Woodrow, Verushka, Pericles and Petronella: welcome to the world of the Wyatts

<preform>He was a much-married Labour MP turned royalist Tory peer who mixed with the rich and powerful, and doted on his only daughter, 'Petsy'. Sholto Byrnes </b></i>unravels the legacy of Woodrow Wyatt</preform>

Saturday 20 November 2004 01:00 GMT

One lesson I have learnt," wrote the Hon Petronella Wyatt earlier this year, "is to carry my mobile with me, but not in my handbag. Thus, if your bag is snatched you can either call the police or your mother. In my experience, mothers tend to be more helpful." Whether Petronella, or Petsy, as she is known, would still agree with this last statement is unclear. For it was her mother, Verushka, widow of the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford, who briefed journalists about the alleged affair between Petsy and the Tory MP Boris Johnson, her editor at The Spectator magazine.

One lesson I have learnt," wrote the Hon Petronella Wyatt earlier this year, "is to carry my mobile with me, but not in my handbag. Thus, if your bag is snatched you can either call the police or your mother. In my experience, mothers tend to be more helpful." Whether Petronella, or Petsy, as she is known, would still agree with this last statement is unclear. For it was her mother, Verushka, widow of the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford, who briefed journalists about the alleged affair between Petsy and the Tory MP Boris Johnson, her editor at The Spectator magazine.

Finally, a story that had been talked of openly in Fleet Street for years was out. It had already been hinted at in the gossip columns; one regularly ran items about the pair, laden with such innuendo as "colleagues say Mr Johnson sometimes goes missing during the day to have one-to-one discussions about geopolitical matters with his colleague Petronella Wyatt".

Its exposure has so far concentrated attention on Johnson, a colourful and popular figure who may have lost his job as Tory arts spokesman over the fuss but who seems to find it hard, even under these circumstances, to remove himself from the limelight. The newspapers have analysed Boris's career, laments for his wife, Marina (with obligatory mentions of her father, the revered foreign correspondent Charles Wheeler), and even Boris's father, Stanley, has been tracked down in the Amazon to add his comments.

A few years ago, however, the focus would have been not on Johnson and his clan, but on the Wyatts. Woodrow Wyatt, with his floppy bow-ties and cigar clamped between his teeth, was a friend of prime ministers, press barons and royals. As chairman of the Tote he enjoyed entertaining the great and good at his St John's Wood home, and passed judgement on the nation through his News of the World column, almost satirically called "The Voice of Reason". He was a figure, albeit a slightly ludicrous one, in the land.

When a youthful Petsy appeared at The Daily Telegraph in the early nineties, it was clear that she was no ordinary trainee journalist attempting to learn her craft. After she was appointed, one editor at the paper declared: "I don't believe in nepotism, but I do believe that talent runs in families". That talent did not necessarily include time-keeping. Colleagues from her days on the paper's diary column, then called Peterborough, have many stories about her absences. On one occasion Lady Wyatt is said to have called to explain that Petronella could not come in because it was "too windy". On another she is supposed to have told the column's editor that Petronella was sick and would not be at work that day. "But she's here," came the reply. "Oh," said Lady Wyatt, "that's Wednesday."

Such an unusual approach was always forgiven, though, for Petsy was a hugely popular figure within the Telegraph group (she later edited The Sunday Telegraph's Mandrake column before moving to The Spectator). She was considered to live an impossibly glamorous life and was much lusted after by male staff, particularly the older ones. She always seemed to be at gatherings thrown by the powerful, singing for Norman Lamont, then the Chancellor, at his 50th birthday party. She is still to be seen at soirées given by the likes of the historian Flora Fraser, granddaughter of the late Lord Longford, or Jonathan Aitken.

Sex and her own private life were regular themes in her work. Even when she undertook interviews with political figures, it was usually the saucier morsels that made the headlines. When she met Janet Anderson, a Labour MP who was lined up to be minister for Women after the 1997 general election, she persuaded her to say that "under Labour, women will become more promiscuous". An interview with Denis Healey ended with the former chancellor moaning: "Pity we've left no time for rumpy-pumpy".

She flourished at The Spectator under Frank Johnson, who made her his deputy, but her scoops sometimes turned out to be less substantial than they first appeared. After Max Clifford told her that "Carey from the Church of England" had called him for advice, the Spectator ran the line "The Archbishop calls on Max" on the cover. Unfortunately, Clifford had been referring to the then Archbishop of Canterbury's son Andrew, not George.

After the death of her father and the departure of Frank Johnson from The Spectator, Petsy's star seemed to shine less brightly. She kept her column, but ceased to be deputy editor. Interestingly, the next editor, Boris Johnson (the two are not related), was not as impressed with her editorial talents as his predecessor. "I remember getting the distinct impression that he didn't think much of her," says a former Spectator executive. But Woodrow Wyatt, about whom Petsy wrote a touchingly fond memoir, "Father, Dear Father", may have left a gap in her life that no man could fill.

The only daughter from Wyatt's fourth marriage (he had a son, the exotically-named Pericles Plantagenet Wyatt, by his third wife), Petronella was obviously much loved and much pampered as a child. According to Wyatt's diaries, she was bought a Dior dressing gown at the age of nine. After the diaries were published, Lady Wyatt issued a correction. Petsy was presented with the gown at three, not nine. She went to St Paul's Girls School, one of London's leading public schools, where a classmate remembers her wearing Chanel suits and sitting on the edge of desks singing Ella Fitzgerald songs.

Petsy then went to Worcester College, Oxford - but only for a week. "She didn't like it," recalls a contemporary. "She said, 'I don't think it's really me. The people drink out of mugs'." So her father phoned Lord Annan, the former provost of University College, London, who agreed to help her find a place at London University.

Such shameless string-pulling was a characteristic indulgence, but Lord Wyatt had endured a rather odd upbringing. Born in 1918 and named after the American president Woodrow Wilson, Wyatt's father was an unsuccessful prep school headmaster of vigorously right-wing opinions. He beat young Woodrow regularly and made him stand behind his chair and stroke his bald head for hours on end. His mother made him to read Christian Science literature, apparently in the belief that it would ward off constipation.

Wyatt went to Eastbourne, which he considered an insufficiently grand public school, and where he wrote in his diary: "Never forget how much you hated it here." Oxford proved more to his taste. He read law at Worcester College, took to wearing black silk pyjamas, edited a couple of magazines, and met his first wife, Susan Cox, there. She left him while he was in the Army during the Second World War, but Wyatt later explained, ruefully: "She was very attractive, and I was an inexpert and selfish lover."

Even though he had affairs between marriages, this aspect of his life seems to have been consistently unsatisfactory, at least until he married Verushka. When his third wife, Lady Moorea Hastings (mother of Pericles), left him, as his second wife, Nora Robbins, had also done, he complained to Desmond Donnelly, a fellow Labour MP: "It's all about this sex business, old boy." But then he met Verushka. Soon after their first encounter, Verushka's husband, a wealthy surgeon, died and Wyatt married her in 1966.

By this point Wyatt was part of the group of Labour MPs who gravitated towards Roy Jenkins, leading light of the Labour right and the most successful cabinet minister of the 1960s Wilson governments. Wyatt had won a seat in the 1945 election, and briefly served as Under-Secretary of State at the War Office. He lost his seat in 1955, returned to Parliament in 1959, but although he had been an intimate of Hugh Gaitskell, his increasingly erratic views kept him from office when Labour returned to power. By the time he eventually left the Commons for good in 1970, he had developed a reputation as a media figure. He had become a star of current affairs television programmes in the Fifties, and wrote columns for the Mirror Group, then the News of the World.

The Wyatts lived in some style, both in London and in Tuscany, where they had a villa. Sylvia Rodgers, wife of the later ennobled SDP founder Bill Rodgers, remembers a curious holiday with the Wyatts in the Seventies. "We were staying near by, and Woodrow kept calling Bill, saying that we must come and use their pool. But when we turned up with our three rather nubile daughters, Verushka didn't look very pleased. The next day, she was there on her own. She shooed us away, saying, 'This is my house, not Woodrow's!' Later, when Roy Jenkins came to stay with us, he was supposed to go and have dinner with them. But he refused to go until Verushka apologised."

It was Jenkins who, as Home Secretary, appointed Wyatt chairman of the Tote in 1976. Once Margaret Thatcher came to power, however, Wyatt became her most slavish supporter (she, in turn, awarded him a knighthood and then a peerage), and relations with his former colleagues soured. "His whole lifestyle was that of an upper-class twit, although he wasn't one to begin with," says Lady Rodgers. "Roy was terribly disappointed in him."

Wyatt managed to keep his position at the Tote long after he might have been expected to retire, not least through his closeness to Mrs Thatcher and his judicious use of his News of the World columns to fawn on the Home Secretary when the job came up for renewal. Although the salary was not in the six-figure bracket, the expenses enabled him to maintain his household in the manner to which he had become accustomed. While he entertained the likes of the Queen Mother (for whom he used to mix dry martinis), captains of industry such as Lord Weinstock, and the racing aristocracy, however, he was also keeping detailed diaries.

After his death in 1997, these were published, supposedly to provide for Verushka and Petronella, both of whom still live in the family house in St John's Wood. Many of the stories in the diaries were denounced as false. Wyatt claimed, for instance, to have kissed Lady Antonia Fraser at Salisbury races in 1972. When asked about the incident, Lady Antonia replied: "I do not think he would have been able to reach up. That is my only comment." The Tory party historian Lord Blake said: "I wouldn't trust Wyatt an inch. He is a notorious liar."

Seven years on, most of the edifice Wyatt built up appears to have fallen. His friends did not always maintain their relationship with Verushka, whose imperious ways were perhaps less tolerable without the leavening of Wyatt's charm and mischief. The Hungarian-born Verushka had arrived in London in 1952 alone and almost penniless, as the Russians had confiscated her family's mansion in Budapest. When she married Wyatt, she brought money with her from the sale of the house she had shared with her first husband. In return, Wyatt took care of all the bills.

Wyatt's diligence in this area has left both the women in his life a little hazy about such matters. When Petronella was sent a summons by Westminster council for non-payment of council tax, she said: "I thought you paid it at the end of the year, not the beginning." Verushka, meanwhile, was incensed that a reporter had dared call to ask her daughter about it. "Do you know who I am?" she said to the reporter, Ben Summerskill, now chief executive of the gay rights pressure group Stonewall. "If you write this I can assure you that I know many editors, and you will never work in Fleet Street again!"

It is ironic that the ultimate legacy of a man who lived for social preferment and intrigue should be this: that a woman who once fiercely defended her daughter against intrusion from the press should be so reduced by his passing that it is now she who provides newspapers with stories. And stories, whatever one may think of the whole affair, that vividly illustrate that the brief glory of the House of Wyatt has not been able to survive the death of its founder.

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