Meet the woman who gives John Humphrys nightmares

His name strikes fear into the country's toughest politicians, but the BBC presenter more than met his match when he came face to face with jazz great Ella Fitzgerald
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The Independent Online

For two decades John Humphrys has been renowned and feared as the hard man of broadcast journalism. As the anchor of Radio 4's Today programme he strikes terror into the hearts of even the toughest politicians, who are often left battered and bruised after a gruelling encounter with the nation's grand inquisitor.

He, in turn, has been intimidated only twice both times by women. One, perhaps understandably, was Margaret Thatcher. But it is the other woman who still gives him nightmares.

Humphrys confesses on this morning's Desert Island Discs that he is still scarred from a fateful meeting with the jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald as a young reporter in Cardiff. For, although the "First Lady of Song" charmed the world with her golden voice for more than 50 years, it appears she also had a frightening temper.

Humphrys recalls that when he went to interview the diva, whom many see as the finest interpreter of the great American songbook, he received a flash of the tough New York dame's anger.

"I have been terrified by two interviewees in my whole life," he tells Kirsty Young. "One was Margaret Thatcher, you'll not be surprised to hear. The other was Ella Fitzgerald. I was the editor of the teenage page of the Cardiff and District News. Fitzgerald came to Cardiff, and I went into her dressing room, and I was so scared and clumsy my elbow caught a mirror, knocked it to the floor and smashed it. She looked at me with rage and contempt and said, 'Get that kid out of here!'.

"So I never actually did interview her. To this day I tremble at the thought of it. I can feel myself breaking into a sweat as I describe it."

The diva and the broadcaster, however, had much in common. Both overcame deprived childhoods to reach the pinnacles of their respective careers.

In the interview Humphrys who chooses Fitzgerald's version of "Manhattan" along with "Myfanwy" by the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir reveals a softer side, admitting he lacked the courage to speak to another jazz legend, Duke Ellington, when he stood next to him in the lavatory at a New York concert.

"I went for a wee and there was the great man, and I stood next to him," he says. "I didn't speak to him, of course. I wouldn't have dared."

Further listening: 'Desert Island Discs' is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this morning at 11.15 and is repeated on Friday at 9am

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