Hunt was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1946 and lived in North Philadelphia near 23rd and Columbia then in Germantown and Mount Airy for the first thirteen years of her life. Hunt still remembers Philadelphia with affection, particularly the "Philadelphia steak sandwiches and the bad boys on the basketball court".
Hunt's mother Inez was her primary parent and worked as a librarian in a local library. Hunt's father Blaire Theodore Hunt, Jr., was one of America's first black psychiatrists but he did not live with Hunt and she found out when she was 15 years old that he had committed suicide three years previously. Hunt was brought up by her mother, her aunt and her grandmother, three strong, but very different women. Hunt describes her mother Ikey as "extremely intelligent and education-minded", her Aunt Thelma as "extremely Catholic but very glamorous" and her grandmother Edna as an "extremely aggressive...ass-kicking" independent Southern woman.
While Hunt was poor, she credits poverty with teaching her not to be materialistic. Hunt's family put a great deal of emphasis on academic performance, and Hunt did very well in school. In 1960 her family moved to Oakland so that her brother and sister could attend Oakland High School and prepare to attend the University of California, Berkeley, which Hunt still regards as home.
Hunt also went to Berkeley, in 1964, where she joined Jerry Rubin on protest marches against the Vietnam War. In her book Undefeated she recalled that during her time at Berkeley "were sitting in for the Free Speech Movement, smoking pot, experimenting with acid, lining up to take oriental philosophy courses, daring to cohabit, and going to dances in San Francisco."
In February 1966 Hunt moved to Britain and for a time lived in Edinburgh. Hunt says that in London in the 1960s anything seemed possible.
Marriage to Mike Ratledge
In 1967 Hunt met Mike Ratledge of the Soft Machine. Hunt was having trouble getting a visa extension to stay in England and proposed to Ratledge. Ratledge and Hunt were married on April 15, 1967. The Soft Machine were heavily booked and there was no time for a honeymoon, but Ratledge and Hunt were able to spend two months together before the band headed for France later that year. Hunt said in 1991 that she and Ratledge never held hands and never kissed but that "...he comes for Easter. But that's what we called married." While the two have remained good friends, Hunt says the secret to a happy marriage is to "separate immediately." When Hunt and Ratledge reached their 40th wedding anniversary, Hunt called Ratledge up and said, jokingly, "We should renew our vows."
Although Hunt indicates that she had no great musical talent, she worked as a singer for 18 months after arriving in England. In February 1967 Hunt took a singing job with Alexis Korner's trio Free at Last so that she could earn her fare back home. She didn't use it, but remained, and in 1968 joined the group Ferris Wheel. That same year, Hunt achieved national fame in England when she appeared as "Dionne" in the rock musical Hair, a box office smash on The London Stage. Hunt only had two lines of dialog in Hair, but she attracted a lot of media attention and her photo appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Hunt says that the role was a perfect fit for her, expressing who she actually was. Hunt was one of three American featured in the London show, and when the show began she had no contract to perform. When the show opened she was featured in so many stories that she was offered a contract right away.
Hunt played at the Isle of Wight music festival in 1969 with her backup band White Trash. Hunt's first single, a cover of Dr John's "Walk on Gilded Splinters" was released on Track Records in 1969; it became a minor hit. An album, Woman Child (in Germany released unter the titel "Desdemona"), followed in 1971. In May 1977 an album with disco songs was released in Germany with the title "Marsha". It was recorded at Musicland Studios in Munich and produced by Pete Belotte (coproducer with Giorgio Moroder of many Donna Summer albums)
Hunt met Marc Bolan in 1969 when she went to the studio where Bolan's group was recording "Unicorn". Tony Visconti said that when Bolan and Hunt met, "[y]ou could see the shafts of light pouring out of their eyes into each other.... We finished the session unusually early, and Marc and Marsha walked out into the night hand in hand." According to Hunt, the relationship between the two was based on more than physical attraction, though she also recalled that her commercial visibility put her at opposition to Bolan's philosophy that "the serious art of music...was validated by obscurity."
In 1973, as a member of a panel organized by British magazine Melody Maker to discuss women in music and options open to black women, Hunt suggested that black women needed to make use of the "side-door" in the industry, entering as "the statuary representative" before they could make music under their own terms.
In addition to her husband, Korner and Bolan, Hunt was professionally associated with such musicians as Long John Baldry, John Mayall and Elton John.
Three months after Hair opened, Hunt was on the cover of British high fashion magazine Queen, the first black model to appear on their cover. In 1968, Hunt posed nude for photographer Patrick Lichfield after opening night for Hair and the photo appeared on the cover of British Vogue's January 1969 issue. Almost 40 years later Hunt again posed nude for Litchfield, recreating the pose for her Vogue Magazine cover five weeks after she had had her right breast and lymph glands removed to halt the spread of cancer. The photo appeared on the cover of her 2005 book, Undefeated, about her battle with cancer. She was pleased to work with the photographer under such differing circumstances, though in her autobiography she expressed confusion as to why the photo has been so often reprinted. Hunt has also been photographed by Lewis Morley, Horace Ove, and Robert Taylor.
Relationship with Mick Jagger
Hunt said in 1991 that she met Mick Jagger when the Rolling Stones asked Hunt to pose for an ad for "Honky Tonk Women", which she refused to do because she "didn't want to look like [she'd] just been had by all the Rolling Stones." Jagger called her later, and their nine or ten month affair began. According to Christopher Sanford's book Mick Jagger: Rebel Knight, Hunt told journalist Frankie McGowan that Jagger's shyness and awkwardness won her over, but that their relationship was conducted mostly in private because their social scenes were very different. In London, November of 1970, Hunt gave birth to Jagger's first and her only child, Karis. According to Hunt, the pair planned the child but never intended to live together. According to Tony Sanchez in Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, Jagger considered proposing to Hunt but didn't because he didn't think he loved Hunt enough to spend the rest of his life with her, while Hunt, for her part, didn't think they could compatibly cohabit.
When Karis was two years old, Hunt asked the courts for an affiliation order against Jagger and eventually settled out of court. Jagger, who called the suit "silly", has been close to Karis since then; he took her on holiday with his family when she was a teenager, attended her Yale graduation and her 2000 wedding, and he was at the hospital for the birth of her son in 2004. As of 2008, he continued to see her and her family. Citing the binding tie of a child, Hunt says she still sees Jagger, but has a closer relationship with Jagger's mother. In 1991, Hunt indicated that she left the door open for Jagger to come back to his child and admired the fact that he did.
In 2008, Hunt was asked about the story that appeared in this article in Wikipedia (without a citation) that she met Jagger at a party in the Sixties and told him she wanted to have his baby. "You must have read that on the internet", says Hunt. "One reason I haven't had it removed is that it is proof that the internet is full of absolute bullshit. Ridiculous things have been written about me so often that we won't even go there."
Christopher Sanford writes in his book Mick Jagger that when the Rolling Stones released the song "Brown Sugar" there was immediate speculation that the song referred to Hunt or to soul singer Claudia Lennear. In her 1985 autobiography, Real Life, Hunt acknowledged that "Brown Sugar" is about her, among a few other songs, a fact she reiterated in her 2006 book Undefeated. When Hunt was asked how she felt about the song for an interview with the Irish Times in 2008, Hunt said "it doesn't make me feel any way at all."
Hunt began writing in 1985, and her first book was her 1986 autobiography, Real Life: The Story of a Survivor. She found the process of writing more difficult than she expected, but did not stop there, continuing in 1996 with another autobiography, Repossessing Ernestine: A Granddaughter Uncovers the Secret History of Her American Family, about her search for her father's mother Ernestine who was placed in an asylum for nearly 50 years. After Hunt's father committed suicide when she was twelve years old, Hunt's contact with her father's family was sporadic. Hunt tracked down her father's father Blair Hunt shortly before he died in 1978 to find him living sedately in a seedy part of town with his companion of 60 years. Hunt discovered that her grandfather had been a public school administrator and a leading member of Memphis's black community. Blair Hunt talked about his "poor dear sick wife" who he had "put away" many years before. Hunt discovered that her father's mother, Ernestine, had been born in 1896 as a free black and that she grew up in Memphis, "an intelligent, remarkably beautiful young woman who excelled in school and was greatly envied for her pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair." Hunt tracked her grandmother down to a rundown nursing home, and although Hunt was unable to discover why Ernestine spent 50 years behind bars, Hunt wrote that the reasons may have had more to do with racism and sexism than insanity.
In 2005 Hunt released her memoir about her battle with cancer, Undefeated.
Hunt published her first novel, Joy, in 1990 about a woman who grew up to join a singing group reminiscent of The Supremes before dying an early death. Set in a posh New York apartment in the course of one day in the spring of 1987, the novel contains frequent flashback that describe life in a black neighbourhood in the 1950s and 1960s. The book also deals with stardom in the music business and some people's inability, despite their riches, to make their own American Dream come true and to lead fulfilled lives. Hunt indicates that within her novel, all the characters are victims who are also guilty, a reflection of real life where "[w]e get hurt, but we're also hurting each other all the time." Hunt wrote Joy while touring England with a group performing Othello and said her fellow actors made fun of her while she was writing the book; given her reputation, she feels, they may have thought her an aspiring Joan Collins. Hunt says Joy is also about the colorism that existed within black society at the time, where girls with fairer skin and longer hair were preferred to girls with kinky hair and more stereotypically Black characteristics. Hunt said that living in England and exploring its accents taught her how beautiful Black language was, a "culturally important" feature she preserved in her novel.
Hunt's second novel, Free, published in 1992, tells the story of freed slaves and their children living in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1913. Hunt's 1998 novel Like Venus Fading is inspired by the lives of Adelaide Hall, known as the "lightly-tanned Venus", Josephine Baker, and Dorothy Dandridge.
Hunt wrote her first four books living in isolation in a remote hideaway in France called La montagne. With no company but a barn cat who came to eat each morning and the people she saw once a day at a near patisserie, she was inspired to write by silence and boredom.
In 1999 Hunt sought a job of writer-in-residence at Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison and later collected selected writings from the prisoners and edited The Junk Yard: Voices From An Irish Prison. The book contains fifteen stories divided into five sections: Childhood, Family Life, The Score, Criminal Life and Prison Life. One publisher was critical of the repetitive themes of urban poverty, addiction, and life in prison, but Hunt responded by noting that it is worthy to consider why the inmates had such similar tales. The Junk Yard: Voices From An Irish Prison became a number one bestseller in Ireland in 1999.
During the 1997 Book Festival in Edinburgh, Hunt staged a one-woman protest, picketing Charlotte Square about the "shoddy administration" of the Festival. The director of the festival was fired in the aftermath of her protest.
Hunt has been working on a book about Jimi Hendrix that she considers her life work. She indicates that no one alive can share her perspective on the matter, "because he and I shared something - black Americans who came to London were transformed and re-packaged for the US, although I never became successful there and he did." No release date has been given.
In 1971 Hunt played Bianca in Catch My Soul, the rock and roll stage version of Othello produced by Jack Good. In 1975 Hunt appeared as Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. In 1991 Hunt appeared as Nurse Logan in the world premier of Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mount Morgan at London's Wyndham's Theatre. Hunt became a member of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In 1994, Hunt performed a one-woman play in Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival playing Baby Palatine, a 60-year-old woman who becomes the wardrobe mistress to a female pop group. The play is based on Hunt's novel Joy. Hunt was directed in the play by her daughter Karis Jagger, who says that it was her mother's idea. Jagger says that the pair "spent six weeks rehearsing in France. Because the weather was so good we marked out the shape of the stage with my teddy bears and rehearsed in the garden."
Hunt's film career included appearances in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and Britannia Hospital (1982) directed by Lindsay Anderson. In 1990 Hunt played Bianca in the BBC television production of Othello directed by Trevor Nunn.
In 1997, when Irish documentary film-maker Alan Gilsenan made God Bless America consisting of six American cities seen through the eyes of six American authors, Hunt was invited to participate Her participation resulted in Marsha Hunt's Philadelphia. According to Gilsenan, Hunt attributes the success of American democracy and capitalism to the crime of slavery, a crime which must be understood if America is to have peace. Hunt fell in love with Gilsenan and moved to the Wicklow mountains near Dublin with him, where in 1999 she helped him fight colon cancer, drawing on her own experiences with the disease. Hunt is no longer romantically involved with Gilsenan, who has since married and fathered a child, but as of 2008 still sees him.
Hunt has also been the subject of a documentary, Beating Breast Cancer on ITV, broadcast on 26 September 2005.
In late 2004, Hunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and told to have surgery to remove her right breast and her lymph nodes. Hunt postponed seeking treatment for five months, later wondering if she would have faced first stage rather than third stage cancer had she not. When she chose to have surgery, she decided to have it done in Ireland, because she felt that the Irish are more supportive and comfortable with illness whereas in the USA her treatment would be impersonal. Hunt decided to have a complete mastectomy with no following reconstruction. She says, "Reconstruction - as if the breast is miraculously put back to the way it was. In fact, pretty much all you get is your cleavage back; you don't get any feeling or sensitivity.... They take muscles from your back, skin from your thighs, fat from your stomach. You had a breast removed, but the rest of you was fine. Now half your body is hacked about - and for what?" The day of her operation Hunt wrote a note on her breast to the surgical team, telling them to have fun, make sure they took the right breast off and drew them a flower.
Once the operation was over Hunt says she did not mourn the loss of her breast, but felt happiness that the cancer had been removed. She emphasizes positive action and states that the surgery left her a "battle scar" that makes her feel sexier, as it is a memento of what she has survived.In July 2007, Hunt got to talking about her breast removal with a twelve year old boy and told the boy that now she is like the Amazons of old who would have a breast removed so that when they went into battle they could use their bow without their breast getting in the way when they let their arrows fly.
After her mastectomy, she contracted the superbug MRSA and had to be treated with Zyrox. She also had chemotherapy. Not wanting to wait for her hair to fall out naturally, she decided to control it herself, throwing a party where her guests took turns cutting off locks of her hair.
The Irish Independent reported on August 27, 2008 that Hunt stood on a table at the opening of the Mater Private Hospital in Dublin to let everyone see that she had survived third-stage breast cancer after a treatment of chemotherapy, radiation and Herceptin therapy at the hospital.
Hunt says that the biggest misconception people have about her is that she is wealthy, though she describes herself as "rich in spirit". Hunt has been true to her belief that wealth is not necessary for happiness and has lived the "writing life" for last two decades. Hunt enjoys the solitude of living on her own and finds that being single means she has encounters and experiences that she wouldn't have if she were part of a couple, where others might choose not to intrude and where she would have to coordinate her schedule with another. Hunt has lived in Ireland since 1995. She also lives in France where she owns a home in the countryside about 60 miles from Paris.
When Hunt came to live in Europe she found that people there called her an American, not an African-American or Black. She herself describes her skin color as "oak with a hint of maple", and notes that "[o]f the various races I know I comprise...African, American Indian, German Jew and Irish...only the African was acknowledged." Hunt invented her own word to describe herself, based on the French word melange (mixture) and the word melanin: Melangian.
Hunt said in 1991 that there is a pain inflicted by the black community on itself, which it fears to communicate openly. She also says that living overseas for most of her life has made her a foreigner in the USA. She said, "I'm scared to walk through Harlem... more scared than you, because if I walked through Harlem with the weird shoes and the weird accent, I'd get my butt kicked faster than you. In a way, I'm the betrayer."