The Madonna January 2011

Dear Rowley,

You cannot make it up. I hopped a cab a couple of nights ago from Dukes Bar home to Bloomsbury Towers. About half a mile from Piccadilly the taxi driver – fat, balding, middle-aged – was peering at me in the front mirror. All of a sudden, he started crooning at the lower register of his voice I’m In The Mood For Love. I swear Rowley, I had to cram my fists into my mouth. When he’d finished eight bars, he said over his shoulder ‘you know that Connie Fisher. We’re like two peas in a pod. We duetted together once’. ‘Did you?’ says I. ‘Oh yes’, says he. ‘Would you like to hear it?’ How could I say no. He then ploughed into Edelweiss and my dear there was not a dry seat in the cab. When I got out, I had to sit on the stoop and bray like a donkey before I could compose myself. Only in London.

A lovely Sheekey’s Oyster Bar lunch with Natalie Galustian my rare book dealer. She’s a poker addict and is heading to Vegas in May to watch the big fight and hit the craps tables. It is all comped and she asked if I would like to be one of her guests. Would I? Perfect timing. I will be weeks away from Ascot and I have time to get some sun, hit the spas and watch Cher in concert. What’s not to like? The last time I was in Vegas was about 1995. I stayed at the Desert Inn (favourite of Sinatra and Marilyn) but I believe it is now flattened to make way for new monster hotels themed to Paris or Venice or Kandahar. Bette Midler once said she was staying at the New York New York hotel. ‘Of course’, she said, ‘my room is in Brooklyn’.

Now I am going to get a little sentimental Rowley. It’s that time of year. I had a chat to my Dad today and he reminded me of the week my beloved Grandmother Sherwood died. He called one of the stewards on the cruise ships that she was terribly fond of to tell her the sad news. ‘Oh no!’ he said. ‘Not the Madonna’. My Dad was nonplussed. ‘The Madonna?’ ‘Yes’, says the steward, ‘the Madonna with the big boobies. That’s what we called Hilda Sherwood. I’ve cried on those boobies’. Me too, honey.

On another cruise, she made friends with a man she said was some kind of  photographer who christened her the Duchess. Turns out it was Patrick Litchfield. That was Nan: utterly interested but not that much in the details. You never met my Nan, Rowley, did you. She was a formidable woman and my favourite person on the planet to date. We spent every weekend together when I was growing up happy as larry in our own company; she occasionally hosting a bridge four while I went upstairs and had a steam in her home sauna. How much fun is that?

We even used to go on holiday together. Once we went to my parents’ villa in Menorca and we were the sensation of the season. At drinks parties, we would lift a few gins, stagger home together then collapse on the double bed and have a snoring competition. She is probably the only woman in the Balearics who would cook a Yorkshire pudding in 80 degree heat. What a woman. She inspired my love for the finer things in life and encouraged my love of fashion and fine suits.

My memories of Nan Sherwood permeate every day. I even find things funny that I know she would have laughed like a drain at. When she was entering the last years of her life, she had to move into a sheltered housing number but treated the carers like staff on a cruise. She had had such a marvellous, international life that when life got small she had large memories to compensate. One of my last conversations with her was at Elton John’s White Tie & Tiara ball. I’d just come off the back of the BBC1 coverage of Royal Ascot and I know she’d watched every second.

Well, I called her from Elton’s lawn come cocktails because I didn’t know a soul. I talked her through all the dresses, tiaras and the lovely grounds of Elton John’s Windsor manse. ¬†She said to me, ‘get out there my boy and enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it’. So I turned around and there was Jodie Kidd, the Redknapps and Jasmine Guinness who had all been guests at Royal Ascot so a jolly time was had by all. You can’t believe it that the cabaret was Take That and Lulu can you?

My last conversation with Nan was outside Sotheby’s when I was waiting to meet Carol Woolton for a lunch in the Cafe. She was coherent, she was happy and she loved the flowers I had sent her in the hospital. That night – her birthday – I picked up the phone at 9pm only for my father to say she had gone. They had seen her mid-afternoon. She was full of beans, she knew all near and dear had been thinking of her all day and, just as they were at the door leaving, she threw her arms out, blew a kiss and said ‘God bless. I love you all’. Brings a tear all these years later. Now that is a lady who knew how to make an exit. May we all go with a bang and a smile darling.