Up close and personal with Amy Winehouse

The London Jewish Museum’s portrait of the late singer and her family reveals a close, boisterous Jewish clique

The late Amy Winehouse is the subject of Asif Kapadia's emotional documentary "Amy." (Mark Okoh, Camera Press)
The late Amy Winehouse is the subject of Asif Kapadia's emotional documentary "Amy." (Mark Okoh, Camera Press)

LONDON — Twelve-year-old Amy Winehouse sits on a faded blue sofa in her grandmother’s house, dressed in the uniform of her youth group, the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade. With long white socks pulled halfway up her legs (a red graze visible below one knee), a white button-down shirt and a blue cap perched neatly on her tied-back hair, she should look like the schoolgirl she is. But Winehouse has one leg flung over the other suggestively and stares at the camera with a pronounced pout. This is a girl with attitude.

The photo, taken in 1995, is one of dozens of private pictures, clothes and personal effects belonging to the late singer, on display for the first time at London’s Jewish Museum. Co-curated by her older brother Alex, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait offers an intimate look at the person behind the headlines, showing how deeply she was shaped by her relatives and her Jewish background.

“This is a snapshot of a girl who was, to her deepest core, simply a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent, who, more than anything else, just wanted to be true to her heritage,” writes Alex Winehouse in a caption.

Winehouse died in July 2011, aged just 27, at her £2 million ($3 million) home, just a few blocks away from the Jewish Museum in Camden. After years of substance abuse, an inquest concluded she died of alcohol poisoning, although in a recent interview, Alex Winehouse blamed her death on bulimia, which he said significantly weakened her body.

Perhaps the only hint in the exhibition of the tragic ending is a battered black suitcase full of family photographs, which Winehouse had summoned her father Mitch to sift through with her just two days before her death. The photos themselves, many of which are grainy ‘80s shots, could have belonged to almost any Diaspora Jewish family. There is Amy sticking her tongue out on a river cruise; pictured standing by her brother, who is wearing a tallit, on his bar mitzvah; and her young parents — her mother looking very much like her — in evening dress, seated at another simha.

They were a close and boisterous lot. According to Amy’s hand-written application to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, “All my life I have been loud, to the point of being told to shut up. The only reason I have had to be this loud is because you have to scream to be heard in my family.”

A particular influence seems to have been her paternal grandmother Cynthia, a flamboyant character who believed she was a medium and taught Amy to read tarot cards. The siblings liked hanging out with her because she allowed them to smoke.

In the 1940s, she dated jazz legend Ronnie Scott, who proposed to her, and she seems to have bequeathed to her granddaughter a love for both jazz and the music of the mid-20th century. While still at school, Winehouse compiled a list of “songs on my chill-out tape,” which included pieces by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. (There were also two numbers by the Mickey Mouse Club.)

“For a 14- or 15-year-old, she was listening to very grown-up, classical music,” says Liz Selby, co-curator of the exhibition. “You can really tell that these are probably songs her family listened to and very much influenced her. There’s a real sense of depth to her because of that.”

Jewish Museum chief executive Abigail Morris notes that Winehouse had Cynthia’s name tattooed on her arm, and seems to have drawn fashion inspiration from her as well.

“There’s a picture of Cynthia with a white streak in her hair and obviously Amy at one point had that in her hair as well,” she says. “You don’t normally think of big pop stars and their grans.”

The Winehouses had lived in London since 1890, when Amy’s great-great-grandfather Harris Winehouse arrived from Minsk, Belarus, thinking it was New York. Like many Jewish immigrant families, they came through London’s poor East End — where Amy’s great-grandfather Benjamin ran a barber’s shop — and then moved out to the northern suburbs, settling in a fairly Jewish area, Southgate.

By the time Amy was born in 1983, the family was still, in English terms, lower-middle class. Both her grandfather and father, like many other Jews from a similar background, were taxi drivers. Mitch’s “hopelessly outdated” map, with routes marked in blue pen, was also used by Alex to pass The Knowledge, the rigorous test of London’s streets used to license cab drivers.

Although she was a fourth generation Brit, Amy seemed conscious of her family’s immigrant background, explaining in her Sylvia Young application that she inherited her musical flair from her father’s side.

“Unlike my dad and his background and ancestors, I want to do something with these talents,” she wrote.

Visitors to the museum can see the guitar on which she learned to play — “possibly the worst musical instrument ever made — it sounds awful,” writes Alex, who shared it with her — as well as footage of her performing in baggy sweats at Sylvia Young, from where she was expelled after becoming bored and disruptive, piercing her ears with a drawing pin during class.

There is relatively little from her later career, as so much from that period is already public, says Morris, but highlights include a 2012 posthumous Grammy, the tiny-waisted blue dress she wore to the Glastonbury festival in 2008, some of her silk scarves, sling-backs and outfits and numerous backstage passes. From her home, there is also a cream-colored bar –used, Alex claims, mostly as a place to rest letters and bills — straight from the 1950s, together with an old-fashioned wireless, further testament to her love of all things retro.

The same display case houses some of her personal books, including the trashy Jackie Collins novels she left lying around the house and the Dostoyevsky collection, which she actually read, and which were hidden in a cupboard — the reverse of how most people display their books, notes Morris.

The Jewish items are interspersed throughout the exhibit, reflecting the way in which the Winehouses’ Jewish identity was totally integral to their lives.

The family was not particularly religious — one book on display, featuring one of Amy’s favorite characters, Snoopy, was a Christmas present to Alex from his mother. But they were traditional, eating regular Friday night dinners together, sending the children to a Jewish nursery and celebrating Alex’s slightly blingy bar mitzvah (if Amy had a bat mitzvah, it is not evidenced here). Of course, they supported a “Jewish” football club, Spurs, also known as the “Yids.”

In later years, Amy was famous for taking chicken soup to her father who was hospitalized.

The museum showcases Amy’s copy of Claudia Roden’s “Book of Jewish Food,” with a creased cover, which Alex bought for her birthday in 2002 because she wanted to make chicken soup.

“It wasn’t a particularly great creation,” Alex concludes. “Her meatballs were always excellent though.”

His hand-written dedication on the front page is just visible.

As author of most of the captions, it is Alex’s voice that dominates the exhibition, and occasionally his younger sister comes across as pesky and annoying as well as cheeky and warm. There is also a hint of sibling rivalry, with the caption at the entrance of the exhibit emphasizing, “Amy might have been the most famous person in our family, but… she was not the centre of it. None of us are.”

He is no longer giving interviews, but the experience of putting together the exhibition was “moving as well as difficult” for him, as well as for everyone involved, says Morris.

“I keep on being surprised by how much it moves me,” she adds. “When you see her little school uniform and jumper and you think, what a lovely little girl,” the tragedy of her early death is magnified.

The Amy Winehouse exhibit is set to be the biggest success yet for the Jewish Museum, which was greatly expanded in 2010 and recently held an acclaimed retrospective of RB Kitaj. There has been enormous international coverage and tickets have sold well in advance. The show runs from July 3 until September 15, coinciding with the second anniversary of Winehouse’s death on July 23, and what would have been her 30th birthday on September 14.

One worry is that the display will be treated as a shrine or memorial by Amy’s fans.

But ultimately, organizers hope that they will not lose sight of what really matters about Winehouse. Asked about her greatest legacy, co-curator Selby is clear that it isn’t anything to do with her personality or family history. Simply, “It’s her voice.”

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