CV: Robert Lacey, Editor, `Cover'

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The Independent Online
In 1980, there was all this furore over a woman called Lady Diana Spencer, and I did a pictorial book on her called `Princess' ...

I got a history Exhibition to Cambridge, but when I left, in the mid-Sixties, I wasn't sure where I was going. I'd done a year's voluntary service overseas in French West Africa, and I thought of the British Council, then I was approached by the Foreign Office and offered a job as a spy, but the prospect of a whole life of obscurity didn't appeal.

Just then the Sunday Times Magazine ran a talent competition for young writers. The first prize was an air ticket to anywhere you wanted, and at the time I was interested in South Africa - as well as having a girlfriend there. I had to write a 2,000-word profile of a living person, and I picked on a man called Horace Bachelor, who had a system for winning the football pools advertised on Radio Luxembourg.

The competition was won by Philip Norman, but I was a finalist and the Sunday Times bought my piece for pounds 80 - in those days enough for me to go to South Africa anyway. There, I was asked by the Johannesburg Sunday Times to write my impressions of the country, and when I got back to England (the romance hadn't worked out) they asked me to go on writing for them. In addition, The Sunday Times wanted me to do more writing, and Weidenfeld & Nicolson commissioned me to write a book on Elizabeth I and Essex. I realised I could make a living as a freelance journalist.

Then I met Sandi, who was working as a graphic designer on the Illustrated London News, and who is now my wife. She got me a job on that, and I became assistant editor. It was right round the corner from The Sunday Times, so I could go in and ingratiate myself there, and after a year I was offered a full-time job on the Sunday Times Magazine. Later I became the editor of the "Look" pages.

But I had this neurosis that what appeared in newsprint wasn't real writing, so all the time I was writing historical biographies too - which got good reviews but didn't sell very well. My wife said I should write something to make some money - about the British Royal Family, perhaps. At first I couldn't find a publisher, but in 1974 my old editor Tony Godwin commissioned me to write a book about the Queen, and paid me the equivalent of two years' salary to stop work at The Sunday Times.

The book, called Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor, came out in 1977 - Jubilee year - and was a best-seller. The publishers then suggested a book on Prince Charles, which I thought was too obvious; then I was told the story of Ibn Saud, the tribal chieftain who at the beginning of this century was exiled from Arabia but came back to conquer it and become its first king.

So I took my family to live in Jeddah, and wrote a book about Saudi Arabia called The Kingdom. It was a best-seller, but was banned in Saudi Arabia - which I took as a badge of distinction. Then, when I came back to Britain, in 1980, there was all this furore over a woman called Lady Diana Spencer, and I did a pictorial book on her called Princess.

After that the BBC asked me to do a TV series called Aristocrats, about the surviving noble families of Europe. Then I took my family to live in Detroit, and wrote Ford: The Men and the Machine. I stayed in America for almost 10 years, writing books on the gangster Meyer Lansky, Princess Grace, and Sotheby's, which I'm just finishing now.

Then Danny Danziger put to me the idea of pulling together the best material from newspapers and magazines around the world. I liked the idea of starting a business, so for the last two years Danny and I have been raising the money to start Cover - it's now doing well. The challenge is to pick out material that is not only timely, but timeless.