Archive for March, 2010


Leonard Bernstein: ‘charismatic, pompous – and a great father’

The Times March 13, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

His daughter Nina tells Ginny Dougary about the joys and traumas of life with one of music’s greats


Had you been fortunate enough to be in the company of the most charismatic American conductor-composer- teacher-broadcaster of all time for long enough, it is likely that you would have heard this explosion at regular intervals in living rooms and auditoriums across the world: “That’s STEIN!” whenever someone affronted the late, great Leonard Bernstein by introducing him incorrectly as “BernSTEEN.”

His youngest child, Nina, now 48, is talking to me about her father, whose life and art is being celebrated all year at the Southbank Centre. It’s a tantalising and illuminating process attempting to channel such an exuberantly talented man through the women who were close to him (I also speak to Marin Alsop, the conductor, who was his protégée) but ultimately frustrating since everything you hear — good and bad — just makes you wish, even more, that you had met him.

Bernstein’s appetite for life and people and music, as well as his reckless disregard for his health and the judgmentalism of the bien-pensants, can be summed up by this statement: “I was diagnosed with emphysema in my mid-twenties and [was supposed] to be dead by 45. Then 55.

“Well, I beat the rap. I smoke. I drink. I stay up all night. I screw around. I’m over-committed on all fronts.” And this was on the eve of his 70th birthday. Two years later, the rap finally did beat him but, as Nina says: “Conductors are supposed to live for ever but he packed several lives’ worth into one. I think he had a good innings.”

It’s hard for a child, of whatever age, to see his or her parent through the eyes of the world and it becomes clear that Nina has pretty conflicted views of her father. While she obviously adored him and had huge respect for his musicianship, she still seems bruised from the fallout of his notoriously complicated personal life.

Bernstein was born of Ukrainian Jewish parents in 1918 in Massachusetts. After studying music at Harvard he swiftly claimed a reputation as a thrilling and flamboyant conductor, sometimes frowned upon, often leaping up from the podium or swooning in a lover’s ecstasy.

He brought classical music to millions — writing the great American opera West Side Story, conducting at the Berlin Wall in 1989, helping to popularise Mahler — and championed radical political causes, including, notoriously, the Black Panthers.

Nina is aware of how attractive her father was: “He was quite, yeah [“quite” in the American sense of “very”], and charismatic, and telegenic and photogenic.” But when I ask whether she was aware of his amazingly (by all accounts) sexual presence, she says, “No, not particularly.” Well, he was sexy — he even equated sex with music, famously asking a colleague, when considering whether to conduct Mahler’s reconstituted Tenth Symphony: “I have one question. Will it give me an orgasm?” But Nina says: “That’s not the card he played. That’s not what he led with in life. At least, not as far as I could tell.”

Alsop, 53, the artistic director of the Bernstein Project at the Southbank Centre, was reared on the maestro’s enthralling Young People’s Concerts, which were televised from 1958 to 1973, and describes him as her childhood hero. They met when she was a teenager and her father was playing violin in West Side Story with José Carreras as Tony.

In her twenties she played violin with the New York Philharmonic in a couple of concerts that Bernstein conducted but she was 30 before, as she puts it, “he actually acknowledged that I existed”. Alsop was one of the young conductors who was selected to work with him, and they worked closely together in his final years.

She talks about “life going into slow motion for me — whether I was playing with him in the orchestra or even attending rehearsals, I still remember every moment”. I ask her did she, like so many people who came into his orbit, fall in love with him? “Absolutely,” she says. “It was the lure of his charisma and his enormous appeal. Even at 70, when he was not in the best physical shape, there was an attractiveness to his personality. He had the ability — which sent me over the moon — of making you feel that no one else but you existed.

“That summer of ’88, when I was accepted as a conducting Fellow at Tanglewood, I felt a magical connection with him. I felt very close to him and tried to be around him whenever I could. He used to love to write poetry and he wrote me a birthday poem which was very personal, and which I have in a book at home.”

I remind Alsop of something rather less flattering that she disclosed about Bernstein’s tutelage when she participated in a discussion about women and leadership at the Southbank. (As the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she knows a thing or two about the subject; in 2007, when she became the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, there was an outcry — “You’d have thought the destruction of Rome, or at least Baltimore, was imminent,” she recalls.) As Bernstein’s conducting student at Tanglewood, she was told by him: “I can’t understand it. When I close my eyes, I forget that you’re a woman.”

To this she replied, possibly rather tartly: “Well, if it makes you more comfortable, why don’t you just keep your eyes closed.” Bernstein may have been very generous with many people but, she says, “he was a man who was both ahead of his time and of his time, and he was not really comfortable with a woman being on the podium.

“He was conservative in his own particular way. Clearly, he was comfortable with being sexual in many different ways and yet he wanted a traditional life, with a wife and children to whom he was devoted. He was a complex, complex man, and complex people have complex personal lives.”

One of Berstein’s enduring quotes, perhaps because it exemplifies his approach, is: “Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.” His daughter Nina’s film, which is called Leonard Bernstein: A Total Embrace, is part documentary — following her sister Jamie, ten years her senior (Alexander, their brother, is also a bearer of the Bernstein flame), around the world, from China to Cuba, as she spreads the maestro’s message to young musicians, while they are taught the complex rhythms of West Side Story — and part family memoir.

The old home movies show Lenny — as he was almost universally known — at the family house in Fairfield, Connecticut, being a captivating dad, rolling around with his children on the lawn, playing the prankster, tootling ditties on the piano and appreciating his beautiful wife, Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean actress, to whom he returned from his affairs with men, again and again, until, one day, he didn’t.

Nina was 13 when her parents split up. “My mother was a fairly conventional lady and so she expected to be treated like one. The deal was that he would be discreet and that she would maintain her dignity. And then he was not discreet [Felicia found him in bed with his lover, a young music researcher, Tom Cothran, whom he had met in San Franciso in 1973], and so that was that.”

Bernstein and Cothran moved in to a New York apartment together, in Central Park South in 1976, then Felicia found that she had lung cancer and, guilt-stricken, her husband moved back to be with her until she died, too young at 56, in 1978.

Nina knew Cothran (who died of Aids) and liked him. “The whole thing was terribly awkward and painful.” I say to her that many marriages do come adrift and yet, with enough care from the parents, the children can emerge relatively unscathed. But she does not agree, retorting quite sharply: “I don’t know that that’s possible.”

For all the Bernsteins, the break-up was compounded not only by it being conducted under the full floodlights of fame but, more significantly, the onset of Felicia’s terminal cancer; as though the shock of the final public humiliation had led to her premature death. And it was Nina, with her older siblings having flown the coop, who was left to bear the brunt of her mother’s despair, followed by her father falling apart after her mother’s death.

When I ask her whether she has forgiven her father for leaving her mother, she says: “That’s a complicated question. Initially it was all much too confusing for me. My 13-year-old mind didn’t really understand what was going on except that I knew my mother was in terrible pain. But then, of course, he came back after she got sick and by then it was all too late. And … it was a ghastly business, just awful.”

Are you still scarred by it? “Probably. But, you know, we’ve all had our opportunities at therapy.” Now when you think of him, is it still complicated? “Of course. It will always be complicated.” Do you swing between thinking, “You were just unbelievable” to “You bastard!” “All those things, yes.” Is there anything you would have liked to have said to him? Would you have been able to tell him that he was a selfish person? “No, because it wouldn’t have done much good. I was only 28 when he died — so I wasn’t really in a position to say that.”

What about your sister, who I can imagine being quite feisty? “She may have had it out with him. And don’t get me wrong, I was no mouse. I stood up to him a great deal and somebody even said he was afraid of me.

“I guess it was because I wasn’t shy about telling him how I felt sometimes — and that wasn’t always met with appreciation either. But it was only on a couple of occasions that we rowed.”

She talks about his depressions, as well as his manic moments, but when I ask whether he suffered from manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s called now, she says: “I don’t know whether that’s a useful question, sorry. Well, what would we have done about it? Would he have been put on some kind of medication? And then what would have happened?” After Felicia died, he was in “a slough of despond” for many months: “It was so bad. And then, I remember this very clearly, he snapped out of it and we all went on vacation over Christmas, to Jamaica, and we finally had him back.”

Fairfield seems to have been the place where, certainly when his wife was alive, Bernstein was at his most uncomplicatedly happiest; enjoying his lively young family, who kept him in his place. “He could be pompous and it’s one thing to be pompous for the fans and put on that persona, but don’t try it around us. You know, ‘Save it for the podium’, was the family credo.” There was a lot of laughter and game-playing involving words, such as anagrams.

The family also had its own language of sorts: Rybernian, which Bernstein and a childhood friend, Eddie Ryback (the lingo was an amalgam of their names) invented: “It’s basically a way of mispronouncing things — Yiddish words as well as people who just talk funny.” It’s hard for an outsider to fathom quite how it works but Bernstein would launch into Rybernian until the day he died, and his offspring still use it. “I love you” becomes “Mu-la-du”, to which the correct response, apparently, is “Mu-la-dumus”, which means “I love you more”. And when Bernstein took on airs, his kids would speak to him in Rybernian — “We’d say ‘La-lutt’ [shut up] and that would bring him right down to earth.”

I wonder what it’s like being the offspring of someone so famous; Rebecca Miller, for instance, daughter of Arthur, battled with feelings of being a “bottom-feeder” until she found her own voice as a writer.

“You grow up and all your life people are saying, ‘Are you musical? What do you play?’ It’s the inevitable question. We all took piano lessons but … Well, here I am in a line of work that is completely, diametrically, different from anything to do with Leonard Bernstein. I teach kids to cook and love food and there’s nothing about Leonard Bernstein in that.”

She is married to Rudd Simmons, a film producer (High Fidelity, The Road) — and at work she is known by her married name.

“When I fell in love with him, I was so proud because he was nothing like Leonard Bernstein — almost the other extreme. And now ten years into the marriage, I realise he’s a lot like him — not in his behaviour but in the dynamics of our relationship. How could I have known?”

All three siblings do their bit to keep their father’s name alive: Nina is the archivist; Alexander runs the family foundation; Jamie does concerts for young people “much in the style of our father; although she’s not musician enough to handle the musical examples — she does the talking, and she’s really good at it”.

What was her father like about ageing? “He was miserable about it. Terrified. When he turned 70, there was all this fuss being made and he was in a terrible mood because he felt he had reached his biblical span of three score years and ten, and anything beyond that was borrowed time.

“It might have hastened his end — but what do I know? His last words were, ‘What’s this?’ And ‘this’, of course, I like to think, was just the next big thing.”

Bernstein died without having created work on the scale of, say, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. “What he really wanted to do was the big opera, and that never came,” Nina says. He didn’t even get a Tony for West Side Story (Music Man, with its hit song 76 Trombones, did): “My father had written a big aria — you’d have to call it an aria — for Maria at the end of the show. But it got cut, and so now she just speaks the lines: ‘How many bullets are left, Chino? How many bullets can I shoot and still have one left for me?’ It was decided that it was inappropriate to have a big dramatic operatic ending. In his correspondence to my mother he writes that ‘All my favourite parts, the best parts, are being cut for being too operatic’.”

Oh dear. He sounds quite jaundiced? “I think he was plenty proud of what ended up on stage. Jaundiced? Heavens, no!”

Although it’s probably fair to say that Bernstein is still best known for West Side Story — part of the thrust of the Southbank celebration is to introduce audiences to his other works, from The Age of Anxiety to his Mass. “Of course, I don’t even need to put the CD on, as I’ve got Radio Nina in my head. Some days, I think, ‘I’ll hum through Candide from start to finish’, for instance, and that’s a lot of fun.”

In this way she can stay close to her father for ever: “I was thinking, when we were talking about the film, how damn lucky we are. Most people when they lose their parents have a few photographs or home movies to cling to by ways of remembering them. But we are so surrounded by images and videos and music; it’s like being able to visit him.

“I find it comforting and then heartbreaking because what you crave is just to sit and have a laugh with him. He was a great hugger — a real neck-breaker — and that’s what you really want because, in the end, I’m not a scholar of Bernstein, I’m just his daughter.”

* * *

Leonard Bernstein’s What Does Music Mean? is screened in the Clore Ballroom, Festival Hall, tomorrow. Marin Alsop conducts The Age of Anxiety with the London Philharmonic on April 21, and Mahler’s Symphony No 2 on May 9.

Politicians, Women

Pauline Prescott: ‘John would have resigned over his affair’

The Times March 06, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Pauline Prescott talks to Ginny Dougary about public humiliation, private anguish – and why her husband now does the housework

Pauline Prescott
Photo: Phil Fisk

Pauline Prescott and I have been instructed to keep the volume down by a prefectorial therapist down the corridor from our tiny “treatment” room, where we are sitting opposite one another across a table, mercifully, rather than a collapsible massage bed.

For one of us, at least, the pre-emptive admonition is redundant. Paul, as she is known by her husband (she calls him Prescott, as in, so she says, “Move it, Prescott”) has the dulcet tones that our greatest playwright celebrated, “Her voice was ever soft/ Gentle and low, an excellent thing in a woman.” The former Deputy Prime Minister, however, unlike Shakespeare, apparently ticks off his wife for speaking too quietly. Well, tick-off shtick-off… Since Traceygate, the balance of power in their 50-year marriage has, Mrs Prescott confirms, shifted (irrevocably, one suspects) to her advantage.

She has just emerged from a photo shoot in one of the elegantly dilapidated rooms of the House of St Barnabas in Soho, formerly a home for the homeless, still a charity, and now doubling as a pop-up private members’ club for the metropolitan chic crowd. Her appearance is, as ever, immaculate. Unaccustomed as she still is to her turn in the limelight, however, Mrs P had a slightly wobbly moment in the ladies’ loo worrying that she didn’t look groomed enough (as if) for the photos.

Pauline’s appearance is – to use her favourite word – absolutely “fab”: the familiar jeujed-up raven mane, spidery eyelashes (a mixture of falsies and natural, truly fabulash), a tailored black trouser suit and fitted cream shirt (Jaeger), and a trio of black patent-leather accessories – a wide belt with a Courrèges-ish silver clasp, faintly dominatrix spike-heeled ankle boots, and a big slouchy shoulder bag. Talk about the “wow!” factor.

Her style has often been commented on – not always kindly – but this has more to do with its almost anachronistically high-maintenance glamour, particularly in the UK, where the prevailing look is more understated. In Italy or even New York – with her Nancy Dell’Olio nails’n’lashes femininity – Mrs P would blend in just peachily.

She looks great at 71 but, boy, she was something else in her youth. The cover of her new and first book, Smile Though Your Heart Is Breaking – a none too oblique reference to her husband’s two-year affair with his secretary, Tracey Temple – has a photograph of her as a wide-eyed ingénue, recalling a young Jean Simmons or Elizabeth Taylor (whom Pauline was often said to look like, although when John was wooing her, she tells us gamely, he said she reminded him of – what a charmer – Joyce Grenfell).

In another life, although she has no regrets at all about having been a full-time mother and housewife, Mrs P would have liked to have gone into fashion: “When I get up in the morning, it’s fashion TV straight on. I love all that. Yes, well, I could have done that. That’s probably what I would have done.” As a designer? “Not particularly, well, sewing clothes – I just love to wear them. I love Valentino and if I was to choose somebody to dress me, it would be Armani – I just adore his clothes. But I’m also wearing clothes, since I can still get into them, that I’ve had for about 30 years. Vintage, you know, and when I put them on, people say, ‘Wow! Like that suit!’”

She was dead chuffed that Sarah Brown had invited her to the next evening’s Fashion Relief charity show to raise funds for Haiti, and the following day’s newspapers showed shots of Pauline alongside the PM’s wife and Naomi Campbell.

John Prescott was also handsome as a young man, the couple cutting a considerable dash as they jived around the dance halls of Chester: “He was so much like Robert Wagner. Oh very much, and Dirk Bogarde – a cross between the two,” Pauline says. I ask her, rather baldly, whether she feels he has lost his looks. “Well… ah… we all get older. But, I mean, to me, he’s my John and…” But you can still see him objectively – the weight gain and so on? “Yes, he has put on weight but he has diabetes, you know. I think he carries it well. He’s very fit, actually. [They jived together at their local Chinese restaurant the previous week.] He goes to the gym and that sort of thing. But looks are only skin-deep. That’s what they say, don’t they?”

She likes people to be smart – not surprisingly, since she makes such an effort herself – but they don’t have to be beautiful or slim. In fact, she says – and this is unexpected – John met Gok “How to Look Good Naked” Wan, the other day: “And he said, ‘He’s the most charming young man’ – they got on extremely well.” After the Prescotts’ television forays into programmes on class and the North-South divide, is it possible that John and Gok are going to do a TV show together? What an amazing idea… “No, I don’t think so,” Pauline laughs gaily but not entirely unequivocally.

Actually, her husband is full of surprises. Who would have thought, for instance, that John Prescott would have any interest in reading the seminal feminist novel The Women’s Room, by the American author, Marilyn French, which honed in on the frustrations and depressions of a generation of stay-at-home suburban moms. “It was a staggering revelation to me that someone could feel like they were in a trap and couldn’t get out of it,” he said. “It must be terrible, absolutely terrible.”

More intriguing is the question of who pressed the book on him since it wasn’t his wife, who hasn’t read it herself: “No, I didn’t make him read it, actually I don’t read books very much, quite frankly,” she says. “I’m a great television person, really.” Her husband apparently is a great reader, mainly biographies: “He’s absolutely Oliver Cromwell mad… He was his hero, and Churchill, as well.”

Pauline had her first brush with women’s lib in the late Sixties, when she worked as a hairdresser to support John, who was studying economics and economic history at University of Hull: “There was this whole women’s group sort of thing, and I was asked to join them to [protest] against this pub that men used to go to where women weren’t allowed in, but I said, ‘Why shouldn’t the men go there for a drink? I don’t give a toss!’ I mean, I go for a drink with my female friends and it’s nice to be on your own without men, isn’t it? You don’t need to be escorted. Afterwards John said, ‘You didn’t go down at all well with the sisters, Pauline.’”

After the news of his affair broke, four decades on, it was another group of “sisters” (Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell, et al) who phoned Pauline to offer their support: “They’ve been great with me, absolutely lovely, and I got on well with all of them.”

Up to now, Pauline Prescott has been the most discreet and private of politicians’ wives. “I’ve always kept my distance and people have thought, I’m like a bit of a mouse, maybe,” she says. “You can cause a great deal of embarrassment to your husband when he’s in the position he was in, and if I had given my views… Well, I don’t always agree with John, you see, so…”

It was her boys, as she still calls them, who encouraged her to do the book – “Go on, Mum, go for it!” – after she had been approached by various publishers. She has two sons by Prescott, Jonathan, 47, a businessman who now acts as her agent (negotiating a fee of £350,000, not far behind his father’s £500,000 book deal in 2008), David, 40, a former journalist who is hoping to become an MP, when his father stands down after 40 years representing Hull East, and Paul Watton, 54, the son of a married US serviceman, whom she had given up for adoption. Their happy (newspaper-orchestrated) reunion, some years back, was the subject of a prolonged media blitz.

Pauline is full of praise for her book’s ghostwriter, Wendy Holden, and – with characteristic modesty – feels that it was she, not Holden, who was fortunate to be paired with such a collaborator. “You know she did Goldie Hawn’s book,” she says. “And after me, she went over to do Barbara Sinatra!”

How did she find the experience? “Well, I said, ‘I’ll probably clam up and end up stuttering,’ but it was like an unlocking – it just all flowed out. It’s been very therapeutic – we laughed, we cried – places that have been locked up for years because, of course, my boys didn’t know about my baby Paul… Lots of things like that.

“For years, people had never really asked me a great deal about my point of view, apart from my friends, and I’ve always kept quiet because of John. And I’m speaking because you’re asking about me basically, aren’t you? And so, yeah, I can let out my points of view now, without causing any embarrassment to John.”

One of the problems with this sort of book deal – the perils of Pauline, indeed – is the commercial quid pro quo, meaning Mrs P has had to invade her own privacy to a degree and dwell on matters that she would rather not have in the public domain. Although she writes about the affair in her book, she is not really comfortable talking about it, certainly not the specifics: “I don’t want to get in to too much depth about that. I have described how I felt about the affair and I accept the fact that he had it but the personal stuff – it happened and that’s it. End of story. I don’t bear any grudges and I don’t want to get into anything else about that.”

It would obviously have been easier to handle if the Prescotts had not been so much in the public eye, but she says: “When it happens to a woman, it’s devastating no matter who they are. But when you have to do it in the eyes of the media… I mean, the next day it was just bedlam outside my house – it’s in a cul-de-sac and all the camera people were there.”

How could we forget it? John had fled to Dorneywood but Pauline insisted she had done nothing wrong and was damn well going to stay put in her own home and – what’s more – go right ahead and have her new, swanky downstairs loo installed. I tell her that we all loved her for that; it might just have been her finest hour. Certainly, there could be no question that Mrs P would be leant on to do one of those grisly “Disgraced MP embraced by sorrowful but forgiving family” photo opportunities. “That was like my mum,” she says. “My mum was so feisty. It’s sort of like a northern thing… Just get on with it.

“But your self-esteem does take a hell of a battering… My boys and my daughters-in-law and my friends were a huge help and the letters I received! I tried to answer them all… But if you could just pop this in” – I’m happy to oblige – “‘Thank you to all the people who wrote to me.’ You know, you can’t run away from things because it’s always there to meet you.”

There was more northern grit in her insistence on reading every newspaper exposé: “John said, ‘You’re putting yourself through an awful lot more pain.’ I used to sit at home watching what was going to be in the papers on Sky. I saw the whole lot. You can’t confront anything until you’ve seen exactly what you are going up against, frankly.”

She holds no truck with the idea that the loneliness of the Westminster lifestyle – the late nights, work stress, separation from your family and so on – might be tough on a red-blooded man. In fact, she gives me an hilariously old-fashioned look when I go down this path. “No, if a man wants to do it, he’ll find a way of doing it. You can travel and it can happen at any time, can’t it?

“And let’s face it, I’ve been married all these years and I have never had an affair.” Have you ever been tempted? “No.” Have you never even been attracted to another man? “Oh, yes! I’ve looked at somebody and thought, ‘You’re handsome.’ You still do, don’t you? But I think about what I would be losing and I don’t think it’s worth it, quite frankly. And to lose the respect of your family, as well.”

Has John regained that respect? “Yes, he has because he was deeply, deeply ashamed and sorry. Some people thought, ‘A bit of a doormat, hanging on there,’ and that sort of thing. But you don’t throw your life away. You like your lifestyle and all that, and you’ve got your family to consider. I couldn’t have accepted it if there had been love involved – and John said there was no love, and so I have accepted that.”

You said that if it had been “a quickie in a cupboard” you could have handled that. “No, funnily enough, I didn’t really say that. I didn’t check that in the book and it was Wendy who put that in. It wouldn’t have been my terminology to describe it that way. But if it had been once at, like, an office party – I could have accepted that. What was hurtful was the deceit of the whole two years.”

The affair seemed to have happened around the same time as the newspaper revelations about Pauline’s son, Paul, about whom John had always known. “Yes, it was, funnily enough, and some people have said to me, ‘Oh, did that trigger it?’ But no, because our marriage was good. It has always been good. That’s why it was like a bolt out of the blue.

“What he did was very wrong and dreadfully humiliating, you know, and I don’t and won’t forgive him because, in my mind, to forgive is to condone. I’m sad when I think about it – I just think about what we had – but I’m not bitter. If I felt bitter about it, then I couldn’t have stayed with him – so you just move on from that.”

Do you talk about it any more? “You can’t not talk about it and we have been very open. People ask me for advice and I say, ‘Well, you know, frankly, you have to…’” She stops. “Sorry, give me a minute. It still gets to you.” Oh, I’m sorry. “No, no, it’s all right. No, it’s OK. We speak openly about these things… but you don’t dwell on it. If you keep going on about it, then you can’t move on, can you? But you don’t just say, ‘Right, I forgive you,’ and then forget it.”

Do you understand why and how it happened? “Not really, because I couldn’t have done a thing like that.” Do you believe that men are different, then? “Yes, because they can block it off and it’s sort of on one side, in a little box over there. They musn’t have a conscience. But women can’t do that, can they? I don’t know. I couldn’t.

“And I’m not judgmental about people – I’m really, really not – but I couldn’t live with myself. I’d have to tell and clear my conscience immediately. I’d want to be, sort of, ‘Forgive me, please.’”

When you insisted that he didn’t resign over the affair, how much of that was about you not wanting to give up the lifestyle? “I’ll be honest, I enjoyed it, obviously. John’s brilliant and I was very proud of him being Deputy Prime Minister. We were together as a family unit and we’d all worked very hard for what he’d done, and I didn’t want to see it thrown away, just because of that [the affair]. He’d earned it. And it was coming on to an election, so you can’t do that. He would definitely have resigned but I said, ‘No!’ And so we sat down with the boys and had a proper discussion about it.”

Incidentally, Pauline would like to point out that her husband, like the “very charismatic, warm, lovely” PM, “is so well thought of on the world stage. It’s just our own people that mock them. That is what annoys me. With John, they make him out to be stupid because of the way he can’t put his words together. No problem connecting with people, though!”

I wonder how her husband has changed towards her. She says that he has always been thoughtful – although he’s not particularly touchy-feely, more of an “actions speak louder than words” man: buying flowers and bringing her cups of tea in bed. She says in her book that, post-Tracey, she has become stronger and he has become softer. To me, she says: “I think he appreciates me more, and doesn’t take me for granted. He’s very, very thoughtful. He likes to surprise you and take you somewhere nice. He’s a very, very kind man and fond and, quite frankly, if he sees you’re tired, it’s not a case of, ‘Oh, that’s your work, woman.’

“Actually, the other week, I said to John that I was so far behind in my housework – it’s a big house, and I’ve never had any help for it – and I said, ‘I’ve got to wax this whole floor, can you put the wax on?’ So he does jobs like that. And then I said, ‘And while you’re down there, wash the skirting boards.’”

Well! That truly is a shift in the power dynamic, isn’t it? (I’m thinking Joseph Losey’s The Servant, here.) She laughs: “But it’s true. I’m not just saying that.”

What intrigues me about her husband are his neuroses behind all that strop and swagger. Just the other week, he gave a classic Prescottian performance on Newsnight – eyes blazing, jowls quivering – defending Gordon Brown against the PM’s would-be nemesis, Andrew Rawnsley. But to read about his crippling social awkwardness – an inability to enter a public room, for instance, without his wife going in first (“He gets very self-conscious, even now,” she says) – let alone the bulimia in such a big, macho fisticuffs fella, is as fascinating as Tony Soprano’s reliance on his shrink.

It was Pauline’s mother, interestingly, who first spotted her son-in-law’s odd behaviour around food. “Yes, my mum picked that up and said, ‘Keep any eye on him, Pauline, I think something’s wrong there.’” Had her mother come across bulimia before? “No, she just noticed little signs and she was very wise.”

It seems strange to me that Pauline hadn’t observed something herself, on his breath for instance. Anyway, she says, “He’s completely through that now.” His favourite dish of hers is lamb hotpot, “but in my fridge, I always say, ‘Look, you make your own choice here,’ because you can’t treat people like children, can you? There’s the naughty bits – and, I mean, I love my naughty bits, too – but there’s always loads of fruit at the bottom.”

(I ask her about her famous sandwiches – much commented on for their perfect crustless triangles. “Isn’t that funny? Do other people do big doorsteps or something? Shall I tell you who taught me? John did, because he used to be a waiter at sea and everything was done in style and, you know, even my boys do the most wonderful sandwiches. It’s good presentation.”)

Is she able to explain why her husband has these hang-ups? “I don’t really know, only John can answer that. He is quite a complex character, I suppose,” she says. “But I’m a great believer that these things stem from childhood. You know, he saw his father, Bert – a big philanderer – kissing a lady, when John was young, and he went to the police station and said, ‘Arrest my father,’ and I think it all stems from that.”

It was his mother, Phyllis, however, who told a journalist about Pauline’s baby, Paul, which is how the story got out. “Well, yes, that was upsetting. I wasn’t happy about it at all. And after all those years, yes, it was rather sad.’’ Had Phyllis lost it mentally? “No.” So she knew exactly what she was doing? “Oh, yeah.” What on earth was her motivation? “The sensationalism of it? It is strange, actually.”

But then, since it seems that her natural inclination is to be both fair and positive, Pauline lists Phyllis’s virtues: “She came from strong mining stock and was a brilliant woman and a brilliant mother. She liked to control and when I came on the scene she was not, you know, happy [particularly with an out-of-wedlock baby in tow]… But knowing all that was going on with the father, she did keep the whole family of five children together, and John was the head of that family.

“She was a very kind lady, too. I used to make my clothes, but she was a wonderful seamstress and used to make them for me, too. She worked at a mental hospital in Chester and not only did she teach the patients dress-making but she put on a fashion show for them with a catwalk and everything. She was a good mum, really, and I did tell John, ‘You weren’t very warm about your mum in the book.’”

Old habits die hard, and although, perhaps for the first time in the past four decades of public life, Pauline feels she can speak her own mind, she is still protective of her John. So when I ask her what she thought of him telling Tony Blair that the way the former PM paraded his deputy’s working-class credentials made him feel “like a performing seal”, her first response is, “How bloody stupid!” then, “Oh, I can’t really give a view on that.”

Who was on the phone more to her husband, Tony or Gordon, in Prescott’s role as a sort of marriage counsellor? “It was pretty even-stevens – it was, well, I knew quite a lot of what was going on then, but you don’t really say – but it was an interesting time, you know… to say the least.”

Like she says, looks are only skin-deep and I think her looks had distracted me from her qualities as a person. Pauline has none of the chippiness or awkwardness of her husband – who also emerges as a more three-dimensional human figure after talking to her – but is hugely appreciative of all the good things that have come her way. If he is a glass half empty, she is a glass half full, and that just might be the secret of their long marriage’s equilibrium.

She seems pretty convinced that her husband will go into the Lords – “They want him to go into the Lords and it’s common knowledge that he would like it.” So you will be Lady Prescott, how cool is that? “My God, yes! He’s leader of the Council of Europe, so he’ll still do that and he’s very much into the environment and works with Al Gore [her favourite world figure: “He is a very handsome man”] so that’s what he’ll do from the Lords when he steps down.”

Prescott used to joke that his wife didn’t need to be a Lady since she was already one, and I see what he means. She has a natural dignity and grace, with no hint of brashness. She reminded me of the actress Gina McKee, that same soft northern voice and manner, with the occasional glimpse of Alison Steadman (circa Abigail’s Party). She’s also fun, telling me how delighted she was to be told “by someone from gay liberation that I am a gay icon”.

She is having the time of her life, right now, and like “the sisters” and her sons, one wants to urge her, “Go for it, Pauline!”

“Do you know what? I’m getting very feisty in my old age,” she says. “It’s a different ball game because people know me for me now. I’ve never craved attention nor have I shunned the limelight. Parliament and so on, I just adored all that. And even now, I’m not thinking, ‘Right, where’s this going to take me?’ If things happen, they happen and, quite frankly, at my age – you know – I don’t need anything, do I? But I must say, I’m enjoying this.”


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Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking by Pauline Prescott, published by HarperCollins, is out now