Tyrone writer Polly Devlin on Seamus Heaney, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan
After winning a writing competition, Polly Devlin left rural Tyrone to become a writer for Vogue, and quickly became the toast of literary London. Despite hanging out with the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol, she tells Jenny Lee how she detested interviewing celebrities and how her main job was living life to the full
SHE was the first journalist in England to interview Bob Dylan, the first Western woman to travel across Abu Dhabi before the country became oil-rich and she even had Princess Margaret do her washing up.
Not bad for a girl from the Co Tyrone village of Ardboe, which she herself described as “almost medieval”, with no telephones or electricity.
Having grown up an avid reader who dreamed of a life of refinement, life for Polly Devlin changed dramatically when, at the age of 20, she won a competition to write for Vogue magazine and was transported to the heart of 1960s London.
“We were asked to write an autobiography of about 500 words and to write about who we would most like to meet. I choose EE Cummings, whose poetry I wouldn’t even look at now – but at the time I thought was so, so smart, because he didn’t use capitals,” recalls Devlin.
Within a short time she became the features editor and interviewed people as disparate as Farah Diba (Empress of Iran), Coco Chanel, Barbra Streisand, Jean Shrimpton, Yoko Ono and Orson Welles.
However, despite writing for magazines and newspapers all over the world, and earning an OBE for services to literature in 1993, Devlin admits she “hated every minute” of interviewing the rich and famous.
"I’d rather be boiled in oil now than do another interview,” she writes in her 2013 article Portrait of the Artist as a Young Interviewer, one of 41 essays collated in her new book Writing Home.
"The very idea of earnestly questioning celebs, finding out their thoughts and feelings leaves me aghast. And although most of what the famous told me then wasn’t worth a hill of beans, their thoughts seem Socratic wisdom compared to what I read now.
"I was never impressed by celebrity but it didn’t mean I didn’t revere or respect them. When I met John Lennon I was deeply impressed because I loved his work and thought he was a genius, and the same with Bob Dylan,” she tells me, speaking from her London home.
"I just obediently did what I was asked," says Devlin, who quickly realised she was being exploited. "Men played such a patriarchal role in Irish society and it took me a while to shake off the built-in notion that men were authority. But when I realised photographer David Bailey was getting paid £1,000 a page in Vogue, whilst I was getting £8 a week and writing half the magazine, it made me extremely angry."
After meeting American journalist and social political activist Gloria Steinem, Devlin became a staunch feminist.
Although she acknowledges Writing Home as “a memoir of sorts”, she confesses the book didn’t start out like this, nor what it her idea.
"The impetus and dynamic was my publisher Jo Christian of Pimpernel Press," she says, recalling how Christian had previously managed to persuade her to write a book about New York houses, something she had initially had no interest in doing.
"I told her I loved her dearly, but there is a problem as firstly I didn’t know anything about New York houses and secondly I don't want to write about them. Of course I ended up publishing that great big book on New York houses in 2017, as Jo just wouldn't let go of my feet.
"Similarly she had been reading my essays which were scattered all over the place and was so enthusiastic about publishing them. These have been festering for a very long time so when I looked at them, I realise there were some improvements I could do and yet I was amazed they have stood the test of time," says Devlin.
With her family home in Tyrone having been sold just a month ago, Devlin admits home is a notion that she left behind 60 years ago; yet admits with her book title Writing Home, she is writing for the Irish.
"Without being too general, the Irish are much more witty, funny and recognise irony more than the English."
There were, of course, interviewees who made a deep impression on Devlin. She admits her first interview with artist Andy Warhol, was her most difficult.
"I was intellectually broad when it came to Jane Austin, Dickins, TS Elliott or the metaphysical poets, but I was totally unversed in radicalism. So at the beginning I though Andy Warhol was a freak, like Jeff Koons – and that his art was just stupid. But I came to realise I was stupid and he was doing something amazing, similar to the way James Joyce pushed the doors of perception open," adds Devlin, who is a proud owner of one of his original works.
And her encounter with novelist Salmon Rushdie, when she was met by streams of manuscripts flowing down the stairs from his office, confirmed to Devlin she should never become a full-time novelist.
She wasn't the only one in the family with creative leanings, of course. Her brother Barry Devlin is a founder member of Celtic rock band Horslips and a successful screenwriter. Her elder sister Marie married poet Seamus Heaney and her own daughters have continued that creative success in various guises.
Her eldest, Rose Garnett, was head of Film 4 and is currently director of BBC Films. Her second daughter, Daisy Garnett, followed in her footsteps as a writer, also working on American Vogue, while her youngest, Bay Garnett, is a freelance fashion stylist, author and editor.
And what of her grandchildren?
“I think they are pursuing their own paths, which mostly involves looking at a phone and having headphones,” she laughs, while acknowledging the artistic talent of her grandson Frankie.
In her essay Thoughts on Seamus Heaney she fondly recalls her brother-in-law penning a poem for her daughter Daisy’s Christening and to this day she still has fond memories of doing the first public reading his poems at the Belfast Festival in the early 60s.
“I read the wonderful poem about his walking out with Marie along the Lagan, with her scarf à la Bardot. I was mystified not just by the breadth of the content, but how he wrote, at that age, and what he wrote – about life as we knew it, in the everyday, in the vernacular."
“I wrote a feature on him immediately after that in Vogue, because his first book was coming out and I knew he was a great artist,” adds Devlin, revealing in public for the first time that she writes poetry herself.
"I write poetry all the time, but I also know I’m not good enough to publish it," she says modestly.
And what of another book?
"I don’t want to put pen to paper again. I never did, unless I was commissioned. Above Philip Roth’s desk he had a sign which said 'No optional activity'. My optional activity was a bit of writing now and then; my activity was living," adds Devlin, who even at age 78 has a huge zest for life and thirst for more knowledge.
"There is art, theatre, teaching, gardening, visiting friends, writing letters, seeing my grandchildren and trips away. It's all so fascinating."
:: Writing Home by Polly Devlin is published by Pimpernel Press and is out now.