Focus: Here was a king with no country

Sir James Goldsmith, rootless but powerful entrepreneur and Eurosceptic , is dead

Chris Blackhurst
Saturday 19 July 1997 23:02

In the end, not even all that money, all that financial power could prevent the inevitable. Jimmy Goldsmith fought, of course. How he fought - but in the end his illness got the better of him.

Even in death, another chapter was added to the Goldsmith legend. Ordinary people die in hospitals and hospices or at home. Sir James Goldsmith went to his 17th-century chateau, Le Grand Montjeu, in the glorious Burgundy countryside, to fight his losing battle. When he felt he wanted to fight alone, he slipped away to another home, a farmhouse in the hills outside Marbella, which was where, yesterday, he finally succumbed.

Ordinary people try one course of medication and that is all. Sir James, who was 64, had chemotherapy and, when that did not work, hired an Indian doctor who practices the 3,000-year-old Hindu holistic Ayurvedic treatment. The doctor prescribed diet, exercise and massage. Special herbs and ground- up minerals were rushed to his bedside.

When other people fall ill they are visited by their husband or wife, and maybe, discreetly, a lover or a fondly remembered old flame. Sir James's helicopter took to Montjeu his wife, his ex-wife, his current mistress and his eight children. There was a steady flow of society, business and political figures from around the globe, flying in, to provide a boost, to remember the good times and avoid talking about the bad. This is what happens when a king dies.

SIR JAMES Goldsmith was like a king. There are monarchs who will never be as rich as he was. He was worth, conservatively it is said, pounds 1.5bn (although in truth, only his bank managers really know). Besides Burgundy and Marbella, he had homes in Paris, in London, near Hyde Park and at Ormeley Lodge, a Georgian house near the gates of Richmond Park, in Mexico, where he had the jungle cleared to build him, his family and friends a hacienda to end all haciendas, and in New York. He was rumoured to have a private army too - like a medieval ruler.

But Sir James was not a king. He was stateless, moving from one country to another in his own Boeing 757. He had homes but not a country. He was half-Jewish, half-Catholic, and all-outsider, who never fitted in, wherever he was. Always restless, outspoken and fitful, he never settled anywhere long enough to be accepted. The world viewed him with suspicion, wondering what he was really intending, what his next coup would be, and what were his motives.

Little men revere kings and, often, the worship is reciprocated. Sir James Goldsmith, though, had little time for little men, railing against their failure to improve their lives, blaming them and the politicians they elected for a mess of their own making.

In one community, however, he has the reputation of a king. This week, in bars in the City of London and Wall Street, and all the other places where brokers and bankers gather, there will be Goldsmith tales to tell: how he avoided bankruptcy at least half-a-dozen times in the 1950s and 1960s, then bid for Bovril in 1971 with pounds 14.5m he did not possess; how he had made a pounds 50m profit within a year; how he bought Diamond Corporation for pounds 246m in 1982 and sold it for three times that amount two years later; the way he and his friends, Jacob Rothschild and Kerry Packer, launched Britain's biggest-ever takeover bid, for pounds 13bn against BAT, in 1989; how he swapped forests in America worth $1.3bn for a half-share in a mining company owned by another friend, Lord Hanson. And, most spectacularly of all, how he shrewdly anticipated the October 1987 stock market crash.

In truth, there was no mystique about his decision to sell. Like all good gamblers, he understood that he must get out while he was ahead. For he was not a businessman in the usual sense of the word. He rarely managed businesses himself. He was on the look-out for deals, for the next turn of the card. On a wall at the back of the Mayfair casino of John Aspinall, one of his closest friends, there are plaques dedicated to the greatest gamblers of this century. One shows Goldsmith. Another celebrates their mutual friend, Lord Lucan. (No date is given for his death.)

It was "Lucky" Lucan's disappearance after the murder of his nanny in 1976 that led Sir James to issue 63 writs for libel against Private Eye magazine, which accused him of sheltering Lucan. To his undisguised fury, Private Eye and its predominantly left-wing constituency revelled in ridiculing him. Enraged, he founded Now! magazine, to be everything Private Eye was not. When it failed he turned his back on Britain, not returning for any length of time until 1989 and his abortive bid for BAT.

THE row with Private Eye was a turning-point for Sir James Goldsmith. He despised the liberal elite who ran the magazine and, by extension, much of the rest of the media and Britain. They reminded him, in part, of the intellectuals he had known at school at Eton.

As the son of a German-born father, he was never accepted by the sons of the English Establishment, even though his father became an MP at Westminster. A French mother did not help him assimilate either.

At Eton he gambled wildly and founded his own, dissolute, louche circle. At 16, he won pounds 8,000 on a pounds 10 accumulator bet at Lewes races. Declaring that academic qualifications were a deterrent to making money, he set out to make his way in the world. His passport described his occupation as "cook", and for a while he worked as second-in-charge of the hors d'oeuvres at the Palace Hotel in Madrid.

Women adored him. He was six foot four with piercing blue eyes. His debonair manner, and a fixed gaze, swept women off their feet. Aged 20, he eloped with Isabel Patino, the daughter of a Bolivian tycoon. To the delight of the world's press, the young couple were hounded by her father, who failed to catch up with them. Tragically, Isabel died in childbirth. Their daughter, named after her, flew from Mexico to be with him last week.

Sir James collected women. Not for nothing did his brother Teddy once call him a "natural, tribal polygamist". He married Ginette, his former secretary, in 1958. Then, in 1964, he began a celebrated affair with Annabel, wife of Mark Birley, the Mayfair club-owner and another close friend. They divorced and in 1978 he married Annabel, by whom he already had two children. In that same year, 1978, he started an affair with Laure Boulay de la Meurthe, a reporter for Paris Match and a member of the Bourbon family.

He had a further child by Annabel and two children by Laure. He had families in different countries in the same way that he had homes: Isabel, his daughter, in Mexico and New York; Annabel, Jemima, Ben and Zach at Ormeley Lodge; Ginette, Alix and Manes in Paris; Laure, Charlotte and Jethro also in Paris. His grand Paris home was split in two, with Ginette and his children by her in one half, Laure and his children by her in the other.

His women were loyal to him, and him to them, and them, it seems, to each other. His oft-quoted remark that "when a man marries his mistress he creates a job vacancy" did not appear to bother them.

Although he had his way in business and in bed, Sir James was rebuffed in politics, except in France where he was elected to the European Parliament, though he hardly ever bothered to attend. His insistence on fielding over 550 Referendum Party candidates in last May's general election achieved nothing, apart from losing several Tory seats.

His election campaign in Putney, close to his Richmond home, was haphazard and at times bad-tempered. On election night, with his wife, Annabel, and their children and friends looking on, he berated David Mellor, the losing Tory MP in Putney. It was a crude, vulgar display. Illness may have been the reason for his wild, staring eyes and haranguing of the hapless Mellor. If it was, he did not claim it.

Only a few members of his family knew how ill he really was. It seems sad now, but for the public at large his behaviour seemed perfectly in character - hard to explain, faintly menacing, but quite unforgettable.

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