By Burt Kearns
On July 20, 1979, a bullet blasted from the barrel of a stolen .38 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol and splashed the brains of seventeen-year-old Scott Cantrell across the pillows and headboard of Keith Richards’ big oak bed in the bucolic village of South Salem, New York. The Rolling Stones guitarist wasn’t home at the time. Anita Pallenberg, his common-law wife, was at home. She was, in fact, in the room, and possibly in the bed with the teen when he held the gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger. The bloody mess was not only the latest in a series of misfortunes for Anita Pallenberg. It was another case in which the Rolling Stones were linked with The Devil.
The Satanic connection? That was because of me. It’s a long story. We’ll get there.
Anita Pallenberg was the evil “It Girl” of the 1960s. Not only “the sex muse of the Rolling Stones,” she was the stunning blonde black magic white powder sex muse of the Rolling Stones. While Marianne Faithfull served the role during the early optimistic days of Swinging London, Pallenberg strutted in as the Stones slid into the era of excess, depravity, debauchery, and death — through Altamont, tax exile in France, and heroin. Lots and lots of heroin.
Anita Pallenberg was as beautiful as any 1960s It Girl, more beautiful and more dangerous than most. German-Italian, born in April 1942, in Rome or Hamburg depending on who you asked, she was a fashion model at sixteen, and by the time she attended her first Rolling Stones concert in 1965, “had already,” according to London’s Telegraph, “appeared in films and fashion magazines, knew Andy Warhol and ‘everyone else’ in New York, could say ‘fuck off’ in six languages, knew about drugs and was highly qualified in the arts of sex; her model agency billed her as ‘too beautiful to get out of bed.'” The night she met the Stones in Munich, she offered the band hashish. They turned down the offer, but she wound up in Brian Jones’ hotel room and for the next few years was on his arm and, if never under his thumb, often on the receiving end of his fist.
“Brian was a woman beater,” Keith Richards wrote in his 2010 memoir, Life. “But the one woman in the world you did not want to try and beat up on was Anita Pallenberg. Every time they had a fight, Brian would come out bandaged and bruised.”
Legend has it that Richards rescued her from the beatings, stealing her from his bandmate (though Richards wrote: “Anita made the first move. I just could not put the make on my friend’s girl, even though he’d become an asshole…. In the back of the Bentley, somewhere between Barcelona and Valencia… the next thing I know she’s giving me a blowjob.”) A month after Brian Jones drowned in 1969, Pallenberg gave birth to Richards’ son Marlon (after Brando). By then, she’d been sexually involved with two, possibly three Rolling Stones, but as Richards would point out, she’d also spent time with Fellini, Visconti and Pasolini. Pallenberg had carved her own niche as an actress in of-their-time films like Candy (with Brando), Barbarella (as The Great Tyrant, the one in the black wig who calls Jane Fonda’s character “pretty pretty”), and Performance. That’s the film about the British mobster who hides out in the mansion of a reclusive rock star played by Mick Jagger. If you didn’t see the movie, you’ve seen the photo of Jagger and two women, naked in the bathtub. Pallenberg was one of them.
Keith Richards always suspected an affair between Jagger and Pallenberg during the filming of Performance. Jagger denied it, but Richards’ intuition was so strong that when Pallenberg gave birth to daughter Dandelion in 1972, he believed Jagger was actually the father. Pallenberg by this time was a stone-cold, non-functioning junkie. The baby was shipped off to be raised by Richards’ mum.
Fear and Paranoia
In 1976, Pallenberg and Richards were both deep into their own heroin corners when their third child, or at least second son, Tara Jo Jo Gunne, was a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at two months. When Richards found out about the death, he was touring Europe, with six-year-old Marlon as his minder. Richards said he and Pallenberg never discussed the tragedy. Nor did they ever get over it. “It certainly further eroded our relationship,” Richards wrote, “and Anita descended further into fear and paranoia.”
Pallenberg was with Richards — and seven-year-old Marlon — February 24, 1977, when the Rolling Stone was arrested on heroin possession and trafficking charges in Toronto. A lot of people within the Stones organization blamed her for the arrest. When the entourage had arrived at Toronto International Airport a few days earlier, Pallenberg was busted with ten grams of hashish and a blackened coke spoon in her luggage. The Mounties followed up by raiding the Richards’ downtown hotel suite. While Richards slept, they found 22 grams of shitty street heroin, five grams of cocaine and traces of heroin on a brass cigarette lighter and switchblade. It was decided that Richards had purchased the heroin to share with Pallenberg. That made him a trafficker. Keith Richards faced life in prison.
Five days later, the Stones played a “surprise” show at the El Mocambo club in Toronto, which was recorded for their Love You Live album. Richards went on trial in the city in 1978. This followed months of real concern among fans and the music industry that the heart of the Rolling Stones would be sent away on a very long prison stretch. The fact that the band had rebounded commercially and critically that summer with the album Some Girls only added to the despair.
On October 24, 1978, most everyone was surprised when Richards got off with a year’s probation and an order to play a benefit performance for the blind.
At a news conference that day, Richards announced that he’d been addicted to heroin since 1972 but had been clean for eighteen months after rehab at the Stevens Psychiatric Center in New York. He denied the judge’s suggestion that Rolling Stones songs glorified drug use. Drug references, he said, showed up in only about one percent of the Stones oeuvre. “And,” he said, “Mick wrote them, not me.”
‘Satanism beneath full moon?’
Keith Richards was back. Not so Anita Pallenberg, banished from the Stones sanctum and holed up in “Frog Hollow,” that two-story country house in the hamlet of South Salem in the town of Lewisboro, Westchester County, about fifty miles north of New York City. The house looked like any other in the area, with the exception of the mailbox, painted red, green, and gold, the colors of the Rastafarian movement. When Richards rented the place after his arrest in 1977, some of Frank Sinatra’s former bodyguards were hired to keep an eye on him and keep drugs away. In 1979, Richards was off recording in the Bahamas and Paris with a younger blonde, Swedish model Lil Wenglass Green. Pallenberg was living in near squalor with Marlon and a couple of “friends”: 25-year-old Jeffrey Sessler, and the teenager Scott Cantrell. The young men were supposed “groundskeepers.” They spent time with the kid, did drugs with the mom, and in the case of Cantrell, shared her bed.
This is where the Devil — I mean, this is where I came in.
Heading into that summer of 1979, I was working as a reporter for The Ridgefield Press, a weekly paper in the Connecticut town that bordered Lewisboro, in which South Salem, and Keith Richards’ master bedroom, were located. After a time writing about rock ‘n’ roll and chronicling the local punk scene, this was my first full-time job in journalism, and I was looking for any sensational story that would help get me out of the suburbs and into the City. There was a cross-burning on the lawn of an interracial couple (the ringleader, who got off with a misdemeanor, told me, “I hate Blacks”), interviews with local celebrities like Maurice Sendak (we talked about Paul Simon and Lou Reed), and then, in June, a crime that took place near the border of South Salem.
“Few episodes in Ridgefield’s long history were more unusual or downright bizarre than the events of June 10, 1979,” my editor Jack Sanders wrote in his 2016 criminal history of the town, Wicked Ridgefield. “Early that Sunday morning, a Ridgefield policeman was accosted by four hooded men who were said to be singing in a strange tongue under a full moon on the grounds of a convent.”
On Monday morning, June 11, Jack assigned me and reporter Larry Fossi, an intelligent local kid on his way to becoming a successful attorney, to sort out the story. The two of us investigated the tale told by the twenty-four -year-old cop — that he’d walked into the woods at 2:30 in the morning, encountered a large group of people wearing hoods and chanting, and got the bejeezus knocked out of him by four of them before he was able to scramble back to his patrol car and hit the siren.
We spoke to neighbors who’d heard noises that morning. We found a clearing in the woods where some activity had definitely taken place, and wooden poles whose ends were sharpened and burned. We talked to the cops. We saw connections to devil worship. In the next issue of the Press, we had the front page headline: “Hooded Chanters Attack Cop: Satanism Beneath Full Moon?”
In the days to follow, we found a woman who claimed she belonged to a local Satanic cult that sacrificed dogs, cats, and even goats in those very woods. Then a tip led to a nineteen-year-old who claimed to be a member of something called The Satanic Organization of Connecticut. He told us that he and other young Ridgefielders met three times a week to discuss the Satanic Bible. “I go with the devil instead of God because the devil’s been the underdog for 2,000 years…”
Oh, my God. He had… sympathy… for the Devil.
We were still churning out stories, when, on July 20, five weeks after and less than a mile to the west of the alleged Satanic assault on that local cop, a shot rang out in Keith Richards’ bedroom.
According to police, the call about a shooting came in at 10:35 p.m. State police investigator Douglas Lamanna said he arrived to find seventeen-year-old Scott Cantrell on the bed, barefoot but dressed in a shirt and jeans. He was breathing but not conscious. One corner of the large oak bed was broken and propped up with a chair. A .38 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol was on a dresser at the foot of the bed. The gun had one empty and two live rounds in the chambers. It appeared that a bullet had entered Cantrell’s right temple, blown off the back of his head, ricocheted off the ceiling and wound up on the floor. There were no identifiable fingerprints on the gun. A Colt .45 was also found in the house. (Chet Flippo reported in Rolling Stone that the .38 had been reported stolen from a Broward County Sheriff’s official in Florida and possibly purchased from a “thug” when the Stones opened their tour on June 10, 1978 in Lakeland, Florida.)
Scott Cantrell was taken to Northern Westchester Hospital and pronounced dead fifteen minutes after midnight on Saturday. Anita Pallenberg was taken into custody. She told police that the teen “was lying on top of the bed, over the covers” and that she “was tidying up” with her back toward him when she heard the shot. “He was lying on his back and I turned him over,” she said. “I heard a gurgling sound. He was choking on his blood. I picked up the revolver and put it on the chest of drawers. I don’t like guns.”
Lamanna said nine-year-old Marlon was downstairs with Sessler, watching coverage of the tenth anniversary of the first moon landing, when the gun was fired. Both Sessler and the dead teen were described as “associates of Pallenberg.”
In his book published thirty-one years later, Keith Richards was more direct. Cantrell, he wrote, was Pallenberg’s “young boyfriend.” Marlon “heard Anita screaming and then saw her running down the stairs covered in blood.”
“I went my God, Jesus Christ,“ Marlon is quoted in Life. “I had to have a little peek, so I did go up and saw all this brain matter all over the walls.”
Anita Pallenberg spent the next seven hours in bloody clothes at police headquarters in Lewisboro. Lamanna said she was “visibly upset, distraught and at times felt faint.” She told cops that she’d known Cantrell for about a year, and let him move in because “he said he no place to stay.” She said Cantrell was a heavy marijuana user. “There were also indications that he’d been drinking, probably white wine. He had .06 blood alcohol, which is mild,” Lamanna said. He added that Pallenberg’s breath smelled of booze but that she wasn’t tested. Though there were suspicions that Cantrell died in a game of Russian roulette with the older woman, police were satisfied it was a suicide. Pallenberg was charged with possession of the weapons. She turned over her Italian passport and was released Saturday morning on $500 bail.
The story made news around the world. People talked about Russian roulette, about how the Stones sex vixen was banging the houseboy while Keith was away. But back in the Ridgefield Press newsroom, we were shouting “Satanism!” Jack, great editor and teacher that he was, let us follow up.
And why not? The Rolling Stones’ Satanic connections were part of their commercial mythology: Mick Jagger’s flirtation with the occult that led to the album titled Their Satanic Majesty’s Request; Jagger’s flirtation with the lead role in Kenneth Anger’s film, Lucifer Rising; Jagger taking on the persona of Lucifer in the song “Sympathy for The Devil”; all those drugs. After “Sympathy” was blamed for the bad juju that led to the mysterious death of Brian Jones and the murder of a fan while the Stones performed at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, Jagger backed away from the Satan stuff. Not so Keith Richards. “‘Sympathy’ is an uplifting song,” he said. “It’s just a matter of looking the Devil in the face. He’s there all the time. I’ve had very close contact with Lucifer — I’ve met him several times.”
Larry and I were about to arrange another meeting. Aside from the Rolling Stones’ history, there wasn’t any evidence that Satanism had anything to do with Scott Cantrell’s death. (Michael Cimino’s film, The Deer Hunter, with its scenes of Russian roulette, had been released five months earlier, and was a more likely influence), but with the proximity to the Ridgefield case, there was an obvious link! We unspooled more stories about the Satanic connections to the Rolling Stones.
You’d figure the tabloids would eventually catch on to the Satanic and witchcraft angles. In case they didn’t, I put in a call to the city desk at the New York Post and hipped them to what was going on around Ridgefield and Keith Richards’ neighborhood. Within days, the Post had used our information in a sensational story claiming that Anita Pallenberg was tied to a “witches’ coven in Westchester County.” They ran her photo and captioned it “Dirty Old Woman.”
Larry Fossi and I were in the newsroom when we got the call from Rolling Stone magazine. We got on the phone with a reporter named Kurt Loder, who was writing the Random Notes section. Our Satanism story got into Rolling Stone, and Larry was quoted. “A local reporter attributed the outbreak of occultism to ‘a lot of rich people taking acid,'” Loder wrote.
The final curtain
Another shock was to come a couple of weeks later, when Anita Pallenberg showed up in court to face the weapons charges. The person stuffed into the white pantsuit was not the Anita Pallenberg from the bathtub scene in Performance, and nobody’s idea of a sexual muse. The woman facing charges was a swollen, bloated, jowly leathery junkie with a belly pushing over her belt, and a pack of Marlboros stuffed into the band of her straw hat. She looked scary and used-up — at the ripe old age of thirty-seven.
As the year wound down, a grand jury heard the evidence and despite the talk of Russian roulette, didn’t indict her in connection with the suicide. They recommended two misdemeanor charges for gun possession. Pallenberg and Marlon got out of town.
“It was a miracle how that case just disappeared,” Richards wrote in Life. “I believe it was to do with the fact that the gun was traced back to the police… suddenly it wasn’t an issue. The case was put down as suicide. The boy’s parents tried to bring a case for corruption of a minor, which didn’t stick. So Anita moved to New York, to the Alray Hotel, and began a different kind of existence. That was the final curtain for me and Anita, apart from trips to see the children. It was the end. Thanks for the memories, girl.”
Marlon was quoted in his father’s book: “There were all these stories in the press at the time saying that she was a witch, that people were having Black Sabbaths. They were saying all sorts of things. It literally was just bad luck. I don’t think he intended to shoot himself, really, just an idiot of seventeen who was stoned, angry, playing with a pistol.”
“No one was ever arrested on connection with the assault on the patrolman,” Jack Sanders wrote in Wicked Ridgefield. “No evidence was ever found that the Ridgefield event was connected with the nearby Richards homestead.”
It didn’t matter. We wrote the headline, and another chapter in the history of the Devil and the Rolling Stones. If there wasn’t a connection, there was now. We made it so. It was a lesson that would serve me well when I moved to New York City and into the tabloid business. It probably helped Larry as a lawyer, too.
In November 1979, days before the grand jury let Anita Pallenberg off with a slap on her track-marked wrist, the Rolling Stones’ original muse made a shocking return to the pop music scene. Jagger’s girl Marianne Faithfull had gone from singing “As Tears Go By” in a warbling soprano in 1964, to being arrested naked, allegedly with a Mars bar in her vagina, when police raided another Richards estate in 1967 (a rumor roundly denied, and described as “demonizing” in her autobiography). The album Broken English presented her as a profane survivor whose voice was a deep, broken glass-gargled growl. Marianne Faithfull, once the angel to Anita Pallenberg’s devil, was another example of the price paid by the muses of the Rolling Stones.
In 2001, the two women appeared in a fantasy sequence on the British comedy series Absolutely Fabulous. Marianne Faithfull played God. Anita Pallenberg played Satan.
Aside from that appearance on the BBC, Anita Pallenberg was not often on the mainstream radar after the Satanic suicide scandal. While Keith Richards moved on to a new family with the model Patti Hansen, Pallenberg detoxed from heroin, earned a fashion degree, designed some clothes, appeared in some indie and outre films, briefly returned to heroin, joined AA, had two hip replacements, got hooked on valium, started drinking again, got clean once more and, looking far older than her age, ultimately settled into a life of louche luxury in a Chelsea mansion overlooking the Thames. On June 13, 2017, after a long illness, she died from complications of hepatitis C. Somehow, she’d made it to seventy-five.
Upon news of her death, Keith Richards issued a statement: “A most remarkable woman. Always in my heart.”