Was Elton John’s Dad Really So Bad?
In the new Elton John movie Rocketman, the pre-fame Reginald Dwight’s father, Stanley, is portrayed as a cold, distant parent who is much more concerned with his prized record collection going untouched than he is with raising his son.
In real life, John has made disparaging remarks about Stanley’s behavior as a father since at least the mid-‘70s, and even failed to attend his funeral after his death in 1991. Yet the other members of the family – many of whom are estranged from John – have regularly suggested that the truth about Stanley Dwight is less dark than those press quotes suggest.
It appears to have started in 1976, when John told Playboy that Stanley had been an absentee father who didn’t even set eyes on his son until he was two years old. He painted an image of a control freak who even told the boy to stop eating celery so loudly and refused to let him play soccer in the family garden. John stated that his flamboyant image was a result of his father preventing his character from being expressed – and went as far as to say he felt “pure hatred” from Stanley.
In other interviews, he accused his dad of having abandoned his first family in favor of starting a second one, telling the Sunday Times, “It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to relate to kids. He left us, remarried and had another family, and by all accounts was a great dad to them. It wasn’t children, it was me.”
Until the Playboy interview, the story seems to have been different. “When I was growing up, Elton was always there and we had a lot of fun on family holidays and things like that,” his estranged half-brother Geoff said in 2011. “He would come up and visit us almost every weekend and with him being older it was always exciting to hear the stories of what he had been up to.”
Geoff recalled a “fun” day in 1973, when John, Stanley and his half-siblings played soccer in the garden and went for rides in the star’s new white Rolls-Royce. At the end of the day, the Daily Mail reported, John handed his dad’s new wife, Edna, a check for £2,000, enough to buy a car large enough for Stanley to drive his family around in.
“It was undoubtedly a generous act, but one that soon led to rancor,” the story noted. “Stanley bought the car, but it proved too expensive to run and he had to sell it. Was it this that led Elton, three years later, to give an interview in which he pilloried his father, claiming that he cadged new cars from him?”
Several details of John’s early recollections of his dad are queried. Official records show that Stanley, a Royal Air Force officer, was present for his son’s birth and filed the paperwork in person, and was stationed away from his native England by the time John was 18 months old. On the subject of Stanley’s split with Sheila, John’s mother, Edna claimed she didn’t meet her future husband until after Sheila had fallen in love with another man and left the marriage, leaving John in the care of his grandparents. John had said it was Stanley who had left, not Sheila.
Stanley was a musician himself, a jazz trumpeter in a big band, and appears never to have kept John from exploring music, though it’s generally recognized that he didn’t want his son to follow a career in that direction. However, Edna said she had a receipt to prove that Stanley bought John a piano around the time of the divorce in 1963.
“All Stan did insist — and I think Elton now acknowledges this — was that he should have a thorough grounding in music,” she said.
Stanley was also accused of never attending any of his son’s concerts. “You know, my father never came to hear me play,” John said in 2011. “Not ever. He was a tough and unemotional man. Hard. In the RAF. He was dismissive, disappointed and finally absent. … I just wanted him to acknowledge what I’d done. But he never did.”
All this led Edna to suggest that John had a “very troubled mind.” "Contrary to what he says, Elton’s father and I went to listen to him many times," she said. "On one occasion, when we took his four brothers, we were all invited into his dressing room afterwards and the next day he and his former manager, John Reid, came to our home for dinner.”
By the early ’80’s Stanley’s health was waning and he was encouraged to try to break the barrier between himself and his son. Family members suggest that early conversations went well, and John even offered to pay his dad’s healthcare bills (though Stanley declined, because he felt the U.K.’s National Health Service was sufficient). Even though they went to a soccer match together – John owned English team Watford at the time – the contact “simple petered out,” the Daily Mail stated. John said he’d be a “hypocrite” if he attended Stanley’s funeral, which took place 10 years after the two were last in contact.
“He was quite distant and offhand about it,” half-brother Geoff said of calling John to give him the news. “He told me he had never really connected with our father, then he thanked me for calling. … I felt angry and confused that he could dismiss our father like that. He deserved better.”
The Rocketman narrative is told from the perspective of John as he enters rehab to deal with long years of drug abuse, and to recapture a sense of self he’d lost some time earlier. In recent years, with John now a father of two boys, he appears to have softened, having said in 2011 that he now felt Stanley had been a product of his time and upbringing, adding, “If I saw my dad now, I’d just give him a hug and tell him I loved him and that I understood.”
“Stanley’s been made out as an overbearing monster. But it’s just not true,” Edna said around the same time. “He was a lovely man, a good father and a loving husband.” The previous year, Geoff said that “Dad was a formidable bloke, but he was kind. And he was always mucking about in the back yard – when you see Elton larking about on stage, he’s the spit of our dad, apart from the good looks, of course. Neither of us got his looks.”