Mary Austin was 19 years old when a 24-year-old Freddie Mercury walked into Biba, the posh London department store where she was working. He swerved the course of her life towards one marked by great love, stadium tours, devastating loss, and inheriting a 28-room London mansion (but that’s for later). At the time, Mercury was a year away from founding Queen, one of the 20th century’s biggest rock bands. Five months after meeting, Austin and Mercury moved into together; they remained a couple for six years, but friends for life.
The movie Bohemian Rhapsody, out November 2, memorializes the relationship between Mercury (Rami Malek) and Austin (Lucy Boynton), which continued to evolve even after Mercury came out as bisexual and their romantic connection ceased. Austin was there when he was dying of AIDS. She was there for it all. “It’s fair to say she was the love of his life,” Mick Rock, one of the couple’s friends, said in the documentary Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story.
Now, Austin lives a private life in Garden Lodge, the mansion she inherited from Mercury when he died at the age of 45 in 1991. Though Austin once regularly greeted mourners and interacted with fans, she’s since stopped. In 2017, Austin angered Mercury’s fans when she repainted the shrine to Mercury had gradually built up on the gated walls outside the Kensington mansion. But the home itself is a shrine to Mercury. Austin hasn’t changed the decor of Mercury’s dream home much at all. Because for Austin, Mercury’s death was tremendous. “I lost somebody who I thought was my eternal love. When he died I felt we’d had a marriage. We’d lived our vows. We’d done it for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. You could never have let go of Freddie unless he died — and even then it was difficult”
Until she met Mercury in 1969, Austin’s life hadn’t been positioned towards the extraordinary. Her father was a wallpaper trimmer. Her mother worked as a maid. Both of her parents were deaf. Though Austin’s job in PR at Biba allowed her to brush shoulders with the elite, like Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, she actually met Mercury through Queen’s future lead guitarist Brian May, whom Austin briefly dated. After visiting the store a few times, Mercury asked Austin out on his 24th birthday. She said no. He persisted. So, they went out the next night instead. Within the year, while Mercury and Austin were living in a tiny London flat, Mercury’s newly formed band, Queen, would begin to see success. Austin recognized Mercury’s star power during a small showcase at his old college. She also recognized that she was coming along for the ride. “That night, I realized that I had to go along with this and be part of it. As everything took off I was watching him flower. It was wonderful to observe. To their friends, Austin and Mercury seemed like the epitome of young love and happiness. “They were very sweet. They were like a married couple. This was obviously true love,” Queen’s Brian May said in Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story.
Mercury proposed to Austin in 1973. “He gave me a big box on Christmas Day. Inside was another box, then another and so it went on. It was like one of his playful games,” she recalled to Daily Mail in 2013. “Eventually, I found a lovely jade ring inside the last small box.I was shocked. It just so wasn’t what I was expecting. I just whispered, ‘Yes. I will.’” The scene is recreated in the film Bohemian Rhapsody.
Though Mercury referred to their relationship as a marriage, the two never formally got married. Their relationship changed as Queen experienced more fame, and Mercury began to sleep with men. Austin suspected Mercury was “not one with himself.” Eventually, Mercury came out as bisexual, as Austin had suspected. “It was a relief really, to actually hear it from him. To know that I had guessed less right,” she said in Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story. “I was supportive of him becoming gay because it was part of himself. It was nice to see Freddie at one with himself. It was more than nice. It was wonderful.”
Their physical relationship ended, but their connection only grew. Mercury bought her a flat near his apartment and employed her as his personal assistant. Their history with one another clouded all other romantic partnerships. In a 1985 interview, Mercury said, “All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible. I couldn’t fall in love with a man the same way I did with Mary.”
That said, they both did have other long-lasting relationships. After their split, Mercury — born Farrokh Bulsara to conservative Parsi parents — remained single for some time. He dated other women (like actress Barbara Valentin) publicly, and men privately. Mercury was with Jim Hutton (played by Aaron McCusker in Bohemian Rhapsody) for seven years, until the time of his death. Hutton was a hairdresser and kept his job even after moving into Mercury’s mansion. Hutton died in 2010 of cancer.
Austin, meanwhile, was married twice. First, to painter Piers Cameron, with whom she had two sons. Then, to businessman Nick Holford, whom she divorced after five years. When Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS, Austin was one of the people who took care of him, along with Hutton. “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.” Upon his death in 1991, Mercury left her and her sons his 28-room house and half his $75 million fortune, inciting jealousy among his former bandmates. Mercury also gave Austin the responsibility of burying his ashes in a secret location. “He didn’t want anyone trying to dig him up as has happened to some famous people. Fans can be deeply obsessive. He wanted it to remain a secret and it will remain so”.
By Elena Nicolaou