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People Top 5
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- March 02, 1981
- Vol. 15
- No. 8
The Drug Ordeal
Mackenzie Phillips and Her Rock Legend Dad Toil to Escape the Rack of Drugs
Still a movie star queen
There isn't much that she hasn't seen
...she's always too high on arrival.
—from Too High on Arrival, by John Phillips, dedicated to his daughter Mackenzie
By the time they arrived at Fair Oaks, a psychiatric hospital in Summit, N.J., both Phillipses had plummeted from those highs into the abyss. The wickedly sophisticated lines the father had penned for his child in 1974 now seemed tragically prophetic. John Phillips—the founder of the Mamas and Papas rock group and composer of such 1960s standards as California Dreamin' and Monday, Monday—was a 45-year-old walking cadaver when he checked in last September 4. His 6'5" frame had shrunk from 210 to 140 pounds. Years of cocaine injections and hits of heroin had killed every vein in each arm up to the elbows. His guitarist's hands were turning black from lack of circulation, and it was feared he would lose the use of them. A blood test sample had to be taken from his neck. Phillips was facing a possible prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. His fortune had been squandered; he had been buying $1 million worth of drugs a year for himself and his third wife, Genevieve Waite. Their then 4-month-old daughter, Bijou, had been born drug-free only because of her mother's quickie London detoxification a few months before giving birth.
Mackenzie was down to about 90 pounds (she's 5'7") and strung tight as a wire on cocaine when she joined John and Genevieve at the hospital last December. A few years back she had been the endearingly gawky 14-year-old kid who leapt to stardom in 1973's American Graffiti, then captured the nation's affection in the CBS smash One Day at a Time. But now, at 21, she already was a legend among her Hollywood generation for drug abuse. Colleagues referred to her as "the next Judy Garland." In a year during which Mackenzie spent some $300,000 on cocaine, she had lost her series job, her marriage and finally almost her life to two overdoses. She was suffering from anemia, and dietary deficiencies had aggravated a skin condition, leaving her face pockmarked. Mackenzie's brother, Jeffrey, 23, who also has done drugs, soon followed her to the hospital, where he now works as a technician. But it was too late for her cousin Patty Throckmorton. The daughter of John's sister, she died last year of a heroin overdose at 25. The family's once brilliant spark had nearly flickered out. "I know Mackenzie felt she would never be able to live again without cocaine," says her father. "And I felt there was no life for me after heroin."
Medicine would prove them wrong. After months of treatment in a unique New Jersey rehabilitation program designed by Dr. Mark S. Gold, 31, the Phillipses are near recovery. "John was the key," says Gold. "After him, the whole family was treatable. His behavior was a form of suicide. Mackenzie's was a cry for help." The regimen of John and Genevieve began with carefully monitored doses of clonidine, which permits rapid detoxification without the agony of withdrawal. Then they switched to 350 milligrams per week of naltrexone, an opiate blocker which, unlike methadone, is nonaddictive. Mackenzie, who was shooting cocaine—which is not physically addictive—was treated in a five-week day patient program. In addition, all three have undergone rigorous physical exercise and diet controls and intensive family and group psychiatric sessions. John now works up to 50 hours weekly as a counselor to other addicts, and Mackenzie is apprenticing.
The combined treatment has cost $62,500, but the Phillips family has regained health—and the courage to tell its horror story in hope of helping others. "The only way I can clear my name," says Mackenzie, "is to admit, 'This is what I have been through, this is how bad it is, and this is what I don't want other people to do.' " John, who faces up to a 15-year prison term and a $25,000 fine April 7, is a living sermon. "It's very hard to make yourself an exhibit, to hold your arm out for people to look at," says Phillips. "But I don't want anyone else to go through all the things my family has."
John reached the ragged edge from square beginnings. The son of a Marine major, he was a basketball ace at the U.S. Naval Academy before being discharged his second year after a sports injury. Like so many others of his generation, he used grass and psychedelics in the 1960s, then got into cocaine in Hollywood's Snort Set in the early 70s. But, alarmed by the drug-related deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and, he says, Mama Cass Elliott, John steered clear of hard usage.
Then in 1976 he went to London to compose the score of the David Bowie movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was the last work he did for five years. A junkie musician friend moved in and stayed for four months. By the time he left, both John and Genevieve were addicted. "I had been so depressed," says John, who thinks he was particularly vulnerable at that moment because of a building midlife crisis. "I was turning 40, and I felt a lot of pressure about my work and age."
When they got back to New York in January 1977, they saw a doctor to try to kick heroin. He told them it was okay to use cocaine to ease withdrawal. They began shooting it. "Six months later we were using cocaine all waking hours," reports John. "We were so strung out the only thing that would calm us was heroin or morphine, so we began to go back and forth. Narcotics to come off cocaine, cocaine to come off narcotics."
About the same time John walked into the K&B Drugstore on Manhattan's Madison Avenue to buy some toiletries. Phillips maintains that the pharmacist noticed him eyeing some prescription-only syringes and gave them to him as a gift. Soon the store was illegally providing sleeping pills, tranquilizers and amphetamines regularly. Noticing the connection, a friend of John's provided him with stolen state triplicate forms (known in the trade as "trips") that were needed to purchase hard drugs, which he acquired mostly to finance his own addiction. He did not sell the coke but used it all himself. Mackenzie sometimes accompanied her father when he limoed up for his stash. "I had an insatiable cocaine habit. Genevieve and I were doing a quarter ounce or half ounce a day," John recalls. "We were also taking 60 Dilaudids [a depressant] a day, 160 milligrams of morphine, heroin and everything else. The only other person I ever heard about who took as many drugs as we did was Elvis."
His habit had exceeded his dealing proceeds and his estimated $100,000 annual music royalties. "I'd sold two houses," recalls Phillips. "Then six or seven cars, including four Rolls-Royces. One worth about $80,000 went for only $24,000. Paintings [valuable Warhols and Lichtensteins]. Rights to future royalties. Tiffany lamps. Everything I had."
His behavior became more and more erratic. "I'd wreck cars. I'd set fires," he remembers. Eventually John was injecting cocaine so frequently he sometimes just left the needle in his arm. Like the classic case of cocaine abuse described by Freud, Phillips became convinced that bugs were crawling over his body. He sought out nine different parasitologists. "I said, 'You guys are crazy. Can't you see these bugs?' I was frantic."
Friends like Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richard and former Papa Denny Doherty tried to help. On more than one occasion, a frantic late-night call from Genevieve sent Jagger into sleazy "shooting galleries" to rescue Phillips. Says Dr. Gold, "They are the grungiest. Needles on the floor and rats running around and people shooting up with other people's needles. It's like what you would imagine about somebody on their last legs." None of that deterred John's pal Jagger, who "would be there any time, day or night, to get me out. Quick." Mick happened to be spending last July 4th weekend with the Phillipses in the Hamptons when John, undergoing withdrawal, wrecked a Cadillac and needed 35 stitches in his head. Mick took care of the Phillipses' children, son Tamerlane, 9, and baby Bijou.
Tamerlane already had been the subject of a bitter battle. He was Genevieve's child, but John's sister Rosemary Throckmorton and Michelle Phillips, a former Mama and John's second wife, were apparently aware of his parents' fractured lives and had taken over custody. Determined to win Tarn back, John and Genevieve went through an agonizing L.A. detoxification (at least their eighth) in 1979. "We couldn't walk or talk or ride a bicycle or sleep. We had diarrhea the entire time and were covered with perspiration for months," remembers John. "I couldn't lift my foot up to go over a curb." They took Tarn back to New York with them and were soon again using cocaine. "That was what was so destructive to Tarn's life," John says ruefully. "When you shoot cocaine, you shoot it four or five times an hour. We were in the bathroom 24 hours a day." Still, Tarn wanted to be with his parents. He built a fort in the basement of their home and said even the police couldn't make him leave them. Dad left instead. The afternoon of July 31, 1980, federal agents arrested him at his elegant house in Bridgehampton, L.I. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," says John. "The last four years seem like a novel, like it happened to someone else."
The other melodramatic character in the story was Mackenzie. Phillips' daughter by his five-year first marriage to Baltimore socialite Susan Adams, Mackenzie had grown up in half a dozen different schools in the no-man's land between her parents' janglingly different lives. "I still have most of my mother's values as far as manners," says Mackenzie, "but I guess I always wanted to be like my father. I wanted the weird life, and I went for it. And I got it. And here I am."
Her friends started even younger, but Mackenzie first smoked marijuana at 12 and hung out with a crowd of hard-drinking teenyboppers in L.A. By the time she was 15, she was financially independent and even more willful.
"I've seen a lot of drugs since I was real young," she says. "My mother did everything to stop me, but I was too headstrong." The first sign of Mackenzie's troubles came after she was already a major TV star, the week of her 18th birthday. She was arrested near the Hollywood Strip for disorderly conduct under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The next year her two-year romance with leading record producer Peter Asher, 36, abruptly ended. She had just met Jeff Sessler, 26, a Rolling Stones gofer and aspiring producer, through Keith Richard's common-law wife, Anita Pallenberg. "I should have known right from there it was a bad move," Mackenzie now says. "But I wanted to get married—maybe out of spite because of Peter. When I got back to L.A., I saw Jeff again. I thought I was in love. I was stoned. We were all stoned. It was the drugs talking."
Her family was opposed to the marriage, and her angry father tried to stop the quickie ceremony but was just too strung out. While they were on their honeymoon, Mackenzie's $150,000 L.A. home burned to the ground. It was maybe a blessing as much as a portent, though soon she would be reduced to living on the insurance money.
"I was working all day long on One Day at a Time. My husband would take me to the studio after work to record with the L.A. Racer band until 4 a.m.," she recounts. "Then I was so coked up I couldn't sleep. That circle would just keep happening." Her health deteriorated. "When I sang in the band, I had a low, raspy voice. You can usually tell when a singer uses coke," she says. "My values changed. I had a very quick temper. All I cared about was my cats and coke. I made a lot of problems on the set. Anyone who goes to work stoned is making problems."
She was fired from the show in February 1980, but Mackenzie's problems weren't over. "I don't know where it went, but $300,000 to $400,000 is gone, mostly for drugs," she says. "I mean, half a million in cash is gone!" She left Sessler in March, and the bitter divorce became final last November. "Everybody knew he was a climber but me," she says. "He put $800 in the marriage the whole time, and we spent $300,000. Now he wants this and that and half my residuals from the 15 shows I did while married. It's a rip-off." So far Sessler has received $1,500 in support money.
Her feelings about Papa John are more ambivalent. "I have always felt very positive about my father, even though he was a junkie and a slimy person," Mackenzie says. When she saw him after his first two months at the Fair Oaks hospital, Mackenzie exulted: "My God! You're alive again! The family is alive again!"
She is reading (Virginia Woolf is a favorite) and dreams of returning to One Day. "I love the people. I could be on that show straight and be the best," she says. But, fearful of getting back to the Hollywood drug scene before she's ready, she did turn down a TV movie. Even in the East, Mackenzie has to fend off sleazy strangers who smilingly try to slip her drugs in restaurants.
While working at the treatment center, her father is organizing Musicians against Drugs and a fall concert to raise money for "treatment scholarships" for addicted performers. He is also cutting an album with Mackenzie and ex-Papa Denny Doherty as well as writing and scoring a movie about Mama Cass who, John claims, died of a heroin overdose. With his court sentencing approaching, John and his family also are preparing themselves psychologically for a possible prison separation. "High or not high," says Mackenzie, "I have always been beside my father. I have been disappointed in him more times than I could ever count. He used to be one of the most undependable people in the world. But he's changed. He's clean." Adds John: "Someone has to be at the helm of the Phillips family. I hope I'll be able to do that."
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