February 04, 2023

Source: Bigstock

GSTAAD—There is nothing much I can add to what Daniel Johnson and Charles Moore wrote about the great Paul Johnson, except that I shall miss his annual summer visits to Gstaad, where we walked for hours on mountain trails and I had the opportunity to take in some of his best bons mots. He knew everything and could tell a story like no one. The times Lady Carla was with us—she is Italian and never draws a breath—Paul would not slow down for her to catch up, but every five minutes or so he’d bellow, “Is that so?” and then bash on. My Alexandra particularly liked him and asked me time and again why I didn’t have more friends like Paul.

The answer is obvious: There are not many Paul Johnsons around. There is one, however, who is a polymath like the departed, and even has red hair. Long ago I took him to lunch and brought a couple of beauties with me. They were young, very cute, and not too shifty upstairs. After a while they asked Simon Heffer what he did in life. “I make a decent living posing as a body double for Fergie,” was his answer. The duchess was in the news back then, something to do with toe sucking, I believe. The cutie-pies thought it wonderful, the body-double part, that is. And they fell for it, notwithstanding the dangling participle. What separates British greats from their counterparts across the ocean is a sense of humor. It could be the diet—all those hamburgers—but the moment an American knows a lot they take themselves extremely seriously and turn into terrific bores.

“After a hard day’s cross-country skiing, I’ve been hitting the books at night.”

One such man was the Washington columnist Walter Lippmann, a double Pulitzer Prize winner, the founder of The New Republic, and an adviser to presidents, who joined Gianni Agnelli and little ole me for lunch at a chic French restaurant in the Bagel. The year was 1965, and Lippmann was against escalation in Vietnam, but the greatest Greek writer since Homer was 28, gung ho as hell, and wanted to bomb the hell out of the dirty commies in black pajamas. When I said so, Lippmann became apoplectic. No one had publicly argued with him before, at least no one as unqualified as I was. Already exophthalmic, his eyeballs literally popped out, and I thought he would explode. When he died nine years later, Gianni blamed it on the lunch.

Simon Heffer has forgotten more than Lippmann ever knew, but will happily tell cutie-pies that he’s a Fergie body double. I love what he likes: Valerie Hobson, Noel Coward, Franz, Wolfie and Ludwig, Carlyle and great books, and all those wonderful black-and-white movies with plots that didn’t run through the fraud Freud. Simon is politically to my left, but that’s his only weakness. (Sono Fascista, ma non troppo.)

Otherwise the weather has been spectacular, sunny, and veddy veddy cold. The snow is even better and there’s lots of it, and after a hard day’s cross-country skiing, I’ve been hitting the books at night. Back in 2005 Nick Foulkes came on board Bushido and interviewed me about something. And never once mentioned that he had just published the most enchanting of books, Dancing Into Battle, a social history of the Battle of Waterloo, charmingly detailed and a perfect background to June 18, as we get to know who is sleeping with whom and who will no longer do that in future due to his death in battle. Plus some great bits on how simply awful the Duchess of Richmond was, and what a snob was Wellington, his father having been a music teacher. The proximity of the ballroom to the battlefield has a strange but marvelous effect on the reader.

One hundred and twenty-five years after that battle, a beauty by the name of Virginia Cowles, a trailblazing war correspondent, wrote a book called Looking for Trouble. Here are a few of her exploits that she mentions: tea with Hitler after a Nuremberg rally; interviewing Mussolini in Rome and alone; flinging off high heels under fire in Madrid during the civil war; hanging out with Churchill; and being on the front line when the gallant Finns resisted the Russians. She also resisted Taki, who badgered her nonstop over whether she had had an affair with Papa Hemingway in Spain. Virginia: “Not even close. I liked him, but no.” Me: “You’re talking to Taki, come on, Ginny, Hemingway was irresistible, brave, a great writer, of course you did it.” Virginia: “If you go on like this you will have to leave. How can someone as charming as you be so goddamn stupid?” Me: “Because I know Papa, no one got away.” Virginia: “Get out, now.”

Ginny was lucky not to be alive when both her sons died in a terrible plane crash in Turin in 1987. I was close to both of them and almost came to blows daily after tennis. Her book is unputdownable. I’m also reading about Edda Ciano by Caroline Moorehead, and even a novel by my friend Bartle Bull, We’ll Meet Again, set in Egypt and Yugoslavia during World War II. Bartle’s father was a Brit general who died of his wounds, and his son is also a writer. He knows Africa and writes like a dream about warfare and romantic hurt. I only read history nowadays, but I made a fortunate exception in this case.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!