Sex and power

Lord Beaverbrook built a newspaper empire, conquered London society and declared war on Mountbatten. Beautiful, glamorous women loved him. And he destroyed them. By Leonie Jameson

"The aphrodisiac of power." I never realised quite what that phrase meant until I started researching a documentary on the life of Lord Beaverbrook, the founder of Express Newspapers, and the man of whom Evelyn Waugh said: "Of course I believe in the devil. How else could I account for Lord Beaverbrook?"

The press baron certainly had pulling power. For more than 40 years, he played host to an extraordinary succession of guests at Cherkley Court, his home in Surrey, from Lloyd George and Winston Churchill to Elizabeth Taylor and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. His granddaughter, Lady Jean Campbell, who was brought up by Beaverbrook, has no doubt that he was a life enhancer, one of those people you might meet once a lifetime. When he entered a room, it came alive. When he left, it died. "Wherever he went, he was like a monsoon. He brought chaos, disorder and life," she says.

Most remarkable, however, is the enormous effect this personal magnetism had on women, including the writer Rebecca West, who became infatuated with him, and the Honourable Mrs Jean Norton, a society beauty and close friend of Lord Mountbatten, who became Beaverbrook's mistress.

Canadian by birth, Beaverbrook made a fortune as an asset-stripper in North America. A millionaire at 30, he moved to Britain, where he conquered London society, created a newspaper empire, acquired a peerage and became the confidant of Winston Churchill and a cabinet minister in both world wars.

Beaverbrook's first wife, and the mother of his three children, was Gladys Drury, a well-connected Canadian woman whom Beaverbrook married when she was 18. Gladys, who died in 1927 aged 39, remains a shadowy figure. But, by all accounts, she was what we would now call a "compliant wife". According to her family, she could just about put up with Beaverbrook's flirtations with showgirls and even the glamorous American vamp, Tullulah Bankhead. But Beaverbrook's serious liaison with Jean Norton, a married woman, presented a real threat. Beaverbrook's daughter, Janet Kidd, believes it contributed to her mother's illness and early death.

Jean Norton's husband, who became Lord Grantley, was a leading British film producer, and the couple were close friends of Lord Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina. Grantley turned a blind eye to his wife's affair with Beaverbrook, in the way the upper classes apparently did in those days, and the three remained on good terms. Yet while Jean remained devoted to Beaverbrook for 20 years, he was consistently unfaithful to his mistress, and she eventually assumed the role of long-suffering companion (he never married her) formerly occupied by his wife. In an uncanny echo of her predecessor's fate, Mrs Norton died young, shortly after she too felt that she had been supplanted in Beaverbrook's affections. Her rival was Lily Ernst, a Jewish ballet dancer whom Beaverbrook, despite being a leading supporter of the Conservative policy of appeasing Hitler, rescued from Nazi persecution in Austria.

Although Beaverbrook had neglected Mrs Norton toward the end of her life, he convinced himself after her death that she had had an affair with Lord Mountbatten. According to John Junor, a former Sunday Express editor, Beaverbrook's sexual jealousy spelt "disaster for Mountbatten". At every opportunity, the press baron used his clout to attack Mountbatten's role in public life.

The instruction to "get Mountbatten" presented particular difficulties for the journalist Chapman Pincher, a former Daily Express defence correspondent. Mountbatten, as First Sea Lord, was a key journalistic contact, as well as being a shooting companion of Pincher's. Pincher remembers Lord Mountbatten describing how Beaverbrook had leaned across to him at a dinner party and told him "from now on between you and me, Dickie, it's war". And it was war. In exasperation, Mountbatten wrote to Beaverbrook complaining that attacks on his fitness to hold office were obviously coming "under orders from above".

Rebecca West, too, seemed to be frightened that Beaverbrook, with the enormous power he wielded through the press, might harm her in some way. West, a feminist intellectual, wrote for Beaverbrook's papers and succumbed to the proprietor in 1923. But neither of them ever revealed the affair in their lifetimes. Speaking on television in 1976 as Dame Rebecca West, the novelist explained that, all his life, Beaverbrook's charm lay in his supreme ability to make the person he was talking to feel that they were the most important person in the world - a comment that was both generous and disingenuous in the light of her unhappy relationship with a man she described in her diary as "evil". She wrote an account of their relationship in her novel, Sunflower. In it, she painted a picture of a woman (herself) in the grip of a powerful sexual passion, and the portrait of Beaverbrook is by no means unflattering to him. She loved his tiny hands and feet.

But West could not finish the book and it remained unpublished until after her death. To the end, the novelist was obsessed with a man who, she claimed, was impotent with her. Beaverbrook, on the other hand, seems to have lost interest and let her know it in a particularly cruel way, claiming that the first time they made love he had been drunk.

Their relationship seems in many ways typical of the man. Beaverbrook's friends and employees testify again and again to his extraordinary energy, sense of humour, and mischievousness. But he was also cruel, vindictive and, according to his granddaughter, destructive towards women. So why did a distinguished line of talented, beautiful females fall for him?

Often described as ugly and gnome-like, Beaverbrook was on the small side (about 5ft 6in), with a large head and a big mouth which was usually spread in an impish grin. But whatever his contemporaries thought of his looks, of his charm there was no doubt.

Lady d'Avigdor Goldsmid, now in her 70s, wanted to marry Lord Beaverbrook's handsome son, Max Aitken, but ended up becoming a lifelong friend and admirer of the father. Lady Goldsmid thinks that his dazzling charm was the key to the phenomenal social success of "the lord". "Charm is something you can't describe, and he had more charm than anybody," she recalls. "And I can only assume from the devotions of the ladies that he must have been very good in bed."

The dark side to his character in his dealings with women is ascribed by Lady Jean Campbell to Protestant guilt. The great seducer was the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Although he rebelled against the constraints of life in the Manse, he never forgot the early lessons in hellfire and damnation. In his granddaughter's view, "He'd have the mistresses and then be terrified that he was doing the wrong thing and treat them badly; and that included Jean Norton."

When his wife died, soon after he began his relationship with Mrs Norton, Beaverbrook certainly showed all the signs of a guilty conscience. He put a large cross in the garden at Cherkley and named his yacht, rather bizarrely, John Calvin. But, adds Chapman Pincher, remorse did not change his philandering habits.

Towards the end of his life, Beaverbrook became greatly pre-occupied with God, and, shortly before he died, he asked Lady Jean Campbell whether she thought that she was among God's elect - the chosen few who, according to his Presbyterian religion, would go to heaven. One of his editors said that, in his view, the old man would have ended up where he'd find it more interesting and that was probably in hell.

In many ways, the manner of Beaverbrook's departure from this world in 1964 summed up all the extraordinary public and private contradictions of the man. Two weeks before he died, Lord Thomson, a fellow Canadian and newspaper proprietor, organised an 85th birthday dinner at the Dorchester for 650 people who knew the press baron. Despite the extraordinary part played by women in his life, the party was strictly a stag night. His second wife, the eccentric Lady Dunn, whom he married when he was 84, uninvited all the female guests at the last minute.

From the 1930s until his death, Beaverbrook was a crucial figure in controlling what information reached the British public. Most famously, he kept the news of Mrs Simpson's divorce out of the papers. And, although he introduced the gossip column to Britain, his papers never delved into the private lives of public figures. "We are not policemen," he told one former Daily Express editor, Robert Edwards. But in the days when the owner of The Daily Express talked to one of his editors with a society lady sitting on his lap stroking his face, his journalists' reticence was probably prudent as well as ethical.

The author's film, "Secret Lives: Beaverbrook", is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
Researchers have said it could take only two questions to identify a problem with alcohol
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    LSA (afterschool club) vacancy in Newport

    £40 per day + Travel Scheme : Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: Our client ...

    Trust Accountant - Kent

    NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

    Geography Teacher

    £85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

    Teaching Assistant

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

    Day In a Page

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style