her drunken father's neglect?
By Geoffrey Levy
27th November 2009
No one would ever doubt that author Martin Amis loved his late sister
Sally, and because she loved him and would call him in times of
crisis, she would probably not have objected to him describing her
this week as 'pathologically promiscuous'.
Sally died nine years ago, a tragic figure who had existed for years
in a council bedsit on state handouts and virtually drank herself to
death at the age of 46.
Amis, 60, whose books frequently draw on his dysfunctional family for
well-publicised inspiration, has written Sally into the storyline of
his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, which explores the devastating
pressures on women created by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and
His younger sister, who gave birth to a daughter whom she gave up for
adoption was, he says: 'One of the most spectacular victims of the
revolution. It would have needed the Taliban to have protected her.'
This is a rather different analysis of Sally's life from one
delivered by Amis - son of the late Sir Kingsley - when he made
her a presence in an earlier memoir, Koba The Dread: Laughter And The
This book was essentially a biography of the monstrous Joseph Stalin
but also drew on Amis's life, and on that occasion Amis described
Sally as 'a victim of my father's power and presence, perhaps'.
He might just as easily have said his father's lack of presence, as
Sally was just eight years old when Kingsley, the serial adulterer
and brilliant son of a Clapham clerk, walked out on their 35-year-old
mother Hilly on her birthday, to live with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Whichever way you look at it, Sally's is a sad story of lovelessness
and disappointment, of loneliness and despair - and this in a
family where literary success gave them such early promise and advantages.
Kingsley's great friend, the poet Philip Larkin, even wrote a poem,
Born Yesterday, for Sally when she was born two days after
publication of Lucky Jim - Amis's first novel that brought him
instant success in 1954.
Larkin's theme was not to wish her 'The usual stuff/ About being
beautiful' but to point out that even if she were not so lucky and
even 'dull', this ought not prevent the 'Catching of happiness'.
And for the first years of her life, it looked as though Larkin would
be right. Not that Sally was dull: she was petite and pretty, and
despite moving from school to school as her father, an English
lecturer, moved up the academic ladder from Swansea to Princeton and
then Cambridge, she was, says her mother, 'a lovely child'.
She was good at English, enjoyed swimming and singing in the school
choir, and had a remarkable talent for mimicry that made her consider
a career on the stage.
'She was a happy girl and she loved school, but she was a restless
soul and made up her mind when she was 16 to move on to something
new,' says her mother, who today lives in southern Spain where she
set up home with her third husband, the late Alastair Boyd (Lord Kilmarnok).
'She wanted to go to drama school but was put off by Jane,' she
continues. Jane is Elizabeth Jane Howard, who had become Kingsley's
second wife in 1965, when Sally was 10.
'Sally told me that Jane said she didn't walk or move well enough for
the stage - something about not having enough grace,' says Lady
Kilmarnock, who was living in Fulham at the time, while her ex-usband
was in Hertfordshire.
'To be honest, Sally wasn't in the habit of listening to anybody, but
this must have put her off completely. It was a real shame. She was
such fun in those days, and I'm sure she would have made a good comic
actress. And it might have made such a difference to her life.'
Instead, Sally, whose father was already world famous (Lucky Jim had
been translated into 20 languages), found a job in a grocery shop.
'My daughter enjoyed that,' says Lady Kilmarnock. 'Serving people was
fun. It was a bit like being on the stage.'
As for Sally's father, on whom she doted and whose death years later
would accelerate her alcoholic decline, Hilly recalls: 'Kingsley
didn't take much interest, really.
'He was fond of her in a funny way - his way - but none of us got
treated particularly well, and I suppose she felt that. When Sally
left boarding school, I don't think he even bothered to ask what she
It was the start of a rootless life moving from job to job and living
in a series of flats with a procession of casual boyfriends.
'Some of them she was with for a few weeks, others for months, but
they definitely were not one-night stands,' insists her mother.
Sally had also discovered drink - mainly cheap wine.
Three years after leaving school, Sally Amis answered an
advertisement for a waitress in a glossy wine bar in Edgware Road,
near London's Marble Arch. It was managed by naval commander's son
Nigel Service and his brother, and they were impressed with the
bright girl who told them she'd had lots of experience serving in
shops and bars.
They gave her the job on the spot. Only months later did they learn
she was Kingsley Amis's daughter.
'She didn't make a big thing of it,' says Nigel, now 74 and living in
France. 'She was a really nice person.
'I certainly didn't see any evidence of her being pathologically
promiscuous when she was working for us. There was no trail of
boyfriends that I could see, at least not around the bar.
'She was a very extrovert character, very entertaining and vivacious,
and yes, she did drink a fair amount, but it never affected her work.
She could put on voices to mimic people.
'She was fun and the customers adored her. And gradually, I began to
adore her myself.'
Two years later, in 1976, when Nigel was 42 and Sally 22, Kingsley
Amis, Martin and Sally's other brother Philip were present when she
and Nigel were married at Hampstead register office.
Sally had been living in Kentish Town, but now she and Nigel moved
into a flat he rented for them in Hampstead, near his parents.
Six months later, though, their marriage was virtually over.
'The problem was her drinking - I'd had no idea how mad it was, and
it was getting progressively worse,' says Nigel, who is now an
amateur botanist and a leading authority on wild flowers, particularly irises.
'The way it took a hold of her was terrible to watch. She liked
cooking and I could see that she desperately wanted to be a normal
wife, but she couldn't control the drinking.
'I'm convinced that if she became pathologically promiscuous after we
parted, it was drink that led her into it, not the other way round.'
Drink was one of Kingsley's major vices, but, unlike his daughter, he
never cracked open a bottle or ripped the top off a can of Special
Brew before breakfast.
Sally was barely into her mid-20s but she had slid into alcoholism.
With her brief marriage in ruins, she returned to the grey streets of
Kentish Town, where she regularly met men in its many pubs and bars.
'She especially loved the Irish, but the trouble was it was mainly
Irish chaps who weren't quite right,' says her mother. 'They were men
who were drinking too much - builders and the like.'
One of these hard-drinking Irishmen was Martin O'Vessay, whom she met
after emerging from a spell in hospital being treated for alcoholism.
The result was a child.
'She didn't like to be alone - that's why she did it,' declares
Lady Kilmarnock, a frail 79.
'I don't think she particularly wanted to be made love to, she just
Martin Amis said this week that he thought 'what she was doing was
seeking protection from men; but it went the other way and she was
often beaten up, abused...'
Says Lady Kilmarnock: 'Yes, she was knocked about by some of her
boyfriends, but she also knocked one or two of them about a bit as
well. She could irritate them terribly by being contrary, and they
would lose their tempers.'
As for Sally's baby, both Lady Kilmarnock this week - and Martin
Amis after his sister's death - strenuously deny that the child was
the result of a 'one-night stand'.
They insist that O'Vessay and Sally were living together for a period
of weeks, or even months. Indeed, Lady Kilmarnock says she met him
twice and 'didn't like him at all'.
Sally herself, talking six months before her death, told a different
story. She said that after meeting O'Vessay, who had also received
hospital treatment for alcoholism, 'I made a terrible mistake of
staying with him one night and getting pregnant.
'I didn't want to be pregnant, but sometimes you feel lonely and you
want a cuddle and want to feel warm. But he left me the day after.
Three weeks later, I found I was pregnant.
'I didn't want to destroy a life - it didn't seem right. When I
told Martin (O'Vessay), he said he didn't want any responsibility. I
had the baby on Christmas Eve.'
Sally's daughter Catherine has turned into the one gloriously happy
element of her story. Unable to cope with looking after a baby,
within three months Sally had given her up to foster parents.
A year later, Catherine was adopted by architect David Housego and
his wife Helen, a teacher, who had been trying for years to have
baby. A year after they took Catherine into their Ealing home, Helen
Housego became pregnant and gave birth to Louise.
On Christmas Eve 1996, Catherine's 18th birthday, the Housegos
decided Catherine should know that she was 'Kingsley Amis's granddaughter'.
Her parents knew she longed to meet her natural mother, but Sally had
not put herself on the Adoption Contact Register. This meant she was
not open to being contacted.
Four years later, on reading of Sally's death in the newspapers,
Catherine wrote to Martin and received a warm reply. Now 30 and a
nursery school teacher, she has got to know the Amis family and
Martin has taken her to meet her grandmother, Hilly, in Spain.
'She's such a charming girl, and the Housegos are a lovely family,'
says Lady Kilmarnock.
But as Catherine was growing up in a warm and loving home, her mother
was living in a bedsit in a grimy council block, existing on her
weekly social security giro between co-habiting here and there with men.
'If you give money to an alcoholic, they spend it on drink,' says
'Sally could knock back a bottle of vodka in a morning. Or if she was
short of money, she'd pour a can of Special Brew into a cup and drink
it like tea. We all tried to help her and went to see her, but we
couldn't change the way she wanted to live.'
There was one glimmer of hope when Sally told her mother she wanted
to convert to Roman Catholicism.
'She'd always liked going to church because she liked the theatre of
it, and her life was so uncertain that she felt she needed something
extra,' says Lady Kilmarnock.
Assisted by her Roman Catholic stepfather Lord Kilmarnock, Sally went
through a course of conversion.
'But even when Sally was taken by my husband to Westminster Cathedral
to be received into the church, she carried a can of Special Brew in
her handbag,' recalls her mother wearily.
'It's hard to think that was the same Sally I used to have such fun
with on the odd days when she was sober and would get in touch. We'd
have a girlie day out, get the giggles when we had "gravy dinners" at
greasy spoon cafes where the cabbage was beautifully overdone.'
In her 30s, Sally had a stroke and doctors told her that if she
didn't give up alcohol it would eventually kill her.
Kingsley, himself a fabled drinker, was never able to cope with his
daughter's alcoholism, which took her in and out of hospitals on
several occasions. She told friends she felt he was ashamed of her.
He had never been a close and caring father, yet when she had her
baby, and in the absence of its father, Kingsley was at her bedside.
Perhaps this was one reason why her adoration of him remained undiluted.
Kingsley's death in 1995, when she was 41, left her inconsolable,
unable to escape a vortex of depression and drink. Four years later,
Martin Amis described his sister as 'still capable of calling me in
tears when she has a bad day'.
Sally was still in Kentish Town, living on a DSS invalidity giro of
£73 a week and drinking herself into oblivion. Early in November
2000, she was taken into the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, and
after five days in intensive care, Sally Amis died.
'All her organs had gone,' says her mother. 'Her liver, her kidneys
.. . her body just couldn't take it any more.
'I think of her every day - what fun she was as a young girl, and
what might have been. Yes, she was terribly promiscuous, but I don't
think the sexual revolution made any difference to her.
'Sally wasn't a victim of the times, but of herself.'