INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPTS - BILL WILLIS PROJECT

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INTERVIEW WITH MARIAN MCEVOY

 

...his Morocco, his Marrakech was a place of Romance of dreams of poetry, sensuality and smoky odours.


He was not into this cleaned up el Turismo number at all. He was a romantic. A smart romantic.

 

I was introduced to Bill’s work through the YSL and Pierre Berge’s work… I call it the compound - they had two houses which both of them Bill worked on.

 

What was interesting about that project was not only the exquisite true elegance of that whole place. I mean elegance is a word that is overused but in this case it is the right word. He actually collaborated with YSL who was arguably the greatest fashion designer of our times, no question. But how about the greatest colourist of all times. YSL had a sense of colour that was flawless, surprising, crazy. And it always worked. So Bill teamed up with Yves and they were soul mates.

 

1.14 No question. They got each other. They didn’t even have to talk. Yves would say I want a yellow and Bill would reach around in his pile of swatches or whatever and pull out the yellow that Yves wanted. So that was a very good collaboration. He also worked on one of those houses with the decorator Jacques Granges. Now decorators often don’t like to work with other decorators or even architects. They’re very territorial. That went very well. The thing about Bill was that he would respect talent, respect excellence and not suffer fools. He could be ruthless with people that he either thought were tacky, dumb or not conscious enough. Ruthless.  That’s not a bad quality.

 

Bill actually bought back a treatment that is actually a Moroccan treatment for centuries called Tadelakt. The walls have  a slight sheen to them. It’s a marble like effect, done with lime I believe. It’s a really arduous process. But he fell in love with it. I’m not sure what place he saw this in. It was a wall effect that was not used in the 50s or the 60s. He brought it back. He found the artisans. And recreated this slight sheen, this slight marble like glow. Pinkish, not pink pink like bubble gum but sort of dusty nuanced pink.

 

He also re-animated Zeligge which is the tile work. Now Moroccan tile has been famous for centuries but what Bill did was put it in surprising places and come up with colour combinations that Moroccans did not normally use. So it’s not as if he threw out crates of tile, wood and plaster and said let’s start over.  He took the technique and westernised it. So either the colours were different, the texture was different or the placement of the hand carved plaster or wood was in a new place. He also loved straw work. The beautiful straw mats. Bill would put them on the wall. It was like having a giant playground or paintbox, and he whipped things around and changed them. They looked incredible Moroccan but not traditional Moroccan. Bill’s Moroccan.

 

4.00 Bill had two things that everyone could say that were Bill’s chef d’oeuvres.

 

INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER GIBBS

Bill was a boy from the deep South from Memphis Tennessee, predominantly of Irish extraction, hence the green eyes and curly hair and impudent Celtic carry on. And dad had a drink problem I think and  I’m not sure mum didn’t too because she slithered off a cliff one day when he was at a raggerty party...he came back and she was gone. And Bill was then about 17, 18 something like that. So he inherited a lot of money. And he was being looked after by some wilder older person, but Bill managed to get round him and get away, and get first to New York where he fell in with the world of decorating. He worked for a woman named Rosalind Rosier who was a smart decorator. He was a snappy lad working in the shop. I remember him saying to me, a lady came into the shop and said “How much is that young man?” And Bill said 1800 USD and she said, “Does Ros add her rent and her age on to the price of everything here?’ And Bill took this as mantra and thought it was quite a good way of doing business. He was always quite bold in the add ons.

 

When you went to New York when you were 17 or 18, what was the first thing that struck you about it and he said, “Baby it was the first time I had ever been waited upon by a white woman”. And so he did come from another world but he sort of carried it with him. So in his relations with Moroccan people whom he loved, and who were endlessly amused by his carry on, had some sort of echoes  of that Southern way of thinking about people who looked a bit different from him.

 

Perhaps when he was 18, he was able to do what he wanted with the money...it was not an awful lot of money but it was enough to buy ticket on the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth...anyway...some great liner. And on the liner he met an American Lady called Florence Gould, who was Jay Gould’s daugter in law. Anyway she was a very rich grand American lady with a beautiful house in the South of France. Bill wrote in his journal which I have mislaid which is a riveting document, bits and pieces I remember from it, ‘Perhaps the answer to everything is to be a kept boy.’ So off he went to the south of France and stayed with Mrs Gould in her splendid villa and met a lot more people, went to Paris, went to London. Had a very very good time indeed.

 

I think he liked the idea of being looked after. But also realised that if you looked after people you probably had to give back something that you might not be up to or want to.

 

I think he realised that he had inherited certain things from his father, the yearning to be half cut half the time.  He liked to be mildly anaesthised, he think it added to rapture. He strove for rapture lifelong in one way or another. I think the striving for rapture is a sort of dulling kind of addiction you know.

I had really bumped into any creature remotely like him before. His zip and zap and glamorous way of carrying on. We kind of hit it off in mutual astonishment at what we thought was interesting and important you know. Shared some things.

 

Robert Fraser and I were his sort of nannies. And neither of us were particularly well cut out  for this role, particularly not Robert who shared a lot of Bill’s enthusiasms.

 

It was the time when LSD emerged. And Bill was frightfully keen about that. And he invested heavily also in cocaine. He said ‘I’ve got a mason jar full of cocaine in there sugar he’d say do you want some, do you want a line? And I would say, No Bill, that’s very sweet of you… I have to..

 

The rhythm of his life...which was about achieving some kind of unsatisfactory satisfaction.

 

He was a loveable creature. He was kind, generous, funny. And he had a sort of particular kind of cleverness combined with a sort of extraordinary innocence about the realities of life and how you got through it. And a trust in some, not exactly some divine hand.  

But that there was always going to be some frightfully rich person in town who was going to give him some thrilling job to do, which he would do in his confined space of the day, because all these other much more important activities had to take place, like listening to the opera and watching tennis a lot. He was mad about tennis. And staying up very late. And in the beginning there was this boy life...which must have been extremely exhausting.

I was sort of astonished by his capacity for fuelling himself, the artificial fuelling and the drink..the jack daniels and the cocaine, and anything anyone said was an upper...you know. He did not go in for things that calmed you down. He liked quivering with sensations all the time.

This is an amazing little book because it has the beginnings of Bill’s social mountaineering, some remarkable people in here, and even 3 or 4 of them are even alive you know. Most of them are under the sod, for a while.

There used to be these chains across the streets, saying quartier interdit aux Europeens, and there were people with no arms or legs lying around on the floor. And because he kept such late hours and was rarely seen in daylight. Hence the other label for the house, the chateau de Dracula. And whenever anyone was looking for the house, the kids would run out and say ‘Monsieur cherche la maison de Monsieur Dracula?’, and they’d lead you  along and beat at the door and eventually someone would wake up and come down. That’s how it was

I mean I occasionally voiced my exasperation at his antics...but I was sort of enured to his...you know I loved him… I was very fond of him. And I kind of was filled with the sense of wonder that anyone could possibly exist on this regime and rhythm of life. I thought Goodness, gracious me you know because I am a calmer being.

He has this terrific relish for worldly pleasures. He was a wonderful creature and we shall not see his like again. Thank God! And he sparked our lives.  And his friends exasperated as they may have been from time to time loved him as well as being completely horrified by other sides of him you know. Without being priggish or anything like that, it’s just hard to imagine that you could go through life at that sort of pace. It’s sort of ignoring the rhythm of all the people around you.

But that did not go on for ever . It just came down to Labi and Isham. They did everything for him.  

String of slightly bemused young Moroccan men who would arrive and be neatly seated in his sitting room and there would be Beverley Sills screeching away on the gramophone. And he would tell them a bit about the opera and what was going on because he was very operatically..

And then they would disappear and then some sort of mysterious dalliance behind closed doors and screen  would take place. And one would come out and another would go in. This was sort of nightly performance between half past six and half past eight and then there would be quite a lot of dressing up.

Enjoyable and astonishing and I had not bumped into any creature remotely like him before. We kind of hit it off with mutual astonishment about what the other thought was interesting and important you know. Shared some things…

His sort of zip and zap kind of glamorous way of carrying on.
This is an amazing little book because it has the beginnings of Bill’s social mountaineering, some remarkable people in here, and even 3 or 4 of them are even alive you know. Most of them are under the sod, for a while.


It was the time when LSD emerged and Bill ‘s frightfully keen about that. And he invested heavily also in cocaine. He said ‘I’ve got a mason jar full of cocaine in there sugar he’d say do you want some, do you want a line? And I would say, No Bill, that’s very sweet of you… I have to..

 

Robert Fraser and I were his sort of nannies. And neither of us were particularly suited for this role, particularly not Robert who shared a lot of Bill’s enthusiasms, and then finally found City Bel Abbes House was was there for the rest of his life.

 

There used to be these chains across the streets, saying quartier interdit aux Europeens, and there were people with no arms or legs lying around on the floor. And because he kept such late hours and was rarely seen in daylight. Hence the other name for the house, the chateau de Dracula. And whenever anyone was looking for the house, they would say Monsieur cherche la maison de Monsieur Dracula, and they lead you  along and beat at the door and eventually someone would wake up and come down. That’s how it was.

 

Anyway he was a loveable creature. He was kind, generous, funny. And he had a sort of particular kind of cleverness combined with a sort of extraordinary innocence about the realities of life and how he got through it. And a trust in some, not exactly some divine hand.

 

but that there was always going to be some frightfully rich person in town who was going to give him some thrilling job to do, which he would do a in his confined space of the day, because all these other much more important activities had to take place, like listening to the opera and watching tennis a lot. He was mad about tennis. And staying up very late. And in the beginning there was this boy life...which must have been extremely exhausting. But that did not go on for every. It just came down to Labi and Isham. They did everything for him.

 

And I think the nicest thing Bill did were the simplest thing. I think the kitchen he did was a beautiful room.

 

I was sort of astonished by his capacity for artificial fuelling and the drink..the jack daniels and the cocaine, and anything anyone said was an upper...you know. He did not go for anything that calmed you down. He liked quivering with sensations all the time.

 

I mean occasionally I voiced my exasperation at his antics...but I was sort of enured to his...you know I loved him… I was very fond of him. And I kind of was filled with the sense of wonder that anyone could possible exist on this regime and rhythm of life. I thought Goodness, gracious me because I am a calmer being.

 

He has this terrific relish for worldly pleasures. He was a wonderful creature and we shall not see his like again. And he sparked our lives.  And his friends exasperated as they may have been from time to time loved him as well as being completely horrified by other sides of him you know. Without being priggish or anything like that, it’s just hard to imagine that you could go through life at that sort of pace. It’s sort of ignoring the rhythm of all the people around you.

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH PIERRE BERGE
 

Yves and I arrived in Marrakech in Feb 1966, we bought a house straight away, and very soon after that Paul and Talitha Getty arrived with Bill Willis. We became very quickly very good friends. And we all stayed friends until death.

 

He (bill) was an extravagant flamboyant character, dressed extravagantly. At night he would go around Marrakech preceded by a servant who held a lantern and followed by another with a lantern, dressed as a Moroccan. It was quite strange. But that did not carry on forever.

 

Soon an English bunch of friends got together around Bill, one of whom was Christopher Gibbs and the painter Hanssen, Ibya Rabbin who also lived in Morocco at that time. At that time there were passionate amazing people in Morocco and it was an amazing whirlwind of a place. We had some amazing times in Morocco at that time.

 

Marrakech is a very strange and particular city because there is nothing that interesting about it. But despite that, I love Marrakech and many people love Marrakech. But it’s a kind of oasis and when one has visited two or three monuments and obviously the Jardin Majorelle which I am very proud to have regenerated. And I asked for the help of Bill Willis who helped with the first museum of Islamic Art. Marrakech is one of the rare places which was close to Europe but had been left untouched.  That’s what was really interesting.


There were no restaurants then, now there are very many. There was a rough restaurant somewhere. That’s what was amazing. There was nothing. We ate local food, there was very little imported food, thank god! We really had the sensation that we had changed time.

 

You know he was an American. He came from Memphis, Tennessee. You should remember that. He had arrived in France at a young age. He spoke quite well French. He had been in Italy. He was part of those Americans who were looking for their roots, European roots. And because of the Gettys, he found a country of adoption, Morocco. And so with little he tried to live as  Moroccan and in that style.

 

Let’s talk about his work. There is no point in saying that there were interior designers in Morocco. He is the first one who developed Moroccan building techniques. He started using Tedlak - which was to line walls in cement and soap. Or Geps - which is plaster which is then sculpted. Or Zelig - which are small tiles, which are assembled. Willis was a master of these techniques. What he did with zelig was extraordinary.  The colours and the designs. He was a great decorator. Today, we can say that there is not one Moroccan decorator really like him and of the few that exist, they were not just inspired by Bill but copied him.

 

He did Sidi Mimoun for the Gettys and he did the Villa Oasis for Yves and myself. He did not do everything because some were done by Majorelle. But the rooms that he did, he did with an enormous respect for Majorelle. He was an immense talent, a massive talent. And we shared many things, Yves, myself and Bill. We loved the opera and music. We could spend whole nights listening to music. It was the same with the Getty’s. I have great memories - maybe there was a bit of Hashish involved, one should say, but I have great great memories.

 

There was respect and admiration for the Moroccan artistry. A real respect. But if we go further, and I must in order to tell you the truth. Bill, unfortunately, did not achieve his professional life as he should have done. Because he drank too much. Because he went to bed at 5am. Because he did not get up...And so sometimes it did not go very well with some clients. Yves and I loved him very much so...but he did not have the career that he should have done. He didn’t have a studio to create amazing objects, to create ‘chenets’ in bronze, lanterns. He had an extraordinary imagination. But he was a bit of a dilettante. He worked when he needed money. But the rest of time... He argued with many people. He was late. He did not turn up. He did not deliver on time etc.

 

He was someone who was extremely loyal. He was very cultured. He was very well read. He could speak three languages. I loved him very much.


The best moments with Bill - he had a very good sense of humour - was when we were in a small group. He was intelligent. So we could talk about lots of things.

 

He never had anyone. He might have fallen in love with a Moroccan boy for a short time. But he never had anyone in his life.


Even if he was of his time in his creative output - because what he did was modern and of its time...but in his life he lived a style of life that was out of time and out of kilter. That’s probably why he loved Marrakech. It’s a city where you could have a life that resembled that of the nineteenth century. You could live a life that was completely out of touch with time. And at a certain point, you lose touch with reality. And I think that’s what happened to Bill.


But Yves was someone who was very loyal. Once and for all he had understood that Bill was the interior designer in Morocco. Yves would never had done anything without Bill. He loved him very much.

 

He had a very good relationship with his craftsmen because he pushed them to do things differently, to go further. Bill was someone who was very demanding.  You know in Morocco and in India for that matter, people do the same things over and over again. Bill pushed them to go further and to try and use their techniques to reach new heights.


Bill was someone, one should not forget, very arrogant. He was very handsome. He was a Leo. If he resembled one animal it would be a lion with a large mane. A profile. Arrogant. But at the same time he was the epitome of kindness, very cultured and very sensitive. He was a very sensitive person.