Photography by Fred R Conrad/The New York Times
Lady Rothermere in her New York apartment, 1978
"When London's premier socialite died, gossip columnists and social diarists lost a rich source of material. A colourful, extrovert figure who was often portrayed as a scatterbrain, 'Bubbles' Rothermere was rarely far from the centre of attention"
I've posted a lot of pictures recently and not much to read... A little while ago the lovely Alex suggested I write something about the rather unusual jobs I've had. A lot of people have asked me about this one - my friends Pablo and David have a thing about 'Bubbles', so this is for you too.
One of the most bonkers jobs I've had was when I was eighteen in 1987. I worked for a year for Patricia Harmsworth, Viscountess Rothermere, who was known in the press as 'Bubbles' due to her love of Champagne and extravagant partying.
Pat's husband Vere Rothermere was the super-rich proprietor of Associated News which consisted of the Daily Mail, The London Evening Standard and various regional papers and printing plants.
I was asked be her "Social Secretary" by a friend at the Evening Standard on the basis that she'd been through nine girls already that year and had frightened them all off. I wasn't frightened of anyone so was asked to give it a go, I liked a challenge then and still do! And I've always liked people who are a little bit crackers.
I had no idea what "Social Secretary" meant but I thought the title sounded fun! It was an odd role for someone of that age but I knew her son Jonathan a little bit and some of his friends and I knew they'd be around a lot as he lived downstairs. They were always dropping by, keeping me company and making me laugh, they were fantastic boys.
Eaton Square, Belgravia, SW1
I worked from Pat's home in Eaton Square. An imposing apartment spanning two houses. It was very grand with cream marble floors lined with busts and statues and a huge drawing room decorated in Louis XIV style with lots of gold gilt, dusky pink sofas, lots of mirrors and a giant Venetian chandelier. There were silver framed photographs of her everywhere with numerous faces including The Queen, Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson, Diana Vreeland and Elton John. Her bedroom was enormous and very flouncy, all swags and tails and Sanderson floral wallpaper. The kitchen and the bathrooms were shabby and dated as they often are in these houses, it's all about entertaining. The room I loved the most was the dressing room and her wardrobe was vast. Endless rails of Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Gina Fratini, Zandra Rhodes, Christian Lacroix... and endless amounts of shoes. Her favourites were by Maud Frizon and she had them in every fabric and colour.
Pat was well known for her outrageous dress sense - Shirley Temple wigs, frilly dresses and huge bows in her hair, sometimes finished off with designer baseball boots, it was an unusual look.
My job was to take all the phone calls (she often didn't get up until 5pm and then sometimes not until I'd got hold of Patric Walker - the Evening Standard's astrologer - on the telephone from his home in Lindos, Greece so he could read her horoscope). He'd do mine too. He was fantastic, I loved him.
With David Frost at Chasen's, Beverly Hills, 1981
I would organise her infamous parties and help get her together for the numerous events she attended - this included everything from arranging clothes to be delivered from designers to booking her "walker" for the evening. Her walker's could be anyone from Bill Wiggins (an ex of Joan Collins), Nicky Haslam, various Italian counts (I'm not sure they were real counts but they'd have like to have been, they were all called Massimo as far as I could tell) to her favourite, a "resting" American actor called Clifford who would spend most of his days lying on her sofa drinking lager and wearing a Fez, trying to perfect his Tommy Cooper impressions. He watched endless videos of Tommy Cooper over and over again.
Clifford would wait hours for Pat to get ready. Sometimes they wouldn't leave until 11pm to go to dinner, then it was always onto Annabels. She loved to party but hated the name the press had given her.
Soon after I arrived she hired a full-time nurse, an Australian called Sandra. Sandra became my partner in crime. We had to travel with Pat as well, along with her two Spanish maids who'd been with her years and were wonderful (sadly, I can't remember their names at the moment). I was glad to have Sandra as she kept me sane. Travelling was such a pallaver! Pat insisted on taking a ridiculous amount of stuff everywhere she went. Fleets of Vuitton cases filled with clothes, shoes accessories, jewellery, toiletries, a ton of pills and medication and a whole suitcase just for her wigs!
Mainly Pat was based in Eaton Square but she also had a country pile - Stroods House in Uckfield Sussex, a beautiful house in Cap D'Ail in the South of France called Villa Roc which was once owned by Greta Garbo, a very large apartment in Park Avenue, New York, a house in Beverly Hills she rarely visited and another in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
In the year I worked for her we went to Stroods a few times, New York but mostly to Villa Roc. I absolutely loved it there. Sandra and I would have the whole day to ourselves as Pat would be sleeping. We swam and laid around by the pool. We used to get the houseboy to score us weed and spent most of our days laughing like a couple of hyenas. When Pat went to parties we would hit the vodka and try on her clothes. I remember one night running around in her wigs which the housekeeper's thought was hilarious.
Villa Roc, Cap D'ail, Nice, France
Although it was high maintenance, it was a really fun job to do. Sometimes I would sit in her bedroom and chat to her late at night and she'd be lovely, telling me all sorts, occasionally she'd cry and I'd feel really sorry for her. I don't think she ever got over splitting up with Vere, who was always friendly and polite (but also happily ensconced at The Ritz with his Korean girlfriend, Maiko Lee). Mostly Pat was changeable and very demanding, probably due to the pills and would scream and yell (in her 1950's clipped cut-glass accent) while we all tore about attempting to sort out whatever she wanted.
The other thing was, and I think this is what put some of the girls off, was that she walked about in the nude a lot, it wasn't a pretty sight and used to really embarrass her son Jonathan and his friends, who were my age. She'd often come flying out of her bedroom completely starkers, wearing nothing but an oversize pair of YSL sunglasses and talking ten to the dozen. I can imagine that would be disconcerting for some people.
Pat was on a constant diet - the maids would make her papaya for breakfast and a bright green juice drink and the rest of the time she ate boiled chicken. For all I know she could have been eating cake all night, because she never lost any weight.
There were constant medical problems, some real, some imagined and she must have rattled with the amount of pills she took. In her huge bedroom one entire wall was full of shelves and shelves of pills. One night there was a huge commotion over a knee support, she had us all running around looking for it. No one could find one and the chauffeur had gone home so I drove her Bentley (with no driving licence) to Bliss, the all-night chemist in Sloane Square to get her another. Thankfully I'd had a few lessons!
It was 1988, the time of acid house in England, the party scene in London was brilliant and I went out a lot. I would really struggle to go to work at all on a Monday and I hardly slept at weekends back then. I decided I wanted to go to Ibiza for a few months and Pat was going off to Villa Roc for a while. I didn't want to be with her all summer and that's when we parted company. I have lots of great memories from that time and I'll never forget the mental stuff that went on. I can't say too much more, but that's not the half of it!
When Pat died in 1992 I got a call from a friend. I wasn't surprised because of all the prescription drugs she took, but I would say it was an accidental overdose as I don't think she would have killed herself. Her and Vere never divorced and I wonder whether she hoped one day she would get him back. In 1993 Lord Rothermere married his long-time mistress Maiko.
This is the only photograph I can find of Pat and Vere together and I hate using pictures with watermarks.
For someone who was photographed so much and went out so often, there's very little online about Pat and barely any pictures. Below are some articles I could find. I think that after she died Vere had any negative information about her removed. He created an acting award in her honour The Patricia Rothermere Award which is presented annually at The Evening Standard Film awards in London. Whatever people say about her, she was definitely a one-off.
Patricia Evelyn Beverley Matthews Harmsworth
(5th May 1933 - 12th August 1992)
By Colin McDowell for The Independent
Friday, 14 August 1992
Patricia Evelyn Beverley Matthews (Beverley Brooks), actress, born 1929, married Christopher Brooks (deceased; one daughter Sarah Jane Brooks born 1956; marriage dissolved 1956), 1957 Vere Harold Esmond Harmsworth (succeeded 1978 as second Viscount Rothermere; one son, Harold Jonathan Esmond Vere Harmsworth born 1967; two daughters; Geraldine Theodora Gabriel Harmsworth born 1957; Camilla Patricia Caroline Harmsworth born 1964), died Cap d'Ail, France 12 August 1992.
In the Seventies and Eighties Patricia Rothermere was as essential to the London party scene as champagne and canapés and, within that small circle for which such things matter, was famed for her hospitality.
As a fashionable figure, 'Bubbles' Rothermere raised contradictory emotions. On the one hand, her total disregard for the 'You can never be too thin or too rich' fashion doctrine caused mirth among women less secure of their position and role in society - the women who literally nibble a lettuce leaf with such dedication that their stomachs shrink and it becomes impossible for them to put on weight. On the other hand, as she grew larger and defiantly refused to dress in a way that might disguise her size, she became a cheerleader around whom those who wanted to have fun without worrying about avoirdupois happily rallied.
Pat Rothermere's appearance was startlingly unconventional. She loved taffeta, velvet, bows, flounces and all the gallimaufry of late 18th-century dress. She was lucky that London is still the centre for this particular form of evening dress - over-decorative, anachronistic and fussy. London designers were also lucky that they had her to wear their extraordinary creations. Whereas on slimmer, more standard figures they appeared banal and derivative, her size gave them an unexpected probity and stature.
It is as a brilliantly dotty, shimmeringly exotic night figure that she will be remembered. As she arrived at a party wearing an extravagantly concocted evening gown by Gina Fratini or Zandra Rhodes hers was invariably a presence that could not be ignored.
As a hostess she believed in an amusing mix and threw people together in an unconventional way that, in the hands of other hostesses, would seem suicidal. Guests included politicians and City men on one side and Hollywood stars or National Hunt jockeys on the other. As an ex-Rank starlet she knew not only how to project but how to improvise. If a party was too pompous, to keep it moving, she would create her own little diversions. There are tales of midnight fish-and-chip feasts in the back of her Bentley and many escapades that are best described as japes - schoolgirlish, fun and rather innocent. They epitomise the Girls' Own quality of much of her life.
She was born Patricia Matthews in Hertfordshire in 1929, the daughter of an architect. Considered a beauty in her early twenties, she became an actress. Under the name of Beverley Brooks she appeared in several films, including Reach for the Sky (1956), the story of Douglas Bader. In 1957, after divorcing her first husband Christopher Brooks, she married Vere Harmsworth, later Lord Rothermere and Chairman of Associated Newspapers. She once said, "I married an empire." But she always had plenty of time for fun, moving between London and her various homes in New York, Paris and Jamaica.
Her parties were not the orgy of self-indulgence and self-congratulation that many London hostesses preside over. She was a tough and determined fund-raiser for charity and used the clout of her social position to raise considerable sums on the principle that, guests or no, she expected people to pay for the fun. Her house in Eaton Square was indeed a Mecca for fun lovers but charity-supporting friends like Princess Margaret, and later the Princess of Wales, knew that Pat Rothermere had a steely determination when it came to raising funds. And they respected her for it.
(Note: Lady Rothermere always stated her birth year as 1933, however, the obituary states 1929.)
Photography © Bob Colacello
Lady Rothermere (Bubbles) and Lester Persky at Xenon's Halloween party, 1978
Society Hostess Died Following Drug Overdose
By Kathy Marks for The Independent
September 25, 1992
Viscountess Rothermere, the flamboyant society hostess, died of an accidental drugs overdose combined with hypertensive heart disease, after taking more than 2,000 tablets on holiday with her to the south of France, an inquest was told yesterday.
Dr Paul Knapman, the Westminster coroner, recorded a verdict of death by misadventure at the inquest in central London. He said that it was clearly not a natural death, as first believed by French doctors, but he ruled out suicide, saying there was no evidence that Lady Rothermere, 63, had been depressed.
The inquest was told that the viscountess, wife of Lord Rothermere, the chairman of Associated Newspapers, was dependent on sleeping pills.
She had twice the prescribed amount of the sleeping drug flurazepam in her bloodstream when she died on 12 August, as well as five times the normal level of an antihistamine, which she was taking as a sedative.
One of her doctors, Douglas Rossdale, told the hearing: "I think she felt insecure if she did not take her (sleeping) pills. She had a busy life and a lot of functions and she could not take the withdrawal symptoms."
Dr Knapman said: "Viscountess Rothermere accumulated many drugs and was incautious with them." She had reportedly been feeling unwell the night before she died and had probably taken the tablets in an attempt to have a good night's sleep, he said.
More than 2,000 tablets in 75 containers were found in her family's villa at Cap d'Ail, near Nice.
The inquest was told that Lady Rothermere was preoccupied with her health. She suffered from a variety of ailments and had been seeing at least four doctors in London, as well as others in France and New York.
Lady Rothermere's maid, Balbina Pocas, told the inquest that she had gone to bed at 2am on the day she died. When she failed to appear by late afternoon, Miss Pocas climbed into the room through a balcony window, the door being locked, and found her slumped on the floor.
The alarm was not raised until 5.30pm. Her son, Jonathan Harmsworth, told the inquest: "It was very usual for her to get up at about 5 or 5.30 in the evening."
At The Royal Academy, July 1984
When London's premier socialite died, gossip columnists and social diarists lost a rich source of material. A colourful, extrovert figure who was often portrayed as a scatterbrain, 'Bubbles' Rothermere was rarely far from the centre of attention.
Her eccentricities - she apparently enjoyed midnight fish-and- chip feasts in her Bentley - were legendary, as was her extravagant fashion sense. Voted one of London's 10 most beautiful women in her youth, she continued to favour bows, frills and flounces as her figure expanded.
Once described as "The world's best party-giver", she entertained international politicians, businessmen, aristocrats and showbusiness personalities at lavish dinners, often raising large sums for charity.
Flying between homes in London, Sussex, California, Paris, Jamaica and New York, she pursued an energetic life-style, which included skiing, dancing and walking. It was said she would attend the opening of an envelope.
In 1981, Lady Rothermere and her husband spent an estimated £100,000 on an all-night wedding party for one of their daughters, which included the cost of flying a band from New York to their Sussex mansion.
She moved in the highest circles, counting Princess Margaret and Princess Michael of Kent among her friends. Asked recently how she intended to celebrate the start of the milennium, she said that she planned a "fabulous and gay" party on the rooftop of a New York skyscraper.
According to one anecdote, she once chastised the newspaper columnist Keith Waterhouse at a Buckingham Palace garden party for failing to show enough sympathy for her servant problems and told him he was sacked. Unfortunately, Mr Waterhouse worked for the Daily Mirror at the time - a newspaper which was not part of her husband's media empire - although he later moved to the Daily Mail.
Fabulous Dead People - Bubbles Rothermere
By Christopher Petkanas for The New York Times
As with many society deaths, there was nothing strange or startling about Lady Rothermere’s when it was first announced. The former B-movie actress universally known as Bubbles, after her favourite beverage and her effervescent personality, had died of a heart attack in her Riviera villa - once Garbo’s - on August 12th 1992. If French doctors had been believed, that would have been that.
But as is also often the case with society deaths, details disputing the first announcement came hard and fast. The 63-year-old wife of Vere Rothermere, who at his own demise in 1998 had holdings of $1.7 billion in the Daily Mail newspaper empire, was not allowed to go without an inquest. According to The Independent, when Bubbles hadn’t appeared by late afternoon on that August day, her maid, finding the door to Madame’s bedroom locked, entered through a balcony window. Her boss lay in a heap on the floor. A month later, the Westminster coroner declared a verdict of “death by misadventure.” Bubbles had been traveling with some 2,000 pills in 75 bottles. “Society hostess died following drug overdose,” trumpeted The Independent.
Even if you were barely sentient in the 70's and 80's and only had a doctor’s-waiting-room relationship with Tatler, you can’t help but recall Lady Rothermere engulfed in the frills and furbelows confected for her by Zandra Rhodes, Gina Fratini and that dreadful couple who did what’s-her-name’s wedding dress. With the kind of pert, retroussé nose beloved of fashion illustrators like Fred Greenhill, Bubbles had gone from being the astonishingly beautiful film starlet Beverley Brooks (ever see "Reach for the Sky"? I didn’t think so) to, well, Miss Piggy.
The most enduring images of Bubbles - who at her happiest moments literally bubbled over, as if she were about to unleash a giant, wet guffaw - are from this, her Hogarthian period. In everything you read about her, no one makes the connection between her tremendous weight gain and wild clothes choices. Maybe it’s too obvious. One year when I have nothing to do, I’ll lock myself away with three decades of Tatlers and all will become clear. In any case, the assumption remains that having become indecently fat, Bubbles called attention to the fact with ever more extreme frocks. In this way she was the first to comment on her chubbiness, thwarting, if not silencing, critics.
Who can shake the picture of a desperately jolly woman in her 960 Fifth Avenue penthouse buoyed by a tent’s worth of watered-silk taffeta? (Bubbles also had homes in Beverly Hills, East Sussex, Round Hill in Jamaica and on London’s Eaton Square.) As only her head and hands emerged from the tent, she looked positively celestial, as if she might take to the heavens as a plus-size putto.
If anything, Bubbles was too easy a target. “An Unlikely Hero,” the book Lord Rothermere commissioned on how he saved The Mail, pulls back the curtain on Bubbles’ history of depression and feelings that she was misunderstood. Assailed by a nervous ailment called tricholtillomani, she pulled her hair out, literally, disguising the damage with wigs.
Bubbles wanted to be loved for her mind, not for her parties, and not for the crazy Rhodes getups that could make her look like she was wearing the curtains. In “People Like Us,” Charles Jennings roasts her to a crisp, drawing on his tenure as her daughter’s tutor. Greeting him at home at noon, surrounded by awards for her charity work, Bubbles wore a "nightie covered in make-up and food spillages. The physical evidence contradicted her wishful thinking so completely, it was like Lytton Strachey putting school boxing cups on his mantelpiece."
Laugh all you like, but Bubbles often had the last word. In 1980, she upstaged all the women at a grand fete for more than a thousand guests at Versailles, including Princess Grace and the Maharani of Jaipur. Of course, stealing the show and being the best-dressed girl at the party are not the same thing. Bubbles took what she could get.
Photography by Helmut Newton
Eaton Square, 1985
As the ambitious and fearless daughter of a middle-class architect growing up in Hertfordshire, Bubbles wanted it all: rich husband, sparkling social life, splendid career. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was her handbook. At 17, she enrolled in secretarial school, dropping out to become a model. In 1953, she wed Christopher Brooks, a charismatic, good-looking and wealthy captain in the Coldstream Guards with whom she had one daughter. He and Vere Rothermere had been at Eton together, and when Rothermere expressed interest in Brooks’s wife, she said her husband advised her to have an affair with Rothermere but not to marry him. He may have guessed how difficult the world would make it for them to bridge their class differences. “Talk about bitchy and cutthroat,” Bubbles roared to The Times decades after her 1957 marriage to Rothermere, which furnished three progeny. "I’ve never seen anything like it."
Bubbles consoled herself with the spotty power she wielded as the spouse of a press baron. Suzy Knickerbocker had Bubbles in her pocket, and when The Mail relaunched in 1971, Bubbles was instrumental in getting her a (failed) column. In 1975, on the occasion of 'Funny Lady', the most embarrassing film Barbra Streisand has ever made, if you don’t count 'A Star Is Born', Bubbles gave a party in her honour. The Mail later ran a negative review. Humiliated, Bubbles leaned on her husband to fire the paper’s editor. David English issued his resignation, but it was all for show. English stayed. Bubbles’ humiliation was redoubled.
Yet she needed people like English, if only to clean up after her. When it looked like 'Hero' might be suppressed following Vere Rothermere’s death, a former senior Mail executive noted how "the great fascination of the book would be... the extraordinary lengths to which the paper would occasionally go to keep some of (Bubbles) activities out of other newspapers." One London daily reported that her name had been excised from the address book of the gay hairdresser Michael Lupo before he was convicted of four murders. The Rothermere’s son Jonathan had veto power over the contents of 'Hero,' and while it does not shy from a discussion of Bubbles’ warts, there is no mention of her requiring disaster control, or of Lupo.
"Mere Vere" rescued The Mail, but wasn’t Bubbles the real hero? In 1967, her sister-in-law Mary threw down the gauntlet, proclaiming she was pregnant. If Mary supplied a male, the hereditary title and control of the empire would pass to her branch of the family through her son. Bubbles had almost died delivering her second daughter, but no risk was too big, given the prize. She and Rothermere got busy and produced Jonathan.
The pair legally separated in 1978 but kept on excellent terms. After Bubbles died, Rothermere wed his longtime mistress, a one time hand model from Korea. Officially, Bubbles’ coroner ruled out suicide; the overdose, he said, was accidental "misadventure". She was found with twice the prescribed amount of a sleep aid in her blood and five times that of an antihistamine she took as a sedative. Rothermere paid her a seven-figure sum, in sterling, every year after they separated, so funds weren’t the problem. Or were they? "Money is a fantastic thing," Bubbles once mused, "but it can make you kind of dead sometimes."
Photography by Baron © National Portrait Gallery
Patricia Harmsworth, 7th August, 1962
Patricia Evelyn Beverley Matthews Harmsworth
(5th May 1933 - 12th August 1992)
Well done if you got through all that! Hope you enjoyed it. I promise to catch up with everyone later. I've been distracted by the wonderful weather and annoyingly my new wireless box doesn't seem to work past the back door. The last much cheaper one did. Wouldn't it be lovely if it's hot again? You never know with London. If it is I might actually manage to mow my overgrown lawn that's full of dandelions. Another thing I keep banging on about that I haven't got round to.
Have a great day xxx