The Viscount of Middle England: Lord Rothermere is the last of the grandee press barons, a product of old money and social privilege, living in maverick style. But his empire has at its heart the new-monied aspirational conservatism of the Daily Mail

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'IF THINGS get dicey Vere becomes a compulsive eater and he really balloons in weight,' said Sir David English, Lord Rothermere's great editorial panjandrum. 'When the Mail on Sunday was clearly going to be a disaster, even before it had come out, I was summoned to go and see him in New York. We met for breakfast in the dining-room of the Carlyle Hotel. They have a sort of serve-yourself breakfast, so we started with melon or something and then we had eggs. Vere ate three cooked breakfasts, and was still eating them when they brought coffee at 11 o'clock, and then at 12 o'clock we had drinks, and then we had lunch. And I never got out of that dining-room all day long, because then we had some tea and moved straight on to dinner, and all the time Vere was agonising, 'What should we do about this newspaper? What should we do?' In the end I was made quite ill by not being able to leave that room.

'He had appointed Bernard Shrimsley as editor but, like most proprietors, he's quite clever at protecting his own position. Shrimsley had introduced him to the staff, and after that Vere had definitely decided that the Mail on Sunday was going to be a disaster, because they were all grey men and grey women like Shrimsley. He told me that I had to be editor-in-chief and that I should go back and fire Shrimsley, which I absolutely refused to do, because there were only five weeks to go before the launch and it wouldn't look good and, secondly, what would be the point if Shrimsley's grey men and grey women were still there? I couldn't get rid of a hundred journalists and replace them all in just five weeks. Nowadays, of course, Vere can and does say: 'I urged English to fire Shrimsley, I told him to in the Carlyle Hotel, but he wouldn't do it. English went weak on me at the crucial moment.' It's quite untrue, of course, but at least when the Mail on Sunday began to turn around he stopped eating his 20 meals a day.'

Stories about Vere Rothermere are invariably set in similar locations; either grand ones - hotels in Manhattan, Paris or Vienna - or else vaguely sybaritic: a yacht off the south of France, a villa in Jamaica, a hot tub in Kyoto. This crucial meeting, anticipating the failure of his new Sunday newspaper, takes place not in a boardroom, or even in an office, but at the Carlyle, the hotel closest to his Fifth Avenue apartment. It is characteristic of Rothermere, too, that he had previously arranged to meet the entire staff of his new venture and intuitively detected, between pleasantries, a dearth of talent. And characteristic to ascribe so much importance to the editorial voice of the newspaper. Sensing a mis-launch, he agonises over a 16-hour marathon breakfast not with the board or the marketing department but with his most trusted editor.

He's the last of the proper English press lords: that is what people tell you first about Vere Rothermere. And then they invoke a list of names, some not even English, as prototypes: Northcliffe, Beaverbrook, Harmsworth, Astor. If you point out that Rothermere was partly brought up in America, is the grandson of a man once urged to accept the Hungarian crown of St Stephen, spends much of the year in Paris and Kyoto, and hasn't, for tax reasons, spent more than 90 days a year in Britain since the Seventies, they reply, surprised and indignant: 'Well, I saw him here only the other day.' This illusion of omnipresence was something I'd noticed with other proprietors. Perhaps because their visits to their newspapers are so disproportionately anticipated, and afterwards so much discussed, a three-day inspection feels like a fortnight.

The third Viscount Rothermere is outwardly the most conventional English press lord, but probably the only one who devotes any time to introspection. For all his superbly tailored suits, he is an original thinker and amateur poet, interested in Zen Buddhism and the paranormal, a reader of runes who describes himself as 'a student of human nature', which seems to mean connoisseur of human foibles. He is the grandest proprietor to look at; tall, nobly built, with sleek grey hair. At 63 he strangely resembles Babar the Elephant, the King of Celesteville. He has the aristocrat's affectation of pretending, from time to time, to be hard of hearing, so compelling his visitors to repeat their remarks. He walks, as many rich people do, in a slightly swaying way as though he has just stepped back on to dry land from a large yacht. He has elaborate and courteous good manners. Once asked which social class he reckoned he belonged to, he answered unhesitatingly: 'Nobleman'. And yet he is often diffident, and his willingness to initiate long silences unnerves friends and colleagues.

Unusually for a proprietor, he loves parties. 'He's very much a nightbird,' says the writer and hostess Sonia Sinclair, who is godmother to Rothermere's son, Jonathan Harmsworth. 'He loves dancing. If there's a party going he'll be there, but late. He'll turn up at a cocktail party at nine o'clock, just when people are leaving, and say: 'Where are we going on to now?' '

This languor is deceptive. Rothermere never neglects his newspapers. When he travels, he rings his office three or four times a day, and is uncannily good at gauging the internal machinations by osmosis. He has an almost Japanese fondness for strategy, though his concept of strategy has more to do with cunning, and predicting what his competitors might do, than research-led analysis. He enjoys the idea of stalking a newspaper, in the way that he assiduously stalked the London Evening Standard before wholly acquiring it in 1987. To his editors - particularly Sir David English, now the chairman of Associated Newspapers and group editor-in-chief - he will deflect all editorial credit. But credit for the grand plan he accepts for himself. 'When you look back on it,' he said - and I felt that he looks back on it fairly often - 'in 1970 we had two ailing papers (the Daily Mail and the Evening News) and the Express had three successful ones (the Daily Express, Sunday Express and Evening Standard) . But by 1983 we had three successful papers and they had two unsuccessful ones.' He dissolved into loud gusts of mirth. 'Such is Fleet Street] And so now we have what we ought to have, which is three.'

'Is three the ideal number?'

'Yes, what you need,' he said, as though he were advising a novice on the kit for some new hobby, 'is a morning, an afternoon and a Sunday newspaper. This allows a degree of efficiency. Ours are all the market leaders now. So in a way we've even outdone Lord Beaverbrook, because the Evening Standard wasn't market leader when he was alive. But it is now]' And then he convulsed again with patrician glee.

In addition to his three national papers, Rothermere's provincial subsidiary, Northcliffe Newspapers, is dominant in 23 areas of Britain. The Western Morning News is a Rothermere, so is the Torquay Herald Express, the Hull Daily Mail and the South Wales Evening Post. If they have anything in common it is only their strong empathy, like that of the flagship Daily Mail, with an aspirational British middle class and an emphasis on family values. The value of the Rothermere family's newspaper interests is estimated at pounds 280m, although media analysts reckon the value of the papers if sold outright would exceed pounds 1bn.

Rothermere has also joined the proprietorial gold-rush into Eastern Europe, buying the sixth largest daily newspaper in Hungary (circulation 93,000) in Gyor-Sopron. This, he says, is a strictly commercial venture and nothing to do with his latent family claim to the Hungarian crown, which he is not pressing.

But it is his British national papers - the family silver - that Vere Rothermere minds about most. Especially in his nascent years as proprietor, before the papers were secure and were haemorrhaging money and in imminent danger of extinction, he strove for them, fretting over the figures late into the night. 'There were very anxious days at the Daily Mail,' said English, 'and we were working extremely long hours . . . I used to go and talk to Vere in his office, for a cup of tea or something at about one in the morning. One evening Pat (the party-loving Lady Rothermere, who died in August 1992) rang him up and there was a sort of exchange over the phone which was fairly sharp - why he wasn't home. And I will never forget it because it was almost like a scene from a movie. Vere had been working with one of those green-topped desk lamps; the lamp was shining down on to his papers, which obviously did not have good news in them . . . and he said wearily: 'One of my problems is with Pat, because of the long hours I'm working. She wants me to be home for dinner, or to take her out to a nightclub or the theatre.' So I said: 'Yes, but that's the same for all of us . . . Pat must put up with it the same as every newspaper wife, because we're fighting for our existence.' And Vere replied: 'Ah yes, but there's an amazing difference you see. I don't have to do it, not financially. I have to do it for my family pride and for my enormous interest in the newspapers. I want to do it but I don't have to do it. You have to do it because you haven't got any money] And that makes a big difference with your wife, because she knows you're doing it to be successful, to make money, to do things for your children, to advance yourselves. If I gave up tomorrow and went to live in Jamaica it wouldn't make the slightest difference to me financially, and Pat can't understand why I have to do it. She thinks I've lost interest in her or have got a beautiful secretary, she doesn't understand that it's the biggest thing in my life to succeed.'

'And on another occasion,' English recalled, 'at a period of bleakness, he said: 'It's going to be terrible if we fail. You've proved that you're a good newspaperman, David, and you'll get another job . . . But if I go down I'll be the man who lost the Harmsworth touch, I'll have lost the inheritance. I can't go and get a job as a newspaper manager somewhere else. I should have to go to Jamaica and live in the sun, which is the last thing I want to do.' '

VERE HAROLD Esmond Harmsworth was born in 1925, the youngest of three children, the only son and consequently heir. After his parents divorced rather acrimoniously when he was five, he was subjected to a good deal of toing and froing between his mother's house in Dorset, his father's press-baronial London home, Warwick House, and a suite in Claridge's.

At Eton, says a contemporary who now works for him, 'Vere was rather an obscure Etonian, hardly anyone knew him.'

'I was at prep school with him, I was at Eton with him, I was almost in the army with him, and he was the dimmest man I ever met,' claims a Scottish grandee contemporary. 'But when I run into him now, he seems like a different person altogether.'

'I was always hard-pressed to pass my trials (end-of-term exams),' Rothermere remembers. 'Although after I went to America (he spent a year at Kent School, Connecticut) I found the work much easier. American education is vastly superior to Eton, though that's a bit unfair since all the Eton beaks (masters) were away in the army during my time and the only people left behind to teach us were either old or unfit. But the American education I got absolutely transformed my whole life.'

University being considered too high a goal, he did national service, but failed his commission and joined the ranks. He spent four years, unpromoted, as a private soldier. He says now that he is grateful not to have been an officer, because it was useful market research: 'I think it gave me quite an idea about what the real world is really like for the majority of people.' Later he would introduce promotions into his newspapers to 'Win a Pub', confident from his days in the ranks that pub ownership is the aspiration of every non-commissioned Englishman.

Home from the army, he sought a role. As the proprietor's son he could not be given a menial job, and yet he was insufficiently experienced to do anything useful. Instead he was sent away on a series of long holidays - to the Bahamas, Mexico, Costa Rica - or kicked his heels at Warwick House.

Things looked up when, at 24, he was found a job for 18 months with the Anglo-Canadian Paper Mills in Quebec. This reinforced his passion for North America and gave him a lot of incidental knowledge about turning lumber into newsprint and the rudiments of printing. He remains disproportionately proud of this practical expertise, and will shamelessly air it with colleagues when absolutely confident that they are ignorant on the subject. 'The way people talk,' says the Daily Express editor, Sir Nicholas Lloyd, 'you half-expect to find him in a pair of oily overalls holding a spanner and finding out what's wrong with the printing press. I don't doubt that he's interested in it all, but not much beyond that.'

Eventually Rothermere was allowed by his father to return to London, to an ill-defined job created for him at the newspapers. Bert Irvine, who would eventually become general manager of the Daily Mail, took him on a tour of the seaside towns of north Devon to assess circulation trends. After this grand tour of the provinces, Rothermere was redeployed and launched his legendary promotions: Win a Pub, Win a Pension for Life, Win a Holiday, Win a Wristwatch. If he couldn't secure a big prize he gave away a small one: the object of the exercise was the magnetic three-letter word Win.

'I suppose we kind of vaguely understood he was the heir-apparent,' says David English, 'but he was very modest. I won't say he was exactly one of the boys, but he was certainly not a very clear heir-apparent in his demeanour or anything, so he used to come out drinking with us and have lunch and talk these competitions through.

'He once summed his job up by saying that it isn't too difficult to run a newspaper if you appreciate the creative side. His great-uncle Northcliffe had started the Mail by getting a fantastic team of journalists and indulging them and encouraging them and stroking them and rewarding them and driving them as well. They were the cream of the organisation, they had the best offices and incredible expenses and dined at the Savoy and went off first-class around the world. Journalists work very well when they're treated like that; if you can also motivate their natural competitive spirits they'll work extremely hard. The business people in Northcliffe's day were all at the back of Northcliffe House, sitting on high stools adding up the money in very cramped offices. And they were naturally deeply resentful and jealous of the journalists. So when Northcliffe died, Vere's grandfather pushed all the journalists into the back rooms and cut their salaries and inflated all the management . . . And from that point on the sale of the Daily Mail went down and the sale of the Daily Express went up. And Vere said his father continued that tradition because he, too, believed that journalists were interchangeable. So all Vere did when he took over, he's told me, was to kick all the management back into the back rooms and let David English and his people have the best offices and the best expenses and the sale of the paper went up . . .'

The gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, who used to work on the Daily Express before joining the relaunched Daily Mail, remembers the relative kudos of the two rival papers when Vere Rothermere was first appearing on the scene. 'We used to look down at Associated Newspapers as a joke. Everyone at the Daily Express - which was on the sunny side of Fleet Street - used to jeer at the Mail. And Max Aitken (then owner of the Express) used to belittle Vere Rothermere, too. I remember at Cowes - where Max Aitken was the king - Vere used to arrive in a little boat and Max Aitken would demean him, I mean scream with laughter. 'There's Vere in his dinghy]' Well . . . in 20 years the Express empire has all but vanished and, singlehandedly, Vere has restored a faltering empire and is now king of the castle.'

WITH HINDSIGHT, the Daily Mail's transition from a broadsheet to a tabloid - or 'compact' as Rothermere grandly calls it - seems the obvious and only step he could have taken. But at the time it was a considerable gamble. Sir David English said: 'One evening we had a very, very late and a very, very long dinner. Vere said: 'Look, David, you work for the Mail group and you've worked with the Express and you know that the Express hasn't just got double our circulation and a much smarter image - it's even more profound than that - they psychologically dominate us . . . Somehow we've got to break those things and the only way I can think of to do that,' said Vere, 'is to do something enormously dramatic, an all-or-nothing throw, which is to turn the paper tabloid.' And he said he'd made a study, and that it would no longer necessarily be perceived by the public as purely the bottom end of the market. And that a change in itself, if we could pull it off, would turn the cards on all those other things: the Express would look old-fashioned and our staff would be lifted by this coup de main.'

In due course a prototype of the tabloid was printed in the utmost secrecy, and the first copy off the press was rushed round to Rothermere for his comments.

'David and his staff had been working all day,' says Bert Irvine, 'and he obviously did not fancy presenting the finished product to Vere directly. He asked me to be his messenger. I duly arrived at Eaton Square about tea-time, to be met by a surprised Pat (Lady Rothermere) clearly not expecting me, the children and a sleepy Vere.

'He grabbed the copies eagerly and sent Pat to fetch tea. When she returned he asked her for her opinion. Obviously the secret had been well kept. She could not believe that we were thinking of changing her beloved broadsheet the Daily Mail, and Vere allowed her to blame me.'

One of Rothermere's daughters, Geraldine Ogilvy, remembers the deliberations about the relaunch that went on at home.

'Dad used to ask us all the time: 'What do you think?' I asked: 'Why are you doing this, Dad? It looked good bigger.' And he said: 'The paper's losing money and this will save money. And people will like it more in the end.'

'He used to work so hard we hardly saw him,' she says. Later her father compensated for this period of distraction by taking his children on expeditions. 'When my brother Jonathan was growing up, Dad became rather adventurous and took us on riding holidays in Montana and Arizona. He loves that kind of thing. We always say that his closest friends are his children - his only friends, to be frank. He's always hugging us like a big bear. We're a very tactile family, not very English in that respect; we express ourselves quite openly, for good and for bad.'

At other times Rothermere makes a point of being elusive and mysterious. He enjoys telephoning an editor, whom he has spoken to only the day before from Paris, and announcing: 'I'm ringing you from the Goldener Hirsch in Salzburg,' or 'I'm in Tokyo at the Imperial.' Sonia Sinclair remembers sitting next to Rothermere at a party for Imelda Marcos at the Philippines embassy. 'Vere turned to me towards the end of dinner and said: 'I'm leaving this country tomorrow for good. It's absolutely essential, otherwise I'll be virtually ruined by taxation, and I feel terribly strongly about keeping the empire together.' '

According to Geraldine Ogilvy, her father 'owns nothing now, no property at all. The flat in Eaton Square was my mother's, the houses in Jamaica and California and Sussex and the South of France belonged to my mother. His flat in Paris is rented and the apartment in New York is a company one, I think. The house in Kyoto belongs to Maiko (Rothermere's long-standing Korean consort, Maiko Lee, with whom he spends much of his year).'

His elusiveness also means that he invests the editors he trusts with an unusual degree of authority. For 22 years he has championed David English, now the highest-paid newspaper executive in Britain; his salary is estimated to be pounds 800,000 a year. Rothermere described him to me as 'the perfect Daily Mail reader', by which, he explained, he means aspirational, enterprising, family-minded and conservative. You feel that Vere Rothermere is genuinely grateful that he's found in English someone who can - and wishes to - identify completely with Rothermere's readers; something which Lord Rothermere himself, by dint of his background, can never entirely do. And you get the impression, too, that English remains slightly in awe of Rothermere and will go to great lengths not to displease him.

What Rothermere might think is always an unspoken consideration on the paper. There is a famous story about a five-day serial on massage the Daily Mail was intending to print. On the eve of publication a terrible panic gripped the senior executives. Maiko Lee had recently been described in Private Eye as 'a hand masseuse', and it occurred to them that the proprietor might interpret the massage articles as a personal insult to his girlfriend. It was too late to remove the series completely and a clever compromise was reached. The word massage was substituted throughout by the word 'pressure'; the word 'hand' by 'digits'. The doctoring left the series hard to follow for the readers, but at least nobody in Paris would be embarrassed.

'Does Rothermere ever give you story suggestions himself?' I asked David English.

'Ideas, rather than stories . . . kind of general strategies which you can accept or not accept. He's got a most catholic mind. He's a well-read student of history, and he's got an extremely good memory. He once said that if he had not been anything else, he would have liked to be a great chief sub-editor or night editor. And he would have been good at that because he's got this encyclopaedic memory and could say: 'No, that's not right, it was in 1492 that Columbus arrived in America.' '

'THE GREAT conundrum of Vere's life,' says a former kinsman, 'is knowing precisely where he stands in relation to the Establishment. He half-enjoys being the maverick outsider - the great power who has never been sucked inside - and yet he's perpetually driven towards being part of it. On one level, the Mail is a pretty accurate reflection of Vere's philosophy: you do well in the free world and you go to Heaven. On the other hand, he can see through the way that the Mail leads people towards a pot of gold that doesn't exist. He has never been sure what he thinks of the Establishment. He got a hard time at Eton. He believed his contemporaries looked down on him because his family owned newspapers. So he has a certain amount of vitriol towards the Establishment, or what he thinks the Establishment stands for. And yet, at the same time of course, the Mail has gradually become associated with the resurgence of the middle classes, and Vere finds himself running and owning the paper of aspiration of the great bourgeoisie.

'He is fond of power, he can't conceive of not being in charge of everything - his papers, his family, wherever he goes he is always the boss. He can be charming, but if he feels his hand is being forced you encounter a very different animal.'

As an acquisitor he is cautious. His empire has expanded more slowly than those of his competitors, and he has at least five times walked away from major deals, or been beaten by a swifter or more reckless rival.

In 1976 he toyed with buying the Observer from the Astors, an ambition that was thwarted by a trio of factors: hostility from the Observer's journalists, who considered Rothermere politically too right-wing; rival competitors prepared to pay over the odds, and a certain lack of enthusiasm on Rothermere's part, compounded by the feeling that he should be launching a new Sunday paper of his own rather than buying a liberal paper that didn't relish his arrival. He says today: 'I am very relieved looking back on it that we didn't get the Observer. I think it was a lucky escape.' And in October 1980, Rothermere was in the frame to buy the Times from Lord Thomson, but was beaten by Rupert Murdoch, partly, some say, because Murdoch was on the spot in London and did everything possible to win the deal, while Vere Rothermere pressed his case at arm's-length from Paris, reluctant to lock horns directly with his competitor.

Rothermere finally succeeded, however, with a long campaign to control the lucrative market of London's evening newspapers. By 1977 both sets of rivals - Rothermere with his Evening News and Max Aitken, Beaverbrook's heir, with the Evening Standard - had become fed up with their respective losses. It suited all parties to talk, and a plan was devised whereby the Standard would be sold to Rothermere for pounds 7.5m and the combined evening paper - the News - would be printed on Beaverbrook's superior presses. This happy deal was on the point of being signed when news of it leaked out. There was an immediate outcry which took all parties by surprise. Expressions of public support for the Standard bordered on the hysterical. On the eve of the signing, Jocelyn Stevens, acting for Aitken, announced that Sir James Goldsmith, who already owned a block of shares in Beaverbrook, was considering buying the whole empire. He had requested a six-week delay, which Aitken had granted.

Lady Rothermere, who began describing Goldsmith as 'that panther' at about this time, said she had never seen her husband so irritated. The final deal only heightened his frustration: the construction and shipping company Trafalgar House, which owned the London Ritz and the QE2, bought out the Aitkens over Rothermere's head and preserved the Express group in full and enthusiastic possession of the Evening Standard.

Two years later, in the months leading up to the 1979 General Election, the Daily Mail's support for the Conservative Party's new leader, Margaret Thatcher, was remorseless and effective. Rothermere, confident that English had caught the public mood, was happy to let him get on with it. Like many hereditary tycoons, his own political convictions are maverick. He will remark airily, late at night: 'I suppose this generation of the Royal Family will be the last, don't you? One really can't seriously imagine them being allowed to carry on into the next century, can one?' Seditious fancies of this sort do not find their way into his newspapers, however, and the Daily Mail's championing of the new spirit of free enterprise was directly to benefit its proprietor. Under a Conservative government, an evening newspaper merger seemed much less controversial, so in 1980 Rothermere closed his Evening News (which was estimated to have lost pounds 38m by its final edition) and in return got 50 per cent of the shares in the new Evening Standard company, with the option to buy the other half if Trafalgar House ever wished to sell. This was a clause of immense importance, since it explicitly prevented Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, Goldsmith or any other panther from prowling around the Evening Standard. Rothermere also correctly guessed that Trafalgar might not wish to retain their newspaper subsidiary for long.

SOMETHING I wanted to discover about Vere Rothermere was the extent to which he feels accountable for his newpapers' gossip pages. Both the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday have as their gossip columnist the smooth and omnipresent Nigel Dempster. The women Rothermere is seated next to at London parties invariably scan Dempster, even if they do so surreptitiously. Most of them have also appeared on his page.

'Do your friends sometimes berate you,' I asked him, 'about stories in Dempster's column, stories about rocky marriages, divorces, elopements, that kind of thing?'

'Well, they used to a lot when I lived in England, but I don't live in England now, so they can't]' Then he guffawed. 'That's why I live in Paris]' Then he guffawed again. 'I suppose readers of the continental Daily Mail might take something up with me, but continentals very rarely appear in the Daily Mail]' Then he guffawed again.

'He's never interfered with me in my life,' says Nigel Dempster. 'Never once has he demanded for any story to be taken out because a friend has rung him up. Though there was a classic case when I broke the story of the belly dancer Pat Kluge. I had discovered that Mrs Kluge had had a connection with Knave magazine, had worked as a belly dancer, and was shortly to be the hostess in Palm Beach at a gala at which the Prince and Princess of Wales were going to be guests of honour. It was a gala in aid of Atlantic Colleges, and the person behind it all was Dr Armand Hammer. Dr Armand, for some reason, had a friendship with John Kluge, and the Kluges got wind of what I was going to reveal and rang Dr Armand and Dr Armand rang Lord Rothermere. A mighty man, Dr Armand.

'Anyway I had got wind that this was going to happen - the call to Rothermere - so I sent one of my people down to Charing Cross Road and I got all the old copies of Knave magazine with Pat Kluge in them, and I had all the photographs of her copied. At half-past-eight I had gone home, and my whole page was devoted to the story of Pat Kluge and John Kluge and Charles and Diana and the cover of Knave magazine.

'At about half-past-eight, the back bench (the sub-editors' desk) was informed that Lord Rothermere was without and would shortly be in their midst. And sure enough, some time before the first edition went away - say, 10 o'clock - Lord Rothermere appears behind the back bench. No one had ever seen him on the editorial floor of the Daily Mail in living memory. And he demands to see the first edition. And there is everything that Dr Armand has warned him about - the filth, lies. Dr Armand had told him that the libel action will be so punitive that Vere will have not a penny left, unless this page is pulled right there and then. So Rothermere suggests that the page is pulled. Now fortunately I was primed to the possibility of this, and I had left a folder of all these astonishing pictures of Pat Kluge, so the night editor says: 'Before you make a decision, Lord Rothermere, I'd like to say that the lawyers have looked at everything, they've passed it all and if you are in any doubt about the past of Mrs Kluge perhaps you'd like to take a look at this folder.' So Vere sits down and starts thumbing though. And everyone is sitting there like churchmice and they suddenly hear from behind them: 'Very interesting. Very very interesting. Didn't know people could do that.' And then Rothermere handed back the folder and said: 'Keep the page as it is.' '

SIX WEEKS before she died of a heart-attack brought on by an accidental overdose of sleeping pills at her villa in Cap d'Ail, I visited Lady Rothermere at home in London. Spanning the width of two houses in Eaton Square, her apartment was a cosier version of what the Empress Eugenie might have conceived if she'd relocated to Palm Beach. The overwhelming impression was of gold: Louis XIV side tables resplendent with gilt, faux-chinoiserie mirrors, elaborate vases with gilded ram's- head handles. From the drawing-room ceiling was suspended, in a cascade of crystal teardrops, an immense Venetian chandelier topped with a taffeta bow.

On every flat surface were photographs: of Lady Rothermere with heads of state, with the Queen, with Liza Minnelli, touring printing presses with her husband and being greeted by works managers with apprehensive smiles. Scattered everywhere were little tapestry cushions embroidered with mottos. When Lady Rothermere eventually joined me - she had had a number of changes of mind about which evening-dress to put on - she supported herself on the sofa with three of these cushions, each dispatching a different maxim in my direction.

'Jealousy is the tribute of Mediocrity to Genius,' proclaimed the tapestry cushion beneath her left elbow.

'If you are swinging through the jungle, don't let go of the vine,' cautioned the cushion supporting the small of her back.

'If you haven't got anything good to say about anyone, come here and sit by me,' invited the third cushion.

Patricia Evelyn Beverley Rothermere was the most memorable proprietor's wife in the world: the once-beautiful Rank film starlet who partied hard, travelled constantly around the world in the pursuit of fun, hated her gossip column nickname 'Bubbles', dressed in a bedizenment of flounces and furbelows, ruffles and bows from Zandra Rhodes and yet, for all this apparent froth, played a crucial part in the resuscitation of her husband's newspaper empire.

'It's because I'm a Taurus,' she assured me in her clipped, Thirties film star accent. 'If I hadn't been a Taurus I could never have saved Vere. Only a Taurus could have got him what was rightfully his.'

The precise nature of the relationship between the Rothermeres was not well defined, probably even to themselves. It was certainly, in its looseness, highly civilised. Vere Rothermere spends much of his time in Paris with Maiko Lee, and travels with her for long periods to Japan. When he is in London he seldom stays at Eaton Square, preferring hotels like the Halcyon, but if he happened to be in Manhattan at the same time as his wife, or in Beverly Hills, Jamaica or Cap d'Ail, there was no awkwardness and he gave every indication of being genuinely delighted to see her.

'Even when he's in Japan he rings me every day and asks me to tell him what's happening,' Lady Rothermere said. 'However late I'm back from Annabel's I read all the newspapers every night - the next day's newspapers - marking things to draw to Vere's attention. I don't ring the editors direct, because I don't want to cut Vere's balls off.

'Have you met Maiko?' she asked me suddenly. 'Vere met her in Club 54 in Paris you know, and she moved in with him the very next day. At the time she made me very sad, that geisha, but now I'm used to it. Vere goes to the Far East with her. He says it clears his head and releases him from the pressures. But he comes back with all sorts of airy ideas, so I don't let him go for too long - I wheel him in like a big fish on the end of my telephone line. But I do fear one day when he retires he will go and live in Kyoto. I've told him he'd hate it, he should be in the country where his children are. But he's very indecisive about things like that,' she said, rather affectionately.

'But my husband has at least been clever in one thing, because he's rearranged the company so nobody can get their hands on it very easily. No Jimmy Goldsmith can just come along. Jimmy's a friend of course, but he's a panther. I keep telling Vere that Jimmy's a panther, you'd better watch out. You see they all want to own newspapers, those panthers because they think it's power. They don't realise that it's the editors who have the power, not the owners at all.'

'Does Sir David English really have more power than Lord Rothermere?'

'In small ways, yes. The small things. Not the big things.'

She was born Patricia Matthews, the daughter of a Hertfordshire architect, and was unostentatiously brought up in the Church of Scotland. By the time she was 16 she was unusually beautiful. She was only 18 when she married for the first time; she had met Captain Christopher Brooks, late of the Coldstream Guards, at a motor-racing event at Goodwood and they became engaged almost immediately. Within a year of her marriage, Pat Brooks had given birth to a baby girl, Sarah, and embarked on a promising acting career; she enrolled as a starlet at the Rank Charm School, took the stage name Beverley Brooks, and began to get small parts in films, most memorably as a frothy deb in Reach for the Sky.

Within five years, however, her marriage to Brooks had lost momentum - anyway from her point of view - and she had met Vere Rothermere, by then aged 32, at a party. 'He was endlessly hanging around our house and wouldn't go away,' Lady Rothermere said. 'I remember my first husband saying to him: 'Take your Daimler and yourself away from my wife]' ' Evidently Rothermere decided to take all three.

'I didn't know what would be involved in the marriage, or about the power struggle for an empire I would be caught up in. I just couldn't understand him, suffering so many hang-ups with his parents. I went through a lot of hell. I levelled with my father-in-law. I said to him: 'I don't know whether I can handle it, Vere is so withdrawn.' Three times he ran away from me. He had a yacht. And each time I found him and said: 'You don't run away when you're a winner. Only a loser runs away, and you can be a winner.' Three times I brought him home, and back to the newspapers. Esmond, my father-in-law, said: 'If you leave him now, you'll break him for ever.' So I said: 'All right, I'll stay. But if I do, I'm going to fight and fight, fight hard to let him stand up for what is his.' And Esmond said: 'You're throwing down the gauntlet, I don't want Vere in this biz.' '

Much of what Patricia Rothermere said may be regarded as fanciful. Her husband's pivotal newspaper decisions - like the decision to take the Daily Mail tabloid - were taken by him alone, without the knowledge, much less the advice, of his wife. And her periodic claims late at night, over champagne and a bowl of onion soup at Annabel's, directly to influence the content of the newspapers were largely wishful thinking.

'Pat hardly ever rang me,' says David English. 'Only when she wanted help getting theatre tickets or something.' She was not, however, without insight. She had a well-developed suspicion of rival proprietors - predators - and was never off her guard. Of the Murdochs she said: 'I like him, I like them, the Murdochs. Rupert's only once tried to double-cross Vere. We were having lunch with him in his apartment in New York, just Vere and I and Rupert and David Frost. And Rupert asked nonchalantly during lunch: 'Well Vere, are you going to bid for the Times?' And Vere said that he wasn't, and that very evening Rupert put in his bid, which he never would have done if Vere hadn't been so honest. Sometimes Vere's too honest. You have to keep your wits about you with those sort of people.'

Ten years after the Rothermeres were married, Vere's father, Esmond, against all expectations, remarried and produced a son, also called Esmond - half-brother for Vere, 42 years his junior. Pat, at this point, had only given Rothermere girls - Geraldine, born in 1957, and Camilla, in 1964.

Lady Rothermere had been told by her doctor she would die if she had another child. But the arrival of this son to her 70-year-old father-in-law made her determined. She put a good deal of effort, too, into studying the methods of a Dr August Von Borosini in influencing the sex of her baby. Eventually, in December 1967, she was rewarded with a son, Jonathan Harmsworth, and Vere had secured Associated Newspapers for the next generation.

'For that alone,' says Dempster, 'I know that Vere believes he owed Pat an eternal debt. And so whatever happened in her life, I don't think that he would ever have done anything but care for her.' Jonathan Harmsworth, a tall, upright-looking boy in his early twenties, was sent to Gordonstoun and then, at his mother's suggestion, to Duke University in North Carolina. 'I said: 'If you go to Oxford, Jonathan, people will only come to your room and take drugs and get depressed. Go to an American university, with all that open air.' And in America, too, the name Harmsworth means almost nothing. Whereas here, because of the newspapers . . .

'Was I sensible?' Lady Rothermere suddenly asked me. 'Was my advice sensible?' She sounded like she really minded.

I replied that it sounded perfectly sensible.

'I am sensible,' she said. 'It's Vere who likes me to appear frivolous. He once asked me: 'Never let me see you serious, I like you always to be fun-loving and happy, it relaxes me.' So I try to be, to please Vere, you see.'

IN MAY 1992 Lord Rothermere threw a party to mark the 21st anniversary of the relaunched Daily Mail. It was a gala expressly devised to emphasise the Mail's triumph over the opposition, and more than a thousand people, including John Major, numerous Cabinet ministers, composers, television personalities and rock stars were invited to a dinner at the Grosvenor House Hotel. A towering 21st birthday cake was wheeled into the ballroom and Rothermere stood next to Sir David English in the centre of the dance floor, hands clasped behind his back.

Later he made a speech in which he credited English with being 'the greatest and most creative editor seen in Fleet Street since the time of Northcliffe,' and said to John Major: 'The politics of my newspapers, Prime Minister, are what my editors believe the politics of their readers to be. For myself,' he went on, 'I left Thatcher's Britain for Mitterrand's France because it is in Europe that our future lies.'

Four months later I heard Lord Rothermere again speaking publicly at an event of a very different nature, the service of thanksgiving for the life of his wife. His car had recently spun off a wet autoroute in France, and his arm was in plaster. In a matter of months he had aged, and his hair turned snowy-white. He spoke of his deep love for Lady Rothermere, of his gratitude to her for bearing him a son, 'and so ensuring the future of our family newspapers', and how she had been traduced by rival newspapers, for reasons of jealousy, turning her into a figure of fun. He said that he had written a poem entitled 'I Love You' in her memory, which he had slipped inside her coffin, and which he now read out in trembling voice:

I was never old nor wise enough for you

My pen has not the depth nor scan

My mind the reach nor season

To compose the strange music of your heart

Oh, lady with the Mahler soul

Why have you me in thrall?

I have wept deep tears tinged with the blood of my life

As love's sweet and secret sea

Far below the burning sands of living.

Abridged from 'Paper Tigers', by Nicholas Coleridge, published by William Heinemann on 24 June, pounds 17.99

COPYRIGHT: NICHOLAS COLERIDGE 1993

(Photograph omitted)

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