Magic & Incense

Growing up with George Harrison: My time in Crackerbox Palace with the quiet, gardening Beatle

Growing up with George Harrison: My time in Crackerbox Palace with the quiet, gardening Beatle

Editor's note: Martin Scorsese's two-part documentary on the Quiet Beatle, George Harrison, debuted in two segments on HBO this week. CultureMap contributor Kristen O'Brien didn't need the film to remember Harrison.

I can’t say I ever really knew George Harrison, but he was definitely an integral part of my life for 20 years. He was much more present in my youth, when we still lived in London, with Henley on Thames and the magical world of Friar Park only an hour away down the M4 motorway. When I was 10, we moved to the U.S. with our mother and her new husband, leaving behind our weekend visits with our father’s enigmatic but kindly client: George Harrison. 

 As a small child, I loved going to Friar Park, Harrison’s 120-room neo-gothic mansion; a former Catholic school he affectionately called "Crackerbox Palace." And what was so enchanting to me was the time spent playing and exploring the amazing gardens. 

My father, Denis O'Brien, met Harrison through another client, Peter Sellers. In 1973 he became Harrison’s business manager, initially tasked with sorting out Harrison’s tax issues, post-Beatles break-up. Later, he ran their joint production company, Handmade Films. Handmade created some interesting British cinema during the '80s, including Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail and I.

Working with Harrison so closely meant being a part of his interesting life. This included going to India with Harrison to visit with Ravi Shankar, going on world tours to promote his solo albums and supporting his philanthropic interests. It meant vacation time at his Maui home, and watching Formula One racing (another passion of Harrison’s).

My father also represented Harrison at Apple Records board meetings, occasionally making enemies (such as Yoko Ono, who once irritably sent Dad a postcard with a hand on the front giving him the finger).

As a small child, I loved going to Friar Park, Harrison’s 120-room neo-gothic mansion, a former Catholic school he affectionately called "Crackerbox Palace." And what was so enchanting to me was the time spent playing and exploring the amazing gardens. I never got tired of running blindly through the maze in front of the house; I loved crossing over the stepping stones on the pond and under the waterfall. Galloping over bridges, then taking a boat on the lake and going into secret caverns.

Everything from the sandstone Matterhorn replica to the friendly gnomes residing in the gardens made his Crackerbox feel like my own Wonderland.

Most people know that Harrison’s favorite pastime was working in the garden. His son, Dhani, recently told Rolling Stone that when he was growing up, he thought that his dad earned his living as a gardener.

Every time we’d go to Henley with Dad for all day, all night meetings, I could create new adventures for myself in those gardens. But the house, with its turrets and gargoyles, also inspired my creativity and never ceased to entertain.

There was the ever-present scent of incense floating in the air, the enchanting jukebox in the living room, the walk-in, wood-carved open fireplace and the kitchen with the large silver fridge with curious magnets. Dhani’s playroom, with the most incredible collection of toys I had ever seen, included a fully functioning car that was child-size. I did not want to hang out with Dhani when we visited, because he was seven years younger, and my sister and I didn’t like to have to eat scrambled eggs with a toddler when we could eat with the grownups at the big wooden dining room table.

Harrison’s wife, Olivia, always took good care of us and, like her husband, had a gentle, calming disposition. I loved going up the great gothic staircase in the living room to the recording studio on the first floor. I was fascinated by the recording console and the selection of instruments. Sometimes, Harrison would play new music for us and ask for our feedback.

 I remember thinking it was funny, but yet perfectly natural, to be sitting here with Madonna laughing over Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. 

Adjacent to the recording studio was a room with gold records and awards and an Oscar statuette. I remember the exhilarating sensation I got picking up the Oscar earned for "Let It Be" and feeling it weigh down my hand.

When it got late, and Dad was still in meetings, we would go to bed in one of the guest rooms down the hall from the studio with sounds of Harrison’s sitar lulling us to sleep.

Once we moved away from London, I saw Harrison less. Maybe at a concert here or there, but I did not go back to Friar Park again until I was thirteen.

On this last visit to Friar Park we met first to view footage from the film Shanghai Surprise. I joined Dad to watch the dailies with Harrison and the principal actors in the film, Madonna and Sean Penn. After the screening, we went back to Friar Park for dinner. However, before dinner was served, we gathered in the TV room so that Madonna could get Harrison’s feedback on her latest as-yet-unreleased video. It was "Live to Tell," and she shyly played it for all of us, looking earnestly to George for his approval.

After the video we watched The Muppet Show, and I remember thinking it was funny, but yet perfectly natural, to be sitting here with Madonna laughing over Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog.

My last memory of Harrison is from several years later, when I was in college in New York. Dad arranged tickets for me, my sister and our friends to go to a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden. After the show, we went backstage with Dad and his guests, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. We were all waiting to meet with Harrison, who had performed one of the tributes in honor of his close friend. But Harrison never emerged from his dressing room area, and eventually we left and headed back to school.

This seemed to mark the beginning of the end between my father and Harrison. They soon parted ways over financial disagreements, and we went from having Harrison as an extended family member, receiving visits and birthday presents from him, to reading in various magazines and newspapers around the world that the parties were involved in a bitter dispute.

And then, nearly 10 years ago on November 29, 2001, George Harrison died, and there were no more opportunities to get to know the mysterious man with the kind eyes and distinct Liverpudlian accent.

Although I may have had exposure to this former Beatle and "knew" him in a privileged way, I still didn't really know who he was. To me, he will always remain an extension of the magical fairy worlds I explored as a child.

Watch the trailer for George Harrison: Living in the Material World below:

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George Harrison steers my sister and I across one of the Friar Park lakes. Circa 1980 Courtesy of The O'Brien Family
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George Harrison with my Grandmother Ruth at my dad's  wedding in Vancouver. On that occasion my little sister fell into the jacuzzi in her bridesmaid dress and luckily Harrison was standing by and swooped in to pull her out. Circa 1979 Courtesy of The O'Brien Family
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George Harrison with his son Dhani and wife Olivia at their home in Henley on Thames. Circa 1978 Courtesy of The O'Brien Family
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George Harrison backstage holding hands with his tour manager, his wife Olivia, and my dad, far right. Circa 1976 Courtesy of The O'Brien Family
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Dad taking my sister and me out for an excursion on the lake at Friar Park. 

Circa 1979
Courtesy of The O'Brien Family
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Playing frisbee with Dhani Harrison on the grounds of George's estate, Friar Park. Circa 1980 Courtesy of The O'Brien Family