Friday, 22 November 2013

Margaret Thatcher’s years in the dating trenches

23 years ago today, on November 22, 1990 Mrs Thatcher resigned. Daniel Hannan says that some of his colleague still refer bleakly to the anti-Thatcher Tory MPs as "the November criminals". 

While the details of how she was betrayed are doing the rounds, I'd like to unveil the romantic side of Thatcher, which may sound a contradiction in terms.  

She always said that there had been no man before Dennis, ‘that’s because in those days women had to guard their reputation very carefully’, said Charles Moore at a talk he gave at  Waterstones, High Street Kensington. This was part of the London History Festival, and Charles Moore was interviewed by Paul Lay on November 18th, who took the conversation deeper into Lady Thatcher’s husband hunting. 

Dennis was not her first love interest – my ears could scarcely believe it – when I heard that the young Miss Roberts had ‘various boyfriends’ and some real disappointments in the dating scene. Moore stressed that, ‘she needed a husband who understood her ambition’, and 'she would be seen through the prism of her husband'.

While Mrs Thatcher was keen that her travails as a singleton be veiled from public view, she did actually write the accounts of her dates and suitors – in her  letters to her sister Muriel.  Muriel entrusted Charles Moore with the stash of 150 letters. 

The missives detail a ‘complicated’ relationship that Miss Roberts had with a boyfriend while at Oxford University, but which came to nothing. 

The dynamic medic, Dr Robert Henderson held the attention of the young Miss Roberts, because he was a very skilled scientist who had developed the iron lung. She considered that being the wife of a notable doctor might be the right background for her rising star.  

But Henderson was twice her age, and when she was 24, he was 48. Knowing the long years of climbing to power that lay ahead, the then Miss Roberts knew that the age gap could become unbearable. So, she did not develop this dalliance. Had they married, he would have been 75 when Thatcher defeated Heath to become Leader of the Opposition in 1975. And he would have been an octogenarian in her first year as prime minister. 

Most amusing is the case of the 35 year-old Scottish farmer in Colchester who pursued her relentlessly, until she agreed to go to dinner with him. At the meal, he laid out all his credentials, including the fact that his farm was worth a small fortune (two million in today’s money). But she was not impressed that he gave a measly nine penny tip to the waiter. Remarking wryly on the evening to Muriel, the young Margaret said, ‘I’d rather like to see his farm as a matter of interest’. Knowing that he was not for her, the young Margaret introduced the farmer to Muriel, who was much more open to being a farmer’s wife, and later the two were married. 

Miss Robert’s first impression of Dennis Thatcher were not exactly the stuff of Mills and Boon, he was not a heart-throb. She described him as, ‘not a very attractive creature’ who had ‘plenty of money’. On that faithful night that he gave her a lift into London, he was candid that he didn’t like mixing with people and was timid. He had been married before, to another Margaret but his first wife had run off with a Baronet. 

In their very first meeting, the seeds of their lifelong relationship were sown – he would be the one to stand back, while she led, and he would be the one to encourage her without envying her success. 

You can read about her romantic escapades in much more detail in Charles Moore's biography Volume One: Not For Turning.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Celebrated comedy writer Tom Leopold on his conversion to Catholicism: “I began to identify with Our Lady..."

"I am a fan, but not a mad fan,” I assure Tom Leopold when we meet for coffee on a foggy day in west London. Leopold is a renowned comedy writer who wrote sketches for Bob Hope and worked on Seinfeld, Cheers and Will and Grace, to name but a few items on his long list of credits. At Easter 2011, he converted to Catholicism, and he describes his journey to the Church in his one-man show “A Comedy Writer Finds God”. Currently he is in London for a six-week stint as a writer on The Kumars, a comedy series about an Indian family in Britain.

Seinfeld Episode, The Suicide, written by Leopold
Years ago I got hooked on Leopold’s comedy during a dark winter when I was pulling a suicidal friend out of a depression. I kept myself upbeat by repeatedly watching some of the scenes that Leopold wrote for Seinfeld. Some years ago I began praying for him, as a form of gratitude of the spiritual kind because he had developed his talent for comedy.

It feels slightly dreamlike to meet Leopold in the flesh. When I say I’m glad to meet him, he says, “the honour is mine” and remarks that “writing for The Catholic Herald must be great. After all, you’re writing about the Boss…” He points a finger upwards to heaven and chuckles softly. Leopold is dressed in a Paddington Bear style, with a blue wool coat, along with trainers. His face is topped by a cap of grey hair, and he has animated green eyes, framed by thick rimmed glasses.

For someone who is so accomplished, he is both very down-to-earth and incredibly lively. With zealous delight, he recounts his life story. He was the second of four boys born to Jewish parents in Miami. But he says he never made his Bar Mitzvah. “My parents were not religious in the least,” he explains. “The Oscars was the focal point of their year. Watching it was like their sacramental experience.”

While his parents were not observant Jews, they were very proud of their ethnicity. Leopold tells “a true account that is a family legend”. His father became a shoe salesman after fighting in World War II. One day he was serving a man, but could not find the right shoe size. The man berated him and called him “a dirty Jew”. Upon hearing the insult, Leopold’s father threw the man through the window.

In his 20s Leopold developed a successful comedy writing career. He revelled in the single man’s life, enjoying cocktails by the pool of the Playboy Mansion with Sammy Davis Jr and believing he

would remain a confirmed bachelor. Then he suddenly fell madly in love with the woman who later became his wife when he met her on a blind date. He told her he was surprised by how much he wanted to marry, to which she replied: “Who is asking you?”

They’ve been married for more than 26 years now, and have two daughters, Olivia, 21, and Augusta, 18. Augusta, who is known as Gussie, has been afflicted by anorexia since she was 12. I ask Leopold if there was any traumatic life event that led to her illness, but he sighs and says regretfully: “Anorexia runs in my family. I had it a bit when I was a teenager, which is rare for boys. My mother has had it. We call her ‘the oldest living anorexic in the world’.”

Leopold’s voice becomes thick with tears when he explains that his faith grew out of the experience of his daughter’s illness. “We nearly lost her several times,” he says. “Watching your child suffer is worse than suffering yourself.”
Leopold’s first spark of faith happened some years ago in a curious place: Radio City Music Hall in New York. He took his family to see the Christmas show and they had a “corny” Nativity show. While he watched the actors play the Holy Family, Gussie cuddled up to him and he felt a spasm of sorrow that she had become so terrifyingly skeletal. “I began to identify with Our Lady as a mother, that she had to suffer through her Child dying on the Cross. I had this incredibly powerful realisation where I saw the connection between me and my little girl, and Our Lady and her Son Jesus.”

A few weeks later he wandered by accident into a cinema that was showing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. “What really got me was Jim Caviezel, playing Jesus, in the tomb,” he recalls. “He is like a runner, down on all fours, waiting for the gun to fire. It’s the Resurrection, and his body is completely recovered. He bolts out of the frame and we see Jesus has triumphed over death. It blew me away. But I still was not thinking of faith or religion.”
Briefly touching on Mel Gibson, Leopold jokes charitably: “Mel has a lot of issues. He took a few too many blows to the head during Braveheart.”

Leopold’s daughter was becoming even more seriously ill and they took her to four hospitals for treatment, but without success. So, they set off for a hospital in Arizona, which had a strong Christian ethos and also offered horse-riding therapy. As part of the therapy they had to agree not to see Gussie for four months. But when she got a tiny bit better they were allowed a brief visit at Christmas.

The night before the visit Leopold was lying in bed in agony, “feeling like I was going to break in half. And for the very first time in my life, I actually prayed. And said to God:
I can’t make it on my own. If you are up there, give me a sign. Please help me!’ But the only times in my life that I had seen people pray were in movies, and I felt as though I was praying like the cowboys in the old Westerns.”

The next morning they got up early and strolled in the desert, looking at the stars. A man pulled up on a motorbike. Leopold demonstrates his ability for writing vivid sketches when he describes him as “a tough, leathery ex-Marine, who made Clint Eastwood look like John Inman from Are You Being Served? He had pieced together his own motorbike and used deer antlers for handles.”
Remembering this sudden encounter causes Leopold’s face to shine with amazement. “Straightaway he started talking in a monologue, telling me that his wife, Shepherd, had brought him to Jesus at the age of 33. ‘You know what I’m talking about,’ the man said, looking straight at me. The sun came up behind this man, like a halo, and he repeated over and over: ‘God is watching you.’ Then he left.”

Leopold felt that his prayer had been answered. The chance encounter had boosted his morale. When he visited his daughter at the hospital he saw Christianity in action, because “the staff were genuinely Christian. They were so kind and loving.”

They left their daughter in Arizona and travelled home to New York. One night Leopold met his best friend, David Letterman’s musical director Paul Shaffer, who has been a rock during the stormy times. They were walking down Madison Avenue when a black homeless man in his 30s approached Leopold. He invited the man for a sandwich, only to find the deli was closed. After he was given some dollars to buy food, the homeless man said: “God bless you, Tom.” Leopold was astounded because at no point in the conversation had the man learned that Tom was his name or that he was seeking God. Leopold tried to catch up with the man, but lost him and never saw him again. 

Commenting on the biker in the desert and the homeless man, Leopold says: “I’m not saying that theses incidences were miracles, but they were enough to shake me. I don’t refer to them as coincidences anymore.”

Perhaps the most astonishing occurrence was how he met Fr Jonathan Morris. Leopold saw him on television, learned that he had been an adviser on The Passion of the Christ and bought his book, The Promise. Soon after, Leopold was walking down Mulberry Street when he saw Fr Morris get out of a car right in front of him. The priest had just been transferred from the Vatican to St Patrick’s Old Cathedral, near Leopold’s home. The two men came face to face for the first time, and Leopold summoned up the courage to introduce himself and ask for spiritual direction.

After getting to know Fr Morris, Leopold says in a relieved voice, “for the first time in years I felt like I was home, that I had come out of the storm.”
Why did the priest have such a profound influence on him? “Fr Jonathan had this quality about him, that he was so in love with Jesus, that it wasn’t like a belief, but about Someone who was real,” Leopold explains.

The kernel of the faith that ultimately convinced Leopold was that after Jesus returned to heaven the Apostles risked their lives to spread the Gospel. “They were marked men, but they never stopped, even when faced with the prospect of being crucified upside down.”

I ask Leopold if he has any regrets about leaving Judaism. “I can’t understand why it’s not more natural for other Jews,” he says. “It just seems like the next step. That’s why I never had any trouble becoming Catholic. I think that had I been around at time of Jesus that I would have dropped my net, and become a disciple.”

Nowadays Leopold regularly bumps into Jim Caviezel, “the best movie Jesus”, in the Catholic churches of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

There’s been a lot of change in the Catholic world in the last year, and I ask Leopold how he finds Pope Francis, to which he exclaims: “Most hip pope ever!”
Of Benedict XVI, Leopold says: “Pope Benedict had a hard act to follow. It was like going on after Sinatra. But Benedict was a meat and potatoes pope who was right for his time.”

Turning the conversation back to Gussie, I ask how she is. “She’s doing much better now,” he says.  I admit to Leopold that, as I am not a mother, I don’t have a deep understanding of his trials. But I am certain that Leopold’s Catholic faith ultimately grew from his role as a dad, and that his conversion is a fruit of his fatherhood.

It is fitting that St Joseph is his patron saint. “The reason that I chose St Joseph as my patron saint was because he was the greatest father figure,” Leopold says. “His wife gave birth to God, and he raised the Child. There can’t be a better father than that!”

You might like to read a fuller account of the years that I was praying for Tom Leopold.

This interview appears in the November 15th edition of The Catholic Herald

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

As bishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis didn't make his own priests wait

In October, Pope Francis performed his first Episcopal ordinations. In his sermon, Francis urged the newly consecrated archbishops, to "always respond immediately when a priest calls... Never let a priest wait in an audience".

Let's review the practical way that he implemented his own advice when he was a bishop. 

In 1992 he was made auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. By and large, the ordinary clergy of the diocese grew fond of their bishop. He did something simple but revolutionary: setting up a phone line that was exclusively for priests who needed to call him and he would encourage them to use it, at all times of the day and during the night. 

Bishop Bergoglio had a strict code of coming in person to the aid of his priests, staying with them in crises, or keeping a bedside vigil with priests who were elderly and/or in bad health. 

He was known in the early 1990s as a bishop who would seek to know the details of how his priests were helping impoverished parishioners.  

Returning to present day, when Pope Francis consecrated the two new archbishops (Archbishop Speich and Archbishop Gloder) he underlined a 'bishop's love', elaborating that, 'love all those whom God entrusts to you, with a fatherly and brotherly love.' 

The 'all' part may seem unrealistic, there are so many people on the margins of society that seem beyond our reach. 

But when he was a bishop, Pope Francis would spend his days traveling around the diocese, so that he could keep poor people company, dish out steaming bowls to the hungry in soup kitchens and visit Aids victims. The time and context of visiting the Aids sufferers is not to be brushed aside - it was immediately after the 80's Aids panic. In Buenos Aires, there was an underbelly of Aids victims who were dying alone, in pain, in stigma, often treated as an embarrassment, often in poverty, and in that time before the new wave of powerful drugs that would alleviate the dire symptoms of Aids.

The question for the new bishops that Pope Francis has elevated to the Episcopacy, must be, who are the equivalent of Aids victims today?  By finding that answer, they will be striving to answer Francis' directive to embrace 'all' with love.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The woman who made Audrey Hepburn - and me - look good

Thanks to the Google doodle above, that celebrated the 116th anniversary of her birth, I learned of Edith Head. The short, bespectacled costume designer who won 8 Academy Awards. More than any other woman in history.

She designed the beautifully tailored outfits for Bette Davis in All About Eve, Kim Novak in Vertigo, Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie, and perhaps most famously for Audrey Hepburn in the films  Funny Face, Sabrina, and Roman Holiday. Lest we overlook that Edith Head had a role in re-making the little black dresses for Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The original little-black-dresses from Givenchy showed too much of Hepburn's spindly white legs, and the producers felt that too much skin was on display. The good people at Paramount asked Edith Head to re-model the skirts, keep the style exactly as Givenchy had designed them, but make the skirts longer for Hepburn. It would be interesting to see if this was from a modesty standpoint, or because Hepburn had shockingly thin limbs. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, Hepburn is seen in fitted jeans, but in that scene her shape is obscured by the guitar that she plays.

Here is a charming little video on how Edith Head transformed Hepburn from princess to 'an ordinary girl' in Roman Holiday


Edith Head has even made me look good!  Yes, yours truly, the average girl who is writing this post.  My all-time favourite handbag, is made with a picture from the most glitzy scene in Roman Holiday.

My Audrey bag
A stickler like Edith Head, who was known for having needle-sharp eyes made sure that the tiara suited Audrey's heart-shaped face and perfectly reflected the pattern of Hepburn's 'princess dress'.  While I am quite the rag-muffin and sometimes found in shabby attire, this handbag of mine always gives some luster and sparkle to any ensemble of mine.  Today, I wore it with jeans, and to a fancy dinner I might wear it with a little black dress. The pains that Edith Head took to create Audrey's Princess Ann look were captured on film, and nowadays pictures of Audrey in royal finery and dripping jewels are used in modern t-shirts, cushions and wall-hangings. And even on my handbag. Thanks, Edith. 

When planning this post, I was debating whether or not to use the title, 'the woman who made Audrey Hepburn a fashion icon'. But no, that honour belongs to Hubert de Givenchy who designed the black evening dress for Audrey's Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. It was the dress that gave Audrey Hepburn her je-ne-sais-quoi.

The cut-out black décolleté at the back of the dress showed off Audrey's gamine shoulders.  The round black satin that draped around her neck has always reminded me of a jewellery stand, the type that is found in front windows and is used as a foil for diamonds or pearls. The black satin showcased Audrey's features, as her elfin face truly stands out.

I'm not alone in thinking that the Givenchy dress stole the show... A survey conducted in 2010 by LOVEFiLM, Hepburn's little black dress was chosen as the best dress ever worn by a woman in a film.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Mother Antonia: from successful businesswoman in Beverly Hills to God's Entrepeneur

Mary Clarke was an affluent blonde bombshell who lived the American dream to the full. But she found a life of glamour in Beverly Hills to be lacking and swapped it for a grim 10ft by 10ft prison cell, to be as near as possible to the prisoners of La Mesa Penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. 

Born December 1 1926, she was the second child of the Irish immigrants Joseph and Kathleen Clarke. Joseph had an incredible work ethic and became extremely successful in the office supplies industry. He ensured his three children never wanted for anything and the young Mary wore mink coats, drove zippy cars and mingled with famous neighbours such as Spencer Tracy. The family spent weekends in a seaside holiday home. But tempered by an encounter with poverty during his youth, Joseph encouraged his daughter to help with schemes sending medical supplies to poor countries.

In her late teens Mary married for the first time. The marriage ended hastily, on account of her husband’s gambling addiction. He frittered away most of her father’s wealth and for a time she was strapped for cash. But thankfully she had also inherited her father’s business acumen. She took over the running of his office supplies business and made it a great financial success again. Her cushioned life in Beverly Hills was secure.

A second marriage to Carl Brenner lasted for 25 years. During her first and second marriages she had eight children, one of whom died.

But while Mary and Carl Brenner had a high status, they were not immune to marital discord. In 1965, after Mary fled the wreckage of her second marriage, a great friend of hers, Mgr Anthony Brouwers led her into La Mesa prison. It was a concrete fortress, a stronghold for murderers, rapists, gang members and hit men. The drug moguls reigned supreme and enjoyed decent living conditions, while the small fry criminals lived in filth, rats and raw sewage around their feet. The plight of the prisoners shook her to her marrow.

She gave away the majority of her possessions and snazzy clothes. When her older children were able to fend for themselves and when her youngest son, Anthony, became a self-sufficient teen, she gave custody of him to her ex-husband. It was then, in 1977, that she moved into a clammy cell in the women’s section of La Mesa. At the time, there were 7,500 male and 500 female prisoners.  Her cell had an old cot, a Spanish dictionary and a Bible. She donned a homemade smock and headdress, her first habit.

No longer did she have Mgr Anthony as her guide. He had died, ravaged by cancer, but she renamed herself in his memory.

Mother Antonia’s first role was providing basic amenities, such as soap, toothpaste and aspirin. Using her entrepreneurial talent, she ran a scheme to sell lemonade to prisoners, using the profits to pay the bail for small-time offenders. Like Tobit in the Old Testament, she prepared the deceased prisoners for burial. She also strong-armed doctors and dentists to treat the prisoners for free.

She became more assertive in confronting the irregularities of the Mexican legal system. She escorted prisoners to court, and challenged judges as to why they gave lenient sentences to the rich and harsh ones to the poor.

Not every judge changed, but one holds that it was Mother Antonia’s sharp questions that brought him to his senses, and he stopped applying one law for the rich and another for the poor.
Under her motherly gaze, conditions in La Mesa vastly improved. In time, the prisoners had beds, lavatories and enough to eat. “I live in prison,” she once reflected,” and I have not had a day of depression in 25 years.”

Being a divorcée, Mary Brenner was not accepted in any of the existing religious orders, so she saw an opening to found one that welcomed older women and women from less-than-lily-white situations. In 1997, she founded the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour.

Referring to herself as “God’s mop”, she explained that getting a prisoner to see the good in themselves was like “a cleaning”.  It was her tireless quest and greatest achievement that she convinced countless prisoners that they were better than a life of crime.

By the myriad hours that she spent as their counsellor, she restored their dignity and self-respect. Her great sacrifice in leaving behind a sumptuous life impressed upon the prisoners that she had chosen to be with them, as opposed to brushing shoulders with film stars or going to cocktail parties.

Did the Mexican prisoners or the guards resent this smiling America nun from a moneyed background? After all, she had a choice in being there. Their loyalty to her was tested during a prison riot, when prisoners sought to take control of La Mesa while guards battled them. Bullets ripped through the air, and the air was murky with tear gas.

She walked into the rebellion, and immediately the guns fell silent. No one wanted to harm the feisty nun they called “the Prison Angel”.  

Mother Antonia died on October 17 at the headquarters of the Eudist Sisters of the 11th Hour. She was the subject of a book, The Prison Angel, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.

This article appears in the November 1st edition of The Catholic Herald.  
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