Famous Fleet Street columnist who prided himself on his hard-hitting exposés of the peccadilloes of high society
The longest-serving Fleet Street gossip columnist of his generation, Nigel Dempster became more famous than many of the personalities who appeared in his column. True, he got a great many stories dramatically wrong. He insisted that the Prince of Wales would never marry Lady Diana Spencer and claimed that the Duke of Edinburgh would be made Prince Consort. But a lot of others he got right. He was the first to reveal in 1975 that Harold Wilson would step down early as Prime Minister, and he later forecast the marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
The veracity of the items in his column seemed in any case to matter less than Dempster the personality, which was brilliantly packaged and marketed by the Daily Mail and became one of the paper’s most valuable assets. Dempster threw himself into the role with relish, throwing flamboyant parties at Ascot with 130 guests. He became, in time, a close friend of several members of the Royal Family, in particular Princess Margaret, of whom he wrote a sympathetic biography in 1981.
A key factor in Dempster’s success as an observer of the British social scene was that he could look at it from the standpoint of an outsider, unconstrained by personal loyalties. He was born in India in 1941, the son of a Scottish father and a Cornish mother who had become Australian nationals. His father, the managing director of the Indian Copper Corporation, shipped his son off to England to a prep school in Devon when he was 6.
The young Dempster moved on to Sherborne in Dorset but was expelled for being a disruptive influence. His first job, at 16, was as a porter at Westminster Hospital. The following year he became a broker at Lloyd’s and later a bluebutton in a firm of City stockbrokers.
In the evenings he threw himself into the social whirl of London’s debutante scene. An unabashed social climber, he boasted how, in his early days, he collected old-school ties, and, when he was going to an important party he would check in Who’s Whoto see which school his host had been to and then fish out the appropriate tie from his extensive collection.
He cultivated Reginald Maudling’s daughter Caroline and found himself dining at No 11 Downing Street before he had reached 18. Invitations to Harold Macmillan’s family parties followed. Significant functions he was not invited to, he gatecrashed.
When his career in the City went wrong, he turned first to public relations, working with the Earl of Kimber-ley, and then to writing about the only world he knew, the London social scene, contributing tittle-tattle to the William Hickey column on the Daily Express. A chance meeting at Cowes with Lord Beaverbook led to a staff job in 1963.
He spent much of his time attacking the rival Charles Greville column on the Daily Mail. So successful was he at this that shortly after David English was appointed the Mail’s Editor in 1971, he recruited Dempster and put him and Paul Callan in charge of a new diary column. Dempster quickly saw off Callan and was soon writing under his own name.
His first diary lead was about how Annabel Birley was expecting the love child of James Goldsmith. By unhappy coincidence, that same evening, Lord Rothermere, the Mail’s proprietor, went to Annabel’s nightclub and was ignominiously thrown out by its owner, Mark Birley, who had, not unreasonably, taken exception to what Dempster had revealed about his wife. Rothermere magnanimously never said a word about it to Dempster, who had expected to be dismissed when he heard what had happened.
Dempster was a conduit for information, not a writer, and he left it to writers such as Peter Donnelly and, latterly, Adam Helliker (before he defected after a notorious bout of fisticuffs) to give his column its distinctive style.
In 1969 Dempster began a love-hate relationship with Private Eye. He became a key contributor to its Grovel column not long after it was launched in 1971, and used it to attack his former employers at Beaverbrook Newspapers. Jocelyn Stevens, then managing director, was infuriated by his regular savaging in the column.
He described Dempster as “a paid hypocrite”, suggesting that the only reason the Mail allowed him to write in Private Eye was so that he could keep his own proprietor’s name out of it. All of this served only as useful notoriety for Dempster.
Then in April 1975, Dempster wrote in his Mail column that Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser were having an affair. Pinter’s wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, sued for divorce, naming Lady Antonia, and Dempster printed the story under beaming pictures said to be of six of Antonia’s previous lovers. The resulting furore, with Merchant making her famous remarks about Antonia (“He says he’s coming back to get his shoes but he could always wear hers”) seemed in some way to rebound on Dempster on the ancient principle of “shoot the messenger”.
Auberon Waugh said that Dempster became “a general punchbag for journalists wishing to prove themselves respectable”. The Observer ran a particularly hostile piece about him and he became a hate-object among the upper classes, which was, in a way, the making of him.
In 1986 he extended his empire to the Daily Mail’s sister paper, The Mail on Sunday, when he accepted an invitation to edit that paper’s diary as well.
While he seldom, if ever, worked a six-day week it was written into his contract that his name would always appear on the column.
He felt in 1987 that he had enough of a reputation to go to court over allegations in Private Eye that he had accepted bribes to write favourably about the chocolate heir Peter Cadbury. He won the case, accepting substantial damages.
He was proud of the fact that he saw off 11 William Hickeys during his period at the Mail. The Daily Express Editor then, Sir Nicholas Lloyd, killed off Hickey in 1987, saying that he believed the paper was losing out on pro-motional opportunities because a nom de plume could not be interviewed on television. There was a wake in Fleet Street, and Dempster, ever the showman, gleefully danced on a mocked-up coffin in an undertaker’s top hat and tails.
This was not the end of the war but in many ways the beginning. Ross Benson was then appointed as the Express’s rival to Dempster, and the two were soon spending almost as much time attacking each other as they did writing about the rich and famous. To Dempster’s readers, Benson was “the Pompadoured Poltroon”, and, to Benson’s readers, Dempster was “the Tonsured Traducer”.
Benson ridiculed Dempster for spending so much time away from his desk, and, on one occasion, offered a bottle of champagne to the first person who could “confirm a positive sighting at a typewriter of this elusive man who seems to exist these days only in pictures”.
The nadir of their relationship came in 1991 when Dempster sent a terse fax to Benson saying that he had obtained a photograph of him leaving a restaurant with “a young girl in a short black skirt” and wished him to identify her for a piece he proposed using in his column the following day. He also asked him to name the video that the two of them had subsequently been seen purchasing at a shop nearby.
Benson, who was married to Ingrid Seward, the Editor of Majesty magazine, replied: “Gladly – the girl was my 15-year-old daughter Anoushka and the film was Pooh Bear and the Honey Tree.”
Many gossip columnists have moved on to bigger and better things but Dempster professed himself happy to work all his life in the milieu he knew so well. He reputedly turned down an offer from Lord Stevens to edit the Daily Express.
Dempster never learnt to deflect criticism, but it appeared he always believed that there was some merit in what he did. “Gossip columnists are,” he once observed, “social policemen.” To those who said that the trade of the gossip columnist was trivial, he replied that all life was trivial.
Richard Addis’s appointment to the editorship of the Daily Express in 1995 led to the revival of the William Hickey nom de plume, but the new column, edited by the convivial John McEntee, was starved of resources and never presented much of a challenge to Dempster. The Hickey byline was dropped again by Addis’s successor, Rosie Boycott, in 1998.
In his latter years at the Mail Dempster found he had more enemies on the paper than outside it. After Paul Dacre was appointed Editor in succession to Sir David English in 1992, he made little secret of the fact that he did not think highly of Dempster’s column, but it survived until 2003, when the diarist stood down on health grounds.
In 1996 Dacre had launched a rival gossip column on the paper under Peter McKay, who wrote under the nom de plume Ephraim Hardcastle, which had once been employed by Dacre’s father, the journalist Peter Dacre. Earlier Dempster had suffered the humiliation of having Lord Rothermere remark that his column was beginning to resemble “old, cold, fried potatoes”. The major royal stories that had once been Dempster’s preserve went increasingly to other writers, such as the Mail’s royal correspondent, Richard Kay, and readers were often bemused to see Dempster casting doubt on stories reported as news elsewhere in the paper. The impression was of a vain, irascible man who was losing touch.
Dempster’s relationship with Private Eye, unsteady at the best of times, came to an end when he revealed in his column that the marriage of Richard Ingrams, then the magazine’s chairman, was in difficulties. Ingrams subsequently exacted his revenge by leaking a false story about himself having an affair with the society girl Pamella Bordes, which Dempster was duped into using in his column.
In 1996 a Hello!-style magazine named Dempster’s was launched, but his involvement in it was limited and it folded quickly. In addition to his biography of Princess Margaret, Dempster wrote Heiress: The Story of Christina Onassis, published in 1989, and Dempster’s People (1998).
Dempster’s greatest loves beside newspapers and his family were his two race horses, Aardwolf and Pretoria Dancer. He was also a keep-fit fanatic, cycling, playing squash and running regularly. He completed the London Marathon on a number of occasions. Latterly he had suffered from a degenerative disease.
He was twice married: in 1972, to Emma de Bendern (marriage dissolved, 1974) and in 1977, to Lady Camilla Osborne, daughter of the 11th Duke of Leeds, with whom had a daughter and stepdaughter. The marriage was dissolved in 2004.
Nigel Dempster, journalist, was born on November 1, 1941. He died on July 12, 2007, aged 65