Rear Window: Arianna Stassinopoulos: The siren of the Seventies

Brian Cathcart
Saturday 15 October 1994 23:02

FOR A dozen heady years, everything she wished for was in Britain. She had fame; she was controversial; she was admired by distinguished old men and escorted by ambitious young ones. There were books, lectures and after-dinner speeches; there were appearances on Any Questions and Face the Music. There was a libel action against Private Eye. There was even her own chat show.

'I want to carry on living in this country,' she declared in the full flush of her success. But then she saw America, and left.

To see her again last week, prodding her wealthy Texan husband, Michael Huffington, through a spectacularly expensive US Senate election campaign, was to be transported back in time. For Arianna Stassinopoulos is an emblem of Britain in the 1970s to rival Nationwide and the Austin Allegro.

She came from Greece and she took Cambridge by storm. She was, wrote the Times in 1971, 'glamorous, with lots of charm. Her clothes are stunning. A mauve ski suit, worn in advance of the Christmas winter sports holiday which she has planned, looked vivid in freezing Cambridge last week.'

She cut her economics lectures, parked her Alfa Romeo on yellow lines and, at the Cambridge Union debates, rarely failed to air forthright opinions at length in heavily- accented English. This, and those mauve ski suits, got her noticed. She became President of the Union, and this allowed eminent speakers up from London to notice her too.

If she wasless than loud in her condemnation of the Greek colonels (her father was in the newspaper business under the dictators), she had no reservations at all about women's libbers, and the publishers of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch had the merry idea of commissioning her to write a riposte.

The Female Woman, drawing on zoological evidence to demonstrate the fundamental differences between the sexes, appeared in 1973. 'So many women, if not most women, just feel repelled by Women's Lib,' she told the Daily Mail, 'and it's time somebody spoke out loudly on the other side.' T E Utley, in the Sunday Telegraph, wrote of the book's 'critical brilliance,' while elsewhere Mary Kenny (then rather different in her views) accused the author of insulting womanhood. 'She has misunderstood - or more likely, deliberately distorted - the mainstream ideology of the women's movement.'

By now it was hard not to notice Ms Stassinopoulos. She was living in Chelsea with a Picasso on the wall and studying at the London School of Economics, but she had the knack of finding the limelight. Gossip writers catalogued her companions. John Selwyn Gummer, then a parliamentary private secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, said: 'I enjoy her company enormously.' David Mellor, an old Cambridge chum, was said to have sent her poetry. Simon Jenkins (later editor of the Times), was linked romantically.

Private Eye, which liked to call her 'the gigantic Greek pudding' or 'the vast Hellenic scribe', accused her of having cheated her way into Cambridge. She sued, with the libel barrister Leon Brittan acting, and the magazine apologised and paid up.

She was everywhere: on the radio, on television, in the opinion columns of the Times, addressing right- wing think tanks, literary lunches and Conservative Women's conferences. The name, the hair, the voice, the strident opinions - everything was instantly recognisable. One profile writer said of her: 'She conveyed the self-contained, rather tense air of a young woman who knew exactly what she wanted out of life: probably a top job in politics. There also seemed a very fair chance that she would get one.'

Instead of a top job she got Bernard Levin, and was noticed all the more. She also wrote a book about the failure of politics that was warmly reviewed by Paul Johnson, an admirer. Her views were now very fashionable: 'I'm asking people to grow up, to take responsibility for their lives again. It isn't burning your bra, it's burning the nappies we've let the State put on us.'

Next she developed an interest in things spiritual. 'Something is abroad in the land,' she wrote. 'More and more people, not necessarily connected with official religions, are beginning to recognise that there is more in the universe than meets the eye and more in themselves than a frantic and forlorn search for pleasure - the recognition is a less and less idle one. They are looking everywhere for something that will fulfil this longing.'

She found it, with a Californian sect called Insight, for which she and Mr Levin became apostles and publicists, to the ever-greater amusement of the press. It did not, however, stop her from embarking on a biography of Maria Callas and signing up as co-host of the BBC's Saturday Night at the Mill.

The two appeared at once. The show was a disaster and she was pulled off after four weeks as viewers jammed switchboards with complaints about her accent, her haughty manner and her habit of kissing everyone. But the book (despite allegations of plagiarism) was such a commercial success she did not need to worry. It took her to America, away from us and from Mr Levin and ultimately into the comfortable embrace of Mr Huffington, whose millions are now helping her to be noticed by an even wider audience.

(Photograph omitted)

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