Obituary: Viscount Rothermere
Thursday 03 September 1998
An unashamed patrician, with unorthodox private life, Rothermere succeeded because of his instinctive, perhaps inherited grasp of what was right for the market, and by placing unqualified trust in others' professionalism. While he never under-estimated his debt to Sir David English, the long-time editor of the Mail who died earlier this summer, nor did English fail to recognise how much he owed his proprietor.
Born in 1925, Vere Harmsworth had an unstable though pampered childhood. His mother, the former Peggy Redhead, split with his prosmicuous father Esmond not long after Vere's birth, but both parents lived the life of privileged aristocrats, surrounded by servants in comfortable London and country houses.
Harmsworth's relationship with his father, the second Viscount Rothermere, was never warm, and perhaps for this reason the tall, gangly boy grew up shy and withdrawn. While at school at Eton he would go for long, lonely rides on horseback in Windsor Great Park. At the beginnning of the Second World War he was evacuated to the United States but returned to join the Army, serving in north Africa but never gaining commissioned rank.
As the second Viscount's eldest son, there was never any doubt that he would take over the Associated empire. Leaving the army, he began a series of stints in some of its many outposts, beginning at a paper mill in Quebec. Back in London, he joined the advertising department, then became a circulation representative in Devon before returning to headquarters to climb the executive ladder.
Outside the office he was living the life of a man-about-town. He was a member of the Beefsteak Club and the squire of pretty young actresses. In 1957 he married one of them - the divorcee Patricia Brooks, stage name Beverley, but better known as "Bubbles". They set up homes in London and later in Paris, where he lived for part of the year not only to reduce his British tax liability, but also because he still held the Englishman's traditional romantic view of the French capital. For years he had his office there, in the shabby former headquarters of the Continental Daily Mail - founded, as he would proudly tell visitors, by the great Northcliffe.
He passed an important professional landmark in 1963 when he was made a vice-chairman of Associated. The appointment was celebrated in a curious paragraph in the London Evening Standard, which ended: "Mr Harmsworth, 38, is an attractive and able man. He will make a great success in his new position."
Connoisseurs of 20th-century journalism will not need to be told who wrote those confident words. They were barked down the telephone in the rasping mid-Atlantic tones of Lord Beaverbrook, then proprietor of the Standard and the Daily Express, the Mail's arch-rival.
They were Beaverbrook's way of welcoming Harmsworth to the big league of press tycoons. The Canadian baron was to die a year later - too early to see his prediction about Harmsworth proved correct at the expense of his own heirs, eventually so destroyed by the Mail that they lost control of the Express group.
The qualities that Beaverbrook saw in the young man were not immediately apparent to others. Private Eye dubbed him "mere Vere" because he appeared to play only a minor role in running the newspapers. The reason was that his father was still controlling the company and did not brook interference from anyone, let alone his son.
The second Viscount very nearly managed to do more substantial damage to his son's dynastic plans. In 1967, at the age of 69, Esmond Rothermere produced a son, also named Esmond, by his third wife. Vere and Bubbles, with two daughters, had not planned any more children - but if they had no son the business would now be inherited by Esmond Jr after Vere's death. Swift remedial action led to the birth at the end of that year of their only son Jonathan, now the heir apparent.
The Sixties saw a decline in the fortunes of Associated's main titles - the Mail, the Daily Sketch and the London Evening News. Editors came and went at the Mail and by the end of the decade its circulation was down to well below two million, little more than half that of the rival broadsheet the Express. The tabloid Sketch was at 750,000, only a sixth of the figure attained by the all- powerful Daily Mirror.
There was nothing Vere Harmsworth could do about any of this until 1970 when his father, then 71, at last stood down from the chairmanship. At 46 Harmsworth was, for the first time in his life, faced with the necessity of having to take drastic action. Nothing in his career to date suggested that he had the capacity for it.
If anything was to be salvaged from the mess he inherited, it was clear that the Sketch would have to close. Harmsworth decided, though, that its talented and ambitious young editor David English should stay and edit the Daily Mail, which would be converted into a tabloid.
The mid-market tabloid was an entirely new concept in British journalism. Until then only mass- market papers had adopted the pint-sized format. English and his proprietor believed that by thus radically altering the Mail's appearance they could direct its appeal at young suburbanites, especially women.
The initial results were unpromising and it took nerve to stick with the change. By the end of the year circulation was down to less than one and a half million. English admitted to me a few years later that his own confidence was beginning to crack. He suggested to Harmsworth that the answer might be to go downmarket to compete directly with the Mirror and Rupert Murdoch's emerging Sun.
"I went to Vere," English recalled, "and he said no. He said we've got to keep the same course. He said the old Daily Mail never kept its nerve and that was the trouble. It kept changing tack. It would do something and then if that didn't work it would do the opposite and that didn't work either. He insisted that we should stick to the plan."
It was the middle of 1972 before the wisdom of that decision started to become apparent. Circulation began to climb and soon the Express was forced to follow the Mail down the tabloid route, but never with the same success. Today the Mail's circulation is over 2,300,000, just double that of the Express.
Harmsworth was exceptionally proud of the relaunch of the Mail, listing it as one of his achievements in Who's Who. Later in the Seventies, partly motivated by a desire to emulate Rupert Murdoch, he tried, with less success, to expand the Associated empire in the United States.
In 1976 he was defeated by Murdoch in a struggle for New York magazine and Village Voice. He acquired an interest in Esquire magazine and the Soho Weekly News, a New York listings and entertainment journal, but failed in a bid to buy The Trib, a short-lived mid-market New York daily that he was planning to ask David English to edit for a few months.
Then he journeyed to Wilmington, Delaware, to try to buy a chain of papers there. He made a huge impression on the natives, arriving at his midtown hotel trailed by a heavy wooden cabin trunk containing a supply of the Vichy water to which he was addicted - but he failed to clinch that deal, too.
He succeeded as third Viscount Rothermere in 1978, and back in Britain soon began to enjoy further triumphs. In 1980, after several abortive attempts, he negotiated an end to London's costly evening newspaper war by agreeing to merge his Evening News with the Express group's Evening Standard. Although the News ceased publication, the terms of the deal meant that Associated assumed full ownership of the Standard when the Express group changed hands in 1985.
In 1982, having failed to buy the Sunday Times when the Thomson group sold it to Rupert Murdoch, he launched the Mail on Sunday. Again his strong nerve was called for. The first few issues were disastrous, so he fired the editor and gave David English the task of putting the paper on a proper course. Today it sells 2,200,000 a week, again double the circulation of the rival Express.
Another triumph that he admitted "gave me enormous pleasure" came in 1987 when he scuppered Robert Maxwell's bid to enter the London evening paper market. To coincide with the launch of the London Daily News, Rothermere resuscitated the old Evening News and cut its price to 10 pence. This was an attempt to confuse potential buyers and to force Maxwell to cut his price. The ploy worked so successfully that Maxwell closed his new paper after five months.
In 1992 Bubbles died. For some 15 years their marriage had been an open one, with Vere conducting an unconcealed affair with Maiko Lee, a Korean woman he met in a Parisian night-club. They married in 1993.
As he grew older, Rothermere became still less predictable. Last year he decided to sit on the Labour benches in the House of Lords. This surprised those who assumed that his politics were the same as those of his arch- conservative newspapers, but this had never been so. In interviews - most recently last month in the Daily Telegraph - he frequently quarrelled with the policies of his editors.
Living partly in France, he was never as much of a Eurosceptic as Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. He also had doubts about Dacre's editorial strategy, which he thought had taken the paper downmarket.
"There's too much tabloidy reporting," he said. "That kind of thing leads in due course to slovenliness and sensationalism, something reporters use to cover up the fact that they've done no work. I want it to stop." But he added: "Paul is entirely free to do anything except lose readers."
He disapproved of the Mail's gossip column, because he often received complaints from friends who were mentioned in it and also because his own life was far from blameworthy. But he could see that it was an important part of the paper's appeal.
He was uneasy about the hereditary principal and in 1978, not long before his father died, he told me he was considering giving up the title when he inherited it. "You could call it vanity, I suppose," he said. "But it means changing my name to somebody else's, and I think I've made a name for myself." In the event he reconciled himself to the sacrifice. But people who met him for the first time - especially Americans - always remarked on how surpris0ingly informal he was.
"That Vere's turned out to be a remarkably interesting human being after all that training and all those schools is quite remarkable," said a New Yorker who came into contact with him during the Seventies. "He's charming, he's funny and he's unpretentious. He's old enough to be stuffy but he isn't."
You never knew what to expect with Rothermere, and that could have been the reason for his indusputable success. The fourth Viscount has a lot to live up to.
Regarded unfairly as something of a playboy while his father found him a succession of menial tasks at Associated Newspapers, Vere Harmsworth quickly showed his mettle when he was given total control of the Mail empire, writes Louis Kirby.
The decisiveness - and ruthlessness - with which he was secretly closing down the ailing Daily Sketch in 1971 was a foretaste of the dominant Fleet Street baron he was to become.
Twenty-seven years ago, with Sir David English selecting the best of Associated's columnists, features and sports writers, lay-out men and sub-editors, Rothermere was a brilliant partner. It was total involvement. He could be seen on many a night, reading copy on the backbench, watching a developing Page One story and comparing the first editions with those of the Daily Express.
He always said he would have loved being a sub-editor; his affection for journalists was obvious to us all, but he could be extremely tough. Vere knew exactly what he wanted from his editorial team - and, not least, from his creative advertising team.
During those early days, we gathered in a Hove seafront hotel with a high-powered agency which bristled with state-of-the-art projections. After some editorial speeches, the agency took over and explained that we were making a disastrous mistake. We were, they said, appealing to too many women - and our only salvation was to increase the male readership.
Vere was by now muttering "absolute rubbish" as yet another image maker droned on. "Hear him out, Vere," insisted the agency chief.
"I'm not listening to another word," said a furious Harmsworth. "For heaven's sake, we want to increase our women readership, not decrease it." Thrown out of the meeting, the agency team sped back to London. And within 24 hours a top American writer came up with the memorable slogan: "Every man knows why every woman needs her Daily Mail".
Above all, he was a man of great intelligence, of kindness, of erudition and sagacity. When I was editor of the Evening News, I agreed to pay the Daily Mail pounds 1,000 for its exclusive picture of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown. But the Mail withdrew its offer and I went ahead and published.
Top executives of the Daily Mail offered to resign in protest unless I was sacked, and Lord Rothermere summoned me to his house at Cap d'Ail. He reserved the Somerset Maugham suite at the Hotel du Cap, gave me dinner and the following day, at the hotel's swimming pool, he said: "We can't have fellow editors falling out. So I have to slap your wrist and fine you pounds 1,000, which of course will come out of Evening News accounts."
Vere Harold Esmond Harmsworth, newspaper proprietor: born London 27 August 1925; chairman, Associated Newspapers Holdings Ltd 1970-98; chairman, Daily Mail and General Trust plc 1978-98; succeeded 1978 as third Viscount Rothermere; married 1957 Beverley Brooks (nee Patricia Matthews, died 1992; one son, two daughters, and one stepdaughter), 1993 Maiko Lee; died London 1 September 1998.
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