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

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