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High life

Mark of distinction

A letter from Jonathan Guinness, Lord Moyne. It’s about Mark Birley.

26 September 2007

12:54 PM

26 September 2007

12:54 PM

A letter from Jonathan Guinness, Lord Moyne. It’s about Mark Birley.

‘He was an artist, but a more unusual one than his father. Rather than turning out portraits and still-lives, he decided to turn everything around him into a work of art. So it all had to be perfect. He was as close as any real person could be to Huysman’s Des Esseintes, central figure of A Rebours. Mark, as inventor of muslin round the half-lemon, will with luck be remembered when Polly Toynbee has been forgotten.’


What a good and civilised man Jonathan is. And how correct he is that Mark will be remembered long after the name Polly Toynbee will only signify a pain in the bum. Alas, I did not make the memorial service. I lunched with Robin Birley following it and he told me all about it. When a man as well known and as popular as Birley dies, the great and the good show up, but the poor little Greek boy does not. And it’s a pity I didn’t. Robin described it as a perfectly old-fashioned English memorial and very beautiful. But standing around waiting for Princess Michael of Kent is not my bag. Speaking of the princess, there’s a new book out about Etti Plesch, the only woman to have won the Derby twice. It’s called Horses and Husbands, and she had plenty of both. Six of the latter, in fact. (Incidentally, Richard Kay beat me on this last week in the Mail.) When Etti won the 1980 Derby with Henbit, she was invited to meet the Queen. She was greeted by Marie-Christine, the Austrian, who cried out, ‘My cousin has won the Derby!’ The cousin bit was news to Plesch. I’ve had a similar experience. At Jemima’s wedding blast with Imran, Princess Michael announced to the mother of my children that they were cousins. Alexandra is too well brought up to say anything, but she told me. I’m not well brought up so I say not bloody likely.

Never mind. Perhaps I’m being too tough on the old girl. Etti Plesch I knew forever. In fact, I once took out her daughter, Bunny Esterhazy, to El Morocco with my parents, and my mother thought her wonderful because ‘she’s so unlike these terrible girls you usually go out with’. Well, back in those bad old days, nice girls didn’t give it away the way they do now, so they took a back seat. Arpad Plesch, Etti’s last husband, had a magnificent villa, La Leonina, in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, where I was a frequent guest. He was Arkie Busson’s great-grandpappy, step-grandfather actually, and my fellow Pug’s member was named after him. When he discovered that I was spending my nights in his house with one of his guests, he told her that for a kiss he would keep it very quiet from her husband. I believe he got it. The Plesch story is a book in itself. Arpad Plesch was the secretary to a lady who was Arkie’s maternal great-grandmother. When his wife died Plesch married her daughter, Arkie’s grandmother. After they divorced, and Arkie’s grandmother had a daughter, Flokie, Arkie’s mother, Arpad Plesch continued to take care of his ex and her daughter while married to Etti. If you’re confused, don’t worry. It took me about 50 years to figure it out.

So here we are. Everything today is attributed to genes: cancer, smarts, hand and eye control, looks, even the ability to swallow goldfish. Arkie Busson has not a single gene in common with Arpad Plesch, but through osmosis he not only inherited the old boy’s business acumen, he also surpassed him by miles. Go figure. Actually, you don’t have to. Arkie is the second Rosey alumnus to have made good. The first was Richard Helms, Rosey ’32, who became head of the CIA when the agency was still run by gents and did a very good job. After 100 years of graduating very rich and privileged boys, Le Rosey — unless my son makes it big one day as a German expressionist painter — has managed to produce only two men who actually made it on their own. But hang on. There’s a third, my very old buddy Alistair Horne, or Sir Alistair, but he only did it by writing history books, a disgraceful profession in the time of hedge funds. The other Rosey boys who deserve honourable mention for holding on to what they inherited, and not ending up like the Shah of Persia, are the Earl of Suffolk, the Duke of Kent, Prince Rainier of Monaco and the Aga Khan. But, in the infamous words of JFK, they made it with a little help from their friends.

And friends were very nice to me in London last week. I flew to Farnborough, as nice an airport as there is anywhere, where extremely polite staff helped me with my bags as over 100,000 judo slams on the mat have turned me into a cripple of sorts, and it was straight to the Bismarcks for lunch and a great piss-up. Then on to a surprise birthday party for Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece given by her hubby, Prince Pavlos, and then to Aspinall’s, where disaster was waiting. It’s a funny thing. I lost a bundle, got into the limo to go home, then ordered the car to turn around and lost three times the amount that it had upset me to lose in the first place. The reason casinos win is that winners leave and losers chase. Let that be a lesson.


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