Hugh Massingberd: Editor of 'Burke's Peerage' and innovating obituaries editor of 'The Daily Telegraph'

Hugh John Montgomery (Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd), writer, editor and impresario: born Cookham Dean, Berkshire 30 December 1946; Assistant Editor, Burke's Peerage 1968-71, Editor 1971-83; Associate Editor, The Field 1983-86; Obituaries Editor, The Daily Telegraph 1986-94; married 1972 Christine Martinoni (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1979), 1983 Caroline Ripley; died London 25 December 2007

Thursday 27 December 2007 01:00

One of Hugh Massingberd's greatest gifts was to muster a considerable number of friends, many of whom were breezily confident that they were his best friend. This became acutely apparent when Massingberd suffered a life-threatening heart attack in 1994. There were curious spats. "I saw him on Thursday" "Yes, I saw him on Friday" and so on. This could only be explained by his rare ability to inspire affection. Therefore it is daunting to write about him, the more so in the columns of The Independent since he was for some years obituaries editor of the rival Daily Telegraph.

Massingberd commissioned and published many an obituary of mine in The Daily Telegraph. I would never have become an obituarist but for him. He expected the job to be done well. No stranger to gallows humour himself, he relished the story that, when news of his heart attack reached the offices of the Telegraph, one of his colleagues was heard to boom out: "Prepare the obit!" In writing of him now, I have at least the excuse that in 1981 I produced a spoof obit of him, some, though not all, of which he printed in his 2001 memoir, Daydream Believer.

Hugh Massingberd was many different people contained within one frame. Walking encyclopaedia, genealogist, player of cricket, expert on theatre, musicals, film and television, gourmand, champion of country houses and estates. He was immensely well read, had a prodigious memory, was at home on the race-courses of Britain, and loved London clubs, particularly the Travellers. The list of his interests is daunting. All this might have made him the kind of man, who in a phrase he employed in obituaries "relished the cadences of the English language". But Hugh was never a bore.

He lived a life enriched, though not dominated, by fantasies. His feet were well planted in reality despite more than one kamikaze attempt to bring himself to ruin, invariably inspired by compulsive generosity. The theme of his endearing memoir was that his whole life was based on fantasy, but I dispute this. He invented many roles for himself, several of which he turned into reality.

It may be that Massingberd would have liked to have been an impresario, but in his heart he most admired the landed squire. He enjoyed his summer stays at the family seat in Lincolnshire, Gunby, where he would show tourists about and welcomed James Lees-Milne, that great saviour of so many such seats for the nation, including Gunby, in Lincolnshire, on a memorable visit in July 1991.

Gunby had been the Lincolnshire seat of his father's aunt Diana, Lady Montgomery-Massingberd (*e Massingberd widow of the Field Marshal, * Montgomery, who adopted the double barrel on her inheriting the family estates in 1926), who died in 1963. Hugh was born a Montgomery, and went through his early life as such, taking the additional Massingberd by deed poll in 1964, shortly before leaving Harrow, and later partly dropping the former name in its favour. Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd was a long name even by the standards of the landed gentry, and gave Private Eye the chance to use the joke by-line of Montgomery-Massivesnob, or Massivepecker, which Hugh enjoyed.

Hugh Massingberd rose to prominence as editor of Burke's Peerage. After Harrow, he spent some restless years as an articled clerk to a firm of solicitors in New Square, Lincoln's Inn, spending certain lunch hours in such unlikely venues as strip clubs. He then secured a place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, but surrendered this to join the editorial staff at Burke's Peerage Publications in 1968. He worked uncomfortably under the editorship of the dolphin-faced Peter Townend, who combined his genealogical skills with being social editor of Tatler, and running the list of debutantes, which made him virtually a marriage broker.

Massingberd's relationship with Townend was uneasy, and became more so in 1971 when Townend was unseated and Massingberd took over the reins at the early age of 24. He proceeded to launch an ambitious series of books under the Burke imprint. He edited Burke's Landed Gentry (1972) and the 1970 Burke's Peerage, the last wholly reliable edition of that work. He also produced Burke's Irish Family Records (1976) and three indispensable volumes of royal genealogy, Burke's Guide to the Royal Family (1973), as well as volumes on European and Middle Eastern royal genealogy and Burke's Presidential Families of the United States of America (1975), not to mention an indispensable index to families in the Burke imprint. Wherever able, he liked to enliven the genealogical side with history and social anecdote, and here was the basis for the style of obituary which, at the Telegraph, he would make his particular forte.

He described one of his own ancestors, Algernon Massingberd, as a man who "sold everything that he could to meet his gambling debts, joined party of explorers up River Amazon, perished in South America". And Robert Montgomery, another ancestor, died in a grim way:

the sudden death of this very amiable young man was occasioned by his having swallowed, when a schoolboy, an halfpenny which prevented his growth and after every exertion such as laughing violent sensations approaching to suffocation were frequently produced.

Massingberd had been reading Burke's Landed Gentry since the age of eight, but strenuously denied charges of snobbism, being more interested in the facts and spice of history. He pointed out that Burke's Peerage was not a social directory, nor a "Snob's Bible" but a book of factual record. As such, Massingberd demanded from his staff consistency of style and 100 per cent accuracy. As an editor, he was a joy to work for. His team was never well paid, but Massingberd possessed the gift to make all feel respected and content in their work. He was generous in promoting the young. I know this since he gave me the task of producing biographical entries for all the Royal Family when I was but 20 years old, which involved dealing with all the royal households, my first visit to the Duke of Windsor's house in Paris, and meetings with Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, and other members of the royal family no mean break, one might say.

Burke's was taken over by a team of enthusiasts in 1972, under the chairmanship of a Harrovian contemporary of Massingberd's, Jeremy Norman. Alas, this was not a success. Massingberd's team dissolved and all went on to achieve things in other spheres of life including him.

Hugh Massingberd's bibliography is prodigious. He wrote books on the British aristocracy, memoirs of the Queen, Queen Mother and Princess of Wales, the London Ritz and Blenheim Palace, and, in a happy collaboration with the photographer Christopher Simon Sykes, handsome volumes on the great houses of England, Scotland and Ireland. He was employed by The Field to write about country houses and their owners.

He reviewed for Philip Howard at The Times, during which time he showed more teeth than was perhaps expected in such a mild-mannered person, especially when reviewing the official biography of the late Duke of Gloucester, the effects of which resonated for years. More recently he attacked Sir Roy Strong in print. The books he reviewed would be an antiquarian's dream, for he annotated them heavily, adding wicked bubble captions to the illustrations and, if particularly irritated, drew a little man being sick, in the margin.

He appeared on radio and television, and lectured on royal and aristocratic subjects, country houses and the Anglo-Irish. He became a well-known media commentator. He could be mischievous. Lecturing at the Royal Geographical Society, he showed a slide of a heavily built matron, standing by a river. "The trout in the picture . . . ," he began, to be greeted by nervous laughter. "No, look carefully, there is a trout," as indeed there was in the water.

His many talents found fruition in his appointment as Obituaries Editor of The Daily Telegraph in 1986, the same year that The Independent was launched and began publishing obituaries. Whereas, in those days, The Times held sway as the place in which lives were recorded, the Telegraph had few good obituaries, confining themselves to a few nuggets, and the occasional longer piece, invariably written by someone such as Sir John Colville. Before Massingberd took over, the obituaries in the Telegraph were of no lasting importance. Massingberd decided to enliven these much in the way that he had attempted to do with the biographical entries in the historical pedigrees of Burke's.

The results were always enlightening, sometimes outrageous, or outrageously funny, at times offensive, but widely relished. There was a mixture of the scholarly with the satirical, and Massingberd made masterly use of literary devices such as litotes to present his pieces. Again, he assembled a talented team of outside writers, to cover the various categories. He particularly enjoyed "The Moustaches" as they were known in the office, the gallant winners of Military Crosses for endeavours in wartime, far removed from the drudgery of 1980s life.

As a friend, he was loyal and wildly generous. He was kind, supportive and an unfailing booster of flagging morale (though less easy to boost himself). He was a great mimic, and a considerable raconteur, though he liked to drop his bon mots under the table, and you had to catch them as they fell. He was a supremely powerful lecturer, and did not hesitate to break into song if the mood took him.

He loved food compulsively. When I met Hugh Massingberd in 1970, he was thin and drawn-looking. Over the years he expanded to a prodigious weight. He was known to have eaten the largest breakfast ever in the Connaught, so overtaking the previous record-holder, the late Aga Khan. If a waiter listed the menu for breakfast eggs, sausages, bacon, steak, mushrooms etc Massingberd merely nodded. When the waiter enquired which he wanted, he would say, "All of them", and then worked his way through them. I often invited him with two others to eat a brace of pheasants. Three shared one, he ate the other. I suspected he went to McDonald's, ravenous, on the way home. He reached 20 stone in weight, and mused over the descriptions of Robert Maxwell when he fell from his boat, "the obese figure", the "massive frame" . . .

Recently Massingberd found a new mtier as impresario, editing and presenting Ancestral Voices, a selection from the diaries of James Lees-Milne, which starred the actor Moray Watson, in a one-man show. Not only did he write the play, which achieved over 100 performances, including more than one West End run (at the Jermyn Street Theatre), but he commissioned the sets, and only illness prevented his presence at every production, whether in stately homes such as Glamis Castle, theatres such as the Yvonne Arnaud at Guildford, or at Cumberland Lodge during the 2003 Windsor Festival.

He was a devotee of the theatre, seeing Phantom of the Opera countless times, flirting with Lauren Bacall when interviewing her at San Lorenzo, and was a devoted fan of figures such as Anthony Powell and James Lees-Milne. In his memoir Daydream Believer, he left memorable portraits of both those literary figures as well as of his Roman Catholic uncle Monsignor Hugh Montgomery.

Massingberd was twice married. His first wife, Christine Martinoni, worked with him at Burke's, and he was proud to have found a wife without having to go to a cocktail party or some other event of the season he so despised. He was a determined suitor, arriving with flowers at her flat, and sweeping her off his feet with a barrage of invitations.

With Christine, he had a son and a daughter, but the marriage was dissolved after eight years. He then suffered a long obsession with the writer Lesley Cunliffe, who had an extraordinary hold over him as she did over certain other well-known literary figures. Massingberd pursued this romance with his customary persistence until eventually the scales dropped.

He was then fortunate to find Caroline Ripley, known as "Ripples", her intense femininity balancing his other interests. She was the perfect foil for him. He married her in 1983, and she sustained him till the end. I know she worried desperately about his health, and wondered when the next crisis would come. I was somewhat shocked to read that, after his heart attack, Hugh would frequently amuse himself by feigning a pose of death, nurturing his wife's worst fears. Theirs was a rare devotion.

Hugh Massingberd was the sort of person to whom a state pension should have been given. He was never well rewarded financially, and, whenever a windfall came, he lavished it on his friends, or took it to the races. His rewards were unexpected. He was touched to hear that his successor at the obits desk of the Telegraph interviewed a young man and asked him what he wanted to be in life. "I want to be the new Hugh Massingberd," he said.

Hugo Vickers

When the authentic history of modern obituaries comes to be written, writes James Fergusson, the argument will continue as to whether The Daily Telegraph or The Independent was first to trigger a change. In the last two years at least three books have dwelt on the subject. But I don’t think there is a “first” about it. Hugh Massingberd and I started our obituaries careers at the same time, on the same day; if there was a revolution, it happened at once.

The Independent was, however, setting out to do something quite different with the genre. Where the Telegraph took John Aubrey as their model – seeking to compete with The Times (whose primacy, looking back, we perhaps overestimated) – The Independent looked to the old Dictionary of National Biography and, further back, to the wonderful monthly calendars of The Gentleman’s Magazine. In particular, we sought to change the rules by signing obituaries, to give them a new dimension, genuine authority.

We sought too to demystify the language, so that there was transparency – so that obituaries obeyed the large rules of feature journalism and were not a ghetto for the odd or the old – and to illustrate obituaries with pictures that weren’t the obligatory headshot but portrayed something of what the subject was up to. Most obituaries on any newspaper page are of subjects who are not household names. Readers need persuading if the subject is not known to them. Why not show paintings by painters, buildings by architects, double helixes for Nobel Prize-winners?

Hugh Massingberd, on the other hand, was in person supremely, if anarchically, conservative. His published memoir is subtitled “Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper” and there is something in everything he writes there of the errant schoolboy, overtaken by crazes and wild enthusiasms, whether for cricket, P.G. Wodehouse, the racetrack or the West End stage. His greed is obviously Bunteresque. His reverence for the peerage is bizarre, if touching – he collected dukes and earls as others collect stamps or locomotive numbers. The book, with its extravagant riffs and circuitous apologies, would seem absurd if its author were not so obviously disarming.

Massingberd loved obituaries just as they were – codified by The Times, savoured by connoisseurs who read between the lines of the traditional orotund language as though solving the cryptic crossword (“vivacious” meant drunk, and so on). He only sought to extend the language, or to vary it, or to subvert it. Dryness, understatement, judicious juxtapositions, occasionally base comedy were the tools of trade. The subjects remained establishment subjects, but the treatment was subtly different. Where once a non-achieving peer would have been dismissed in a few lines, now the lugubrious detail of his non-achievement was elaborately rehearsed – the squandering of his fortune, the collapse of his marriages, his squalid court cases, his unfortunate end.

Why, one might have asked, was the man on the page at all? He might have done nothing, except be born with a silver spoon and sell it. The answer I suppose is that Massingberd loved history for its own sake, and anecdote particularly. Obituaries were the perfect opportunity for antique gossip. The contrast between the first marquess, who had been an intimate of the court of Charles II, and the last, who had ended up in a magistrates’ court at the behest of the village postmistress, was for Massingberd a huge, a real story.

The Telegraph became best known for its “Moustaches”. Every day, it seemed, another subject died who had, almost single-handed, won the war. Their glorious deeds of valour were examined to the last citation, while their life afterwards might be reduced to a single paragraph (“He acquired a car dealership in Harlow, and took to keeping bees”). Even in his comparatively short time as Obituaries Editor, Massingberd admits in Daydream Believer, he ran into trouble with the management (Max Hastings) for approaching self-parody.

The principal quarrel between our two schools of obituary writing was about authorship. Massingberd, as a conservative, believed that putting a writer’s name at the bottom was a sign of weakness; that a signed obituary told more about the writer than its subject. Of course this is true of a bad obituary (though it can itself, in certain authors, be interesting). The worst thing about the unsigned obituary is that, if it prizes anecdote above all, it may not only be unpleasant (for some) and inaccurate (a risk) but also, unforgivably, unaccountable.

Hugh Massingberd was as disarming in person as he was in print. While in public he rarely let slip a chance to fire a shot across The Independent’s bows, deriding our style and our output, in private he was the soul of sympathetic courtesy. I remember when he was still en place (it is hard to think that he stood down from the obituaries post as long ago as 1994) a particularly jolly dinner at the Garrick Club (his beloved Travellers’ having closed for its holidays) after our Sunday shifts, as Hugh gave a blow-by-blow account of his daily battle with sub-editors.

One obituary he did sign was his own. The Sunday Correspondent used to run an enlightening series called “My Obituary”. “Massingberd,” Massingberd wrote, “had a curiously inside-out personality; ostensibly shy, diffident and unsociable to the point of rudeness, he was, when the occasion demanded, an unexpectedly fluent public-speaker and broadcaster. Apparently vague, indecisive and slothful on the exterior, underneath he had a steely streak and a titanic capacity for work.

"Tall, thin, and slightly dandiacal in his prime, he eventually sacrificed his figure in the cause of a quite alarming gluttony.”

Disarming, to the end.

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