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High life

Two books that made me forget everything else

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

Gstaad

I’ve been hitting the books rather hard lately, the ritzy-glitzy crowd having gone the way of natural snow. There’s great skiing, they tell me, but it’s on man-made white stuff, which is a bit like going to bed with a plastic doll instead of the real thing. I know, skiing is skiing, but it’s somehow different for me. I need the true white powder, and I don’t mean the Colombian marching stuff.

My friend Peter (Santa Claus) Livanos sent me two literary beauties for Christmas, Wounded Tiger by T. Martin Bennett and James Holland’s Normandy ’44. The result is that I’ve forgotten all about women, martial arts, booze and even my family while deeply engrossed in them. In fact, it’s worse than that. If Ava Gardner and Betty Grable were alive and asked me to join them for a threesome, I’d take both books with me. There’s nothing like a quick read in-between sessions with Ava and Betty.


Oy vey, what is going on here? Easy: in old age there’s nothing like reading beautifully written sagas of bravery and the human predicament. Mind you, dreaming about Ava and Betty dates me much too much, so I’ll modernise: in today’s world I’d pick Jennifer, as in Lawrence, and Keira as in Knightley. And speaking of dreams, James Toback rang me from the Bagel and told me that in all his years he has never seen a better edition of any magazine than our triple Christmas dream issue. Ever. I agree, and a little bird tells me that along with the sainted editor, Mme Dominic Cummings had a lot to do with it. (Did any of you catch the ludicrous Question Time in which certain losers went after M. Dominic Cummings? Why do losers such as Clive Lewis always blame the winners rather than looking in the mirror?)

Wounded Tiger is a non-fiction novel, a term invented by Truman Capote back in the 1960s in order to cover his back and all bases. The hero is Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. I’m in the middle, and the going is good. There is the Doolittle Raid, which took place after Pearl Harbor, and a missionary’s daughter, and there’s redemption at the end. But in the meantime there are thrills and spills and even forgiveness. Fuchida was a legend among Japanese pilots, and was a natural to lead the raid that brought the United States into the war. The Rising Sun never stood a chance, but boy, did they ever give it the old college try, as they used to say back in Virginia. Roosevelt forced them to fight by doing to them what the Donald is doing to the mullahs as I write, except that the Japanese were men, and the Iranians are mobs.

Normandy ’44 is like all the rest of James Holland’s books: superiorly written history. Santa Claus Peter had James write an inscription for me, and in his new history of that great battle Holland reminds me of my ‘simpatico view of our Teutonic friends, and clambering up a Tiger tank’. (James once led a party of us, guests of Peter Livanos, on a tour of the battlefields of northern France. As I climbed on the Tiger tank, a French woman screamed at me to get off. I answered her in perfect but German-accented French that I was just reliving my youth and had been on it 74 years earlier.) This was a 77-day battle with more casualties than the Somme, I might add. All of us Livanos guests had a four-day feast in recognition of this great struggle, and although my Austrian buddy Tassilo Wallentin and I tried to resist James Holland’s version of events, it was a losing battle, pun intended.

And as I’m in a bookish mood, last week I finished The Mountbattens, a 400-page affair that went very quickly. An easy read, it left me dumbfounded as to why Dickie Mountbatten has such a lousy reputation — among know-nothing hacks, that is. He not only served his country for more than 50 years in 35 different appointments, he was also physically very brave and had an incredible capacity for work. (I consider myself the laziest person I know, and felt exhausted just reading about his normal day.) Mountbatten was brave, foolhardy, glamorous, a show-off and extremely ambitious. He had a sense of humour and could laugh at himself, but he was also capricious and vain as hell. People resented his driving ambition and determination. He was also a ladies’ man, though nothing like as promiscuous as his wife Edwina. Although I was born almost 40 years after she was, I knew quite well three of her numerous lovers listed in the opus. I’m puzzled as to why the mean tabloids always hinted that he was gay. He pulled some beauties until the end, and I knew a few of them too.

He was a great family man who took time for children, and reading the opus brought back some memories, even to me. His daughter Pamela, still with us, was married to David Hicks, who designed my family’s house on Fifth Avenue, and then my father’s house in Athens. Marble and steel combine very well, and Daddy’s house looking down on the Acropolis was probably the most beautiful house in Athens. Father lived on his large ketch Aries, and would lend his smaller sailboat, Nefertiti, to David Hicks and Lady Pamela every summer. I have some wonderful pictures from that period. And India Hicks, their daughter, is a friend.

Three books about men — and Edwina — who risked their lives for their country, just as the Sussexes are risking their livelihood for La La Land.


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