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28 February 2000

Clem Attlee’s secret lady friend

100 years of Labour - Francis Beckett on the surprising relationship between an ex-PM and a young American.

By Francis Beckett

It seemed like a great find at the time. I was working on a biography of Clement Attlee, and was looking at a huge batch of personal letters, more than a hundred of them, which Attlee had written in his later years to a young American woman whose name previous biographers had not even heard of. The letters were among the most revealing that Attlee ever wrote.

It was clear from reading them that, after his wife’s early and unexpected death, Patricia Beck became closer to him than anyone else. They met several times a week and, as he grew more frail, he came to need her friendship more and more. Attlee’s first biographer, Roy Jenkins, was impressed with my discovery. “Who would have suspected Attlee”, he wrote, “of having his own, typically mild version of Asquith’s Venetia Stanley?”

I made a desultory effort to find Patricia Beck, but I was running out of time. It was after the book was published that I found her, almost by accident, and went to her house in one of those wonderful terraces in St Andrews.

The front door opens straight on to the street, and the moment she opened it I knew why she had mattered to Attlee. She was tall, slim, with a dignity and sense of seriousness about her. She spoke and behaved quietly and – there’s no other word for it – decorously. She explained why she had settled in Britain: “I find American society extremely violent in its attitude of mind. They rant and rave about individualism, but they are the most conforming people. Coming to Britain was like slipping into an old and favourite overcoat.”

Attlee clearly talked to her more freely than he talked to anyone else I had interviewed. When he resigned as Labour leader in 1955, he publicly supported Hugh Gaitskell as his successor. I suspected that he had really wanted Aneurin Bevan to become leader, and that he privately regretted that Bevan had made this impossible. But I had met no one to whom he had said this directly. Except Patricia, that is. “He terribly wanted Bevan to succeed him as leader,” she told me. “He was very disappointed about that.”

She was born in Seattle in 1923, joined Life magazine as a young journalist in 1945, and was sent to London to cover the prime minister’s campaign for re-election in 1950. To modern eyes it would have looked like an odd campaign. Vi Attlee drove her husband from meeting to meeting in their family saloon car. In the back of the car were the prime minister’s detective and the Daily Herald reporter. Following the car was the Life magazine car, with a driver, a senior journalist, a photographer and Patricia. Her job, she says, was “to nursemaid the photographer and make sure we knew everyone in the pictures”.

Vi was widely thought to be a terrible driver and a difficult and neurotic woman. The unkind stories about her made Patricia angry. “Our driver said she was a marvellous driver, especially on winding roads in Derbyshire. And she was very competent, and always pleasant and relaxed.”

Patricia said that at the end of the campaign they felt they “had to do something for the Attlees who had been so kind to us”. So they bought a volume of William Blake’s poems “because they were relevant to his attitude to society”, and Patricia handed it in to Downing Street. As she was leaving, Attlee came to the door and waved the book at her.

She liked both the old-fashioned courtesy of the Attlees, and their politics. She had admired Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; she said: “I felt, hurrah, someone’s carrying on their work.” She was “entranced by his vision and sense of fair play. People speak of him as dull, but that’s because they don’t give a damn themselves.”

In September 1951 she went to Ceylon and suffered a mild bout of polio. Attlee heard about it somehow and wrote to her. Later that year, back in the United States, she read that he was in hospital, and sent him a batch of books and a piece of beef. “You had rationing in Britain then. There were companies that specialised in sending meat to Britain.” Years later, Attlee told her the beef had turned out to be maggoty.

She returned to London in 1953 to work at Reuters, and he invited her to tea at the House of Commons. Three years later, Reuters fired her senior editor. She felt he had been treated badly, so she left too, and together they set up a news and public relations agency. She saw the Attlees regularly, but it was after Vi died in 1964 that she and “Clem” became closer. He moved into a flat in the Temple with an old army nurse called Alf Laker to look after him.

By now, “he was very weak and frail”. He introduced her to the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, and she asked: “Can’t anything be done for Clem?” Wilson said that he had offered him a place in the Chelsea Hospital, but Attlee had turned it down. She thought he should have taken it. He would have liked the company of old soldiers like himself. “He used the word ‘fellowship’ over and over again. It was an idea that mattered to him.”

Even though she thought a great deal of him, he started to become a burden. He seemed to need her around more and more. “Laker would ring and say: ‘Lord Attlee wants to know if you will come to dinner.’ We would have a tray in front of the fire. One day I went to lunch with him, and when I got back he was on the telephone to ask if I’d have dinner with him at the Athenaeum. I couldn’t face it.

“He liked someone who could listen . . . and I loved listening to him. He would sing bits of songs from musicals he and Vi had seen together, the kind of things that rhyme moon and June. He invited me to go to Wimbledon for the tennis with him, and could not believe it when I declined.”

The writer’s “Clement Attlee” is published by Richard Cohen Books at £20