Diary - 19 July 2003

Your ears will be on stalks.

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An eagerly anticipated lunch-date with our sainted proprietor’s wife. A la page as always, Barbara wanted to try the restaurant above Mourad Mazouz’s blindingly chic nightclub Sketch in Conduit Street. The Lecture Room notoriously costs about a million a mouthful, but they have dreamed up some wonderful and weird ways of making you feel it’s worth it. There’s something called a ‘walking upstairs policy’, which means that no one is allowed to walk upstairs unless they are accompanied by a member of staff. I had arrived before Barbara, who was made to wait until someone could escort her up to join me, while I waited. A gobbledyspeak-trained comis brought some salty thingies to try ‘while you’re wasting your time’. For all the hifalutin palaver about the ‘chef’s inspiration for the day’, most of the sludge-coloured food tasted as you’d imagine the froth around horses’ mouths would. But the room is rather wonderful and weirdly, at those astronomic — note the missing ‘g’ — prices, was almost full.

I see that the telephone directory, the Yellow Pages, has made the FTSE-100 since it was floated on the stock market earlier this week. I know that it is supposed to be quite simply the most wonderful thing, but does anybody actually still use the Yellow Pages? Great loads of them, in their new black mackintoshes, are delivered to the lobby of my block of flats with astonishing frequency. We all step around them gingerly for weeks, until in exasperation someone dumps the whole lot into a skip.

In case one ever doubted it, Bill Clinton proved, with his unexpected appearance at Lyn De Rothschild’s reception for his wife, Hillary, that he certainly does have enormous presence. He reminds me of Mae West’s wisecrack: ‘Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?’ Several of the girls who were introduced to him said how much they felt that he enjoyed the pleasure of their company. En plus, he is dazzlingly good-looking, beautifully turned out and great fun to talk to. Mrs Clinton radiates a confidence that is nothing to do with smugness or self-esteem. Go on, girl, RUN.

I have considered Sybille Bedford one of the greatest living prose authors ever since first reading her masterpiece A Visit to Don Otavio during a pretty scary night in a Mexican jail. As I read, my cell-mate, a condemned murderer, graphically demonstrated in dumb crambo how he had strangled his girlfriend with piano-wire. So when I discovered that there was a newly published collection of Mrs Bedford’s travel pieces, I boldly wrote to her asking if we could meet. We have since dined. Aged 80-ish, tiny, erudite and supremely elegantly spoken, she has the faintest foreign intonation that romantically reminds one of the pre-first-world-war Europe so perfectly evoked in another of her books, A Legacy. Mrs Bedford is also an acknowledged authority on wine, particularly claret. I took her a grimy, label-obscured bottle of Lafite and she rang next day to thank me, saying, ‘It’s a ’71: a gentle year’. Sybilline, one might say.

At the weekend at La Rondinaia, Gore Vidal’s sublime house in Ravello, I found the oracle rather delphic on the subject of George Bush: ‘In the interest of being memorable, he has declared war on the world, for which he’ll be remembered in a way that the president he most resembles, Herbert Hoover, will not,’ he said. On the subject of Tony Blair, Gore was less mysterious. He cannot believe that Blair has so far survived the WMD debacle, ‘and he won’t, if there’s a vote of no confidence’. Gore doesn’t hold out much hope for the future either, saying that he thinks it quite likely that New York, Washington and Los Angeles will be reduced to smoking, blackened holes in the ground within the next decade. More encouraging, and typical of Gore, is his total lack of nostalgia at the prospect of selling his aerial paradise, suspended amid azure sea and sky. Also typical is his constant, tender care for the health of Howard Austen, his great lifelong friend who, having kicked a bout of lung cancer, must no longer do cigarettes. At least, not straight after breakfast.

At the publication party for Simon Sebag Montefiore’s blockbuster biography of Stalin, I met the enchanting Wendy Leigh, who has just written The Secret Letters of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. The book does exactly what it says on the tin; although all the letters are fiction, they seem so authentic that it’s hard to believe they’re not really to and from those twin 20th-century icons, both fatally locked in their struggle for JFK’s erogenous zone. On the other hand, one wishes that the monstrous horrors of the Stalinist regime, so shatteringly detailed by Sebag, were fiction; though I can’t help thinking that his publishers ought to be sent to the gulags for allowing a typo in the very first sentence of the book.

Claus von Bulow tells me that he used to date Stalin’s daughter Svetlana. I remember the hoo-ha that greeted her arrival in New York in the early 1960s, but I came across this creature of the Steppes in much stranger circumstances a few years later. We were both living out in the Arizona desert, I on a ranch, and she, as the wife of Wesley Peters, the protégé of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Occasionally, I was bidden to Taliesin West, Wright’s compound near Scottsdale, where absolutely disgusting meals were presided over by Olgivana Lloyd Wright, the great man’s widow. It seemed bizarre to see Svetlana, whom one’s mind’s eye associated with blood and blizzards, meekly wandering among the tumbleweed and cactus wearing her traditional blatok.

Derek Hutchins, who has been cutting my hair at Smile in Chelsea since the year dot, has just set up his own place in Abingdon Road. He has renamed the salon Me, given it a coolly contemporary interior, hired the best colourist — Christophe — and, on certain Saturdays, his incredibly handsome young son, Joey. He has also, by sensibly taking on some of the existing staff, inherited a whole new world of their faithful clients, grand Kensington ladies to a man. I would recommend the experience to anyone: the cut-glass accents, Mitfordian phrases, local gossip and occasional flashes of Kenneth Williams-like camp, mingling with mega-rockstar grunts and supermodels’ mobiles mean you’ll never use the phrase ‘I read it in a magazine at the hairdresser’s the other day...’ ever again. Your ears will be on stalks.