As Emperor Maximilian told his convulsed-by-tears servants as he was about to be executed by the Mexicans: ‘Who knew?’ Last week the owner of the Palace hotel in Gstaad rang me and asked me to join him for a drink with Akira Kitade, a Japanese author best known for Visas of Life and the Epic Journey about how the Jewish Sugihara survivors reached Japan and safety. Like most of his countrymen and women, Mr Kitade was extremely polite and shyly asked me to tell him all I knew about Nissim Segaloff, born between Bulgaria and Serbia before the turn of the last century and a survivor of the Titanic disaster in 1912, according to a High life column by yours truly in the issue of The Spectator dated 27 January 1979.
As Mr Kitade produced the issue in question, I felt slightly weak at the knees, but we were sitting down and I was having a stiff drink. ‘Did you come over from Japan for this?’ I asked weakly. ‘Yes, very important I speak with you face to face,’ answered Akira. Never in my long life have I so wished for an earthquake to swallow me up.
Here I am in the column in question:
The Ayatollah of backgammon, Mr Nicholas Sargeant, born Nissim Segaloff somewhere between Bulgaria and Serbia before the turn of the century… was the first backgammon hustler, having clipped a certain Mr Guggenheim in Europe and then followed him to America on a ship called the Titanic. Alas, Guggenheim went down but Nicky survived. He is still hustling at the Palace but since the new breed of confidence men have appeared… old Sargeant adds class to the place.
How was I to know, 40 years ago, that a Japanese writer would research the subject of the untold story of Japanese civilians who transported Jewish refugees to safety, and hit upon something I had obviously made up as a joke. Nissim, or Nicky, was a buddy of mine but he lacked charisma and looked too eager (hungry for money) to be taken seriously, so I decided to give him some class as a man who had survived the sinking. But suddenly it looked awful. A hardworking Japanese — they are my favourite people: polite, clean, tough and traditional, and they are like this because no foreign cultures are allowed within Japan — had come all this way because of a joke of mine. I offered to commit seppuku but Akira said no way. So I confessed to him that I had done this only four times in my 42 years of writing the column. ‘Please tell,’ said Akira.
The Titanic also featured when I wrote that my friend Eric Nielsen, long dead, had survived the sinking by dressing up as a little girl and shouting ‘Mama, mama!’ until an old salt grabbed him and put him on one of the lifeboats. Nielsen was 25 years old at the time and living with a man called Bobby Lester, also long gone. That makes two. The third time was when I announced that Mme Saddam Hussein was living at the Gstaad Palace during the first Iraqi war, and tens of journalists arrived looking under every hijab in the place for the dictator’s better half.
Finally, after 9/11 I wrote in these here pages about how Osama bin Laden had gone to school at the Rosey in Gstaad, kept the Kandahar suite at the Palace year round, was on the school ski team with my son, Jean-Claude Killy and Gianni Agnelli, and was called Harry Laden at his St James’s club. Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair dispatched two hacks at great expense to find him and was furious they didn’t manage to.
That’s it, I swear, and may the fleas of a thousand camels infest my armpits if I’m lying. Poor Akira forgave me and went on to Geneva to continue his search. I went off to London for Maya Schoenburg’s requiem mass at the London Oratory, probably the most magnificent goodbye to a dear friend I’ve ever experienced. As Father Julian said in his address, the difference this time was that it was a mass, not a memorial service with friends speaking about the departed. This was the real thing, and it made me love the Catholic Church and service more than ever because it was in Latin, the way it should be.
The Christian religion is under attack nowadays by new-age bullshit, and has been usurped by a culture of drugs, porn and violence pushed by horrible ignoramuses. The next big thing is going to be a declaration by the New York Times that God is transgender. Like the vandals of the past, these modern barbarians drool at the prospect of a diminished Catholic Church. They should have been at the Oratory last week. The hymns and the music were awe-inspiring, worthy of all the great and wonderful things the Church has accomplished these past 1,000 years.
Afterwards, the great and the good — the place was packed — had drinks at the church and I had lunch with my friends Count and Countess Bismarck. And played my last joke ever. An usher would not allow Leopold Bismarck to enter a reception room where Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and other biggies were assembled. I told him that the reason for this was that he didn’t have a ‘B’ on his lapel. ‘B’ stands for billionaire, and the packed room was reserved for them. Bolle smiled and didn’t seem to mind at all. (He’s quite secure in his skin.) The real reason, of course, was that there were too many people. It was, I swear, my last joke ever. Or may the fleas of a… I’m off to the Bagel.