Fame, fortune and infamy

The editors of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography are such sports. I was allowed to say ‘tit’, ‘bum’ and ‘bollocks’ in y piece on Sir Larry Lamb.

As if honour and fee were not reward enough, contributors are revelling in three months’ free password access to http://www.oxforddnb.com and its obits of 50,000 Great Brits from the earliest times.

What a magnificent Christmas present an online subscription would make for the friend who has everything.

These profiles are warts and all, with knobs on. A fine example of the DNB’ s objective obituaristics is the entry on Sir David English (1930 – 1998) contributed by Simon Heffer.

He properly acknowledges the great man’s achievements but adds some intriguing nudges.

Thanks to the DNB, we now know that: “Although remarkably healthy throughout his life, he anaged to fail the medical for national service, so his career continued uninterrupted.”

The boy David was fast-tracking to Fleet Street glory while others of us born pre-1942 were obliged to mark time for two years, serving Crown and country.

And that’s not all, folks. “When English qualified for a Who’s Who entry, he altered the date of his birth from1930 to 1931, and that of his marriage from 1952 to 1954, for reasons that were never entirely clear but which were dismissed by colleagues as vanity.”

And when in New York: “He sent a stream of exclusives back to London, not suffering from the fact that when other journalists tried to follow many of them up, the basis on which they had been written was found to have been flimsy.”

Also enshrined by the DNB for posterity is: “English was not with the press party that accompanied John F.

Kennedy to Dallas in November 1963, though he made his way there swiftly from New York once he heard the news of the president’s death.

“This did not prevent him gilding the personal legend by implying that he had been present at the assassination.”

Heffer quotes Alan Watkins – “English had about him something of the Artful Dodger” – and goes up a class with: “He had more than an element of Machiavelli, and was regarded with ambivalence by many who worked with him.

“Much of this can be attributed to the envy of less original and less successful men; but he was a willing practitioner of the double standard when it suited him.”

A particular fascination of the new DNB are the postscripts recording the probate registry figure of K wealth at death. Lamb (1929- 2000), first editor of the red top Sun and nineteenth editor of the Daily Express, left £210,791. English left six times as much.

The First Lady of Fleet Street, Jean Rook (1931-1991), whose star shone for both English and Lamb, left £640,341.

Whether individuals reduced their total wealth to lessen the burden of inheritance tax is beyond the public domain.

But Vere Rothermere (1925-1998) who went into tax exile to safeguard the family fortune, was still unable to avoid leaving £60,219,897.

(He once lamented to me: “People say, if I love my newspapers so much, why do I live in Paris? The answer is, I live in Paris because I love my newspapers so much.”) The last long-time editor of the Sunday Express, Sir John Junor (1919 – 1997) left £2,226,796, six times as much as Lord Beaverbrook’s £379,530 in the UK.

Junor’s predecessor for a quarter century, John Gordon (1891 -1961) left £81,961. The last long-time editor of the Daily Express, Arthur Christiansen (1904 – 1963) left £93,749.

Lord Cudlipp (1913 – 1998) left £242,497. His Mirror boss, Cecil Harmsworth King (1901 – 1987) left what amounted to a reminder that – ,despite the proprietorial demeanour, the Rolls-Royce, and the manorial fireplace in his ninth-floor office suite- he was not really the owner of the International Publishing Corporation, but its salaried and sackable chairman.

Having caught King’s eye when he was in power, my Mirror career did not long survive his fall. When I secured asylum at the Liverpool Daily Post, he wrote to offer his services as a topical columnist, adding: “Don’t worry about a fee-it would all go to the taxman.”

Had I insisted, King might have left a quid or two more than £1,062,407, hardly sufficient for a Piers Morgan pay-off.

Lord Jacobson (1908 – 1988) the Mirror’s political guru and editor of its original, non-soaraway Sun , left under £70,000.

His DNB obit, by Terence Lancaster, notes that “he had a large nose and sardonic smile.”

(That nose would wrinkle at the pretentious posturings of the jumped up, and that smile would accompany: “Do you remember those wonderful days in Fleet Street when there was only one man who thought he was Hugh Cudlipp?”) Derek Jameson contributes a fine obit of Lord Matthews (1919 – 1995) who, like him, was a fatherless cockney and left school at 14.

We learn that Victor was the son of Abraham Cohen, master tailor, who disappeared soon after the birth.

Jameson says Matthews was the biggest individual donor to Mrs Thatcher’s Tory party. “Apart from taming the print unions, his other great achievement was to unfreeze the treasure trove locked into Reuters, then a co-operative jointly owned by newspapers.

“Under Matthews, the Express group value multiplied more than twenty-fold, to £317 million.”

DNB has not ascertained his wealth on death in the Channel Islands. But it records the wills of most newspaper industry notables. Sir William Carr (1912 -1977) left but £25,835.

He had been chairman of The News of the World until white knight Rupert Murdoch rode in to save him from the dragon, aka Robert Maxwell (1923 – 1991) of whom Murdoch was to become the serial slayer, going on to save The Sun from Maxwell, The Times from Maxwell and Today from Maxwell, and to play a role in saving The Observer from Maxwell and the Express group from Maxwell.

But for the Monopolies Act, he might have saved The Mirror from Maxwell.

The DNB heading on Maxwell – “Publisher and swindler” -is the perfect epitaph.

But, since I have yet to meet anyone who knew him well and believes he committed suicide, I do find myself wondering if that Mount of Olives grave was opened, it would be found to contain the corpses of a couple of large Israeli shepherds.

And the great survivor? Oh, he’d be under a sombrero by the pool of a South American beach resort, playing backgammon with Lord Lucan, and maybe Jimmy Goldsmith, while Shergar grazed on the polo lawn.

Next week: Alison Hastings

by Bernard Shrimsley

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