5 APRIL 2003, Page 52

Boat people


New York

Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni first came to my ancestral country seat at Bruern Abbey, Oxfordshire (actually a let from the Astor family) at a very young age. As it was Sebastian Taylor who brought her for the weekend. I predicted great things for her. Surely this girl would end up on a very rich man's yacht. Or as the arm candy of a filthy-rich Hollywood producer. She had the kind of personality that charmed women and took advantage of men. A sure winner.

Well, that was 1980. Bruern Abbey has since been sold to an American who turned it into a school. (I only pray that walls can't speak; if they ever spilled the beans, everyone involved would be arrested.) I have turned 66, Sebastian Taylor has become a tycoon, and Natasha Fraser — as she then was — has written a book about a very rich Hollywood tycoon who had a very large boat. As some of you may have heard, it runs in her family. Writing, that is. Both her sisters are writers, as is her mother, auntie (cutie pie), stepfather (not so cute Harold Pinter, but on the side of the angels as far as this war is concerned) and both grandpa and granny.

The subject of her book, five years in the making as they say out west, is Sam Spiegel, the legendary producer of The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia among others. I knew Sam as well as he allowed anyone to know him, without having screwed him, that is. Ditto Natasha.

Her book nails the most elusive guy since Sammy Glick, and, unlike most opuses about Hollywood types written nowadays, it reads like a dream. She sure got old S.P. Eagle — as he was for a while — right.

Her biography of Spiegel has been reviewed by all the 'smart' newspapers in Britain, and very favourably at that. What I noticed, however, is that many of the reviews contained the same jokes about Spiegel, jokes that appeared in Natasha's introduction. Oh well, I guess reviewers are as lazy as British hacks are, and it's just as well. Having to read through to the end the crap that's published nowadays must be as unpleasant as having Jack Straw to dinner. Heaven forbid.

But back to Spiegel. I was a very young man who had run away from home and had become a penniless tennis bum in Miami Beach when I ran into one Betty Benson, the quintessential killer-looks broad, killer legs, killer kisser of other women (in front of me) that drive most sensitive young men to immediate suicide.

(Brits, not Greeks, that is.) I, of course, asked her to marry me, but she was otherwise engaged. To Spiegel. (She became his third wife.) That was the winter of 1956.

The following year, another girl who liked girls, Countess Marina Cicogna, took up my cause. Back in those good old days a girl who liked girls had to step out with a boy, at least in polite society. Marina and I were an itern for a while, and she's the one who introduced me to Sam Spiegel. During dinner at 21, he brought up the subject of Ross. Marina had read Seven Pillars of Wisdom; I thought they were talking about the Bible. Spiegel, a man who screwed more people than Don Giovanni, Casanova, Rubirosa and Errol Flynn combined, could not have been kinder. He avuncularly explained to me about Lawrence. and said that, if the film were ever made, he would invite me to the pre miere. This was 1957, Lawrence was made in 1962, Sam forgot to invite me, but I did go to the premiere of Kwai in 1958 thanks to Joan Collins.

Reading the book brought hack so many pleasant memories, I feel even older than I am. God, life was great back then. Only the few had moolah, the nouveaux aped their betters — the opposite of today — and pussy had class. The moment Spiegel made it, he tried to become a gent. This is where Natasha gets it so right. Having gone on his magnificent boat as a young girl — not the way you think she notices the little things that give one away. 'Turn the fish; turn the fish before offering it to the princess. No, turn it all the way around.' Sam had the great houses and the right boat, but the one thing that eluded him was the right staff. He saw Agnelli's people, and those of Niarchos, and drooled. His servants were his only weakness. They alone gave away his background.

Spiegel was a genius where age was concerned. When he was in his fifties he went out with women in their thirties. When in his sixties, he pursued girls in their twenties. And when in his seventies, it was just above jail-bait time. I knew many of them. They were sweet and spoiled by Sam. They don't make them like him no more.