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British journalist
Born 1941 Died 2007

For some thirty years Nigel Dempster was the gossip columnist on the Daily Mail, being for many years the highest paid journalist on Fleet Street with the one with most generous expense accounts and became in the process something of a British national institution.

Early life and career

Nigel Richard Patton Dempster was born at Calcutta in India on the 1st November 1941, where his father, an Australian mining engineer, was managing director for the Indian Copper Corporation. His father was originally a Scot from Dumfriesshire who had paid his own fare to Australia and married the daughter of the boat's owner who happened to be Cornish.

At the age of six Nigel was shipped off back to England to be educated at the St Peter's Preparatory School at Lympstone in Devon, before moving on to the Sherborne School in Dorset where he was expelled at the age of sixteen for being a "disruptive influence", having successfully established himself as the school's tobacco baron. He left with only three O-levels and limited career prospects. He first found work as a porter at Westminster Hospital, and then tried to make it in the City with stints at both Lloyd's of London and the London Stock Exchange. However neither the City nor Nigel were suited to one another and he ended up selling vacuum cleaners before finding employment at the Knightsbridge catering firm of Searcy.

A journalist of a kind is born

Although Nigel appears to have been unsuccessful at all these endeavours, he did however possess a certain amount of natural charm and before the age of eighteen had wangled himself an invitation to dinner at No 11 Downing Street with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling having befriended his daughter Caroline. In fact he was something of a social climber and possessed an extensive collection of old school ties. (He would check in Who’s Who which school his host had been to in order to don the appropriate neckwear.)

Nigel's real break came in 1960 when he was hired as an executive (that is tea boy) by the Earl of Kimberley Associates, which was a public relations firm based in Mayfair. Said business being run by one Johnnie Kimberley, formally known as the 4th Earl of Kimbereley, a hard drinking playboy who was well in with London Society. This provided Nigel with his first real introduction to the London social scene, and enabled him to develop the ability to converse with the rich and titled on a casual basis. Nigel soon learned that he could pass himself off as an Old Etonian and found that his wit and good looks were at the very least sufficient to provide him with invitations to the best parties where both free food and free champagne would be available.

All this socialising with the well-heeled led him to be at Cowes in 1963 where he met Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, a meeting which resulted in him being offered a staff job at the Daily Express on the 'William Hickey' gossip column. The various contacts that he had nurtured during his time with Johnnie Kimberley stood him in good stead and he was able to produce a steady stream of titillating morsels for the paper. Whilst he was at the Express he devoted many a column inch to disparaging the rival 'Charles Greville' column on the Daily Mail. This naturally brought him to the attention of the Mail's editor David English and induced him to hire Nigel as deputy to Paul Callan to produce the Mail's gossip column. Two years later Callan found himself elbowed aside and the Mail's gossip column appeared as the 'Nigel Dempster Diary'.

The king of the gossip column

The first appearance of the 'Nigel Dempster Diary' was marked with a story about how Annabel Birley was pregant by James Goldsmith. This news naturally upset her husband Mark Birley, and when the Mail’s proprietor the Viscount Rothermere turned up at his nightclub Annabel’s he uncermeoniously threw him out. For a moment Nigel contemplated his imminent dismissal, but Rothermere never even mentioned the incident. He therefore survived the experience and soon built up a reputation as the chronicler of the habits of the rich and famous.

He was however rarely to be found at his desk at the Daily Mail, since he was not a writer in any meaningful sense, more of a conduit for information whose talent was to identify and relay the latest gossip on the peccadillos of high society. Indeed he was more likely to be at Harry's Bar, where he would hold court at his table and claimed to be intimate with the likes of King Hussein of Jordan and King Constantine of Greece as well as the Princess Margaret. When absent from Harry's Bar, he could be found at the best parties where he could hob nob with the rich and titled, eavesdrop on their conversations, and pick up on the latest whispers. There were regular trips to New York and Los Angeles to ferret out the latest show business gossip, the late summer trip to Gstaad in Switzerland, and since he had a particular interest in horse-racing he would normally be found at Deauville each August, or at Paris for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and even in Australia for the Melbourne Cup, whilst his attendance at Royal Ascot with the customary picnic party in the car park became something of an annual rite.

Over the years he got some things spectacularly right, (he correctly predicted Harold Wilson's retirement as prime minister and the marriage of Prince Andrew) and some things terribly wrong, as he once claimed that Prince Charles would never marry that Diana Spencer, and although he later broke the story that Diana had been suffering from bullimia for a number of years he never managed to quite capitalise on the 'Diana boom'. But right or wrong the Daily Express never gave up hope that he might return and once offered him £500,000 a year.

On the downpath

In 1986 Nigel took on the job of producing a similar diary in the Mail on Sunday. Whilst this marked the point that the 'Nigel Dempster Diary' became a seven days a week phenomenon, it also marked the point at which the decline began. His attempts to establish himself on television, despite two years spent as a panelist on a show called Headliners, never quite came off, but the real problem was that he had now become personally too well known to be effective, and people simply wouldn't tell him anything more. What made things worse was that by the 1990s the world had changed, and although he continued to provide tidbits about the lives of the likes of the Earl of Lichfield and the Aga Khan, he was out of touch with the new breed of celebrities who often owed more to the new world of reality television than the old world of garden parties and Royal Ascot.

It became an open secret that the Daily Mail's new editor Paul Dacre (who replaced David English in 1992) thought little of Nigel's abilities, and by 1996 even his long-time supporter the Viscount Rothermere remarked that his column was now nothing more than "old, cold, fried potatoes". The Mail soon had a separate royal correspondent, as well as a rival gossip column which appeared under the byline of 'Ephraim Hardcastle'.

It didn't help that appears to have been both a difficult employee to manage and a difficult man to work for, became a rather vain and argumentative man who regularly gambled and lost heavily, and gained a reputation as an habitual and regular drunk. He was arrested for drunken driving on a number of occasions but convicted only once after being arrested in February 2001 when his car overturned after hitting a lamppost on a pedestrian crossing. On that occasion he was found by police in a nearby off-licence, where he denied that he had been drinking but failed the subsequent breath test. Nigel then contested the charge by disputing the legal status of the testing equipment, but was found guilty at Richmond Magistrates’ Court in June 2003, when he was banned from driving for two years and fined £1,500.

His latter years at the Mail were also marked by a long running feud with Ross Benson, his counterpart on the Daily Express. They regularly traded ]insults in print, with Benson being described as "the Pompadoured Poltroon", whilst Benson retaliated by heralding him as "the Tonsured Traducer". At one point Nigel rejoiced in obtaining a photograph of Ross leaving a restaurant with "a young girl in a short black skirt", and challenged him to name the girl and the video that the pair had been seen buying at a nearby shop. He was presumably disappointed when Ross responded by informing him that "the girl was my 15-year-old daughter Anoushka and that the video in question was 'Pooh Bear and the Honey Tree'. None of which endeared Nigel to Ross Benson who called him "a self-made man who has come to worship his creator."

Nigel and Private Eye

It was in 1969 that Nigel began contributing to the 'Grovel' column in Private Eye. In truth both he and Peter Mackay (the diarist for the Sunday Express), were effectively the co-authors of what was a racier version of a Fleet Street gossip column that included those pieces of scurrilous innuendo that the more established press wouldn't touch. It was there that Nigel would regularly insult his former employers as well as indulging in attacks on a certain James Goldsmith, or anyone else that annoyed him. He apparently did so with the full knowledge and support of the Daily Mail, whose owners appeared to believe that this would spare them from becoming targets in Private Eye.

Unfortunately his enthusiasm for attacking Goldsmith in 'Grovel' so infuriated the businessman that he showered a number of writs on Private Eye during 1976. Goldsmith's refusal to compromise and his insistence to taking the matter to court threatened to overwhelm the magazine's limited financial resources. An appeal was launched to meet the expected legal fees, and so Nigel appeared in a leotard for a wrestling bout with Johnny Kwango at Stamford Bridge football ground in order to raise some much needed funds.

Although Private Eye survived the Goldsmith onslaught, Nigel's relationship with the magazine eventually came to an end when he printed a story about the marital problems being experienced by the magazine's chairman Richard Ingrams, and then contributed a carelessly libelous piece to Grovel about the Conservative cabinet minister Cecil Parkinson and his secretary Sara Keays. This then led to an argument with the recently appointed editor Ian Hislop, and Nigel and the magazine eventually parted company in 1985.

Private Eye would afterwards customarily refer to him in future as 'Nigel Pratt-Dumpster', and he now found himself the target of the magazine's satirical jibes, rather than firing them himself. He nevertheless obtained a measure of revenge when Private Eye published an item alleging that he been bribed to provide favourable coverage of Peter Cadbury (from the well-known chocolate family). Nigel sued for libel in 1987 and won substantial damages.

The end of an era

Despite his rather limited writing abilities he did manage to write five books, including biographies of Princess Margaret (HRH The Princess Margaret: a life unfulfilled, 1981) and Christina Onassis (Heiress: the story of Christina Onassis, 1989). He also launched his own magazine called Dempsters in 1977, but that failed after two issues, and what is described as a "Hello!-style magazine" was again launched in 1996 under the title Dempster’s, although he had little to do with it other than lending his name, and that too folded quickly.

It was whilst he was on a golfing trip to Le Touquet in 2002 that he twice fell over on the golf course for no apparent reason. Back home in Britain the doctors confirmed that he was suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy. The advance of the disease soon began to effect his once famous photographic memory, and with his concentration and physical co-ordination also suffering he made the decision to retire in 2003. His illness appears to have also effected his outlook on life, as he take instruction at the London Oratory and decided to adopt the Roman Catholic faith. He later died of the effects of the disease at home in Ham Common, Surrey on the 12th July 2007.

Nigel Dempster was twice married. His first marriage was a relatively brief affair and lasted only three years from 1971 to 1974 his temporary wife in this instance being Emma de Bendern, the daughter of Count John de Bendern and a grand-daughter of the 11th Marquess of Queensberry. It was three years later in 1977 that he married Camilla Osborne, the only child of John Osborne, the 11th and last Duke of Leeds who bore him his only child, a daughter named Louisa. Although this second marriage ended in 2002, his ex-wife later returned to nurse him at the former marital home on Ham Common towards the end of his life.


Gossip columnists are generally the kind of journalists that other journalists like to sneer at, and as Auberon Waugh noted of Nigel, "he became the "general punchbag for journalists wishing to prove themselves respectable", and was therefore often the target of criticism in what is often described as the 'quality press'. For his part Nigel would claim that "Gossip columnists are social policemen" whose main role was "to provide insights into the workings of those who are above us in terms of power and privilege, position and money." To those that castigated his work as trivial he would counter by arguing that "If the trade of the gossip columnist is trivial, then all of life is trivial"

His final column appearted in the Daily Mail of the 13th October 2003. Apparently the Mail wanted to continue to run the column under the name of Nigel Dempster, but his replacement Richard Kay vetoed the idea. The Daily Mail has however trademarked the name Nigel Dempster in order to prevent anyone else from using it.


SOURCES

  • Dennis Barker, Obituary, The Guardian, July 13 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2125329,00.html
  • Michael Leapman, Obituary, The Independent 25 July 2007 http://news.independent.co.uk/people/obituaries/article2765533.ece
  • Obituary, The Daily Telegraph 13/07/2007 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/07/13/db1301.xml
  • Obituary, The Times July 13, 2007 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article2066856.ece
  • Obituary, The Scotsman 16-Jul-07 http://news.scotsman.com/obituaries.cfm?id=1105852007
  • PSP Europe Association- 12/07/2007 - Nigel Dempster dies aged 65 http://www.pspeur.org/newsView.asp?id=61
  • Dempster banned for drink driving, June 17, 2003 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1142895.ece
  • Geoffrey Levy and Richard Kay, Nigel Dempster: The king of the gossip column, 13th July 2007
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=468057
  • Roderick Gilchrist, Nigel Dempster, life of a Fleet Street legend 14th July 2007
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=468382

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