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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Memories of an Empire

By John Izbicki
Shortly before I was sent to cover France for Kemsley Newspapers by Ian Fleming, then foreign editor of this powerful empire, one of its segments managed to lose a major libel action – all because the owner’s wife was sickened by the sight of a bull’s penis.
Lady Kemsley, with whom I was to become closely acquainted, was in the habit of visiting ‘her’ newspaper offices at 200 Grays Inn Road on Saturdays, when the Sundays – Sunday Times, Empire News and Sunday Graphic – were being busily put to bed. As she passed by the Graphic’s picture desk, her eyes pounced on that of a magnificent bull. ‘What is zees?’ she demanded, pointing at the bull’s superb protuberance.
‘It’s a prize bull, m’lady,’ the flunky at the desk informed her. ‘It won first prize at the Smithfield Show today, ma’am.’
‘And you intend zees to go into my newspepper? Jamais! Jamais!’ Lady K, who hailed from Mauritius and spoke with a thick French accent (her otherwise excellent French miraculously had distinct traces of an English accent) expressed her shock-horror at the prospect of such a picture finding its way into the pepper at all.
Her reaction was immediately transmitted to the editor, who was not to be ordered about by the proprietor’s silly wife. Instead of spiking the bull, he ordered it to be ‘slightly adjusted’. Out came the paintbrush and with a gentle stroke, the beast was, well, emasculated.
When on the following day the ‘prize bull’ made its appearance, the picture became a red rag to its owner. The farmer, who had been expecting thousands of pounds for his animal, sued – and won more than £40,000 – a fortune in the mid-Fifties.
Gomer Berry – the first Viscount Kemsley – who had built up his newspaper empire from scratch, was not a happy man but he loved his wife deeply and would not have a word said against her. Instead, he took her to Paris where he booked a suitable suite at the Ritz Hotel in the Place Vendôme – which is where I got to know her.
I shared an office with Stephen Coulter, who was the Sunday Times man in Paris while I looked after the rest of the Kemsley empire, ranging from the Sunday Graphic and the Sunday Empire News to the scores of provincials that served so many towns and cities throughout the UK. The office was immediately opposite the Ritz, which, to my misfortune, was found to be ‘handy’.
‘Ah, Izbicki, glad to find you in…’ one of my very first telephone calls greeted me. The gruff Welsh lilt continued: ‘Lord Kemsley here. Come over will you? You’re new so I’d better get to know you.’ He hung up, leaving me totally perplexed. I was young and at that time didn’t know whether to stand to attention (I had done my National Service just before starting in newspapers) or panic. Come over? Where’s ‘over’? I had no idea. Luckily, Steve came to the rescue and pointed out the Ritz. He thought the whole episode amusing and wished me luck.
Kemsley was an elderly highly imposing figure of a man. During my first brief interview, Edith Kemsley lounged on a sofa in the background and said nothing. My employer sat behind a small table, drinking tea. I was not invited to sit but received my instructions standing almost to attention.
‘Now listen,’ the Welsh lilt said. ‘Each morning when you get to the office, I want you to bring the day’s papers over here, addressed to Lady Kemsley, so she can read them. All right? That’s all the English daily papers, Telegraph, Times, Mail and so on – oh, even the Manchester Guardian. Right? Also some of the French papers – Figaro, Le Monde, France Soir etc. Then, before you leave the office in the evening I want you to telephone and ask Lady Kemsley if there’s anything she needs. Right? Good. Well, goodbye…’
I was somewhat dumbstruck but managed to think sufficiently to say: ‘Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir – but what if I happen to be away from the office?’
‘Away from the office?’ The Welsh lilt had taken on a kind of Lady Bracknell rasp.
‘Well, Sir, I am supposed to be reporting for the Group…’
‘Ah, yes, quite forgot. You’re quite right to mention it young man. Well, in that case, of course, you can’t phone from your office. But the papers. These you’ll have to make arrangements to have them delivered here to Lady Kemsley. Right? Good. Well, goodbye again.’ I was dismissed. But, just as I had reached the door, he called out: ‘Oh, Izbicki, one more thing. The bill for the papers. You’ll pay that and put it on your expenses. Right?’
Much later, Lady K became ill. During her travels, she had started to suffer from severe headaches. In Switzerland she was operated on and a nerve was severed. I never knew which particular nerve but it was obviously the wrong one, as the operation had left her face partially paralysed and still painful.
She used to call me over for a chat and a drink when I was not too busy and I found her a charming old woman. She would always offer me a dry martini (shaken, not stirred, as my boss’s character, James Bond, would have said). It was the only drink she knew. But she was clearly in pain and once asked me to find someone to help her.
‘Please, Monsieur Eesbeekee, please try to find this man for me,’ she said and handed me a slip of paper with a scribbled message: ‘Jean-Louis Bonsard – Magnetiseur’. It did not take me long to locate Monsieur Bonsard and to explain his task to him. He was only too delighted to come to the Ritz and help Her Ladyship regain her strength with his little magnet.
The visit turned into something akin to a Georges Feydeau farce. As Bonsard sat on Lady K’s bed, gently swinging his magnet from side to side across her face, her Austrian maid Riesa, stormed into the room. ‘M’lady, Professor Lévy has arrived for his appointment. He is in the next room.’
There was no way out for Monsieur Bonsard. But, being French and used to every possible embarrassment, he calmly put his magnet in his pocket, looked round the room and opened the door of an inbuilt wardrobe. He entered, waving Edith Kemsley a fond farewell, and closed the door. Professor Lévy, one of France’s most eminent neurologists, was able to enter and entertain Her Ladyship to his well known bedside manner for some 20 minutes, give her a piqûre, and depart. Monsieur Bonsard, sweating profusely, exited, stumbled back to Lady K’s bedside and, with a weak smile, resumed his magnetism.
I often felt sorry for Gomer, Lord Kemsley, for his wife (she was his second; his first, Mary Holmes, died in 1928) did not altogether treat him well or return his profound love. Often, when he entered the suite at the Ritz, she would pretend to be fast asleep and he would eventually leave the room on tiptoe as not to disturb her.
Once he was in London lunching with his great friend, Max Beaverbrook, owner of the Express group. Lord Beaverbrook told Gomer that he was anxious to get rid of his Bermuda villa. ‘I’ll buy it from you,’ said Gomer and took out his chequebook. ‘How much d’you want?’ I do not recall the price but one was rapidly agreed and after lunch both men drove to Max’s solicitor who drew up the relevant papers.
When Lord K returned to Paris and the Ritz, he gently awakened his wife. ‘Edith…Edith, my love,’ he said gently. ‘I have a little present for you.’ And he drew the Beaverbrook deeds from his pocket and handed them to her.
When they visited the villa for the first time, he immediately executed one vital change. He went to a carpenter and had a special board made. The name of the villa was altered to: Kemsley House.
Sad, for the many other Kemsley House signs around Britain were soon to be destroyed following the sale of Gomer’s empire to Roy Thomson in 1959.
But before that sale was completed and to show his gratitude for my help over the past three-plus years, Kemsley phoned me. ‘Ah, Izbicki. Come and join Lady Kemsley and me for lunch. Book us a table at Maxim’s – and ask them to give us one that’s private. You understand?’ Of course. Edith didn’t want people to see her looking the way she did. After all, she was born Edith de Plessis, one of the nobler families of Mauritius. She was a proud woman.
The lunch was a good one, even though everything I wanted to order I had to abandon. ‘Twenty-five minutes waiting for that dish,’ the waiter would whisper each time and I ended up with poulet à la crème, a course I could have eaten at any little bistro.
At the end of that enjoyable ‘thank you’ session, M’Lord turned to me and said: ‘You’ll take care of the bill, won’t you dear boy? If you’ve not got the cash, I’ll lend it to you. But I want this to go on your expenses…’
Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
John Izbicki started in journalism at the Manchester Evening Chronicle as a graduate trainee on the day he was demobbed from National Service. He was sent to France for Kemsleys for three months but stayed three years. He later worked for the Daily Telegraph for 23 years -- three as deputy industrial correspondent, 17 as its education editor and three as head of its Paris office. He wrote a column on education for the Independent and still writes columns for Education Journal.