Sunday, May 22, 2005

RIP: Alastair Forbes

News reaches Esens of the death of Ali Forbes, the social mountaineer and writer, who affected a prolix prose style in which to parade his social connections.

Ali was the scion of two so-called Boston brahmin families - his legal father was a Forbes and a lawyer; his mother a Winthrop who beat her children with a bamboo cane. Through his father he was a cousin of President Roosevelt and his sister was John Kerry's mother.

These days, Ali is best known for his remarks about Margaret, Duchess of Argyle: "Her father may have been able to give her some beautiful earrings, but nothing to put between them" and, deflating the Aga Khan's reputation as a great lover, saying that in fact he reminded him of Father Christmas: "He came but once a year."

Although of American blood, Ali had British citizenship and was born in Surrey. Very English in accent and mannerisms, he nevertheless spent most of his life in tax exile at Chateau d'Oex in Switzerland. His social world, as a "namedropper who knew the names he dropped" contained, amongst others, such luminaries as Lady Colefax, Lady Diana Cooper, Lord Rothermere, the Mitfords (he was a regular at Chatworth) and Winston Churchill, a world all but vanished, leaving aside in literature and memoirs.

He went to Winchester, and once confessed to having received help from William Whitelaw there. "Poor Ali!" remarked Quintin Hogg. "He was so stupid at school he had to crib from Willie."

Whether because or despite of his connections, he could be bumptious and impertinent. On one occasion in 1938 he told Winston Churchill to take over and lead Britain. A year later, aged 21, he urged his cousin President Roosevelt "to fire across Hitler's bows the great neutral's warning."

Lung and throat troubles kept Ali out of the forces for the war, apart from a temporary commission in the Marines. During the war, at Chequers, he saw Averell Harriman, President Roosevelt's special envoy, slipping off to Pamela Churchill's room. "Hey ho, he's taking his presidential envoy duties very seriously", he said.

James Lees-Milne the "waspish" diarist, met him at a lunch party given by Emerald Cunard in the Dorchester during the war. He wrote that Forbes was a deb's delight of classic beauty, with fair, unblemished skin. Very young and a little portentous... ambitious for a Parliamentary career, witty, mischievous, censorious and bright.

Ali was attractive to women, and caddish about his conquests. Reviewing a book about Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, Ali claimed that "her much prettier sister Lee" had once importuned him. He turned her down, needless to say. "I even telephoned her husband for advice on how to escape from a locked bedroom, her sexual ultimatum."

Ali found few fans amongst English literary contemporaries. Anthony Powell refers to Ali caustically in his 1988 Journal: "the once supposed essence of male attraction and intellectual brilliance." Evelyn Waugh mentions "pretty little Ali Forbes" en passant a handful of times, usually in association with another bete-noir, Peter Quennel: "London is infested with Quennel and Alistair Forbes" and Waugh refers to "the Quennel-Forbes axis". Some say the character of "the Loot" in Put Out More Flags owes something to Ali, although there is a more obvious model for the character.

Ali Forbes was "rediscovered" by the Spectator, which, under Alexander Chancellor's editorship, gave him considerable leeway to offend in his entertaining and scurrilous book reviews. When the magazine published a profile of him in 1985, he wrote a 20 page letter pointing out its inaccuracies (the Spectator printed the letter, its longest ever).

Ali Forbes, for all his occasional portentousness and silliness, was a relic from a time when the world of high society, finance, and global politics contained broad measures of irreverence and wit; it seems this world has long predeceased him, replaced with a kind of ubiquitous corporate correctness.

In fact, Ali's affectations and prolixity were entirely misleading: his voice is far less stuffy, far less affected, and far more original than those who consort with power and greatness today.

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