The aristocrat best known for selling the secrets of the royal family has written her autobiography. But has Lady Colin Campbell been as revealing about her own past?
Sunday 29 June 1997
A serialised version of her rather tragic life-story has recently been running in the Daily Mail, despite the fact that in the book Lady Colin quotes herself telling her husband that she "will never - repeat never - sell the story of my life to a newspaper". It is this sort of inconsistency that may not endear her to her readers. She also drops names with great clunks right the way through the autobiography, while the pictures in the middle are largely of her with famous people - often, one suspects, of flimsy acquaintance. So we see her in a variety of fancy dresses next to Margaret Thatcher, the Duchess of York, Prince Michael of Kent, Ivana Trump and the Pope. The photographs of Lady Colin herself do not do her any favours: she looks frosty and, I have to say, a bit of a social-climber.
I mention this because in person she is quite different from the way she comes across in the book. She may be socially aspiring - Lord Colin, whom she agreed to marry on the basis of about six hours' acquaintance in 1974, calls her a "crashing snob" - but she is also open and friendly. She answered questions intelligently and without self-pity, showed touching vulnerability about her book ("Tell me honestly, do you think it's any good?"), proffered lunch and champagne, invited the photographer's little girl to her boys' birthday party, and worried about me leaving without an umbrella in the pouring rain.
I had arrived as she was finishing the photo-shoot, for which she had donned a blue evening-dress and diamond earrings. Her crowded and dark sitting-room had been turned upside-down to make room for the photographic equipment, the blue sofas backed up against each other, the embroidered gilt chairs moved to the back of the room and the rugs thrown in a corner. But on answering the door she pulled me in by the hand, greeting me with a delightful smile and a deep sing-song Jamaican accent, which, issuing from her chiselled face, was frankly unexpected.
She returned to adopting poses of hauteur for the camera while her two boys of four-and-a-half jumped around like imps, swarming over the furniture, hanging from the stepladder and talking in unison after whispered confabs. From time to time Lady Colin begged them to go downstairs ("Misha, please give me your co- operation ... Dima, don't make Mummy's blood pressure have to rise!") - pleas that were mostly ignored. She adopted them in Russia after being daunted by the red tape in Britain and, although unrelated, they behave like identical twins.
When the photographer had finished we set about putting back the furniture and Lady Colin pitched in with surprising strength, heaving stepladders around and scooping up tables. She struck me as being a tidiness nut, wanting ornaments and pieces of furniture in their exact position, and when this had been achieved, was unable to restrain herself from whisking up bits of debris from the carpet. She then called to her poker-faced factotum, Joyce, to bring her a Coke and a tuna sandwich ("You know, dressed up the way I like it"). When these appeared we went on to talk through a variety of interruptions: the phone, the little boys who trailed in and out of the room, bored to the point of desperation, visitors who arrived on motorbikes, and the off-stage strains of nursery rhymes issuing from a record player.
The first thing she talked about through her sandwich - she was starving, she apologised - was her ex-husband, Lord Colin. Oh, how she hates him. She loathes him. I have never met anyone who loathes his or her former spouse as much. She believes he married her for her father's money and, when that wasn't forthcoming, that he set about trying to make her sell her life-story to the press. He was, she said, "evil and vicious and malicious - he felt he had the right to hurt me if I didn't get my father to write cheques and play ball and pretend to be one half of a beautiful couple." During her marriage to him, she told me earnestly, she had "supped with the Devil".
I couldn't help laughing nervously at this statement, at which she looked at me with big eyes and said: "I'm not joking." She claims in her book that Lord Colin punched her in the face so badly she had to have surgery, then arranged to tip off the papers about her amended birth certificate (the original had her down as a boy). He was uninterested in having sex with her and had poor personal hygiene. He drank to excess. In fact, he was horrible in almost every way.
It was clear that the flames of fury still burned brightly even though the two have not met for 22 years. Lord Colin, now a New York art dealer, appears to reciprocate her feelings. He was quoted five years ago as saying: "I wasn't in love with the bloody woman in the first place. If I'd been in cold sobriety I would never have married her. I would no more look at her today than a bar of soap," he added - rather amusingly in the light of her comments about his cleanliness.
Leaving Lord Colin aside for the moment - as much as you can with Lady Colin - we move on to why she was brought up as a boy when she was born a girl. This is a mystery the book fails to clear up. It relates how her father, Michael Ziadie, came from a family of Lebanese emigres who had grown rich through trade in Jamaica and that her mother, Gloria, came from an old and wealthy Jamaican family. The autobiography continues: "I was born with a cosmetic malformation, which led me to being given the names George William. The reason why I was not registered as a girl is simple. No one knew I was one, because I was born with a fused labia and a deformed clitoris. As anyone familiar with infants knows, the genitalia of newborn babies are out of proportion to the rest of the bodies. This phenomenon is, presumably, nature's way of hitting you in the face with the sex of your child. But nature is not an exact science, and mistakes do occur."
Did that mean she had male genitalia, or female genitalia, or both? This was what confused me, and as many of her tragedies seem to spring from this gender misapprehension it seemed worth trying to pin down. If she had female genitalia it is very hard to comprehend how the doctors could have taken her for a boy, and her book did not clarify the point. In those days, it continued, "the doctors' normal procedure when presented with children with genital disabilities was to endow the infant with masculine gender. This made sense for several reasons. There was a general acceptance that boys counted for more than girls; there was also a belief in the medical profession that gender was not an absolute determined at conception, but a social role in which an individual could be conditioned to perform."
But, I asked Lady Colin, why call her a boy if she wasn't? And why had her parents - who seemed decent, if distant, people - gone along with it for so many years? Her first answer to this was that "my father was an ostrich. If possible he would avoid problems. We didn't really have a relationship. I think he felt very awkward having a child like me." Yes, but why inflict such unnecessary suffering? Did he think she was a boy? "No, no. In those days the world was more restrictive and closed up and buttoned down, I think most likely he thought I should just lead a non-life [as she would have without the necessary scientific advances] and I should just accept my lot." So it wasn't that the doctors thought she was a boy when she was born? "No. They realised that I had a deformity and, in those days, any child with a deformity was given the masculine gender. Since the child was not going to be able to be either male or female they may as well live as the more advantageous one."
She had not had masculine genitalia that were subsequently removed? "No." And her parents treated her, in some ways, like the girl she was, Lady Colin continued, in a conversation that was becoming increasingly surreal. In fact, they had one set of rules for their daughters and one for their sons, and she was governed by the feminine ones. Yet she was dressed as a boy and sent to her father's Alma Mater, a Jesuit seminary and all-boys school called St George's. There, she would arrive every day to be greeted with taunts of "Pussy" and "Boy-gal".
She knew she was different as a child, but it wasn't too bad because both boys and girls were dressed in shorts, shirts and flip-flops. It was when she hit puberty that her condition became desperate. "It was absolutely dreadful - a nightmare. I'm using hackneyed phrases to describe what no words can convey. There was no day it wasn't horrible, to wake up every morning knowing what I was going to face, that it was going to be no better than the day before, and not knowing when I was going to stop waking up to face another ghastly day."
She fancied other boys - her elder brother's friends - and longed to wear girls' clothes and make-up. But she was a nothing: a "boy- gal", as her classmates so cruelly put it, in limbo between the sexes. At 13 she resolved to plead for help from her maternal grandfather, but it took her a while to pluck up the courage. Just as she was about to confide in him he was brutally murdered by a burglar. So she took matters into her own hands. Dressed in a wig and a home-made dress, she turned up at a gynaecologist's office under the name of Betty Brompton. Once more, luck was against her. The cook spotted her sneaking out of the house and reported her to her parents.
At this, the whole matter came into the open and her father was forced to take action. He decided to place her in the hands of a gruesome German husband-and-wife team. It would be hard to imagine a more misjudged decision. The couple hospitalised her for three weeks during which they forcibly injected her with male hormones.
"My voice started moving down the scale from soprano to contralto. My neck developed two small lumps. Blonde down appeared above my top lip. And my nipples shrank. I can remember the second I realised that they were altering me physically. That terrified me in a way that the mind games did not, for what would become of me if they altered my appearance so that I stopped looking feminine?"
She came home and flushed away the rest of the hormone pills, but it was to be another seven years before she managed to persuade her father that she should have the operation, by now possible, to open up her labia and allow her to have a normal sex life (although she could not have children). By then she had begun modelling in New York. It was not long after that she met the dreaded Lord Colin Campbell and the question of her gender became a subject, not just for her family, but for the world at large.
LORD COLIN came along at a propitious moment. Georgia Ziadie, as she had become, had her priorities straight. "Marriage was what I wanted, and marriage was what I would have." She reports in her book that she turned down a number of eligible men after placing them under her "marital microscope" - to the extent that her father told her off for "discarding men other girls would give their eyeteeth for". She is not modest about her attractions. Her book portrays her as being courted by aristocrats and billionaires. Lucky Georgia! Just before she met Lord Colin she got involved with a man called David Koch. "I had no idea he was one of the richest men in the world, which was just as well. Had I known, I would probably have hung back, for the one thing I cannot stand is people who suck up to the super-rich."
And after she divorced, they come swarming back. Like the time she won the interest of the Duc de Sabran-Ponteves - clunk, clunk. "Oh dear, I thought. How cruel fate is. It throws me this divine man just when I've decided that I never want to be in love again, and to make matters worse, he turns out to be one of the most eligible men in Europe."
I know, very silly, but harmless. Anyway, that was after the Lord Colin episode. Lord C was, his ex-wife reports, a textbook romantic figure when they met - and, of course, he had a title. (Years later, Lord Colin would accuse her of being "obsessed with titles".) He popped the question the evening he met her in New York and they married days later in Elkton, Maryland. She was 25, he was 27. Suffice it to say that their wedding night consisted of a bar-crawl, then Lord Colin took himself off to a separate bed pleading jet-lag. I won't repeat her remarks in the book about her ex- husband's body or sexual ability, beyond the fact that he would "lie back like a quadriplegic, leaving me to get on with the job of giving him pleasure". The union lasted some 14 months, most of which they spent in New York. Then, once again, Lady Colin was free.
But why had she kept the title of a man whom she hated so much? The reason, apparently, was revenge. She kept the name, she said, to annoy Lord Colin's elder brother Ian, the Duke of Argyll, whom she suspected of plotting against her. I must say it seems rather ironic for her to choose to use a man's name in the light of her past. But, of course, it was nice to have a title, I suggested. Lady Colin denied this, although I must say I wasn't entirely convinced. "Oh no! The name Campbell is awfully common, there are six million of them, and we are the only members of the Ziadie family. If I was Mrs Onassis it would mean far more than Lady Colin Campbell."
AT THIS JUNCTURE Misha appeared in his tiny red tracksuit wanting to go to the park. "Not now, honey," his mother told him. This was the wrong answer. He started noisily waving around a plastic bag of tennis balls, presumably intended for the springer spaniels, Tum Tum, Popsie Miranda, Maisie Carlotta and Maud Livilla. Then he threw himself on to the sofa and banged his head miserably against the cushions. Lady Colin comforted him ineffectually until Joyce prised him away.
We got onto the royals. Lady Colin's was the first warts-and-all biography of the Princess of Wales - Diana in Private came out months before Andrew Morton's - and broke the news of Diana's affair with James Hewitt. (This section has not entirely stood the test of time: there is an unfortunate line that "one person who would never be tempted to speak publicly about his friendship with Diana was Captain James Hewitt of the Life Guards... He knows the rules and plays by them.") The Royal Marriages was even more incendiary, talking of the Queen's two long-term "confidants", as Lady Colin euphemistically calls them. Both were bestsellers and must have made her a great deal of money.
But does she actually know the royals? She doesn't appear to from the books, although she does mention dancing next to the Duchess of York at a ball at Syon House. "I can still vividly remember her being so unused to wearing a tiara that every time she danced a fast dance, her hand swiped the central stone. Fearful that the setting would snap and the stone be lost, I pointed this out to her. For the rest of the evening, every time she saw me, she jokingly motioned to her tiara or mine..."
But she was not friends with the royals. "No. But I've met them. I'm certainly close friends with people who are close friends with them. And some of the cousins. And I've seen Diana since I've written the royal book and she was absolutely charming."
I wondered if she would be persona grata with the Queen after her discussion of her "confidants" - and Prince Andrew's coincidental similarity to the Earl of Carnarvon - not to mention those of the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales. But Lady Colin took issue with this. "I don't go into the bedroom," she said.
This was an astonishing claim, particularly as in The Royal Marriages she not only makes reference to the fact that Diana was put off by Charles's healthy sex-drive, but fills in the missing parts of the Squidgy tape - the phone conversation supposedly between the Princess and her friend James Gilbey. ("James the Libran car dealer suggests to Squidgy, who is tense due to being with her husband and his family, that they make love over the telephone...")
"But what about the confidants?"
"Well," she smiled knowingly, "I only say they are confidants!"
Lady Colin was telling me obligingly how she spent her day as Misha trailed in again and sat down crossly beside her. "I like to get up at 9.30am," she was saying, "but sometimes I have to get up at 7am or even 6am. I have breakfast - "
"No you don't!" contradicted Misha.
"Yes I do," said his mother. "You have cornflakes, I have muesli."
"No you don't!"
"Yes I do! I have orange juice as well, with a vitamin. Then I put on my make-up. It doesn't take long, just three hours."
She gave me a naughty glance.
"Only joking! No, it takes five minutes at the most. Then I take the boys and the girls (those are my dogs) to the park and we go walkies. Then we come back and I feed the dogs. If I'm writing I write thereafter. Sometimes I take the boys to school."
"No you don't!" said Misha.
"Yes I do!"
"No you don't!"
"Misha, you're being naughty. This lady might think you're being truthful."
"No you don't!" repeated Misha with less conviction.
"You're being naughty. I'm starting to get annoyed with you."
Dima appeared and the two boys scrambled behind me on the sofa and took up position on the windowsill.
"I wouldn't have written the autobiography except for the boys," Lady Colin said, looking at them fondly. "I don't want them teased in playgrounds by people who have read the lies of my ex- husband. If the book doesn't make money it will have served the other purpose."
But the money would be useful?
"Oh yes. They're going to Hill House next year." Lady Colin looked at her imps affectionately.
"I want to make enough money," she told them, "so you can each have a house of your own and enough money when I go to the big party in the sky!"
"No!" shouted Misha.
She reached out for her son. "Come," she said, "give your mother a kiss."
! `A Life Worth Living' is published in hardback on Thursday by Little, Brown (pounds 18.99).
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