David Bowie met his first love, the magnificently-named Hermione Farthingale on the set of a BBC drama in 1968. They quickly fell in love, bunkered down in a tiny London flat, wrote music together, tested different band formations including a three-piece folk outfit – and then in 1969 she broke his heart by following her career to Norway instead of flanking his. In doing so, she inspired his most heartfelt creation, one of a rare few Bowie songs that suggests there is a real, raw beating heart underneath his alien exterior.
Bowie was a chameleon, which is an amazing attribute when steering a pop music career through six disparate decades, but one that relies on a trade-off of emotion. When you build a public persona as an untouchable, pan-sexual extra terrestrial who subsists on cocaine and milk alone, it’s hard for some to relate. We don’t look for vulnerability in Bowie’s music, because we assume it isn’t there to be found. He is untouchable. He isn’t even one of us – ‘us’ being flawed, flesh-and-bacteria humans who were born, and cried and loved and feared. Bowie was beamed down to provide light and art and to expect him to argue with his girlfriend about being more ‘available’ or something seems absurd. Even alien lifeforms can be left lonely, however, and ‘Letter To Hermione’ was the closest Bowie ever got to letting us see this.
It’s weird to see Bowie this emotionally lost. “I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do” he sings, “So I’ll just write some love for you.” He tortures himselfwith unsubstantiated reports of her flourishing new life. “They say you sparkle like a different girl”, he sighs, with the knowledge that she may actually be better off without him. Still, he wonders. “Something tells me that you hide, when all the world is warm and tired, you cry a little in the dark.” Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, he doesn’t know. There’s another guy, too, as there often is, and Bowie tortures himself with vivid imaginings of their perfect Bowie-less life together: he makes her laugh, he treats her well. “And when he’s strong, he’s strong for you, and when you kiss, it’s something new.” But, again, just maybe… “Did you ever call my name, just by mistake?” he asks, and it’s pathetic – one term you couldn’t level at Bowie ever again. This experience may have hardened him permanently – which makes me all the more thankful this song slipped out before he slammed the vault closed, for good.
In the end, Hermione’s departure did Bowie a massive favour, although it probably didn’t seem like it at the time. She popped up in other songs, too. “You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song”, he said on stage in 1990 before announcing ‘Life On Mars’, which takes half a verse to step out his relationship with “the girl with the mousy hair.” He details their bedsit love affair in more detail in ‘An Occasional Dream’, but as the title suggests, this song is more measured, more distant – a wisp of past emotion rather than the raw emotion showcased in ‘Letter To Hermione’. They both sit on the same album, but one seems in the midst of the heartbreak, the other is almost journalistic. He paints in more detail, but the colours are less vivid.
He never completely moved past this early heartbreak. In the 2013 video for his single ‘Where Are We Now’ he sports a shirt with ‘Song Of Norway’ written across it – the title of the film that stole Hermione from him back in 1969.
As for Hermione, she is now a 66-year-old Pilates teacher, living in Bristol. The Daily Mail tracked her down a few days after Bowie’s passing (because respect for timely grief is overrated) and she seems like a class act, saying: “I’ve nothing bad to say about my time with Bowie. There are too many girlfriends coming out of the woodwork claiming a little bit of the limelight. I think this is a time for close family.”
Even at 21, it would appear David Bowie had impeccable taste.