Marjorie Proops was born in Woking around the time of the First World War.
She started work at the Daily Mirror in 1939 and after the war was a journalist on the Daily Herald. She returned to the Mirror in 1954 where she established her reputation as an agony aunt. In 1969 she was voted Woman Journalist of the Year. Her publications include Pride, Prejudice and Proops (1975) and Dear Marje (1976).
I interviewed Marjorie in 1992, four years before her death in 1996.
Your mother’s perception of you as the plain unattractive child was terribly hurtful and it affected you deeply. Did you even manage fully to come to terms with it, and if so, at what cost?
It’s not entirely true that my mother rejected me, which is what this question implies. My mother was a very practical, sensible lady, and she couldn’t help but recognize that I was a plain kid with buck teeth and glasses, someone who would never dance at the London Palladium. I also had a very pretty younger sister, and she realized very early on that I would have the disadvantage of not having looks and style, but she used to say to me that I was the one with brains and talent. She encouraged me to develop the few skills that I had for drawing, music and singing, while my sister was praised for her looks. My sister and I still laugh about this, and there’s never ever been a hang-up for either of us. My mother cherished us both and loved us both equally.
You were teased at school because of your Jewish background. Did that make you feel ashamed of being Jewish or did it lead to the more common feeling of being part of a persecuted but superior minority?
At the beginning when I was teased in the playground and called ‘Becky the Jew girl’, I used to run home to my mother, who said, ‘Isn’t it lucky you’ve got another name? We’ll just call you Marjorie from now on.’ And when my name changed the teasing stopped. But I was very aware at an early age of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in London. It was the time when Mosley and his blackshirts were marching and menacing people. I was too young to analyse it but I felt the terror that every victim of anti-Semitism feels. It does bring you closer to the community – you need the protection and comfort of other Jews. Every Jew I’ve ever talked to is aware of that menace, always present. It is rising again now in Germany and Europe, and it could rise again here, which is one reason why the Jewish community is close. I haven’t been a practising Jew since I was a teenager; years ago I abandoned any formal religious worship, and I married an atheist. Proopsie was born a Jew but did not believe in any form of religious worship; I’m still a ‘don’t know’ when it comes to religious affiliation. I got married in a synagogue simply to please both families, and we never went again except for the odd barmitzvah or wedding, but I still identify enormously with other Jews.
Do you think of yourself as being British first and Jewish second, or the other way around?
British first. My mother’s family came to this country in the 1880s, and my father’s family originally came from Holland and had been in England for about 200 years by the time I appeared on the scene. So yes, I see myself as thoroughly British and I’m very patriotic; I love this country and it upsets me when things go wrong for us as a nation.
Your upbringing was characterized by a fierce protectiveness and a certain snobbery. Do you remember questioning your parents’ values at the time, or only afterwards?
Only in retrospect. When you’re growing up you don’t question anything. My mother was a snob, but my father wasn’t. He was a very happy-go-lucky gambler, handsome and irresponsible, and my poor mother never knew whether we were going to have any housekeeping money at the end of the month or whether my father would gamble it all away. Like many gamblers he was so immensely generous and warm and giving that he’d give everything away, which was another problem for my mother. All her life she felt insecure because of this, and one of my lasting memories of her is that she used to sit in the sitting room of our flat over the pub, wringing her hands. I now realize this was a sign of her anxiety. She became agoraphobic in the latter part of her life and for many years was unable to leave the house. Yet the day my father was buried, when she was in her late sixties, she suddenly ran out of the house, down the garden path, shouting, ‘Alfred! Alfred! Take me with you, I cannot live without you.’
You have very early Socialist leanings fostered by a young awareness of class division. Have your Socialist views ever been seriously tested, do you think?
For a brief spell I was unfaithful to the Labour Party, partly because of Shirley Williams to whom I was very close. When Shirley and her three confederates formed the SDP I remember she was very distressed at the time. She’d been through her divorce with Bernard Williams, and had talked to me a lot about that. She was very emotional about it because Shirley is a Catholic, and to divorce was for an awful sin for her. Then when she left the Labour Party she rang me up weeping and said that it was like the divorce all over again but she felt she had to do it. She asked me to join her and I agreed, not out of any conviction at all, but really out of friendship for Shirley and because emotion in my friends affects me deeply; somebody has only to cry and I’m there with them crying too. I was one of the very earliest members of the SDP, but I very quickly pulled myself together; politics is not about being sentimental, but about conviction and what you believe is right for the people of this country. So back I went into the fold and here I am, still in the fold.
Were you an admirer of Neil Kinnock?
I liked him very much personally. He has qualities that many people don’t know about, one of them being that he questions himself and accepts that he’s made mistakes, something which is very difficult for a politician to do. Who knows whether he would have been a good Prime Minister; but I liked him and certainly I voted for him; I hoped he would be Prime Minister, and was deeply disappointed when he didn’t succeed.
As you grew up you viewed the prospect of being an old maid as extremely frightening, a fate you would have done anything to avoid. If you were starting out now, do you think being alone would hold the same terrors as it did then?
No, but I’m a very different person now. I’m a bit wobbly on my feet because of arthritis, but mentally and emotionally I’m very strong indeed. When I was growing up, however, a young unmarried Jewish girl was unacceptable. You were a total failure if you hadn’t married by the time you were about twenty-three; you were therefore conditioned, not only by your own appearance and by your family but by Jewish society as a whole, to believe that this was the way life had to be.
Did you view motherhood seriously?
Oh yes. I wanted a child very much, although I don’t know whether I wanted a child for the right reasons. When I knew that Proopsie was going to go abroad and he would probably be away for a long time, I suddenly realized that I was childless, and I very much wanted not to be. Women are bred to breed, and it’s a natural instinct over which we have no control. I was very glad that I did have a child and would have liked to have had more.
You were a virgin on your wedding night and describe your introduction to sex as ‘a tremendous intrusion, frightening, disagreeable…a hideous and very painful experience’. Do you look back on that time more in sorrow than in anger?
If I’m forced by this sort of question to recall it, then I relive it all now, this minute; I see this ugly penis thrusting towards me and penetrating me, and I feel the intrusion I felt then. I knew nothing at all about sex. I didn’t know what happened, so it was not only a physical shock but a tremendous psychological trauma. One of the reasons why I’m able to empathize with so many readers who have been raped is that I know what it’s like, because in effect that’s what it was. I wasn’t a willing partner responding to someone I loved as the culmination of a loving relationship; it wasn’t like that at all.
But presumably you weren’t entirely without some physical experience?
When I was a kid there were the usual attempts by boys to fumble in the playground, but mostly they attempted to fumble my sister; she was the one whose knickers they liked to get into. At that time I could draw, and I was also writing poetry and composing music, so I didn’t worry about any of this sex business. Then when I got engaged to Proopsie, we’d go to the cinema and come back and sit in the saloon bar of my father’s pub, but when he put his arms around me and started to touch my breasts, I’d shiver and move away; I didn’t want him to do it. And Proopsie was a very courteous man, not the sort to force his attentions on me; in fact he had a very low sex drive as I realized in later years.
You have described childbirth as ‘a very private personal struggle’, during which time you wanted to be on your own. Do you think men should actually be excluded from something which is widely perceived as an entirely natural and creative moment, often a very special moment between couples?
Everybody has a right to choose, but I do know there are some men who would run screaming at the very prospect of being present at a birth. They can’t face the blood, the mess and the screaming, and I don’t think that any woman in her right mind would demand that a man should share all this with her, however much she might feel she needs him. You feel a bit like an animal, and you want to go into a corner and do it on your own. In my case it was a very long and painful labour in a little nursing home in Stafford, and I had to be on my own anyway because Proopsie was in the army, but even if he hadn’t been I certainly wouldn’t have wanted him there.
You go on to say that you felt there was something akin to indecency in the act of childbirth. Would you accept that this remark is at best quaint and backward looking and at worst offensive to a great many women?
Yes, it probably is, but it is a personal expression of my feeling. Other women don’t have to share them.
You always wanted more children but this proved to be impossible. Do you think that more children would have lessened or increased the difficulties in the marriage?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s true to say that both Proopsie and I loved children. We took a little Nigerian boy into our home – he’s nearly sixty and a distinguished doctor working in Portsmouth. We took him into our family when he was about eleven or so, and loved him like a son – I still do. I think if we’d had more children it wouldn’t have made any difference to what happened in our marriage. It would only have made life a bit more difficult for me from a practical point of view, but I’m a very philosophical woman; if something hasn’t happened, I don’t waste my life regretting it.
Your experience of fostering another child was to go tragically wrong. Although your motives were beyond criticism, did you tend to blame yourself for it?
No. We simply picked him out of an orphanage like a goldfish out of a bowl, and right from the start he resented the fact that I wasn’t his mother. He longed to have a mother and wanted to punish me for not being his real mother. He got on well with Proopsie but he was like a puppy around me, and then he began stealing money from my handbag. At first I shrugged and ignored it, but then the thefts increased. He ended up a professional criminal. Proopsie and I used to visit him in Wormwood Scrubs where we would sit in a room with all the other relations till our name was called. The eventually advised us not to come any more because the boy had told everyone I was his mother and was using my name for fraudulent purposes. The governor also thought I might become one of his victims. I was broken-hearted about the whole thing, and I still feel the pain of it. I haven’t seen or heard of him for twenty-seven years.
Your husband’s return from the war signalled the beginning of serious difficulties in the marriage. Do you think that like a lot of other women you had learned to be too independent in his absence?
Before he left I was very dependent on him and still very timid, but four years of managing, of keeping myself and my little boy in lodgings, did make me independent. He was an entirely different man when he came back, and I was an entirely different woman.
It was also the start of a father/son jealousy, which never really resolved itself. Was that a source of heartache for you?
Yes, it caused great pain. Robert was an infant in arms when his father went away but a schoolboy when he came back. Proopsie’s rejection of Robert started from the moment of his return. The first weekend Proopsie was home, we went with Robert to see my mother and father in Walton-on-Thames, and during the train journey down, Robert was over-excited and wild. When I kept telling him to sit down in case he hurt himself, Major Proops said to me in his best arm manner that he hoped I hadn’t been bringing the boy up to be a namby-pamby mother’s boy. ‘Better he should break a leg than break his spirit.’ I glared at Proopsie. When it was time to leave my parents’ house Robert, aged five, ran up the stairs and dived to the bottom, ending up in hospital in Walton with a broken leg. Now that was a Freudian accident if ever there was one.
In describing your husband’s propensity for taking charge and expecting people to conform to his rules, you say that in some ways you were quite frightened of him. You also feared Philip, the other man in your life, to some extent. Where do you think this fear of men came from? Did it start with your father perhaps?
My father was probably the one man in my whole life of whom I have never been afraid. I’ve always had this curious relationship with men where I feel that they are physically and in every way superior to me. I’m always attracted to men who are much stronger and liable to be bullies, I don’t know why it is. It would take a school of psychiatrists to sort that one out. It could of course be penis fear; the poor old penis is responsible for a hell of a lot. Lots of women have penis fear and there’s a good deal more sexual frustration among women than people realize. I cannot tell you how many letters I get from women who have never had an orgasm, women who fake orgasm every time. I find this very interesting, and in one way comforting, because it makes me realize I’m not the only one.
You decide to send your son to boarding school at the age of eight; there will be many who remain unconvinced by your explanation that you didn’t think it was right to subject your child to strictures you might impose on yourself. Are you quite sure you examined your motives rigorously?
No, I’m not sure. It is very difficult years later to face up to the fact that decisions you made might have been the wrong decisions. I’m sure that if I had my time over again I would not send Robert to boarding school at the age of eight, but at the time Proopsie was putting pressure on me to send him because he wanted him to be independent and not mother-dominated. He was also jealous of Robert’s closeness to me. If I had been the woman I am now, I wouldn’t have made that decision.
The public-school system is seen by many to perpetuate the worst class divisions in society. How was it possible for two self-declared Socialists to be party to these divisions?
We always believe that you shouldn’t impose your own religious or political beliefs on your children; you should allow them to grow up strong enough and intelligent enough to make their own decisions. Robert now feels that it was probably a good experience for him to go to boarding school, and though he hated it at the time, he in turn sent his own son to boarding school.
But your son was so unhappy that he kept running away…
He did, but it was more of a game really. He had formed a kind of escape committee at school. One night he was picked up by a couple on the road. I wouldn’t have sent him back again, but his father said he had to go back and be a man. That was Proopsie’s motivation throughout his whole life.
Your son has said that you and your husband had options vis-à-vis your marriage which you decided not to exercise, and that your stated fear of losing your son in a custody battle was not soundly based. What do you say to that?
I’ve always disagreed with Robert on that, and I’ve even taken legal advice since, quite recently in fact. At that time an erring wife was often deprived of her child, or at least stood a chance of being deprived of her child. I still believe that a divorce judge would have been sympathetic to Proopsie who would have claimed, quite rightly, that he’d been away in the war for four years, fighting for his King and Country, only to be rejected by his wife on his return. It was a risk that I never could have taken.
You say in your book that it was Proopsie’s attitude of superiority that made you so determined to have a life outside the marriage. Was it really as rational, as calculated as that?
I doubt it. What happens is that in the day-to-day rough and tumble of living you do things to protect yourself, and though Proopsie and I continued to live together after the final breakdown, I think concentrated more and more on my work and on the other passionate interest in my life which was politics. It’s something that happens to you gradually; you meet people, you make relationships – I don’t mean sexual relationships, because I didn’t have that till many years later – but you certainly develop other interests that make it possible for you to lead a fuller and more separate life.
You claim to have been revolted by your husband and quite unable to ‘endure’ sex – an attitude which you suggest is quite prevalent among women. Do you think large numbers of women still ‘endure’ sex, as you put it?
A large number of women certainly endure sexual practices which they absolutely abhor. Anal sex is what most women detest, but they will put up with what they consider to be perverted sex acts rather than have to fend for themselves. It’s all very well if you’ve got money or a wealthy family to support you, but if you’re an ordinary woman with no profession, and all you can do perhaps is go out charring, then you put up with being raped…
But aren’t we talking about a very small minority?
No. Very few women really enjoy anal sex, but a lot of men do. They write and describe their needs to me, and they complain that their wives or girlfriends won’t put up with it. I’ve always taken the view that nobody should have to endure sexual practices that they find abhorrent and unacceptable, but when a woman is dependent on a man for the roof over her head, the food she eats, and for the care of her kids, then she’s going to put up with whatever sexual practices he demands.
Why do you think men have the urge to have anal sex with women?
It’s a fairly basic animal instinct probably, but it does highlight the deep difference between male and female attitudes to sex. The majority of women need to feel that they love their partner, or they need to convince themselves that they do, whereas a man can have sex with a total stranger – he just gets his rocks off, and that’s fine. But you would know much more about male sexual impulses and instincts than I do…
You are a veteran champion of women and the main tenets of feminism, and yet in some ways you have been dominated by men all your life. Why do you think that came about?
One of the reasons why I’ve always been a strong feminist is that I hope other women will be stronger than I’ve been. I will fight to the end for the rights of women to run their own lives, to do what they want to do, to have abortions if they want to, but attitudes are personal and you can’t change what you are. No matter how long I live, I will always be a woman ready to be dominated by a man.
Some people have also detected the whiff of anti-feminism in some of your articles, and there was the famous attack on lesbianism…was this because you found the whole feminist tract a little hard to take?
I think I went through a phase, probably in the 1970s, when I thought that the whole thing had gone over the top. It became too militant and basically unattractive, and I found it distasteful. I now have a rather gentler approach to feminism. There was a time when I marched up and down with banners and banged on the door of No. 10, but that was a phase and I have matured a little since then, the edges have softened.
In your early days as an agony aunt your approach to people’s problems tended to be quite simplistic, even flippant on occasion. Was that simply inexperience or did you come to view your job much more seriously and responsibly than at the outset?
It was inexperience and nervousness. My first few columns were very tentative and I had no confidence at all. I then had some good private training from a psychiatrist, Dr Chesser, who sent me on various courses including marriage guidance counselling. The more I learned about the job the more difficult I realized it was going to be. Dr Chesser taught me that each letter represented a unique individual, a person in pain, in trouble, worried, inadequate, usually sad. That was the first and most important lesson I learned. Gradually I gained confidence and knowledge, and I began to realize that people were beginning to trust me and seek help from me. I had mixed feelings about it, because I felt it was the most tremendous responsibility; still do. That’s why I get mad with people who joke about agony aunts and the work they do.
Would you accept that a newspaper column is an imperfect way of dealing with the complexities of human problems?
Of course I would, but the vast majority of people who write to newspapers and to people like me have nowhere else to go, so we’re better than nothing. A large number of people say at the end of a tortured letter: ‘Now I’ve got it off my chest and I feel better.’ If we serve no other function, we are still valuable.
You must be aware, more than most, of the terrible burden of human unhappiness. How do you cope with that?
At times I get very depressed, and I lie awake for hours at night and think that I’ll have to give up. Then I pull myself together, I listen to the radio, and there’s another day tomorrow. But I can’t pretend that I can just shrug it off at the end of the day.
Were you conscious of an irony in the fact that you spent a great deal of your life trying to solve other people’s problems without ever being able to solve your own?
I’m still immensely aware of that irony. It is very difficult for people to solve their own problems because we make excuses for ourselves, we can’t accept the fact that we’re as awful as we are, that we’ve behaved as badly as we have. It’s very hard to pass judgement on yourself.
One doesn’t have any very clear impression from the book as to whether the arrangement you describe of having a sexless marriage and a long-term lover outside marriage was one which combined the best of both worlds, as it were, or whether it was deeply unsatisfactory.
It was the worst of both worlds. I did love Proopsie in a funny kind of way, especially towards the end of his life, when we became very close. He was my best friend, and I miss him now, oddly enough, more that I miss Philip. My relationship with Philip was always unsatisfactory because we’d snatch the odd hour or two whenever we could, and it was almost always ninety per cent sexual, which is not what one really wants. Philip was a man of great erudition and style, highly intelligent and interested in politics and the law; so I wanted much more of him and he wanted much more of me. He wanted me to go home to him, not to Proopsie, which I wanted too. But good sex is also important, and Philip opened up a whole new magical world. I was in effect a virgin when I met Philip, certainly I hadn’t experienced orgasm, and he was able to make me appreciate sex with total inhibition.
In 1986 you became mentally ill and struggled for the next three or four years to become well again. Your son remains convinced that your illness was the result of drugs which interfered with your mental process; you and your psychiatrist thought otherwise. Looking back, who was right?
My son proved to be right, because for four years I’d been taking a drug which was first prescribed for depression and anxiety. I didn’t know that I was allergic to it – there are only a small number of people who have this reaction, and I was one of them, but nobody knew it. Robert went to see the psychiatrist and had a bit of a row with him. I was taken off the drug and I was back at work within three weeks.
I have the impression that you are very reluctant to criticize your psychiatrist, Tom Kraft. Is your attitude principally as a result of gratitude to him, or is it perhaps based on fear?
It’s gratitude, because despite what Robert says about him, he did help me a lot. I had awful obsessions and terrible nightmares during this period of breakdown. For example, I had an obsession with death – I couldn’t pass a hearse or a funeral parlour without coming out in a sweat. And Tom really did help me cope with all that.
What do you think caused it?
I have no idea. Perhaps it was a build-up over the years of all the tensions and stresses in my life, and the various guilts. I was beset my guilt, which Tom Kraft helped me face.
You must be one of the very few people who still remember Robert Maxwell with affection. Even your sympathetic biographer says that for all your worldly wisdom you sound like a total ingénue when you talk about Maxwell.
Maxwell was a very affectionate man who could charm anybody, especially the women. I first met him when he was a Labour MP, and when he came to the Mirror he was glad to see a familiar face. He invited me to have a cup of coffee with him and asked me a lot about the paper. He suddenly asked me if I was a director of the company, and when I said no, he said, ‘Well, you are now.’ I told him that it wasn’t legal, and that certain procedures had to be followed, but he simply said: ‘If I say you’re a director, you’re a fucking director.’ Sure enough I became a director and was advised by the company secretary, ‘Never argue with him; never even try because you won’t win.’
How did he behave at board meetings?
I only went to one. He was the great dictator, a bully…maybe that was one of the reasons I was attracted to him. He shouted at everybody else but was very gentle and affectionate towards me, treating me as a cross between a helpless two-year-old and a ninety-five year-old. I didn’t know at the time that he was a crook, a liar and a thief, that he was robbing the pensioners.
Your friend and colleague Geoffrey Goodman says that you could not distinguish between those who were genuinely fond of you and those who were trying to use you. Looking back, do you think Maxwell’s affection for you was genuine, or did he view you more as a valuable asset to the newspaper.
I would think that his first consideration was my value to him commercially. We know from market research that my column is the most widely read of any part of the paper. I have no illusions about that, but I think in addition he did have a genuine affection for me, as I had for him. I still miss him.
You had a very close, often flirtatious relationship with Maxwell. Do you accept that many people, your friends included, found that distasteful, particularly since Maxwell was behaving in such a cavalier way at the Mirror and manifestly interfering with editorial policy?
He had that sort of relationship with so many people, it wasn’t just with me. It suits people now to be a bit selective in their recollections, and some of the comments are coming from those who were fired by Maxwell. Ex-editors, ex-executives, ex-directors, ex-journalists who still have axes to grind and have seized the opportunity to have a go through me at Maxwell.
But don’t you think now that like a lot of other people you were taken in by Maxwell?
Of course I was. Everybody was. And the people who now say they weren’t are liars. At the same time, everybody, or almost everybody, who came into contact with him was fascinated by him in some way or another. It was palpable. I remember once when one of these ex-editors had written a book, and there was a launch party at the Groucho Club; Maxwell wasn’t expected – I don’t even know if he’d been asked – but suddenly in this room absolutely packed with people all shouting and drinking, he appeared, head and shoulders above everybody else, and at once there was silence; just for a second or so there was total silence, and then the noise started again. Immediately he appeared anywhere people were aware of his presence. I don’t know what it was about him, but he did dominate people. He dominated the board, he dominated all the people that he robbed, and those people who pretend now that they knew what a villain he was, didn’t act like it at the time, I can assure you.
You subsequently resigned from your directorship of the Mirror. What prompted you to do that?
Proopsie and I had taken a short break in Majorca, and while we were there, I got a phone call from the company secretary asking me to meet him at the airport to sign some documents. I left Proopsie at the swimming pool and went to the airport where this man handed me a stack of documents and asked me to sign quickly. When I asked him what they were about he said there was no time to read them and I was just to sign. I told Proopsie when I got back and he blew his top, insisting that I resign as soon as we returned to London. Proopsie never liked or trusted Maxwell. In that respect he was very shrewd and had much more sense than I had.
You were very much the symbol of respectability at the Mirror. Did you never think it was hypocritical to trade on that image given your own personal circumstances?
No. Remember that my main journalistic function is to help people with their problems, and I never ever moralize. I leave people to make their own moral judgements, and I never offer advice unless I’m asked for it. My private life therefore doesn’t impinge, and has no need to impinge, on my professional life, or on my relationship with my readers. They may well say that I’m a hypocritical bitch, and they’re entitled to say that, but I think my experiences of pain and unhappiness, far from being a disadvantage as far as my readers are concerned, have helped me to understand them.
Wouldn’t it have been more honest and perhaps beneficial to others to have come out in the open earlier? After all, with your tremendous popularity you could have done a great deal to promote an understanding of marital problems and extra-marital love.
I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that while either Proopsie or Phillip was alive. They died four years ago, both of them, within a fairly short time of each other. I was widowed twice in effect, and it wasn’t until after they’d died that I agreed to do the book.
Why did you tell your story? You say it was to put the record straight for your son, but that could surely have been done more privately. What was the real reason?
I simply gave in, partly to pressure from Maxwell who wanted to cash in on my popularity as a journalist. I also decided that if I was going to do it there was no point in inventing a whiter than white character, a sort of Saint Theresa Marge who would be totally false and unreal. If it was going to be done at all, then it had to be honest. I talked to Robert at great length, and told him the whole story of my marriage to his father, as well as my relationship with Philip. I told him that if he thought it would harm him or his children, then I would forget about it. I hadn’t signed any contracts at that stage. He thought I should go ahead, and when I pointed out that people might criticize me to him and the children, he said: ‘If anybody criticized you to me I’d tell them to fuck off, and my children, believe it or not, know that word too.’
There have also been revelations in the press that Philip was two-timing you. Were you also aware of that at the time?
I knew this lady. She was a very old friend of his, whom he had known for many years before he met me. She had been a refugee, and he was very fond of her. Philip was a very kind man and he looked after her – in fact I sometimes drove him to her flat.
But there was no physical relationship between them?
How would I know? There may have been. By the time I met him she was a very frail, very old lady, a good deal older than he was; but there may well have been, and good luck to him. I didn’t expect that I was the only woman ever in his life, any more than he was the only male relationship in my life.
Did you have other lovers?
No, I didn’t. I was never promiscuous…flirtatious, yes, but Philip was my only lover.
Your own paper called it ‘a story of deceit, the story of a flawed woman living out a secret existence…’ Did that hurt?
Not at all. The truth doesn’t hurt. Everything in the book is true, and I authorized it. That piece about Philip and Miss Meitner, as I always call her, was another bit of very nasty spite and people putting the dagger in, but I feel sorrier for them than I do for myself. If they’ve got to dig that deep for dirt in order to try and cause me pain, they have failed, because I had twenty years of happiness with Philip, and if he had happiness before he met me, why would I begrudge him? I loved him.
A fellow journalist has said of you: ‘The flame of her ambition has never for a moment flickered’, the implication being that you must have known what sort of publicity would follow the revelations in your memoirs, and you could be sure it would do your career no harm. That may be a cynical view, but can you honestly say there is not some truth in it?
Absolutely no truth in it at all. Here I am, thirty-eight years on his newspaper; no journalist could be more valued than I am. Nobody could have more affection and respect from her employers than I have. When that piece appeared in Today about Philip and Miss Meitner, the editor of the Daily Mirror rang me up at twenty to nine in the morning and he said to me, ‘Today has done a very nasty piece and I wanted to warn you. I don’t want you to be upset by it. It’s all a load of crap, we all know that. I just want to tell you that we all love you very much indeed, that we are here to protect you and care for you, so don’t let it upset you.’ What more could I want? I achieved my ambition many years ago, and I’ve never been motivated either by money or by power.
Virginia Ironside whom you replaced on the Sunday Mirror is reported to be very hurt that you did not tell her she was about to lose her job to you, especially since she considered you to be a special friend. What do you say to that?
First of all, I’ll tell you exactly what happened about that. The editor of the Sunday Mirror came to see me and asked me how I felt about doing the Sunday as well as the Daily. I told him I had enough to do, and that in any case, he had Virginia, and that she was going to leave. I didn’t ask him whether she was going to go anyway, but I got the feeling that she was. I know they were not happy with her column, and neither was the previous editor. I believe also, although I haven’t been told formally, that what they wasn’t to do with the Mirror is to draw the Sunday and the Daily a bit closer to each other, and as I’m the only possible link, it makes sense from their point of view. I didn’t actually want the bloody job, because it’s going to mean twice as much work for me, but he told me it was going to happen anyway and that he would tell Virginia. I also tried to telephone her but couldn’t get hold of her, and she rang me first and was very upset about it, but she said she understood it had nothing to do with me. I asked her to have lunch so that we could try and sort it out between us. The next thing was that awful piece in the Mail which made it clear that she does blame me; and OK everyone needs to blame somebody. You have to be a very strong person to blame yourself for losing the job.
Despite what seems to have been a fairly disastrous marriage, you say that you still miss Proopsie more than Philip even though, in your words, ‘Proopsie bullied and cowed me, whereas Philip gently led and supported me, and whatever I did, whatever I am now I owe mainly to him…’ Why was your husband’s death harder to accept, do you think?
Because Proopsie was there all the time. When he retired I thought I was going to have a very difficult time with him, and indeed the first day of his retirement when I went out to work, he said to me, very sarcastically and very coldly, ‘Do have a good day at the office, dear, won’t you?’ and slammed the door behind me. So I went and had a bloody miserable day, but when I got home that night he apologized. After that he was mostly kind and warm. Remember that by this time Philip had more or less disappeared from my life, because he was ill and he’d gone to live in Brighton. He had aged very quickly and he’d deteriorated both physically and mentally. It was Proopsie I went home to every night; he was the one who was always there, helpful and supportive, although he continued to bully me and boss me around until the day he died. That was the sort of man he was. When he died I missed the friendship, the companionship, I missed this man sitting in the other armchair, I even missed the bullying…