Better a Hero Than a Celebrity

Taki Theodoracopulos

Always a modest man, Taki Theodoracopulos, the great playboy and socialite, is someone who knows everybody, and it is no surprise that he too met Paddy as he recounts in this piece from his online Taki Magazine which humbly describes itself as being about ‘Cocktails, Countesses and Mental Caviar’! I am not sure if Taki gets the irony in the title 🙂 Beware some glaring errors.

First published in Taki Magazine 4 July 2011

I first met Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor in the summer of 1977 in Corfu. I was onboard Gianni Agnelli’s boat, and the charismatic Fiat chairman asked me to go ashore and bring “a very smart Englishman whose ancient Greek is much better than yours.” I knew “Paddy,” as everyone called him, by sight, because among us Greeks he was on a par with our ancient heroes. Leigh Fermor was not only famous for his books on Greece—Mani and Roumeli—he was renowned for his incredible heroics in a guerrilla operation in Crete in May 1944. Having spent two years disguised as a Cretan shepherd in the island’s rough mountains harassing German troops, Paddy dressed as a German police officer and stopped a car carrying General Karl Kreipe, the island commander. Having killed the general’s chauffeur, Leigh Fermor proceeded to wear the general’s hat and managed to bluff his way through Heraklion and 22 subsequent checkpoints. Kreipe was stuffed under the backseat while Leigh Fermor’s bat man and three hefty Greek rebels sat on him. For three weeks the group managed to evade frantic German search parties, finally marching the general over Mount Ida, the mythical post-birth hiding ground of Zeus.

“Heroics aside, Leigh Fermor was often compared to Lord Byron for being both a man of action and learning.”

One moonlit night high up, Fermor was guarding the general when Kreipe, gazing up at the snowy peak, recited the first line of Horace’s ode, Vides ut alta stet nive candidum…—“ You see how [Mount] Soracte stands out white with deep snow.…” Leigh Fermor then continued the poem in perfect Latin until the end. The two men stared at each other, realizing, as Paddy later wrote, that they had “drunk at the same fountain.” The German and the Englishman then made a pact. Kreipe gave his word as an officer that he would not try and escape; in return, Leigh Fermor never turned Kreipe over to the firing squad.

What follows came straight from Paddy to me in Corfu. Six months after Kreipe’s kidnapping, Leigh Fermor landed yet again on the island to celebrate its liberation. He was taken behind Heraklion’s main square, where the general who succeeded Kreipe was about to be shot. Paddy was aghast because the German was cool as ice and when Paddy introduced himself, the condemned said: “Ah, Leigh Fermor, you were lucky. Kreipe was an intellectual, a softie; I would have killed you on the spot.” When Paddy asked him if there was anything he could do for him, the German asked for one last cigarette, thanked him, smoked it while inhaling rather deeply, then said goodbye and went off and got shot ramrod-straight.

Heroics aside, Leigh Fermor was often compared to Lord Byron for being both a man of action and learning. His very good friend, Robert Byron (no relation), was a travel writer who greatly influenced Paddy, whose most celebrated book, A Time of Gifts, told the story of his walk across Europe from Rotterdam to Constantinople at age 18. Leigh Fermor continued writing travel books, and they stood out for rendering the past visible, for their evocation of youthful exuberance, and for the joy one felt reading them. He was a very good-looking man, an Anglo-Irishman whose adventures in Crete were made into a film back in 1957, Ill Met by Moonlight. The irony was that he was played by Dirk Bogarde, an outrageous homosexual whose greatest talent was spreading terrible rumors about others.

Leigh Fermor was 96 when he died but lived vigorously until the end. Three years ago his correspondence with the last surviving Mitford Girl, Deborah, dowager Duchess of Devonshire, was published to great acclaim. What a cast of characters in that book. Norman Douglas—another great influence—Steven Runciman, Osbert Lancaster, Cyril Connolly, Bruce Chatwin, and many others rich and famous and literate. Paddy was a hell of a ladies’ man, although he married only once—to Joan Rayner, who was his close and understanding companion until her death in 2003. The word ‘understanding’ is key. He also wrote the script for John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven, a vastly underrated film in which Errol Flynn made a comeback by playing a has-been of sorts, a character Flynn repeated successfully to the end.

One of Leigh Fermor’s great regrets was that while cleaning his weapon in the mountains of Crete it accidentally went off and killed his trusted guide. He told George Seferis, Greece’s first Nobel Prize winner for Literature, that this death was probably his life’s lowest point.

Leigh Fermor and his wife designed and built a beautiful but very simple house in Kardamyli, deep in the Peloponnese and overlooking the sea, and they lived there for most of his adult life. I was lucky to have met him, and now that I am of a certain age I realize how much better it must have been to have lived during heroic times—no matter whose side one was on—than today’s empty, horrible celebrity culture. Paddy, Rest in Peace.

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10 thoughts on “Better a Hero Than a Celebrity

  1. Pingback: Every Invented Paradise Soon Turns Into Hell | Patrick Leigh Fermor

  2. Pingback: Getting it right and that Taki article « Patrick Leigh Fermor

  3. tim

    Inaccurate accounts of historical events, for personal vanity, or a film-makers preference for ‘a story’ over fact, infuriate me. This is especially so when such accounts may subsequently become part of history for those without inquiring minds. Last week saw the release of a new video by National Geographic half of which was about the abduction of Kreipe. It is appallingly bad and inaccuracies abound. I am so glad that some colleagues of mine and I, who know a thing or two (but not all) about the abduction, rejected the film makers request to assist them for it has turned out every bit as bad as we feared. Having read some of Paddy’s comments about Ill Met By Moonlight, I can imagine what he might of thought of the latest misrepresentation.

    Reply
  4. George

    The only readable part of Taki’s remembrance (sic ) is the last sentence, horrible in its clarity and even worse that it is written by someone whose trotters are deep in that particular trough.

    His comments however, are an excellent example of the sponger’s wiles. The mildly mocking comment by Agnelli, humbly repeated to establish the writer’s honesty, while at the same time making it clear that the writer enjoys the same societal position.

    Then the personal revelations as told uniquely to Taki, and no other. Who is to say it did not happen? Taki’s favourite method of asserting inside knowledge always has been to quote the ‘ confidences ‘ of dead people.

    The lustrously depicted tale of an unrepentant Nazi Offizier going blithely to his death comes straight out of ‘Boys Own ‘.

    Next we have the gay bitchiness in his description of PLF’s relationship with his wife. Once again the vampire straddles an innocent’s grave seeking the lifeblood of fame by association.

    Chris Lawson ( thank you ) marshaled all the necessary facts to give the lie to Taki’s comments. He was probably as irked by them as I was.

    Reply
  5. Chris Lawson

    On the General who succeeded Kreipe, and two predecessors

    The Commandant of Crete, appointed on 1 May 1944 after Kreipe’s kidnapping, was Generalleutnant Helmut Friebe, Commander of the LXIV Armeekorps. He was captured by the Americans in May 1945 and released in 1947.

    Two former commanders of Crete were tried and executed in Athens on 20 May 1947, the anniversary of the German invasion of Crete. One was the bloodsoaked Friedrich-Wilhelm Mueller, who was to have been the original target for the kidnapping until he was replaced by Kreipe. Mueller had a reputation for brutality and numerous atrocities were committed under his regime.

    The other was General Bruno Bauer, a paratroop officer, who was appointed in 1942, replacing General Alexander Andrae. Bauer had gained the reputation of being hard and fair, and the “most humane commander” of Crete. Antony Beevor describes him as truly unfortunate, as he was executed for crimes “committed under another general”. Three years later the Association of Former German Paratroopers requested that his remains be returned to Crete. George Psychoundakis, resistance fighter and author of the Cretan Runner (already much-mentioned by Tom), reburied his remains.

    Taki’s fourth paragraph is a complete fantasy.

    Reply
  6. tim

    That Taki could be so fundamentally wrong about the death of Albert Fenske, Kreipe’s driver, tells me much about the appropriately named Taki.
    I believe that Fenske’s death, at the hands of two of his Cretan andartes and contrary to instructions, caused Paddy no end of personal grief, perhaps second only to the accidental shooting of his Cretan friend. I once listened to Paddy talk about this latter incident when, in the mountains after a cadet’s exercise, he failed to check his rifle before cleaning it when it was returned to him. I have to tell you he was still mortified by the whole business and sixty odd years on he was still visibly upset by it. Tom our webmaster and I, know from the best of sources that Fenske’s death was much regretted by Paddy. My own feeling is that but for that we might have seen Paddy’s own account of the abduction published.
    I am thoroughly disappointed that anyone claiming to know the man would dare suggest Fenske died at Paddy’s hand. Paddy, perhaps the most honourable man I have ever met, would though have accepted responsibility for anything that may have happened under his command. He was that sort of man.
    It is perhaps as well that Tom has published Taki’s piece for it provides an opportunity to compare the two and set the record straight.
    I am pleased to say that, through Annette Windgass, Fenske’s family have recently been made aware of Paddy’s great sadness of that particular outcome of the operation.

    Reply
  7. Chris Lawson

    Fine by me. Of course it was not an error posting it and I agree entirely and whole-heartedly about what you say about censorship. Yes, Taki certainly has a place in the cultural pantheon de nos jours, and my thoughts are just the latest in a stream of negative comments directed at the former inmate of H.M. prisons. Whatever else one has to say about the gent, he is certainly one of life’s great survivors.

    Reply
  8. Chris Lawson

    Known to the cognoscenti as Taki Takealotofcokeupthenose, Theodoracopulos is a man for whom the word “snob” might have been invented. Note the casual dropping of Agnelli’s name into his piece and Taki’s snide comments on Dirk Bogarde. It is NOT true that Paddy killed the driver of Kreipe’s car. Apart from the story of the execution of Kreipe’s successor (Name, details of crimes? Doesn’t mean Kreipe’s predecessor?), this brings nothing new to the saga of Paddy’s life. I would respectfully request that you remove the piece.

    Reply
    1. proverbs6to10 Post author

      No Chris – I don’t do censorship. Your comment can stand as a beacon to my error in posting it. However, Taki has a place in society over the last 50 years and this blog is a respository about Paddy. It stays.

      Reply

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