Fifty years ago, when Charlotte Rampling made her first appearance on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, she was described as “a highly cultivated English rose.... A golden brown girl, dashingly freckled, she gives a sense of freedom as her idea of happiness.” The girl is now a woman of 71, and her memoir, Who I Am, written with Christopher Bataille, is out this month from Icon Books.
When we meet in her magnificent Paris duplex (a grand building in the 16th Arrondissement), Rampling still has the captivating “jade gaze,” as Dirk Bogarde put it. Though her beauty and style were a throwback to Hepburn and Bacall, she was (in the parlance of the time) a ’60s chick, a fixture on the scene Time magazine dubbed Swinging London, a baby boomer par excellence—one of the first generations of women unshackled from twin sets and pearls.
“It was too cool to be true, the way we looked, and the music was amazing,” Rampling says. “There was this huge group feeling—everyone was doing their own thing and then coming together. When acid arrived, that was a bit of a bore. I tried it and it really freaked me out. Dope was all right, but the LSD was pretty spooky.”
This wariness meant she was less alluring to many of music’s jeunesse dorée, including the Beatles, but she did get to know Jimi Hendrix. “My boyfriend of the time, Tom Weber, was making a documentary, so I spent a lot of time with Jimi,” Rampling says. “He was a fantastic guitarist and a wonderful man. In retrospect you can see that he couldn’t survive.”
Rampling did survive, and survival, in the wake of unimaginable family tragedy, is the subject of Who I Am. The book’s slenderness is at odds with the weight of its content, which tells, in a series of vignettes and photos, the story of Rampling’s peripatetic childhood and her close relationship with Sarah, “my big little sister,” a frail child three years older than her. They did everything together, happily lost in the imagined worlds they created to stave off the loneliness that comes with the endless uprootings of life in a military family. “She was my life,” Rampling writes.
Who I Am chronicles a death foretold: at the age of 23, a world away on an Argentine cattle ranch, Sarah shot herself, leaving behind a husband and a tiny baby. Both Rampling and her mother, Isabel, had suffered weird premonitions at almost the exact time of Sarah’s death, which was, her father lied, the result of a brain hemorrhage. Three years later, Rampling discovered the truth from her brother-in-law and confronted her father. By that time, her mother had been incapacitated by a stroke from which she never recovered.
Rampling and her father—Godfrey Rampling, a member of Britain’s gold-medal-winning relay team at the 1936 Olympics, captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia—agreed that her mother must never know the truth of Sarah’s death, which meant Sarah’s suicide remained their secret until Isabel’s death more than 30 years later.
It was only in the last decade of her father’s life, Rampling says, that they were able to talk about what had happened in their shared past. Were they able finally to grieve? “I don’t know,” she says, “but at least we talked.”
Rampling reflected on all of this in the writing of Who I Am. Around 10 years ago, she began to cowrite a more conventional biography with Barbara Victor, but, unhappy with what she saw, she proceeded “elegantly and correctly” to curtail the project. “Not because Barbara was going to reveal anything,” Rampling says. “I’m not a shy person in terms of not wanting to be found out. It was the tone.”
Bataille then approached her, and they spent a good deal of time together before “something started to emerge.” Rampling adds, “I wanted to explore what writing was.” The result is an “impressionistic view” of aspects of Rampling’s life, because that’s how she herself sees it, in part because of the serious depression, the “darkness” she suffered in her 40s.
The book, however, is not all dark: there are scenes from a happy childhood, spent in various parts of Britain, in Gibraltar, and in Fontainebleau, France, where, at ages nine and 12, the sisters were sent to a local school. “That was the best time,” Rampling says, although it was also “quite an isolated life” because at the outset neither of them spoke French.
“The street where we lived opened up onto this massive forest,” she notes. “We went with our dog for miles and had this incredible fantasy world.”
The idyll came to an end when Godfrey was posted back to England. “It was terribly dull,” Rampling notes. “France had been very exotic for me. The smell, the streets, the markets, the people, how they dressed...”
But then the ’60s arrived, and Rampling found herself in movies: a waterskier in The Knack and then a lead in Rotten to the Core. In 1966, Georgy Girl made her a star. By the end of the decade she was in Italy, embarking on a series of high-profile films with Bogarde, including The Damned and The Night Porter, which cemented her reputation. At 30 she settled in France, made arthouse movies, married Jean-Michel Jarre and had a child.
But at 40, the depression began. Rampling slipped beneath the radar for the next 10 years. Recovery was a very slow process, she says. She declines to say what got her through, but observes that “enormous numbers of people are on antidepressant pills, and they help get them through their anxieties—but they’re not in depression.”
With depression, Rampling says, “you’ve got to get up every morning and tell yourself, ‘I’m going to get through this day, I’m going to get through my life. ” She always felt responsible to her parents and cognizant of how Sarah’s death had devastated them. “I would think, ‘Sarah... Well, I can’t do that, can I? I’ve got to come through another way.’ ”
These last 15 years or so have seen a remarkable turnaround for Rampling, personally and professionally. She divorced Jarre and found romantic fulfillment with Jean-Noel Tassez, who, sadly, died two years ago. But she was able to grieve for him, as she did eventually for Sarah. “I was determined,” she says, “to survive and to live.”
Liz Thomson is a journalist, broadcaster, and author in London.