re-creating the wild ride of Tommy
and Puss with a splendid immediacy, allowing the reader to follow
closely their manic activities. As rendered here anyway, they are in
themselves fascinating characters, oddly compelling and attractive
despite their glaring flaws, but their story intersects with (and
sheds light on) many iconic Sixties figures far better known than
them, including Keith Richards, George Harrison and Charlotte
Rampling (for a time Tommy's companion).
Reading this book is a little bit like getting on a roller coaster, a
little giddying but never dull. Author of two books on the Rolling
Stones as well as biographies of rock promoter Bill Graham, Grateful
Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and LSD guru Timothy Leary, Mr.
Greenfield is a superb guide through the turbulent world where this
odd couple led their frenzied lives. He has had the benefit of
knowing Tommy and of hearing the remarkably acute and insightful
reminiscences of the Webers' two sons, one of whom is the well-known
actor Jake Weber. While Mr. Greenfield is never heavyhanded in his
moralizing, he has nonetheless written one of the most powerful
cautionary tales about the heady Sixties that I have ever read.
Tommy and Puss both came from privileged backgrounds, and each used
them to buttress their freewheeling frolics. Neither was quite what
it seemed: He was in fact half-Danish and her real father was not her
heiress mother's titled husband, Viscount Curzon, but Harold Isaac
"Camel" Coriat, a Sephardic Jew from Morocco. He had a good English
public (aka privileged private) school education where he shone on
the playing field and acquired the toughness and self-assurance, to
say nothing of the contacts, that allowed him to launch himself on
the London scene.
Thanks to her great-grandfather Sir John Maple, whose London
furniture emporium was a favorite with Europe's royal houses as well
as countless English customers, Puss inherited enormous wealth.
Extravagance was hard-wired in their genes: Priscilla's mother and
grandmother managed to spend 1.2 million pounds or about $6 million
at mid-20th-century English prices before finally ending up in
Still, thanks to her ancestor, there was plenty of money for Puss in
a trust fund. It is striking just how cheap good living was in '50s
and '60s London: Tommy was able to buy his first apartment on
fashionable Pont Street ( it doubled as an illicit gambling club) for
a couple of thousand pounds (about $6,000). Later, he was able to
purchase a former ambassadorial mansion in grand Chester Square for a
mere 8,000 pounds ($20,000). Forty years later, it would be worth $36 million.
But of course, the way they lived, money flowed out as fast or faster
than it came in and Tommy became a world-class and worldwide drug
dealer. The story of how he used his two young sons to smuggle in a
kilo(!) of cocaine for one Rolling Stone to give to another as a
wedding present (it never got passed along; the first one consumed it
all himself) makes for hair-raising reading. It's not surprising that
later, Tommy would call the notorious prison Wormwood Scrubs rather
than Chester Square his London home.
Puss committed suicide in a seedy London hotel room in 1971 at age
27. By then, heavy use of drugs including heroin and LSD had induced
schizophrenia. Amazingly enough, Tommy managed, despite his own drug
taking and lifestyle that would seem to have made him a poor
candidate for senior citizenship, to make it near the end of his
sixties before succumbing to an abscessed liver tumor. Still, as Mr.
Greenfield makes clear, even at the very end, there was a high price
to pay for a lifetime of drug abuse now that he needed the stuff for
its true medical purpose:
"Because Tommy's level of drug tolerance was off the charts, the
morphine he was given did little to help ease his pain. … With all
the veins in his arms having long since collapsed from intravenous
drug use, the drug had to be injected into his groin and through the
soles of his feet."
Mr. Greenfield sums up Tommy Weber's life pithily, rendering a grim
but deserved judgment:
"To the very end, he had remained true to himself. Not for Tommy the
path of rehabilitation or the kind of moderation that passed for
socially acceptable behavior. Like so many of his generation who
defied all the rules, his greatest fault had also been the foundation
of his character. Despite how stoned he had been throughout his life,
Tommy had lived it fully and on the only terms he had ever understood
Singling out this solipsism as the basis for Tommy's anti-social
behavior hits the nail on the head. In his case, character was indeed destiny.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.