Obituary: Isidore Kerman

Stephen Aris
Thursday 20 August 1998 23:02
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IN THE course of a very long life, Isidore Kerman's defining characteristic was his zest. Where other men plan their lives along fixed and predetermined lines, Kerman followed his enthusiasms - which explains why his career was so delightfully eclectic, though by no means amateur.

In his time Kerman played many parts: West End solicitor, property speculator, restaurant owner and bridge player. He was, perhaps, best known as a racing man. He was a regular feature at the yearling sales at Deauville in France and was, for many years, the owner of the Plumpton jumping course in Sussex and the National Hunt racecourse at Fontwell Park, also in Sussex.

Endowed with good looks and a great deal of charm, he was equally at home in the boardroom or on the racecourse. But he had, none the less, a sharp eye for the ridiculous. He used to tell a story of a boardroom lunch at Marks and Spencer, at which the chairman bet him that his shirt buttons weren't polished on both sides. Kerman spent the rest of the meal surreptitiously inspecting his shirt front to see if this was true.

He was an adviser to Robert Maxwell in his early days and a director of Maxwell's Pergamon Press at the time of its sale to Saul Steinburg - a deal that led Maxwell to be severely censured by the DTI inspectors following an inquiry into the sale in the early Seventies. Kerman himself was not criticised and shortly afterwards he severed his business connection with Maxwell. He later said that he admired Maxwell's energy but felt that megalomania had got the better of him.

Though his friends attest to Kerman's willingness, as one put it, "to turn his hand to anything" he none the less had a strong sense of what was proper and fitting. He took great pride, for example, in his ownership of Scott's restaurant, which occupied a prime site in the Criterion building in Piccadilly Circus. But when the hamburger joints and doner kebab stands arrived, Ker- man promptly moved to the more salubrious setting of Mount Street in Mayfair.

Kerman also acquired the West End fish restaurant Sheekey's, but his view of the restaurant business remained a traditional one. On being taken to a fashionable eatery with scrubbed pine tables, he exclaimed: "This place probably spends less on rent than I do on laundry bills."

Born in 1905, Kerman was the fourth child of poor Jewish immigrants from Odessa. But, though his parents arrived penniless, his father made enough from a furniture shop in Manchester to be able to send young Isidore to Cheltenham College. Among his fellow pupils was the 16-year-old Jack Cotton, who came from a well-to-do family of import-export merchants in Birmingham and went on to become one of the most colourful property developers of the late 1950s.

Kerman was later to become a co-founder of Cotton's master company, City Centre Properties. But on leaving school, the two boys went their own ways: Cotton becoming an articled clerk for a firm of estate agents and surveyors, while Kerman joined a London firm of solicitors. However, no sooner had he qualified, than, still barely into his twenties, he set up on his own above a shop in Bruton Street. As a John Galsworthy fan, he called his one-man company Forsyte and Kerman.

Kerman made a speciality as a divorce lawyer, acting in difficult cases. His skill, his success and his charm quickly attracted a roster of fashionable clients, many of them women. And these connections opened new doors and opportunities.

His racing interests came directly from his work in the divorce courts. One of his clients in this pre-war period was a well-known jockey called Tommy Weston who offered Kerman a yearling in lieu of a fee. Kerman accepted his offer and named the horse Kybo - an acronym for the advice that his mother gave him when he went to Cheltenham: "Keep your bowels open".

Kerman became an enthusiastic racehorse owner and introduced others to the sport, like the property developed Louis Freedman, who went on to have a distinguished Turf career. Kerman's recreational interests were as varied as his professional ones. He only gave up riding at the age of 86 and continued to ski at St Moritz until the end of his life. He bred Romney Marsh sheep and was a keen gardener.

Throughout his life he contributed discreetly to charitable causes and in the 1930s gave accommodation and help to Jewish families forced to flee from Nazi Germany.

Stephen Aris

Isidore Kerman, solicitor and property speculator: born 13 March 1905; married 1943 Blanche Rowe (deceased; two sons); died 23 July 1998.

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