December 29, 2011
Seeing as how man didn’t emerge from the caves until something like 6,000 years ago, thirty-five years is a mere bagatelle in the grand scheme of things. Still, man’s day-to-day folly is always more fun than grand schemes.
In September 1976 I went to Torino to buy a Fiat car for my daughter’s mother straight from Fiat’s principal shareholder Gianni Agnelli. He not only gave me a very good price but also had me stay in his house along with his then-driver for Ferrari, Niki Lauda. The Austrian driver had recently been horribly burnt at Nürburgring but recovered enough to win the Formula One title in 1977. The next day, I took possession of the Fiat and motored toward Paris. I was advised to drive slowly for the first thousand kilometers.
Boredom on the motorway brought on the muse. I memorized close to 1,000 words—a word per kilometer—on how one can spot an Englishman in a European nightclub. (They scrutinize the bill and argue about it with the waiters, never have the right currency, wear thick tweeds that smell of horses and dogs, dance without rhythm, and scare the Arabs with their red complexions.) When I eventually got to London I rang The Spectator’s then-editor Alexander Chancellor and proposed the piece. For any of you unfamiliar with The Spectator, it is one of the English-speaking world’s oldest magazines, running close to 200 years and over nine thousand issues. Graham Greene has called it the world’s best written and most elegant weekly.
As luck would have it, Chancellor wanted to lighten the magazine up a bit, and he welcomed my proposal. I wrote 1,500 words in half an hour, adding a French accent to it: ze for “the” and zut alors after every expostulation. It ran the next week and Alexander asked me if I wished to contribute regularly. I jumped at the chance, as until then I had been traveling around the world’s trouble spots reporting dry facts for wire services. My column went in the back of the book, as it’s called, and it was supposed to be funny—harder to do than it sounds.
Jet-setters did not read The Spectator 35 years ago. Politicians, literary people, Oxford and Cambridge dons, and clubmen did, but not jet-setters. So I invented the quintessential English jet-set couple, Mark and Lola Winters, based on Martin and Nona Summers, a real twosome I ran into everywhere I went. I began chronicling their life. The trick worked. The story of their egregious social climbing made the rounds after gossip columnists picked it up and people from all walks of life started to read the column. I wrote amazing things about Mark and Lola: their social climbing with real people, many of whom were close friends of mine, the tricks they pulled to get invited to chic parties, their efforts to attract celebrities to their Eaton Square flat, the presents they sent to certain Greek shipowners whom they hardly knew, the children they rented to pose as their own when they managed to have “proper” people as their guests, and finally, their desperation to get third-rate royals, any royals, to attend their bashes.
The column became required reading by those who found the Winters ridiculous and savored the humiliation I heaped on them week in, week out. When The Spectator conducted a poll to see who was reading us, it was revealed that Oxford dons were reading my column en masse and discussing the state of English social climbing at the High Table after work. Dons are notorious gossips. I also reported on the parties I attended—where I invariably ran into the notorious couple—and about my first love, politics. One thing that everyone at The Spectator could never figure out was why no one realized the couple was fictitious. I think it was because I mixed them up with real people who were mostly vague and aristocratic and who could never remember anyone’s name.