Monday, January 19, 2009

Charm in perspective

By Mangal Kapoor

Who was the real Dai Llewellyn? As I read the obituaries last week of the self-styled “seducer of the valleys”, who died on Tuesday at the age of 62, my mind returned to our last meeting in November, when I went down to Kent and took him out from his hospice for the day.

He wanted to visit the place he called home, a cottage on the estate of his friend Patrick Meehan. As I drove, some half-remembered lines from Betjeman’s Song of a Nightclub Proprietress came to my head. “But now I’m broke and done for / What on earth was all the fun for? / For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight.”

Dai was suffering from cirrhosis, a brain tumour, prostate cancer and diabetes: he looked wistful as I recited. “That just about sums me up. Except, of course, I’m not broke. I am actually doing quite well at the moment.”

We had arrived. As the gravel crunched beneath my wheels, Meehan’s chauffeur came out with a message. The social security department had called, about Dai’s application for benefits. So the last myth about Dai Llewellyn, rich socialite, baronet and bon vivant, was blown.

Not that I had believed the legend. Not, at least, for a long time. We’d first met in the glorious Thatcherite era of the 1980s, when England seemingly first discovered champagne, and when anyone hungry for entry to the royal enclosure at Ascot racecourse needed to be sponsored by someone who’d been going there for 20 years. Dai was the apparent pinnacle of social London: an Old Etonian heir, good-looking, popular and generous – particularly to the hundreds of new plutocrats who sought an entrée into the world he represented.

Charm, connections, endless good cheer – Dai had them all, plus a grand house in Cadogan Square and a dashing younger brother who just happened to have been the lover of Princess Margaret. He never missed a chance to refer to his family’s ancestral mansion in Wales, nor did he let any rich person who aspired to the royal enclosure slip by. For a certain fee, or perhaps a very good deal on a car – say, 100% off the list price – there was always a way to get his new best friends signed in, to join the dukes, polo players and models at his lavish picnics in the racecourse car park.

It was not always clear where the money for the liveried butlers and Fortnum’s hampers came from: the Welsh coal mines that had made his family’s fortune, maybe, or rich Pakistanis, including those who were ever present at his parties. The rest of the cast at Cadogan Square changed repeatedly: Bubbles Rothermere and the Duchess of Argyll one week, the Maharajah of Baroda and the von Bismarcks the next.

Dai was busy promoting a new “über-exclusive lifestyle service”, called Club Royale. For a joining fee of £5,000, members would somehow whirl between Positano, Acapulco, St Moritz and St Tropez. There was a club HQ in Mayfair with a restaurant, disco and bar, and regular events would be organised, as well as automatic membership of every hunt, every racecourse and several smart clubs around the world. The friends I introduced included a Japanese heiress and a Dulwich businessman, plus a young wine merchant who was thrilled at the big orders that poured in. My chums complained that the club was not quite working, but I felt I had to be loyal to Dai, who had taken me up with enthusiasm, introducing me round town as the young man “with the marvellous laugh”. It was more difficult when I heard the wine merchant had never been paid.

Around the time of the inevitable, slightly messy demise of Club Royale, Dai’s fortunes dived when he lost a libel case against the former debutante and PR Liz Brewer, a bitter rival in the social introductions game. Although the court awarded damages, Brewer was thwarted by Dai’s lack of any identifiable fixed assets and his skill at moving house and keeping ahead of the bailiffs. Gradually Dai, once a staple of the gossip columns, faded from the public consciousness.

Not, of course, that this stopped him honing his magnificent raffish Old Etonian aristo act on the unwary and the easily charmed: he had in fact attended Eton for a few terms but was expelled and spent the rest of his schooldays at Milton Abbey, a minor public school catering for those of a more sporting than academic bent. As for the aura of wealth, he had certainly been brought up in comfort and his family were part of the Monmouthshire county set. But the ancestral fortunes had declined considerably since the Llewellyn acquisition of a baronetcy from Lloyd George, and eventually his parents sold their country house.

Undeterred, he continued to invite people down to Wales to stay there. Of course, he always had to cancel at the last minute, giving ever more baroque excuses, depending on the status of those he was letting down. I once warned him that some particularly keen Americans had bought new tweeds and a Welsh phrase book at Harrods for the occasion.

Some time after the Brewer debacle, I was working at the London Evening Standard and, thinking it would be fun to resurrect Dai, looked him up and dropped his name into a few amusing stories. In no time he was weaving his old myth-making magic on a wider public. Knowing his circumstances, I reeled with laughter as I read his boasts of “crossing the Atlantic in private planes and yacht-hopping while relaxing in Sardinia – Calle de Volpe”. Our mutual friend Lady Edith Foxwell and I joked that it was a misprint and that he had really said “sardines in Vauxhall”.

She and I set up a monthly social pictorial called Voila!, pitched somewhere between Tatler and Hello!. Dai came on board and insisted on employing only titled people. The Earl of Westmorland was the sporting editor; the Marquess of Bland-ford, the motoring correspondent.

Billed as the first magazine written by the aristocracy for the aristocracy, we were an overnight sensation – on television and in the newspapers every day, invited to every party. But when our advertising team sold ads for cash, Dai steered them towards barter, swapping ad space for free meals, champagne and exotic holidays: lovely for him; not so good for the balance sheet. In addition to this, Dai hijacked the company chequebook so that no one could keep track of things, although I was a founding shareholder. Had Dai planned to milk the magazine as a means to get free meals and holidays all along? Surely not.

In January 1994 I persuaded the Hon Jonathan Harmsworth, the son of Lord Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust, to buy Voila! for £150,000. It was a great deal for us, for although the magazine had a high profile and good sales, the rent was overdue, we had no assets and there was no money in the bank. Perversely, Dai blocked it, suggesting I hold out for £1m. Shortly afterwards the Lebanese publisher got fed up, closed the title and retired to Beirut. Dai acquired a lucrative sideline in writing syndicated articles blaming me for the collapse of Voila!.

Dai didn’t suffer long: he became the PR for the new Dorchester nightclub, succeeding one Major Brian Wright, uncle to the Duchess of York and former butler to the Duke of Devonshire. When I took a Greek shipowner there for a drink at Major Wright’s invitation, the major looked him up and down and said: “I must say you are very well dressed for one of your race.” His particular brand of charm was judged not quite suitable for the target clientele of the Dorchester, but Dai’s was and he landed a job perfectly suited to his particular genius, one that brought with it a Mayfair mews house. His twinkling eyes, green velvet smoking jacket and cries of “Darling! Wel-come!” made the Dorchester club so popular with the smart set that Annabel’s was virtually deserted for a few months.

He was now pushing 50 but women still found him irresistible. He had been so successful at creating his image as an amazing lover and rich heir to a title that, with his genuine warmth and charisma and his impressive array of friends, he seemed a very good catch.

By the mid1990s, however, his weight had ballooned, he was drinking too much and he admitted to dyeing his hair with bootblack – and yet women still threw themselves at him. He was particularly popular with older divorcees and Essex-girl types. I introduced him to a rich Persian friend: when their affair fizzled out, she ended up writing a book about gigolos. Therapy, perhaps. It was never published.

I recall a rich American with a mansion in Kensington and a Gloucestershire estate, who turned weak-kneed and starry-eyed over Dai as late as 2002. “My God!” she marvelled. “Just how did you get to meet people like that?” And of course, out of loyalty, I backed up Dai’s outrageous claims.

But people he visited in recent years said he would come for a weekend and stay three weeks, drinking the house dry. “ ‘I’ll replace it,’ Dai promised, turning up with a bottle of Tesco own-brand whisky after consuming several cases during his extended stay,” said one host. The truth was, he generally had nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the Dorchester club was losing its cachet. Dai eventually left, selling a story to The Sun about how he had busted a vice ring there. Secretly, many of his friends speculated that if the vice ring existed, he was running it. He lost the mews house but in characteristic style still gave the Mayfair address, Adams Row, as his own for many years.

Close friends were told he now had a “chic little pad in Soho”. He was the PR for an Italian restaurant, but when I dropped by for lunch, the owner said he was late and sent me to a lino-floored, neon-lit dormitory of bunk beds above Piccadilly Circus, which Dai shared with a large number of Italian waiters. He was furious to be seen there, but made light of it, saying his digs reminded him of his army days. We descended through a rabbit warren of corridors to the “meat rack”, the gay red-light district in the shadow of Eros’s statue, Dai desperately maintaining a jaunty air as if he were on a shoot at Blenheim Palace. I never told anyone else, but it was his home for some considerable time.

Salvation was on the horizon in the form of Deborah, a pretty Jewish divorcee. Dai proposed to her and moved into her house in St John’s Wood. She offered to pay all his gambling debts and even said he would not have to sleep with her (his famed sexual prowess was on the wane by now). But he suddenly announced via the gossip columns that he hardly knew her and had not proposed.

Deborah was devastated. Her father had a stroke and she suffered a breakdown. She told me that every time Dai looked out of her window towards Regent’s Park he thought to himself: “If only it were Sloane Square.”

She may have been right, but when he did have a rich lover in Sloane Square, he fluffed it. Lady Wilcox – who now sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Wilcox – was blonde, widowed and adoring and lived with him for years. She told me she ended their affair at the end of the 1980s when he interrupted a meeting with the governor of the Bank of England. Walking into her drawing room stark naked at noon, he demanded to know why there was “no f****** milk for my cornflakes”.

Eventually Dai found a home with his old friend Meehan, once the co-host of the famous picnics at Royal Ascot. Dai was allowed to use the idyllic cottage in the grounds of his Kent estate. Of course, when Meehan went away, Dai promptly moved into the main house and invited friends from London down to “his” country estate.

So here I was driving Dai from his hospice to see what had been his last refuge for perhaps the final time. Considering his condition, he was remarkably cheerful, swigging what he said was red wine from a plastic bottle. I suspected it was Ribena laced with morphine to control the pain. I had urged other friends to come down, and had even suggested a party in the hospice room, but such was the cynicism that Dai engendered by then that some joked he was feigning illness to get free accommodation, or as a publicity stunt. Even Meehan’s daughter, Nathalie, made cracks about the mice who had been stealing the whisky, and one of the staff hinted that Dai had borrowed money from him.

Dai gave instructions to Meehan’s chauffeur to renew his car tax for a year and said he would be back for Christmas. I realised it was important for him to believe he was not dying. As he went back to the hospice, saying goodbye to his cottage for the last time, he was rather sad to have lost his “lucky” cloth cap.

He turned to me. “Ninety per cent of the things between us are better left unsaid. But I have not been particularly proud of my behaviour all the time. If I do get that backdated disability benefit, you must come down again and I’ll spend it all on lunch with you.” I drove back to London. The party was over.


Another account of Sir Dai here

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