50 years ago, on 18 December 1966, Tara Browne, the Guinness heir, smashed his yellow Lotus Elan into a van on Redcliffe Gardens, South Kensington. He was 21. Browne’s death inspired one of The Beatles’ most popular songs, A Day in the Life. It was Browne who, in John Lennon’s visceral prose, “blew his mind out in a car”.
Browne is a well-known figure, and not just because of being the subject of a Beatles song. A lengthy biography for a life cut so short has just been released, which examines Browne and his gilded world.
But little is known about the passenger in Browne’s yellow Lotus, Suki Potier.
Potier’s life was hard, fast and glamorous – over in the blink of 30 years. She was born the youngest of two sisters in Surrey, and was modelling in London by her teenage years. She was catapulted into the Chelsea village, where everyone knew everyone, and the car crash with Browne happened when she was just 18.
Allegedly, the chivalrous Browne swerved the car so that he would take the impact and Potier would survive. She was shocked but unscathed. Her next boyfriend was The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, and she moved into his house in Sussex where he drowned in his swimming pool.
After Jones’ death, Potier got together with Robert Ho, a student at the London School of Business. The two got married, moved to Hong Kong and had two children, Faye and Sarah. When Sarah was just two years old, the couple died in a car crash while on holiday in Portugal.
Scanned photograph of Robert Ho and Suki Potier. From the author.
“She really was bad luck with men and accidents,” says her daughter Sarah Ho, a London-based jewellery designer. Ho’s memory of her mother is a fabric of anecdotes, photographs and the jewellery collection she inherited when she turned 18. “Her jewellery screams her personality,” says Ho. “Solid gold, Bohemian, heavy pieces. Costume jewellery, not dainty things.”
Some of her favourite pieces include long armour rings, multi-strand necklaces and a Cartier snake ring with green enamel. “That ring is really special to me,” says Ho. “Because she had it on when she passed away. She must have worn it to the death because all the enamel has rubbed off. It’s kind of weird when you have something on your skin that you know someone has worn. Jewellery is not like clothes you wash, it has a sense of the person who was wearing it.”
To her daughter, Suki Potier is an inspiration, a perpetual muse and the namesake of her own daughter. Throughout our conversation, her mother takes on a mythical quality. “I would love to know what she was like, how she lived, I just think she must have been the coolest mum on earth,” says Ho. “I’m really proud to have someone like her as a mother, someone who lived a really colourful life.”
Sarah Ho designs her jewellery. Photo: Flora Neville
By all contemporary accounts, Potier’s life was kaleidoscopic. She was employed by a modelling agency on the King’s Road called English Boys, which employed Potier and Browne among 60 other androgynous child-like sprites. “Suki was adventurous, high-risk and a risk-taker; she lived very close to the edge,” recalls Trisha Edwards, who was one of the figures who ran the agency. She also recalls Potier announcing that Jimi Hendrix was in town and they were going to have an affair, and wouldn’t that be exciting.
English Boys was a product of the time, when petty cash was spent on Bohemian clothes from King’s Road boutiques such as Hung on You or Granny Takes a Trip. Edwards recalls that it was sometimes impossible even to get the models out of bed in the morning. These were people who dedicated themselves to living a life with no boundaries. “I was the only one who did anything!” Edwards recalls with a laugh.
Scanned photograph of Danae Brooke. From the author.
We remember the Sixties as being about liberation from society’s structures; a time when women could express themselves as flower-children, free from the men they were married to. But was this liberation from societal structures really achieved?
“It’s amazing,” says Ho. “Whoever [Potier] dated, she morphed into looking like them. When she was with Brian Jones, they started to look like twins.” But perhaps this transformation was more a trope of glamorous Sixties London than anything particularly idiosyncratic. After all, Potier wasn’t Jones’ only doppelganger: “Anita Pallenberg did too,” remarks Edwards of the Italian actress who also dated Jones.
Potier lived as one of the beautiful people of whom The Beatles asked, in their song “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”, how does it feel? And what sort of sacrifice would it take to become one of the beautiful people? According to Danae Brook, a contemporary model and writer, and Vidal Sassoon’s muse for his infamous geometric haircut, you had to sacrifice “to some extent, your identity. It was in fact a chauvinistic world.”
Scanned photograph of Danae Brooke. From the author.
Looking back on the Sixties as a revolutionary time for women raises uncomfortable questions. “It was revolutionary,” says Brook. “As far as you were no longer confined by your husband and his life. You set your cap at rock ‘n’ roll madcap rather than societal convention.”
But, as is perhaps inevitable in revolution, lives were lost too soon. And while men like Brian Jones and Tara Browne are commemorated as rock stars, too many of the women, like Potier, disappear into myth, part of the fabric of the era; moth-like girls fluttering to the flame.