Spilling the Beans Woodrow Wyatt enjoyed an insider's cozy view of Britian's royal and ruling families. Now his diary, published posthumously, reveals all the gossipy tidbits he soaked up.

October 29, 1998|By BILL GLAUBER | BILL GLAUBER,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- So, here's Britain's beloved Queen Mum, cast as an amiable right-winger, telling of royal toasts to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and bemoaning the bad press given to P. W. Botha, the last unrepentant villain of South African apartheid.

And there's Queen Elizabeth II, presiding imperiously at the racetrack, "horse racing being the only thing she is interested in and knows something about."

Finally, there is the Iron Lady herself, Thatcher, described as "all woman," the vivacious champion of Britain's political scene in the mid-1980s.

These are the stars in Woodrow Wyatt's galaxy, a who's-who of aristocrats and media magnates, the so-called great and good who have dominated Britain since the beginning of time.

And not one of them seems to have known the former Parliament member and former newspaper columnist was keeping a diary as he moved about as an insider among Britain's powerful elite.

"I cannot let Mrs. T [Thatcher] down: She thinks I don't keep a diary because I told her that 10 years ago when it was true."

From the grave, Wyatt has given the elite an awful fright. He has spilled the royal and political beans in his secret diary, which was serialized over the last four weeks in the Sunday Times of London and which will hit British bookstores today as "The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt."

Wyatt was first elected to Parliament in 1945. He was a left-wing Labor socialist then, but had become a Thatcherite by the 1980s. He was a star television reporter, a newspaper columnist and, for the last 21 years of his life, chaired Britain's state-owned bookmaking service. In 1987 Wyatt was given a seat in the House of Lords. In his last years, he kept the secret diary so it could be published to serve as a financial cushion for his heirs.

His up-close views of the royal family and the Thatcher era have set pulses racing along the champagne-and-canapes circuit. But why should anyone care about old gossip from the mid-1980s?

Well, for one thing, the royals are supposed to be above politics, keeping whatever political views they have to themselves. For another, Wyatt broke the first rule of Britain's insiders: In a world where nobody is to say anything to outsiders, he has told a lot, becoming a tattle-tale and providing a good read spiced with sexual innuendo, wit and provocative characters.

The line from Buckingham Palace is that the diaries were warmed-over dinner-party conversation that did not much bother the royal family. The London Daily Telegraph called it "The Guinness Book of Name Dropping." The Guardian, tongue in cheek, said it is "the most subversive text since 'The Communist Manifesto.' "

Some questioned Wyatt's version of events. His claim that former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was expelled from Eton, England's premier private school, for homosexual conduct was excoriated by Conservative Party historian Lord Blake. "It's an outright lie. I wouldn't trust Wyatt an inch," Lord Blake fumed to London's Evening Standard.

Eton College archivist Penny Halfield said: "This story of Macmillan being expelled crops up vaguely from time to time," and added: "There is nothing in the archives to say that. Records of expulsion have not by and large survived. There is nothing to indicate he was expelled."

Writer Antonia Fraser knocked Wyatt's boast that they had kissed at a racetrack 25 years ago. "I do not think he would have been able to reach up," she told the Evening Standard. Wyatt "had a fantasy thing about tall blondes, and evidently, that's me."

Wrote the Evening Standard's David Sexton: "Wyatt, always an operator, aimed these diaries carefully at the market for mucky tattling. He plainly understood that, though readers have become skeptical of most forms of writing, they still believe in diaries, quite naively."

Mainly, the diaries provide a reminder of just how good the British are at this sort of storytelling. From Samuel Pepys' slice of the 17th century to Alan Clark's testosterone-filled account of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the British have demonstrated an uncanny ability to write piercing accounts of social and political life.

An inside track

"Wyatt straddled separate worlds and gives us all an insight into those worlds," says John Witherow, the Sunday Times editor. "He crossed several areas. He mixed in high political levels. He befriended Thatcher and flattered her outrageously. He mixed with the royal family. The Queen Mother must have quite liked him."

It's hard to imagine an American counterpart to Wyatt. He was a one-of-a-kind figure, born July 4, 1918, and named after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. He was married four times, confidant of the rich and famous, rarely seen without his trademark cigar and bow tie. When he died at 79 last year, the Times of London obituary provided an apt description: "Woodrow Wyatt was a card."

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