Exclusive Interview

03.14.13

The Beatles’ Secretary, Good Ol’ Freda, Breaks Silence in Exclusive SXSW Interview

Good Ol’ Freda Kelly was the Beatles’ trusted secretary. The subject of a documentary at SXSW, she breaks her silence on going out with the band, crazed fans, and Beatlemania. By Marlow Stern.

The British broadsheets called it “the most coveted secretarial job in the world.”

In 1962 a mild-mannered Liverpudlian gal by the name of Freda Kelly was chosen by manager Brian Epstein to serve as the Beatles’ secretary. She also ran the Fab Four’s fan club, sending their rabid devotees authentic gifts from the lads—ranging from signed photos to locks of George Harrison’s hair—thereby serving as arbiter of Beatlemania.

One year into her tenure, the Beatles decided to craft a special little record for members of their official fan club. On it, Harrison gives thanks to “Freda Kelly in Liverpool,” to which John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr exclaim, “Good ol’ Freda!”

Good Ol’ Freda is the title of Ryan White’s documentary about the group’s fiercely devoted secretary, who hadn’t broken her silence until now out of loyalty to her favorite band. She was just 17 when she was hired and held the job until 1971, a short while after they split. The movie takes you on a journey into the heart of Beatlemania through Freda’s starry eyes. 

“It’s a story of a teenage girl being thrown into a whirlwind,” said White. “It’s such a great Cinderella story.”

Freda, who is in her late 60's, participated in the project so she could make “a little DVD”—as she calls the film—for her 3-year-old grandson, Niall. Since she was very apprehensive about it, she would make the movie only with someone she trusted, so she approached White, a family friend. White’s uncle Billy Kinsley was in the Liverpool rock band the Merseybeats, which performed at local haunt the Cavern Club along with the Beatles, and his aunt also worked for the Beatles fan club with Freda.

Freda was interviewed by White during two monthlong shoots in England, where he compiled about 40 to 50 hours of interview footage. To finance the film, the producers set up a Kickstarter account, which managed to exceed its goal, raising $58,000 from 660 backers. White and the producers also “maxed lots of credit cards,” he says. The filmmakers had a couple coups, however, including a video testimonial courtesy of Ringo Starr that plays during the closing credits—“Freda was like part of the family,” he says—and the licensing of four original Beatles songs with the aid of Paul McCartney (a rarity in films).

The Daily Beast sat down with the delightfully sweet Freda at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where the film premiered to a standing ovation, to discuss her favorite Beatles memories.

Why do you think you were plucked from thousands to get this highly coveted gig?

I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t know. It could have been anybody. I knew them as friends before Brian Epstein came on the scene. Then he started managing them. I didn’t ask for the job; it just came up when we were talking. He said he was starting his own firm, and he needed a secretary. I said, “Well, I’ll come along.” But my father said no. I didn’t know my father went down to see him and he said, “I don’t want her to do it because there’s no future in it.” I persuaded him to just give me a year and then I’ll knuckle under and do your civil-service job or work for the government.

Freda Kelly
A more recent image of the Beatles' secretary and friend Freda Kelly. (Good Ol' Freda)

Why did you stay mum for so long?

I didn’t really want to talk about it. I was in a different life then. I’d closed that door. I moved twice and have a different name now, since I’m married, and people over the years had asked me to do books. But I’m quite cagey. Then my grandson came along, and I figured I’d do a little DVD to get it down for him before the memory box goes completely.

Your loyalty is a big theme of the film. You were in possession of what was potentially millions of dollars of Beatles memorabilia, but you gave it all away to the fans in ’74.

Looking back you think, oh, God, that would’ve been worth a fortune! But you don’t think that at the time. Plus, these things went to good homes. In 1974 I had photographs, records, signatures, etc. Two friends from Liverpool kept asking me and asking me to do this Beatles Fest, so I finally went with them to London and had all this Beatles stuff in my bag. I saw all these dealers there and was like, “What is this?” There was a guy there counting his money to see if he had enough money for a photograph so I quietly went up to him and said, “Are you going to buy that? Don’t buy that. I’ll give you one.” And I put my hand in my bag and gave him them. The word quickly got around that I had stuff, and I gave it away. The dealers probably wanted to shoot me!

You say in the film that you don’t have a favorite Beatle, but what about a favorite Beatles’ song?

I don’t have a favorite! I love “I’m Only Sleeping,” because you don’t hear that on the radio, and if I’m in a quiet mood I’ll just close my eyes and listen to John singing. Of course I like “Penny Lane,” because that’s where I grew up, and “Love Me Do”—I remember buying the record when I didn’t even have a record player. But I actually preferred the B-side, “P.S. I Love You,” more than “Love Me Do.” But I also love the stuff on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s.

Were locks of hair the craziest fan-club requests you honored?

Hair, shirts ... nail clippings was where I drew the line. But I didn’t mind giving bits of what they wore. One girl handed in sticks of gum, and I had [The Beatles] chew them and send it back, but then I thought, I’m not doing that again!

You say in the documentary you had to hold onto certain secrets, like John’s extramarital trysts while married to Cynthia. What were some of the biggest Beatles’ secrets where you really struggled to bite your tongue?

It was the John thing, because it was a really good friend of mine. And the other one was another John [affair], again. It was another good friend of mine, and she knew John was married, but one day she came after me and said, “I know he has a baby girl.” And I sort of twisted it and said, “Diane, he doesn’t have a baby girl,” because he had a son [Julian]. When she did find out, she didn’t speak to me for weeks. She said, “You lied to me!” And I said, “I didn’t lie to you. I told you he didn’t have a baby girl, which he didn’t.”

On the subject of John, one of my stories in the film is when he mock-fired you.

He was serious! And I took it very seriously, because he had the serious face on. He could have a good go at you at times. I’d had a few drinks in me, and I walked into the dressing room, and they said, “Where have you been?” And I said, “Oh, I was just in [the Moody Blues’] dressing room.” And John said, “Go back to the Moody’s and run their fan club! You’re sacked.” I retaliated then and I said, “Fine, I’ll handle the other three’s mail, but won’t handle yours.”

And you got him to go down on a knee and apologize!

He wouldn’t play ball! I said, “Get down on your knees and beg me to stay!” but he didn’t. He got about one knee halfway down [laughs].

You still put John Lennon in his place, which not many people can say they’ve done. I know Ringo’s in the film, having contributed a clip very recently. Have you tried to get Paul McCartney in it as well?

Well, we got the four original Beatles songs! Plus, when we were shooting, it was the time of the Olympics and then the Diamond Jubilee, so he was very busy. I was pleased, though, because to get the songs, you needed approval from the directors of Apple. And when we got the music I just thought, wow ... take me off the ceiling!

Now, there is a scene in the film where Ryan asks you about what Beatles you went out with, and you deny it ... And then you take that back and say “you don’t want anyone’s hair turnin’ curly.”

I said “No!” straightaway, because I didn’t want him asking me, because I hate people asking me that. I thought if I answered him with a strong “No!” he’d back off, but he didn’t back off. So I told him, “I’m not telling you, so mind your own business!” The audience just loved that part.

What was the wildest, most fun night out with the Beatles?

Oh, there were quite a few, and they’re all fun for different things. The How I Won the War premiere after party was quite fun because, God, I was so drunk. I was 22, and because it was a premiere, I was all dolled up and thought I was the bee’s knees. I didn’t have any ballroom gowns, so Mo Cox, Ringo’s wife, lent me a beautiful evening dress, and Elsie [Ringo’s mom] lent me a mink fur. They dolled me up! I’m not very good with makeup, so I bought false eyelashes and put them on. You always forget, and I’m always rubbing my eyes, so I’m dancing with George, and he’s oiled up more than I am, and he’s holding me up and says, “You’ve got a spider on your face!” And I go, “What are you talking about? Oh, it’s me eyelash!” [laughs]

When did you start to notice that things were not right with the group? Or signs of their impending split?

I couldn’t put my finger on it, because I wasn’t with them a lot by then. I was up in Liverpool. In the beginning, when I was single, I was up in London every weekend and would stay at [Ringo’s] because he had a house up in London. I’d either stay with him or an ex-girlfriend of Ringo’s. So there were plenty of places I could doss when I was young, free, and single. But then when I got married, I would try and do it in a day and then get back on the train from London. But you just got the atmosphere from the press office. You’d pick up on vibes. It wasn’t just one thing.

Was the decision to get married and sort of putting the Beatles behind you a tough one?

My husband was in a group—he was a bass player—so I was still on the scene a bit. But we just decided to get married! Towards the end, the office was running amok and they said, “You’ve got to come back!” But I had my young son with me. So they paid for a nanny to get me back to the office.

And you’re still working as a secretary for a law firm six days a week?

Yeah. On the other side of Liverpool. I work in mental-health law and I’ve worked with them for 20 years. Three days before I left [for SXSW], my boss’s sister texted him an article in an English paper about it and he said, “You’ve kept this quiet, Freda!” And I texted back, “The quiet ones are the worst.”

Are you still in contact with Ringo or Paul?

No ... not for a while.

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary? A London premiere, perhaps?

Clear the debt! Seriously. I would like to walk away and have everyone got paid for what they’ve done, because they’ve all worked for nothin’, and worked flippin’ hard. They’ve worked so many hours, and you should be paid however much an hour—not a fantastic rate, but the going wage! [laughs]

Spoken like a very loyal secretary.