Abortions, drugs, and rock & roll: The missing children of Elvis, Sinatra, and other music legends

By Jonathon Van Maren

There is something uniquely tragic about abortion. It is a procedure that gruesomely ends the life of a tiny baby, but the ugliness is rarely ever seen. The child was only briefly alive, yet often leaves an enormous absence that intrudes on the peripheries of those who dispatched the little one to the next world. Their absence asks unanswerable questions: Who might I have been? How much might you have loved me? Who could I have been to you? These questions have scarred America’s literary landscape, haunted the songs of hurting musicians, and the yawning emptiness of what might have been has become nearly omnipresent throughout the art of the singers and storytellers of our rebellious times. Nowhere is that more true, perhaps, than in the lives of the singers who provided the soundtrack for the stunning social changes of the last century, those who proclaimed their faith in sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

The rock stars reveling in the adulation of millions of eager fans had to pay a price for their attempts at eternal youth—although often, it was the girls and the babies they left them with that suffered the brunt of the fallout. Joyce Bova aborted Elvis Presley’s child without telling him—at the time, he was still married to Priscilla, who he had all but abandoned once she gave birth to his only surviving child. Presley had a hideous personal policy of discarding women if they became pregnant. Bob Dylan’s child with Suze Rotolo was aborted in 1963, and the tragic event was one catalyst for crushing their relationship, which ended a year later. Eric Clapton allegedly pushed his girlfriend Lori Del Santo to abort their son Conor, and although she refused, the little boy died four years later falling off a New York skyscraper.

It is not surprising that abortions were in high demand among the high-flying set of ‘Sixties songbirds that crisscrossed continents, singing odes to the personal freedom that somebody, somewhere would have to pay for. Janis Joplin had a botched abortion in Tijuana, but still decided to become a financial benefactor of the illegal clinic later on. Suzi Quatro, one of the few long-lasting female rock n’ roll acts, was tortured by the abortion she had after becoming pregnant by a married music executive. Despite her career, she could not quite escape the conscience of her Catholic Italian roots, and the baby lurked at the edges of her thoughts for decades. “That never goes away,” she noted sadly. “When my two kids were born, I couldn’t get out of my mind who that first baby would have become. He or she would be 46 now. Any woman who’s been through an abortion and tells you it was nothing is lying.”

The pro-life ethic of Italian Catholic immigrants did not always hold sway, unfortunately. Frank Sinatra’s mother actually worked as a midwife who provided “safe” back-alley abortions for women in Hoboken, New Jersey. She earned a criminal record for her efforts, as well as the grotesque and descriptive nickname “Hatpin Dolly”—she was likely convicted at least twice for committing illegal abortions. Later, at least two of her grandchildren would also die at the hands of abortionists—Ava Gardner had two abortions while she was married to Sinatra. Their marriage was tumultuous and rife with jealousy and explosive blow-ups, and Gardner later said she did not want to bring children into the instability of the relationship she had with Sinatra. He was reportedly heartbroken when he found out about the children he never got to meet.

Even before the era of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, abortion was common among the stars of the American music scene. A mistress of the blind R & B legend Ray Charles later wrote that she aborted their baby after an affair while he was married to Della Robinson, but never told him. Several biographers have noted that jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald’s infertility was likely due to an earlier abortion. Jazz singer Billie Holiday told one writer of an agonizing home abortion that her mother forced her to submit to while she was still a teenager. Judy Garland was forced into an abortion by a movie studio, because they claimed that motherhood would ruin the sweet and innocent demeanour that made them so much cash. When Tina Turner discovered that her abusive husband Ike had impregnated a mistress at the same time as her, she aborted their child.

In the ugly games of infidelity that played out among the musical elites, it was their children that got caught in the crosshairs. Audrey Mae Sheppard, the first wife of country legend Hank Williams, started her own string of affairs to compete with her husband’s infidelities. When she became pregnant in 1950—nobody knows if the child was Hank’s or not—she had an illegal abortion at home, and ended up in the hospital with an infection. Williams showed up with gifts and attempted to shower her with affection, and she responded by calling him vicious names, telling him that “you caused me to suffer this,” and turning away. Shortly thereafter, Williams wrote a song about it all and titled it “Your Cold, Cold Heart.” Hank died only three years later at the age of only 29 years old. Patsy Cline, another short-lived country legend who died at the age of thirty in a tragic plane crash, also had an abortion.

As always, abortion brings with it the backlash of regret and the pain of the missing, soundless children who were whisked away before anyone could know who they really were. Julia Holcomb, the young groupie who met Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler backstage after a rock show, embarked on a drug-fuelled three-year relationship with the singer that nearly turned into marriage, but instead ended with the abortion of the child they conceived together. It was Tyler’s friend Ray Tabano that convinced him in 1975 that an abortion was the only solution, and the experience permanently mauled him. “It was a big crisis,” Tyler noted in his autobiography. “It’s a major thing when you’re growing something with a woman, but they convinced us that it would never work out and would ruin our lives…”

It was the abortion, not the child, that the couple would regret. Tyler described seeing the abortion take place with horror—the baby was already five months along: “You go to the doctor and they put the needle in her belly and they squeeze the stuff [saline] in and you watch. And it comes out dead. I was pretty devastated. In my mind I’m going…what have I done?” Holcomb later wrote that the baby had been born alive and left to die. Tabano, the friend who had persuaded Tyler that the abortion was the right thing to do, admitted that the impact of it all was not what he had foreseen. “They had an abortion and it really messed Steven up because it was a boy,” he admitted. “He saw the whole thing and it [messed] him up big time.” Holcomb moved back in with her parents two years later, and never spoke to Tyler again. She is now married with six children–and a firm pro-life advocate.

Seeing the reality of what abortion actually does, as Tyler did, has often resulted in repulsed disbelief. The Sex Pistols even recorded a horrifying song about abortion, based on a fan who followed them around and had several abortions. According to one story, she turned up on John Lydon’s doorstep holding an aborted baby in a clear plastic bag—in his autobiography, he describes the woman, named Pauline, describing her abortions to him in excruciating detail. A line he wrote about abortion for one song sums up everything he heard: “Throbbing squirm, gurgling bloody mess.” The satanic singer Marilyn Manson, on the other hand, has attempted to turn his entire life into a piece of performance art celebrating death, and described the abortion of his child frankly and almost with relish in one of his books: “The doctors put a rod the size of a match stick, with two tiny threadlike strands jutting from the top, up into Missi’s cervix, causing it to dilate before tearing out the brain of our child with a pair of forceps.”

Manson’s vile celebration of his child’s decapitation is not the norm. While the stars of the music world are still largely supportive of abortion rights, their own stories reveal the damage of abortion starkly. Sharon Osbourne, who had an abortion at 17, recounted that “it was the worst thing I ever did…I went alone. I was terrified. It was full of other young girls, and we were all terrified and looking at each other and nobody was saying a bloody word. I howled my way through it, and it was horrible. I would never recommend it to anyone because it comes back to haunt you. When I tried to have children, I lost three—I think it was because something had happened to my cervix during the abortion.” Even the rapper Eminem, infamous for his brutal and murderous lyrics, wrote a song that took the form of a detailed confession of an abortion and the wrong that had been done to a “little one.”

The examples are endless. Anita Pallenberg was pushed into an abortion by her boyfriend, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, so she could star in a film they were working on–and was extremely bitter about it. Singer Sinitta Malone has talked about the “heartbreaking” abortion she had in the 1980s after conceiving a child with music mogul Simon Cowell, which she said left both her and Cowell “devastated.” Even Madonna, a vociferous supporter of abortion rights, has admitted that she regrets the abortion she had when her career was starting. “You always have regrets when you make those kind of decisions,” she told TIME in 1996, “but you have to look at your lifestyle and ask, ‘Am I at a place in my life where I can devote a lot of time to being the really good parent I want to be?”

Madonna’s blunt statement sums up the situation well. Although many of the singers and rocks stars regret the abortions they had or caused or paid for, their lifestyles often were (and are) incompatible with children. The simple truth is that promiscuity often results in pregnancy, and babies are a burden for those shrieking about the joys of the Sexual Revolution into microphones in front of howling crowds of hopped-up and hormonal young men and women who are eager and willing to join the party. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll—but nobody talks about what happens in the morning when it’s time to pay the piper. The hangover hits, the dealer wants his money, and the pregnancy test comes back positive. And then what? As the butchered babies of the American music scene wordlessly tell us, abortion comes next—children reduced to a “gurgling bloody mess.” And so the songs give way to silence, and the emptiness of loss is large enough to swallow entire unlived lives.

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For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.

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