26 APRIL 2003, Page 53

Tough guys


New York

Flaying the Frogs has replaced baseball as the national pastime in this here great country, with Murdoch's minions doing most of the flaying, using elegant words such as weasels, yellow-bellies and slimeballs to describe our Gallic cousins. It is strange how Marianne's reluctance to join Hopalong Cassidy for target practice against a bunch of schmucks using Winchester 73s has spoiled a once beautiful relationship quicker than you can say Lafayette. Forget about Europe, shriek the all-conquering ones, only Britain and Israel matter. 'We saved the French twice in one century, but they still think they have the right to follow their own foreign policy.'

Well, however true that may be, I used to think Americans had longer memories. Such as the fact that the French navy and army rescued the American cause at Yorktown, where they bottled up Cornwallis and forced him to cry uncle. There were more French troops than Americans on the ground when Cornwallis threw in the towel. Even more important, we'd still be playing 'God Save The Queen' rather than the 'Star-Spangled Banner' if the French had not harassed the Brits throughout the Revolutionary War. Louis XVI, in fact, would never have lost his throne plus his head had he not spent all the state moolah helping the Americans fight the Brits.

Ah, how quickly they forget. One bad show in May 1940, and one of the greatest countries in Europe has been reduced to the level of Monaco by 'patriotic' Americans in the pay of super-patriot Rupert Murdoch. What a crock? Murdoch at seventy-something is still striving to rule the world by spreading poison all round, but the bloom has somehow gone off his ugliness. 1 hope these nice but naive people wake up to what he's doing, but I fear they're too zonked out by the celebrity culture and by the abysmal standards of Anglo-American television entertainment ever to react.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. Bad luck, boys, but my tumour turned out to be large but benign, so I shall be back celebrating in no time. And I did get the most beautiful flowers from someone I've loved passionately for a quarter of a century, the only one, in fact, I have never cheated on, The Speccie.

In the meantime, two tough guys died this week, John Latsis, the Greek tycoon, and Leonard Tose, whose father came to the United States from a Russian ghetto, who settled outside Philadelphia and was a pedlar with a pack on his back. Both came from nothing, and both made it big. Latsis kept it, Tose gambled it away. I knew both men, the former much better. When Latsis was starting out with a ship or two, he used to address me as Mr Taki, the formalinformal way required in a plutocratic society such as Greece. I was, after all, richer and came from a better background. During the Sixties, as he got bigger, he dropped the Mr, which used to embarrass the hell out of me in the first place. During the Seventies. John Latsis really hit it big, building the port of Jeddah and becoming a bosom buddy of Sheikh Yamani. He remained friendly but distant. After that he mixed only with Prince Charles and other such grandees, and the poor little Greek boy was ignored. Never mind. He was a good guy who helped everyone, provided jobs for thousands, and gave to charity as if it was going out of style. His son Spiros has moved the family assets into banking, lives a quiet life in Gstaad with his English wife and three children, and is probably worth many billions. Good for him. His old man sure worked for it.

Tose is a Greek tragedy. Here was this poor little Jewish guy, son of a pedlar, who built up a multi-million dollar trucking business and became known for buying the Philadelphia Eagles, a professional football team of renown. Tose was an elegant dresser and soft spoken. He was generous like no other. He founded Ronald McDonald houses, where families could stay with their sick children. He once took 762 friends and employees — all expenses paid — to the Super Bowl. The dark side, I call it the good side, was the gambling. On one night alone he lost $14 million in Las Vegas. He drank like the alcoholic he was, but never bored people with his problems. How did I meet him? How do you think? On the green tables, of course. He died penniless, having sold the team — which at present is owned by the son-in-law of my good friend Stanley Weiss — and ended his days in a modest Philadelphis hotel. Here comes the good part. His bills were paid by Dick Vermeil. a former coach of the Eagles. comfortably off but hardly rich. Vermeil never forgot Tose's generosity, an unheard of thing to do in the cut-throat big-time football business. (Vermeil is back coaching, and his team is the one I will root for from now on.) Tose was upbeat and uncomplaining to the end. He was a good guy, a great guy, in fact, and Dick Vermeil is even better.