Tag Archives: Gianni Agnelli

Every Invented Paradise Soon Turns Into Hell

Taki Theodoracopulos has gained a special place in the hearts of British Sunday newspaper readers over the last forty years or so with his gossip columns which mostly concerned his own exploits. More recently he has attracted the ire of your favourite blog readers for his pomposity, his vanity, name-dropping, and his blatant errors in what was some sort of valedictory article soon after Paddy’s death. The debate following my publication of Better a Hero Than a Celebrity got pretty heated; see Getting it Right. But we can’t ignore him, and here he is back again with a further recycling of his only Paddy anecdote, name dropping on the way. Utterly shameless.

by Taki Theodoracopulos

First published in his eponymous magazine, Taki’s Magazine, 22 March 2013.

He was a member of a charmed circle of Hellene and Philhellene intellectuals just before and after World War II, experiencing modern Greece and seeing it as a place rich in beauty and a stimulus to artistic creation. Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose biography by Artemis Cooper I just put away almost in tears—like a magical night with a girl of one’s dreams, I didn’t want it to end, but end it did—was a second Byron in Greek eyes. I found the book unputdownable, as they say in Boise, Idaho, especially the rich descriptions of rambunctious jaunts in tavernas and places where I had spent my youth.

There is always a feeling of imminent loss where Greece is concerned, an anxiety of what is in store, and no one captured it better than the Nobel Prize winner George Seferis—a close friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s—when he wrote:

And yet we knew that by the following dawn

nothing would be left to us, neither the woman drinking sleep at our side

nor the memory that we were once men.

This mood of apprehension, foreboding, and fear of oblivion is very, very Greek. Every invented paradise soon turns into hell, starting with Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. After all, we Greeks invented the “T” word.

The second Greek poet to win the Nobel Prize was Odysseus Elytis, ten years or so after George Seferis. Elytis’s brother was the non-playing captain of the Greek Davis Cup team, and he and I didn’t exactly get along. His name was Alepoudelis—“little fox” in Greek, Elytis being a pseudonym, and he was always trying to buy a used car from me for peanuts. I loathed that petty little man who had not named me in the singles against Spain back in 1964 because I had gone out all night with a queer bullfighter and his entourage. (I was hoping to meet Ava Gardner, a friend of the gay caballero.) Yet when I asked the little fox for an intro to the Nobel Prize winner for literature, he uncharacteristically gave me a glowing one. I met Elytis in Kolonaki, the chic residential section of Athens where we both lived.

At Café Byzantium, the first question I posed was the usual boring and unimaginative question that hacks ask of those whose work they know little about: “What does winning the Nobel mean to you?”

“I’m getting more pussy,” came his answer. I thought it so great I grabbed his hand and kissed it. (The one-sentence interview appeared in a Greek newspaper with glowing letters to the editor following.) We then proceeded to drink ouzo and chat up the girls.

But back to Paddy and his circle of friends. The leading players were the painter Niko Ghika, George Seferis (the “Colossus of Maroussi,” as Henry Miller immortalized him), George Katsimbalis, and our hero Paddy. I only met Ghika and Paddy once—in 1978 or ’79—under unfortunate circumstances. Ghika is Jacob Rothschild’s father-in-law, and his paintings throughout his life have been fresh and clean and pure and naked of all pretense. I was lying at anchor in Corfu on Gianni Agnelli’s boat when my host asked me to go up at the Rothschild villa and ask them down to lunch. Back then it was the only way to communicate, unless the Rothschilds understood Morse code.

I went and ran into a strict nanny-like woman sunning herself on the terrace, asked her if Jacob Rothschild was there and was told he was out, so I left a message that the Agnellis were expecting them for lunch in the bay below. The nanny was not best pleased. In fact she was downright rude, but I don’t do rude from foreigners in my own country, so perhaps I was a tiny bit rude also. (“Listen you old hag, just give them the bloody message.”) Then the Ghikas and the Rothschilds arrived, me never having met any of them before. And they looked rather peeved. The nanny turned out to be Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who had stayed behind.

The atmosphere did not improve after Agnelli asked me to do the introductions—a strange request, as I had not met Paddy or Ghika before. I got them right, of course, but then introduced Jacob’s wife as his mother and his mother as his wife. Had it not been for Paddy’s brilliance (he recited poems and sang and told nonstop stories), the lunch would have been a disaster. Afterwards the Rothschild woman went to the Spectator’s editor, called me scum, and asked that he fire me. She did not get her wish, as well she should not have, because it was a totally honest mistake on my part. Both women were rather plain, and I didn’t know them from Adam, so there.

I started this column with the intention of explaining Paddy’s Greece and why he loved my country so. I got sidestepped with trivia, although Nat Rothschild still laughs at my Corfu story. As publisher John Murray wrote on the dust jacket, “No one wore their learning so playfully,” which in today’s ghastly world of untalented people who hold themselves in high esteem is such a welcome relief from the pompous and self-important. Greece is olive groves and hills covered in pine and myrtle, thorns and cypress trees standing at attention before gray-green mountains that turn yellowish as the sun sets. Henry Miller waxed lyrically on the Greek light. He maintained that the Greek “lived amidst brutal clarities which tormented and maddened the spirit…urging him to war.”

No longer. The EU suits have turned the Greek into an effete, cowardly nonentity who plays along. Achilles is now Antonis, as in Samaras, the prime minister who has sold out the country. While 400 years of Turkish occupation did not snuff out the flame of Greek passion, the Brussels scum have. Goodbye Hellas, hello Belgium.

Related articles:

Better a Hero Than a Celebrity

Getting it right and that Taki article

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.