The former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren may have been exposed to the asbestos which killed him while smashing up Sex, his infamous King’s Road punk design shop, his partner, Young Kim, has told The Independent on Sunday.
McLaren, who died last week, aged 64, of the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, is believed to have been exposed to the deadly material when he shattered the ceiling of Sex, the shop he shared with his then partner, designer Vivienne Westwood.
“When Malcolm created Sex he broke open the ceiling to make it look like a bomb had hit it”, said Kim. “I always suspected that shop because it was the only place Malcolm ever really spent any serious length of time in, and there was a lot of construction and changing things. Then Ben Westwood said his mother had mentioned that she’d seen asbestos there. It was board asbestos and it was in the early Seventies so there was a lot of it left, and I don’t think anyone really did anything about it.”
Speaking from Switzerland, where McLaren was treated in the final weeks of his life, Kim, 38, also confided how angry McLaren was that British doctors had ignored the signs of asbestos-inflicted lung damage for almost two years. After a routine chest scan in 2008 a doctor noticed “benign” spots on McLaren’s lungs which looked like pleural plaques from asbestos exposure. By January last year, the music impresario was convinced he had lung cancer, but doctors continued to insist nothing was wrong.
“Malcolm was freaked out. He called me up from the doctor’s office and said, ‘Young, I have lung cancer, I have lung cancer’, but the doctor said, ‘Oh no, he’s perfectly fine, he just has these spots, they’re completely benign, you don’t have to worry about it’. Then, just a few months later, his left lung had filled with fluid and he was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
“Malcolm was very angry about it. He was angry at me for having not pushed the doctor further. He really blamed me for not believing him. Whether that would have changed things or not I don’t know, but he had a point. I confronted the doctor privately and he just made a face and said ‘there’s nothing you can do about this disease anyway’. I thought, ‘how could you say that?’ He didn’t even give us a chance; he just assumed there was nothing to be done. I never told Malcolm this story because I didn’t want to upset him.”
Now Kim says she is considering making a formal complaint against the doctor. “It was a private Harley Street clinic and his attitude was really inexcusable. I think if you’re doing a routine scan for other reasons and you notice it, you should pick up on it instead of ignore it and be very nihilistic about it. It’s not your life to be nihilistic with.”
After his diagnosis last autumn, McLaren continued his energetic lifestyle. “Six weeks ago you would not have known he was ill,” said Kim, who was McLaren’s partner for more than a decade. “He was in New York working because he’d done artwork that was being shown in museums. Then, in early March, he was in London and made a very special piece of music for the Belgian designer Dries Van Noten for his prêt-à-porter show in Paris.
“He was very busy and very happy. Even in the past two weeks he’d been planning his work and this radio programme he was going to make for the BBC – a whole series on pop culture from his personal perspective. So he was working all the way. It just happened so fast that even the doctors in Switzerland were shocked. They thought he would live a few months, and they were being conservative. But it was only a few weeks.”
Even in his last days McLaren showed dogged optimism, telling family last Monday “it’s not over yet”.
“I didn’t believe it was over either,” said Kim. “They drained his lung on Tuesday and he was much, much better. He just sprang back to life, it was wonderful, and he was able to speak, he was able to eat.”
McLaren’s renewed energy was short-lived, however, as the aggressive cancer took hold. “By Wednesday things just got worse,” his partner said, her voice cracking. “I saw him that evening before he passed away and he was so sweet, he asked if he was going to be discharged the next day from the hospital. I said ‘that’d be great Malcolm, but I don’t think so’. And sadly he died the next day. The carbon dioxide was building up because his respiration wasn’t strong enough. Then he just fell asleep and never woke up.”
McLaren’s son, Joe Corre, who had previously feuded with his father, arrived at the Swiss clinic on Tuesday. “His son came just in time,” said Kim. “He was able to spend time with him and speak to him after the lung was drained. Malcolm was really very much himself, so it was good they had that time together before he passed
In McLaren’s final hours, Corre, Kim, and Corre’s half-brother Ben Westwood were at his bedside until his death. McLaren’s body is expected to be returned to London this week before burial in Highgate Cemetery in north London. “He wanted to be buried there,” said Kim. “It’s in that movie he made, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, and it was a place very dear to his heart.”