TO REACH the top of one's profession and be forgotten. As much as anything that was the wish of Lawrence Venn for himself. Managing Director of Moet & Chandon's London office from 1960 to 1966, undoubtedly at that time and through the 1950s one of the most brilliant publicists for wine and related ventures, he retired to Malta and obscurity. The name Tio Pepe was his idea. So was Moet & Chandon's initiation of the Silver Magnum for the International Amateur Riders' Derby at Epsom each August bank holiday. The race with its customary flow of Moet champagne celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.
Born at the beginning of the reign of Edward VII, Venn entered the developing profession of public relations in the 1920s and by the outbreak of the Second World War had made his mark as a freelance originator of new approaches and unconventional ideas. Much of the war he spent in Malta serving with distinction throughout the siege on the staff of the GOC. That experience established a deep affection for the island strengthened by relationships of mutual respect with many of its leading citizens.
Much of Venn's success in business was due to shrewd judgement of people, a sardonic but attractive wit and an impressive presence. Tall, gregarious, with handsome clean-cut features and hair hesitating to turn grey, he kept his figure and seemed eternally young. He never would reveal his age or birthday.
Underlying this professional image was remarkable generosity to others. Through him guests from the UK at Moet's Chateau de Saran in Epernay included poets, film-makers, writers, actors, dancers and leaders of fashion as well as politicians, captains of industry, wine writers and the wine trade. Mixing the rich and influential with the talented poor assisted, argued Lawrence, Moet's image of glamour and distinction at every social level.
History was recruited to further this image. When Nikita Khrushchev visited the Moet cellars during a state visit to France Venn used the occasion to enhance the Moet image in the UK. His press releases and lithographs record a similar visit by Tsar Alexander II shortly after Waterloo. This style of PR and image-projection has changed like wine writing and much else. In the 1950s and 1960s it was hugely effective and Venn was its master practitioner.
My first contact with him came in 1959 after an article I had written for the Times about Monaco's cultural life. He was then public-relations adviser to a number of the principality's concerns as well as to Moet's London agents. Never one to let slip an opportunity, he wanted a similar article in the Times about Moet. This could not be done but it introduced me to the firm's remarkable chairman, the Comte de Vogue. Through this acquaintance, and as wine writer for the Sunday Times, I became spectator at close quarters of de Vogue's plan to place a reluctant Venn in charge of Moet's affairs in London.
Lawrence emerged as architect of the transfer of Moet in UK from a traditional, conventional agency into an organisation which handled exclusively the products of the parent company. The transfer changed Venn too from private publicist into high-powered businessman. He reorganised not only the London office but methods of import and distribution and his public-relations style to spread the champagne image.
Venn's public and personal life were in contradiction, rejecting the ephemeral society around the champagne world. On retirement the private life took over. A small flat in Monte Carlo was his first choice - too expensive, and perhaps too close to his public life. So he moved to Malta. There he created the social oblivion he sought. Unlike his achievements, he could be forgotten.