The mother of my children rang me from Deauville and for probably the first time in her life asked me to retract something I had written. It was about Pal Sarkozy’s wife, Christine de Ganay, whom I described last week as the worst of a bad bunch. Well, I’m not exactly pussy-whipped, but Alexandra does have a point. I mixed up the cad’s wives. The poor de Ganey woman was left penniless with two young children by our pal Pal – and he is still very much with us as I saw a picture of him when his son was crowned at the Elysee. I simply mixed up his various wives and women and chose to call the best the worst. Stupid little Greek boy. This kind of thing happens to those who drink, fornicate (just) and think they know everything because they’ve been around for so long. My sincere apologies, and, believe you me, it’s not some Grabbit & Run hack lawyer who has sent me a threatening letter. Just the old wife asking me to play fair.
Be that as it may, my old boss Lord Black—I love it when the Yanks refer to him as Lord Conrad Black —seems to be doing well. The prosecution began like the Ardennes offensive conducted by my beloved Wehrmacht, but has now hit a rough patch. They came up with couple of bullshitters who had been promised an easy time where you can’t drop the soap, but, and it’s a very big but, if the jury has any sense, they’ll throw the case out the window and then comes party time. Conrad reminds me a lot of Richard Nixon. Misunderstood, portrayed as an ambitious anachronism, slapped with ludicrous adjectives by hacks whose copious research only cloak their prejudices. I have written about Black before, hence I will spare you. But I will yet again come back to Nixon.
He visited Moscow in July as vice-president to Ike, and at the Sokolniky Park American Exhibition, he had the famous contre-temps with Nikita Khrushchev over which super-power had the best kitchen. The Yanks won hands down. Uncle Sam had a lock on the contest. An all-mod kitchen complete with dishwasher and America’s most cherished possession—a huge refrigerator. The Russkies were still hauling ice from the Gulag in order to chill their vodka. Nikita baited Nixon, but my hero held his own. The American refrigerator was light years ahead of the Soviet Neanderthal contraption.
Switch to Wimbledon two years later. Thomas Lejus, a Moscow university graduate, was the first Soviet to be accepted to the Wimbledon draw after the war. An American friend of mine, “D,” (whom I cannot name because he is now a very big shot in D.C.) was also in the draw. He suggested we take Thomas out to lunch and get him to defect. “Do you know what this will do, if their first player defects ?…..” I agreed, and my friend and I invited Lejus to the Cafe Royal for lunch once he was out of the tournament. If memory serves, Lejus passed a round or two and on the second week the three of us met at Regent Street. After the boring opening pleasantries, “D” got to the point. I can actually repeat it word for word: “Look Thomas, If you leave the Soviet Union, we will give you a house near Washington which will have a refrigerator, and a Ford convertible with a hard roof, one that retracts even while you’re driving…” He made a sign with his hand how the roof worked. I remained silent. Then, after a long pause, Thomas answered.
“You mean to tell me that you would like me to leave the land of Pushkin for a refrigerator and a car whose roof retracts while on the road?” D was non-plussed. Then the penny dropped. Someone obviously had got to Lejus before us. “Who the fuck is Pushkin?” “D” demanded. That is when I stepped in. “Please,” I begged “D,” “Let me handle it.”
You can guess the rest. I recited Eugene Onegin to Thomas—after all, Pushkin is the only poet who wrote it first and did what he had written about in real life afterwards—told him how I would have done exactly the same thing as the man who was known to be as jealous as Othello and twice as dark did in his particular case ….. but it was no good. He saw us as a bunch of philistines with a capital P. Never mind. Back then I was the most right wing human being on earth, but I sure got Thomas’s point. And it gets worse: Thirty years later, in the spring of 1991, in Palermo, my old Davis Cup partner and I were playing a veteran tennis tournament when we spotted a very thin, tortured-looking man staring out in space, unaware of his surroundings. “Thomas?” I gently asked.
It was Lejus. It turned out he had walked in on his wife while she was on the saddle with another, and had killed her. Being a Soviet hero, and because of the passions involved, he got only eight years in a tough prison. He told us about it in the way people do when they have renounced all further intimacies of this kind. I was very moved, and tried a Flaubert line. “The absurd man is the man who never changes.” He gave me that immortal Russian look,
one that encompasses all the wisdom and hell those poor Russians have had to learn and endure. I never saw him again.