Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Lives Remembered

A little birdy ready to tell. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, September 6, 2017. A very warm, sunny day, yesterday in New York, with the humidity pushing it up there and the rains coming in mid-evening to cool us off some.

My Diaries about the passing of Mark Birley and about Leona Helmsley, written in late August ten years ago and re-published here yesterday and last Friday, once again evoked a lot of interest among readers. Because of that interest at the time, I wrote a third Diary looking more into their lives and relationships. We’re repeating it here today.
It was an amazing life, career-wise. He not only elevated the status of his profession with his wit and brilliance but he also made a great fortune as a result of it. However, his personal life had terrible twists and turns, all of which bore great weight although ironically in the public reading, ended up more like a soap opera.

The Birley family. Photo: Courtesy of Daily Mail.
His only wife, Lady Annabel, left him for a friend of his, Sir James Goldsmith. So there was a double whammy there – wife and friend. He nevertheless remained on very good terms with his wife and they remained in communication forevermore. They also shared three children. Goldsmith, with whom Lady Annabel had three more children – two of whom were born when she and Birley were still married -- always seemed to have more than one domestic situation going on. He later went off with another mistress Laure Boulay, Comtesse de la Meurthe and moved to New York, although he and Lady Annabel remained married until his death in 1997.

Mark Birley’s eldest son Rupert was lost while swimming in the ocean at Togo, West Africa. He was 21, an excellent swimmer, had gone to the beach after work for a swim with his driver present, and…disappeared. Was it a wave, a drowning, a shark? The body was never found and so no one ever knew. There was suspicion of some kind of foul play, but what kind of foul play? In the end it was simply a matter of two distraught parents who would have to live the rest of their lives without knowing what happened to their handsome and brilliant boy.

The younger son (by two years) Robin, at age 12 was mauled by a lion in the private zoo of the Birleys' friend John Aspinall (who owned the gaming club on the floors above Annabel’s in Berkeley Square). How this happened is not a mystery but always confounding to hear: Aspinall’s animals were allowed to roam and it was believed by some that they were people-friendly. The lion took the child’s head in his mouth and before the boy was freed, the animal had crushed the bones in his young face. After many operations (when the child, then a young man, refused to continue) he remains profoundly scarred physically. How that affected him emotionally is known only to those closest to him.

Mark Birley with India Jane and Rupert Birley, who drowned in 1986.
Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest Stewart Birley Goldsmith.
In recent years, Mark Birley brought Robin and his daughter India Jane into the family business. It appeared that they would succeed their father who was getting older and ailing. However, although the son’s management had increased business markedly, there were disagreements with the father over things like who were the “right” clientele for Annabel’s in these radically changing times. Robin was admitting guests whom his father would never have admitted. It is also true that the father was an autocrat about his club, his baby, the thing he’d built from scratch. So the father had the last word.

There was also the business of India Jane’s affair with a man named Macdonald about whom brother Robin had strong misgivings. Was the man on the up and up or out for the money? Robin was persuaded by a “private detective” to investigate. The detective came up with all kinds of damning information. India Jane, meanwhile, had a child out of wedlock with Macdonald. When the “information” about Macdonald was revealed it turned out to be not true – Robin Birley had been had – to the tune of 200,000 pounds, by a man who was not a private detective, but a con artist.

When Robin’s investigations came to light, his sister and father were furious with him. It seems to have scotched the relationship between father and son. Mark Birley sold his business two months ago for more than 100 million pounds and banned Robin Birley from ever having anything to do with the business. It is said the brother and sister have come to some kind of rapprochement but the father and son – never. The son recently married Lucy Ferry, the ex-wife of singer Bryan Ferry. The father was not invited to the wedding.

Mark Birley.
Mark Birley died of a massive stroke last Friday at 77. His son was in Mozambique with his new wife Lucy Ferry, former wife of Bryan Ferry. His daughter was by his side. It has now come out that the son was not left an equal share in his estate estimated to be as much as a quarter billion dollars. We don’t have to worry about Robin Birley’s economic future although the bulk of his father’s fortune went to India Jane, including the valuable real estate in Knightsbridge.

Robin Birley had been having a long affair with a woman he met in 1989 whom he also called Annabel (her birth name was Annette). The couple, which never married, has a three-year-old daughter named Maud. Birley let it be known he was not interested in a commitment (18 years later) and had begun his relationship with Mrs. Ferry.  Now mother and child live in a simple two bedroom Council flat in London while father and new wife live in a luxurious apartment in Knightsbridge. The daughter was not invited to the father’s wedding. Ain’t love grand?

Lady Annabel and Mark Birley remained close for the rest of their lives. Some friends of theirs believe that she wishes, in retrospect, that she had never left him for Goldsmith. Birley had at least one important relationship after that, although he never married. Many believed he never quite recovered from the betrayal in his first marriage, so it was added pain to lose both his sons, one by fate and the other by his own choice.
The Diary last week about Leona Helmsley and her last days evoked a lot of comments from readers. One of the most compelling emails I got was from a friend who, unbeknownst to me, had had a personal relationship with Mrs. Helmsley. He shared it with me:

Dear David,

I was very interested to read your take on Mrs. Helmsley. I think that you got it better than anyone. When I first came to New York, I worked for a well known manufacturer 

of fur coats. Although it  was considered a wholesale operation, it had a large retail  clientele. Lots of rich, social ladies and lots of just plain rich ladies and lots of ladies that fit neither category.

One day, I believe it was in 1988, Mrs. Helmsley called for an  appointment (her assistant, Hubie, actually  called). Of course, her reputation preceded her, but my employer wanted to give her a chance — and make some money — so he made the  appointment.

The day arrived and she showed up with one of her very nice security  men and was perfectly pleasant. She wanted a white mink jacket to  wear at her house in Arizona, and she made it very clear that she  hoped to find one that was already made- she was hesitant to place an  order for anything because she was worried about the result. She was  perfectly aware that she was extremely fussy and didn't want to disappoint my employer, or herself.

As we had very little in the way of white mink (tacky) my employer offered to make one for her — and, if she was unhappy with it, she would not be obligated to take it.

As I was very good at fitting coats and very good at handling ladies with precise ideas about fit, it became my job to make this all happen.

Leona in one of her furs.
And happen it did. As soon as she could see that the mink jacket would be O.K., she ordered a dark Russian Sable coat and we made her a beauty! When that was finished (6-8 weeks), she ordered a  chinchilla coat in the same style. Again, although it required several fittings,  it was accepted happily and promptly paid for. I  know this because I went to her apartment for the fittings and to deliver the coats. I was treated politely, even warmly, at each visit, and handed the check each time. (By the way, she had been indicted at some point during our business together, but she said very little about the case. I do remember that she mentioned an attempt to settle the case, but the prosecutor — Rudy Giuliani — was absolutely determined to go to court.)

Within a few months, Mrs. Helmsley had spent just over $100,000. While this amount was certainly not unheard of at this company, it  did place her in the category of "very good customers."

Then, she decided to order a brown Russian broadtail suit. While we occasionally made very beautiful broadtail suits, they were a rarity. The company that I worked for was really a coat manufacturer — and  fitting a suit is a very different operation from fitting a coat. Also, because of the flatness of very fine broadtail, mistakes in fit  are more visible than they are on any other fur.

My employer wanted the order, however. (As I remember, it was about $20,000 or $25,000) So, we took the order and I began an endless series of fittings. (You see, she had a tiny tummy that would fluctuate just enough to throw off the very precise fit that she wanted.)

It was during the course of the broadtail fittings that she was convicted. I saw her for one of the fittings the day after the verdict was handed down. She was stunned. It was very sad, actually. After the 5th or 6th fitting, it became fairly clear that we were not going to be able to arrive at the very precise fit that she wanted. It was also clear that she was under a great deal of stress due to  her conviction.

While she was never, ever rude to me, her mood did seem to fluctuate and I did silently wonder whether or not she might be using some sort of sedative.

Leona and Harry in 1984. Photo: AP.
At this point, the common sense action would have been for my employer to tell Mrs. H. that we were unable to fit the suit and that we hoped that she would favor us with another order at another time. She certainly would have done so — she loved fur coats and we had already successfully completed three.

However, my employer, for some reason, became determined to have her take delivery of and pay for the suit. This, despite the fact that he had told her that she did not have to accept any garment that wasn't to her satisfaction.

So, the fitting charade kept up. There must have been at least 9. Mrs. Helmsley wasn't happy with the suit, but didn't want to say so and my employer wanted her to take it. Finally, a showdown.

My employer insisted that she pay for the suit and she refused. There were no lawsuits, just letters back and forth, but I never felt that it was her fault. In fact, if it had been handled differently, we probably could have  had a longer and more profitable relationship with her, so I felt  that her reputation was undeserved.

During the course of our business with Mrs. H., I visited her apartment at The Park Lane and her office at The Helmsley Palace dozens of times. I phoned her at her office, at The Park Lane, at her house in Connecticut, and even in Arizona many times and not once, in all of my visits or phone calls, did she treat me with anything less than kindness and courtesy. Let me be clear:  she was no warm, cuddly toy, and certainly not easy to deal with, but always polite and respectful.

I also met Mr. Helmsley several times — people forget that she also took the rap for him because he was declared incompetent to stand trial — Mr. Helmsley was very nice, but clearly slipping away mentally. I remember very distinctly asking him a simple question one day on a visit to their office, and he just stared at me, unable to reply. As for her reported homophobia, it was certainly never directed toward nor witnessed by me.
Was she stylish? Certainly not. Her thank you notes were typed, there were artificial flowers in her dining room, and, for all the fuss  about the "penthouse" at The Park Lane — it still had ceilings of 8 feet and no great art or great furniture. I remember that she had some sort of bureau plat which she thought was special, but, really, it wasn't. As for the famous pool, it was a very commercial- looking space with, surprisingly, no landscaping, except for a couple of trees and some pots of geraniums.

What the apartment did have was a  fairly big dressing room, closet and bathroom- the sort of a middle class idea of how rich people live. (She did, however, have some fantastic jewelry, including some important diamond rings and a beautiful  cabochon sapphire ring from Cartier in the '30's that had been the  Duchess of Windsor's and was bought from her while the Duchess was still alive.)

As sentencing approached, she got angrier. She told me that her lawyer had charged her $11 million for the case. I was called  by a lawyer into the lawyer’s office and asked to write a letter to Judge  Walker to ask for leniency in the sentencing. For some strange  reason, the lawyer asked that I send it to his office in  Washington, D. C. so that all of the requested letters could be given  to the judge together.

I never saw her or heard from her after I wrote the letter.  Occasionally, I would speak with her assistant, Hubie, and, when I  visited a friend who lived in the Carlton House, I would hear about  Mrs. H. from the staff. Most felt pity for rather than anger toward  her. I think that you're right about the " little people and taxes"  comment — I don't believe that she said it. She didn't speak like that ... and She certainly wasn't stupid.

Your observation about neediness was, also, I believe, spot on. Needy, mistrusting, deeply unhappy at the core. Tortured. But "The queen of mean"?  Please!

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