The Greatest Man I Ever Knew?

The rich, varied, and absorbing life, and careers, of John Freeman

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Thinking man of action: John Freeman with his third wife, Catherine, on their wedding day in 1962 (photo: Catherine Freeman)

John Freeman led a rich, varied and absorbing life. Before the war, an advertising executive; during the war, “the best brigade-major in the Eighth Army” (Field Marshal Montgomery); then a Labour MP, a minister and leading Bevanite; editor of the New Statesman in its heyday; a celebrated TV interviewer (Face To Face); a High Commissioner in India and Ambassador in Washington; a TV mogul who saved London Weekend Television from self-destruction; and finally a teacher of politics and government at a delightful California campus.

There followed two decades of retirement, ending in his death two months short of his 100th birthday in the Star and Garter military rest-home in Richmond. Freeman resolutely refused to write his memoirs, give interviews about his life, or co-operate with would-be biographers (“I will give you no assistance whatever, on the other hand I will impose no impediment or sue you for libel.”) This was a wise decision, in my view. It presented his career as self-explanatory, and left the biographer with all the additional labour necessary, unhampered by any interference from Freeman himself.

Hugh Purcell has done his work well and thoroughly and presents his account less than six months after John’s death. He has studied official papers, when available, and consulted all the people who knew John, especially Norman Mackenzie, colleague and friend for over half a century, Anthony Howard, one of his successors as editor, and Henry Kissinger, who provides a fascinating, unpublished account of Freeman’s dealings with President Nixon. He has fresh and sometimes startling facts to present about nearly all of Freeman’s “lives” and this book has, for me at least, something new on almost every page.

John Freeman was one of those rare creatures who was both a man of action and a cerebral analyst. He delighted to identify a problem, and the way to solve it, and then acted swiftly. The nature of the problem did not matter, so long as it was important and capable of intellectual remedy. But once he had solved it he quickly lost interest and wanted to move on. If a fresh problem failed to emerge, he changed his job. He saw life as a vast corridor of separate chambers and each time he left a room, having tidied it up first, he shut the door firmly behind him.

John always talked in complete sentences. He had a gift, a genius, for clarification. Those who knew him superficially called him “a cold fish”. That is wrong. The word for him was “cool” (in its old sense). He was capable of very strong feelings. In 1955 I was an editor at the French magazine Réalités and part-time Paris correspondent for the New Statesman. John came over to Paris to invite me to join the NS full-time, to replace R.H.S. Crossman as writer on foreign affairs. “And while I’m here I will investigate the Paris Metro to see how far its virtues can be embedded in the London Underground.” I was given a tiny office on the editorial floor, which I covered in maps of world city-centres, “for use in street riots”. Next door was a big office shared by Mackenzie and Colonel Aylmer Vallance. When Aylmer got cancer, John used to visit him every day, taking him a gift, until he died. Not long after, he came into my office, sat down, and burst into tears. “I’ve just been told my wife has inoperable cancer,” he said.

Such outbursts were notable, though rare. John has been criticised for his treatment of his third wife, Catherine Dove, who was one of the author’s chief informants, and John comes out of the account here as insensitive, with a low threshold of boredom. That is not quite right. Catherine was a hugely forceful personality, which expanded exponentially in the Washington climate. John’s transfer of his affections to her social secretary was his bid for freedom and also the reason why he resigned from the ambassadorial job after two very successful years. He needed the stimulation of problems but he also required calm in his private life. His last wife, Judith, gave him that. Thus the axiom “Freeman changes his job and his wife every few years” was a smart-aleck simplification of a very complex trajectory.

The largest slice of John’s life was spent in broadcasting, either as interviewer or as a mogul. Of his Face To Face interviews three-quarters were superlative successes. He brought Edith Sitwell (“a mobile high altar”) into brilliant and sacramental life. He transformed Gilbert Harding from a snarling bully into a pathetic and tragic hero. He fought a rapier duel with Evelyn Waugh, both at the top of their sardonic form. The meeting with Carl Gustav Jung, the only one to take place outside the studio and preceded by a meal at which Catherine Dove was present, became a piece of history.These famous interviews are among the very few from that epoch which have been preserved and are available to the public. They are part of TV legend and enable everyone to judge for himself a central episode of John’s life. His spell as a mogul lasted much longer and was largely uncovered until Hugh Purcell reconstructed it. His account presents Freeman at his superb best: the cerebral man of action. I recommend all to read it attentively.

In John’s retirement I used to paint him an elaborate birthday card every year, and in return he sent me a handwritten letter. His handwriting did not vary over more than half a century: firm, clear, upright and instantly recognisable. I went to his funeral service which was in character, almost ritualistic, but fundamentally secular, and with a eulogium conspicuously absent. I was a friend of John’s for exactly 60 years, and I think he was the greatest man I have been privileged to know. Purcell has produced, on the whole, a fair and full account, and I am grateful to him.