In October 1989 Quartet had announced my forthcoming book Singular Encounters, to be published in the autumn of 1990. This time the subject was men. It was to consist of an exhaustive study of twenty-five of them. The interviews, designed to unlock the subjects’ innermost secrets, would cover their private and professional lives, their ambitions and aspirations, and would delve into areas that carried the warning: ‘proceed at your own risk’. The first assumption made by the press was that it was out to make Anna Ford’s recent book on the same subject seem like a toe in the water compared with the murky revelations I would try to uncover. ‘It’s not going to be yet another book of interviews,’ I told the Evening Standard firmly. ‘I’m doing it for the challenge. My reputation as a writer will rise or fall on the book.’
From the start I saw Singular Encounters as a highly ambitious project, one that was bound to determine my future as an interviewer. The men I was seeking to engage were leaders in their respective fields and were unlikely to make any concessions to the fact that I was a novice in this journalistic medium. The women’s book was comparatively simple. My natural affinity with women had been an immeasurable help. I could not as yet advance the claim to have a similar affinity with men. Whether or not the right empathy was there would only emerge with time. Moreover, where the women’s book had been, broadly speaking, a compendium of their views on subjects affecting women in general, the men’s book must aim to present an individual in-depth study of each participant. As such it needed more background research and a more focused concentration during the interviews.
The difficulties were exacerbated by the slating Women had received at the hands of a large majority of critics and commentators. The general tone had been to hold up to ridicule the two hundred and eighty-nine women who had accepted the invitation to appear in its pages. I was anxious that this might now become a discouraging factor, deterring some men from agreeing to a serious encounter with me. Fortunately my fears turned out to be without foundation and most of the men I approached were happy to oblige. A. N. Wilson had his reservations at first, though he soon relented, and they had been on entirely different grounds, as he explained in a ‘Diary’ piece in the Spectator.
My friend Naim Attallah . . . is compiling a volume of interviews with the thirty most important men in the world. I believe it [will include] revealing conversations with Yehudi Menuhin, Lord Goodman, Monsignor Gilbey, J. K. Galbraith and Richard Ingrams. I was flattered to be asked to be of their number. The company is so grand that it really feels better than being given the OM . . . I said no at first, because I was frightened that Naim would only want to ask me about sex, but in the event he twisted my arm by saying that if I did not consent there would be no young men in his book. In the event, he did not ask me about sex at all, having covered the subject exhaustively with the others. I was glad to help him out by being the voice of youth.
In fact I got him on to the subject of sex by way of Christianity’s disapproval of sex, which brought him out firmly against St Augustine, St Paul and the puritans. But what about the puritan argument that sex was addictive, I asked, and that from addiction comes perversion? ‘Obviously, if you’re a healthy grown-up person, your sexual impulses go on, but that’s not the same as saying something is addictive. To say that is like saying food is addictive.’ ‘But if you suddenly had three or four women, and you start having sex with them, wouldn’t you want to have more and more?’ I pressed him. ‘What an adventurous life you must have led, Naim,’ Andrew replied. ‘I’m not qualified to answer that question.’ Despite his reluctance to rise to the bait, the riposte was very much vintage Wilson in its sharpness and humour.
Another reluctant target was Mark Birley of Harry’s Bar and Annabel’s. He procrastinated but in the end agreed as well. Until then he had always refused to submit to any press coverage and his inclusion in the book was a bit of a coup. However, it was a chance I almost missed. On the appointed day I was struck down with flu. If I had cancelled he would no doubt have jumped at the excuse not to reconvene the session at another time. To ensure this could not happen, I rose from my sickbed suffering from a fevered, aching body, swallowed two codeine tablets and phoned Mark’s secretary to confirm I would be arriving for our appointment. To my astonishment, as if by a conjunction of fate, she told me Mark had the flu as well but would be willing to do the interview at home if I was happy to make the effort. We ended up sipping champagne together in a state of near delirium and conducting a serious conversation in a codeine-induced haze. The unusual encounter marked the beginning of a friendship that remained strong over the years.
Lord Goodman raised a stumbling block of a different order. I saw him over a lavish breakfast at his London flat, initially to be assessed for my suitability to be an interviewer of this giant among men. I outlined the concept of the book for him and mentioned several people who had agreed to participate, including Lord Alexander QC and Lord Rees-Mogg. Evidently I passed muster because a month later I conducted the interview itself. Then, a few days later, a letter arrived from Lord Goodman withdrawing his permission for publication on the grounds that Richard Ingrams would be appearing in the same volume: ‘It was inexcusable to have lured me with a number of respectable names and to have withheld the fact that Mr Ingrams is to be included in the book.’
I replied with a soothing letter, reminding him of his avowed opposition to censorship and questioning the wisdom of bowing out in vexation. The strategy worked, though his reply was designed to put me in my place: ‘In view of your pathetic plea, I am prepared, albeit reluctantly, to allow the interview to appear.’
I heaved a sigh of relief. Lord Goodman, a staunch defender of the cause of the arts, commanded great respect as a legal adviser to both political wings and the establishment itself. He knew nearly everyone in British public life and had been called upon to advise virtually every great national institution. Indeed, he came close to being a national institution himself. It seemed strange that he should have felt so strongly about the one-time editor of Private Eye, though the magazine had once allegedly libelled him. He talked only in general terms about libel in our interview. ‘I’ve always deterred people from becoming involved,’ he said. It seemed that in the case of Private Eye he was unable to follow his own advice. The whole little episode was completely at odds with the image he cultivated of being a sage, invulnerable in his judgement.
Harold Acton made a sharp contrast: though he had the reputation befitting a grand aesthete, I found him easy-going and charm itself. Our interview took place in Florence over dinner at his home, La Pietra, a Renaissance villa that was like a domestic museum full of countless objets d’art and priceless paintings collected by his family over the years. I had visited him there many times, mostly for tea or dinner, when he would engage in affectionate gossip about his great friend Tony Lambton, or regale me with the latest scandals making the rounds in the small circle of Florentine society, taking especial delight in any sexual peccadilloes. He considered me an amusing dinner companion – a welcome change from certain other guests, who tended to be academic and whom he labelled stuffy and boring. He often cancelled a dinner date with them in preference for spending an evening of banter with me.
As a student at Oxford, Harold had been well known for flouting convention and mixing in male undergraduate circles where bisexuality was in vogue. His close friends included Auberon Waugh’s father, Evelyn, who reputedly used him as a model for some of the more outrageous characters in his novels. I used to tease Harold about girls and enquire if he had ever slept with one. He would put on a show of being greatly shocked at this sudden intrusion into his private life before rolling his eyes and smiling an enigmatic smile. Then he would tap me coyly on the hand as if chastising me for being such a ‘naughty boy’. This only encouraged me
to urge him on, and on one occasion he told me about an intimate encounter with a young Chinese girl during the time when he lived in China, teaching English at Peking National University in the 1930s. He described the silky skin of her naked body with obvious relish, but that was as far as he ever went. The mystery of whether he actually slept with any girl remained unsolved.
During one of our conversations, he expressed his regret at the way Oxford University had turned down his offer to bequeath them La Pietra with its collection of priceless art works, forty thousand rare books and fifty-seven acres of grounds in his will. They felt they could not have afforded the cost of repairs and restoration. Instead, after he died in 1994, La Pietra went to New York University as a study and conference centre. Although he had an American mother, he would have preferred the legacy to have gone to a British institution. In the years after his death, the estate became the subject of a long-running counter-claim from the descendants of Harold’s illegitimate half-sister, with a judge giving authority for the exhumation of his father’s body from the family grave in Florence. Happily, it seems there has been no need to disturb Harold’s remains, though his father’s were reported as confirming the DNA link.
Harold entertained well, but he had one curious phobia about electricity consumption. When I needed to visit the cloakroom he would escort me to switch on the light and linger in the vicinity to make sure it was switched off again after I emerged. It was part of his economy drive to maintain his lifestyle without compromising it with waste. Or that was how he explained it.
John Kenneth Galbraith, the world-renowned economist, was a difficult proposition: he was imperious and patronizing. From the outset he tried to dwarf me by orchestrating every aspect of our conversation, refusing to give me a straight answer when he felt a question might compromise him. Instead he would skirt around it and avoid tackling its essence; or refrain from being specific when challenged. Whenever I tried to insist on a proper response to a question, he brushed it aside with a curt dismissal: ‘Move on to the next question.’ The tone in his voice made it clear he meant what he said and I knew that, if I stood my ground, I would soon be shown the door. Since he was a name to be reckoned with, I swallowed my pride and moved on under his overbearing direction. Eating humble pie was better than having no portion of pie at all. He was a man totally secure in his self-confidence and impressively grand in his immense knowledge. The experience of meeting him was worth it for the painful lesson it gave me in self-control.
The ennobled Gordon White was another example of someone who made me feel uneasy. This was not because of any display of high intellect, but it had everything to do with the fact that he was a right-wing bigot, bereft of any compassion for the underprivileged and under no compulsion to conceal it. He was without doubt a brilliant market operator, who had found his niche in the United States and been a perfect counterbalance for his partner, Lord Hanson, who was altogether more mellow and less strident.
Lord White was also working hard to re-enact his youth at the time I met him. He had a young girlfriend, with whom he was desperately trying to keep up physically by exerting himself in the gym. His motivation was so transparent as to make it open to ridicule. The adage, ‘There is no fool like an old fool,’ was particularly apposite in his case. I somehow found myself unable to relate to him at any level. A tone of self-congratulation ran through the interview and even impinged on what he would like to have been if not a businessman – a major figure in the sporting world or an actor. ‘I was once offered a screen test,’ he said, ‘but didn’t have the courage to do it. I was afraid of failure. You see, I looked right. I was a very good-looking guy when I was younger.’ He was an ardent admirer of Mrs Thatcher, to whom he owed his elevation to the Lords.
With the broadcaster, Michael Aspel, who was introduced to me by Theo Cowan, I had a different kind of problem – one that threatened to blow up into a major row. The interview itself went extremely well. I was particularly struck by Michael’s total candour and his willingness to touch on matters that had at certain points blighted his life. His was a story full of pathos and sorrow, and it was indeed moving. The chemistry between us must have worked most effectively and I felt delighted to have extracted from him some gems that would help to make the final version a most absorbing and sympathetic lesson in soul baring. Away from the limelight of his profession, Michael revealed his true self and showed his skills and vulnerabilities in a human light.
A few days later I received a phone call from his agent requesting a sight of the edited interview. It seemed Michael was beginning to feel concerned about certain aspects that he would like to reassess and perhaps omit. Instinctively I felt the agent was angling to doctor the interview and thus fillet out its quality of spontaneity, reducing it to the usual homogenized, polished sort of interview so common in show business – the kind that avoids delving too deeply into inner feelings or dwelling on the frailties of the subject’s life. My reaction was not the one the agent had expected. I fought hard to maintain the integrity of the interview as I saw it, while also feeling some embarrassment at the prospect of having to air our views in public with the indignities likely to follow.
Theo Cowan was keen to prevent any falling out and took on himself the role of peace broker. He worked tirelessly to arrive at a solution to avoid a rumpus that was going to benefit no one. Peace was eventually restored, but at a price. Compromise is not always the best way forward. In the event, we ended up with something more like an entente cordiale, having had to sacrifice some deeply held principles for the preservation of something called ‘image’. That, alas, is more or less the way of the world.
Dominick Dunne became a household name in the United States when, after producing a number of Hollywood films, he turned to being an author and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. A recovered alcoholic, he had tragedy in his background, his daughter having been murdered by her boyfriend in 1983. The impression I had gained on meeting him was that he would have been more at ease doing the interview than being interviewed. He had an irritable impatience and I found it hard going to keep him focused. He did not appear to be interested in any of my questions, but would rather have been formulating his own and then giving what he considered to be appropriate answers. I persevered to the very end without seeming to be rattled. He was not a person I would have chosen to be marooned with on a desert island. I felt that his demons had never left him and he sadly remained a tortured soul. Possibly our encounter was ill-timed, or perhaps I myself was in a state of mental turmoil that I mistakenly projected on to him. All I could remember subsequently was my sense of relief when the interview was over. As I walked away, revived by a light breeze, the sun was shining and New York looked at its best.
Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the ultra-orthodox Catholic Society priest who resided, till his death a few months after I interviewed him, at the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall, was for decades a chaplain at Cambridge. He lived in grand style and entertained his guests for dinner at the club with healthy measures of good wine, obviously not believing that abstinence from culinary pleasures was needed to ensure an easy passage to heaven. For the interview, I met him for dinner and then retired with him to a quiet corner to conduct it. He certainly had a rare eloquence and gave the impression of a single-minded individual who was not afraid to court controversy, especially when it came to his views on women. Tackled directly on the subject, he swiftly emerged as a woman-hater extraordinaire, nostalgic for the days when universities and other institutions were strictly male preserves. His view, he considered, was ‘wholly compatible with the God-given design of women as complementary to men’, which was to say they were not the equal of men. I could only feel he was taking an unnecessary risk. What if God turned out to be a woman? What then for Monsignor Gilbey?
The distinguished writer Edmund White remains the most explicit individual I have ever interviewed. Endowed with formidable powers of communication and an elegant prose style, he had the ability to shock while retaining an icy composure. His life was marred as a boy by a violent father and he was later to experience the trauma of losing his male lover to AIDS. Yet his eloquence never deserted him, even when discussing the most explosive of subjects, such as a homosexual son’s incestuous feelings for his father.
Many of the homosexuals he had known, he said, ‘had strong erotic fantasies about their fathers, and have even slept with their fathers or brothers. It’s not unusual . . . I definitely had strong erotic feelings towards my father.’ An extraordinary story then emerged from his family situation.
I think the idea was that whoever was sleeping in my father’s bed was in a privileged position in the family and would gain power. In other words, my father was a tyrant, and at first my mother was in his bed and a privileged person; then my stepmother became a privileged person; then my father had an affair with my sister, and my sister was elevated in the family because of it. I didn’t know about it at the time, but I sensed it because I once walked in on them when my father was brushing my sister’s hair. She had very long blonde hair, and looked quite a bit like his mother, who was very pretty . . .
Anyway, my father was brushing my sister’s hair, standing behind her and crying as he did so. It was the only time I saw my father cry. I sensed there was something going on, but I wasn’t certain to what extent. It was only later, when my sister had a complete breakdown and was in a mental hospital, that I knew for sure. She had tried to kill herself and it all came out, but that was many years later. I guessed she had always had strong guilt feelings about this relationship with my father, maybe partly because she liked it.
I think she had loved him very much. It was extremely dramatic when my father died, because we had a farm in the north of Ohio where he wanted to be buried, and that was terribly inconvenient for everybody because it took hours to get there. We finally arrived in the small town with its little farmers’ church, and there he was in an open coffin, which I hated. But my sister went up to the coffin and talked to my father a long time, rather angrily and crying. Then she took off her wedding ring and put it on his finger. She was forty-something at the time.
It was one of the most surprising moments of revelation in the whole book.I particularly wanted to interview John Updike. He was the American writer of his generation with the most distinguished and prolific output, who had dissected the suburban sexual mores of small-town America. The snag was that he then rarely gave interviews. As André Deutsch was his publisher in Britain, I asked him if he thought he could persuade Updike to meet me. André said he would do what he could but could promise nothing. Eventually he came back and said Updike would be willing to see me in Boston, but had stipulated that the interview must be restricted to forty-five minutes. I naturally gibbed at this impossibly meagre concession, but André said well, it was either that or nothing. I flew to Boston specially and Updike came to my hotel room as arranged. Once he got going, our conversation went on for almost two hours. In his own memoirs he had described himself as malicious, greedy for a quota of life’s pleasures, an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky. This did not really match the public perception of him, I suggested.
I think that anybody who knows me would agree with all those adjectives. I was an only child who never had to compete with a sibling, and my parents were both, in their way, very loving and indulgent. Just the fact that I had the presumption to become an artist is rather ridiculous, isn’t it, with no qualifications except that I felt treasured as a child. When my mother died, among the things in the attic was a scrapbook containing many of my drawings done when I was three or four. Not every child gets that kind of attention. The good side of it is that I have a certain confidence, and by and large I’ve acted confidently in my life and had good results. The bad side is that I like to be the centre of attention.
As for being malicious, I think I am more than unusually malicious. That joy, that Schadenfreude we take in other people’s misfortunes, is highly developed in me, though I try to repress it. I detect within myself a certain sadism, a certain pleasure in the misfortunes of others. I don’t know whether I’m average in this or whether it’s exceptional, but I’m interested to a degree in the question of sadism. People who are sadistic are very sensitive to pain, and it’s a way of exorcizing the demon of pain.
I’m so aware of my enviousness that I try not to review books by contemporary Americans. I’m not sure that I would really give an honest opinion, and that’s sneaky. People who are cowardly and don’t especially enjoy confrontation or battle tend to be sneaky. In this unflattering self-characterization though, I was no doubt just doing my Christian duty of confessing sins. Human nature is mightily mixed, but surely all these malicious and cruel aspects are there along with everything else.
I then raised the question of a reviewer of his novel Couples calling him ‘the pornographer of marriage’. Did he resent this tag, I asked.
Not too much. I wasn’t trying to be pornographic. I was trying to describe sexual behaviour among people, and the effect was probably the opposite of pornographic. Pornography creates a world without consequences, where women don’t get pregnant, nobody gets venereal disease and no one gets tired. In Couples I was trying, to the limits of my own knowledge, to describe sexual situations and show them with consequences. Without resenting that phrase, I don’t think it describes very well what I was trying to do . . .
I think Couples was certainly of its time, just in the fact that it spans very specific years and refers to a lot of historical events. In a funny way, the book is about the Kennedy assassination. It’s also about the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the fact that the danger of getting pregnant was almost entirely removed and that a certain amount of promiscuity resulted directly from this technology. It also turns out that it was the pre-AIDS, pre-herpes paradise, so it was a moment that’s gone, a moment of liberation which broke not upon a bunch of San Francisco hippies, but upon middle-aged couples, yet was a revolution of a kind. It is very much of its historic moment.
There was general agreement that Yehudi Menuhin was not only a great musician but also a great human being. I had already been in contact with his father, Moshe, over The Palestinians, which Quartet had published, and was interested to hear the son’s views on some of the issues involved. My lead-in to the subject was a question about Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had remained in Germany and continued his career as a conductor almost till the end of the Nazi era. As a result he had been much criticized. Yehudi Menuhin’s assessment was both eminently sane and full of insight.
A very great conductor and an absolutely clean man, no question of that. He stood up for Hindemith, he protected a great many Jews, helped many out of Germany, and himself had to escape towards the end of the war. He happened to conduct the orchestra when some of the German leaders were there, but we can’t expect everyone to behave in the same way. Sometimes it takes more courage to remain in your country than to leave it. Those who stayed suffered a pretty bad fate, and those who came out, after all, escaped. Yet there was this feeling of superiority among those who escaped, thinking that they showed great determination in leaving it behind. I would say, Jew or Gentile, you can’t blame those who stayed, you can’t blame those who escaped. It’s just the way things went. But Furtwängler himself was a man of integrity.
The anti-Semitism I have seen in my lifetime has had a psychological impact on me only to the extent that I know it is important to maintain the dignity of the Jew and to avoid a kind of behaviour that might prompt a response. The caricature of the Jew is the businessman with the big cigar, who does exist sometimes. They can be charming and interesting people. What bothers me sometimes is that they are a little like desert flowers. When they have only a drop of water they blossom. They make the most of the opportunity, as they did in Germany before the Nazi days, when they occupied extremely powerful positions. That must have created a certain amount of resentment. Of course, it gives no excuse for anti-Semitism, but you can understand it. The Jew does not stand out in Italy or Greece, nor would he in China, since the Chinese are far cleverer at business than the Jews. There are so many different types of Jew, but traditionally people have fastened on the Jew who is obviously different from them. But there are so many that are in no way different. It’s like the problem of the black in the United States. There are almost a majority of blacks that are nearly white, and no one bothers about them.
It is true that the Jews are far too sensitive, though they have perhaps been sensitized by history. They are too ready to imagine an insult; they are not prepared to give enough leeway, even to allow for a certain misbehaviour; and it is part of the psychology. One can understand that too, and one must understand it. They have to compensate for certain established assumptions. If it’s not one thing it’s another. If it’s not religion, it’s jealousy or it’s race. Yet it’s none of these things actually. It’s simply that people are nasty and want to condemn anything if they can find a little difference; can say that hair is frizzed instead of straight or there’s a detectable accent. Then they pounce on it.
Unfortunately the Jews have come to Israel with the narrow aim of making themselves an independent nation, to a large extent disregarding the environment and the rest of the world. They didn’t come to establish a nation with the Palestinians and a wonderful federation (though now they realize that perhaps they should have done). They came instead with the pure desire to establish a Jewish state to the exclusion of everything else. They did it very successfully, but they did it ruthlessly, and probably the sense of fear is equal on both sides. I feel that the only solution lies in a federation, totally equal, as in Switzerland. If both have an equal title to the land, what else can you do? Meanwhile there is something cruel about all of us. We are capable of the most horrid things, especially if we have suffered them ourselves.
Yehudi left an indelible impression on me: a shining example of goodness and humility. He would never have thanked you to feel humbled in his presence, but that was the effect.
In December 1992, three years after my interview with Yehudi, Richard Ingrams, a friend of the Menuhins, asked me to interview Lady Menuhin for the Oldie magazine. The interview never appeared for two reasons: first, because of its length there were difficulties over successfully abridging it to fit three pages of the magazine without losing the natural flow; secondly, Lady Menuhin had concerns, as she expressed them to Richard, that some aspects of the interview might cause her embarrassment or even trigger off the kind of controversy that would be extremely harmful to her husband. Richard, not always known for his understanding in such matters, surprisingly refrained from running the interview in any form. I believe Richard took the right decision at the time, but now that the Menuhins are dead it will be enlightening to read some of Lady Menuhin’s thoughts on life with Yehudi and the dangers he had faced because of his support for Furtwängler.
As she told it in her own autobiography, Diana Menuhin came from a rigorous background, having had an Edwardian Christian Scientist mother, and a chequered career as a ballet dancer in which you could never afford to be ill, along with a love life that had gained no permanence at its centre. The disciplines she had been through made her, she felt, ‘very serviceable for life with darling Yehudi, who prefers to live on cloud nine, which he seems to have rented for most of his life’. She had met him after being in the Middle East during the war and enduring a deeply unhappy end to a love affair.
‘When I met Yehudi, my metaphysical attitude to life made me realize that he was my destiny. He fell in love with me, and I was in love with him, but as he was married with two small children I never told him. It took two and a half really terrible years for him to get his divorce, because he was so angelic he couldn’t hurt anybody, even if he knew he was not to blame for his first mistake. I may have been his second mistake, but he hasn’t found out yet.’
In her book she described her life with Yehudi as ‘service in its highest sense’. I’m an incurable, incorrigible worker.
I think that’s what Yehudi liked so much, and he recognized with great relief that we had a tremendous amount in common, that we’d both had aspirations since we were born, that I had enormous experience because I hadn’t been protected by wonderful parents who had given up everything for me. He remains to this day the most incredibly modest man, and I think that’s what the audience feels. Yehudi’s a medium – the music comes through him; he feels responsible to the composer, dead or alive. He was very sad and very lonely when I met him, because his marriage had really broken up, and Yehudi wouldn’t admit it; and if he had admitted it, he would have blamed himself. Yehudi never blames anyone else, ever, for anything. He told me that when he first saw me at my mother’s house he went away to sit on a pouffe at the end of the drawing-room, and thought, ‘I’m going to have her.’ I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it was your daughter’s fifth birthday,’ for I didn’t know then that the marriage was no good, but Yehudi has a way of knowing what he wants, and he gets it.
Before they could marry in 1947, there were two and half ‘dark years’ while Yehudi was separating from his first wife, but Diana never doubted she was herself doing the right thing. I never raised a finger to help him get rid of his first wife. I never told him I was in love with him, because I didn’t want him to feel any obligation towards me. Of course he knew, but I never said it, and when he told his wife about me and mentioned the word marriage, she just said no, although she had God knows how many lovers herself. And Yehudi, who is utterly good and sweet, but can also lack a certain will, blamed himself for everything . . .
But I was in love with him, the way I’d hoped to be in love ever since I can remember. I hadn’t met his wife, though I had heard rumours of her behaviour and of course I’d seen the results in him. He was completely broken by it and had even decided he would give up playing the violin. I remember saying to him – we spoke mostly in French in those days – ‘Yehudi, j’ai peur.’ Finally his wife told him that he had to stay with her and the children. It trailed on and on with her promising divorce and then breaking her promise over and over again. Then, thank God, she realized that from a practical point of view it would be better for her to marry whichever lover she had at that time, and so after two years she let Yehudi go.
Attacks on Yehudi in the Jewish press for marrying outside the faith had bothered her not at all.
In any case, the whole of that was not because he’d married a Gentile, but because he had insisted on going to Germany. He has incredible courage, Yehudi, immense courage. He went to Germany and played night and day for every cause, Jewish and German. When we were there we heard that Furtwängler had had to run away in the middle of the night because the Gestapo had come for him. He had done nothing except get on with his job and stay in the country. I knew Furtwängler because my mother had a musical salon to which every musician in the world came, and Furtwängler had lunch with mummy when he was over to conduct the opera; but Yehudi had never even met him. Furtwängler was decent and had helped Jewish members of the orchestra to get to America. He also wrote very dangerous letters from Denmark to my sister – he adored blondes and was mad about her. He wrote: ‘When I think I am writing from this country, occupied by my people, it makes me ill.’ One night his friends came to him and said, ‘Run, because the Gestapo is coming for you,’ and he escaped at night with his second wife, the lovely Lizavet. Yehudi was told that the Americans wouldn’t give Furtwängler his purification trial, so Yehudi sent off a two-page telegram to America – Yehudi’s telegrams are full of notwithstandings and neverthelesses – saying it was a disgrace to the Americans that they hadn’t at least given him the chance to clear his name. Furtwängler got his purification trial, he passed a hundred per cent clean, but of course you can imagine what the cabal in New York did about it: the ones who were jealous of Yehudi were heard to say, ‘At last we’ve got Menuhin.’ So the press reports were not really because he had married a Gentile but because he had defended a German . . .
Before Hitler one didn’t analyse Jewishness or non-Jewishness. For example, I realized only afterwards that many of the musicians who came to my mother’s house were Jews, but to me they were Russian, or Hungarian, or German, or Austrian. Until the time of the Hitler incitement, one wasn’t Jewish-conscious – I had a very broad spectrum, but it was different for Yehudi. His father had sensibly taken him away from Europe when Hitler came to power, but his American experience was very limited because his parents simply didn’t go out anywhere. . .
When I first married Yehudi, he was more or less estranged from his family because they very foolishly condemned his first wife, the last thing to do to a man who refuses to condemn anybody. So when I first went to California I told Yehudi that no Jew was ever separated or estranged from his family, above all from his mother, and I persuaded him that he should go and visit them. Abba loved America because he felt he could trust people; everywhere else in the world he thought everyone was cheating him. Mamina was a completely emancipated Jewess, totally and absolutely Russian, though she spoke six languages beautifully. When Yehudi made his incredible début at the age of nine or ten, all the Jewish community in New York naturally wanted to claim him as their star. She held them off, which led to a feeling among the Jewish community that she didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
Abba was an inspector of Hebrew schools, but they didn’t often go to synagogues, and Yehudi was brought up with no sense of what is kosher; there was nothing kosher at home at all. So there was no question of their being ritual Jews. Mamina would never touch Yiddish, and in fact spoke good German, which laid the foundation for Yehudi’s assertion that his entire culture came from Germany and Austria. After that the Jews saw their opportunity to murder him. Yehudi’s father was only anti-Israel because he had divided loyalties. He was very proud to be American, yet he was of course a Jew, the grandson of a rabbi. When he and Mamina first went to look for rooms in New Jersey when their baby was about to be born, they found a very nice landlady who must have found them an attractive pair – Abba was extremely handsome, blue eyes, blond hair, and Mamina was quite incredibly beautiful, with golden hair she could sit on and Tartar-blue eyes. As they left, the landlady said, ‘Well, I’m very glad to have you two young things, because I simply hate Jews, and I won’t have them here.’ Whereupon Mamina turned and said, ‘Well, you won’t be having us because we are both Jews.’ And as they walked away, she tapped her tummy where Yehudi was prenatally stored, and said, ‘This child is going to be called Yehudi, the Jew.’ And yet that was the last Jewish gesture she made.
For Abba, the greatest thing on earth was his American passport; it made him feel that he was somebody, because Mamina certainly didn’t make him feel that. Zionism threatened to break apart the feeling of being American; it was going to demand a dual loyalty, so he joined the Philadelphia lot, a group of very distinguished Jews. It was called the American Council of Judaism, and it was made up of all those first- and second-generation Americans who felt that it was terrible to be asked to be less than a hundred per cent loyal to their American naturalization; and this was the basis of his anti-Zionism. Secondly, the Menuhins were Jews who had never suffered. Abba didn’t know how important it was for the Jews to have a homeland. I talked to them and explained what it must have been like to have been a Jew in Europe . . . The Menuhins didn’t know how necessary it was for the Jews to try to escape the pogroms; they had never been through a pogrom.
Yehudi was not really pro-Israel. He hated militant Zionism, yet he realized the necessity for a land for the Jews, while at the same time refusing to talk about it. Yehudi was not one of your pro-Isrealis at all, and that is why they tried to kill us when we first went to Israel. With a certain amount of counselling from me, he realized that something had to be done about the Jews, what was left of them, but he never wanted to be a militant Zionist. He played at concerts to raise money for the Jewish fund, of course – that was the least he could do. But because we had already been to Germany, there followed a period [in America] of Jews being told to boycott his concerts. His concerts were always sold out, but only Gentis were sitting in Carnegie Hall. The Jews were told by all the Jewish newspapers to send their tickets back too late to have them resold, and that Menuhin was anti-Israel. It wasn’t true. He was only anti the militancy which was being shouted from the rooftops.
He went everywhere where the Jews had really suffered, where they had been taken out and burned. He even gave a concert in Berlin for the displaced-persons camp. Unless you’ve seen what had befallen those wretched Jews who had survived what was done to them by the Germans, you wouldn’t believe it. And they came crowding round the car in a wave of hate such as you’ve never seen. The military police accompanied us into the hall where people were literally hanging on to the players, and the howl of rage was really quite terrifying. But Yehudi has a radiance that makes people suddenly understand what he is trying to be. He got up on the platform, with a huge policeman each side. There was an agent provocateur with a club foot, and he was trying to incite the crowd even more. Yehudi said, ‘Let me speak. Let me speak.’ And he spoke to them in excellent German, telling them that Jews did not go begging to others because they had been maltreated – ‘We are a great race and nothing can extinguish us.’ Then they clapped, they applauded, they said, ‘Yehudi, Yehudi, you are wonderful . . . ’ He changed the whole mood of the crowd, and when the agent provocateur got up, he was booed. When we left people were crowding round the car, saying, ‘Yehudi, please come and play to us again, please.’
It was the most moving thing you can imagine. Yehudi hates talking about this and he may be angry if this comes out, but it was a wonderful moment in his life.