News, Culture & Society

Olivia Newton-John struggled to find a man who’d live up to her father, writes CHRISTOPHER STEVENS

One night in 2005, 48-year-old Patrick McDermott boarded a small boat in the harbour of San Pedro, California, to join 22 other passengers for an overnight sea fishing trip.

He never returned. His wallet and backpack were found on the boat, and his car was abandoned at the marina.

McDermott had troubles enough to explain his disappearance. Bankrupt and with no assets other than a clapped-out Toyota, he was unable to pay £444 a month in child support to his ex-wife for their only son, Chance.

Men like McDermott are hardly unusual — so common, in fact, that the U.S. authorities have a name for them: deadbeat dads. But there was one extraordinary fact about this man. Penniless as he was, he had been dating Hollywood star Olivia Newton-John for nearly nine years. When he vanished, friends described her as ‘cut up’ and ‘devastated’.

‘It’s bizarre — like a dream that we haven’t woken up from,’ said her manager at the time, Greg Cave.

Only a year earlier, McDermott had appeared with Newton-John on the U.S. version of the TV show This Is Your Life. ‘I love you with all my heart,’ he pledged to her, on camera. ‘If we could all just be a little bit like you, we’d all be a little better off.’  

Olivia Newton-John pictured with her former boyfriend Patrick McDermott. They dated for nine years before he disappeared on a fishing trip off the coast of California in 2005

Throughout her career, Newton-John, who has died aged 73, never lost her image as the perfect girlfriend.

From her first taste of success in the 1960s and early 1970s, as a friend of the Beatles and a Eurovision contestant, to superstardom in 1978 as prim Sandy Olsson opposite John Travolta’s raunchy bad boy in Grease, she represented a feminine ideal.

Indeed, Cliff Richard once declared that he’d give up his bachelor life if only he could find a girl as wonderful as Olivia, who was a regular guest on his hit Saturday evening show in the early 1970s.

When she made a video with saucy overtones for her 1981 disco hit Let’s Get Physical, millions of fans were scandalised by its references to sexuality.

Newton-John was the epitome of sunny innocence and romantic idealism — and yet, for much of her life, she attracted oddball men.

McDermott was certainly the oddest. From the outset, his vanishing raised suspicions. No one had seen him fall or jump from the boat — and, as one private detective put it, the deck was so crowded that everyone would have heard the splash if a tuna sandwich was dropped overboard.

A series of U.S. TV investigations later claimed that he was living in Mexico, under the name Pat Kim, with a German girlfriend — possibly in the surfer’s paradise of Sayulita.

One local claimed Pat Kim’s past was well-known, but no one cared: ‘There are so many characters here from all walks of life that everyone just seems to blend into the mix.’     

The Freedom fishing boat, which Patrick McDermott was allegedly on board the day he disappeared in 2005

The Freedom fishing boat, which Patrick McDermott was allegedly on board the day he disappeared in 2005

Newton-John hired the celebrity bodyguard Gavin de Becker to investigate but, after he advised her against a public appeal for information, she abandoned her search.

In 2016, she said: ‘It’s human to wonder but those are the things in life you have to accept and let go. I live on and of course questions come up.’

This was not the first time she had cause to bring in de Becker. In 1978, as Grease turned her into a global star, she became the victim of an obsessive stalker who called himself Shawn Newton-John. His real name was Ralph Nau and, during a terrifying three-year campaign, he sent her more than 600 letters, insisting that she and he were meant to be together. De Becker’s agents kept a close eye on Nau, sitting with him when he attended her live concerts.

He was held in a mental facility after admitting to killing his disabled eight-year-old step-brother in 1984 — claiming the boy prevented him from receiving messages from Newton-John through the TV.

Still more frightening was a man called Michael Owen Perry, who killed his parents, two cousins and his two-year-old nephew in a chain of murders that, according to a notebook in his possession, were intended to culminate in the death of Newton-John. When police arrested him, he told them she was a goddess who lived underwater.

Perry sent dozens of crazed letters which de Becker refused to let Newton-John read. ‘Scary, scary stuff,’ she said. ‘The fact that he knew where I lived freaked me out.’

Newton-John, who was born in Cambridge in 1948, came from a family rooted in a fascinating mix of European history and culture.

Her maternal grandfather was Max Born, a German Nobel-Prize-winning physicist and mathematician who developed the atomic theory of quantum mechanics.     

Olivia Newton-John (right), pictured with her father Brinley Newton-John (centre) and sister Rona (left)

Olivia Newton-John (right), pictured with her father Brinley Newton-John (centre) and sister Rona (left)

Born, who fled Hitler in 1933, was a close friend of Albert Einstein. The two spent frequent evenings at the Born family house, Einstein playing violin while Born accompanied him on the piano.

Proud of her ancestry, Olivia once traced her family tree: ‘On my mother’s side is Martin Luther [the 16th-century theologian who was key to the Protestant Reformation]. And there’s a Spanish king in there somewhere. A lot to live up to!’

But the man she was most proud of was her father Brinley, the son of a carpenter in South Wales. Brin’s mother, Daisy, was a Quaker with a puritan streak, who would wash his mouth out with carbolic soap if he swore or ‘said anything close to blasphemy’.

It was this focus on good behaviour and clean living that shaped her own morals in later life, and the diverse collection of religious influences gave her a lifelong fascination with spirituality.

Brin, a Cambridge scholar who spoke German, was recruited into RAF intelligence during World War II, and was one of the officers who arrested and interrogated Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, in 1941.

In one of the most baffling events of the war, the high-ranking Nazi flew to Scotland for unofficial peace talks. He was treated as a guest as much as a prisoner of war, and Brin was ordered to take him to tea at a London hotel.  

Over sandwiches and Earl Grey, the RAF officer apologised for carrying a service revolver. Hess smiled, reached inside his tunic and produced a Luger. ‘Have mine,’ he suggested.

Brin married Irene, a writer, photographer and environmentalist, and they had two daughters and a son.

Olivia, the youngest, loved her father’s stories of working at Bletchley Park on the Enigma project. He also imbued in her a love of music, as he was active in the amateur dramatics society at Bletchley, where he sang the role of the Count in Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro.

‘He could have been an opera singer,’ Olivia wrote in her autobiography, Don’t Stop Believin’, ‘but he was so critical of himself and didn’t think he was good enough.

‘He had one recording of himself on an old black acetate disc but destroyed it because there was one bad note on it. I wonder where I got my perfectionism from.’

Her parents divorced when Olivia was ten after emigrating to Melbourne, Australia. Her father’s musical influence never left her. For many years, she couldn’t listen to classical music without bursting into tears. At 15, she won a talent show, singing Gershwin’s Summertime with her boyfriend accompanying her on guitar.

Olivia Newton-John pictured with Cliff Richard in 1971. Cliff once declared he would give up his bachelor life if he found a girl as wonderful as Olivia

Olivia Newton-John pictured with Cliff Richard in 1971. Cliff once declared he would give up his bachelor life if he found a girl as wonderful as Olivia

Irene then declared herself to be Newton-John’s manager and urged her to go to London, where she recorded her first single, Till You Say You’ll Be Mine, in 1966.

It flopped, but her good looks and sweet innocence got her noticed on the pop scene, often for the wrong reasons.

One songwriter tricked her into singing a risque line about Vaseline, letting her think it was just a word that rhymed with Maybelline.

On another occasion an agent booked her and a friend into Paul Raymond’s Revuebar, a Soho strip club, with a view to employment.

‘We arrived in our best pale blue mini dresses,’ she recalled. ‘I did think it was a little odd that behind the stage there was an enormous fish tank — occupied by a half-naked girl.’

Raymond took one look at Newton-John and said: ‘I don’t think this is going to work out. Your agent misunderstood.’

When Irene returned to Australia, Olivia stayed in London and was signed by Cliff Richard’s management. Bruce Welch, Cliff’s bassist in The Shadows, fell for her, and in weeks they were engaged.

Bruce introduced her to the Beatles. John and Yoko were adorable, she decided, and Paul was generous, offering her a song — which boyfriend Bruce took it upon himself to turn down.

Still in her teens, she was overwhelmed by the intensity and possessiveness of Bruce’s passion and eventually broke off the engagement. Bruce took it badly, drinking heavily — two bottles of brandy a day and wine.

He started showing up to her gigs, blind drunk ‘just to be near her’. ‘It was stupid and only made matters worse’, he admitted. After lurching round to her flat one night and discovering her with a new boyfriend, he took an overdose of barbiturates.

When he left hospital two months later, he announced to the press that he and Olivia were ‘back together again. To me she is the most perfect woman in the world’.They never did date again, but it was with Bruce that she recorded her first hit, a cover of Bob Dylan’s If Not For You. Cliff promoted her career via his TV shows and in 1973 she won a Grammy with Let Me Be There. The following year, she represented Britain at Eurovision, singing Long Live Love.

After coming fourth she admitted she’d never liked the song: ‘It was unsuitable, I wouldn’t have chosen it. I’d have preferred a ballad.’ But she knew that nothing could have brought her a win — this was the year of Abba and Waterloo.

Her career hit new heights in 1978 when she was cast as Sandy in the high school musical Grease. The film was the biggest box-office hit of the year and the soundtrack gave her three colossal hits — You’re The One That I Want, Hopelessly Devoted To You and Summer Nights. At one point, the latter two singles were in the U.S. top five at the same time.

With her own TV show in the States, she dueted with Abba and the Bee Gees. Following that was tough, but a musical on rollerskates with Gene Kelly, Xanadu — bizarrely inspired by the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge — brought more hits, including the U.S. No 1 Magic, the duet Suddenly with Cliff Richard, and the title track with the Electric Light Orchestra.

The movie was a shocker: one review read simply, ‘Xana-don’t’. But Olivia’s reputation was unscathed — just as it had been after the furore over the risque video to Physical, which showed her leading an aerobics workout for chubby men in a gym.

In 1984, when she was 36, she married 25-year-old dancer Matt Lattanzi, whom she met on the set of Xanadu.

After several miscarriages, she had a daughter, Chloe. The joy of that was shattered when, aged 44, she discovered she had breast cancer. The diagnosis came on the same weekend her father died.

From the beginning of treatment, she was determined to remain positive, telling the Daily Mail: ‘One of my doctors said, “You can either make this the worst experience of your life or a really good experience’’. A lot of it is mental and you have to keep up a positive attitude.’

She never lost that determination to make the best of it, even when she and Matt divorced not long afterwards.

She had a brief relationship with country singer Vince Gill, who was ten years her junior. Asked about the age difference, she said: ‘He’ll just have to deal with it. I love younger men.’

In 2000, she performed at the opening of the Sydney Olympics, and later joined Australian gold medal-winning swimmer Ian Thorpe on a walk of the Great Wall of China, to raise funds for her cancer research centre.

On that walk she was accompanied by ‘Amazon John’ Easterling, an environmentalist who introduced her to the mind-altering, shamanic medicine, ayahuasca.

Though she had always refused to take drugs, or even smoke cigarettes, she agreed to sip the hallucinogenic drink. The ‘trip’ that followed lasted days, a profound spiritual experience. At the end of it, Olivia was convinced she had found her soulmate. She and John married in 2008.

The cancer returned in 2013 and he supported her when her daughter, who had drunk a bottle of vodka a day and spent hundreds of pounds a week on cocaine, went into rehab. Chloe blamed her problems on her mother’s fame: ‘Growing up I was under immense pressure, being the daughter of such a famous woman. You don’t have a normal childhood.’

In 2017, Olivia’s breast cancer struck for the third time. Once again, she faced it with unvanquishable courage and good cheer, declaring: ‘Music is a great healer.’

Even at her lowest point, when the disease spread to her spine and she was walking with a stick, she always insisted she was grateful for a lifetime of good fortune.

She was made a Dame in the 2020 New Year’s Honours list and said: ‘Listen, I think every day is a blessing. You never know when your time is over. We all have a finite amount of time on this planet and we just need to be grateful for that.’

In spite of all the darkness she experienced, Olivia Newton-John never did lose that buoyant belief in goodness.