This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Justin Welby: Secret life of my 'alcohol-dependent' father
The next Archbishop of Canterbury has described his shock at discovering the truth about his father’s secret life.
In his first interview since becoming the incoming leader of the Anglican Church, Bishop Justin Welby revealed the struggles he had faced as a teenager at Eton, nursing his alcohol-dependant father whose behaviour had become increasingly erratic.
Since the age of three, Justin had been brought up alone by his businessman father, Gavin Welby, a divorcee. But he had no idea of his father’s remarkable life story, which The Sunday Telegraph has pieced together for the first time.
We were able to inform him that his father had disguised his real name and German-Jewish roots, and invented an aristocratic English persona in America, where he earned riches in the drinks industry and organising debutante balls.
He had married in America, but kept it a secret all his life, had an affair with the sister of John F Kennedy and later dated the actress Vanessa Redgrave.
He stood for Parliament as a Conservative candidate, but was sued for libel by his Labour opponent, Richard Crossman. His sister, whose identity he never disclosed, married a Labour MP who had been a Communist.
“I think it is quite a remarkable story,” said the Rt Rev Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham. “I would have thought 'wow, that’s a fantastic story’ if he had told me about it as a child.”
At the end of a tumultuous week for the next Archbishop of Canterbury, our disclosures prompted him to speak for the first time of his experiences coping with his father’s dependency on alcohol and to give an insight into how they helped shape his own faith.
“It wasn’t an easy upbringing. Living with someone who’s got an alcohol dependency is complicated, to put it at its mildest,” said Bishop Welby. “He was very affectionate, brilliant intellectually but quite demanding.”
The bishop was 21 years old, studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, when his father died of a heart attack in 1977. The Sunday Telegraph has learned that the name and date of birth given at his time of death were both wrong.
“I lived with him but I didn’t know him very well,” said Bishop Welby. “He told lots of stories but one was never really sure what was true and what wasn’t. He drank quite heavily and, you know, he would say things sometimes when he had been drinking and you did not know what was true or not.”
He said he and his family had been trying to piece the story together for years, without great success. He is desperate to know whether, unbeknown to him, he may have a half-sister or half-brother.
Bishop Welby’s mother was Jane Portal, a former personal secretary to Winston Churchill, but his father had been previously married in America to Doris Sturzenegger, a factory owner’s daughter.
Bishop Welby said: “I didn’t know about his [first] marriage.”
He asked: “You’re sure he had no other children? The reason I ask is, there were two things he said to me at one point. He had been drinking very heavily. He was right near the end of his life, and he said: 'I am very glad that I’ve got other children.’ He also said, 'I am very glad …’ something else, I don’t want to say what.
“The other thing turned out to be true, but I didn’t find that out until 20 years after his death. That has always made me wonder whether he genuinely had other children and that both statements were true.”
His father was born Bernard Gavin Weiler, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Germany, though he never told his son he had any Jewish ancestry.
“He wouldn’t talk about his family at all,” said Bishop Welby, though he did admit to his son that he had first made money bootlegging whisky alongside the Italian Mafia in America during the prohibition years. He later “went legit” running the New York concession for a major drinks firm supplying leading Manhattan hotels.
Bishop Welby said: “He would tell me how he ran alcohol with his 'Italian friends’, as he liked to call them. But he kept so much to himself. He was a great keeper of secrets.
“I think he told people the stories that he wanted them to believe and kept the rest quietly to himself.”
Our investigation has pieced together the life of a man who reinvented himself many times, here and in America, and was so successful at it that he earned enough to send his son to Eton. After being told the details, Bishop Welby said his admiration for his father as a survivor had increased.
“I think in many ways, the story you have told me brings more credit on him than the story he himself told. It is the sort of 'making good’ story isn’t it? It’s a great thing of overcoming setbacks,” he said.
“When he died, I remember feeling a deep sense of waste really. He was very good company, very sociable. He was a great raconteur.”
When told that his father had an elder sister, Peggy, born a year before him, Bishop Welby said: “He had a sister? I heard rumours of a sister. Good gracious. There were rumours of a sister whom he had fallen out with.”
Emotional at learning so much about his father, Bishop Welby added: “I feel wistful. It is the sort of thing that one would have loved to have known. To have heard from him.
“There is no hiding the fact that he was a complicated man. He was really, really brilliant. But there were, probably from his background, complications in his life that hindered that brilliance really being deployed fully.”