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Elton John

Penthouse Retrospective

by Philip Norman

February, 1992

Elton John

Nineteen eighty-seven was the lowest ebb of Elton John’s career. He had undergone an operation for a mysterious throat ailment, rumored to be cancer.

He’s Still Standing

Elton JohnHis marriage to the German studio engineer Renate Blauel was foundering. He had launched an unsuccessful lawsuit to regain copyright to his most famous songs, like “Daniel” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” from his former publisher, Dick James. He was having problems with alcohol, drugs, and eating disorders. His career seemed in irreversible decline. It was now that he became the target of a tabloid newspaper expose unique even by Fleet Street’s long history of victimization and untruth.

In this exclusive excerpt from Elton John (Harmony Books), rock biographer Philip Norman reveals how Elton found the will to face his detractors head-on.

What The Sun was shortly to unloose on Elton did not happen in isolation. For five or six years already, he had been the target of anti-gay smears and sneers in Britain’s tabloid press, a public whipping boy for the growing phobia about AIDS. The unwritten law that rock stars never sue allowed things to be written about him that in any other context would instantly have drawn libel writs. The Daily Express, the Daily Star, The People, and the News of the World had all, at one time or another, had their knives into Elton. It was just that, true to form, The Sun sank lowest.

Early in 1987 the paper had received a tip-off from one of its network of paid spies and informers. The tip-off led to a 19-year-old male prostitute, or rent boy, named Stephen Hardy, who told a story calculated to make any Sun man salivate. He claimed to have attended gay parties at the home of Rod Stewart’s manager, Bill Gaff, in Finchampstead, Berkshire, and to have been involved in drug taking and homosexual orgies there with Elton John.

No one can object to a tabloid publishing an expose, however nasty, if sufficient informed sources have been found to corroborate it. Behind the screaming headlines of old-fashioned scandal sheets could always be found the most meticulous delving and triple-checking. To The Sun, however, the unsupported word of Stephen Hardy was basis enough for another great coup in the tradition of “Gotcha!” and “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster.” Hardy was paid 2,000 pounds for his revelations, with further regular sweeteners of 250 pounds.

“Elton in Vice-Boys Scandal” was The Sun’s four-deck front-page splash on February 25. There followed the “confession” of Stephen Hardy under the alias Graham X. He claimed to have been the pimp who had recruited teenage rent boys for parties at Billy Gaff’s house, specifically as sexual partners for Gaff and Elton. Over a period of months, he said he had supplied “at least ten youngsters, who were each paid a minimum of 100 pounds each, plus all the cocaine they could stand.” According to Graham X, aided by The Sun’s distinctive typography, Elton “LOVED his boys to be tattooed skinheads or punks with spiky hair, SNORTED cocaine throughout the orgies, which lasted up to four days, and BEGGED the teenagers to indulge in his bondage fantasies. The sordid rent-boy sessions began just 18 months after Elton’s highly publicized Valentine’s Day marriage to German bride Renate Blauel.”

The story was presented not as an exultant soft-porn feast, but as a solemn moral duty, with Graham X, in the bosom of The Sun, now reformed and penitent. “I am ashamed of what I did … I am speaking out to show how widespread this sort of thing is and to warn other gullible young kids to steer clear of people like these.”

Inside, hammering home the moral message, was a double-page spread, “Elton’s Lust for Bondage,” in which Graham X “confessed” to his own sexual encounters with Elton at Billy Gaff’s house. He said that on the first occasion, Elton had been lying on a bed in a pair of skimpy leather shorts, “looking like Cleopatra and twirling a sex aid between his fingers.” Elton, he claimed, had shown him bondage accessories, “handcuffs, a chain, leather braids, and a whip,” and had fantasized about tying him to a tree in the woods before making love to him. On a later occasion, he said, he had witnessed a foursome between Elton, Billy Gaff, and two rent boys, which had ended with them swapping partners.

Ironically, it was none of this spunout sleaze, but the spurious attempts to give it social uplift, that would prove The Sun’s undoing. In a foot-of-page “box” story, Graham X told how he had repented his rent-boy life after falling in love with a girl, but had carried out one final pimping mission to pay for their engagement ring. So “he took two youngsters to Gaff’s home on April 30 last year. It was the last time he saw Elton.”

It was the only specific date mentioned in the whole story, and in The Sun’s office there was someone who recognized it as deeply unsafe. Nina Myskow had returned to the paper a few months earlier after a stint as TV critic for The People. Knowing she was a longtime friend of Elton’s, The Sun’s legal adviser showed her the Graham X copy a couple of weeks before publication. Nina still kept up with Elton intermittently and was sure she remembered that on April 30, 1986, he and his assistant, Bob Halley, had both been out of Britain. “I said, ‘If you’re going to go with this stuff, for God’s sake make sure you check and double-check that date.’ “ Her advice fell on deaf ears.

In fact, on April 30, 1986-as many more of his friends, like Bryan Forbes, remembered-Elton had been in New York, staying at the Carlyle Hotel. He had had lunch with his old confidant Tony King, then gone to see his costume designer, Bob Mackie. Any number of people could confirm that he had remained in New York one further night, flying home, with Bob Halley, by Concorde early on May 1.

That one slip, if nothing else, opened up The Sun to a massive libel suit. Even so, there were those around Elton who urged him in the strongest terms not to sue. Mick Jagger, in particular, phoned to warn against it, citing his own experience with the News of the World 20 years earlier. That, too, had arisen from the grossest of factual boo boos. Jagger had been accused of boasting about his drug consumption in an interview with News of the World reporters, who did not realize they were actually talking to another Rolling Stone, Brian Jones. Jagger had issued a libel writ, only to be followed and spied on by the paper until finally set up for the Redlands drug bust that led to his and Keith Richards’s imprisonment. If Elton tried to fight The Sun, even on this seemingly winnable count, what campaign of still dirtier tricks could be expected before the case finally came to court?

In Jagger’s view, the best course was to follow rock-star precedent since 1967 and just take it until it stopped.

Elton disagreed. On the day of The Sun’s first Graham X stories, a writ for libel arrived from his solicitors. So full of confident glee was the paper at this stage that its second front-page Elton John “world exclusive” next morning bore an additional tag: “The story they’re all suing over.’’

Article Pages: • 12345

Elton John defied British rock star convention by refusing to allow the tabloid press to smear his name. In an unprecedented campaign of insidious lies, the lowest tabloid was unable to undermine Elton's determination to emerge victorious.

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