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22nd of October 2018

United Kingdom



The Middle-class gigolo for upper-crust women!

The middle-class gigolo for upper-crust women! That's how an adventurer was described by a literary snob... but, as his gossipy letters reveal, there was a reason no woman could resist Patrick Leigh Fermor's charms 

By Adam Sisman For The Daily Mail

Published: 18:37 EDT, 11 October 2018 | Updated: 03:26 EDT, 12 October 2018

Writing to his friend Lady Diana Cooper in the spring of 1953, the celebrated travel writer and raconteur Patrick Leigh Fermor tells her: ‘Being alone with you is what I like best, a delight of which I can never tire.’

Such an extravagant expression of his affection was typical of the maverick author, whose illuminating reflections on love, life, lust and the high society of his day are revealed in a dazzling new collection of his letters.

By turns poignant and gossipy, the correspondence spans seven decades and paints an intriguing picture not only of the flamboyant, globetrotting life of the man himself, but also of a bygone era of P. G. Wodehouse-style ‘cads’, aristocratic bed-hopping and a postwar generation who continued to live life as if every day were their last.

Celebrated travel writer and raconteur Patrick Leigh Fermor, pictured, was the middle-class gigolo for upper crust women as described by a literary snob

‘Margot Fonteyn as pretty as ever,’ Leigh Fermor tells one correspondent after a jaunt to Rome for a party, while to another he describes the joys of an unexpected dinner encounter in 2000 with the ‘charming’ Camilla Parker Bowles: ‘It was an old-fashioned house-party, with the P. of Wales staying, among others, and I sat next to Camilla P. B. twice, whom I’d never met,’ he writes. ‘She is absolutely charming, and very funny.

‘I’d forgotten to put my hearing aid in, so did so, and it let out a bit of a shriek, as these things do. When I said I was sorry, she said, “Oh, I’m absolutely used to them. A great friend of mine has one and it’s always happening.

‘“Once she was just about to put it in but she dropped it on the floor and her dog promptly swallowed it. The battery-squeak went on for ages.”

‘“What happened in the end?”

‘She laughed, and said, “Oh, it was just a question of patience...” ’

In yet another, he mourns in the autumn of 1939 that ‘Hitler has a terrible lot to answer for all over the place, doesn’t he?’ while to a correspondent 60 years later, in 1999, he tells the intriguing tale of how he was given flu medicine by the somewhat unlikely figure of former Labour Party spin-doctor Peter Mandelson:

Fermor once had an affair with Enrica ¿Ricki¿ Houston, the fourth and much younger wife of film director John Huston, who wrote enthusiastically of Leigh Fermor: ¿With most men it¿s just take, take, take. But with Paddy it¿s give, give, give.¿ Fermor once had an affair with Enrica ¿Ricki¿ Houston, the fourth and much younger wife of film director John Huston, who wrote enthusiastically of Leigh Fermor: ¿With most men it¿s just take, take, take. But with Paddy it¿s give, give, give.¿

Fermor once had an affair with Enrica ‘Ricki’ Houston, the fourth and much younger wife of film director John Huston, who wrote enthusiastically of Leigh Fermor: ‘With most men it’s just take, take, take. But with Paddy it’s give, give, give.’

‘Jacob and Serena Rothschild asked us to go to [local friends] Nico and Barbara’s old Corfu house (now theirs) for an English Easter,’ writes Patrick. ‘I went, and found Debo [Deborah, the late Duchess of Devonshire], which was lovely, and Mr Mandelson and his very cheery Brazilian pal [Mandelson’s partner, Reinaldo Avila da Silva], who gives Japanese calligraphy lessons at £100 an hour.

‘Halfway through I was smitten down by a virus that ranges the island, seeking whom it may devour. It certainly devoured me, in spite of ladlefuls of linctus spooned in by Mr M. So I missed most of the fun, including a visit to the ruins of Butrint on the coast of Albania.’

This breezy and beguiling combination of world events, intimate gossip and warm affection for his friends has seen Leigh Fermor, known to many as ‘Paddy’, acknowledged as one of the great letter writers of his day.

One of the most regular recipients of Leigh Fermor¿s letters was the love of his life and his eventual wife, the society beauty and photographer Joan Rayner One of the most regular recipients of Leigh Fermor¿s letters was the love of his life and his eventual wife, the society beauty and photographer Joan Rayner

One of the most regular recipients of Leigh Fermor’s letters was the love of his life and his eventual wife, the society beauty and photographer Joan Rayner

Described by his teachers as ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’ (he had been expelled from The King’s School, Canterbury, for holding hands with the local greengrocer’s daughter), he had marked himself out as a free spirit while still a teenager, by setting off at the age of 18 on a three-year solo walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul.

His courage in the war, when he helped to organise resistance fighters on Crete, made him a hero. He won the DSO but, like many of his generation, was unable to settle after hostilities ended. He spent the rest of his long life traversing the globe as a travel writer, sleeping in monasteries and barns, on benches and in the homes of friends and strangers.

When he did finally settle in his 50s, it was in what was then a remote corner of the Peloponnese in southern Greece, where his friends were unlikely to call unless invited to stay.

Letters were thus, for him, more than a leisure activity. They were a lifeline, connecting him powerfully to those he cared most about — and helping to preserve his exuberance and zest for life.

On romance ... One of the most regular recipients of Leigh Fermor’s letters was the love of his life and his eventual wife, the society beauty and photographer Joan Rayner. Despite his serial infidelity, he was fiercely jealous of other men’s attentions to her, as an early letter reveals — in particular he mentions one of her admirers, the writer and critic Cyril Connolly, whom Leigh Fermor disparagingly refers to as ‘the Humanist’ or ‘the H’:

‘October 1948. Monastery of St Wandrille, Normandy.

‘My darling,’ he writes, ‘Just got your lovely two letters. Hooray! The pullover is the smartest thing that has ever been seen in Saint Wandrille.

‘So the H has been very attentive, eh? Hm. “I-can-no-longer-live-without-you”, I suppose. Well, bugger it, neither can I. Oh dear, what fun London sounds! Late at night is a dangerous time. I wake at night when you are letting yourself into your flat for a last drink with whoever you have been dining with and pray to Saint Wandrille to put the words ‘thus far and no further’ into your mouth. Grrrr!

A highly significant earlier presence in Leigh Fermor¿s life had been Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian princess whom he had met in the spring of 1935, when he was just 20 A highly significant earlier presence in Leigh Fermor¿s life had been Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian princess whom he had met in the spring of 1935, when he was just 20

A highly significant earlier presence in Leigh Fermor’s life had been Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian princess whom he had met in the spring of 1935, when he was just 20

All my love, my darling pet.’

Two months later, he has a suggestion:

‘December 1948. Abbaye de St Jean de Solesmes

‘Darling sweet little mite,

‘Thank you so much for your letter, and please forgive me for being so slow in writing. This is going to be in a terrific hurry, as the post is leaving the village in a few minutes.

‘Please wire at once, my darling pet, and tell me any plans you have made. I love you and miss you more than I can say. Do let’s get married and live happily for ever. I simply can’t be without you.’

Despite the cheery proposal, the couple would not marry for another 20 years. But for more than five decades Leigh Fermor depended on Joan totally, not only for encouragement and emotional support but for practical and financial assistance, too. ‘You as a friend and lover are almost (not quite) equally precious things,’ he told her in 1950.

After Joan’s sudden death at their home in Greece in 2003, after a fall, he wrote — in reply to a letter of condolence — words of heartbreaking love and yearning:

‘It’s hard to see what the end of the half-century together will be. I constantly find myself saying “I must write, or tell, that to Joan”, then suddenly remember that one can’t, and nothing seems to have any point.’

To another friend he confides: ‘Oddly enough, it’s over the jokes that the absence is brought home most. Something crops up and I say to myself: “I must remember to tell Joan that at lunch — it will make her laugh.” The cats miss her terribly, and so do I.’

On lovers  (or 'terrific pals') 

Leigh Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, explained in an interview in 2012 that if he told her one of his numerous female friends had been a ‘terrific pal’, it almost certainly meant he had slept with her.

One such pal was Enrica ‘Ricki’ Houston, the fourth and much younger wife of film director John Huston, who wrote enthusiastically of Leigh Fermor: ‘With most men it’s just take, take, take. But with Paddy it’s give, give, give.’

‘My darling Ricki,’ writes her lover from France in 1961, ‘Thank you so much for sending those glorious francs, and also for the toothpaste and the lovely spiky-based nailbrush. I did feel glum and lonely, digging in here after you had to bugger off.

‘I can’t get over the amount of time there seemed for everything. God knows, we weren’t up with the lark, and yet the days seemed infinitely elastic, with time for slow lunches, endless dalliances over shrimps and oysters and muscadet, hours of talk, hundreds of miles of travel, dozens of villages and churches and inlets, a few moments reading, drinking and dancing, and entire crowded lifetimes in bed...’

A highly significant earlier presence in Leigh Fermor’s life had been Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian princess whom he had met in the spring of 1935, when he was just 20. Although 16 years older than him, she was then in her prime, and they remained together for five years until separated by the declaration of war in 1939.

They would not see each other again for more than a quarter of a century, by which time Balasha was losing her teeth and hair, and was a shadow of her former self. But she had been Leigh Fermor’s first love and retained a special place in his heart. His subsequent letters are written with gallantry and tenderness, as if he is still intent on including her in his life:

‘Darling Balasha,’ he writes in 1965 from Greece, ‘I am a bad correspondent, and you are such a good one. Everyone I know is in a state of revolt and indignation with me at the moment, as a result of my appalling pen-paralysis; so do please forgive, darling.

‘I think I’ll be here till almost Christmas, then back to England for a month, then here again. I want you to make a list of any books you want, also a parcel of things that will be most useful. Also, please do send me details of those hearing aid things, the type needed, as you must have one for when you want to listen to something nice — though I see the advantage of being partly incommunicado for a lot of the time!

‘Did Auden’s four-volume anthology ever arrive? It’s a positive treasure chest of fascination. I hate being without it, and would like you to have it handy, too.’

On Politics 

‘What a lovely afternoon at the zoo,’ writes Leigh Fermor to Diana Cooper in 1953. ‘There was something immensely nostalgic about that vast red balloon of a sun seen through lovely London’s bare trees. I had to pick up Annie Fleming [wife of the author Ian Fleming and one of Leigh Fermor’s closest friends] that evening, after she’d had dinner with the Edens [Sir Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, and his wife Clarissa]. Well, half a dozen cops were lurking in the hall of 1 Carlton Gardens.

‘I said I wanted to pick someone up who’d been dining with Mrs E; was put in a lift and sent up to the third floor; opened what I thought was a drawing-room door and there was the foreign secretary in bed, with open dispatch boxes all over the place, looking very silvery and smooth. “Do come in,” he said (we’d never met) — and then, with a wave at the litter all over his bed — “I’m just trying to catch up with some arrears of bumf.”

‘Wonderful ease, three minutes of the lightest amity and banter.

‘I finally found Annie and went off with her to a night-club I’d never been to before called the Eldorado. I think we drank far too much, as I remember our taking shoes and socks off and padding around through delicious tangos barefoot, which caused a slight row with the manager, somehow smoothed out in the end.’ Leigh Fermor’s enthusiasm for his new acquaintance would wane, however, because of what he saw as Eden’s inept handling as prime minister of the so-called ‘Cyprus Emergency’ in the mid-Fifties.

‘What an idiotic and unnecessary mess our new prime minister has landed Greece and England in over that island!’ he writes to Diana Cooper in 1955. ‘Pray God Harold Macmillan [the new foreign secretary] handles it better.’

Leigh Fermor’s long friendship with his beloved ‘Debo’, the youngest of the Mitford sisters, had brought him into regular contact not only with her numerous siblings but also her brother-in-law, the controversial leader of Britain’s fascists, Oswald Mosley.

In a letter to Joan dated April 1963, he reveals: ‘To Debo’s confusion, I think, Sir O. Mosley arrived unannounced. He has an alarming, perhaps unconscious, perhaps would-be hypnotic characteristic of suddenly lifting his upper eyelids so that white rim appears over the pupil.

‘Thank God, no politics talked. A lot about French, German, Latin and Greek literature, in which, and in history, he seemed lucid and proficient. V quiet, charming manner and style, but curiously a bit eerie. I’m glad to have seen him once, but don’t want to do so again.’

On the royals

Leigh Fermor records several encounters with members of the Royal Family in his letters, including an account of receiving his knighthood from the Queen on his 89th birthday in 2004:

‘I very much enjoyed the investiture,’ he writes to his friend Lady Harrod. ‘I wasn’t quite sure when it was to be, so Artemis Cooper rang up someone who knows about this sort of thing, and he said he thought the next investiture was in June: “No, let me see! Here’s one in February — yes, here we are, Feb the Eleventh.” Well it was my 89th birthday! Can you beat it?

‘It seems the Queen likes to chat briefly to about one honoured out of 10. I struck lucky. As she handed the blade to a courtier (who had probably fed her with the tidings anyway), she said, “I believe it’s your birthday.” “Yes ma’am.” “Well, many happy returns of the day.” I nearly swooned away...’

More than three decades before, he had enjoyed watching the marriage of the monarch’s daughter along with old friends: ‘Joan, Patrick [Kinross, writer and journalist] and I watched Princess Anne’s wedding on the television in Diana Cooper’s bedroom, because she has a coloured set,’ he writes to Balasha in 1973. ‘She was in an enormous bed, so we all lay on it side by side drinking champagne, watching the procession and the service.

‘It was all very obsolete and indescribably moving; it is one of the few things — pageantry — that the English are better at than anyone (the only thing, it seems, at this moment!) A lovely morning.’

On food 

The construction of his and Joan’s new life in Greece preoccupied Leigh Fermor for much of the Sixties.

‘I’ve started doing some rudimentary cooking, kicking off with the following in an earthenware pot: lots of chopped courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, several chopped and small, whole onions, lots of chopped and whole garlic cloves, water, 2 glasses of oil, a spoon full of butter, lots of rock salt, a great deal of Bucharest pepper, 2 dried red paprika pods chopped up,’ Leigh Fermor writes from there to Joan in London in 1965.

‘It was tremendous, so hot and vigorous that I hardly noticed when the last wasp of summer stung me on the elbow as I swallowed the first spoonful.

‘I’ve done a lot of tagliatelle, those pasta, egg-, macaroni-like squares that use up nearly all the eggs just now. I’ve poached my first egg, made my first omelette!

‘I asked Ralph & Ian about these, and they both said the secret is not to thrash the eggs up much beforehand — leave it runny — ‘plenty of nose’ as they rather disgustingly put it. Done, with splendid results.

‘Lunch today, scrambled eggs, lots of butter with the nosey eggs in a waterless casserole floating in a bigger one, full of boiling water, is this the bain-marie principle? Marvellous, I thought, though some stuck to the bottom.’

On high society 

Labelled by the novelist William Somerset Maugham ‘a middle-class gigolo for upper-crust women’, Leigh Fermor was entirely at ease with the sexual and romantic manoeuvres of the high society circles in which he moved.

‘I went to stay with Daphne and Henry [the Marquess of Bath and his wife] two weeks ago for a vast ball at Longleat, which was great fun and unbelievably rowdy,’ he tells Diana Cooper in 1952. ‘Xan [Fielding, his friend and wartime comrade] and Daphne had just arrived back separately from Crete, and seemed more gone on each other than ever — all very harmonious at the moment, as Henry is happily involved in Virginia [Tennant, estranged wife of the Hon David Tennant].

‘I do hope they’ve all got the sense to keep it so, as they are all so nice except perhaps Virginia, who is lovely but a slightly conceited ass, I think.’

On friendship 

Somerset Maugham was one of the few people immune to Leigh Fermor’s charms, as Annie Fleming records in a letter to Evelyn Waugh:

‘Paddy was invited [to Somerset Maugham’s house in the South of France] for lunch and arrived with five cabin trunks, parcels of books and the manuscript of his unfinished work on Greece strapped in a bursting attaché case,’ she writes. ‘Despite this inauspicious start, luncheon went like a marriage bell... so when coffee was finished I was not entirely surprised to hear Willie [Maugham] invite Paddy to stay and the minions carried in the trunks to a magnificent suite.

‘But, alas, that evening Mr and Mrs Frere of Heinemann came to dinner and Paddy, who never travels without a bottle of calvados, appeared more exuberant than one small martini could explain. The Freres left at ten o’clock. Willie saw them to the door, returned to the living room and said to Paddy, “Goodbye. You will have left before I am up in the morning.”

‘He then vanished like a primeval crab, leaving a slime of silence; it was broken by Paddy, who cried, “Oh what have I done, Oh Christ, what a fool I am” and slammed his whisky glass on the table. It broke to pieces, cutting his hand and showering the valuable carpet with blood and splinters.’

Yet for most, Leigh Fermor was a truly life-enhancing companion who drew people to him in a remarkable way, and to whom he was a loyal friend. ‘In Paddy’s company everyone felt livelier, funnier and more entertaining, and the gift never deserted him,’ wrote Artemis Cooper.

As for the letters, they are arguably worthy, decades later, of taking their place alongside the work he published in his lifetime. Exhilarating, sunny and distinctive, they are, to borrow an expression he liked to use, absolutely ‘tip-top’. 

Adapted from More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Adam Sisman, published by Bloomsbury at £30. © Adam Sisman 2018. To order a copy for £24 (offer valid to 19/10/18; p&p free), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.

 

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