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.