Wendy Holden talks about ghost-writing and shares an excerpt of her new book, Last of the Summer Moet.
I became an author via a very strange route. I had always wanted to write a novel, but was fatally hampered by having no idea what to write one about. But then came the day when all that changed.
Being summoned to the editor’s office at the Sunday Times was a nerve-wracking experience. Had I done something wrong?
No, I was getting a new columnist. I was deputy editor of the Style section at the time, and in charge of the first-page column slot. None of the so-called celebs we’d tried had lasted long and the new writer, Tara Palmer Tomkinson, who I had seen in gossip columns kissing Prince Charles on a ski slope, looked more short-term than most. Little did I suspect what our collaboration would lead to.
The original idea, that Tara would pen her own weekly account of her glitzy partygoing life, soon hit the buffers. While she could write well enough, she had a relaxed view of deadlines. We settled on a plan of me ‘talking it out of her’ and writing the results up. This sounds easier than it was. Tracking Tara down was a weekly challenge worthy of M15. I would invoke the help of her mother, her sister and her agent, stopping just short of Interpol, before Tara herself would call (once from a car wash) and announce that she was ready to ‘do the column’.
At our first meeting she told me how her boyfriend, landing their helicopter in her parents’ garden, had blown all the petals off her mother’s herbaceous borders.
“Mummy was furious,” Tara recounted between bites of toast. “So from now on it has to be landed in the orchard.”
I quickly realised that I was dealing with comic gold. And there was much more to come. When flying, Tara’s maxim was that ‘in Economy you make Enemies, in Club you make Comrades and in First you make Friends”. She warned me that champagne made your breath smell. Her suspicion of canapés – ‘the ones that get dropped on the floor are put back on the trays’ – means it’s been years since I’ve been able to look miniature fish and chips in the eye. I also became expert on Tara-speak, the acronymic argot of the uber-Sloane: eg OPM (Other People’s Money), PJ (private jet), NSIT (Not Safe In Taxis) and QNI (Quiet Night In) – a rare occurrence in those heady days. Tara, by her own admission, barely slept for twenty years.
She was well aware of how funny this all sounded, and played up to it. This ability to laugh at herself, along with the saga of her unsuccessful love life, was the secret of the column’s success. As big-haired Euro-hunks came and went the theme of her eternal quest for a man became the perfect foil to the enormous envy that contemplation of Tara’s stratospherically glamorous lifestyle would otherwise provoke in the reader.
And cripes, was it glamorous. Never before or since have I met anyone who had quite such a good time, all the time. Tara’s life, as chronicled through the column, was a succession of supermodel-stuffed parties, fashion show front rows, dinners, premieres and luxury launches. She took PJs like other people take buses, never leaving home without her passport in case lunch in Windsor ended up in Italy (one billionaire host decided English coffee wasn’t up to snuff and flew everyone to Venice). In London she would party with Elton John, Michael Caine and Princess Caroline of Monaco. In LA it would be Richard Gere and Tom Cruise.
‘Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s Social Diary’ became amazingly famous with amazing speed. At the height of her fame she was written about in the Wall Street Journal (‘you’ll be able to buy shares in me soon,’ she joked). Everyone read it, and in some unexpected places. The Royal Scots Dragoons in Bosnia plastered their mess with a collage of the articles. A Captain Allison wrote to say Tara brightened up the Balkans for his bomb-disposal unit.
People were desperate to be in it. “Please mention us in your column,” begged Lord Frederick Windsor and friends when Tara ran into them at a burger bar. Tara duly mentioned them, as well as every shop, restaurant, club and brand of car with which she came into contact. The column had more plugs than B&Q but Tara’s breezy freeloading was all part of the fun.
Being the writer behind all this was a strange experience. If I mentioned my role, people thought I was a fantasist. While ghost-writing was hardly a new idea, everyone was absolutely convinced that Tara wrote every word herself. Possibly this is a reflection of how close the column was to her actual personality, and the extent to which she had instantly, effortlessly – and, it seems, eternally – embedded herself in the national consciousness. Her blue-blooded bonkersness had something very British about it.
Her famous drug problems came to light only after I had left her service, but they certainly explained a few things. And there were signs, even then, that her life was not as much fun as it seemed. As well as ‘lovers’, the column chronicled a revolving door of fair-weather friends. At one of her parties I found her in a corner saying she didn’t have the foggiest idea who most of the people there were.
When I finally hung up the TPT Jimmy Choos and left Style to become deputy editor of Tatler it was with the germ of a novel inspired by our relationship. Simply Divine had as its main character a column-writing celebrity socialite whose column is actually written by someone else. It was spookily prescient – the socialite, called Champagne D’Vyne, makes an idiot of herself on a chat show and eventually seeks help for her chronic drug problems. Tara had done neither of these things at the time but my inner Nostradamus was obviously on to something. I was nervous that Tara might take umbrage at her portrayal, but with typical generosity she was behind me all the way. She turned up to my launch party in a ski hat and gave me a quote for the book cover: “I’m Absolutely Furious but secretly very flattered”.
I was really sad to hear that she had died. She was such a funny, clever and kind-hearted person and there was so much more to her than people imagined. She captured the public imagination and enlivened the public stage with her own crazy blend of posh glamour. There were other It Girls around, but Tara easily led the field. She had something none of the others had – personality. In spades.
All the same, when I first met her, I didn’t think it was a defining moment. But it was, and for Tara too. The success of the column put us both on our way, and for that I will always be grateful. I would never have become a novelist without her, nor would I have realised that my natural subject matter was glamorous comedies set on glossy magazines. I love writing them so much I’m still doing so – Last of the Summer Moet is the latest.
Laura Lake, deputy editor of Society magazine, returned to her desk after the daily features meeting. She felt as if she had done ten rounds with Floyd Mayweather. Glancing round at her colleagues as they slunk back to their workstations, she could tell that they felt the same.
Raisy and Daisy, the interchangeable blonde sisters who shared the job of fashion director, were looking particularly crushed. Their ideas about furry lederhosen had not got past first base, still less their suggestions for directional glittery clogs. Raisy (whose name was actually Rosie, but it had taken Laura some time to realise), was dabbing at her eyes with a sequinned Chanel hanky. The fine dark brows of Thomasella the food editor were angrily drawn as well. Her contention that Bronze Age party food – i.e. Ritz crackers and cheese hedgehogs – was back had been thrown on the same pile as the lederhosen.
Admittedly Carinthia, Society’s mercurial editor and Laura’s boss, had always been demanding. ‘The Gaze’, her famous death stare, had always had the power to reduce her staff to rubble. This was all the more remarkable given that none of them could actually see it. The opaque black sunglasses Carinthia habitually wore were, alongside those of Anna Wintour of American Vogue, the most terrifying eyewear in journalism.
But people had respected this ruthlessness. Carinthia, they knew, demanded the best. Only the cleverest ideas made the cut, which was why the magazine was so successful. Those not equal to this quest for perfection could be summarily fired, like the style editor who had said neon-pink-sprayed midges were summer’s smart garden accessory.
But of late Carinthia’s demands had taken on a new, lunatic edge. Staff had been told to position their chairs exactly eight centimetres from their desk edge whether or not they were sitting in them and never, upon pain of death, hang anything on the backs. Untidy desks were photographed, named and shamed, including Laura’s. Especially Laura’s, the untidiest in the office.
More bizarrely still, according to Demelza, Carinthia’s long-suffering PA, the editor had recently started consulting an astrologer. ‘She goes up to her roof and sits under a blue plastic pyramid,’ Demelza confided. ‘Then she’s told which days are to be avoided.’
Demelza had showed Laura the diary. Days to be avoided had been blacked out, and Carinthia didn’t come in on them. There had been many black days lately, leaving Laura running the ship. While Laura enjoyed being in charge, and things tended to go smoother when she was, it was irritating to have the editor come back and take credit for her efforts. Or, worse, change her arrangements and cancel the features she had commissioned.
But there was one feature Carinthia would not be cancelling. One that had survived the recent meeting unscathed. Laura’s coming interview with Savannah Bouche, the vastly famous and stunningly beautiful Hollywood actress and humanitarian.
Laura had set the interview up herself and was hugely proud of having done so. All Society’s glossy rivals had been after it too; to secure it was a coup. Laura secretly hoped she had pulled it off thanks to her growing journalistic reputation. The ‘Three Weddings and a Scandal’ story had shot her into the magazine stratosphere, and the adventures of the ‘Luxury Press Trip’, in which a billionaire businessman had been unmasked as a charlatan, had only burnished her credentials further. An in-depth report of an encounter with one of the world’s most famous women would be the perfect continuation of what was promising to be a stellar career.
Top reporter Laura Lake has struck journalistic gold.
She’s discovered a super-exclusive English village where the rich and famous own weekend retreats. Where film stars, Turner-prize winners and Cabinet ministers park their helicopters outside the gastropub and buy £100 sourdough loaves from the deli.
Outsiders are strictly forbidden. But luckily Laura’s best friend Lulu, a logo-obsessed socialite with a heart as huge as her sunglasses, suddenly fancies a quiet life in the country. The door to this enchanted rural idyll opens for Laura. Revealing a great professional opportunity.
Can Laura write an exposé before the snobbish villagers suss her true identity? And before the world’s poshest pub quiz triggers a political scandal not seen since Profumo?
Number-one bestselling author Wendy Holden was a journalist on Tatler, The Sunday Times, and the Mail on Sunday before becoming an author. She has since written ten consecutive Sunday Times Top Ten bestsellers. She lives in Derbyshire.