Claus Von Bulow on NYC and London; John Aspinall, RIP; The Disgraceful Sebastian Junger; British GQ's Celeb Beat

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Hero, Friend The best way to describe John Aspinall, inordinate animal lover, extremist campaigner for wildlife preservation, owner of two of the largest private zoos in the world, author, former dandy, polymath, party-giver sans pareil and gambler extraordinaire, is to use Oscar Wilde's celebrated remark about himself: "I've put my genius into my life; I've only put my talent into my works." Although his sexual preferences were different, Aspinall resembled Wilde in more ways than one. He was a large, imposing, very handsome man with a wide mouth, blond hair and very blue eyes. A brilliant raconteur?in fact, the greatest raconteur I've ever come across?he had an hypnotic effect on his audience, even when he addressed groups of miners and preached the evils of socialism to them.

    Aspinall was one of my closest friends, a friendship that began in 1956. He died last Thursday of cancer in his palatial London house surrounded by his family and friends. Another polymath and modern Talleyrand, Henry Kissinger, flew over from America to say goodbye, a gesture greatly appreciated by Aspinall loyalists because Dr. K (who wrote by far the best of all the Aspinall obituaries, which Iread in The Daily Telegraph) was very much under the weather himself. But such were the joys of being an Aspinall friend. He valued three virtues above all: loyalty, friendship and courage. He was fantastically loyal to his friends, and they to him. When he knew he was dying he gave a grand dinner for all his former female lovers. It was a glittering assembly of beauty, and each lady was presented with a fabulous piece of jewelry.

    Born 74 years ago in India, Aspinall was a typical product of the British upper middle class during the period of the Raj. At age seven, he was shipped back to England to be educated. During holidays he lived on a farm and came into contact for the first time with what was to mark him forever: "the ritualized destruction of harmless and often beautiful species of bird and mammal." Aspers, as he was known to everyone, called it a weird, half-baked leftover of our primitive hunting impulse.

    After attending the exclusive Rugby School, Aspers did three years of Royal Marines?the toughest outfit in the British armed forces?and then went up to Oxford. It was there that he developed the personality that has been called an elaborate artifice deliberately fashioned to yield anecdotes. He swaggered around the campus carrying a cane on one arm and an edition of Les Fleurs du Mal under the other. He wrote poetry and he gambled. It was there where Aspers made a lifelong friend of Jimmy Goldsmith and the two began a career of high-stakes gambling.

    At that time games of chance were not permitted in England. Aspers got around the problem by setting up chemin de fer games at various friends' houses. His personality and incredible charm attracted such high rollers as Gianni Agnelli, the Duke of Devonshire and the Earl of Derby. After a while Aspinall had become rich and known as the most lavish party-giver of his time. He also forced the government to change the law, and casino gambling was introduced in the United Kingdom. His first club, the Clermont, established a standard of decadence unequaled even by Monte Carlo during the Belle Epoque. At one of his parties, the staircase was festooned with dwarfs, while acrobats and wild animals roamed around the rooms. The guests were too drunk, or amazed, to be scared. (I remember Tina Onassis sitting next to me at the chemmy table and asking me if I was sure the tiger was tame; she wasn't, but I was too busy following the game.)

    The success of the Clermont enabled Aspers to finance Howletts, his Palladian pile in Kent and, later on, he extended his property by purchasing Port Lympne, Sir Philip Sassoon's neglected, stately home. It was at Howletts and Port Lympne where Aspinall had his greatest victories. Never have gambling victories been put to better use. He devoted the profits to experimental zoos that achieved historic breakthroughs in the way we can communicate with wild beasts. He financed animal-breeding ventures no authority until then would even contemplate, and he succeeded. Because of his methods, rare species that had almost never bred in captivity began to produce offspring regularly. He bred hundreds of tigers (he used to jump into the swimming pool with the striped ones, and once a gorilla took his six-month-old baby up a tree while Aspers continued his lunch unperturbed), snow leopards, rhinos and, of course, elephants. Of his 30 best friends, he once remarked, more than half were animals. His grandchildren regularly played with the wild beasts. Married since 1972 to Lady Sarah Curzon, widow of Formula One racing driver Piers Courage, Aspers had three children and two stepsons. His zoos cost him around $6 million per year, all financed by him.

    I shall miss him terribly. There will never be another like him. His historical knowledge, his understanding of nature, zoology and anthropology, his charm and loyalty to fallen friends will never be equaled. Chief Buthelezi, head of the Zulus, made him an honorary white Zulu, as did a tribal chief in Uganda. Aspers was above all an Englishman, who believed in the greatness of the Anglo-Saxon race, but honored and respected all tribes, as long as they remained tribal and loyal to their histories. His heroes were Mithradates, for opposing the Romans, Hannibal and Alexander the Great. They are also mine, but I have a fourth. John Aspinall, hero.


    Toby Young The London Desk The Scene When I returned to London earlier this year I took it for granted the five years I'd spent in New York had left a permanent mark on me. I'd glow with that self-confidence that comes from being at home in more than one city; I'd have the aura of a well-traveled gentleman. Well, I was wrong. Within two weeks of being back in London, all traces of New York had been washed away by the endless rain. I'm now indistinguishable from the rest of the soft-bellied dwarves that make up this "race of kings."

    I do, however, have a new job. I'm the "social editor" of British GQ. Each month I have to write a 1000-word column listing all the celebrities I've seen on the party circuit. This isn't as glamorous as it sounds. If I were still in New York, I'd have enough material for a column after one night in Moomba, but in London it's proving damn hard to fill the space.

    It's not just that there aren't that many world-class celebrities in London; it's also that they're much harder to spot. In New York I could always tell when somebody famous had entered my airspace because the person I was talking to would suddenly become all glassy-eyed and wouldn't hear a word I was saying. Interestingly, though, they'd never look over my shoulder. Among the New York cognoscenti, it's considered so "trailer park" to gawk at celebrities that whenever one comes near you they look anywhere but straight at them. Consequently, when Leonardo DiCaprio was standing right next to me, the frisky young model I was talking to would look me directly in the eye for the first time that evening. Then she'd go home with Leonardo DiCaprio.

    In London, by contrast, no one bats an eyelid when a big name enters a room. For instance, I was at a book launch at the River Cafe when Graham Le Saux, a member of the England soccer team, suddenly materialized in front of me. I looked around excitedly to see if anyone else had noticed, but they just carried on talking as if nothing had happened. Initially, I thought they were just being cool, pretending that for people as sophisticated as them the presence of the England defender was nothing to write home about. Then the penny dropped: they simply hadn't recognized him. Your average New Yorkers comes equipped with a powerful sixth sense, enabling him or her to identify celebrities from 500 meters, whereas your average Londoner wouldn't recognize an international soccer player if he kicked a ball at their head.

    This makes my job that much harder because, if the truth be told, my celebrity radar is a bit rusty. I recently spent a fruitless evening at Viewbar, a new members-only club in Leicester Square, having heard that it attracts a high-profile fashion crowd on Thursday nights. After scanning the throng for two hours for supermodels, I decided it was yet another false rumor started by a publicity-hungry promoter and went home empty-handed. The following day I discovered that the guests had included Christy Turlington, Kate Moss and Minnie Driver.

    I was equally embarrassed when I spotted someone who I thought must be a celebrity in the Long Bar at the Sanderson, Ian Schrager's new London hotel. I vaguely recognized him in that annoying, can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it sort of way. In addition to his black leather jacket emblazoned with the word "Chesterfield," he was wearing dark glasses in what was already a very dark room, always a good sign. After squinting at him for half an hour or so, puzzling away over his identity, I marched up to him, apologized for my effrontery, and asked him who he was. It turned out to be Nicky Haslam, the social editor of The Evening Standard. He looked familiar because he'd been treading exactly the same beat as me for the past four weeks. After politely reminding me of the two dozen or so occasions on which we'd met, he introduced me to the man he'd been talking to throughout the 30 minutes that I'd been staring at him: Bryan Ferry.

    I told myself the reason I hadn't recognized Ferry?and I idolized him throughout my adolescence?is because he'd been hiding in plain sight. That may sound like a poor excuse, but it's often much easier to spot celebrities when they're trying to avoid detection. I was once strolling past Daphne's, the sceney restaurant on Draycott Avenue, when a chauffeur-driven Bentley pulled up at the curb. The paparazzo stationed outside glanced in the back but, as far as he could tell, it was empty. Then, as if by magic, one of the rear doors opened and Richard Gere and Laura Bailey emerged, bent double, and made a crab-like dash into the restaurant. If they hadn't wanted to be seen together couldn't they just have gone to the local Italian?

    My only unqualified success so far was sighting Jim Carrey and Renee Zellweger inhaling a couple of croque monsieurs in Cafe Flo on the Gloucester Road. Presumably, Zellweger was taking a break from filming Bridget Jones and Carrey'd flown in to see her, but Cafe Flo? That's like seeing Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in Au Bon Pain. It must be harder to get a table at The Ivy than I thought.

    The main reason no one notices celebrities over here is because everybody's blind drunk half the time. London isn't just swinging, it's swaying and reeling as well. As a born-again teetotaler, I think I prefer New York.  

    Melik Kaylan The Spy Perfect Crime I won't see The Perfect Storm and regret reading the book. Author Sebastian Junger is the kind of literary San Gennaro effigy that publishers hoist about in a pious frenzy knowing we'll throng blindly to the parade. Let us foil them. Let's, for once, play the papal skeptic and face down the plaster saint's hagiolatry. I take you back two years ago this August to the death of my friend Carlos Mavroleon in his hotel room in the Pak-Afghan frontier town of Peshawar while on assignment for 60 Minutes. Clinton had just launched his Monica Missiles against bin Laden's Afghan camps, and Carlos was investigating the results. Pakistani authorities declared his death a self-inflicted heroin overdose. Many colleagues, friends and family doubted the verdict. Numerous probes got under way, but Junger delivered first with a hefty eight-pager in Vanity Fair (February 1999) endorsing the Pak authorities' opinion. Result: our industry walked away en bloc, allowing Junger's reputation to rise on the wreckage of Mavroleon's. "Sorry, Vanity Fair has already done the story," they whined in unison. Mavroleon's producer at 60 Minutes, Leslie Cockburn, went to Peshawar and did a secret report pulling apart the official verdict. She begged for further investigation. None came.

    Carlos Mavroleon's reputation is worth preserving. Born to a wealthy Anglo-Greek ship-owning family, he ran away from English boarding school at age 15 and lived among tribesmen in northern Pakistan for two years. His father disowned him financially. Yet he graduated cum laude from Harvard and sailed into the 80s Wall Street boom. Which he abandoned to go to Afghanistan and fight with the mujahideen against the Soviet invasion. Under the nom de guerre Kerimullah, he shot down Soviet helicopters. Between battles, he helped a fellow Muj into Harvard by writing his application. Later Carlos became a legendary war cameraman in African conflicts.

    So many stories of wit and bravery, all rejected by Junger as the twisted "reckless courage" of a spoiled rich kid. Unlike Junger's brand of parachute journalism, Carlos lived and loved the tribal cultures he covered. He converted to Islam, learned their languages and earned his courage painstakingly. One story suffices: Somali gunmen escorting a tv crew begin to point guns, demand wages and issue threats. Carlos shouts at them to kneel and pray for thanks to Allah before they got a penny. They quiet down.

    Junger's thesis seemed reasonable. If not an accidental overdose, it must be murder. But who would bother to kill Carlos? And why go to such lengths of cover-up in a region where anyone can murder with anonymous bullets? With a little solid work, he might have answered these questions. Instead, he could dismiss all the crime scene's anomalous details without scrutiny.

    We found the answers, because Fox TV assigned us to the story. Fox Files boss Pamela Browne knew Carlos. (Carlos had saved a Fox crew taken hostage by Somali gunmen by offering himself in their place.) Sadly, halfway into our work Fox Files got canceled. So what I tell you now is an exclusive. No one has heard it before. And it really should cause a ruckus.

    First, we found that Junger had likely endangered the life of a source. He did so without the knowledge of the source (call him "Guy"), an English gem dealer who travels the region often. Guy claimed he'd heard from a well-placed friend in the Peshawar bazaar that Mavroleon's death was a hit. Junger apparently found the contact and pretended to be Guy's friend. "Guy says you think it was a hit," the contact claimed Junger had said to him. Can you imagine anything more irresponsible?and unlikely to yield the truth? In a bazaar teeming with Taliban and bin Ladenites? When Guy went back months later, he walked into a viper's nest.

    In Vanity Fair, Junger skates over the pivotal fact that Carlos, disguised as a local doctor, got to a hospital in the forbidden zone of the tribal territories. The missile strike's casualties of high rank lay there wounded. Carlos certainly encountered them, because his notes show names of patients. Junger never understood that Carlos had approached the crucial secret: that the camps serviced not bin Laden but the Pak military intelligence. They were training guerrillas for the invasion of Indian Kashmir. When Clinton struck, the Paks thought he deliberately tried to sink the invasion?that he'd turned pro-India. Carlos' visit threatened to out their secret plans, and uncover their direct involvement with the invasion force. Reason enough for assassination? And for a cover-up? A Western journalist openly murdered would require an investigation.

    Why couldn't Junger figure it out? Because it opened the way to the crime scene's anomalies and scuttled his thesis. Here are some examples: The police forbade anyone to witness the autopsy. They rushed it and embalmed the body before outside experts could join in. In the hotel room, they pretended to find the offending syringe accidentally, twice, eight hours apart. They'd moved the body near the syringe each time. Three men were seen following Carlos around town. A local reporter wrote that three men visited Carlos in the hotel at the time of death. That reporter retired soon after. During our stay, he missed an appointment with us and dodged us for three weeks. He was "terrified," said one colleague. Other local reporters warned us of "great danger." The assistant manager and others remember three Pak intelligence men in the doorway at the scene. The manager who saw them too denied it to us fervently. He, like so many others, had changed his story. No gear was found for fixing up, and there was only one needle scar on the body?not the sign of a practicing addict.

    This is the very short version. Carlos had used heroin, but according to his doctor hadn't injected for 10 years. In sum, I can't yet prove that Carlos was killed. I wasn't allowed to. But I can say that Junger is a disgraceful journalist. His movie should be renamed The Perfect Crime.


    Claus Von Bulow Feature Old Blighty It is an adage that if you give children to the Jesuits they have them for life. A similar unquestioning loyalty was inculcated in me by Kipling's paean to the British Empire and by Edgar R. Burroughs' aristocratic jungle acrobat Tarzan. During my Impressionable years I went to schools in Denmark and Switzerland, two countries bordering on Nazi Germany, but no efforts by Dr. Goebbels could have shaken my allegiance to Albion and the Raj. Like today's soccer hooligans, I wrapped myself in the Union Jack. So when Taki asked me whether I prefer London or New York, he triggered a Pavlovian reflex in favor of London. That seems unfair, but preferences are unfair. My genes, hormones, whatever, have irremediably oriented me toward girls when I want to go dancing. That's tough on the boys on Christopher St., but I cannot help it. In the same way, I was programmed during my childhood to go all starry-eyed and mushy at the thought that Britannia rules the waves (and some of the skies) that surrounded Hitler's Europe. Such was my irrational passion that, at 15, I ran away from boarding school in Nazi-occupied Denmark and, via neutral Sweden, reached England with the firm intention of winning the war for the Bengal Lancers and the Highland Brigade. Some historians have obstinately maintained that the sacrifices of the Soviet Union and the might of the United States also affected the outcome of that war, which has always made me think fondly of Uncle Sam and his dependents, like the island of Manhattan.

    But I had not just been a dull boy swotting Raj books. I had been well fed on an ethnographic mix of muesli and Danish pastry, so I had been able to use all my pocket money at the movies. Hollywood producers (while Hitler was still around) also idolized the Limeys. My first unconsummated passion was for Shirley Temple leading her daddy's regiment up the Khyber Pass. Today's studios have changed their loyalties. If they need a cannibal or a villain, they cast Sir Anthony Hopkins or Jeremy Irons. I have myself had some small (unpaid) role in the celluloid entertainment industry, and that brings me to my second reason for living in London.

    I am a culture snob. I rarely go to the movies now, and very infrequently watch television. But I am addicted to the live theater, and there is more of that in London than anywhere else in the world. I am a bum-in-theater-seat addict. I don't have other addictions. I don't smoke or inhale; in fact I'm so old I hardly breathe. My idea of a hit is a sold-out play; a good line is something by Shakespeare or Stoppard. To show the extent of my addiction I made a list of the shows I had seen during the last 12 months. It came to 63 real plays, not musicals.

    I am also a snob about my music. I do go to the opera and to classical concerts, but they are just as splendid in New York as in London. If I tried to go to 63 theaters within one year in the Big Apple I would have to include an awful lot of Lloyd Webber lullabies and the live-sex shows off Times Square. Even American playwrights are better produced in London?O'Neill, Albee, Mamet, Miller, Sam Shepard and of course Tennessee Williams, with impeccable Southern accents.

    Why not? Linguistic scholars tell us that Shakespeare's Ophelia had an accent close to Scarlett O'Hara's. My own English accent was acquired from Scarlett's real love, Leslie Howard, and from wartime announcers on the BBC. The New Labor government now wants students with that kind of accent excluded as candidates for placement at the senior universities. Graduates from my own alma mater, Trinity College, Cambridge, have gained more Nobel Prizes than any other institution of higher learning in the whole of France, but reverse discrimination will put a stop to that. As New Labor loses support, they dig up the old class war.

    There are lots of things that are better in New York than in London. The weather, for one (except in the summer), and City Hall. If London's new mayor, Ken Livingston, is a descendent of the Dr. Livingston whom the enterprising journalist H.M. Stanley found in Central Africa, he should have stayed at home. Mayor Livingston announced that capitalism kills more people than did the Holocaust! I also miss the American breakfast and crispy bacon, and I do miss the Manhattan skyline. The architecture along the East River and the Hudson is magnificent. If Gehry's design for a new $900-million Guggenheim on stilts in the water is built in my lifetime, I'll be on the next plane.

    Thanks to the National Lottery, not the government, London is sprouting art emporiums. But for grand urban architecture go to Liverpool. Cecil B. DeMille's sets for Imperial Rome, Lutyen's New Delhi, Speer's plans for Berlin are less imposing than neoclassical Liverpool. It is a memorial to a great commercial empire, and more evocative today because it is now a dead city, except as a shrine to the Beatles.

    I was nearly 40 when I went to live in New York. The wrong age. New York is for the young and hungry, not for the middle-aged, who have grown roots elsewhere and have already had some degree of success in their careers. Bostonians say that Boston's great cultural asset is the shuttle to New York. When I run out of plays in London and need a fix, I nip off to Paris for a week of "haute culture." I know that the London I loved so irrationally 60 years ago has changed. Old loves change, and so one starts loving the wrinkles. My daughter also moved to London, married and has two small children here. Old wrinkles, young laughter, and an English nanny. What else is there?