As I knocked on the door, I was hardly expecting a long interview.
I was, after all, calling unannounced on a member of the great Freud dynasty. However unknown he might have been in his own right, Stephen Freud was the grandson of Sigmund, the founder of psychoanalysis. He was the elder brother of both the artist Lucian and the broadcasting wit Sir Clement, and the uncle of such society luminaries as PR guru Matthew, then the husband of Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert.
There was also the fact that this was a man who had spent his entire life seeking anonymity – so successfully that some Wikipedia pages omitted him from the Freud family tree completely.
A quick electoral roll check suggested that Stephen Freud did indeed exist and was apparently alive and well and living in Chiswick, west London. But if this really was to be his first ever public interview, he would be giving it at the age of 86.
I wondered whether I would be sent on my way with a cutting dismissal in the style of Sir Clement, or whether Stephen would take after his more volatile brother, Lucian, and reject my approach with more colourful language.
So it was with some surprise that – after a moment’s hesitation on his part – I was ushered inside the large house and into the presence of “the forgotten Freud”.
I found a gentleman with a soft, open face, lacking the imperiousness that seemed visible in Sir Clement, and with none of Lucian’s hawk-like features.
As he talked me through yellowing copies of the Racing Post detailing long-past race meetings, it was hard to avoid contemplating such phrases as “amiable old duffer”.
(I suspected then, and I am convinced now, that it was only their old-fashioned politeness that prompted Mr Freud and his wife, Ann, to agree to talk to me.)
There was certainly no sense of the talent for feuding that had ensured a near-lifelong estrangement between Lucian and Sir Clement, until the latter’s death in 2009 – although Stephen, on that summer’s evening in 2008, did confide that he had also had a falling out with Lucian, for reasons he was keen to avoid specifying: “It’s quite impossible to say. He had his reasons, no doubt.”
He added: “People would say: ‘Are you related to Clement and Lucian?’ And I said: ‘No, they are related to me.’ After all, I was the eldest brother.”
As his siblings forced their way into the national consciousness, Stephen, the eldest, spent 40 years managing the obscurely named “Successors to Charles Harden” a shop off Baker Street selling doorknobs, usually packaged in dusty boxes. “I had to do something,” he told me, “and this was a business needing no great expertise.”
An earlier foray into publishing had ended prematurely: “I think I got the sack. I wasn’t terribly good.”
It would be easy to dismiss Stephen as a man who had been comprehensively overshadowed – by his grandfather, his brothers and high-achieving members of the younger generation: nephew Matthew, nieces Esther, the novelist, and Bella, the fashion designer
And yet it seemed it had all been Stephen’s choice – an impression strongly reinforced by the regret-free admission: “Golf has played really quite a large part in my life.”
As had the track. He fetched carbon copies of his typed letters to the sporting press – the nearest he had ever come to seeking the limelight – and read me his favourites.
When his daughter Dorothy, by his first wife Lois, was born, “I did go and see them in hospital – but not for long. Thady the Thief was running at Wimbledon Dogs. It was backed from 12-1 to 2-1, and it came last. Lois must have, quite rightly, taken a dim view.”
The divorce was amicable; the second marriage, to Ann, endured happily from 1977 until his death on Tuesday. (He proposed on the golf course.)
There was a quick-witted shrewdness about him: in the way he deflected questions about his brothers’ feuding – the latest round of which had prompted my visit – and spotted the leading questions about his relationship with his mother. (It was “fairly normal”.) Like much else, his link to grandfather Sigmund was acknowledged with self-deprecating humour: “I catalogued his library [at his Hampstead home]. Not at all well.”
Having taken up far too much of their time – that politeness again – I said my goodbyes without any juicy line about the feuding Freuds, but with Stephen’s observation that he had never sought his brothers’ lives: “I have lived an interesting life. I have done the things I wanted to do.” I believed him. He may have spent it far from the glittering prizes, but his was a life lived well.
All in the family: The famous Freuds
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
The ‘father of psychoanalysis’, and grandfather of Stephen.
Lucian Freud (1922-2011)
The most celebrated British figurative painter of the late 20th century, famed for his stark portraits. Stephen’s younger brother.
Sir Clement Freud (1924-2009)
A Liberal MP for 14 years, and for four decades one of the wittiest and most popular panellists on the Radio 4 show Just a Minute. Stephen’s youngest brother.
Matthew Freud (born 1963)
The head of the PR firm Freud Communications; friend of David Cameron and ex-husband of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth, with whom he became a leading member of the ‘Chipping Norton set’. Son of Sir Clement Freud.
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