Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British writer whose erudite, high-spirited accounts of his adventures in prewar Europe, southern Greece and the Caribbean are widely regarded as classics of travel literature, died on Friday at his home in Worcestershire, England. He was 96.
by Richard B Woodward
First published in The New York Times, 11 June 2011
Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece in 2001. He had worked undercover there for the British military during World War II.
Roland Philipps, Mr. Leigh Fermor’s editor at John Murray Publishers in Britain, confirmed his death.
Mr. Leigh Fermor was regarded by many as the finest travel writer alive on the strength of two autobiographical volumes, “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986), which both recalled his walk across Europe in the 1930s, begun when he was a teenager and lasting more than three years.
Reviewing “Between the Woods and the Water” for The New York Times, John Gross wrote that it was not primarily for the “information it contains that his book deserves to be read (though he packs in a great deal), but for its sumptuous coloring, the acuteness of his responses, the loving precision with which he conjures up people and places.”
Once described by the BBC as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” Mr. Leigh Fermor was as renowned for his feats of derring-do as for his opulent prose.
After joining the Irish Guards during World War II, he was judged to be promising officer material for the Special Operations Executive, the unit created by Winston Churchill to wage war by unconventional means. Mr. Leigh Fermor’s superiors deemed his fluency in modern Greek useful in leading resistance to German occupation in the Aegean.
For 18 months he lived disguised as a shepherd in Crete, emerging from the mountains with a team that in 1944 kidnapped Gen. Heinrich Kreipe, the island’s German commander. The operation provoked brutal reprisals toward the local population. It earned Mr. Leigh Fermor the Distinguished Service Order and later became the basis for the 1957 English film “Ill Met by Moonlight,” directed by Michael Powell and starring Dirk Bogarde.
By the time the film was released, Mr. Leigh Fermor had received a measure of attention for his writing. He toured the Caribbean with two friends after the war and in 1950 published “The Traveller’s Tree,” a collection of island-hopping tales. They first revealed the qualities readers would learn to expect from his books: sly humor, curiosity, wide-ranging social connections and sympathies, familiarity with arcane history and a dashing literary style steeped in the ancient writing of Greece and Rome.
“The afternoon was baking and shadowless, and the town seemed only with an effort to remain upright among its thoroughfares of dust,” he wrote of a trip to Guadeloupe. “It was as empty as a sarcophagus.”
The Caribbean was the setting for his only novel, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques,” published in 1953 and turned into an opera in 1966 by the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson. Mr. Leigh Fermor also published in 1953 “A Time to Keep Silence,” a short, reverent study of the monastic life resulting from his stays in a pair of French abbeys and a tour of the rock-carved monasteries in Cappadocia, Turkey.
The warmth of Greece drew him back in the 1950s. He bought a home in Mani, in the southern Peloponnese. He and his wife, the former Joan Eyres Monsell, a photographer, divided their time between Greece and Britain. They married in 1968 after many years of companionship. She died in 2003.
The couple’s tables, in Mani and in Worcestershire, were reputed to be among the liveliest in Europe. Guests, both celebrities and local people, came to dine with them. The journalist and historian Max Hastings called Mr. Leigh Fermor “perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time, wearing his literacy light as wings, brimming over with laughter.”
Mr. Leigh Fermor’s books about life in Greece — “Mani,” in 1958, and “Roumeli,” in 1966 — confirmed him as the armchair traveler’s ideal. (For his decades of writing about Greece, the government in 2007 awarded him its highest honor, the Commander of the Phoenix.)
But it was his earliest wanderings in Europe, undertaken when he was scarcely 18 and reconstructed for publication in adulthood, that earned him international acclaim.
He set off across the English Channel in December 1933 with little more in his backpack than clothes, a copy of Horace’s “Odes,” an automatic pistol and some letters of introduction. His journey did not end until January 1937, when he reached Constantinople (now Istanbul.)
On foot and on horseback, by train and automobile, Mr. Leigh Fermor found hospitality among people alien to most English speakers of the time: Orthodox Jewish woodcutters in Transylvania, Hungarian Gypsies, White Russian exiles, German barons, French-speaking monks in Austria, and Romanian shepherds along the Danube.
At one point he strayed by mistake into a Munich beer hall crowded with Nazis.
“The vaults of the great chamber faded into infinity through blue strata of smoke,” he wrote. “Hobnails grated, mugs clashed and the combined smell of beer and bodies and old clothes and farmyards sprang at the newcomer. I squeezed in at a table of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs to my lips. It was heavier than a brace of iron dumbbells, but the blond beer inside was cool and marvelous, a brooding, cylindrical liter of Teutonic myth.”
Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor was born in London on Feb. 11, 1915. His father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, was a geologist in India who became the first president of the Indian National Science Academy. His mother, the former Eileen Ambler, joined her husband on the subcontinent shortly after Patrick’s birth, leaving the boy in the care of a farmer’s family in Northamptonshire. (Reunited in adolescence with his mother and older sister, he continued to regard them as “beautiful strangers.”)
Mr. Leigh Fermor grew up willfully independent, unable to adapt for long to any school’s regimen. His headmaster at King’s School, Canterbury, where he was expelled, reportedly for holding hands with the local greengrocer’s daughter, wrote him up as “a dangerous mix of sophistication and recklessness which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.”
After he accepted a knighthood in 2004, an honor he had turned down in 1991, he was known as Sir Patrick. But to his many friends he was Paddy, a man who maintained a zest for life, even into his 90s. “If you think you can match him ouzo for ouzo, on a back street in downtown Athens, you’d better think again,” Anthony Lane wrote in an admiring profile in The New Yorker in 2006.
Mr. Leigh Fermor continued working well into his last years, leaving no immediate survivors; he and his wife had no children.
A planned third book about his youthful travels never appeared, but his biographer Artemis Cooper told the British newspaper The Guardian that Mr. Leigh Fermor had completed a draft, and that it would be published.
Asked to confirm the impending publication, Mr. Philipps responded by e-mail, “I am afraid I cannot confirm this, except to say I very hope it is the case.”
In his eagerness to complete his last book, Mr. Leigh Fermor also accomplished something he had long put off: he taught himself to type.