When the tiny newborn was put into his arms in August 1986, Eric Clapton felt it was the first real thing that had ever happened to him – ‘the one thing in my life that good could come out of’, he said.
His son Conor was a spectacularly beautiful child with the same golden hair Clapton had had as a toddler himself, and a joyful, loving nature.
The word used by everyone who knew the boy was ‘magical’ and his father, who had spent much of his life anaesthetised from the world by drugs and alcohol, was profoundly moved.
Yet the arrival of Conor in his world brought with it, too, a dreadful reckoning.
Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall with his son Conor (left) and his daughter Ruth (right)
The boy was four when, in March 1991, Eric arrived at a 53rd-floor apartment to collect Conor from his mother, the Italian actress Lory del Santo, who had custody.
It would be the first time he had ever taken his son out anywhere by himself, and Clapton had bought tickets for the circus at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.
That sawdust-scented afternoon showed him what he’d been missing.
When they returned to the apartment, with Conor chattering excitedly about the clowns and elephants, Eric told Lory that, from now on, he intended to be a proper father.
The following day, Clapton and the boy planned to visit the Bronx Zoo, followed by lunch at an Italian restaurant.
In the morning, as mother and son waited for Clapton to pick Conor up from the apartment, a janitor arrived to clean the windows.
Lory was in the bathroom and the boy was in the care of a nanny – but careering around in a state of high excitement, impatient to see his ‘Papa’ again.
The janitor had been working on the cantilevered windows in the living-room, one of which still hung open.
He called out to the nanny to watch the child, but before she could react, Conor dashed past her, jumped up on to the low window-ledge where he’d normally press his nose against the glass to gaze out – and disappeared.
Italian actress Lory del Santo with her and Clapton’s son Conor, who died in 1991 after falling from a building
Conor Clapton fell from the 53rd floor of this New York skyscraper
Eric met Lory while playing two concerts in Milan in October 1985, the year of his 40th birthday. In his own often-used word, he was ‘smitten’.
It didn’t seem to concern her that he was still married to Pattie – Beatle George Harrison’s former wife, whom Clapton had pursued obsessively for years – or that he and Pattie were at the time enduring yet another failed round of fertility treatment.
Pattie was arranging flowers at home in Surrey when Eric came in and told her that Lory was pregnant.
It made her feel, Pattie recalls, ‘like my heart was about to disintegrate’.
Lory, meanwhile, spent most of her pregnancy believing that Clapton didn’t want the baby.
Like his other conquests, she found that he seemed to lose interest once she was snared.
In her third month, she said, she’d received a phone call from someone in his management pressuring her in ‘painful’ terms to have an abortion.
To her, this was unthinkable.
The signals from Clapton, meanwhile, were contradictory at best. His moods would suddenly darken, with silences that could go on for days.
With Lory the mistress he no longer wanted and Pattie the wife who no longer wanted him, the rock legend felt his world was ‘absolutely in tatters’ and attempted suicide by swallowing a whole bottle of Valium.
Ten hours later, he awoke with no after-effects except feeling stone-cold sober.
As the due-date grew near in August 1986, his mood began to change.
Because the baby’s father was English, Lory wanted to give birth in London, so Clapton booked her into the private Lindo maternity wing at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, and rented a mews house in Chelsea for her.
On August 21, she had a boy by caesarean section. Putting aside a lifetime of squeamishness, Clapton was there at the birth.
Lory then returned home to Milan, where the new dad paid monthly visits.
Not that he allowed fatherhood to alter his lifestyle completely.
He never drank while he was actually with Conor, but Clapton spent the whole time in a state of what he called ‘white-knuckle sobriety’, waiting for Lory to take the baby away so that he could pour himself a vodka… then another and another.
His old life was steadily unravelling.
Clapton and Katie Derham at the Royal Albert Hall last month
Back home in Surrey, early in the morning of March 17, 1987 – Pattie’s 43rd birthday – he burst drunkenly into the marital bedroom, from which he had been banned.
Accusing Pattie of not being ‘a proper wife’, he ordered her out of the house and began hurling her possessions through the window.
It was ‘a cruel and vicious thing to do’, as he himself would later admit. She had no choice but to leave, this time for ever.
Then, while he was on tour in Australia in the summer of that year, Clapton began suffering uncontrollable shaking fits, prompting the awful thought that he might somehow pass on alcoholism to Conor – that the flawless baby in his cot might one day go through the same cycles of delusion and humiliation.
‘I realised I had to break the chain and give him what I never really had – a father,’ Clapton said.
In November, Clapton booked into the Hazelden rehab clinic in Minneapolis. After he left, he would never touch alcohol again.
Clapton and Lory had briefly been engaged, but by 1991, he’d managed to detach himself without endangering his access to Conor.
She, meanwhile, embarked on a relationship with Italian film producer Silvio Sardi, owner of the apartment in the Galleria building in New York.
And it was from there, on that terrible day in May 1991, that Lory made a call to Eric’s Park Avenue Hotel, screaming that Conor was dead.
She managed to convey that he had fallen through an open window, but the idea was unimaginable to Eric and all he could find to say was: ‘Are you sure?’
Dazed, he walked the seven blocks to the Galleria still thinking there must be some mistake.
As he neared his destination, he saw an ambulance, a police line and crowds outside the entrance and, at first, continued down the street as though it was no concern of his.
Clapton with his grandmother Rose in the house he bought her in Surrey
Hearing the news, his manager, Roger Forrester, drove to Heathrow and boarded a Concorde flight, arriving only four hours later. He accompanied Eric to the mortuary.
‘Whatever physical damage Conor suffered in the fall, by the time I saw him they had restored his body to some normality,’ Clapton would recall.
‘I remember looking at his beautiful face in repose and thinking, “This isn’t my son. It looks a bit like him, but he’s gone.” ’
In Clapton’s mind, there was nowhere Conor could be laid to rest but the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen in Ripley, Surrey, a few hundred yards from his own birthplace, next door to his first school.
The funeral took place on March 28, two days before Eric’s 46th birthday.
The mourners included George Harrison, Phil Collins and many other faces from the music world. Pattie was there too.
At the graveside, there was an awful moment when Conor’s Italian grandmother, Clorinda, tried to throw herself on the ornate, oversized American coffin, but was restrained.
Eric behaved with dignity throughout.
Hundreds of letters and messages of condolence had poured in from all over the world, including one from Prince Charles.
After the funeral, when his house was empty, Eric began to open them.
The hardest moment of all was finding a sheet of green paper, posted when he still had an outing in New York to look forward to.
It read, all in capitals: ‘I LOVE YOU I WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN A KISS. LOVE CONOR CLAPTON.’
In the ‘waking nightmare’ of the next few months he barely slept and even music seemed to lose its power to comfort.
But the track he found himself playing over and over was his hit ballad Wonderful Tonight, which had been inspired by Pattie.
It brought back what now seemed an idyllic time, when upsets came no bigger than Pattie taking too long to dress for a party.
Clapton with Pattie Boyd, Beatle George Harrison’s former wife
As perspective returned, Eric saw how his loss could be turned to positive effect. That summer, he filmed a message on behalf of the New York State Health Department that could not fail to strike any parent to the heart: ‘Fit guards on windows and safety-gates on stairs. It’s easy and it could prevent a terrible tragedy. Believe me, I know.’
When he could bear to pick up a guitar, it was only a small Spanish model and, before he knew it, chords began arranging themselves around the golden-haired vision in his head. Such was the genesis of Tears In Heaven, his grief-soaked tribute to Conor, which became one of the biggest hits of the 1990s.
The marvel was that he ever got through it in the recording studio. Unfathomable, indescribable grief pushed his voice into a new register, a near-falsetto rather than its usual bluesy roughness.
Ten months after Conor’s death, Eric relived the terrible morning of March 20 calmly and clearly at the inquest.
He refused to place any blame on Jose Pastrana, the janitor who’d left the window open.
He had continued his attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous, which proved a motivation in itself.
‘Eric turned out to have huge strength of character,’ Vivien Griffin, his secretary, explains. ‘The kind of tragedy he’d suffered would have sent most people back to the bottle.
‘What kept him going, he always said, was the thought that it would be a betrayal of Conor.’
There was also something new for him to hold on to, even amid this despair, thanks to studio manager Yvonne Kelly, who had been seduced by Clapton in Montserrat some years previously (while he was recording at George Martin’s AIR Studios) and had fallen pregnant.
For six years, Yvonne had been quietly raising her child with her husband, without seeking any recognition from Clapton.
While Eric had always been fully aware of his daughter, Ruth, and never shirked financial responsibility, there had never been meaningful contact.
Feckless father with a life as dissolute as his son’s
Clapton would eventually come to realise his childhood had been filled with abandonment and lies.
His mother Pat became pregnant with him at 15 during a wartime one-night stand with a Canadian soldier called Edward Fryer – and Pat abandoned her son two years later to move to Canada with a different soldier.
For years, Eric believed his grandmother Rose was his mother and Pat, who reappeared intermittently, was his sister.
Thoughts of his lost father – they never met – inspired Clapton’s 1998 Grammy-winning song My Father’s Eyes, although the feckless Fryer hardly deserved it.
He was dishonourably discharged from the Canadian army and resumed a life of playing the piano in clubs and bars.
He married several times and – mirroring his son’s life, minus the celebrity – had numerous affairs.
Fryer died from leukaemia in 1985, without being identified as Eric’s father.
He left two daughters – and a son who’d grown up to be a rock musician with a drug problem.
Now, back in her home town of Doncaster, and hearing of Eric’s loss, Yvonne wrote to him, offering as much access to his daughter as might bring him comfort.
Moved by her generosity, he invited her to bring Ruth on a cruise round Antigua in the summer of 1991.
This beautiful, bubbly six-year- old offered what he described as ‘a lifeline in the sea of bewilderment and confusion’, and back in Britain he began seeing her regularly and trying once again to be a ‘real’ dad.
And so one of the most thoroughly dissolute rockers of olden times became the most thoroughly reformed.
A pillar of Alcoholics Anonymous, Clapton is now a leading campaigner against drug abuse who has poured millions into the Crossroads treatment centre he helped to found in Antigua.
His quest to seduce every woman in the world came to an end at the age of 54, when he met a 23-year-old American student named Melia McEnery. In 2001 she became his second wife.
To all appearances, Melia is the only woman to whom he has ever been completely faithful.
© Philip Norman, 2018
Abridged extract from Slowhand: The Life And Music Of Eric Clapton, by Philip Norman, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on November 6, priced £25. Offer price £20 (20 per cent discount, with free p&p) until November 4. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Spend £30 on books and get free premium delivery.