WHAT’S THE PARTY FOR?

In 1983, I threw a party at the Arts Club in Dover Street to launch a Quartet book on the Bee Gees, the vocal trio of the three Gibb brothers who were around in the early days of pop and became one of the world’s most successful music groups. It was written and created by David English and produced in gorgeous colour with illustrations and lettering by Alex Brychta. The theme was how funny it is, the way people often resemble animals. ‘Think of Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb . . . Barry as a Lion, Robin the Red Setter and Maurice as an Eager Beaver. Now come with me, says the author, and experience the legend of the Bee Gees.’ It was basically a children’s book, dedicated to children everywhere and to the fourth Gibb brother. Its style of telling was unique and reflected all the hopes, frustrations – even heartache – as well as the joy and happiness life has in store for us.

Certainly the launch party was a joyous event. The three brothers were there, wrote David Thomas in the Standard, ‘standing in one corner of the room pretending it was still 1978. Meanwhile the London lit. crit. set, never known for passionate disco fever, milled around asking one another whether they knew what a Bee Gee looked like, pointing at strangers and enquiring, “Do you think that’s Barry?”’ Then, Thomas went on to say, ‘as if to underline the changes that have come over the pop scene since the days that the Bee Gees ruled the airwaves, there were some newer stars in attendance. Like Marilyn (né Peter Robinson), a good friend of Boy George’s who used to model frocks for Vivienne Westwood and who is now, in the best music-biz style, about to sign a six-figure deal with a major company.’ Finally Thomas went on to query the purpose of throwing a party when the guests had little to contribute to the selling of books. When he put the question to Juliette Foy, Quartet’s press officer, she replied that, ‘Primarily we are promoting our publishing house as much as the book.’ I thought that was a good response since we could never justify the cost of a party if we were to equate it with the number of books we sell as a result.

My own thoughts are that parties are also useful for meeting people who might have a book in them, and that if, as a publisher, you do not circulate widely, then opportunities will pass you by. The Bee Gee soirée in particular was heavily attended by show-business personalities, including the likes of Billy Connolly, Christopher Reeve, Sting, Bob Geldof and Jeremy Irons. The presence of celebrities will invariably ensure a good deal of press coverage, which in today’s world gives a vital boost to any business.

QUENTIN CREWE

In September 1991 I attended a party at the Queen Anne Orangery in Kensington Gardens to celebrate the publication of the memoirs of a very dear friend, Quentin Crewe. The title he gave them was Well, I Forget the Rest. This remarkable sixty-four-year-old writer had been for more than half his life confined to a wheelchair, from which he greeted the friends and former wives who turned up to salute him. The Evening Standard covered the event as follows:

Naim Attallah, something of an authority on these matters, confessed his unbridled admiration for Crewe’s romantic endeavours. ‘He is the greatest seducer,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how he does it. There’s no way I could have achieved any of the things he has if I had those disabilities.’

Lord Snowdon, who invented Crewe’s first electric wheelchair, disclaimed any part in such goings on. ‘I don’t think it has anything to do with my chair,’ he told me. ‘And if it has, it’s a peripheral thing. It’s his sheer strength and will of personality.

Quentin was a truly extraordinary man. As well as being a successful journalist and writer he was also a determined adventurer who had defied his disabilities by travelling through some of the most difficult terrain on earth. His exploits were legendary, but his powers of conquest where women were concerned remained the aspect of him I most admired. I saw it happen at first hand when his daughter Candida brought him to have lunch at Namara House. While waiting for me to come down from my office on the fourth floor he went to kill a few minutes browsing in the bookshop on the ground floor. It so happened, at the time, that a twenty-six-year-old model with stunning looks was working in the shop between modelling assignments. Before I could get down to greet him, Quentin had engaged her in conversation. Two months later she was his lover, accompanying him on a long journey through India. When I saw them together on their return, the girl was so besotted that she could not keep her hands off him. She hugged and caressed Quentin with a tenderness that belied the difference in their ages or any impuissance arising from his handicap.

Despite his disability, Quentin had three wives, five children and lovers aplenty, but his was no straightforward tale of triumph over adversity. When he was a boy his mother’s nightly admonition was, ‘Keep your hands above the sheets!’ It was advice he never heeded. He continued to delve beneath the covers even after a Swiss governess had shown him a cautionary Victorian illustration of the madness and degeneration that lay in store for those who failed to take note. Using all the authority of her position, she pointed to the perpetrator of such shameful acts, explaining that the consequences of his wickedness had come about because il joue toujours avec sa quéquette, comme toi. Later, in view of what happened to Quentin, it was as if the governess had been a genuine Cassandra figure, a real prophet of doom, for he was struck down at an early age by muscular dystrophy, a cruel disease that had him confined to his wheelchair for the rest of his life.

When I interviewed him for Singular Encounters, I mentioned to him how his reputation for attracting beautiful young women was fabled. Did the secret lie in his combining being such a great raconteur with an irresistible charm, or was there some inherent sexual chemistry that attracted feminine beauty and youth? His response was typically diffident:

It gets less easy, but I think they’re intrigued by something different – that is to say, somebody in a wheelchair. The only explanation I can think of is that those who seduced me wanted to discover what it was like to go to bed with somebody disabled. Or there is always the other possibility, that one is less frightening to them, that one isn’t a great beast who’s going to leap on top of them and beat them. Whatever it is, I’ve been very lucky.

His explanation seems quite plausible, especially in the light of a more recent instance where the publisher of the Spectator reportedly said she had slept with former home secretary David Blunkett to find out what it was like to sleep with a blind man.

Quentin was one of my heroes, and his death, like that of Auberon Waugh, has left a gap in our society that can never be filled. One hopes that these two men, who loved women with a true passion, are receiving their rewards in heaven from celestial creatures even more beautiful than those who dazzled and beguiled them in their terrestrial lives.

WHAT TANIA THOUGHT…

Tania Foster-Brown was a highly gifted young lady whose sheer impudence made her the life and soul of the party. She was eager to learn, unafraid to take risks, supremely self-confident and a born leader. Recognizing her multitude of capabilities from the outset, I immediately took her under my wing in a PR role. She became one of the favourites and played a crucial part in glamorizing the image of Mappin & Webb. One of the things that marked Tania out from the pack was the way she combined femininity with a tomboyish disposition and a general strength of character. As a brown-eyed brunette with a gamine appearance, she was direct and disarming in the way she dealt with others and was always ready to startle with an improvised piece of mischief. It was presumably her way of neutralizing the dazzling effect she created, especially on discerning men.

Tania would accompany me on a mission or to a particular function where I would be delivering a lecture and then return to the girls-only office at 106 Regent Street (it was guarded by a buzzer to restrict casual access) to report the proceedings verbatim. Taking centre stage, she would mimic me down to the last nuance. (Patrick Ryecart as a professional actor could also do a ‘Naim’, but his was not as good as hers.) She could retain most of the phrases from my speech and deliver them in an authentic manner, gesticulating to emphasize a point and taking a bow at the end to the tumultuous acclaim and merriment of her colleagues. It was as if the world was her stage and she could conjure drama out of sheer mundane reality.

She often travelled with me on buying trips, to Geneva, Florence, Milan, Paris; and throughout the UK when we were promoting products or holding exhibitions. Her companionship was always pleasurable and our journeys were full of funny incidents and mad escapades. We simply found a common ground where the gulf between employer and employee did not exist, without ever jeopardizing our work or undermining respect for authority when it once more became appropriate. Ours was a most unusual and warm relationship, rich in its rewards. She was able to exert a positive influence through her unrestricted access to me, often interceding on behalf of others, but never allowing this special intimacy to go to her head. There were a few occasions, however, when I would instruct my secretary, ‘Foster-Brown – barred!’ Such extreme measures were prompted by a rare misdemeanour or a trifle too far. But neither of us could resist a quick resolution to such an unhappy state of affairs and the making up more than compensated for the original falling out.

I was always certain Tania would go places. Since those days she has, with dedication and hard work, scaled the ladder of success on her own account. As her early mentor I can feel both a comforting pride and a sense of gratification.

Creativity from Within

Tania Foster-Brown

How am I going to write something new about Naim, who’s had so much written about him already? We all know that he’s a larger-than-life character who inspires affection and love in those who come into close contact with him.

For those of us who worked with him closely, his combination of benevolent dictator and concerned father figure was quite unique. He recognized talent, even in the young and unworldly-wise, and gave it air to breathe. He loved having fun and the office buzzed with ideas and possibilities.

At times he could be impossible, with obsessive passions on particular projects – but his enthusiasm was so contagious you found yourself agreeing to his suggestions and sharing his totally genuine delight when things you planned worked out well. He never took personal credit for anything – but shared it round ‘his girls’. He did not believe in consultants or external agencies. ‘Creativity comes from within,’ he would exclaim to senior advertising executives trying to work on our business!

Naim has a wicked sense of humour and conventional formalities were often pushed to one side. He had an urge to shock out of a sense of devilment, and I would occasionally sit aghast as he repeated some mischievous anecdote to a journalist lunch guest. On that note he was punctilious in his punctuality and it wasn’t unknown for a guest to miss the first course if they arrived late. I have never arrived before him at any rendezvous since I have known him!

This heightened sense of needing to be on time could become stressful, especially when sitting next to Naim on an aeroplane that was delayed for take-off!
He was hard and uncompromising when he needed to be, but also sentimental. He was horrified that I cycled to work throughout my first pregnancy, and when during my second pregnancy I had a slight accident on the bike it was too much for him to bear. His chauffeur appeared outside my house the next day and drove me to and from work from then onwards. No matter how much I made protestations about this special treatment, he would have it no other way. There were many other similar instances that set him apart from other chief executives.

Above all, we had great fun, and he gave me the chance to learn to do a job that I had no formal qualifications for – by teaching and trusting and guiding. All the girls loved working with him – it often didn’t even feel like work – and we all knew that once we were part of his family, then his loyalty was there for ever for each of us. I certainly credit working with him as being the most important factor in making me who I am today – mostly in work ways but also in personal development.

MEMORIES OF LUCY

During the 1990s one of my secretary’s, Lucy Wastnage, came with me from Namara House as I moved into my new Asprey offices above Garrard in Regent Street. She was considered mysteriously attractive, with a sultry Mediterranean complexion inherited from her Italian father. In fact her father doted on her and rather spoiled her. She was the only one to be photographed with me, sitting on the floor in my new office above Garrard. I felt totally relaxed in her presence and we could not have had a better working relationship. I have to admit, however, that I did indulge her, especially when she and David Tang began courting long before their marriage some years later. The saga of Lucy’s romance began when she was introduced to David Tang by Tania Foster-Brown, whose ex-husband, Guy Salter, worked for Prince Charles when David happened to be a member of the Prince’s Trust. The relationship was a coup de foudre that sizzled with electricity. The two were phoning each other for most of the day, and then continued for the best part of the night. Calls from Hong Kong were therefore monopolizing Lucy’s office telephone line and messages on a variety of topics were clogging the fax machine. Some expressed the tenderness of two people in love, others took the form of quizzes to which each party had to respond. Occasionally Lucy’s sense of mischief led her to give the wrong answer deliberately – such as that Naim would make the ideal companion or was the most accomplished man she could hope to meet. It was part of her teasing technique, designed to raise David’s temperature with jealousy annd exasperation at her contrariness. As the relationship grew in its intensity, David kept her awake at night by telephoning her in a roller-coaster fashion, pitting his well-known limitless energies against hers but eventually reducing her to a walking shadow through lack of sleep.

At this point my indulgence manifested itself in a number of ways. I became much more tolerant with her than usual and turned a blind eye to the flood of outside communications. I was reluctant to spoil a budding relationship that seemed more full of promise than usual; hence my decision to let her travel with David to New York, then on to Mexico, where they stayed on Jimmy Goldsmith’s legendary estate. With further trips on offer, Lucy found herself facing a difficult dilemma. She was reluctant to give up a job in which she was spending some of her happiest times, while the lure of David’s lifestyle and her love of his company were proving too much of a temptation to resist. She had to make a choice, for she could not pursue both paths simultaneously. Her loss was painful for us all. She had become an integral part of a team that had perfected the art of combining serious enterprise with unabashed fun. David Tang showed his appreciation to me by signing a declaration on one of his China Club brochures: ‘This is to confirm that Emperor Naim Attallah is to enjoy free lunches and dinners at the China Club for life.’ Lucy agreed to contribute this memoir to my final volume of autobiography Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995:

Best Friends, Best Days

Lucy Wastnage (now Tang)

They say some of the best days of your life are your school days. I would agree, because I met friends at school who are still my good friends. I would add that some of my other best days were working for Naim as his secretary. Not only did I meet some of my favourite people, I also found in Naim a great man whom I would cherish as a lifelong friend. For this I have to thank Julia Ogilvy (Rawlinson): it was through her that I got the post after I left Harpers & Queen working for Louis Dominguez. Heaven only knows what Naim saw in me when he took me on. I could never claim to be a very conscientious employee; but maybe he saw the loyalty in me.

When I compared my situation with other friends, who all seemed to have such mundane and boring jobs, it made me think how lucky I was. To be working with Naim was always far from boring!

Most days his driver, John, would pick me up from my home before we went on to collect Naim from his in South Street. He’d go to the hairdressers while I waited in the car. Then, in the Namara House days, it would be on to the office in Poland Street, where the building housed a wonderfully eccentric team, including Pickles and a girl named Claudia Ward with whom I sadly lost contact after we moved to 106 Regent Street. With the move the road trips to radio stations to promote Naim’s books ceased, along with visits to The Women’s Press.

At the new offices the atmosphere was more corporate but still always fun. Hattie Beaumont, his cook, moved with us, and she and I regularly had a giggle over what we could divert from Naim’s cooked-lunch allowance for hosting important clients to scoff for ourselves in the kitchen, or even in Naim’s own office while he was in the boardroom. He was always entertaining amazing people like Auberon Waugh, Richard Ingrams or Lord Stockton; or actresses, writers or journalists.

After a year of being Naim’s secretary, I started my relationship with my now husband. We were introduced by Tania Foster-Brown, who also worked at Mappin & Webb (though she was someone I already knew when I started the job). Naim soon became exasperated by the fact that his personal fax number was being used by David to keep sending me faxes; or with me for blocking the telephone line. I’d be on the phone for hours, cigarette in hand, oblivious that none of Naim’s important business calls were getting through to him!

At this point Naim not only put in another fax line for me, he also hired me an assistant called Sarah Winstone. When I look back I was certainly overpaid and any normal boss would have sacked me. But no, for all the girls who passed through his doors Naim was a giver. The pinnacle of his benevolence was for me when he granted me three months’ paid absence to go to Hong Kong and sort out my relationship. If he had not done that, or been so generous in spirit, I might never have married the wonderful husband I’m with today.

Actually I probably came close to getting the sack from Naim a couple of times a day on average. I was always burning holes not only in my own desktop but also in his. There were also happenings like the time I stuck a reception sign on his (the chairman’s) door, then had to try to rip it off again when I heard he was about to take a rather serious meeting with John Asprey and had the whole door falling in! All these things, and more besides, set me thinking how wonderfully lucky I’ve been to have worked for such an amazing man.

Also, when you consider his background, his Middle Eastern origins mean he has always been a very tactile man, a bit like the Italians. To the English, who are so suspicious of people touching them or being openly friendly, I think it all comes across as rather seedy. What outsiders fail to understand is that he is only holding a hand, or giving a friendly hug, or making a slightly naughty insinuation. None of it infers anything more than a show of friendship or a joke. This, I have to say, is one of the reasons why I adore this man: because I know his loyalty has no boundaries as mine have none for him.

GILLIAN GREENWOOD

Gillian Greenwood was the editor for Robin Clark, a small paperback imprint I had bought, specialising in literary reprints. She took over the editorship of the Literary Review from Anne Smith, presiding over the journal during the most turbulent part of its history. In 1984, however, she decided to join the team for Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show, fulfilling a wish she had always expressed to make a career in television. The opportunity came and she could not pass it by. I was thrilled at the prospect of her finding the niche she was seeking. I had grown very fond of her and admired her courage and tenacity under fire. During the inflated controversy over God Cried (see below), she stood resolute and fought her corner, refusing to be intimidated when the onslaught was at its most vituperative.

She wrote of her time with me, calling the piece:

Bumpy Rides and Gentle Days by Gillian Greenwood

I first met Naim Attallah in the early 1980s through the late Patrick Cosgrave, a right-wing journalist and former contributor to the magazine Books and Bookmen (where I had been assistant editor – my first proper job – until its sudden bankruptcy). Patrick presented me to Naim as a contender to run a small paperback imprint of Quartet Books, Robin Clark. I knew something about books, but little about publishing. None the less Naim decided to give me a go. People have implied that Naim’s employment policies were based on the social status of the applicants. That wasn’t so in my case, and I like to think it was my ability that he recognized as well as Patrick’s recommendation.

… Twenty-odd years later I have a recurring dream that I am recalled to the Literary Review. It is always a pleasant dream and is indicative of the magical time I and all those other young (mainly) women had in Naim’s employ. I spent three years editing the Literary Review and they were exciting and very happy times, even with the occasional bumpy ride, and I will always be deeply grateful to Naim for the extraordinary opportunity he gave me.

At first our offices were in the Goodge Street rabbit warren, later in a beautiful building in Beak Street. The Literary Review office had been Naim’s at one point and he had left behind a magnificent chair and desk which I sat on and behind, much to the amusement of my contributors, many of whom liked to visit regularly. In the case of the male contributors this was probably in part because, particularly in the Goodge Street days when we shared premises with Quartet, it must have been like visiting some exotic girls’ finishing school. Naim liked young women – that is self-evident– but my recollection is that most of them were clever and efficient. Many of them were also well connected, but their presence wasn’t because of some desire on Naim’s part to be connected to the British upper classes but a canny understanding of how publicity and the establishment can be worked when cash is short. And cash was short since the whole publishing enterprise was underwritten and, certainly in the case of the magazine, heavily subsidized by Naim. We were very fortunate in having Bridget Heathcoat-Amory as our business manager. She ran a tight, if unprofitable, financial ship, her contacts were spectacular, and her party skills (I have a memory of lethal White Lady cocktails) devastating. Between us (and Kathy O’Shaughnessy, the deputy editor) we managed to persuade all sorts of wonderful establishment novelists, writers and journalists to write for the Literary Review for almost nothing.

The bumpiest moment of my relationship with both the magazine and Naim was over a review by Roald Dahl of a book about the plight of the Palestinians, God Cried. It was a Quartet publication. Naim had been introduced to Roald Dahl and they had discovered a mutual sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Naim phoned me to suggest that Dahl should review the book. It was unusual for Naim to involve himself with commissioning, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Roald Dahl was a coup for the magazine. When the piece came in we were aware it was provocative and there was much debate about publication. We consulted our lawyer and mentor, Michael Rubinstein, who assured me that in his opinion the piece was anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic. I was reassured. We published. All hell broke loose. Dahl, it turned out, had been accused of anti-Semitism by Christopher Hitchens. Editorials were written. Lobbies were mounted. Naim found it challenging and exciting. I found it confusing and stressful, but together we faced it out.

…. But this moment of high political drama was not the norm. It was a gentle life of reading and commissioning and trips to the printers, interspersed with magnificent parties, hot tickets in a journalistic pool, presided over by Naim, who stood beaming over the social scene like some Anthony Powell creation. Life in the London of the 1980s would simply have been much duller without him. Above all else, it was fantastic fun, and how rare it is to be able to say that these days about a job. It was a privilege to be a part of it. I left after three years because, although I loved literature and the magazine, I wanted to make films. But I still dream.

THE ENIGMA OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL

Leni Riefenstahl may have been slight in build, but she was big in everything else. She was a giant of her generation, with so many talents it was hard to conceive of their all being in one person. Before the advent of the talkies, she had been a silent-film star in Germany; prior to that she had been a brilliant dancer. She then went on to become a formidable sportswoman, an amazing photographer and a film-maker of prodigious scope and ability. She always had a highly perceptive eye, was a stickler for the minutest detail and a perfectionist in whatever assignment she took on. Her single-mindedness could be both a strength and an irritation. Difficult to handle, impossible to shift from any set course, she embodied the Aryan discipline with a steely resolve to have her own way, whatever that might entail.

The first time I set eyes on her was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in the German section. Many years before that chance encounter I had tried with no success to make contact after seeing some of her films on television. The impact of her work had completely bowled me over with its artistry and power. Tracking her down turned out to be an extremely difficult process. Eventually, through a highly reliable German source, I did secure an address for her in Munich. But though I wrote, I received no reply. This was perhaps not surprising, but when I saw her in Frankfurt and introduced myself, her eyes flashed as she casually informed me she remembered getting my letter. No explanation was forthcoming as to why she had never replied, but she was friendly and suggested I submit a written proposal for what I had in mind. With that, our cooperation began, and led in due course to the publication of her memoirs, The Sieve of Time, on her ninetieth birthday. It was edited and in part translated from the German by Jennie Bradshaw (now Erdal). ‘My aim,’ wrote Leni, ‘was to tackle preconceived ideas, to clear up misunderstandings. I spent five years working on the manuscript; it was not an easy task since I was the only one who could write these memoirs. The book did not turn out to be a happy one.’

In fact, to mark her seventy-fifth birthday back in 1977, Stern magazine had wanted to write up her life story, but Leni Riefenstahl had refused to sanction the project in the belief that she was the only one who could do justice to her own life. Her career began on the stage in the early 1920s, working as a ballet dancer for Max Reinhardt among others. Her début as a film actress came in 1925 with Der heiliger Berg (The Holy Mountain), filmed in the Alps by Arnold Fanck, her mentor, who was the father of the vaguely pantheistic mountain cult in Weimar cinema. In the late 1920s, Riefenstahl became the high priestess of this cult, starring in, among other films, Die weisser Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Piz Palu, 1929), directed by Fanck in collaboration with G. W. Pabst; and Stürme über dem Montblanc (Storm over Mont Blanc, 1930), directed by Fanck. Her last film with Fanck was SOS Eisberg (1933), but a year earlier she had laid the foundations for her own company and co-authored, directed and produced, besides playing the leading role in, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), which the critic David Thomson has called ‘the pre-eminent work of mountain mysticism’.

Hitler admired her artistry, and despite her loathing for Joseph Goebbels and the fact she was never a party member, commissioned her to make a film record of the 1934 Nazi rallies at Nuremberg. Premièred in Berlin in 1935, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will – Hitler had suggested the title) won a gold medal at the Venice Film Festival and established Riefenstahl as Germany’s foremost film director. The next year she filmed the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. This was not a Nazi party commission, but came from the International Olympics Committee. The gala performance of Olympia in Berlin in April 1938 marked Hitler’s forty-ninth birthday, and it took the prize for best film at Venice. The power of the imagery in these two films and the virtuosic way they were cut and assembled make them unforgettable, though, given their historic context, their aesthetics were destined never be disentangled from the political polemic of their background. In the words of David Thomson, Leni Riefenstahl became ‘arguably the most talented woman ever to make a film’, but was ‘still neglected in an age of feminist militancy’. Jean Cocteau had hailed her with the words, ‘How could I not admire you, for you are the genius of film and have raised it to heights seldom achieved?’ The pioneer of the British documentary movement, John Grierson – a committed man of the left – gave it as his opinion that, ‘Leni Riefenstahl is one of the great film-makers in history’, likening his salute to the one Churchill gave to Rommel:

Leni Riefenstahl was the propagandist for Germany. I was a propagandist on the other side . . . I took Leni Riefenstahl’s films and cut them into strips to turn German propaganda against itself; but I never made the mistake of forgetting how great she was. Across the devastation of the war, I salute a very great captain of the cinema.There has been only one true masterpiece of the Olympiad and that is of course Leni Riefenstahl’s in 1936.

On a trip to New York, I was invited to lunch by Tina Brown, who was then editor of Vanity Fair. During the course of our conversation, I happened to mention the proposed memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl. Sharp as ever, Tina wasted no time in extracting from me a commitment to give a Vanity Fair contributor, Stephen Schiff, the first exclusive coverage of the book prior to its publication in the UK, by arranging for him an interview with Leni. In my wild exuberance at the prospects of gaining a heightened profile for the book, I readily agreed but omitted to ask Tina for any kind of financial consideration. Unbeknown to me at the time, the Sunday Times had already interviewed Leni under the impression that their interview would be run as an exclusive prior to the book’s publication. While Leni acknowledged that she gave the interview to someone she knew at the Sunday Times, she was adamant she had never given the newspaper the right to publish it before the Vanity Fair article. The Sunday Times then became equally entrenched in their position and a legal battle ensued that cost Quartet a great deal of money. In this Quartet found itself having to protect what were essentially the interests of Vanity Fair.

By the time the litigation was over, and Vanity Fair had published their long-awaited interview ahead of the field, Quartet found itself deeply out of pocket for having kept its word to the magazine. Yet when I applied to Vanity Fair for reimbursement of the legal fees incurred on their behalf, they washed their hands of the matter completely. The affair, they claimed, had not been of their making and consequently they admitted no responsibility. Given that Vanity Fair had not paid Quartet any fees for what were, essentially, first serial rights, I was in my view justified in feeling aggrieved. My goodwill gesture towards Tina Brown had misfired badly on this occasion, and I resolved afterwards that journalistic favours were hardly ever likely to bear fruit. In retrospect the magazine was guilty in my opinion of unethical behaviour, and I have often wondered whether Tina was aware of the turn taken by events after she had extracted my promise. I was too proud to broach the subject with her, for I have always believed in the honour of a commitment irrespective of any commercial consideration.

The launch party for the book was held appropriately at the Museum of the Moving Image on London’s South Bank. A comprehensive invitation list was sent out, but very few people turned up for the occasion. Those who stayed away did so as a sign of protest, claiming that Leni had been a Nazi who collaborated with the Third Reich, and that having any truck with her would compromise their own strongly held anti-fascist convictions. They were not even prepared to be attracted by the extraordinary fact that she had just returned from diving in the Maldives to film underwater in her ninetieth year, and that her next stop would be New Guinea. ‘The only dangerous animals are the journalists who turn up,’ she said.

Among the guests were Auberon Waugh, who happily posed with Leni, the newscaster Gordon Honeycombe, and Claus von Bulow, who was sporting a newly grown beard. Von Bulow stalked around the museum, the Sunday Telegraph reported, casting a quizzical eye at the television screens that were showing clips from some of Leni’s work. ‘These films have extraordinary power,’ he said, ‘but now some of them send shivers down my spine. They make such horrible things seem so attractive.’

Notwithstanding the general boycott of the launch party, the book itself received phenomenal review coverage, Celina Sippy, Quartet’s publicity manager, having done a fabulous job with the promotion. None of the critics could resist the urge to write about the book and Leni’s picture was splashed across many a front cover, including that of The Times Literary Supplement. Both critics and media observers were almost unanimous in acknowledging her genius as a film-maker, but the label that claimed she had been a propagandist for Hitler and his ideology continued to stick in general. Her denials that she had simply been pursuing her artistic endeavours fell on deaf ears and failed to convince any of them. She was to remain the bête noir of the media until her death at the age of over a hundred.

The historian Ian Buruma was allotted the task of assessing the book for The Times Literary Supplement. He began by looking at some of her main claims: that she had never been a Nazi, that she had never heard of Hitler before 1932, and that she had no idea what happened to the Jews until she was told in 1945. Yet, he said, this was Hitler’s greatest propagandist, who when she heard of his death ‘threw herself on her bed and “wept all night”’. Perhaps she had been lying for so long that she believed ‘her own fibs’. Nevertheless he was prepared overall to give her the benefit of the doubt, granting credence to a ‘rich, poetic inner life’. ‘But the mind that looks in, naturally sometimes fails to look out, and is bound, therefore, to miss a few things – the rise of Hitler, for example, or millions of people disappearing into cattle-trucks.’

[With] her experience of rapturous mountain films, starring pure, clean, heroic German youths seeking the sublime on moonlit nights, the step towards becoming Hitler’s propagandist was not a big one. She was, one might say, exactly the right woman in the right place at the right time. Was she an opportunist? Let us say that career and faith formed a seamless whole. The reason she continues to fascinate us is that she lifted Nazi propaganda to something approaching excellence.

Buruma’s feeling was that her claim that Triumph of the Will was not propaganda, but purely and simply a documentary, was absurd and did not bear scrutiny. She had repeated the assertion that it had ‘nothing ideological in it’ to Gitta Sereny in an interview in the Independent on Sunday, but this too was ‘nonsensical’.

In speech after speech, the Nazi ideals, woolly and murderous, are extolled. If Riefenstahl missed the point of her own most famous work, her boss certainly did not . . . The film, Hitler wrote [in a preface to a book called Hinter den Kulissen des Reichparteitag-Films (Behind the Scenes of the Nuremberg Rally Film)], was ‘a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our movement’.

If Riefenstahl really thinks that her film is nothing but a dispassionate chronicle, her simulation of great passion, indeed worship, is the product of a deeply cynical mind, or else she is the truest of coins, the believer in whom the faith simply is reality. Again my inclination is to give her the benefit of the doubt. Triumph of the Will is a work of passionate engagement. Riefenstahl is intoxicated by the sheer beauty of it all.

A fellow film-maker, Lindsay Anderson, added his comments in the European, saying that even more memorable than Triumph of the Will was Olympia:

Its power and poetry have never been surpassed. Riefenstahl’s account of its preparations, shooting and above all editing, shows the meticulous concentration of the true film artist. It won the Grand Prix at the last Venice Festival before the war. But its identification with the Nazi myth cast a shadow over its director for the rest of her life. And it put an end to her career as a film-maker.

One cannot help feeling that this condemnation and the continual repression that went with it were largely unjustified. Riefenstahl was naïve and certainly unwise to accept Nazi patronage. But she was not the first artist to sacrifice her good name for the opportunity to practise her art.

Helena Pinkerton wrote a very level-headed notice for the Jewish Chronicle.

That these two films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, were also the artistic masterworks of a huge talent might not be seen as a redeeming factor. Yet her hefty book of memoirs, timed to coincide with her ninetieth birthday, portrays a woman whose greatest sins were political naïveté, self-absorption and a measure of cowardice. She was never a Nazi party member. Nor, she says, did she share the Nazis’ views on race and Aryan supremacy . . .

And an objective viewing of Olympia leads to the conclusion that its most exalted star is the black American athlete Jessie Owens.

Why, therefore, had she not left Germany when the Nazis attained power, but stayed on ‘despite the repressions which she claims to have abhorred’? Here it had to be remembered that many stayed ‘who could and should have left, including indeed many Jews, who had better reason that Riefenstahl did to jump ship’. These had stayed ‘because they felt themselves to be, above all, Germans’. Her book was worth reading to correct the many misconceptions there had been about her, for ‘hers was an independent artistic vision’, though she ‘did allow her art to serve an evil master, and for that she must take the rap. She was certainly not heroic. But how many were?’

During an interview for The Times with Christian Tyler, he suggested that, ‘like Marlene Dietrich, she could have gone to America’.

Riefenstahl corrected me. Dietrich had to go to the US for her career and denounced the Nazis from there because she had been better informed of the truth by her circle.

Riefenstahl’s own Jewish friends – they loyally defended her later – had initially been impressed by Hitler and had advised her not to leave Germany, she said.

‘You could have followed your instinct and kept away from those men. But it was too late.’

‘Riefenstahl is a tough old bird,’ concluded Philip Purser in an article in the London Review of Books.

When nearly sixty she began a new career as a photographer specializing in anthropological studies, notably of the Nuba people in the Sudan. At seventy-one she qualified as a scuba diver and added underwater photography to her portfolio. She has never been short of professional admirers . . . Nor, of course does she lack detractors; the latest has been Susan Sontag, who traced a line of fascist exaltation right through the oeuvre . . . Obsessed by these extremes of approval or censure, Riefenstahl seems unable to look back on the things she did with any objectivity or even to recognize ordinary cause and effect.

In a review in The Times, Mark Almond said Riefenstahl was a film genius, but predicted that her ‘overlong self-defence’, as represented in the memoirs, would ‘do little to lift the shadows from her reputation’:

It fits too easily into the catalogue of gifted Germans who went along with Hitler, preferring to promote their own careers and genius under his patronage and remaining wilfully ignorant of the nature of his regime until too late . . .

Her films will remain her legacy, arousing ambivalent admiration. Although she had written her memoirs ‘to tackle preconceived ideas and to clear up misunderstandings’, Janet Watts found in an interview conducted for the Observer that she was not proud of the result, admitting that she was ‘not gifted in writing’. She had felt it was a necessary duty, and sure enough ‘the book has already been rubbished’.

Yet many people have loved Leni Riefenstahl, too. The Nuba people of the southern Sudan, for example: and they have played a part in her survival. When she finally admitted (after many struggles) that her film career was over, she went to Africa, discovered the Nuba and – almost by accident – began a new career by photographing them . . .

In all her tribulations, Leni Riefenstahl vibrates with life. For many people she will never be able to pay for her great mistake . . .

‘I am not happy. But if I have not an interview . . . if I have nothing to do with the press . . . If I see my Nuba, if I dive . . . I fight against depression. Even if it is hard, I say to the life, yes.’

Quartet was to publish two more books of Leni Riefenstahl’s. One of them, Olympia, covered the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The other was Wonders of the Sea. Both were photographic books to take the breath away. Olympia was all in black and white, its stunning photographs documenting the spectacular games for future generations. Wonders of the Sea contained photographs she had shot in beautiful colour at the age of eighty-five during spectacular dives she made in the Red Sea, the Caribbean, the Maldives and the Indian Ocean. These images of great natural beauty depicted the fantastic variety of marine life: minuscule prawns, sponges, bivalves, coral in bloom and the wonderful world of fish. The splendours of their shapes and colours were again caught on film for posterity. Leni’s patient, tireless efforts had resulted in a photographic collection of outstanding beauty, each intricate composition as delicate as a painting.

With her death at the age of a hundred and one in 2003, the world said farewell not only to a remarkable woman who had made her mark on history, but also to one who had evoked in unforgettable imagery the time when Germany’s colossal renewal of power was poised to inflict human misery and slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Her detractors understandably continue to argue that her work is a celebration of that power – unwittingly perhaps, but undeniably. When, however, her creative contribution is viewed through an artistic perspective, devoid of its moral equivocacy, then it seems to transcend these considerations.

There was no doubting that Leni herself continued to struggle with her inner demons till the end. She survived a helicopter crash when she was ninety-eight, on her last trip to visit the Nuba. The film-maker Ray Müller visited her in hospital and asked what in her life she regretted. There had been many, many mistakes, she said. What mistakes did she mean, he asked. ‘Well . . . ,’ she responded, ‘I mean, this relationship with the Third Reich.’ For a film he made in 1993, Müller had previously made the point bluntly to her: ‘I feel this country [Germany] is still waiting for you to say publicly: “I made a mistake, I’m sorry . . . ” ’ Leni replied:

Being sorry isn’t nearly enough, but I can’t tear myself apart or destroy myself. It’s so terrible. I’ve suffered anyway for over half a century and it will never end, until I die. It’s such an incredible burden that to say sorry . . . it’s inadequate, it expresses too little.

PRAISE INDEED

This week’s review in the Times Literary Supplement of A Scribbler in Soho reminded me of the time Bron Waugh approached Hugh Trevor Roper to try to persuade him to do a review of my fourth collection of interviews, More of a Certain Age, for the Literary Review. ‘How can I possibly resist so civil a request?’ the distinguished historian responded. ‘Quite frankly I would have preferred not be asked – simply because I am so overburdened at present, and doubt if I would do it well (would I know the persons interviewed?). But I respect Naim Attallah as an interviewer and I am sure that the book deserves a good review. So between my respect for him and the irresistible courtesy of your letter, I would do my best – if you can’t find, as I rather hope you can, a more suitable reviewer.

The result outstripped all expectations and is reprinted in full below:

Who Is This Subtle Man Who Asks the Questions?

Hugh Trevor-Roper

If you are to be interviewed by Mr Naim Attallah, do not suppose that you will get off with easy answers, for he comes well briefed and will press you hard. ‘You are very searching in your questions,’ exclaims the poetess Kathleen Raine. ‘You are going too deeply into my life,’ protests the Duke of Devonshire; and Sir Laurens van der Post draws the line when pressed to discuss his relations with the Prince of Wales and Lady Thatcher. But on the whole the patients submit to this tactful psychoanalyst. Indeed, they are stimulated. ‘This has been such a good interview that it’s made me think very deeply,’ says John Mortimer, who has had to face the unresolved contradictions of his own psyche. ‘It’s terribly interesting being interviewed by you,’ says Tony Benn, who is so happily constituted that every question merely confirms his own solid convictions.

Mr Benn does bang on a bit, on his ‘stiletto principle’ (the stiletto being the heel on the floor, not the knife in the back). ‘If you really do press very hard on something, you can win, just as a woman with a high-heeled shoe can go through a parquet floor.’ Socialism – real socialism, not the ‘milk-and-water liberalism’ of the Social Democrats – comes to him straight from ‘the Book of Genesis and the New Testament’. So it is absolute Truth, just as Thatcherism is ‘absolute Evil’. After this uncompromising homily, the amiable epicureanism of the Duke of Devonshire comes as rather a relief. Having genially allowed that the 99 per cent of the public who regard dukes as freaks are probably right, and that his own political career was due to ‘gross nepotism’, he admits that his idea of heaven, now that he has passed the stage of ‘casinos, fast women, and God knows what’, apart from being at Chatsworth, is to sit in the hall of Brooks’s ‘having China tea’.

To meet Mr Benn on his own terms we must look for more forceful characters. Lord Amery, an equally unbending, though less ideological opponent, does not give much away – indeed he thinks we have already given away too much; we could and should have kept the old empire going – and here is Lord Hartwell, who also does not give an inch, though he gave away the Daily Telegraph in a fit of absence of mind. His tones are clipped, his judgements summary. Why does he think that Sir Peregrine Worsthorne ‘couldn’t edit a school magazine, let alone a national newspaper’? ‘My experience of him,’ he replies. ‘I use my judgement.’ And what of Rupert Murdoch? ‘He’s become purely a financier. He’s very good at tabloids . . . ’

These patients are all much of an age – a high age – and so the war and, to those who knew him, Churchill loom large in their memories and rationalizations. Particularly of course to Churchill’s daughter, Lady Soames. Others had brief but memorable contact with the great man. Sir Bernard Lovell, afterwards Astronomer Royal, was ordered by Churchill to develop the new device H2S, thanks to which bomber pilots could see what lay below them, even in the dark and through cloud, and so detect submarines surfacing at night. Now Sir Bernard looks back on the experience ‘almost as if disembodied’, so remote it seems, and faces the moral questions which linger on. It was chilling, he says, to see the havoc wreaked on Hamburg and other German cities by that device, and yet did not that same device, by defeating the submarine menace, turn the tide of war? It ‘saved us from starvation’ and made the landings in Normandy possible. So narrow was the margin of victory, so thin the dividing line between good and evil in science.

Sir Bernard is a thinking scientist. He ranges over the social and moral problems raised by science: the social conditions of research, the moral problems of its results. To me, this is the most impressive of all these interviews. The most moving is that of Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the hospice movement, which enables the terminally ill not merely, she insists, to die with dignity, but to live with dignity till they die: a saint with the engaging human quality of always falling in love with Poles. Why so? asks Mr Attallah. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ she replies. ‘It just happens.’ This endears her to me. I love Poles.

There are also men – or more often women – of letters: here is Lady Longford, brimful of good sense. I am sorry that she has changed her view that Father D’Arcy was Mephistopheles and thinks that Koo Stark would have made a much better Duchess of York than Fergie. Marjorie Proops, doyenne of agony aunts, refused to believe any ill of Robert Maxwell, who made her a director of the Daily Mirror and got her to sign sheaves of papers unseen. She insists that she was in good company: everyone she knew agreed. She must have lived exclusively among bankers. John Mortimer is always exhilarating, P. D. James sensible. All these bare their souls to so perceptive and sympathetic an inquisitor.

But Patricia Highsmith stands firm. As an earlier interviewer wrote, ‘Her manner precludes intrusive questioning.’ Mr Attallah fares no better. Does she regret being an only child? ‘No, I never missed having brothers and sisters.’ Has she ever wanted children? ‘No. Absolutely no.’ Has she ever regretted not marrying? ‘No.’ Is she unhappy? Not at all. ‘When I get up in the morning, I first of all make the coffee and then I say to my cat, “We’re going to have a great day.”’

Lord Amery, Lord Hartwell and Miss Highsmith adopt variants of the Maginot line of defence. Lord Wyatt prefers the counter-attack. The subject is his most popular pronouncements in the News of the World, delivered as ‘The Voice of Reason’. Is not that title, in the circumstances, rather presumptuous? ‘Not at all,’ replies the oracular voice. ‘Do you read my column?’ ‘Sometimes,’ answers the questioner, their roles suddenly reversed. ‘Well, you obviously don’t read it enough, so you don’t know what you’re talking about. I think very much as ordinary people do.’ QED.

In the end, one of the most interesting persons in these discussions is Mr Attallah. Someone (preferably a little more subtle than Lord Wyatt) should interview him.