In 2009 Mackenzie Phillips launched her autobiography High on Arrival, a no-holds-barred look at her incredible drug-filled life as the daughter of the iconic John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas sixties singing group. It is an extraordinary story in every way, by far the most interesting (and candid) biography I have read. She makes no excuses for her journey, nor does she entirely blame her diabolically self-obsessed, hedonistic father who sexually abused her for a decade. I do not have much sympathy for drug addicts. But then I never had a father who had me rolling joints for his buddies at the age of eleven, pumped me full of Quaaludes, taught me to free-base cocaine and then helped me to inject it into my veins. Mackenzie’s father did all those things and more. No wonder she has had drug problems all her life.
Mackenzie and her mother,
Contrary to popular belief, former ‘Mama’ Michelle Phillips is not Mackenzie’s mother. Susan Adams is. It is clear from Mackenzie’s story that Susan lost the uneven parenting battle with the girl’s father early in the game. Choosing between a financially struggling mother attempting to instil some discipline and a rich, world famous father who offered no discipline whatsoever, it is little wonder that 13 year-old Mackenzie ran off to one of her father’s mansions and to the life of a spoilt brat. She had already tasted the hedonistic lifestyle he offered and had been seduced by it at the age of eleven. At that age he happily taught her to roll joints for his druggie friends. At 12 she was snorting his coke at home and at school, drinking beer, and driving her friend’s parents’ car at every opportunity. That same year she had sex for the first time. It happened in a closet during a party.
The Mamas & the Papas in the 60s
Her father laid down his ‘house rules’ to his pre-teen daughter when she moved in: ‘You have to be home one night a week, and if you stay out all night, never come home in the clothes you left in. A lady never wears evening clothes during the day. It’s cheap.’ And that was it. She had her own wing in the house. Drugs, booze and money were always available and there was no curfew. In fact, there was no discipline of any kind. Famous people, most of them high as kites, were present day in and day out. Rarely were there less than six people in the house at any hour of the day or night. Mackenzie rarely attended school because her father and stepmother (Genevieve White) were almost always too wasted to take her. So, John signed dozens of blank forms for his daughter to fill in with excuses for her non-attendance, and she would forward them to the principal’s office. Problem solved.
John & Genevieve
Shooting for the film American Graffiti commenced in June 1972 and twelve and a half year-old Mackenzie landed the role of Carol in it, the young girl who jumps into Paul Le Mat’s roadster and refuses to get out. By the time the picture was released she was popping Quaaludes given to her by her father. Even at the private showing for cast and crew of American Graffiti she fell asleep from all the Quaaludes as she sat next to him, so he kept slipping her spoons of coke to wake her up! That same year she slept with an un-named 45 year-old actor. By 14 she was heavily into cocaine and had become sexually involved with a stuntman, a man in his late thirties. Although she has always been ‘straight’, the drugs sometimes brought about same sex romps with other 14 year-olds. The level of fame acquired from the huge success of American Graffiti helped secure her a starring role in the hit TV sitcom One Day at a Time. It would run for six seasons and eventually generate $50,000 an episode for her. So, she had her own money at an early age, not that she needed any for her coke habit – not yet, anyway. Her father had an unending supply of the stuff.
in American Graffiti and in the 70s sitcom One Day at a Time
One evening, when she was about 14, Mackenzie got into a car with a guy she thought looked familiar. She was totally wasted at the time and needed a lift home from a party. The man raped her and beat her badly. Her father learned the name and whereabouts of her attacker from friends. He grabbed an automatic weapon and left the house. Mackenzie never has found out what he did that day. When police arrested her on the highway one day when she was out of her head on coke, her father’s response was typical of him: ‘It’s about time. First and foremost’, he told her, ‘you are a Phillips and the rules don’t apply to you. You can get away with anything.’
Jagger in 1977 Mackenzie in 1977
At 16 she had a lengthy affair with Arrows lead singer Alan Merrill. At 18 (in 1977) Mick Jagger bedded her. ‘I’ve been waiting for this since you were ten years old’, he told her after locking her stoned father out of the room. Dad went back to bed, but rang the room in the morning to ask his daughter if Jagger had been ‘nice’ to her. She said he had. Dear old dad was satisfied with that. Soon after that she stole what she thought was part of her father’s cocaine stash, snorted it in a taxi with a friend, and became violently ill. It was heroin.
Peter Asher (L)
Just before her 19th birthday Mackenzie fell in love with Peter Asher (one half of the pop singing duo Peter & Gordon). And she fell heavily. Lots of Quaaludes, coke, and ‘kinky sex’ later, she discovered she was pregnant to him. He was livid. He was also married. She aborted the baby and they holidayed in Tahiti. On their return they went upstairs to say hello to Anita Pallenberg and her drug dealer, a low-life named Jeff Sessler. Asher went back to bed and Mackenzie spent the night in bed with Anita and the dealer! Against everyone’s advice, she decided to marry Sessler. Before that happened, however, she awoke one morning to find her own father having sex with her! His best friend sat nearby watching. She briefly went back to Asher but then married Sessler a few days later!
with dear old dad
By 1980 John Phillips had managed to squander the millions he had made in the sixties. He was flat broke. Most of it had gone on drugs and he was still addicted to coke and heroin. Shooting up every 20 minutes for years can be a bit costly. So, he began trafficking in drugs big-time to pay for his habit. Meanwhile, Mackenzie was fired from One Day at a Time. She had arrived for work, stoned and late, once too often. Not surprisingly, the word spread that she was unreliable and, consequently, unemployable Her 700,000 nest-egg had been snorted by her addicted husband. Suddenly, she too was broke. Sessler started bringing home women for ‘threesomes’, but then became obsessively jealous of Mackenzie and would not allow her to leave the house. He even slept with his hand under her thigh so he would know if she moved! Eventually, they ran out of coke and he sent her out for more. She never came back.
The FBI arrested John Phillips for trafficking. His lawyers told him he was looking at 45 years in prison. A strategy was put in place. He would go into rehab and take Mackenzie with him – the good father willing to reform and save his little girl into the bargain. After six weeks they both agreed to man the cocaine hotline at Fair Oaks, advising addicts to seek rehab. They became involved in anti-drug publicity, spoke at schools, guest-starred on The Tonight Show, Donahue and The Dick Cavett Show, extolling on the virtues of rehabilitation. They made the cover of People magazine in a heart-warming article about fatherly love and family sacrifice. And they announced the intended revival of The Mamas and the Papas should the judge show leniency. Forty-five years inside was reduced to a paltry 30 days in a federal work farm. The judge had indeed shown leniency.
The New Mamas & Papas – L to R:
Denny, Spanky, Mackenzie & John
Just after the verdict and sentencing Mackenzie attended a Rolling Stones concert and wandered back stage. Keith Richard, well aware of her drug problem, offered her a mirror heaped with cocaine. ’Can you say no to this?’ he challenged her. It was typical of the man. She blew the powder in his face and walked away. The New Mamas & the Papas consisted of John and Denny Doherty from the original group, Mackenzie doing Michelle’s vocals, and Spanky McFarlane handling those of the late Mama Cass. Occasionally, Michelle Phillips would ‘guest’ and sing ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’. For ten years they toured worldwide – three weeks on and one week off. And during that time the incest became a regular occurrence. Ultimately, it became consensual. John even suggested they move to Fiji as man and wife! His wasted brain believed that incest was accepted and even encouraged there. In 2001 John Phillips died and 42 year-old Mackenzie grieved him far more than he deserved.
Mackenzie’s battle with her addictions never ends. She once stayed ‘clean’ for fifteen years, but she let her recovery program lapse and was soon hopelessly addicted again. Her 2009 autobiography is a candid account of her struggle, not just with drugs, but with being the used and abused daughter of John Phillips and all that that entailed. Many members of her family have effectively disowned her since the book was published. As often happens when a family’s dirty linen is aired, the barricades go up and denial becomes the order of the day. It is seven years since High on Arrival hit the bookstands. I hope by now that most of Mackenzie’s kin have reconciled with her and accepted her account for what it is – a courageous attempt to come to terms with her demons. Mackenzie Phillips has had many chances in her life. Her family needs to give her one more.