In her 40s – author , songstress, actress, filmmaker – Madonna has influence and reach that may be global, but her base for family and friends is focused on and English country estate. Hamish Bowles talks to this ever-evolving force about her film and book, and the pleasures of commitment.
“Who would have thunk it?” says Madonna with a laugh. “The last thing I thought I would do is marry some laddish, shooting, pubgoing nature lover – and the last thing he thought he was going to do was marry some cheeky girl from the Midwest who doesn’t take no for an answer!”
In the warm ivory sanctuary of her office in her ambassadorial Georgian town house in London, Madonna is on the latest turn of the roller coaster that is her thrilling, adventuresome, and fecund life. The room, its walls expensively craquelure’d to resemble fractured eggshells, its pale taffeta curtains billowing in the chill English breeze, is more Hollywood boudoir than office. Propped against the fireplace, newly arrived from her rambling Wallace Neff-designed twenties hacienda in Los Angeles, sits Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey; Madonna wanted to enjoy it privately for a few days before it is sent off to Tate Modern as one of the stars of their blockbuster Kahlo retrospective. On the mantel, nestling between a brace of glamorous Francis Picabia portraits, is Kahlo’s traumatic My Birth. “She’s a bit shocking, that one,” says Madonna, who clearly does not shy from unsettling images. Elsewhere in this room is Helmut Newton’s photograph of a perfectly groomed glamazon with a large gun in her mouth, and on an art tour of the house, Madonna points out the photographer Collier Schorr’s life-size portrait of a beautiful flaxen-haired boy in Hitler Youth costume. “People don’t know what to think when they come here and see this photograph,” she tells me. “I’ll let them be… confused.” Does Madonna, who presented the prestigious Turner Prize at the Tate in December 2001 (where she introduced herself as Mrs. Guy Ritchie), collect Brit Art, too? “I have a Francis Bacon,” she says coyly. “Does that count?”
Speaking in carefully modulated tones, dressed with faux-bourgeois sobriety (this afternoon in Issa’s prim satin blouse with a print of flying ducks, black Kate Hepburn pants, and Marc Jacobs teal lizard shoes), a flotilla of charming, noiseless assistants close at hand and a courtly husband making polite but distracted small talk, she has the air of an Edwardian dollar princess – the moneyed American belles who were married off to impecunious British nobles in the golden age – and the fragile beauty and substantial real estate to match. But no one understands metamorphosis better than Madonna; she even named her 2004 tour “Re-Invention.” That tour is the subject of Madonna’s documentary I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, directed by Jonas Akerlund and to be released later this year. In some ways the new movie is a pendant to 1991’s Truth or Dare, which a mellower Madonna now admits “in some ways is hard for me to watch. I was a very selfish person. You go through periods of your life where the world does revolve around you, but you can’t live your whole life that way. On the other hand, I kind of admire my spunk and directness!”
The new movie “starts with the struggle of a dancer trying to get into a show” and ends with Madonna’s controversial trip to Israel (to visit Rachel’s tomb as part of a Kabbalah experience) and a sweetly naive vision of peace in our time expressed in footage of a Palestinian and an Israeli boy walking together in friendship. “If I’m going to take people through a journey of my life, they are going to see all my journeys, and I hope they will also be moved by it,” she explains.
“The feeling in Israel is like no other place,” says Madonna. In Jerusalem she had “a sense of really going back in time… that I was being pulled into something. I felt very comfortable there. It’s weird; on the one hand it’s a very desperate place that could erupt at any time… it’s also very special – that’s why everyone wants to claim ownership of it. It’s not one of those places that beckon everybody, [but] I’m a bit of an excitement junkie.”
Aside from Jerusalem and its attendant dangers, Madonna’s movie takes you on an adventure to some of the key cities of her tour, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Dublin, and Paris among them – a giddy round of athleticism and lightning costume changes. For these cinematically inspired costumes, Madonna collaborated for the first time with Christian Lacroix, creating the armorial embroidered corsets that she adored. Meanwhile Karl Lagerfeld designed exquisite Weimar Kabaret-ish costumes (these ultimately proved too fragile to attach Madonna’s monitoring system to. “I was really bummed out because I loved what he did,” she says. “But I still have them – they might show up somewhere!”). Her friend Stella McCartney designed the “Savile Row three-piece-suit number.”
It was McCartney who created Madonna’s 2000 wedding dress. “You wanna see it?” she asks conspiratorially, struggling with a vast ivory vellum tome filled with the pictures the world’s media didn’t get to see: “No one’s seen these pictures except my closest friends.” For the record, McCartney produced a remarkably classical dress of ivory duchesse satin, with an hourglass eighteenth-century corset bodice (“a real boob squisher!” laughs Madonna) and an acreage of crinoline skirts dramatically billowing into an endless train. The nineteenth-century lace veil was found in an antiques market and secured with Grace Kelly’s Cartier tiara. Mr. Ritchie wore a kilt. “You can’t get married in Scotland and not wear a kilt,” says Madonna, who later put kilted pipers in her show. “It’s like, ‘Don’t show me things – you never know what’s gonna show up in one of my shows!'” laughs Madonna. “But I love to work that way.”
Since her marriage brought her here, Madonna has become England’s latest national treasure; the nation even has its own pet name for her – Madge – a parallel honor to the satirical weekly Private Eye’s anointing Queen Elizabeth “Brenda.” “I did hate it when they first started calling me that,” Madonna confides, “and then a friend told me that it was short for ‘Your Majesty,’ so I was ‘OK. I like it!’ Well, anyway,” she adds, “they’re stuck with me!”
It was not always a love affair. Madonna’s first trip to London in 1982, with her friend, dancer Martin Burgoyne, was financed by their bartending jobs at New York’s East Village bar Lucky Strike. “We used to rob the cash register blind!” she says matter-of-factly. When they had saved enough to hit London, “we went out to some nightclubs, and I met Boy George in the [Vivienne Westwood] World’s End stuff. He was just this force to be reckoned with, and I was very intimidated,” Madonna remembers. “He was really mean to me… he’s still mean to me!” Nevertheless, Madonna “found the whole thing quite heady. I couldn’t believe how seriously everybody took their looks and fashion and stuff – it was all very exciting and, yes, influential to a certain extent.”
But by the time Madonna returned a year later, she was riding the crest of her first success, and her relationship with the country unraveled. “Once I became famous I couldn’t stand London, because the press was so horrible to me,” she explains. “I didn’t understand the whole mentality of the tabloids; I thought, God, they’re so vicious. And this place was really different 20 years ago. Everything was closed up. The streets were dead on Sundays. There were no good restaurants. It was a very, very, very different place, and I had absolutely no inkling that I would have the life I have here [now].”
Since she met Guy Ritchie, the “scope of my world has changed,” she continues. “At the time, I didn’t see the funny side of it, but now I love England and want to be here and not in America. I see England as my home. And I now know how to ride. I know how to shoot. I know how to fish. I could be a connoisseur of ales if I wanted to – I never used to like the stuff, but when you’re married to Guy Ritchie you spend a lot of time in pubs, and I learned to like it!” Of her marriage she says, “The whole point of being in a relationship and having children is that you learn to love… unconditionally. That’s the best contribution to making the world a better place. It’s so nice sometimes just to go into my children’s bedrooms and listen to them breathe. It has forced me to get out of myself.”
It was Trudie Styler who played cupid when Madonna was invited for tea to her Jacobean mansion in Wiltshire. Here she remembers the “long, sweeping staircase… [where] all of her children were lined up – like the von Trapp family! I went down the line meeting them all, and then at the end of the line was Guy.” Madonna was stopped dead in her tracks by the strapping 30-year-old auteur of the nouvelle vague gangster movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, an eye-popping directorial debut. (This, together with his sometime Mockney accent – think Michael Caine in Alfie – belies a respectably patrician past. Ritchie cherishes fond boyhood memories of Loton Park, his stepfather Sir Michael Leighton’s estate, on the Welsh borders, where he developed his passion for hunting and fishing.) Of this first electric meeting Madonna admits simply, “My whole life flashed before me. It did.”
Madonna never set out to become a classic British lady of the manor, however, until fate intervened when she was introduced to Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton’s suave biographer, through a mutual friend in 1998. They discussed his Beaton books, including one charting the improbable romance of Beaton and Greta Garbo (“good and juicy,” says Madonna). They maintained an E-mail relationship, and sometime later Vickers sent one asking whether Madonna remembered Beaton’s beloved house, which was now for sale. Madonna told Guy, who, as she says, “has always wanted to live in the countryside. He’s the country person – not me. He loves nature and animals.” And so, imagining that it might provide an amusing day’s jaunt, but with no intention of buying anything, they arranged a visit.
Ashcombe, however, casts a very potent spell. Nearby are the Druidical worship sites of Avebury and Stonehenge; there is a Celtic burial ground hidden in one of Ashcombe’s deep, romantic coombes. “That part of the world has something very mystical about it,” says Madonna. “there was a reason that those druids dragged those stones [there]! That part of the world’s got some kind of pull for both of us.”
The house sits in a landscape of almost unimaginable beauty, cradled in the warm embrace of its own green valley, dramatic hills rising steeply on all sides but parting ahead to reveal distant fields. Cecil Beaton would recall that he was “almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.”
Madonna and Guy were similarly entranced. They sat beneath the immemorial ilex trees that shade the house; Madonna photographed Guy there, fringed by wild grasses, and the ethereal result now sits on her office desk. “We just fell in love with it,” Madonna explains. “In the summertime it’s the most beautiful place in the world.” The memory of their day at Ashcombe “just stayed with us, haunted us for a really long time,” she remembers. Eventually they could resist its lure no longer, and Ashcombe was theirs.
Although the estate embraces more than 1,000 acres of roiling hills and valleys, nothing remains of Ashcombe House itself, a stately mansion built in 1686 but dismantled for its brick and stone two centuries later. Half the elegant stable block (converted into a studio by Beaton) and a cozy dairy house remained. Beaton’s frivolous decorating at Ashcombe was legendary, and he willfully ignored the building’s honest farmhouse integrity. The carousel bed that the neo-romantic artist Rex Whistler had made for him is long gone, but the splendid Palladian stone door surround that he designed is still in place, deftly transforming the house from cottage to mansion.
By the time the Ritchies arrived, the house was “kind of in ruins. There was a kitchen the size of a shoebox, and the top floor was just an attic full of rats and mice.” They created a labyrinth of romantic attic bedrooms, and an extension that mirrors the elegance of the stable block. While it suggests an eighteenth-century orangery, or a French pavilion, it contains a cavernous space that serves as kitchen, informal dining room, and living room in the modern family vernacular.
“To me, Ashcombe is a reflection of me and my husband in many ways because it reflects our willingness to make a commitment,” says Madonna. “Not necessarily to each other but to the idea of having a home somewhere, instead of living like gypsies.” The house also offers physical testament to the couple’s improbable union. Here, classic England meets pampered Hollywood; a place where cozy kilim-covered sofas, family silver, and sporting prints meet silky oyster-colored carpet, state-of-the-art sound systems, and luxuriant hothouse flowers. Where Cecil Beaton’s brilliantly dust-jacketed diaries jostle the 22 volumes of the Zohar, the couple’s Kabbalah reading material, on the bookshelves.
Cecil Beaton loved the place with “blind devotion.” When Beaton’s fifteen-year lease expired and he was evicted to make way for the landlord’s son, he wrote an elegiac book to assuage his great loss, a postwar requiem for the giddy, carefree thirties, the years of dressing-up, of masquerade and artifice. “We played; we laughed a lot; we fell in love,” he wrote. For Beaton, the place was “essentially an artist’s abode,” and he invited the great creative talents and stylemakers of the day to share his Eden: the writer H. G. Wells, and artists Salvador Dali, Augustus John, Christian Berard, and Graham Sutherland. They were joined by the period’s flamboyant style mavens, the Marchesa Casati, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Mona Harrison Williams, and Diana Vreeland among them.
When Madonna’s in residence she plays “lots of guitar; I go for lots of long walks, ride my bike. It’s a very physical place, a place for adventure. You can choose to go there to work in a very undistracted way and a very contemplative way, or you can go there and get lost in the environment. I always feel really melancholic when I’m driving away. I think if you’re a photographer, if you’re a painter, if you’re a writer it’s the perfect place to be,” says Madonna. “You feel protected because you’re sunk into that valley, and as far as the eye can see you can’t see another house. It’s a kind of buffer against the world.” Currently, Madonna is busy working on her new album (“basically all dance music”) with collaborator Stuart Price, which she hopes to release by the end of the year. She is also in the planning stages of a tour for summer 2006 and writing children’s morality tales. Her latest contribution to the world of children’s literature, Lotsa de Casha (Callaway), in which the richest man in the world loses everything but gains a friend (“There’s more to life than fame and fortune – something much more deep and profound,” says Madonna), follows The English Roses, her first foray into writing for children, itself the first of eight planned volumes; “The English Roses are going to take over the world!” Madonna says, laughing. Madonna’s own engaging children – Lourdes (Lola), eight, who has the preternatural grace and poise of a girl who takes her ballet lessons very seriously, and Rocco, four, a mischievous doppelganger for his dad – have “never watched television,” says their mum crisply. “They’re fine. I don’t think they miss it… my daughter is a voracious reader, and I’m very pleased about that.”
“Do you actually read the newspapers here?” Madonna queries later. “What does one read here? I don’t read newspapers. We don’t read magazines… and no television. At the end of the day they’re all noise.”
The Ritchies have more fun creating their own amusements. To celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary, Madonna set out “to re-create a Cecil Beaton weekend of folly. I invited all my friends, and we all had to put on a show, so to speak. It was so much fun – we moved all the furniture around in the Studio, and we created a stage and we put red velvet curtains up. Gwyneth and Stella and Chris composed a song together, which was brilliant – a spoof on American Life, only they called it American Wife. Gwyneth did fantastic rap and Stella sang background vocals and, well, Chris played the piano. Tracey Emin [the anarchic British artist] and Zoe Manzi [the beauteous art consultant] wrote a poem and took turns reciting stanzas from it. Sting played the lute, and Trudie read some sonnet. David Collins [the droll interior designer] sang ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Ritchie’ [after Noel Coward’s “Mrs. Worthington,” an acid admonition to a relentless stage mother and her talentless child] – and my daughter was in it as well, playing the little girl!”
For the Guy Ritchies’ contribution, Madonna tracked down a copy of the mock Restoration play The Town Wench or Chastity Rewarded that British film producer John Sutro had composed for Beaton’s celebrated fete champetre of 1937, and performed a scene from it. “It’s really funny – and so bawdy,” laughs Madonna. For Madonna, Ashcombe is “one of those places that are very conducive to bringing a group of people down. I’d love to do it more, but it’s unbelievably complicated for my friends to each have a free weekend on the same weekend!”
For Truth or Dare’s director, Alek Keshishian, what Madonna “really has is confidence in pulling off whatever she decides to wear – it’s a childlike confidence, like playing dress-up in the attic.” While still antic, Madonna’s relationship with fashion has evolved. “I connect to fashion when I need to collaborate with somebody on something. I do love people like Galliano and Gaultier and Olivier [Theyskens]. I do think they’re real artists. I’d go to them. You can draw a line between craftsmanship and artistry and just facade. We live in a culture and a society that’s obsessed with the surface of things. I’ve worked with all those photographers; I know how much they like to retouch!”
Madonna’s interest in her clothes and her costumes over the years is perhaps more curatorial these days. A team of experts is working on cataloging and conserving the extensive collection, currently stored in an L.A. warehouse. “I’ve kept everything,” says Madonna. “The ‘Like a Virgin’ dress. Pieces that Gaultier had made from the Blonde Ambition tour. All the costumes from all of my shows, all the dancers’ costumes, everyone’s costumes.” She has ruthlessly destroyed all the duplicate and triplicate costumes (“Because we didn’t want anything to end up on the internet. When you don’t want anyone else to have it… you burn it”). “My goal is a traveling exhibit, like the Jackie Kennedy show,” she says. “Not just costumes but video imagery and film and interviews and concert footage, so it’s a multimedia kind of journey that you go on.”
Today, her various closets are brimming with country clothes instead of the designer extravaganzas of yore. Even her urban wardrobe, heavy on Prada, Miu Miu, and McCartney, often has a rustic brogue. “Lots of tweeds and lots of caps and sensible walking shoes – it’s hopeless to walk around that estate with a pair of heels!” says Madonna. “I don’t shoot anymore, but I had a lot of suits made for it.” The estate is run as a highly successful shoot – one of the top five in Britain. Pheasants and partridges emerge from every copse and thicket, tottering lazily by; a brazen cock pheasant will even join Madonna’s beloved chickens scrambling for the feed scattered over the stableyard’s cobblestones.
After the madness of her public life, Ashcombe provides the perfect refuge; “it’s like a big vortex; it sucks me in,” says Madonna, who comes to dread the moment “when you leave that bowl of comfort and you go back into the big bad world. And it’s just so teeming with life,” she adds. “There’s a pigeon that keeps flying back – for years now, like a carrier pigeon. He keeps showing up in our backyard.” Madonna has been thinking about this homesick bird, for later in our conversation she says, “maybe that’s Cecil Beaton? He did show up timely for the Vogue shoot, I have to say! I’m sure Cecil’d be very happy to know that I lived in his house. He probably does know.”
© Vogue Magazine