Freddie Mercury was one of the biggest musicians in the
world in the 1970s and ’80s, but one person could still boss him
around: Mary Austin, his one-time fiancée.
“He would chuck a tube of toothpaste that was half-used into
the waste bin and she would go into the bin and get it back and
roll the toothpaste back up . . . and [say], ‘You finish the tube. You
can’t be wasteful like this, Freddie,’ ” recalled writer Lesley-Ann
Jones, who toured with the band in the 1980s and wrote “Bohemian
Rhapsody: the Definitive Biography.”
“He would say: ‘But I’m the richest guy in the world!’ And
[Austin] would say, ‘I don’t care. You don’t throw away money.’
She was quite bossy. He wouldn’t take that from anyone else.”
Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, was famous for hits like
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy
Little Thing Called Love.” But many fans never knew he had a
long-term girlfriend, let alone one he referred to as his wife. Especially
given that the singer, who died of complications related to HIV in 1991, was posthumously
revealed to have had a bevy of male lovers. When the trailer for “Bohemian Rhapsody,”
a movie about Mercury’s life that hits theaters Friday, started circulating,
critics attacked the film for “straight-washing” Mercury
by prominently featuring his relationship with Austin.
Bryan Fuller, the creator of TV shows including “Hannibal” and “American Gods,” tweeted:
“Anyone else mildly annoyed . . . that the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ trailer features gay/bi superstar Freddie
Mercury flirting with and twirling with a woman but no indication of his love of men?”
Austin was more than just a fling or a beard for Mercury, however.
“All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but
it’s simply impossible,” Mercury said in a 1985 interview. “The
only friend I’ve got is Mary, and I don’t want anybody else. To
me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We
believe in each other, that’s enough for me.”
After his death, Mercury bequeathed Austin the bulk of his
$100 million fortune, as well as Garden Lodge, a 28-room mansion
in the tony Kensington area of London — despite the fact
that the two no longer lived together and Mercury by then had a
long-term boyfriend, Jim Hutton.
“Freddie idolized her, really. He was devoted to her,” Jones
said of Austin, now 67.
The two ended their relationship in 1976 after Mercury, who
was publicly closeted, confessed he was bisexual.
“I remember saying to him, ‘No, Freddie, I don’t think you are
bisexual. I think you are gay,’ ” Austin told the Daily Mail in a rare
interview in 2013.
But the two never really parted ways. After splitting, Mercury
bought Austin an apartment and put her on the payroll.
“She looked after him, mothered him,” Jones added. “It was
to Mary that he always returned: his ‘Old Faithful,’ as he called her. She even wrote that phrase
on the card that accompanied her wreath at his funeral.” Mercury and Austin met in 1969 after Brian May — who
would become the lead guitarist in Queen when the band formed the next year — introduced them.
Like Mercury, she grew up working-class. Her parents were deaf, and her father worked as a trimmer for a wallpaper company
and her mother as a domestic servant. When she got together with Mercury, Austin was 19 years old
and working at Biba, a hip West London boutique. Mercury, then 24, had just finished art college and was launching his music
career (Queen formed in 1970). The two fell in love and soon moved in together.
To some Mercury insiders, the pairing never really made sense — and not necessarily because Austin was a woman.
“She was the opposite of Freddie,” said Jones. “She never really said very much.”
“They were [like] this old married couple,” she continued, “and they would spend a lot of time in bed, but
[Mercury] would pull the piano to the bedside to write songs.” Mercury proposed to Austin with a jade ring in
1973. But by the next year, she had surmised that the singer, by then an international star, was cheating on her with men.
Jones says she was shocked Austin didn’t immediately cut ties with Mercury.
“I always thought, how weird is that?” said the writer. “Go have a life. Don’t stay glued to the hip to this person who . . .
isn’t going to be able to offer you a conventional relationship. “After they separated, she even suggested to Freddie that
they have a child together,” Jones added. “Freddie told her that he would rather have another cat.”
Austin did eventually have two children, Jamie and Richard, with painter Piers Cameron. She later married and divorced
businessman Nick Holford. Once he was single, Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, stayed
closeted for fear of ostracizing his conservative parents. Bomi and Jer Bulsara, both of Parsi descent, practiced the Zoroastrian
religion, which views homosexuality as demon worship. “At one stage on the road, he and his entourage would stay
in one hotel and the rest of the band and the crew and their entourage would stay in another hotel and this was all to facilitate
Freddie’s covert nightlife,” said Jones. More publicly, he dated Austrian actress Barbara Valentin in
the ’80s and the two shared an apartment in Munich, Germany.
Still, Austin stayed close. “She sort of became a right-hand man,” Jones said. “[Mercury] bought a lot of antiques and went to
a lot of art galleries and auctions. “She would follow him around to these places with a notepad
and he would make a bid on something or other, and her job was to jot it down and keep track of everything.
“Her whole existence depended on Freddie. She had a home because of him — he bought it. She had an income because of
him,” Jones added.
According to musician Peter Straker, who was one of Mercury’s closest friends, “It’s one of those things that I think is inexplicable, when people know each other very well and are such good friends and were lovers before. She was always there for him and he for her.”
Among Mercury’s last wishes was the request that Austin scatter his ashes — and never reveal the location. He also left her a
large portion of his $100 million estate, plus the London mansion. “He said he wanted this house to stay alive and that meant it
had to be with children,” said director Rudi Dolezal, who worked with Queen on nearly 30 music videos and produced the 2000
documentary “Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story.” “At the time there was no way two gay men could adopt children in London,” said Dolezal, noting Austin’s two sons. “Freddie told me that’s why he gave Mary the house.”
Austin has said the money and responsibility were overwhelming, however.
“I found myself thinking, ‘Oh Freddie, you’ve left me too much and too much to deal with as well.’ I felt I couldn’t live up to it,”
she told the Daily Mail. Part of it, she claimed, was fueled by Mercury insiders — including his bandmates — who felt left out.
“I hit jealousy head-on — like a Japanese bullet train. Very painful,” Austin has said. “I don’t think the remaining members of
Queen have ever reconciled themselves to it.” But it also seems that Austin alienated herself. According to
Jones, despite the fact that Mercury’s will stipulated that members of his household — including his boyfriend Hutton — could
stay at Garden Lodge until their inheritances kicked in, Austin ousted them immediately.
As for Queen fans, at first, Austin used to greet the mourners who came to the home on the anniversary of Mercury’s death.
“She would stand and light a candle or read a prayer and greet fans,” said Jones, who was among visitors. “But then that
stopped. She nailed a thick plastic around the wall [around the property] . . . so people couldn’t pin their tributes.”
According to Jones, Austin now lives in a smaller home around the corner from Garden Lodge. She is reportedly a recluse, although Straker said he had dinner at a London restaurant with her last year. “I lost my family, really, when Freddie died,” Austin told the Daily Mail. “He was everything to me, apart from my sons. He was
like no one I had met before.” And while Austin no doubt relied on her unconventional relationship with Mercury for survival, it was a mutually beneficial setup.
According to Jones, Austin represented Mercury’s alternate reality — “Had he been able to lay aside all the other things that
were drawing him in, all the other temptations. Married her and settled down, had children. “She was that prominent symbol of what his life could have been like and he was sad about that.”