The Times February 06, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

He was a world-renowned industrialist whose secret life as a gay man led to his downfall. For the first time, Lord Browne talks about the day he was outed, losing his job and falling in love again

Lord Browne
Photo: Phil Fisk

Lord Browne of Madingley rebukes me in the gentlest way when I make the mistake of asking a question the wrong way round. If the former chief executive of BP, once widely acknowledged as “the greatest businessman of his generation”, and now chairman of the Tate, could live his life again, would he have been happier making a career in the arts?

“I think probably not is the answer,” he says. “When I started out, I loved science. I adored it. At Cambridge, I did natural science and physics and I loved mathematics and solving problems. I was thinking about doing research until my father made a very good point that maybe I should go and earn some money. So I tried business and I loved it because the problems were bigger and I could stretch the boundaries of my knowledge. And I loved being an engineer for all that time – so I was very, very happy professionally doing that, and I wouldn’t think of doing anything else.”

My question came on the back of us talking – remarkably openly on his part – about the events that led to Browne’s resignation in 2007 from the company he had worked in for 40 years, 3 months earlier than his chosen retirement date. He had been outed by his 27-year-old former lover, Canadian-born Jeff Chevalier, who had sold the story of their four-year relationship to a newspaper.

Browne, now 61, understands why the revelations made explosive headlines with its combination of “sex and power”, as he puts it, magnified by his initial false declaration – “Our agreed cover story, as it were” – that the two men had met while jogging in Battersea Park. In fact, Browne, as he later corrected himself in a witness statement, intensely lonely after the death of his mother and with little experience of finding a companion after decades in the closet, had contacted Chevalier through a gay escort agency, Suited and Booted.

The problem is my casual assumption that Browne might have felt less compelled to lead a secret life had he not been working in the oil industry which, as he says, must qualify as the most macho of business worlds: “It was obvious to me that it was simply unacceptable to be gay in business, and most definitely the oil business.” But even the question suggests a conditioned response, doesn’t it? “It does a bit,” he smiles ruefully. The reality, of course, is that gays exist in every part of society, and people – be they rugby players or dockers or oil executives – should feel free to be true to themselves wherever they find themselves.

We meet, at the most business-like hour of 8.30am, in Lord Browne’s Georgian house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where he moved in with his partner, Nghi (pronounced Knee) Nguyen, two years ago. His book, Beyond Business – an echo of his controversial rebranding of BP, from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum – starts with a dedication to his mother and ends with thanks to “my partner, Nghi Nguyen, whose insight and patience contributed to every page”.

A Scottish butler, formerly in the employ of the Rothschilds, opens the door and leads the way to a gracious sort of “mini-me” house across the landscaped garden. Browne, who does not restrict his reforming zeal to modernising companies, has taken out the bedrooms and converted the space into a large library on the ground floor and a study upstairs. The interior designer was Tim Gosling, a former set designer and colleague of David Linley, whose other clients include the Savoy and Berkeley hotels, as well as the BP headquarters in London.

We sit at the head of a long table, away from the French windows, as Browne is suffering from a minor cold. He is a well-known collector of art and antiquarian books, including ones produced in Venice – where he also owns a flat – some dating back to the 15th century. The shelves around us are filled with antique Venetian glass, assorted small enamel boxes, many elephants made out of different materials, African baskets and Inuit sculptures from his travels for BP, as well as books on business (such as The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power) and artists, including his hero, as he describes him later – although they have never met – David Hockney.

Dominating the table in front of us is a white marble centrepiece, a sort of decorative folly of Egyptian ruins, with two seated figures facing each other, divided by a midnight blue pool. Browne tells me that he sometimes reassembles the sections, “a bit like playing with Lego”.

He looks very much the businessman, with his briefcase permanently at hand. He’s short, as has been much commented on, but has a natural authority and a manner which is somehow both soothing and enlivening. The immediate impression, and one which remains, is of someone thoughtful, imaginative and civilized. His voice is particularly striking; on the tape, it sounds as deep and husky as John Hurt’s – perhaps from all his years of cigar-smoking, a habit he gave up the day he left BP.

We kick off by talking about his new partner for the past three years, a former banker with Goldman Sachs – although Browne is most anxious to stress that they did not meet there. “Absolutely not. I’d left the board. Absolutely not.” Nghi is in his mid-thirties – “although he is much more mature than his years” – and was born in Vietnam of a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese father. Is he amazing looking? “Well, I think so.”

When I ask him whether he’s happy, Browne positively beams: “I am. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I feel amazingly fortunate. Amazingly. It’s wonderful.” Are you in love? “Yes, of course, and I feel supported as well. There’s a huge bond of trust.” Something you never thought you’d find again, after the Chevalier betrayal? “No, and it’s a very unusual thing.” His partner is contemplating a new career but Browne is not prepared to discuss it, saying that it is Nghi’s business not his: “I just think that belongs to him.”

We agree that no one understands the mystery of what makes relationships work but it’s helpful if there’s some sort of equality between the partners – a respect of one another’s talents rather than anything to do with earning power. This must be a more evenly weighted tandem than his previous set-up? “Yes, much more,” Browne says. “People need to be formed and I think Nghi is a very formed person and also very accomplished in his own right.”

It’s fascinating to talk to Lord Browne, particularly at this juncture. Coming out seems to have liberated him in more ways than the obvious one, enabling him to talk freely about all aspects of his life. It offers a rare insight into how deals are made at the highest levels, where business and governments make decisions which have an impact on all of us. Through him, one catches a glimpse of how the axis of the world turns. He is a good communicator and so, when he talks about negotiations with the likes of Gaddafi, for instance, you feel as though you’re standing right next to him in the intense heat in a tent in the middle of the desert.

Before his final year or so at BP, where he had worked for more than 40 years, Browne was at the top of his game – voted industrialist of the year for six out of seven years for his transformation of a middle-ranking British company into a major global force, through a series of takeovers and daring deals, such as the largest ever foreign joint venture with Russian oligarchs, TNK-BP, overseen by Putin and Blair, in new oil-rich territories. He was dubbed The Sun King, a grandiose title, with its suggestion of courtly splendour, which (as he feared) rebounded on him later.

He was also at the forefront of tackling climate change (Browne goes green) – breaking ranks with the rest of the oil industry in a pioneering speech in California in 1997, and withdrawing BP from the Global Climate Coalition, which had been set up by oil companies as a counter-lobby group to the environmentalists.

In 2002, he made more news with a speech committing BP to diversity and inclusion of all men and women (Anji Hunter, formerly on Tony Blair’s staff, was a high-profile appointment the previous year), regardless of religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation. The Guardian’s headline focused on only one strand of inclusiveness – “Diversity drive at BP targets gay staff” – which Browne found extraordinary at the time: “I thought, ‘Now why would that be newsworthy?’ And I don’t think it would be newsworthy today, but that was only seven years ago.”

He agrees there aren’t many “out” captains of industry – “There are a few in business: Michael Bishop, who ran bmi british midland, and Charles Allen, who used to run ITV – but there are a lot of people coming through the ranks now for whom the idea of not being out is bizarre. I mean, it’s just part of their life – so it’s only a matter of time. I always say to myself, if I’d come out, I could have done more.”

But even before the Chevalier fallout, BP had run into some grave operational problems – which was one of the reasons Browne failed to respond to his ex-lover’s implicit threat of exposure. There were ongoing legal matters after an explosion and fire at a Texas City refinery in America had led to the death of 15 workers and 150 injured. At the same time, BP was forced to halt production in its vast Alaskan oil field of Prudhoe Bay because of leaks in the pipeline and threats to the local environment. As CEO, Browne was held accountable for these disasters, which threatened to eclipse his past achievements, and must have exacerbated an already strained relationship with his chairman.

In the moving chapter of his book that covers the most difficult episode of his life, Browne writes: “My work with BP had consumed more than 40 years of my life. After I resigned, that part of my life had been severed… For some time I looked at my career with BP with distaste and dissatisfaction. It was hard to take a balanced view of the era that had occupied more of my life than any other.”

He can still recall those feelings of disenchantment: “Yes, for a while, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I just thought, ‘[For all that time], I lived a lie and it’s just business anyway and business is ephemeral,’ and that was that.

“But then I reflected a bit and thought, ‘Actually, that’s daft.’ That’s being as indulgent as saying, you know, ‘It’s all been glorious and wonderful.’”

Throughout his great adventures in the oil industry – which took him from the rugged inhospitability of Alaska to the politically unstable regimes of despots from Colombia to Nigeria – with all the tales of risk-taking and intrigue, one feels the palpable absence in his life of a companion to buffer him against life’s setbacks and share the pleasure of his triumphs.

This is why the personal chapter, which Browne was advised by some (he won’t say whom) to omit, is so crucial – because it helps the reader, as well as the author, one suspects, to understand the different strands that led to his undoing.

His father, John, had been an officer in the British Army, and went on to work for Iranian Oil Services, which provided employees to a consortium of oil companies in Iran. His son was sent off to boarding school in England at the age of 9, where bullying was the norm: “It was ghastly, just ghastly. Freezing cold, in the middle of the Fens, and discipline, discipline, discipline – driving young boys to become old men.

“Curiously, in spite of what people say about boarding schools, it was very homophobic and masculine in a very macho way.”

The upside was being taken on exeats by his uncle who lived in London: “He was sort of Edwardian and very old-fashioned but it was lovely. He treated me like I was a very grown-up person – at the age of 10 or 11 taking me out to restaurants and suggesting that I select the wine. Ludicrous!” And then there was the thrill of travelling by himself on first-class flights to Iran in the holidays. “There was no other class then – people dressed for travel and it was all very elegant.”

His mother, Paula, sounds both colourful and indomitable; a Hungarian Jew who lost most of her family in the Second World War, and survived a year in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. It was those experiences that formed her character and helped to shape her son’s – both for good (he inherited her tolerance of every different sort of person) and for ill (her fearfulness of disclosure).

Did he have a good relationship with his father? “Not bad. He sacrificed a lot to get me educated in a way that he wasn’t. I mean, he had a fine grammar school education – well-rounded, you know. He could recite poetry, his handwriting was fabulous, he wrote superb letters, and he’d teach me about history and geography and the Middle East. But after leaving the Army he was frustrated, I think, although he never talked in those terms because he was very British. You didn’t express feelings; heart on the sleeve was inappropriate. You know, gentlemen didn’t do that.

“I think I would say that he was in the shadow of my mother. He was a strong man who was then weakened by illness, and my mother just dedicated her life to looking after him.” Was she the stronger character? “Yes, I’d say so. When money ran out, she said, ‘Fine, we’ll have lodgers or I’m going to make hats.’ She was unsinkable, basically.”

In 1980, when Browne was 32, his father died, at the age of 64, after complications with diabetes which had resulted in the amputation of both his legs. Feeling that he could not leave his mother alone to deal with her grief, Browne suggested that she come to live with him in America. As he writes in the book: “I have no regrets, but I little realised then how dramatically that decision would impact my life. My mother would live with me until her death in 2000.”

A decade earlier, Browne had been living in Greenwich Village – on business for BP, waiting for the call to travel to Alaska – where he was amazed to see men walking hand in hand: “My eyes were popping out on stalks because I didn’t even know there was a gay subculture.” I wonder that he hadn’t come across any sign of it at Cambridge. First of all, he says, that one of his friends, who died young, “was almost certainly gay”, but they never discussed it. And then, “The idea of being out was just absolutely out of the question. With hindsight, I must have avoided it – probably on purpose I didn’t see it because I was scared.”

Homosexual acts, of course, were still illegal in the UK until 1967: “So there was a long hangover and there was a lot of homophobic chatter. Men would get together and talk about pansies and shirt-tail something or others [shirtlifters]; it was all pejorative and went on for ever.

“And also although my mother didn’t talk much about Auschwitz, one knew that it wasn’t just the Jews [who were murdered] but also gays and gypsies and other ill-sorted people, which just induced further fear in me that if you were different, one day someone would come and do something bad to you.”

But in the Village, he was able to conquer his fears, experiencing a somewhat bohemian lifestyle, learning to cook for dinner parties in his loft apartment, sublet from the singer Richie Havens, taking and developing photographs, and collecting David Hockney prints: “He was definitely one of my heroes.

I thought, ‘This man is doing great things, he’s living an interesting life and he’s come out,’ and I thought all that was fantastic.” (He still owns several of those prints, including one from the Pershing Square era, after an area of Los Angeles which was the centre of gay life and prostitution in the early Sixties.)

Post-Stonewall, Browne had the courage to walk into a gay bar for the first time. “I still remember it very well,” he says. “I was dressed in business clothes and someone came over and asked, ‘Do you know that this is a gay bar?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I know that.’ I was scared, very scared. I thought the walls had eyes, which was daft. I was very young, 22, so that was the first time, and the beginning of having a private, very different life, that came in and out – but it was a very minor part of my life which was mostly to do with business.”

I wonder whether his parents, at least, had not guessed about his sexuality. He says that his father probably suspected: “I mean, I had a few girlfriends but he must have seen straight through that and I think my mother probably didn’t want to see it. Did I want to tell her? I didn’t know how to get round to it.”

He describes his mother as his “number one supporter and conversationalist. She just listened and that was very important.” In many ways, she fulfilled the traditional role of the businessman’s wife; a vivacious hostess and wonderful cook who also accompanied him to functions. Reading about this and hearing her son talk about her, I find it hard to believe that Browne’s colleagues did not whisper that he was gay. I also wonder whether there wasn’t something selfish, although this is difficult to express to a loving son, about the ease with which she took on that role.

Do you think she would have accepted you being gay? “I don’t know.” You must have thought about it! “She’s bound to have because she had unconditional love for me. But she would also have felt threatened because she would have been very critical of it and she would have said, ‘Be very careful. Trust nobody.’ Her mantra was, ‘Be very careful with your self. Never believe the good in people because there’s bad.’ All those sort of things.”

It would have been difficult for you to have a partner while she was alive? “It would have been very difficult.” Do you think she wasn’t entirely selfless, in that case? “I don’t know. I just don’t know. It’s always difficult to replay these hypotheticals. Her drive was my happiness, I think.

“I also knew that she didn’t approve of people feeling sorry for themselves. She had a track record, I believe, to demonstrate that in the way in which she lived her life. She would say to me, ‘You know, sympathy is very cheap. You don’t need that.’ And I think probably all those bits and pieces led me to believe that there are some things I shouldn’t talk to her about.”

Towards the end of her life, when his mother began to acknowledge her time in the concentration camp, she asked Browne to go with her to visit the holocaust museum in Washington. “It was extraordinary, the whole build-up, and when we got to the Auschwitz Hall of Memorial and she lit a candle, that was it – I couldn’t take it any more and started to weep. But she said, ‘It doesn’t smell and there’s no noise. It’s just a museum.’”

I wonder how on earth he coped with the homophobic jokes and chatter in BP; was it like a thousand cuts? “You somehow got used to managing it. You wouldn’t cause a ripple.” Did you ever join in the banter? “No, I couldn’t quite bring myself to that point. It was remarkable how you could become part of the background. Then, of course, you wouldn’t notice what you were doing. After a period of time, you went to work and people would say, ‘When are you getting married?’ And you would look mysterious so people would say, ‘He must have a secret girlfriend.’”

In interviews, he would encourage journalists to believe the myth that he was a hopeful bachelor just waiting for the right woman to come along, telling The Sunday Times, when pressed, “Whether I get married remains to be seen. Maybe this interview is an advertisement.” Asked outright by the Financial Times whether he was gay, he replied: “You have got the wrong man there.”

Was he ever tempted to marry just to keep up a front? “I love the company of women but I could never bring myself to… That would be extreme. I mean, I was doing a lot of dissembling but that’s beyond it, I think, because there are only two people in a room in a relationship. Again, I never thought it would be possible.” But you do know people who have done that? “I know lots of people who have done that, now.”

Occasionally, Browne’s two worlds would collide. “It was very rare and, of course, it wasn’t just me who had behaved like that, it was the other person as well.” He remembers being startled to see another gay man, whom he recognised from a secret sexual encounter, at an industry event in Aberdeen. “But there was a code of conduct… People behaved in a certain way, and you relied on that behaviour of discretion. This is all so incredible to believe, really.”

He says something quite startling when we are talking about his dealings with the Russian oligarchs. “Of course, they have fantastic drive and many of them have been shaped by discrimination, being Jewish in a place that was very anti-Semitic. They have incredibly sharp elbows and you have to be on your guard the whole time, but they’re intriguing. Sometimes people exaggerate their dark side and I think some of the oligarchs don’t mind that at all.”

If they had known about your secret life, do you think they would have tried to use it against you? “I’m confident that the ones we dealt with, like Mikhail Fridman [the oligarch with whom Browne tied up the deal establishing TNK-BP], all knew. They had files on everybody so I think they knew everything.” Really! Did they ever let anything slip? “No, it was just, you know, business is business is business, and that’s all it is.”

We move on to what is clearly for Browne the disagreeable subject of Jeff Chevalier. But first I say that their story (minus its unhappy ending) is Pretty Woman, isn’t it, which makes him laugh a lot. “Absolutely. It is actually Pretty Woman – I’d never thought about that! Maybe they’ll make another movie…”

Did Browne love him? “At one stage, yes – but his character only became clearer when we broke up. No, he hasn’t contacted me and I don’t want to contact him.” Did he suspect that Chevalier was capable of selling their story when he’d asked Browne for money? “I sort of buried it a bit… But paying people off is not a good idea. It’s an affront to you.”

You had socialised as a couple with Tony Blair and Anji Hunter, Peter Mandelson and so on? “Yes, we were open, but it was a limited openness… It’s different now.”

He remembers the feelings he experienced when he told his “fib”, as he puts it, about how they met, which made such an impact. I’m still not quite sure why it was anyone’s business how the two men met, other than it would have taken the spice out of the newspaper story – and, of course, Browne did try to rely on his position in the House of Lords to discredit Chevalier’s story when seeking an injunction.

“I remember the gnawing inside me… I remember all of that.” Does the evasion still niggle you? “Absolutely, but it doesn’t destabilise me any more. Although it was great to be out, there were a few residues that stayed and that is one of them, because my track record was very different.”

How did he cope after the story blew up? “I decided I wouldn’t go into hiding and I kept saying to myself, ‘Well, I’m still the same person and I didn’t change overnight and I will carry on.’

“And then I was amazingly touched by the support from friends but also the public. I mean, it was fantastic! Hundreds and hundreds of letters, and vast numbers from inside BP. Of course, I had a lot of gay men write to me – older gay men with really harrowing accounts… [His voice drops] One who had been caught cottaging by the police which he told me about.

“And I made it my project to answer all of them – which I did. E-mails with e-mails, typed letters with typed letters, handwritten letters with handwritten letters.”

As in all good stories, it seems that our hero has learnt a great deal from his own personal oil fire. His life now sounds happier and more fulfilling, at a deep level, than he could ever have imagined. “It’s impossible to live a lie,” he says. “You’re never yourself and it hurts you. You start by living two lives and eventually it’s just not sensible. You’re fooling yourself much more than you’re fooling anybody else.”

I ask him whether we might ever see him on a gay rights march. “If we went backwards, I think you’d see me. As I get older, I get more outspoken and I think, ‘Why not?’”

He’s still working, as a partner in an American private equity firm, Riverstone, for which he co-heads the world’s largest renewable energy fund. Then there’s the Tate, with its huge expansion plans to oversee, and he’s President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society which is dedicated to furthering the role of science, engineering and technology: “Which is good fun – we’re actually making engineering feel more relevant, I hope, to people. You know, arts and engineering is design and that’s something the UK is doing very well, actually, and should do more.”

But he’s got his weekends back now, and he and Nghi travel, eat out and go to the theatre and the opera. “Nghi and I love the opera. We’re going to The Rake’s Progress again tonight, and we’re seeing Così next, which I adore.”

Does he feel as though he’s been given a second chance? “Yes, and we need to invest time in that. Don’t say, ‘I’ll get round to it,’ and let important things that are actually quite unimportant get in the way – like, ‘I need to go to another meeting,’ or ‘I need to do another business deal.’ Life, it seems to me, has to be inverted from the past. You know, think about relationships and the things that enrich life.

“Oh, it’s like…” he gives a great sigh of relief, as though shrugging off his past, “one of the gifts of 2007 is that I can be very open. Two parts of me have been joined together, really for the first time. It’s wonderful because it makes me happier and it allows me to have different relationships with people. Because it is what it is, and I am who I am, and that makes a very big difference to me, and I’m probably lighter in my step.”

The phone rings from the main house. Lord Browne has been so relaxed talking that he’s forgotten to take a conference call but, as he has finally discovered, there is more to life than work.