She was a model who mixed with the smart set. But her bohemian life took a twist for the worse when she went on a mercy mission to Beirut - and was sold to a playboy
Published: 31 May 2007
Reclining by a tropical pool, with a cool wind breezing through her hair and a tray of iced drinks at her bronzed elbow, she became an enduring pin-up of the 1970s jet-set.
The Martini Girl, a female version of the Old Spice surfer, helped make red vermouth the drink of choice for Britain's newly-liberated masses, and was the bombshell behind a daringly-suggestive catch-phrase: "any time, any place, anywhere."
In Europe, she trebled sales of the brand virtually single-handed, and for almost a decade was regarded as a symbol of British elegance with an influence to rival that other Martini drinker with a famous catch-phrase: James Bond.
Yet behind the imagelies a virtual unknown. She was the model Erica Wills, a 22-year-old former air-hostess who had been "discovered" in a lift by Jean Shrimpton, and for a very brief period lived at the cutting edge of swinging London.
Besides starring in the advert, Wills boasted a portfolio by Lord Lichfield and David Bailey. She rubbed shoulders with Joanna Lumley, and moved in glamorous circles that saw her holidaying alongside Tom Jones, lunching with George Best and ducking velvet ropes with Lance Percival.
But in 1972, a year after the Martini photo was taken, its subject disappeared, seemingly without trace. While former associates continued to blaze trails to the apex of British celebrity, Wills was rumoured to have emigrated suddenly to Beirut.
There, she enjoyed an equally remarkable life at the highest level of Lebanese society during various wars and civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s. But back home, her name dropped-off the radar; it never again appeared in the British press during her lifetime.
Until today, that is. On 18 May, Wills - most recently known as Deborah Thornton Jackson - died following a stroke, aged 57. Now, 48 hours after her quiet funeral at a Liverpool crematorium, friends and family of the original Martini Girl, can finally tell her extraordinary life story.
It is an occasionally harrowing tale of female adversity against the backdrop of the global sexual revolution. Thirty years on, it still provides a remarkable insight into both the devil-may-care spirit of the age, and the dark side it concealed.
"Erica Wills in a swimsuit was absolutely wonderful stuff," says the advertising commentator Peter York. "She bought luxury style to the UK of the 1970s, and began a movement that showed beautiful people doing things that most Brits hadn't done and still couldn't afford to do. Her school of advertising was incredibly influential. It endured right into the 1980s, when it was eventually rejected as unsophisticated."
Erica Wills was born in 1949. She was christened Deborah, the daughter of Dorothy "Jayne" Crumbie, an underwear model from the East End, and John Wills, a professional soldier in the Blues and Royals. It was a family joke that he was a member of the Wills tobacco dynasty.
She was born in Windsor, Berkshire and educated at St Anne's College for Young Ladies in Lytham St Anne's before training as a stewardess for British Airways at a time when it was the career of choice for well-bred, glamorous young ladies.
On her debut flight as a senior stewardess in first class, Wills made her first footnote in history when a passenger, the Duchess of Devonshire, complained that John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were sitting in nearby seats, appeared to be engaging in sexual intercourse.
Wills tapped Lennon on the shoulder, and gently asked if he could stop. "Fuck off!" came the reply. The captain was called to clear up the misunderstanding, and the flight eventually diverted to Rome.
"It was at the time John and Yoko were in their heyday of wildness, and just went out to shock," recalls her friend and colleague, Dee Bull. "Debbie was delightful and scatty, and well-spoken, so its hardly surprising if she hardly knew what to do."
Following the death of her father in 1970, Wills developed an addiction to Valium, which forced her to retire from flying on account of claustrophobia. She turned to modelling, having been "spotted" in a lift at Jenners in Edinburgh by Jean Shrimpton, one of the foremost supermodels of her day, and Terence Stamp.
After training at the London Academy of Modelling - an education she financed through work as a "bunny girl" at the Playboy Club - Deborah joined the Michael Whitaker Agency, where she took the name Erica.
"She lived in what must have been one of London's most glamorous flats," recalls her widower and third husband, Neil Jackson. "She shared it with Anthea Redfern, who Bruce Forsyth left a wife for one Christmas, and later married."
Another flatmate is said to have been Joanna Lumley, though the actress was yesterday unable to recall details of any relationship.
"It was a long time ago," says Jackson. "When she died, Deborah had been in the middle writing a memoir, which includes material on Lumley and recollections of her boyfriends, who seem to have included Lance Percival, and Tom Jones' PR man, Chris Hutchins."
At the height of her fame, however, Wills travelled to Beirut on a whim, after a girlfriend called Maggie Sibbering had got into personal trouble that had resulted in her being forced to dance at a bar called the Crazy Horse saloon. She ended up staying a great deal longer than planned.
After apparently being drugged, Wills also woke up to discover that her passport had been stolen, and that she'd signed a contract forcing her to work as a dancer at the bar, which was a form of upmarket brothel. Then, several months later, in walked a famous Lebanese playboy called Elie Ayache, the eldest son of one of the country's wealthiest and most politically-connected families, who owned the Ferrari franchise for the Middle East, and boasted the address PO Box 1, Beirut.
Ayache fell in love with Wills on the spot, and negotiated to "buy" her for $5,000, following negotiations in which the bar's owner described her as: "the best whore I ever had." They married in 1975, and remained together for fifteen years.
In Beirut, Wills resuscitated her modelling career, working with Patti Chamoun, the Australian first wife of Dany Chamoun, the son of President Chamoun and leader of the Tigers militia, who was later assassinated. The pair took choreographed, and often risqué shows to audiences across the Middle East.
Living in the region wasn't without its hazards. In 1976, the Christian family - Ayache had given Wills two daughters - were living in Muslim West Beirut when the civil war broke out. Lying on the floor of a car, they made a dash for the Green Line, only for their driver to be shot by a sniper.
"In the ensuing bombardment they tried to rescue a fleet of Ferraris by driving them back through the streets at high speed," adds Jackson. "Three or four got back, but they lost a further 30, and a collection of Riva speedboats, all of them uninsured."
In 1982, Wills witnessed the Phalangists' assault on the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila, and worked for the Red Cross helping care for the injured, an experience she later recounted on the BBC's Witness internet site.
The 1989 war had the most profound effect on the family, though. During the three-way hostilities, they were forced to live in a basement for six months, with little in the way of food, water or electricity. One outbreak of shelling forced Wills to rescue her daughters from school in a Lebanese tank; another saw their villa stormed by Hizbollah rebels, who gang-raped her for four days before being killed by government forces
Later that year, Wills and her daughters escaped Lebanon on a hydrofoil driven by Dutch mercenaries. They went to live near her mother in St Andrews, leaving Ayache behind; they were later divorced, and he died in 2004.
In Scotland, Wills met and married a local publican called Robert Alexander, who moved to Glenisla and founded two successful retail supply firms, Alexander Agencies and At Dalvenie. They split just over a decade later, after she bumped into Jackson, a professor of architecture.
"I had a house up there, and we met the night before New Year's Eve 2000," he recalls. "On the millennium itself, there was a party in the village hall. I walked in and she seized me by the arm and told me I was her soul mate. She left him 10 months later, and in 2002 we married."
Deborah Jackson, as she became, spent the rest of her life in York and Liverpool, and her ashes will be scattered at her holiday home at Glenisla.
"Looking at letters and cards, people have sent me, they always use the same adjectives to describe Debbie," said Jackson yesterday. "They say she was vivacious, fun loving, outward going welcoming. She was also very good at socialising, but extremely insecure with it, and maybe that vivaciousness was a way of dealing with it."
"Her other great character trait was that didn't think before she did things. She would just see something and do it. Throughout her life, her heart always controlled her mind, and that's why she often got herself involved with unsuitable men."
For the original Martini Girl, who did things any time, any place and any where, and whose life even now remains shrouded in mystery, there can perhaps be no more appropriate epitaph.