3 OCTOBER 1992, Page 25


Mad, bad Max

Alastair Forbes

BEAVERBROOK: A LIFE by Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie Hutchinson, f20, pp. 589 citing by chance with his own long fingers stained brown by walnut juice, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, in his Spectator Diary last week, was quite right to suggest that this painstakingly long biography of a legendary walnut-headed gnome will be principally valued for its `wealth of anecdotes'. Indeed, Michael Davie himself prefaces the narrative he has been years with his wife in the weaving with a very amusing apergu account of life at the Villa La Capponcina in 1956, whither he had been summoned to receive an offer he, for better or worse, managed without too much difficulty to refuse. The terms were certainly not as enticing as those, also refused, once offered to, of all people, Isaiah Berlin: If you write for me, you can have all the money, all the drink and all the women you want. This is a privilege I reserve for very few.

All I had myself once turned down, Satanically high-placed in his Arlington House eyrie, which was rather horrid despite the agreeable view over Green Park, was at least three times my stingy Rothermere hire and a muttered, broad- yowelled promise of later 'riches and power in plenty'. Not long afterwards, the Beaver announced, of course for strictly false but fiscally efficacious reasons, his final farewell to the country whose Prime Minister he had in his Canadian youth announced he would one day become. His many Fleet Street toadies arranged a crowded farewell banquet for him at Claridge's (for which the bill was probably paid by the guest of honour's accountants). Though myself quite young and only recently a bylined political commentator (at the time a British innovation), I was, nevertheless, suddenly ordered by his son to get up and make an extempore eulogy, Which, 'flown with insolence and wine', I did, only at the very end adding that I had heard that his Lordship deigned from time to time 'to do good [long pause], by stealth of course'. Next day, from the Cunarder Queen Mary, I received a flattering note in his own flowing hand thanking me for a brilliant speech', adding that I was already a 'brilliant orator' — the key to political success in Britain being oratory, which, as our friend in common, Winston Churchill, had not long before discovered, it of course emphatically is not. So when, a decade later, on my way by car from Spain to Italy, I had reluctantly stopped to 'dine and sleep' at the Cap- POncina some years before Davie's own visit, I had already been pigeonholed, like Isaiah Berlin, as an incorrigible incorrupt- ible. (`Once a man was seduced by Max he was finished', was the reported judgment of Harold Macmillan, who never seems to have seduced anybody except Alistair Horne). 'How d'ya like my daiquiri?' he asked me, handing me a tumblerful of crushed ice with a mild rum and lime flavour. 'It's disgusting!' I heard myself exclaiming with a not quite voluntary pro- jectile expectoration. I think that genuine job-seekers or already servile payrollers were expected to afford him the sadistic pleasure of seeing their teeth chattering and gullets and stomachs freezing. Nor was he too pleased when, after announcing that his grand-daughter and, incidentally, by far his best Evening Standard journalist, Lady Jean Campbell, was ill upstairs in bed, I joined her for a long and enjoyably gossipy visit (Where and how are you now, Jean- nie? Somebody said you were a nun, but nothing surprises me nowadays).

Later in the evening he thawed enough to admit to me that his whole Empire Free Trade Crusade had been a total waste of time and, of course, money. Making propa- ganda for this had been the only reason he had continued to own and run his papers, he had once told the Royal Commission on the Press (rather to the surprise of one of its members, Violet Asquith, the destruc- tion of whose father's government in 1916 he always regarded as 'the biggest thing' he `How lovely! A fire bomb!' had ever done in his life). I didn't tell him that when, short of a school essay subject, I had once suggested that the policy might be worth a try, I was magisterially rebuked by the great Walter Oakeshott with a 'You can't possibly believe such tosh!"You and your Europe. It's going your way now, I fear', Beaverbrook groaned. But that didn't stop him backing the 100 per cent anti- European Anthony Eden's brief and in- glorious war for Middle Eastern oil readily available over the counter and a canal waterway to Asia open to all willing to pay their dues to its excellent Egyptian pilots.

He never understood or appreciated foreign matters (outside the US, where his whole fortune remained to the end, even at the height of his Union Jack wagging). He neither understood nor properly appreciat- ed his foreign mistresses either, though this did not prevent them falling in love with him, proving once again that for every sadist born there is a masochist victim around the corner. His sweet and humiliat- ed Canadian wife, Gladys, the mother of his children, had died some 15 years before I became a fond friend of her delightful, soft-voiced sister Helen Fitzgerald, whom he had, of course, seduced and kept finan- cially dependent on him most of her life. In this cocking of a snook at the Prayer Book's tables of forbidden consanguinity he resembled Oswald Mosley, who went to the altar with one Curzon daughter, having, as he told Bob Boothby, first seduced her two sisters and, I rather think, Lady Curzon too. Max may have been thinking of this when, to his fury, his beloved granddaugh- ter Jeannie had a torrid affair with the age- ing Blackshirt leader.

But speaking to Davie of another sort of black, the Caribbean variety, he volun- teered, 'I don't like blacks.' He quite liked other Press and media moguls. Like Presi- dent Roosevelt he slept with jolly Dolly Schiff, one-time New York Post propri- etress, but not, I think, with beautiful and clever Clare Booth Luce, the wife of the not too bright and very boring Harry who wanted to divorce her to marry Guess Whom? Why Lady Jean Campbell, of course, then a junior Time-Life employee on Rockefeller Plaza. 'But what on earth do you and Harry talk about?' I asked her at lunch one winter day by the skating rink below her office. 'We don't talk, silly,' she scornfully replied, 'We SCREW!'

Michael Davie didn't seem to think much of Max's charming, freckled redhead French mistress, Marie-Edmee Escarra, ci-devant Comtesse Champetier de Ribes, a Rothschild reject. Max was vile to her, and his uncouth beastliness probably contribut- ed to the cancer from which, still quite young, she died. Once, when a puffing Daily Express Diary man sought me out on a Gstaad mountain top to enquire, on London's instructions, the name of the unidentified freckled redhead then my companion, I teasingly told him that I would write it down and seal it in an envelope for him to give to his editor, who should check it with his proprietor before publication. Having put down Marie- Edmee's name, I heard no more of the matter.

The nearest Max ever got to Sydney Carton stuff was his romance with the beautiful Jewish refugee dancer, Lily Ernst (on whom spotty Michael Foot, then Max's indentured young slave, cast calf-love glances.) 'I was really in love with her', Foot has admitted, but, as Davie writes, Lily had fallen for Max out of sheer grati- tude rather than for his winning ways in the sack, though these, according to some of my female friends, were considerable. She got him to help a Viennese Jewish doctor called Alexander who soon delivered himself of a characteristically Viennese misdiagnosis. 'The man, woman or child was never born who can resist the Lord'.

By far the best girl in the world in which Max moved socially was undoubtedly the Horlicketysplit heiress Rosie, wife of the late lamented Sir Harry d'Avigdor- Goldsmid. When Max, suddenly scared of losing Lily to an Englishman with whom she had had the luck to fall in love, told Rosie, 'You gotta stop this marriage', she said to him, 'If you buy a licence to marry Lily and give me a cheque made out to her for £100,000 [pre-war mind you], I'll try to persuade her, but I can't promise."Oh, Rosie, don't you trust me? I can't do that . ."No, I don't trust you, and I don't think Lily has any reason to trust you either.' That was the stuff to give him, if only there had been more people like Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid to dish it out. But how could he marry Lily when he was writing to his American friends that 'the Jews are unconsciously drawing us into war', and to Ribbentrop, praising Hitler's `policy of peace and tranquility. You will have the loyal support of my newspapers in this pursuit'?

About this time the late Patrick Camp- bell, the tall Irishman who later artfully and even artistically 4liscovered that his stutter could make his name and fortune on television, was to hear Max declaring that `This man Churchill is an enemy of the British Empire. He must be stopped. Go get him', meaning get him down on paper so that the Express could portray him as a warmonger, much as Cecil King's Mirror was to do after the war that the Express had so repeatedly told its readers would not take place.

In the light of today's tabloid circulation battles and their casualties, it is difficult for young people to understand how different- ly the power of the press was exercised up to 30 years ago. When Nancy Astor's enchantingly funny first-born, Bobbie Shaw, had to go to prison for some homo- sexual peccadillo (he was lucky not to be accused of bestiality when he brought the horse on which he had that day won the Grand Military Handicap Cup to share his Life Guards night duty), an appeal to Max resulted in total Fleet Street silence on the matter. It was proof of how much of an `insider' the rank Canadian outsider had become. Already, in 1917, as a relatively junior Minister, he had told his butler to summon the Prime Minister to his Queen Anne's Gate home and shortly after heard him return with the message that 'Mr Lloyd George is on his way, my lord'. But once LLG was out of office, never to return to it, it was `Take a seat, David, I have to go out, but my secretary will enter- tain you.' (It is true that LLG was a devil for JFK quickies with secretaries, often on their desks.) Of course, nobody will take seriously the blurbling claim of the publishers (who have anyway done a rotten job of production and proof-reading) that 'at the height of World War II' Beaverbrook `was the second most powerful man in the king- dom'. Before Dunkirk and even after it he more than flirted with the idea of a separate peace with his pre-war Nazi friends. He backed such a candidate in a by-election. He was very much a Laval in waiting. Of course his stunt-ridden time at the Ministry of Aircraft Production did do some good for a while, but his role as the Saviour of the Air Force would not stand up to close inspection.

When, in 1953, Prime Minister Churchill suffered a major stroke, render- ing it impossible for him to act as the Sovereign's First Minister, the Establish- ment-born Jock Colville, once the Queen's own Private Secretary when she was not yet on the throne, immediately turned to Max Beaverbrook the Canadian, Brendan Bracken the Irishman and Bill Camrose the Welshman to keep the news secret for several months, and Fleet Street obediently once again hushed this constitutional emergency up, without protest as far as has yet been revealed from the Queen or her Private Secretary 'Tommy' Lascelles. A rum do. (I myself, for good and sufficient reasons in the know, naughtily inserted into an article from Washington the phrase, `The PM's illness is regarded here as a stroke of luck', for it had, indeed, post- poned a Summit Eisenhower had no wish Sports coverage. for). Christopher Soames and Jock proved adequate at flying on automatic pilot, but if I had been Rab Butler I would have blown the whistle good and loud instead of once more living up to my surname.

Now that David Vissi d'Arte, Vissi d'Amore' Mellor has given himself, a bit late, more time to take home something other than the 'boxes' from the Ministry the bluff squireen chosen to replace him will have his work cut out to run even half as well, will read enviously of the sort of thing that could be got away with in times not so long gone by. I did not, like her one- time best friend, Violet Asquith, find Venetia Montagu 'so ugly' (and like all her Stanley of Alderley relatives, she could be rattling good company), but the extent of her 1919 Parisian follies (living it up in openest sin with Max at the Ritz — all well recounted by the authors, though I had heard something of her declass& goings- on from the Duff Coopers long ago) did rather shock me. Elsewhere, the authors have managed to discover that Beaver- brook shared with his columnist Tom Driberg a taste for fellatio, though it is true that Max liked receiving it from the oppo- site sex and Driberg administering it to his own. They had even found evidence that Max was, after a fashion, a member of the `Mile High Club', being the recipient of air- borne sexual attentions from one of his best lady journalists. On the literary side, they think that D.H. Lawrence probably had Max in mind when he wrote of 'these men like vampires, when they see an immortal soul, they hate it instinctively'. They fail to notice that Max saw nothing funny in either Beachcomber or Osbert Lancaster's pocket cartoons, though these deservedly accounted for a sizeable block of the Express's many AB class readers. They have added a special Appendix to show what a crook Max Aitken had been in Canada before ever his little shadow fell on Fleet or Downing Street. But everybody but Michael Foot (who comes worse than anybody save Max out of this book) and another more limelight-seeking figure, Woodrow Wyatt (still a faithful sycophant of any passing Foreign Press Lord, who last week remembered that Beaverbrook paid the holiday expenses of the most distinguished in the land, including Prime Ministers — while the News of Screws which employs him editorialised that We do believe that adultery by a Cabinet Minister is of legitimate public interest) knew that already. Max once took out a writ against Alan Brien and The Spectator for correctly accusing him of arranging that the history of Britain should be written, or rather rewritten, to make hurl a key figure in our island story. This fat book puts him in his proper place. That most honorable gentleman, Clem Attlee, thought him 'The only really evil man I ever met' . . . but then he could be said to have led a very sheltered life.