Hanging Out with the Churchills on Aristotle Onassis’s Yacht

A letter excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters.

By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Published in The Paris Review
December 8, 2017

To Ann Fleming
c/o Niko Ghika
Hydra

18 September 1954

Darling Annie,

Very many apologies indeed from both of us (1) for neither having answered your lovely long letter, full of exactly the sort of thing one wants to hear—it was a masterpiece, and by far the best of any ex-Hydriot so far; and (2) for being such laggards in saying ‘thank you’ for The Dynasts. It really was kind of you to remember it. Joan is now in the thick of the first vol.—the second, which is reprinting, will follow soon, your bookseller says. It arrived just as we were about to run out of books. That green detective one, The Gilded Fly, which vanished so mysteriously, miraculously materialized on the hall table yesterday!

You were missed a great deal by everyone, including the servants, who still talk affectionately of Kyria Anna. Soon after you went, I got a letter from Kisty Hesketh, introducing her brother called Rory McEwen and a pal called Mr Vyner. You probably know the former, v. good looking, and a champion guitar player it seems, and probably very nice. They both seemed wet beyond words to us, without a spark of life or curiosity, and such a total lack of conversation that each subject died after a minute’s existence. We had sixty subjects killed under us in an hour, till at last even Maurice and I were reduced to silence. Joan did her best, but most understandably subsided into a bored scowl after the first few hours.

We heaved a sigh when they vanished after two days that had seemed like a fortnight … Your fortnight, I must say, passed with the speed of a weekend. Joan saw Maurice off in Athens, another sad wrench.

Diana, JJ and Anne finally turned up on the 2nd September. The last two left four days ago and D. is still here. They were not nearly such a handful as we feared, in fact very nice and easy and resourceful, Anne painting away industriously, or wandering off independently with JJ, who gave us lots of splendid guitar playing—always stopping in time & not boring at all. I think they enjoyed it very much. Diana, who is in your old room, seems as happy as she is anywhere now, and is very easy and unfussy, enjoying everything, loos, odd food, garlic, ouzo, retsina, etc., mooching about in the port, darting off to Athens, once to see Susan Mary Patten off a caïque (but she wasn’t there), once to see the Norwiches off, returning both times laden with Embassy whisky and so on, which was gratefully lapped up. We had a very entertaining old Greek friend for last weekend, Tanty Rodocanachi, which was a great success, lots of funny stories and old world gallantry … But Diana’s presence proved a magnet for other yachts, first of all Arturo Lopez in a very sodomitical-looking craft, done up inside like the Brighton Pavilion, a mandarin’s opium den and the alcove of Madame de Pompadour. Chips was on board, le Baron Redé, a horrible French count called Castéja [Lopez-Willshaw’s son-in-law] and a few other people who looked unmitigated hell, but I didn’t quite manage to take them in during our two hours on board. We all felt a bit bumpkin-ish as we clutched our weighty cut-glass whisky goblets and perched on the edge of satin sofas. We were put down at the little restaurant down the hill, to the wonder of the assembled crowds; and the Balkan dark swallowed us up. They were off for the Cyclades and Beirut.

But this was nothing compared to five days ago, when a giant steam yacht (with an aeroplane poised for flight on the stern) belonging to Onassis came throbbing alongside. It was followed by an immense three-masted wonder ship with silk sails, miles of corridor, dozens of Impressionist paintings, baths to every cabin and regiments of stewards, belonging to his brother-in-law, Niarchos. They have made 400 million quid between the two of them, and own, after England, USA and Sweden, the largest merchant fleet in the world, all under Panamanian flags; and all, it seems, acquired in fifteen years. We only saw Niarchos, who is young, rather good looking, very drunk and tousled, not bad really. On board were Lilia Ralli, several blondes, a few of the zombie-men that always surround the immensely rich, Pam Churchill & Winston Jr. Sailing beside it was another three-masted yacht, gigantic by ordinary standards, but by comparison the sort of thing one sees inside bottles in seaside pubs. This was also Niarchos’s, a sort of annexe for overflow, soi-disant, lent to Lord Warwick, though he is plainly some kind of stooge. He looked like a Neapolitan hairdresser run to fat. We did a certain amount of drinking and social chat on the big one (spurning Lord Warwick’s cockleshell) and wandered through labyrinthine corridors gaping at the fittings. I gathered from Pam C. next morning—the focus of all eyes on the quay in pink shorts, gilt sandals and a-clank with gems—that it’s pretty good hell aboard: no sort of connecting link between all the guests, disjointed conversation, heavy banter, sumptuous but straggling meals at all hours, nobody knowing what is a test. Diana, Tanty, and the Norwiches got a lift in this to Athens (D. returning next day), and Joan and I trudged up to fried salt cod and lentils and garlic. We learnt on Diana’s return that the massed blast of our five breaths nearly blew the whole party overboard. There is something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich. What I want to know is: why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?

Modiano’s Cyprus article was the best I have seen so far. After you left Athens, I accompanied the whole of the demonstration: oaths in front of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb, the burning of the Cyprus sedition proclamation, also of bundles of Union Jacks, cries of ‘Down with the English! Down with the Barbarians!’, then, from the steps of the University, an awful incendiary speech from the Rector that overstated the case so much (he ended with an undying curse and anathema to the English!) that nearly all the sensible Greeks feel ashamed. What a bore it is, and so foolishly unnecessary. Niko G[hika] comes back next week, but may not be able to stay on, as he is a lecturer in Athens. Joan returns sooner than me, so I’m going to keep my teeth into Hydra till the last possible moment. In spite of all the goings on, I’ve managed to keep on scribbling. I hate the idea of another uprooting and would like to stay till winter starts. Thanks again, dearest Annie, for The Dynasts, and do please write another London newsletter! Lots of love from Joan and Diana, also to Ian, and from me. All wish you were here.

Love
Paddy

Excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, selected and edited by Adam Sisman © 1940–2010 by the Estate of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Courtesy The New York Review Books.

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3 thoughts on “Hanging Out with the Churchills on Aristotle Onassis’s Yacht

  1. Southwing Fine Books

    I think Ann Fleming’s original letter to which this is a reply appears in The Letters of Ann Fleming, edited by Mark Amory, Collins Harvill, London, 1985, pp. 140–142.

    Reply
  2. etrading

    I recommend Mary Lovell’s Riviera Set for background on the various 30s society characters round the South of France and the Med: the Churchills, Mitfords, Onassis and many of the usual suspects.

    Reply

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