Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Lords and Ladies

In June 1996, I put on the nicest dress I owned and went to the airport in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Thinking back on it, I must have looked about 10. The dress was a short-sleeved cotton floral print with a tie in the back and a pleated skirt. It fell to mid-calf, but about an inch shorter than I wanted it to, so I always felt oversized and awkward in it. It also needed a slip, which I couldn’t find. I put on tights (a rarity for me, especially in the humid Baltic summer) and makeup. I can’t remember if I had a pair of heels there or not, but if I did, I would have worn them.

The Lord Rothermere, his wife, his daughter and the daugher’s friend were coming to St. Petersburg to see the White Nights and participate in the arts festival. And I, sweaty and burly, and very, very American, was going to escort them from the airport to the Grand Hotel Europe.

Earlier in the spring, a Scottish lawyer had been sitting in the café at the Nevskij Palace, another swank hotel in downtown St. Petersburg, when various criminal elements decided to open fire at each other, as they were wont to do in those days. The Scotsman, John Hyden, was shot in the head and killed.

I was the person who picked up the phone when the Daily Mail called, looking for stringers to help out with the story. I sent them 500 words on the atmosphere in the café after the shooting. I was advised by my New Zealander publisher to “lay it on thick” — throw American journalism out the window and play the gory details hard to grab the Brit tabloid crowd. I did the best I could. It was harder than I thought it would be. No byline — the story got tacked on to the end of what they had written — but I got a tidy sum in return.

And then later, I got invited to meet the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere himself, when he came to the city.

Well, that was just too good to pass up. I was excited to do it — not because he was Lord Rothermere, the last of the great English press barons, owner of the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the London Evening Standard, but because he was a lord.

Quickly, however, I became nervous. I’d been living for months in Russia and had, as journalists like to think they are wont to do, begun the slide into “going native” that means little more than extensive drinking and cessation of bathing. I prided myself on having “lowered” my “western” “standards” and my lack of discomfort in living in a second-world country. Expats often try to out-native each other, and I did so with the best of them.

But obviously, that wouldn’t do for a lord. Should I hire a car? A taxi? A horse-drawn carriage? Would he expect me to check him in to his hotel? Was I a servant? A guide? A fellow journalist? I had no idea what to do or who to be. America is not a classless society, but I certainly felt like it was as I pondered what to do.

Complicating matters was the fact that Matt was visiting me at the same time, and I was mean enough to not let him come along to meet the lord.

I ended up hiring two of the nicer taxis I could find at the airport, praying that the drivers didn’t have pornographic note pads stuck to the dashboards (not uncommon). I waited outside the baggage area, trying to look competent.

The family was just what I’d imagined. Lord Rothermere was portly and smart and in his 70s, his second wife stick-thin and glamorous and nearly 30 years younger than him. She seemed unsure of herself, and I know now that she was still a very new wife at the time, replacing a beloved society dame who had died the year before, and perhaps was feeling self-conscious. His daughter, a few years older than me, and her girlfriend (whose title was “Lady”) were the type of people I imagine behaving badly at ritzy London clubs with soccer stars and edgy new rock bands.

I felt so silly in my dress that I almost curtseyed, but managed not to, and once all their luggage (all Louis Vuitton, bien sûr) had been accounted for, we packed up into the two cars. Both drivers behaved, thankfully.

I was in the car with the two young women, feeling just about as uncultured as I ever have, which was silly, and I knew it, because really, what did it matter? I pointed out some places of interest, and the two of them listened politely.

At the hotel, Lord Rothermere said he could check them in by himself, and invited me to lunch with them the next day. I promised to meet them. But when I returned to the hotel, I couldn’t find them. I didn’t look terribly hard, and didn’t ask anyone where they were — I hadn’t seen Matt for almost a year, and we had our own plans.

I googled Lord Rothermere today and saw he died back in 1998. His obit made him sound fascinating. I wish, now, that I’d tried a little harder, that I’d looked around the restaurant one more time.

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