If there’s anything stranger than the fact that Keith Richards has lived to be 70, it may be that his marriage has lived to be 30.
Both occasions are marked on December 18. The Rolling Stones’ guitarist used the occasion of his 40th birthday in 1983 to wed Patti Hansen. That’s one way to avoid forgetting your anniversary, no matter what substances you might have floating in your bloodstream, up to and including your father’s ashes.
Surprisingly, 30 years of apparent marital bliss is not a record for a Rolling Stone; Charlie Watts has been married for 49 years. But the three-record mark still astonishes anyone who likes to remember Richards as one of rock’s wildest-living unclean livers.
“Thank God for Mrs. Patti Hansen, who has finally got her way and put me on the straight and narrow,” Richards said in a recently published interview with Men’s Journal. “I mean the proof is in the pudding: great kids.” The couple have two daughters, Theodora, 28, and Alexandra, 27, both of whom are considered to inherited their ex-model mom’s looks. (Richards also has a son and a daughter from his earlier relationship with Anita Pallenberg, in addition to a son who passed away. Altogether, he has four grandkids.)
The “straight and narrow” part has been a function of Richards’ life since he hit his head in a fall and underwent brain surgery in 2009, though it’s not so narrow that he doesn’t still indulge in drink and weed, not being the all-or-nothing kind of recovery adherent.
It was Hansen’s 23rd birthday that proved fateful in 1979, when she went out to Studio 54 to celebrate her big day with friends and met Richards, about whose life and music she knew almost nothing. As he recounts in his autobiography, Life, Richards was a reluctant customer at the legendary disco, thinking that was more Mick’s thing, but he was entranced when he saw “this blonde beauty dancing with wild hair flying” and sent over a bottle of Dom Perignon. He didn’t run into her again until December of that year, but by January 1980, they were in love. He wrote in his diary that month: “I’ve (got access to sex) at the snap of a finger but I’ve met a woman!... She thinks this battered junkie is the guy she loves. I’m over the moon and peeing in my pants.”
He didn’t get off to a great start with his future in-laws. As he recounted in Life, Richards went to their house in Long Island bearing a bottle of booze and was “already pissed out of my brains.” Hansen was upstairs when things got bad and didn’t witness the brouhaha herself, but in a 2011 interview with Harpers Bazaar, she recounted the version of the story she got from relatives who were gathered around the dinner table. “Somebody at the table asked for Keith to play, which he did, and then the family went on talking. So he got a little angry,” she said. Richards’ version in the book is that one of her sisters said “I think you’ve drunk too much to play that.” “And then bang. I went berserk… and smashed my guitar on the table. Which takes some force… I could have been banished forever, but the amazing thing about this family is that they weren’t offended. A little startled maybe, but by then everybody had had a tipple.”
In ’83, he wrote, “I wanted to make this thing legitimate.” On location in Cabo San Lucas while shooting several Stones videos for songs from Undercover of the Night, he proposed: “Come on, let’s get married on my birthday. She said, do you mean it? I said yeah. Immediately she jumped on my back. I didn’t feel anything, but I just heard something go snap and I looked down and there’s two beautiful fountains of blood coming out from behind my toenail. Within five seconds of me saying, yeah, I mean it, she broke my toe…”
Happily for the couple, they didn’t take this mishap as a bad omen, and as soon as Richards was able to put aside his crutch, they wed, with Jagger as best man. Kids were not in the cards, they figured, since Hansen had told him she was unable to have children and in their four years of premarital relations, ,”I’d expended enough sperm to fertilize the whole world, and no babies.” Yet within two years, Hansen was pregnant, and then again, first with Theodora, then Alexandra — “Little T&A,” as Richards calls them. “And they weren’t even a gleam in my eye when I wrote that song.”
Hansen has rarely given interviews over the years, but in an unusually candid 2010 interview with Vogue, she revealed that she’d been battling bladder cancer since a diagnosis in 2007, which led not just to chemotherapy but the removal of her bladder and appendix and a hysterectomy. “Cancer is such a friggin’ monster,” she said. Hansen went public because she felt that bladder cancer was associated with men, and she needed to be the public face for women dealing with it. “It's taken two years to figure out how I'm going to do it,” said the notoriously private Mrs. Richards. “I don't want to write a book; I don't want to go on TV, because I stink at it. The only thing I have always been comfortable with is being in magazines. So here I am.”
Their daughter Theodora told Vogue that it was a traumatic time as both parents dealt with serious health concerns. “Dad keeps on falling and always comes back. He's like a machine. But with Mom, nothing like this had ever happened,” the daughter said. “It's a misconception that my father never shows emotion and that he's this hard rock & roller. This was a completely vulnerable experience for him. I'll never be able to get into what his mindset was, but I know that it was probably one of the hardest things he's had to go through… (But) you look at our family and it's just, like, nothing can kill them; nothing can beat them. Both of my parents are these forces to be reckoned with: the Hansens and the Richardses combined. I thought that I was immortal for a while.”
Hansen told the magazine that she and Richards had some philosophical differences, one being that she is a Christian and he is a more vague believer, another being that she hailed from a Republican family. “But maybe that (difference) is what makes it work,” she added. “Any marriage, Rolling Stone or not, there's definitely going to be some rocky mountains there. We have had our trials; that's for sure. But on the whole, it's great. We both have the same morals and background. We both come from working-class families. I think we are very similar in many ways. You know, he works and I have the house waiting for him with all the flowers and make sure he has all his bangers and mash in the fridge.”
In Life, Richards dug up a 2006 journal entry in which he rhapsodized about Hansen: “I am married to a most beautiful woman. Elegant, graceful and as down to earth as you can get. Smart, practical, caring, thoughtful and a very hot horizontal consideration. I presume that a lot of luck is involved.”
Which is to say, their marriage is part work, and part a pretty good roll of the tumbling dice.