By John Helmer, Moscow
Patrick Leigh Fermor (d. June 11, 2011) was to travelogues what Christopher Hitchens (d. December 15, 2011) was to journalism – a race to show off. Veracity was always a scratching if verisimilitude would run better – and if serious money was at stake. Heiresses made the best mounts, and once in the saddle, Leigh Fermor’s grip, compared to Hitchens’s, was the firmer; though their prolix charm had the same finishing line. Leigh Fermor, according to Somerset Maugham, was “a middle class gigolo for upper class women”.
Between the legs of princesses there may not be much a British hero can learn that he can’t acquire by galloping his horse and discharging his weapon at common or garden beasts – pheasants, rabbits, foxes, and Transylvanian crayfishes. Leigh Fermor did all of that. But in spite, or perhaps because of, his entire five-year war against the Germans, he fired only once, killing Yannis Tsangarakis, a Cretan member of the partisan unit Leigh Fermor, a junior officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), was supposed to be leading. The shooting is now accepted as an accident.
Sixty-eight years later, Leigh Fermor died in a viscountess’s bed, knighted, and appointed by newspapers whose proprietors’ wives he knew well, to be a paragon of writing style in the English language. When the British King George VI presented Leigh Fermor with a medal for his military service in Crete, he asked him: “so where did you get that then?” The king, a naval officer by profession, might have asked why. Either way Fermor didn’t reply. The biography he authorized about himself has just appeared in London – it doesn’t answer why either.
The authoress is Artemis Cooper, who is the daughter and grand-daughter of two of Leigh Fermor’s playmates; their titles were gifts from Buckingham Palace for contributions to the Conservative Party and the Foreign Office. Her paternal inheritance down the 622-year line of the dukes and earls of Rutland stands up less well genetically than it does legally. But that armours her to write equably of Leigh Fermor’s crabs, multisexuality, “guilty excursions”, “sleazier pleasures of the night”, marital celibacy, and “no sexual jealousy”.
There is one tell-tale detail about Russians in the Leigh Fermor biography not appreciated before– and one large lesson about where British heroes like Leigh Fermor, plus his fans, think civilizing virtue comes from in Europe, after they’ve judged Russians to be the barbarians of the continent; that’s counting the Turks as civilized, and excepting Russian aristos who survived the 1917 revolution.
The detail is reported by Cooper as a partisan operation in western Crete in which Russians participated, and at least one was killed. This was weeks after Leigh Fermor’s commando (without Russian members) had captured the German general in command on the island, Heinrich Kreipe. Leigh Fermor’s action on April 26, 1944, has been the making of his hero’s reputation ever since; he didn’t do much else. That the operation was opposed by some of Leigh Fermor’s superiors, and cost in German retaliation dozens of Cretan lives is reported, but justified by Cooper. That Greek and Cretan assessments are also highly critical is also mentioned. But that Leigh Fermor saved Kreipe, a fellow reciter of Horace’s odes, from execution for war crimes by post-war Greek courts is passed over. Leigh Fermor’s classified SOE record minimized the Kreipe operation. “Too much is made of too little”, he wrote in the file. But once back in London Leigh Fermor began exaggerating the exploit to promote himself in the press.
In August of 1944 who are the “large numbers of Russian POWs” whom Cooper reports as having been on Crete at the time of the Kreipe operation? Six of them were reportedly part of a partisan unit commanded by SOE Captain William Moss, which ambushed a German column, killing about 50 Germans and taking 15 prisoners. Apart from Moss’s report of this operation, which Cooper has repeated, no Russian or allied army source can confirm there were Russian soldiers as prisoners of the Germans on Crete at the time. Leigh Fermor’s SOE reports don’t mention them.
Moss is dead, and so are the rest of SOE’s Crete specialists. British experts acknowledge that no Russian contribution to the guerrilla war against the Germans on Crete has been reported by anyone, except for Moss. The Russian histories of German war crimes against Soviet Army soldiers and prisoners of war don’t mention “large numbers of Russian POWs” doing forced labour in Crete. A history of the Greek communist resistance army ELAS by its general, Stefanos Sarafis, mentions there had been Russians in ELAS units, and that “they had come to us as prisoners-of-war or deserters from the German Army”.
The Russians on Crete are mentioned, because they are the only ones in Cooper’s version of the Leigh Fermor story which identifies the role of the Soviet Union against Germany in World War II. To see Leigh Fermor scribbling away in his notebooks and letters from the pre-war period, in his reports as a British government spy and propagandist in Greece ahead of the civil war, and in Cyprus during the Enosis movement to oust the British colonial administration, the one enemy Leigh Fermor was devoted to defeating was Russian, aka Soviet. Their machinations are castigated by Leigh Fermor in central Europe during Hitler’s rise to power; they pervert Leigh Fermor’s schoolboy peers, as he saw them, into supporting republican Spain in that civil war; they are the cause of the disunity of the partisan campaigns on Crete and of the Greek civil war that followed. They are responsible for the evictions of Leigh Fermor’s titled friends in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.
This is likely to be what a man thinks who spent sick leave in Cairo drinking champagne from cases schlepped to parties by Egyptian King Farouk, and who got the Crown Prince of Greece, the proto-fascist Prince Peter, to cut up his filet mignon because Leigh Fermor’s right arm was temporarily paralysed. Not even Leigh Fermor’s intelligence directorate could stomach Peter Glucksburg, because he risked ruining Winston Churchill’s strategy to restore his father, King George II, to the Greek throne. But that is a context which Leigh Fermor was too uncurious to consider at the time. Or else he was too busy having fun. In the declassified SOE file, Leigh Fermor’s superiors recorded “the lack of discipline” and the party stories “unutterable trash”.
Immediately after the war Leigh Fermor thought they might sell in print; today so do Cooper and their common publisher, John Murray. There is much more partying than politics in Cooper’s story of Leigh Fermor’s life, and that’s because his entire orientation was the defence of those regimes in Europe which had supplied him with hospitality, expensive japes, celebrity, and a sense of self-esteem based on familiarity with “an ancient lineage that he found irresistible”.
The lesson, according to Cooper, started in Vienna in February 1934, when it just so happened that Leigh Fermor and Kim Philby were both in the city as the Austrian dictator, Engelbert Dolfuss , ordered artillery and troops into destroying the apartment buildings of protesting unions and socialist party groups. The civil war between Dolfuss’s units and the Austrian left lasted 15 days; at least a thousand people were killed. At the time, Leigh Fermor was making small change hawking pencil portraits from one wealthy Viennese household to another. In 1963, in an unpublished notebook entry, Cooper reports him as feeling “maddened by not having seen, written, looked, heard—but it’s no good pretending”.
Philby meantime managed to combine bedding Litzi Friedmann with motorbike deliveries of ammunition and supplies to beleaguered resisters in the city. He married Friedmann on February 24, obtaining an extra British passport for her, evacuated the two of them to London, and started work as a Soviet spy.
Leigh Fermor and Philby met face to face in London in 1937 when the former was on the staff of a book review journal described by Cooper as “right wing”. The only thing Leigh Fermor remembered about the get-together was what Philby was wearing – a tweed jacket with leather patches on the sleeves – a not insignificant indicator of Leigh Fermor’s taste and attention span at the time. His one bylined piece of writing from the time was “an urgent warning against the perils of totalitarianism”.
Make that the Soviet Union, for in Cooper’s analysis, “Paddy had been too well inoculated by his years in eastern Europe to trust the Left’s position, which presented the [Spanish] civil war as a definitive choice between good and evil.” As the man whose prose then and later is stylistically among the most complex of his peers, this is cartoon stuff. Leigh Fermor “never liked political intellectuals”; his preference – in addition to the Romanian princess with whom he was living in Earl’s Court — was a titled blonde who “attracted the sort of men she despised”, and whose family owned a castle in Ireland where Leigh Fermor was a regular guest.
The Soviet Union and Russian communism were to Leigh Fermor destructive “of everything he loved about European civilization in order to build their aggressively utilitarian, industrial superstates. Yet it was the experience of living with the [prince and princess] Cantacuzenes on the eastern edge of Rumania and the visit to Bessarabia that, to his own words, ‘inoculated me against Communism.’” When his girlfriend, Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, went out on her estate, Cooper reports and Leigh Fermor must have seen, “peasants would go down on one knee and kiss her hand.” Here’s one upright holding Leigh Fermor’s bridle.
According to Cooper, he “always regretted giving up the knight’s-eye view he had from a horse”.
Russians contemplating despatching their boy children to English private schools, installing themselves and their retinues in London or country mansions, and inviting titled company to their parties and their company boards are just as likely to portray their point of view as “knight’s-eye”: for them Leigh Fermor is just the ticket. In the once secret citation by the SOE for the medal he was given by the king, it is revealed that Leigh Fermor’s mission in Crete was to “take charge of our revolutionary and espionage services.” With hindsight, make that counter-revolutionary.
There is one last tell-tale detail when Leigh Fermor stumbles over the Russian language. In a 1959 letter to his wife, thanking her for proposing to spend her brand-new £6 million inheritance on building a house for the two of them in Greece, Leigh Fermor writes: “I can’t tell you what a difference it makes, and will make, blowing away dozens of guilty, nagging and haunting worries, all utterly my fault through neglect, idleness and oblomovstochina. (That’s the word. I asked Isaiah Berlin.)”
Yes, Leigh Fermor claims to be suffering from that fictional Russian nobleman’s famous malaise. Only the credit for the term is borrowed from the titled refugee from the Soviet Union. The borrowing is also careless, since the English transcription for Обломовщина is oblomovshchina. Leigh Fermor was writing a letter. Cooper didn’t check the spelling.
Note: Artemis Cooper’s book is being sold by Leigh Fermor’s publisher, John Murray of London. Access to Leigh Fermor, his wife, friends and papers was assured by the undertakings that are summarized on the publisher’s website where the book is termed “the authorized biography”. Next off the assembly line is Cooper’s reconstruction of the third volume of Leigh Fermor’s 1933-34 travelogue; for years he tried to finish it himself, but couldn’t. The publisher’s marketing campaign for Cooper’s version of Leigh Fermor can be found here. That the “fanastic review [by Robert Macfarlane in The Guardian]” might require a fair-trading disclosure is revealed by Private Eye, whose Christmas edition reports this “logrolling” (racketeering): “Anthony Beevor called Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways ‘a fascinating meditation’ and ‘perhaps the most beautifully written book this year’. Almost side by side with this puff …Macfarlane hailed Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Beevor’s wife Artemis Cooper , as ‘a triumph of tact and sympathy.’” Cooper is also conducting guided tours of London real estate where Leigh Fermor bedded and partied, and vice versa. Investors may earn a premium if they beat the PR machine to the address.