Jeremy Thorpe was highly successful at hiding his personal life — Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams struggled to believe the revelations about him, and it seems Radio Times was just as convinced by Thorpe the family man. This extract from an interview RT ran in June 1973 with the Liberal leader, his new wife Marion and his son Rupert (from his first marriage), for a phone-in on Radio 4 where listeners could call in to speak to them, shows just how well he kept his secret.
In any contest for most heart-warming politician of the year, Jeremy Thorpe would win, hands down. Admittedly, neither leader of the two major parties, whatever their other qualifications, could be described as burgeoning with romantic appeal, so the surprise engagement and marriage last March of the handsome leader of the Liberals to Marion, Countess of Harewood, ex-wife of the Queen’s cousin, served as a welcome reminder that the world of politics has its romantic side.
“I know people think politicians are the greatest villains unhung,” Thorpe told me. “That’s why people’s reaction to our marriage was so warming.” I talked to the newlyweds just before they flew to the Bahamas for a delayed honeymoon. “No, not a cruise,” Thorpe said. “Cruises are for old ladies.”
The interview took place in the small sitting room of his two-bedroom flat in Westminster. It’s a comfortable, unpretentious place: sofa, armchairs and desk; a bowl of flame-coloured azaleas on a satinwood piano with the Bobbie Gentry songbook; bird prints on the wall, a wedding gift from Sotheby’s; a small oil landscape with a plaque reading “Constable” (“It’s not a real Constable,” Thorpe said frankly); a collection of T’ang dynasty pottery statuettes, including his bride’s wedding gift to him, an ivory-coloured figurine.
He is cultured, intelligent, humorous – attributes not necessarily connected with his years at Eton and Oxford – he is quick-witted and easy to talk to. No side, not a smidgen of pomposity. He looks like a 19th-century actor: one can easily imagine him as Hamlet in doublet and hose, save for his disarming naturalness of manner. “The Liberals certainly have the best-looking leaders of any party,” I murmured. “That’s not saying much!” he said quickly.
He arrived late and his wife and Rupert, his four-year-old son, were even later, leaving us a brisk 30 minutes for the interview. Mrs Thorpe seemed a bit baffled, but it didn’t faze Mr Thorpe one whit. He took it in his stride, answering everyone. “What have you been doing, my monkey?” he asked Rupert, lifting the boy onto his lap, reassuring his wife, asking the photographer which way he wanted them to pose, and answering my questions as fast as I asked them.
RT photographer Don Smith:
“I had photographed him in 1972 when he was a guest on Sounds Funny. I remember arriving at Westminster with the show’s host, Robin Ray, and being led to Jeremy Thorpe’s private office, I was looking forward to meeting the man people described as one of the most charismatic politicians of our time, but I have to admit, that’s not what I found him to be. I got a sense of a man uneasy in himself. I obviously had no idea what was going on then and when I found out, like everyone else, I followed it avidly.”