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Simon Sebag Montefiore on the surprising, racy and revealing letters of history

Propaganda poster for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Photo/Getty Images

A new book by acclaimed historian and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore collects together the intruiging letters of important historical figures.

Inside Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, the humble letter has been rehabilitated, says historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. All affairs of importance are recorded on paper in old-fashioned fountain pen, before being sealed and transported by loyal courier.

“Politicians, spies, criminals and lovers have all learnt, many the hard way, that emails and texts can be read and exposed,” he says. “Letters can be preserved, but ironically they are safer, because they exist only once and can be physically destroyed.”

The acclaimed author’s titles, including Jerusalem: the Biography, Young Stalin and Catherine the Great and Potemkin, have sold millions and are translated into many languages. He speaks to the Listener from a wintry London, where his five-storey mansion in leafy Kensington backs onto a row of palatial homes owned by Russian billionaires.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

We chat about his latest work. Written in History: Letters that Changed the World is a vivid, ambitious and beautifully quirky anthology of correspondence that shook the world, whether in war or peace, art or culture. It is a remarkable collection, running from a pharaoh’s 3000-year-old complaint on clay tablets to Donald Trump’s bombastic note to Kim Jong-un (whom he called “Little Rocket Man”) last May.

The book is thick with surprises. Who knew how much Michelangelo suffered during the three years he dangled upside down, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? A 1509 verse letter to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia reveals all: “My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket, my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush, above me all the time, dribbles the paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings! My painting is dead … I am not in the right place – I am not a painter.”

Or what about this blisteringly frank exchange from 2000 years ago. “Do you object to me screwing Cleopatra?Mark Antony asks Octavian, the teenage great-nephew of Julius Caesar, in about 33BC. “Does it really matter so much where or with whom one gets it up?”

“I just had to use that one,” says Montefiore with a chortle. “It comes from my edition of Suetonius, the Penguin translation. I’m always reading books thinking, ‘God, this would be good to use.’ There are some well-known ones here, but most of them are letters I thought people won’t know but will be pleased to discover.”

Cleopatra, as painted by Francesco Cozza in 1675. Photo/Getty Images

The writer says he has always been a great fan of letters. “All my books are based on them. Often they’re the only way you really get a sense of how someone sounded, how they talked to their partners, their lovers and their political allies. I always wanted to do this book and finally my publisher said, ‘Why don’t you just do it?’”

For this project, he did not follow his usual practice of spending months, even years, deciphering records in archives (he famously unearthed Stalin’s mother’s long-lost memoirs in rural Georgia).

“I thought, how the hell am I going to do this? But I’ve got a beautiful library in my house, with about a thousand books in it. So I went round with my daughter, Lily. I went up the ladder, passed her the books and she photographed the letters with her phone. We did it all in one big session. It took us about eight hours.”

That was just the start. He then had to churn out the superbly pithy biographies and commentaries that are a particular pleasure of the book. He describes Frida Kahlo’s letter to Diego Rivera, for example, as “filled with the bold colours and wild passions of her art”.

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green gold of your eyes,” Kahlo wrote. “My body is filled with you for days and days. You are the mirror of the night. The violent flash of lightning. The dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. My fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.”

Artist Frida Kahlo. Photo/Getty Images

Playboy past

Montefiore was once a playboy linked to a string of women, among them model Koo Stark, Prince Andrew’s sometime date. A decade ago, Vanity Fair profiled him in a grey Dolce & Gabbana suit with “dirty-blond, spiky hair and glittering blue eyes”.

He’s now a dad of 53 with two beloved teenagers, long and happily married to Santa Palmer-Tomkinson, socialite, author and daughter of a wealthy Hampshire landowner and Olympic ski champion.

Montefiore’s own origins are fascinating. His father is descended from a storied line of rich Moroccan-Italian Jews, a family that ventured into diplomacy and banking across 19th-century Europe, even partnering with the Rothschilds.

The face of great-great-uncle Sir Moses Montefiore once graced the Israeli shekel. His mother, on the other hand, comes from more humble Russian-Lithuanian stock. Her family fled to England in 1904 from pogroms in their homeland.

Montefiore with Santa Palmer-Tomkinson in 1997. Photo/Getty Images

A few of his father’s ancestors even headed our way, notably John Israel Montefiore, who first washed up in Tauranga in 1831, had a child out of wedlock with a Māori woman, and later helped found the Auckland Savings Bank. Another Montefiore, Sydney-based Joseph Barrow, traded here in flax and whale oil in the same era and is remembered for dubbing New Zealand the “Britain of the South”.

Simon Montefiore, who briefly visited Auckland a decade ago on a book tour, is aware of these lively connections. “Some [of my ancestors] were adventurers wanting to make a fortune in a new world, as it were. Others were reprobates, naughty boys sent out there paid by the family to go as far away as possible.”

He took the financial path, briefly joining a bank before finding a better fit in writing, firstly journalism. A break came in the 1990s after he outed the Spice Girls as Thatcher supporters. He got the scoop with a clever letter that began, “Dear Spice Girls, Most people think you are just pop stars, but I think you are the Voltaire and Rousseau of your day …”

It was time to get serious. He worked as a war correspondent on wild front lines in such places as Chechnya and Georgia. His timing was good: the opening up of government archives after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 – and his Cambridge degree in history – laid the ground for his shelf of books on Russian history. Oh, and a few useful letters of introduction from his wife’s lifelong friend, the Prince of Wales.

Painting of Vladimir Lenin in Smolny Palace in 1917. Photo/Getty Images

Tyrants and artists

Written in History is a sheaf of what he calls “love letters and letters of power by empresses, actresses, tyrants, artists, composers and poets”, many located in those closed and crumbling archives.

Take this savage example, penned by Russian leader Vladimir Lenin and dating from 1918 – an order to randomly exterminate kulaks (affluent peasants): “Comrades! The insurrection of five kulak districts should be pitilessly suppressed. An example must be demonstrated … Hang (and make sure that the hanging takes place in full view of the people) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers … Do it in such a fashion that for hundreds of kilometres around the people might see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucking kulaks. Telegraph receipt and implementation. Yours, Lenin. Find some truly hard people.”

Montefiore notes how Lenin, “the benign grandfatherly patriarch … prided himself on his harshness and often said, ‘A revolution without firing squads is meaningless.’ When he heard that Stalin had killed people, he said, ‘That’s exactly the type we need.’”

There’s a revealing note from Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Stalina, to her Red Tsar dad, showing how much, at seven, she loved playing dictator, signing her letters “Svetlana the Boss”. She’d issue daily orders, much to the delight of her adoring father, one demanding that homework be cancelled in all Soviet schools.

The selection features an array of public letters: Mao Zedong in 1966 orders his Red Guards in the blandest tones to begin the bloody and chaotic Cultural Revolution; the momentous July 1914 letter from German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to Austrian Foreign Secretary Count Leopold Berchtold that triggered World War I.

But it is the private letters that let readers pause and eavesdrop by the keyholes of history. The book contains personal communications of astonishing and profound intimacy. “Some are almost embarrassing; should one be allowed to read them? Maybe one shouldn’t,” says Montefiore.

Joseph Stalin holding his daughter, Svetlana. Photo/Getty Images

“Uncle Joe” Stalin, later responsible for the death of millions and the subject of two of Montefiore’s most searing books, is revealed here as the smitten author of a passionate letter to his schoolgirl girlfriend (he was 34). In 1912, he’s calling her “Hot Polya”; for her, he’s “Oddball Ossip” – a diminutive of Joseph.

“Dear PG,” Stalin writes. “I got your letter today. Don’t write to the old address since none of us are there any more. I owe you a kiss for the kiss, passed on to me by Peter. Let me kiss you now. I’m not simply sending a kiss but am kiiissssing you passionately (it’s not worth kissing any other way), Josef.”

Or take this steamy 1868 missive from another Russian, Tsar Alexander II, to his teenage mistress Princess Katya Dolgorukava, part of an exchange Montefiore calls “probably the most explicit ever written by a political leader”. The 40-year-old reformer (he’d just liberated the serfs) remembers the first time they met in secret:

“I’ll never forget what happened on the sofa in the mirrored room when we kissed on the mouth for the first time, and you made me go out while you removed your crinoline which was in our way and I was surprised to find you without your pantaloons. Oh, oh quelle horreur? I was almost mad at this dream but it was real and I felt HE was bursting. I felt a frenzy. That’s when I encountered my treasure … I would have given anything to dip inside again … I was electrified that your saucy crinoline let me touch your legs that only I had ever seen … We fell on each other like wild cats.”

Dolgorukava is equally enthusiastic: “You know I want you. I received immense pleasure and feel overwhelmed by it, pleasure incomparable to everything else.”

Not even so esteemed a figure as Horatio, Lord Nelson, is safe. His “blazingly ardent” letter to his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton, exposes the hero of Trafalgar, shorn of an eye and an arm from battle wounds, swearing not to enjoy pudding until he makes love to her again: “Last night I did nothing but dream of you although I woke 20 times in the night. In one of my dreams I thought I was at a large table. You was not present, sitting between a Princess who I detest and another, they both tried to seduce me and the first wanted to take those liberties with me which no woman in this world but yourself ever did, the consequence was I knocked her down and in the moment of bustle you came in and taking me in your embrace whispered ‘I love nothing but you my Nelson’. I kissed you fervently and we enjoy’d the height of love. Ah Emma I pour out my soul to you. If you love any thing but me you love those who feel not like your N … for no love is like mine for you.”

Vilma Grunwald and son Misa. Photo/Supplied

Matters of record

Other letters simply needed to be placed on the record. Montefiore is proud to remember Vilma Grunwald’s heartbreakingly clear-headed note to her husband, Kurt, dashed off moments before she was gassed, at Auschwitz in 1944.

“You, my only one, dearest, in isolation we are waiting for darkness. We considered the possibility of hiding but decided not to do it since we felt it would be hopeless. The famous trucks are already here and we are waiting for it to begin. I am completely calm. You – my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. We did what we could. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal – if not completely – then – at least partially. Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Both of you – stay healthy, my dear ones. I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life, we must board the trucks. Into eternity, Vilma.”

There are several here of equal courage. Take the almost unbearably graphic five-pager by best-selling novelist Fanny Burney to her sister, telling of a mastectomy performed in Paris, without anaesthetic, in 1812.

“When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! So excruciating was the agony … Again all description would be baffled – yet again all was not over, – Dr Larry rested but his own hand, & – Oh Heaven! – I then felt the Knife rackling against the breastbone – scraping it!”

Burney survived, and lived for another 30 years. Her letter remains one of Montefiore’s favourites. He also adores Leonard Cohen’s letter to his old love Marianne Ihlen (inspiration for the song So Long Marianne) just before her death in 2016, vowing to “see her down the road”.

But his private standout, from 961AD, was written by Abd al- Rahman III, the all-powerful, totally miserable Caliph, as he lay dying in Córdoba, Spain, aged 70.

I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honours, power and pleasure, have waited on my call. I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to FOURTEEN: – O man! place not thy confidence in this present world!”

Montefiore guffaws: “He was probably the most successful monarch in Europe at that time, a brutal tyrant, very successful. It’s an extreme example, a reminder of the transience of human glory.”

The author sounds a little philosophical himself as we conclude our chat. He’s enjoyed fabulous (and deserved) success, both as a writer and TV presenter. He is still bursting with ideas, but admits life is a bit full.

“It’s a very nice problem to have but I’m now making movies and TV drama series of all the books. I’ve got other things I’m supposed to be writing. And my children are older and want more time. Everything has just got bigger.”

He has no intention of stopping. If anything, his future writing plans appear to have become more ambitious. “I’m writing a history of the world. It’s going to be done in my own strange way. I want to do something different. Lots of people have done them, of course, but I want to come at it in a different way. I haven’t quite worked out how to do it yet. It will be a new take, something that everyone can read: accessible, fun and exciting, yet scholarly as well.”

This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.