When Freddie Mercury first met Mary Austin, he was 24 years old and she was 19. At the time neither could have imagined what the future would hold for them, both as a couple and singularly as friends with a deep love for each other. Their real-life relationship is examined in “Bohemian Rhapsody," starring Rami Malek as Mercury and Lucy Boynton in the role of Austin.
“All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible,” Mercury once said of Austin. “The only friend I’ve got is Mary, and I don’t want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage.”
When Mercury died in 1991 of AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia at age 45, Austin was by his side as she had been for much of his adult life. At one point in their relationship he had asked her to marry him, and when he died he left her half his reported $75 million estate, including the 28-room London mansion in which he passed away and Austin still lives in to this day.
Today Austin lives a quiet life away from the spotlight she often experienced as part of Mercury’s inner circle. The pair lived together on and off for the better part of two decades as Mercury’s profile rose and Queen became one the most beloved rock bands of the twentieth century.
Mercury and Austin quickly fell in love
Mercury and Austin met in 1969, a year before he would form what would become Queen with bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor and eventually John Deacon. Mercury, real name Farrokh Bulsara, was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania in 1946 and had moved to England with his parents in the 1960s. Austin was born in 1951 into an impoverished family in South London’s Battersea neighborhood. Her father worked as a wallpaper trimmer and her mother a domestic for a small company. Both her parents were deaf.
It was while working at the fashionable London clothing store Biba when Austin first came into contact with Mercury, who had just completed art college and worked in a clothing stall in nearby Kensington. Austin was initially hesitant about the sometime larger-than-life Mercury, but they were soon a couple living in a cramped flat together as he worked on his music career. “He was like no one I had ever met before,” Austin told OK! Magazine in 2000. “He was very confident, and I have never been confident. We grew together. I liked him – and it went on from there.”
“She seemed to be grounded,” says Mark Blake, author of Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury and Queen. "They got together quite quickly apparently. They’d known each other for a few months and then the next thing they were living together.”
Mercury's marriage proposal was unexpected
The couple would eventually move to a bigger flat in London’s Holland Road and in 1973, the year Queen’s eponymous debut album was released, Mercury asked her to marry him. “When I was 23 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. Eventually, I found a lovely jade ring inside the last small box,” Austin told the Daily Mail in 2013. Not understanding what was going on, Austin asked Mercury on which hand should she place it. He replied the left and asked her to marry him. “I was shocked. It just so wasn’t what I was expecting. I just whispered, ‘Yes. I will.’”
In the following years Queen’s profile grew with the release of albums “Sheer Heart Attack” (1974) and “A Night at the Opera” (1975), the latter containing the Mercury-penned ballad “Love of My Life,” reportedly written for Austin. As the band’s fame grew so too did Mercury’s. His wild mane of hair, toothy grin, showy costumes, and camp performances alongside his thrilling, almost four-octave encompassing singing voice had audiences flocking to see the band.
Austin believed Mercury was gay, not bisexual
At home things were not fairing as well. Six years into their relationship marriage was no longer being discussed and Austin began to think something was wrong. She decided to discuss the matter with Mercury. “I told him, ‘Something is going on and I just feel like a noose around your neck. I think it’s time for me to go,’” she recalled to OK! Mercury insisted nothing was wrong. Austin recalls the relationship cooling after that, the same time the band was experiencing incredible success.
Returning home later and later most nights, Austin thought Mercury was having an affair with another woman. But in 1976, already an international star, he decided to discuss his evolving sexual feelings with her. “I’ll never forget that moment,” Austin told the Daily Mail. “Being a bit naive, it had taken me a while to realize the truth. Afterwards he felt good about having finally told me he was bisexual. Although I do remember saying to him at the time, ‘No Freddie, I don’t think you are bisexual. I think you are gay.’”
The revelation ended their physical relationship and Austin moved to a nearby flat purchased for her by Mercury’s music-publishing company. Yet she remained part of the band’s extended circle. “She went on the road with them. There are photographs of them together backstage at concerts into the late seventies by which stage they were no longer a couple,” says biographer Blake. “He was to all intents and purposes a gay man. It’s a very interesting part of their story, that having lived together as a couple and her believing that at one point they would be married and then having to come to terms with the fact that he was sleeping with guys. And they remained such good friends for so long after that. She stayed as part of the band’s entourage because she was part of his entourage. She was the most important person in that entourage.”
Austin was by Mercury's side until his death
Austin would witness Mercury go on to live a life of lavish excess, a rock god’s existence fueled by substance abuse and random sexual encounters. Austin would make her own path. She has two sons with painter Piers Cameron, Richard to whom Mercury was godfather, and Jamie, born shortly after Mercury’s death. Though she never married Cameron, a marriage to businessman Nick Holford ended in divorce after five years.
Never absent for long from Mercury’s life, Austin reportedly worked for his management company and was a constant in the years leading up to his death. When Mercury was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 there was no treatment for the virus and he died of AIDS-related complications four years later on November 4, 1991. Austin was by his side.
“He kept her close by when he became ill,” says Blake. “The fact that she was so well looked after in the will. She got the house and a share of the publishing. He effectively left a lot to her as if he was leaving it to his widow. Mary was probably good at keeping him grounded. She had been there before the money, before the fame and she was there at the end.”
Of his passing Austin says she lost somebody she thought of as her eternal love. “When he died I felt we’d had a marriage,” she told OK! “We’d done it for better or 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.”
Austin supported Mercury in his decision to keep the nature of his illness secret until shortly before he died. He also asked her to collect his ashes and place them at a private location never to be disclosed.
It’s a promise she kept, waiting two years after his death to secretly remove them from the house he died in, the house in which she still resides surrounded by many of the same furnishings chosen by Mercury. “He didn’t want anyone trying to dig him up as has happened to some famous people,” Austin told the Daily Mail. “Fans can be deeply obsessive. He wanted it to remain a secret and it will remain so.”