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Street Fighting Woman

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Houston’s Rothko Chapel is a sublimely complex institution—part world-renowned modern art museum, part ecumenical center, part human rights forum.  And so it was fitting, at its 40th anniversary gala, held at the velvet-lawned Houston Country Club on May 18, that the Chapel would bestow its first-ever Visionary Award for Human Rights on Bianca Jagger, a sublimely complex woman. With her queenly carriage and magnificently well-rounded British vowels, she resembles—as I got to observe personally on that soft-aired evening—a sort of rock-and-roll Judi Dench in a jungle-themed kaftan and sturdy black patent leather shoes. That’s an unconventional characterization, I’m aware. But then, La Jagger doesn’t seem to give a damn about convention.

Of course, Bianca Jagger is most famous for having been the seven-year wife of the lead singer of the Rolling Stones. A sloe-eyed siren and world-wise jetsetter, the woman personified ‘70s good-time glamour—having, in 1977, with great sangfroid, ridden a white horse into Studio 54, led by a nude attendant and bearing a Mona Lisa smile. But Jagger is also the daughter of third-world poverty and struggling single-motherhood, a survivor of Nicaragua’s brutal Somoza dictatorship, the recipient of a coveted scholarship to the Paris Institute of Political Studies, and a lifelong human rights activist. It is an extraordinary biography, epic in a manner similar to that of Emma, Lady Hamilton, and somewhat challenging to reconcile. Of course, many famous women are frustrated by the public’s difficulty with perceiving them as fully fledged beings. But few are fledged quite so fully as Bianca Jagger.

She spoke movingly in Houston on precisely that topic—the challenges women face in being judged by their work and principles. “Despite always having been political,” she said, “I found that once I married my famous husband, I was either presumed to have no opinions of my own, or they were totally discounted. Instead, I was understood only to be a person who looked a certain way or dressed a certain way.” Jagger then told her audience of the liberated life she’s lived since her 1979 divorce—pointing out, with terrific tartness, that she left Mick the same year Somoza was overthrown by the Sandinistas, and describing how she set about harnessing the power of her celebrity for justice.

Such efforts were galvanized in 1981, when, as part of a US delegation visiting a refugee camp in Honduras, Jagger witnessed a Salvadoran death squad attempt to march 40-odd people off to their deaths. “You’ll have to kill all of us!” she and the other delegation members shouted, following the machine-gun-toting goons and eventually shaming them into releasing their captives. “It was,” said Jagger, “a turning point in my life; the first time I’d experienced the power of witness to save lives.” In the 30 years since, she’s founded the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation and trailed human and environmental atrocities around the globe, to such infamous locales as Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Huntsville, Texas.

Having lived there myself, I must confess that there’s really no place I’d less expect to bump into Bianca Jagger than Huntsville. It would be like running into Wallis Simpson at a Buck Owens concert. Nevertheless, in June 2000, Jagger was present in Huntsville‘s Death House during the execution of Gary Graham, a man she’d come to know during his imprisonment, and “firmly believe[d] to be innocent.” Afterward, she compared then-governor George W. Bush—who’d displayed, according to Jagger, a callous disregard both for Graham’s case and his “barbaric” death—to “a modern Pontius Pilate.” Now that’s the kind of straight-shooting many Texans can admire. 

Socialite Lynn Wyatt, the chair of the Rothko gala, looked like a ray of light emanating from the dais—in her long white gown, with a beaming smile and blonde locks—when she introduced Jagger. The pair’s been pals since the ‘70s. And seeing them together in that Houston ballroom, along with pioneering Texas Democrat Sissy Farenthold, Jagger’s comrade-in-arms from her anti-death penalty protests, was almost otherworldly. Bianca, Lynn and Sissy: the closest thing to the Holy Trinity I expect to see this side of St. Peter. They were an ecumenical vision worthy of the Rothko; three very serious ladies who somehow manage to photograph better than everyone else. 

The Rothko’s first gala, “its cotillion,” according to my friend Martha Claire Tompkins, was, then, an evening spent in praise of uncommon and extraordinary women. And as Molly Ivins, another uncommon woman, said under quite different circumstances, “a ball was had by all.”

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.