Tom Bower

How Charlotte Wahl Johnson’s troubled life shaped her son Boris

Charlotte Wahl Johnson (Credit: video)

Attractive, accomplished and admired as an artist, friend and mother, Charlotte Wahl’s promising life could have been wrecked, first by cruel sicknesses and then by an adulterous husband. Instead, she bravely defied adversity and found happiness in a second marriage, her four children’s success, her friendships and painting.

Her death at 79 will be particularly painful for Boris Johnson, the eldest of her remarkable children. Despite all the pressures, he regularly visited his mother at her comfortable flat in Notting Hill Gate, recognising how much he owed her.

In frail health from Parkinson’s and other complications, Charlotte agreed to meet me in September 2019 for the biography I was writing about Boris. I had met her several times over the previous 20 years.

After describing her own happy childhood and Boris’s youth, she unexpectedly launched into a vivid description of her terrible marriage to Stanley Johnson. Describing her suffering because of his long absences, adultery and violence – allegations Stanley has denied – she had clearly decided, before illness finally prevented her speaking at all, to tell the truth. I had been invited, it appears now in hindsight, to hear her final testament before she died.

Boris agonised over his mother’s fate

Her background should have protected her from suffering. Brought up in a happy, social family in a large house in St John’s Wood, Sir James Fawcett, her father was an outstanding international lawyer, classicist and latterly the bursar of All Souls college. Beatrice Lowe, her Jewish mother, was the daughter of two academics – her father was a professor at Princeton and her mother was translator of Thomas Mann into English. Both were politically active liberals and outspoken campaigners for human rights, women’s equality and against racism.

Educated at Mayfield and then Westminster Tutors, Charlotte had been deliberately seated by her father next to Stanley Johnson for a dinner to celebrate his winning the Newdigate Prize for poetry.

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