If I were to compile a list of the 20 most impressive women I have ever met, Marion Thorpe would be right up there. I first met her back in 1998 when I published a book by her husband, Jeremy Thorpe. I went to their magnificent home in Orme Square, off the Bayswater Road, where I found Jeremy in his office, in a natty three piece suit replete with yellow waistcoat. I was let in by Jeremy’s faithful secretary, who had worked for him since before his political downfall in the late 1970s. Marion was stood behind Jeremy and I remember thinking she was like a lioness protecting her cub. This meeting came a couple of weeks after I received a call from Jeremy Thorpe, asking if I would like to publish a book of reminiscences he wanted to write.
Spending six months with him putting the book together was a fascinating experience as he was a key figure in my early political memories in the mid 1970s. Despite the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease, his mind had remained razor sharp and we had some fascinating political discussions.
For anyone much younger than me Jeremy Thorpe is a name which is only associated with one thing – the trial. But we should remember that for a decade he was considered to be Britain’s most charismatic politician in an age of technocrats. He brought a campaigning verve to politics which few had bettered since.
Yes, in many ways he was a flawed politician, but in many ways he kept the Liberal flag flying against all the odds. His political career ended in the worst possible circumstances, yet he never embraced the bitterness which could so easily have dominated his long years of political exile. The Liberal Party itself was not kind to him. It’s easy to understand why, but on a human level it was deeply unforgivable. Jeremy always felt his party would come calling for him once again, if only for wise advice. But those calls never came. The peerage he so desperately wanted eluded him.
Back in the early 1970s my mother used to be besotted with Jeremy Thorpe and was a Liberal voter until the, er, events of the mid 1970s. My sister then got to know him in the 1980s through his work at the United Nations Association. So to publish his book was an experience I shall never forget, but it was largely down to Marion, as well as Jeremy, that I shall treasure that time,
John and I became quite friendly with them and enjoyed several meals at Orme Square and we stayed at their beloved North Devon home one weekend. Marion and John got on especially well, both being chain smokers. Every five minutes they seemed to disappear for a quick fag. Marion often displayed a very well developed and cheeky sense of humour. I have read in other obituaries that she could be icy cold. If that was the case, we never saw it. She was never anything other than welcoming, amusing, great company and full of anecdotes. Apart from Jeremy, the other great love of her life was music, and their living room was dominated by a giant Grand Piano. In her youth she was a renowned concert pianist, having been a disciple of Benjamin Britten. But when she married the Earl of Harewood her music took a back seat. She had three sons with him, but the marriage was not to last following his adulterous affair. They divorced in 1967 and she married Jeremy in 1973.
When i first met Marion she was 72 years of age, but still stunningly beautiful. She had a regal spirit about her and a tremendous sense of calmness. She had devoted her life to looking after Jeremy, and in many ways I regard her as a living saint. Jeremy’s Parkinsons dominated their lives. She did have help, but she was effectively his full time carer. I cannot imagine how dreadfully her death will have affected him.
Marion wasn’t blind to Jeremy’s flaws but she loved him, warts and all. She would go to any lengths to protect him, and in the months following the publication of his book I took felt incredibly protective of them both. They trusted John and myself not to put too much pressure on Jeremy to include material in the book that he didn’t want to. The book wasn’t a full scale autobiography, more a collection of reminiscences and anecdotes. I can’t pretend it was a great work of literature, but it was significant nevertheless. It allowed Jeremy to tell some of the tales he had been storing up for years and it provided him with a form of therapy, I think. Marion told me it was important that he always had a project to concentrate on.
Some time after publication of the book I got a phone call asking if I would visit Orme Square to discuss “a matter of some urgency”. It appeared that Jeremy had cooperated with a biography of him written by the historian, Michael Bloch. The Thorpes agreed to cooperate with it on the understanding that it would be published posthumously – something quite common in the literary world. Roy Jenkins had the same agreement with Andrew Adonis, as did Charles Moore with Lady Thatcher. Jeremy had encouraged his friends and former political colleagues to talk to Mr Bloch on the same basis. They were all rather shocked therefore to learn that Mr Bloch had finished the book and was going to publish in January 2002. Originally the book was going to be published by Transworld but Mr Bloch’s editor, Ursula McKenzie, moved to Little Brown and took the book with her. Ms McKenzie seemed totally unmoved by the fact that she and Mr Bloch were reneging on the agreement with. Two people at the publishers have justified this by saying: “Thorpe has lived too long.” What a disgrace.
Marion was distraught. Jeremy was furious. I promised to do all I could to ensure the book would never come out. Legal action was threatened. I remember having conversations with senior people at Little Brown and trying to make them see sense behind the scenes. In the end they did, and I remember a call from Marion telling me the good news. She was in triumphant and unforgiving mood. The lioness had won out again. Jeremy came on the line: “We saw them off, didn’t we?” That was thirteen years ago and the book has still not appeared. I hope they now have the decency to wait until Jeremy leaves us.
John and I last saw the Thorpes was five years ago at Jeremy’s 80th birthday in April 2009, appropriately held at the National Liberal Club. I was somewhat shocked to see Marion in a wheelchair. But there she was, making sure Jeremy was comfortable, protecting him from overzealous well-wishers. The fact that the Liberal leader Nick Clegg was there and made a speech seemed to be the welcome back into the Liberal fold Jeremy had always wanted. The peerage, though, was still elusive.
I’m proud to have known Marion. Had she persisted with her musical career she could have risen to any height of musical achievement. But if I know her she will have had few regrets that that last forty years of her life were devoted to caring for the man she loved very deeply.
Marion Thorpe died on Thursday at the age of 87.