“At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle.
At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward he was apprenticed to a pirate. To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm, one of the few truly dull entries on his otherwise crackling résumé, which lately included a career as a professional gambler.”
“Count Gottfried von Bismarck, who died on July 2, 2007, aged 44, was a louche German aristocrat with a multi-faceted history as a pleasure-seeking heroin addict, hell-raising alcoholic, flamboyant waster and a reckless and extravagant host of homosexual orgies.
The great-great-grandson of Prince Otto, Germany’s Iron Chancellor and architect of the modern German state, the young von Bismarck showed early promise as a brilliant scholar, but led an exotic life of gilded aimlessness that attracted the attention of the gossip columns from the moment he arrived in Oxford in 1983 and hosted a dinner at which the severed heads of two pigs were placed at either end of the table.
When not clad in the lederhosen of his homeland, he cultivated an air of sophisticated complexity by appearing in women’s clothes, set off by lipstick and fishnet stockings. This aura of dangerous “glamour” charmed a large circle of friends and acquaintances drawn from the jeunesse dorée of the age; many of them knew him at Oxford, where he made friends such as Darius Guppy and Viscount Althorp and became an enthusiastic, rubber-clad member of the Piers Gaveston Society and the drink-fuelled Bullingdon and Loders clubs.”
(The final line of this is a masterpiece of deadpan comedy.)
3. Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld, saboteur and escapist, in The Telegraph and The New York Times
Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld, who has died aged 88, escaped from Occupied France to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE); parachuted back on sabotage missions, he twice faced execution, only to escape on both occasions, once dressed as a Nazi guard. Other disguises also came in useful. On the run in occupied Bordeaux he dressed as a nun. In later life he helped Maurice Papon to flee to Switzerland.
His exploits were legend, involving an eclectic and decidedly resourceful collection of tools in the service of sabotage and escape, including loaves of bread, a stolen limousine, the leg of a table, a bicycle and a nun’s habit, not to mention the more established accouterments of espionage like parachutes, explosives and a submarine.
“Although an unlikely champion powerboater, in October 1971, at the age of 53, Lady Arran followed in the wake of her hero Donald Campbell, racing her speedboat Highland Fling across Windermere in a hailstorm to lift the Class 1 record to 85.63mph. In her next 12 races, contending against all comers, she won three times and was never placed lower than third. In 1979, at the helm of her 26ft powerboat Skean-Dhu, she set a new Class II world record of 93mph.
… few would have guessed that Lady Arran, invariably arriving on any maritime scene in a Colquhoun tartan cap set at a jaunty angle, kept a sizeable menagerie [at their country home]. Wallabies bounced around the pinewoods, while pot-bellied pigs, llamas and alpacas, caged birds (including a macaw which volunteered rude comments on proceedings, and others that uttered further expletives), horses, a fox and assorted dogs completed a bustling scene. The family wore gumboots in the house to fend off their cete (brood) of ankle-nipping badgers.”
“William Donaldson, who died on June 22 aged 70, was described by Kenneth Tynan as ‘an old Wykehamist who ended up as a moderately successful Chelsea pimp’, which was true, though he was also a failed theatrical impresario, a crack-smoking serial adulterer and a writer of autobiographical novels; but it was under the nom de plume Henry Root that he became best known.
Willie Donaldson’s alter ego was a Right-wing nutcase and wet fish merchant from Elm Park Mansions, SW10, who specialised in writing brash, outrageous and frequently abusive letters to eminent public figures, enclosing a one pound note. Donaldson’s genius was to write letters that appeared absurd to the public but not to those to whom they were addressed. The recipients duly replied, often unaware that the joke was on them.”
6. Michel Peissel, explorer, in The Telegraph
Michel Peissel, who has died in Paris aged 74, was an unrivalled adventurer in the Himalayas, where he was among the first Westerners to explore the culture of the ‘minute kingdom’ of Mustang and once travelled for 1,200 miles across mountain peaks by hovercraft.
“Sir Dai Llewellyn, 4th Bt, who died on Tuesday aged 62, became famous as a playboy, bon viveur and darling of the gossip columns, his reputation reflected in soubriquets such as ‘Seducer of the Valleys’, ‘Conquistador of the Canapé Circuit’, ‘Dai “Lock Up Your Daughters” Llewellyn’ or simply ‘Dirty Dai’.
The son and heir of the gold-medal-winning equestrian baronet Sir Harry ‘Foxhunter’ Llewellyn, and brother of Princess Margaret’s one-time paramour Roddy Llewellyn, Dai Llewellyn was celebrated for his serial seductions of ‘It’ girls, models and actresses, his relentless appetite for partying and his outrageous indiscretions.
Good-looking in his youth, with dark Welsh curls, his success with women was famous. He claimed, in his heyday, to be in the habit of going through Queen Charlotte’s Balls ‘like a dose of salts’.”
8. Brian Brindley, cleric, in The Telegraph
“Brian Brindley, who has died aged 69, was a flamboyant Anglo-Catholic canon whose extravagant tastes would have been more easily accommodated in Renaissance Rome than in the postwar Church of England.
Learned, witty and vain, he was for many years one of the great adornments of the General Synod. Indeed, he was probably the most extraordinary-looking clergyman of modern times. He wore his grey curly hair in a style resembling a periwig and dressed in lavish Roman monsignoral attire, including buckled shoes with four-inch heels, which he had painted red.”
At New Year he would dial himself, put himself on the speakerphone, and toast himself in champagne.
10. Giorgio Carbone, Prince Giorgio I of Seborga, in The New York Times
“The true miracle of Seborga may have been the 46-year reign of Prince Giorgio I, the constitutionally elected royal ruler of its five square miles and 2,000 people, about 350 of whom are enfranchised citizens.
Prince Giorgio, a bewhiskered grower of mimosa flowers from a family of mimosa growers, was seized by a glorious vision: that Seborga was not part of the surrounding Italian nation. It was an ancient principality, cruelly robbed of its sovereignty.
After convincing his Seborgan neighbors of their true significance, Giorgio Carbone was elected prince in 1963. He gracefully accepted the informal title of His Tremendousness, and was elected prince for life in 1995 by a vote of 304 to 4. Voters then ratified Seborga’s independence, which, by the prince’s interpretation, it already had.”
By no means glamorous – short and shaven-headed, she affected mannish garb and owlish spectacles, while her winning smile revealed indifferent dentistry – Pam Jennings rewarded her many benefactors with hugs and declarations of adoration: ‘Cuddle, cuddle’ and ‘Love you!’ were chirruped into the night air as she trotted off in search of her next target.
David was educated at Eton, where, according to diarists, his greatest claim to fame was that ‘he was excused wearing shorts owing to a larger-than-life lunch box.’
13. Bill O’Hagan, “pioneer of Britain’s sausage renaissance”, in The Economist
The best sound in the world to Bill O’Hagan was the slow crescendo of sausages sizzling in a pan; the best smell, the charred skins of the same; the best sight, a glistening heaped plateful of the same, with mash; the best taste, a succulent tongue-teasing blend of minced lean pork, rolled oats, fresh eggs, sea-salt, chervil and winter savoury, generously dosed with real ale. He lived for sausages and—a close second—beer, and had the girth and rosy cheeks to prove it. “Sausages? I love ‘em!” he would cry, before the interviewer had asked one question; and twitching aside his striped butcher’s apron he would show, on his own plump anatomy, the best bits of a pig for his purpose.
“While most Tongans favoured relaxed, light clothing suitable to the warm weather, Crown Prince Tupouto’a, as he was then known, was rarely seen in anything but Savile Row suits. His only concession to the climate was a pith helmet. He was also known to affect a monocle.
His grandmother, Queen Salote, had won a place in British hearts at the Coronation in 1953 by smiling while riding in an open carriage through the rain. George Tupou V, however, preferred to travel in a London taxi cab, eventually acquiring two, one of which he converted to run on electricity which he generated with a windmill on the grounds of his residence. The reason for his choice was entirely practical: ‘An English taxi is extremely easy to get in and out of wearing a sword, a spiked helmet or spurs. I realise these are not primary considerations for buying a car for most people but it is for me.’
Away from ceremonial engagements Tupou V, who was unmarried, was reported to enjoy sailing model boats in his swimming pool and playing computer games. He had a sharp and inquiring mind and loved to travel. He also launched a brand of beer called Royal.”
“The 3rd Lord Moynihan, who has died in Manila aged 55, provided, through his character and career, ample ammunition for critics of the hereditary principle.
His chief occupations were bongo-drummer, confidence trickster, brothel-keeper, drug-smuggler and police informer, but ‘Tony’ Moynihan also claimed other areas of expertise - as ‘professional negotiator’, ‘international diplomatic courier’, ‘currency manipulator’ and ‘authority on rock and roll’.
If there was a guiding principle to Moynihan’s life, it was to be found on the wall of his office in Manila, where a brass plaque bore the legend, ‘Of the 36 ways of avoiding disaster, running away is the best.’”
16. Lieutenant-Colonel “Mad” Jack Churchill, soldier, in The Telegraph
“His exploits - charging up beaches dressed only in a kilt and brandishing a dirk, killing with a bow and arrow, playing the bagpipes at moments of extreme peril - and his legendary escapes won him the admiration and devotion of those under his command, who nicknamed him ‘Mad Jack’…
Before landing, Churchill decided to look the part. He wore silver buttons he had acquired in France; carried his bow and arrows and armed himself with a broad-hilted claymore; and led the landing force ashore with his bagpipes…
When not engaged in military operations Jack Churchill was a quiet, unassuming man, though not above astonishing strangers for the fun of it. In his last job he would sometimes stand up on a train journey from London to his home, open the window and hurl out his briefcase, then calmly resume his seat. Fellow passengers looked on aghast, unaware that he had flung the briefcase into his own back garden.”
“Any reasonable observer might have thought Bill Millin was unarmed as he jumped off the landing ramp at Sword Beach, in Normandy, on June 6th 1944. Unlike his colleagues, the pale 21-year-old held no rifle in his hands. Of course, in full Highland rig as he was, he had his trusty skean dhu, his little dirk, tucked in his right sock. But that was soon under three feet of water as he waded ashore, a weary soldier still smelling his own vomit from a night in a close boat on a choppy sea, and whose kilt in the freezing water was floating prettily round him like a ballerina’s skirt.
But Mr Millin was not unarmed; far from it. He held his pipes, high over his head at first to keep them from the wet (for while whisky was said to be good for the bag, salt water wasn’t), then cradled in his arms to play. And bagpipes, by long tradition, counted as instruments of war. An English judge had said so after the Scots’ great defeat at Culloden in 1746; a piper was a fighter like the rest, and his music was his weapon. The whining skirl of the pipes had struck dread into the Germans on the Somme, who had called the kilted pipers ‘Ladies from Hell’. And it raised the hearts and minds of the home side, so much so that when Mr Millin played on June 5th, as the troops left for France past the Isle of Wight and he was standing on the bowsprit just about keeping his balance above the waves getting rougher, the wild cheers of the crowd drowned out the sound of his pipes even to himself.”
(The ending of this one may well make you cry.)