Graham Stewart

Life on board the pirate ship

When, in 1825, Harriette Wilson began her Memoirs with ‘I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven’ an avid readership settled down to revel in what was clearly going to be the work of an old pro. So perhaps it is as well for Eleanor Berry’s personal reputation that at the end of Cap’n Bob and Me the reader feels somewhat short-changed.

Many, of course, taken aback that the ‘Bouncing Czech’ could be an object of wild sexual desire to anyone, will be relieved that the wilful Miss Berry spares us the details – if details there were. It is enough to know that time has not dimmed her adoration for the man who threw her into his swimming pool on their first encounter and 23 years later took the plunge into altogether deeper water himself.

As befits the granddaughter of F. E. Smith, Eleanor Berry has a sharp turn of phrase and a talent for upsetting people. Her exhibitionism will entertain those who enjoy a sub-Mitford romp. Maxwell was impressed by her prettiness but also by her flirtation with the Communist party, which he thought showed ‘guts’. Campaigning for him in the 1970 general election, she climbed to the top of the town hall to unfurl the red flag. Since this was in Buckinghamshire it may not have helped Cap’n Bob’s cause. That she had voted Conservative that morning might be considered to fit into the long tradition of British eccentricity.

If this account has a purpose beyond simple entertainment, it is to demonstrate that contrary to what you may have heard, Robert Maxwell was really a wonderful man: kind, thoughtful and loving. Beside the great measured biographies, there should always be a place for the more human, if less balanced, eye-witness accounts by those close enough to see the trees but not the wood.

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