Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The man who knew ‘everyone’

Geoffrey Wheatcroft recalls Alastair Forbes

Not long after Alexander Chancellor had been appointed editor of The Spectator in 1975, and had then lightheartedly or pluckily taken me on to his small crew at Doughty Street, we had lunch at Bertorelli’s with David McEwen and a great friend of his: a man once met not easily forgotten. He was imposing or even overbearing; loud, handsome in a rather blatant way, charming in intermittent flashes, much given to malicious anecdote and reminiscence. This was my first encounter with Alastair Forbes, who has died at 87, and is still remembered by staff as well as readers of The Spectator with a mixture of amusement, irritation and awe.

In his late fifties at the time, Ali was kicking his heels; and although I might not have met him before, almost everyone else apparently had. His life had been unusual, if less so than it would be now, the transplanted American, the rentier, and the courtier having all once been less exotic species than they have since become. Although Ali was born and educated in England, he was pure Yankee, from the heart of the old Back Bay elite of Boston. He made much of having FDR as a cousin, but then, in person and in print, Ali turned name-dropping into a higher art form. In his eighties he grew frail, and a friend said drily last year how sad it was that Ali couldn’t make more of having a nephew, Senator John Forbes Kerry, as the Democratic presidential candidate.

The curious effect of this background and upbringing was to leave him more English than any Englishman could be. His great enemy Evelyn Waugh wrongly attributed Ali’s ‘hot-potato’ drawl to his having been taught by J.F. Roxburgh at Stowe (he went to Winchester) while the publisher Roger Machell (who really was an English gentleman) once said that Ali was the sort of parodic compatriot you shied away from in a New York restaurant: he’s nothing to do with me.

After Cambridge and exiguous military service, Ali enjoyed the first electrically successful phase of his social career during the war, when he befriended the royal family and the Churchills and in fact just about everyone.

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