Magical mystery tour and morality tale
h, 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 rollercoaster, 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, 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 wellknown actor Jake Weber. While 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 selfassurance, to say nothing of the contacts, that allowed him to launch himself on the London scene. Thanks to her greatgrandfather 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 six million dollars at mid 20th-century English prices before finally ending up in bankruptcy proceedings.
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 in fashionable Pont street ( it doubled as an illicit gambling club) for a couple of thousand pounds (about $6000). 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, they 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 aged 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 which 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 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.”
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 — his own.”
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.