October 27, 2008
The story so far: Old Blighty has been hit by a scandal of major proportions. People in high positions met in princely places and discussed matters not supposed to be talked about even on a yacht. In brief: Nat Rothschild, son of Lord (Jacob) Rothschild, is a partner in certain ventures of Oleg Deripaska, the richest of Russians and the sleaziest of all oligarchs—so sleazy, in fact, he’s not permitted to enter the Unites States. The Rothschilds have a large property in Corfu, the Greek island that was the pearl of the Ionian before cheap tourism, and entertain there regularly. One of Rothschild’s guest last August 15 was George Osborn, an old school friend and front bencher Tory waiting to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in the next election. Another was Peter Mandelson, a man twice forced to resign a cabinet office after sleaze allegations and since the party elevated to the peerage and into the cabinet for a third time. Mandelson is known to drip poison and is a master plotter. Once back in London after the Corfu holiday, George Osborn innocently gossiped as to how surprised he was that Mandelson had been made a lord in view of the fact he was saying the worst things possible about prime minister Gordon Brown. That is when Nat Rothschild wrote a letter to the Times pointing out that gossip should not be repeated and that Osborne was guilty himself of begging money for the Tories from his partner Deripaska. It’s been headlines ever since, with Osborne fully denying that he ever did, and the fact that no money exchanged hands being established. Rothschild’s gossip, however, seems to have hurt the Tories.
If there’s one invitation I regret turning down it’s the one that Lord Rothschild extended to me on the request of countess Maya Schoenburg, whose 50th-birthday celebration took place in Corfu last August 15th. Had I known the cast of characters who were present, and the bruhaha that ensued, I would have sailed on my boat through the Corinth canal, down the Gulf of Patras, and up the western Greek coast to Corfu—come hell or high water, as they say. Oleg Deripaska, George Osborne, “Lord” Mandelson as he then wasn’t, a couple of Rothschilds and the birthday girl, who happens to be a cousin of mine by marriage and whose birthday is the same day as yours truly. What a story I missed out on! Now I read that Nat Rothschild writes that gentlemen do not kiss and tell. He is obviously correct in this, except for the fact that without kissing and telling history would not be as we know it.
I believe it was Sainte-Beuve who called the Duc de Saint-Simon the spy of the century, and thank God the duke was. Were it not for Saint-Simon’s chronicles of life at Versailles, a great majority of us would probably adhere to a Sam Goldwyn version of what went on in the rarefied and ritualized society of the Sun King. Mind you, a good gossip dwells on the kind of telling detail that Saint-Simon used in order to describe society, which George Osborn certainly did not. I recently met Osborn at a party and found him charming and nice. (I used to play large stakes backgammon against his father 35 years ago at the Clermont club.) I don’t doubt a word of Osborne’s. Mandelson would feel perfectly at home in 15th century Florence or 13th century Constantinople. The great Nigel Dempster used to describe gossip as follows: “ Four hundred years from now, people will read me in order to find out what 20th century life was really like.” He goes on further to explain his keyhole type of journalism: “I look at people’s sex lives, especially those of prominent people, because the personal habits that manifest themselves only when observed close up are the ones that lead to detection of flaws that might influence public performance.” Dempster was the first to scrutinize the sex life of Prince Charles and of the girls Charles went out with. Before him, everything one read about the royal family was like the stuff Madison Avenue puts out for its best clients.
Just look at the Kennedy case. When JFK was inaugurated in 1961, the media had gone soft at the knees for him and his family. Here was a 43-year-old president elect with Hollywood looks who was also a war hero, married to a woman who was among the most beautiful on earth, and with a beautiful little daughter who owned a pony named Macaroni. It was straight out of central casting and then some. Some of us looked closer, however, if I don’t say so myself. I knew Danielle Pons, niece of the French ambassador to Washington at the time, and what she had gone through after meeting the boy-president. I had gone to parties and seen the Kennedys up close, their wild drinking, doping and rough treatment of women. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the stories began to leak out. Now it’s common knowledge. But without the gossip, the Kennedy PR machine—and it’s a very potent one—would have triumphed over the truth.
Did the gossip make a difference where politics were concerned? Yes, of course it did. Without it Ted Kennedy would have become president, and as flawed as he is, history most likely would have been different. Without gossip, history comes out flat, dull, and far removed from its original purpose. Public accomplishments are simply not enough. If they were, we’d have passportlike descriptions of the various characters in history, and that is all.
There are two kinds of gossip: the puerile kind, which is time-wasting by half-wits, and the other, which informs and helps to define the age. Anything to do with Paris Hilton, Elizabeth Hurley, and their ilk is obviously a total waste of time, and it is also demeaning. The idea of writing about something la Hilton did or said should be anathema to anyone with the slightest sense of dignity. On the other hand, Homer’s songs about the Trojan War and Ulysses’s wanderings are an example of the latter. They could not have survived without the impulse to pass on a good story. Of course, in those days people gossiped about the bravery of their heroes and how they managed to beat the will of the gods—not about, say, what Madonna and Guy Ritchie are saying against each other.
The rules have obviously changed. Reporting on something that took place on a private yacht or house in Corfu would have finished the career of the reporter one hundred years ago. But back then, people did not deal openly with gangsters like Deripaska, which the Rothschilds are dealing with—they are partners in the building of a large marina in Montenegro—and Mandelson has been spreading the dirt about political opponents since he was wearing short trousers, the poor little dear. In other words, Osborn found himself in louche company and perhaps acted a bit louchely himself. Malcolm Muggeridge, a serious man if there ever was one, said that “who sleeps with whom is intrinsically more interesting than who votes for whom.” Had the British electorate known in advance that Ted Heath was, at best, totally uninterested in sex, they would have been prepared for the kind of stealth surrender he showed when it came to Britain joining the EU. A hot-blooded man Heath was not.
Mandelson seems to me the same type, but smarter, more vicious, a winner. If Osborn had not kissed and told we would be the poorer for it. Mandelson, after all, knows how to play the press better than most. Do kiss and tell, but never about the ladies, only about politics.