I had two hours’ worth of coffee with Anita Roddick a couple of weeks before she died, and she was effervescing with energy. She had long been a supporter of Reprieve, the charity I work for, and I was overjoyed that she had agreed to take on the role of leading the Board. She was to chair her first meeting later this month, and we were discussing the future.
She was full of ideas – what were the challenges we had to meet? What were our strengths? Could we bring the staff to her house for a couple of days, and draw up a battle plan for the next year? How could we ensure that more young people turned their lives to helping the men, women and children held on death row around the world, or isolated in secret prisons?
Anita had long been famous, the woman who took on the establishment and reintroduced ethics to capitalism at the Body Shop. It was always going to be that way. When she first left school, she dabbled in acting, and tried teaching English and History at her old school, Maude Allen Secondary Modern in her home town of Littlehampton, West Sussex. She married Gordon in Reno, in 1970, and they both dabbled some more, running a bed-and-breakfast and a restaurant. But these were only rehearsals for the business she began to nurture when she dispatched Gordon off on his own dream, a two-year horse ride from Buenos Aires to New York.
She set up the first Body Shop near home and had parlayed it into two stores before Gordon returned. The example of her fair trade rules at first irritated the competition, but eventually forced them to adopt similar guidelines of their own. Good business became big business, and by the early 1990s the company was valued at £900 million.
When she eventually sold the company to L’Oreal in March 2006, she immediately ploughed millions into the Roddick Foundation, supporting charitable causes that included Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, Shelter, the Big Issue, CND and, very generously, our own work at Reprieve. She believed that the desire to die rich was pointless, even obscene.
I had first come across her when I was living in New Orleans, representing death row prisoners, and she came campaigning for the Angola Three – men who had been sentenced to life in prison in Louisiana for allegedly killing a prison guard thirty years before.
They were tagged with the name of the infamous State Penitentiary, formerly a plantation for slaves from Angola. These three black men had never had a chance of a fair trial. Yet how would a privileged British multi-millionaire, daughter of Jewish-Italian immigrants, come to care for these African-American men four thousand miles away? Many Europeans might oppose capital punishment, but these men did not even have the death sentence to make them politically attractive.
Over the years certain cynics suggested she adopted left-leaning causes as a scheme to promote the Body Shop. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even before she first read a book on the Holocaust at the age of ten, Anita was committed to eradicating injustice. It did not matter if the inequity stemmed from human cause, or the arbitrary hand of nature. When she learned that, more than thirty years earlier, a blood transfusion had infected her with Hepatitis C, when she gave birth to her second daughter, Samantha, she chose to turn her misfortune into a cause, and in February 2007 she made herself a public advocate for better diagnosis and treatment. She also saw her illness as a reminder of her own mortality, and as a call to arms. "It makes me even more determined to get on with things," she said.
Anita was dismissive of the idea that she might one day retire. "The most exciting part of my life is now," she said. "I believe the older you get the more radical you become." Would that it were true of everyone. She had bored of business, and she spoke to me of her relief that she would finally sever all ties with the Body Shop at the end of this year, freeing her up to devote all of her time to social justice.
We were all rudely robbed of her passion and her acumen. On Monday, September 10th, 2007, she suffered a serious headache, was taken to St. Richard’s Hospital, Chichester, and at 6.30pm she died from a major brain haemorrhage. Fortunately, her husband Gordon, and her children Justine and Sam, were on hand and were with her at the end.
When I heard the news from a family friend only two hours later, I felt an angry sense of loss. I had hoped to work with this extraordinary woman for years to come, and get to know her so much better. But I was glad to remember, from our morning of coffee and big plans, that she had already given so much to the true love of her life: She had told me the extended version of how she met, and seduced, Gordon – a story far more intensely romantic than the variations that appear in her media biographies.
Her four decades of love for that kind man were patent, and spoke even more of her sincerity than the millions of pounds she gave to charity, or the midnight oil she burned for all her causes. Though too short, and though we miss her, her’s was a life well lived.
Dame Anita Roddick, OBE, founder of the Body Shop, ardent supporter of many charitable causes, husband to Gordon, and mother of Justine and Samantha, was born Anita Lucia Perilli on October 23, 1942; she died on September 10, 2007, aged 64.
Click here to see the articles Anita wrote for the New Statesman