Was Elton John’s Mom Really That Cold?
In the new Elton John movie Rocketman, the star’s mother, Sheila Farebrother, is seen telling her son that he’ll never find true love because of his homosexuality, and later demanding a fortune from the musician so she and her partner can live in luxury in the countryside.
Actress Bryce Dallas Howard presents an illustration of a cold, vindictive person who always appears to have her own interests at heart.
In real life, Sheila and John spent most of her last years ignoring each other, with several reasons – most including accusations of preferring to be around other people – offered by close associates. And even though they seem to have settled their differences soon before her death, Sheila appeared to strike one more angry blow during her departure, amid suggestions that their relationship had always been unbalanced.
John, whose real name was Reginald Dwight, was born in London in 1947 to Sheila and her husband Stanley Dwight. When the marriage failed, John went to live with his grandparents, but appeared to side with his mom in the aftermath. In interviews since the ‘70s, the singer referred to his dad as an unloving, distant character who stifled his son’s character. It later appeared that not all of John’s assertions about Stanley were true.
As an example, despite being declared absent during the first 18 months of John's life, Stanley, a Royal Air Force officer, was actually stationed in England and registered John’s birth personally, only traveling overseas later. As another, Stanley’s second wife kept a receipt that she said was proof that John’s dad, and not his mom or grandmother, had bought him his first piano.
While it’s impossible to draw complete conclusions, it’s at least possible Sheila either encouraged or simply allowed John to believe things about his father that weren’t accurate. If that’s the case, then it would also suggest that the turn of events that led to the mom-son feud were unlikely to have been first-time episodes.
Reports suggest that things turned nasty when David Furnish – John’s future husband and co-producer of Rocketman – entered the singer’s life. In 2005, as she attended the couple’s civil partnership ceremony, Sheila said she’d been told she couldn’t appear in any of the official photographs because she wasn’t wearing a hat. “That didn’t go down well with Furnish because he wanted it to be the wedding of the year,” she said at the time.
The situation worsened when her husband Fred, who’d been married to her for more than 40 years, died in 2007, without having received a visit from his stepson. “I think he just hung on thinking that Elton would come to see him and he never did,” Sheila said.
The following year, she and her son cut off communications completely after she said he tried to order her not to remain friends with his former manager John Reid and driver Bob Halley. Refusing to fall out with people she regarded as close friends, she preferred to lose contact with John himself.
It appears that Furnish’s presence was a contributing factor – “He told me I thought more of Bob Halley than I did of my own son,” she reported. "I said to him, ‘And you think more of that fucking thing you married than your own mother.'” In another interview, she said that she told John, "'I’m not about to… drop them. Bob is like a son to me. He has always been marvelous to me and he lives nearby and keeps an eye on me.’ Then to my utter amazement, he told me he hated me. And he then banged the phone down. Imagine! To me, his mother!"
At her 90th birthday party in 2015, she went as far as to secure a John impersonator to attend in his place. “She never told me that she’d hired a lookalike,” former manager Reid recalled later. “I was sitting next to her and this guy walked in, we all thought it was Elton. It was all wrong. We were like, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘I knew he wasn’t going to come, so I thought I’d get a substitute.’ Well, what she actually said was, ‘I knew that fucker wasn’t going to show up, so I got this one.'”
“I don’t hate her, but I don’t want her in my life,” John later said. That mood softened toward the end of her life, and they made amends before she died in December 2017 at age 92. Earlier that year, he’d paid £30,000 for her double hip replacement surgery. “So sad to say that my mother passed away this morning,” John wrote online. “I only saw her last Monday and I am in shock. Travel safe, Mum. Thank you for everything. I will miss you so much. Love, Elton.”
However, in an apparent final insult, Sheila left most of her £500,000 estate to old friend Halley in a will that had been written just weeks before her death. “I give to my son Elton John free of all taxes my two Batignani blue/gold urns and my photographs of mother in uniform and grandfather in uniform,” the document read.
It’s impossible to know but interesting to speculate on whether there was a message in the present of urns with their funeral connotations, and pictures of senior family members in uniform. “It very much looks like Sheila was determined to make one final point to her son in her will,” a source told the Sun.
Speaking after her death, Reid said that he wished John “nothing but the best,” but added that "the sad thing was his mother never met" her grandchildren. Reporting that he’d seen John only twice since their falling out in the ‘90s, he claimed that "once he makes up his mind you’re history, you’re history.”
Writer Philip Norman – who wrote an unofficial biography of John that the subject later voiced his support for – told the Daily Mail in 2019 that John’s “long-held beliefs about his father” had been “clearly fostered by his mother.” “Sheila and little Reggie could have accompanied him overseas, but Sheila always refused because she found other officers’ wives ‘snobby,’" he said. "Far from being indifferent to Reggie, Stanley missed him terribly, always kept a photograph of him beside his bed and wrote home asking for news about him nearly every day.”
Norman pointed to a “clanging shutter” that appeared to find John regularly cutting himself off from people who cared about him. He described Sheila as “his tireless champion throughout the early years when he was struggling to make it as a session musician and back-up vocalist.”
“For me, the real story of the Rocketman bears out the wisdom of his first mentor, the music publisher Dick James, almost a surrogate father who invested huge amounts of money and effort to launch him," Norman noted. "‘The artiste on his way up lives with failure magnificently,’ James once observed. ‘I’ve never yet met one who could live with success.’”
Actress Howard admitted she was concerned about taking the role of Sheila when she first read the Rocketman script. “It was very bad toxic damaging relationship,” she said. “I think she definitely didn't get him. More than that she was a deeply unhappy person. He was raised in a household as an only child, not shown love and affection. If there's that void, it's a difficult thing for him to fill.”