I was cursed by Freddie’s fortune: Queen star’s lover got his millions, was cruelly attacked by jealous rivals and even abandoned by Mercury’s own band mates
In the days before his death, his once lithe body now rendered extremely frail by Aids, Freddie Mercury made one final request of the woman he described as ‘the love of my life’. That she, and she alone, should collect his ashes after his cremation and dispose of them at a private location never to be disclosed.
For more than two decades Mary Austin has abided by Mercury’s wishes and kept the whereabouts of his ashes a secret. Not even his elderly parents were told.
Since the death of Queen’s flamboyant frontman, aged 45, in November 1991, speculation has been rife. Were the ashes taken to his native Zanzibar? Or buried under a cherry tree in the Japanese garden of his London mansion?
Mary Austin (right) was trusted with the location of Freddie Mercury’s ashes. She has said that she will never tell anyone where they are, as was his wish
When a plinth erected at Kensal Green cemetery in West London bearing his real name – Farrokh Bulsara – was discovered earlier this month, his legion of fans hoped their hero’s final resting place had finally been located.
But Mary, the woman who shared much of her life with the enigmatic showman, and to whom he left his magnificent £20 million Edwardian mansion in West London as well as the bulk of his £9 million fortune, is categoric on the matter: ‘Freddie is definitely not in that cemetery,’ she says.
Mercury, famed as much for his excessive lifestyle as his exuberant stage persona, died from AIDS at a time when it was feared and misunderstood. Mary says that just before his death, he was terrified his resting place would be defiled: ‘He didn’t want anyone trying to dig him up as has happened to some famous people. Fans can be deeply obsessive. He wanted it to remain a secret and it will remain so.’
She kept the ashes in an urn in Freddie’s bedroom for two years and then staged an elaborate covert exercise, slipping out of the mansion alone to carry out his last request.
Mary was left with Mercury’s millions, but has also had to deal with his legions of jealous followers
To avoid prying eyes, she didn’t even take her driver. ‘I didn’t want anyone to suspect that I was doing anything other than what I would normally do. I said I was going for a facial. I had to be convincing. It was very hard to find the moment.
‘One morning, I just sneaked out of the house with the urn. It had to be like a normal day so the staff wouldn’t suspect anything – because staff gossip. They just cannot resist it. But nobody will ever know where he is buried because that was his wish.’
A few days beforehand, Mary invited Mercury’s parents to the house to say a few prayers in his memory. But not even they were told where his ashes ultimately lie.
It was an emotional and stress-filled mission for Mary, who lived with Mercury on and off for 20 years. The years since his death have been lonely. As we sit in the music room of the sprawling mansion, which still retains the stylish grandeur and flamboyant decor that Mercury demanded, the vigil by fans continues outside the property’s perimeter wall. For many of them it is a daily pilgrimage and they pause to pin up missives of undying love.
Mary gazes through the window, smiling softly. Sinking into a plush sofa she then casts her eye around the room – taking in its stunning array of valuable antiques, art works and Louis XV furniture. ‘Why would I want to change it?’ she says. ‘It is his taste and style. It’s beautiful. His presence is everywhere.’
The grand piano – at which Mercury composed many of his greatest hits including Bohemian Rhapsody – dominates the room. On top, sit several silver-framed photographs of Mary and Mercury, in the first flush of romance, laughing lovingly together. After six years together, he came out as gay, taking a stream of lovers as his life descended into uninhibited promiscuity. But his love for Mary never waned.
That he left the bulk of his fortune to her caused deep and bitter resentment – not least among Mercury’s former band members. She says he warned her the legacy she would inherit could become a burden. ‘And he was right,’ she says, her features, still elfin at 62, forming a deep frown.
Mary at Freddie Mercury’s funeral with Queen drummer Roger Taylor and Dave Clark
After Freddie died she felt out of her depth. She suffered several serious illnesses and struggled emotionally to cope with the inheritance. ‘I found myself thinking, “Oh Freddie, you’ve left me too much and too much to deal with as well.” I felt I couldn’t live up to it. He’d warned me that the house was going to be more of a challenge than I realised. I’m grateful he did because I hit jealousy head on – like a Japanese bullet train. Very painful.
‘I don’t think the remaining members of Queen have ever reconciled themselves to it. I don’t understand it. Because to me it’s bricks and mortar. I try never to be jealous or envy people.
Mary was left a magnificent £20million Edwardian mansion in West London
‘Freddie was very generous to them in the last years of his life and I don’t think they embraced that generosity. I don’t think they appreciated or recognised what Freddie had left them. He left the band a quarter share of the last four albums – which he didn’t need to do. And I never hear from them. After Freddie died, they just wandered off.’
Everywhere, she confesses, there are memories of Mercury. ‘You hear a specific song and it makes you feel emotional. We lived those 20-odd years together. Under the same roof. Together emotionally.’
During that time she witnessed the thrill of Mercury proposing marriage, the heartache of losing him when he realised he was gay and the anguish of nursing him through his final days. There is one particularly powerful memory of that time that still haunts her. As his life ebbed away, Mercury watched DVD footage of his past performances.
‘On one occasion he turned to me and said sadly, “To think I used to be so handsome.” I got up and had to leave the room,’ she recalls. ‘It was too upsetting. We were never allowed to get emotional around him and that was hard. But I knew if I sat there I would have been in tears. When I returned I just sat down as if nothing had happened. But for that moment, he caught me off guard.’
Mary was 19 when she first met Mercury in the early Seventies. Born into an impoverished family in Battersea, South London – her father worked as a trimmer for wallpaper specialists and her mother was a domestic for a small company – her childhood wasn’t easy. Both parents were deaf and communicated through sign language and lip-reading.
Mary was a PR at the fashionable Biba store in Kensington, West London, when she encountered Mercury, then 24, at the clothes stall he and Queen drummer Roger Taylor ran in nearby Kensington market.
Initially, she found Mercury intimidating but was also fascinated by this ‘wild-looking artistic musician’. She says: ‘He was like no one I had met before. He was very confident – something I have never been. We grew together. I liked him and it went on from there.’
The pair shared a bedsit and then moved into a modest one-bedroom flat in nearby Holland Road. They were blissfully happy but hadn’t discussed a future together. ‘Then, when I was 23 he gave me a big box on Christmas Day. Inside was another box, then another and so it went on. It was like one of his playful games. Eventually, I found a lovely jade ring inside the last small box.
‘I looked at it and was speechless. I remember thinking, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” It wasn’t what I’d expected at all. So I asked him, “Which hand should I put this on?” And he said, “Ring finger, left hand.” And then he said, “Because, will you marry me?” I was shocked. It just so wasn’t what I was expecting. I just whispered, “Yes. I will.”’
The showman proposed to Mary but, true to character, changed his mind suddenly on a whim
But, impulsive as ever, he changed his mind on a whim. ‘Sometime later,’ she says. ‘I spotted a wonderful antique wedding dress in a small shop. And as Freddie hadn’t said anything more about marrying, the only way that I could test the water was to say, “Is it time I bought the dress?” But he said no. He had gone off the idea and it never happened.
‘I was disappointed but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to happen. Things were getting very complicated and the atmosphere between us was changing a lot. I knew the writing was on the wall, but what writing? I wasn’t absolutely sure.
‘I never questioned him about it. But I think he must have been starting to question himself. Getting married was probably something he wanted. But then he began to wonder if it would be fair on me.’ The revelation that Mercury was gay ended their physical relationship, but Mary has always been grateful that Freddie one day had the courage to discuss his changing sexual feelings.
‘If he hadn’t been such a decent human being and told me I wouldn’t be here,’ she says candidly. ‘If he had gone along living a bisexual life without telling me, I would have contracted Aids and died.’
Mary started to notice he was staying out later and later and thought he was having an affair with another woman. Deeply hurt, she feared their relationship was over. But one day he told her he had something important to say – something that would change their relationship forever.
Gazing down at her lap, Mary says softly: ‘I’ll never forget that moment. Being a bit naive, it had taken me a while to realise the truth. Afterwards he felt good about having finally told me he was bisexual. Although I do remember saying to him at the time, “No Freddie, I don’t think you are bisexual. I think you are gay.”’
Freddie Mercury with Queen guitarist Brian May playing guitars in front of Roger Taylor’s drums in the 1980s
Freddie, she recalls, hugged her and told her that, whatever happened, he wanted her to always be part of his life. For a spell they settled into a routine, though unconventional life. When they threw dinner parties she would sit on one side of Mercury, his latest boyfriend on the other.
Eventually, Mary decided to move out of their flat, and Mercury’s music company bought her a £300,000 apartment.
Mary becomes reflective. ‘The sad thing was that if he had been more careful in his lifestyle later on, he would still be here now. With advances in modern medicine things are different now.’
As it was, Mary could only watch from the sidelines as her former lover embraced a wild chapter of his life. ‘I think Freddie reached a stage where he thought he was invincible,’ she says. ‘He convinced himself he was having a good time and maybe, in part, he was. But I think in part he wasn’t.
Freddie Mercury with his former girlfriend and lifelong friend Mary Austin
‘And then it was too late. The only person who could have made a difference was Freddie. But I think he’d stopped being honest with himself. Many of his so-called friends were there for the free tickets, the free booze, the free drugs, the free meal, the gossip and, of course, the expensive gifts.’
Mercury kept the nature of his illness a secret until shortly before his death. When he told her he intended to leave his beautiful home to her, she tried to encourage him to place it in a trust. ‘He said, “If things had been different, you would have been my wife and this would have been yours anyway.”’
Mary had two sons; Richard, who Freddie knew, and Jamie, born shortly after his death. Her relationship with their father didn’t last. In time, Mary met another man – who she married. But the marriage faltered after five years and they divorced a decade ago.
It has always been Mercury who was the true love of her life. Her memories are never far away.
‘Freddie was fun. The only times I saw him really serious were when working on songs. The house would be totally still, but full of a quiet energy.
‘But Freddie’s personality was always there, whatever the mood. It was always moving, influencing the running of the house. It was like the volume button on the radio. There are not a lot of people who can walk into a room and there’s something they bring into it which makes it warm and genial. And then, when they leave, it goes.’
The true Mercury, she believes, was a complicated mixture of self-doubt and self-confidence. ‘I think Bohemian Rhapsody was the turning point. That made him realise that he didn’t need to doubt himself. Even though he was told the radio stations wouldn’t play it because it was too long, there was no way Freddie was going to cut it.’
As fans continue to flock to house where their idol lived, Mary understands their desire to know his final resting place.
But she is aware she made a lasting promise to him. ‘I never betrayed Freddie in his lifetime,’ she says. ‘And I’ll never betray him now.’