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
The Archbishop’s father, his secret wife, an affair with a Kennedy and defaming a Labour Cabinet Minister
The new Archbishop of Canterbury's father, Gavin Welby, was a man of mystery, with a flair for reinvention and a story to rival that of the Great Gatsby.
GAVIN WELBY was a man of mystery, with a flair for reinvention and a story to rival that of the Great Gatsby.
He worked his way into the upper echelons of society on both sides of the Atlantic, using a series of adopted personas. But when he died of a heart attack in 1977, alone in a flat in Kensington, his only son - the person closest to him at the end of his life - did not even know his real name or birth date.
Justin Welby, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, was only 21 at the time and studying law and history at Trinity College, Cambridge. He knew his father as an erratic and alcohol-dependent but "really, really brilliant" man who had lived an extraordinary life. But the details were unclear.
"I lived with him, but I didn't know him very well," he said yesterday. Summoned down to London to complete the formalities after the death, the heartbroken son recorded the name of his father as Gavin Bramhal Welby, born on November 28, 1914. Neither detail was correct.
The mistake was understandable, as Mr Welby Sr had hidden his identity many times. A chancer, draft dodger and adulterer, he had been sued for libel by a Cabinet minister. There was even a secret first wife that he never spoke of. But he had carefully constructed a respectable persona which allowed him to survive and to flourish, and without which his son would not have had a public school education or possibly a chance of high office.
Gavin Welby claimed a connection to the aristocratic Welbys of Lincolnshire and in particular Sir Charles Welby, the fifth baronet. He also suggested that his family owned a Scottish distillery.
These untruths helped him befriend John F Kennedy in America, becoming so close that he even dated the future president's sister Pat.
In this country, he won over senior members of the Conservative Party and the family of the deputy prime minister, Rab Butler. He married Butler's favourite niece, Jane Portal, who had been Winston Churchill's personal secretary and who would become Justin's mother.
His powerful connections helped him towards a career in politics and two failed attempts to win a seat in the House of Commons. Gavin Welbyearned enough money to send his son to Eton - although perhaps not enough for Justin to pay his way on a daily basis, leaving him the poorest child in a school house that included two Rothschilds.
The present Bishop of Durham said: "He moved quite often. I know I didn't have much money, but I don't ever remember thinking everyone else has got so much more. It was clear other people were wealthier than we were. I probably was at the bottom end. But you know, school is school, you just get on with life."
Whatever else he did in his life, Gavin Welby tried to give his son a good start. His care was returned towards the end, with the alcoholic and unwell father nursed by a loving teenage son. The Sunday Telegraph was able to share remarkable new details with Bishop Welby about the life of a man who was actually born Bernard Gavin Weiler on November 28, 1910, in Ruislip, on the outskirts of west London.
His father was a "Hebrew" German émigré also called Bernard Weiler, who had moved to Britain from Germany some 20 years earlier. Mr Weiler Sr had an elder brother called Herrman who had refused call-up papers for the army and had been stripped of German citizenship.
Much later the synagogue in the village where they came from would be burnt to the ground by the SS, and Jews sent to Nazi death camps. Several people called Weiler from the area appear on the list of victims of the Holocaust. The senior Bernard Weiler became a successful ostrich feather merchant with premises in the Barbican and in Cape Town, South Africa. He lived in a large house with his Englishborn wife Edith, who was two decades younger, as well as a cook, a maid and a nurse for the children.
But the family fortunes were hit by the First World War in 1914, and the so-called "feather crash" which saw changing fashions kill off the demand for expensive feather-adorned garments and hats.
Anti-German sentiment was strong, so the family name was changed by deed poll to Welby and Gavin's father took an agency job selling worthless "snake oil" drugs on sales trips to America. He sold an art collection, but in spite of failing health he was forced to continue making week-long voyages across the Atlantic, cramped in steerage.
Gavin took over this dubious business shortly before his father died. He was 19. As he began to spend increasing amounts of time in New York, the young man set about reinventing himself. This part of the story did enter family history and Bishop Welby said recently that he believed his father had been a bootlegger during the Prohibition era.
"I remember my father telling me [his mother] gave him £5 and put him on a boat. He said he went to New York in 1929 and traded whisky. When I was studying history, the penny dropped that Prohibition ended in 1933 ... so he was bootlegging. He was illegally trading whisky." After being told on Friday of the details of his father's life, 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."
When Prohibition ended, the inventive young man - now calling himself Gavin Bramhall James Welby - was the New York import manager for the National Distillers Production Corporation.
His job was to supply Manhattan's newly booming hotels and cocktail bars with the ingredients for their latest frozen, shaken and stirred alcoholic creations. Aged 23, with a clipped English accent, and dark, debonair good looks, he modelled himself on the Hollywood star Cary Grant. Gavin Welbyquickly became the man to know if you wanted to hold a party in one of Manhat-tan's upmarket hotels. He arranged balls for the sons and debutante daughters of New York's wealthy élite, befriending businessmen and their wives. By 1940 he was earning $7,000 (£4,300) a year, the equivalent of $116,000 (£72,000) today, and had rooms at the five-star Hotel Pierre overlooking Central Park. He could also afford to rent an apartment on the Upper East Side, where he held parties for high society.
Rather than admit to being a mere employee, Welby began hinting that his family owned one of the distilleries supplying the liquor.
The society columns of The New York Times from this period are filled with his exploits. They also reveal details of Welby's first marriage: to Doris Sturzenegger, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner, in January 1934.
Hailing from Chester, New Jersey, she was of German descent just like her new husband. "Doe" as she was known had been a student at Boston University, whose yearbook for 1930 says: "Effervescent, always with a smile, Doe's a cheerful girl, sans guile."
The marriage appears to have been very short lived. Before the year was out, she had left him. After returning first to Boston, she used her maiden name and a newlyminted American passport to sail to Britain, identifying herself as a dance teacher. There is no trace of the couple getting divorced.
After the outbreak of war in 1939, Welby remained in New York, organising parties. But when America entered the conflict he had no choice but to join up, either there or at home. In December 1942, he held a farewell party to mark his departure.
The New York Times reported: "Several hundred persons, including many prominent English men and women living here, attended a farewell reception given in the small ballroom of the Pierre by Gavin Welby, son of Mrs E James Welby of London and Surrey, who is about to join the British Army as a commissioned officer."
He received a field promotion to First Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps, in charge of transport and supplies. However, when demobbed three years after the end of the war, he placed an announcement in The Times as "Captain" Gavin Welby, announcing that he would now be taking up residence at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York.
He also applied to Conservative Central Office, asking to be considered as a candidate for Parliament. His application forms to the party are sealed, but it is understood that he gave false details about his background, shaved several years off his age and overstated his position with the American firms that had employed him before the war.
Nevertheless, his easy manner and direct-speaking style apparently impressed the Conservative hierarchy. In 1950, he was selected to fight for Coventry East against an up-and-coming politician, Richard Crossman, who was later to become a Labour Cabinet minister.
The local Conservative party activists seem to have taken against their candidate, who continued to be based in London. A report to the constituency in January 1951 complained: "Adopted last October (Welby) has made a few visits to the Constituency, but has by no means got around the Division. I should say that he is not particularly well suited to this type of Division."
The Coventry Telegraph reported that he was heckled at the hustings. During one debate, Welby referred to the Stone Age, saying: "It was not uncommon for a man to beat his wife with a cudgel." Someone shouted: "That's private enterprise!" His brief visits to Coventry were dubbed "jetpropelled canvassing" as he took to driving around the constituency in a car with a loudspeaker, accompanied by his mother. It was reported that she had delayed an operation to join him.
Days before the poll, disaster struck. The Welby campaign team published a pamphlet entitled "Good Advice" which misquoted his opponent as saying: "Labour is not fit to govern the country ...". Crossman sued and Welby was forced to publish a grovelling apology on the eve of the election.
He had apparently approved the pamphlet but now accused his election agent of inserting the quote "entirely on your own initiative".
Crossman won a massive majority and Welby headed back across the Atlantic. Then in 1952 Walter Winchell, the king of American gossip columnists, revealed that the Englishman was dating the daughter of Joseph Kennedy, former US ambassador to Britain. Patricia was also the sister of John F Kennedy.
Alongside snippets on the love affair between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, the columnist wrote: "JP Kennedy's daughter Pat and Gavin Welby (of the Scotch whisky clan) are intoxicated about each other." However, Patricia later married the British actor Peter Lawford. Welby returned to Britain.
During the election campaign he had met and befriended Adam Butler, the son of Rab, who would go on to be an MP, a minister and aide to Margaret Thatcher and a knight. They became so close that Welby later added a clause to his will, making Adam Butler the legal guardian of his son. He added: "I express the wish that (he) take my son to live with him ... during his infancy."
It was Adam Butler who introduced Gavin Welby to his cousin Jane Portal, the private secretary to Winston Churchill. She later said that she had been hired by Churchill as a "donkey" and "dogsbody" to do late night work, as well as taking dictation of his war memoirs. Being a niece of Rab Butler had helped her get the job. After meeting her in 1940, Churchill had said: "You'll do."
She went on to work for Churchill as he led a government after the war, helping to keep his stroke and failing health hidden from the wider world.
Gavin Welby and Jane Portal married on Monday, April 4, 1955, in Baltimore, Maryland, without their family and friends in attendance. They had apparently eloped because of disapproval from her parents. Later that month, however, the marriage was announced in The Times. A reception was held at 11Downing Street, arranged by Rab Butler.
When details of the wedding reached America, John F Kennedy wrote to his 21-yearold Swedish mistress Gunilla von Post: "Did you see in the paper that our friend — the cold, frozen Mr Gavin Welby — got married to Mr Churchill's secretary? Something must have happened."
By 1956, the Welbys were living in Onslow Square, Chelsea. Gavin had invested much of the money he had made in America and was now a Name on the Lloyds insurance market. His son was born on January 6 that year.
Justin Portal Welby was christened at Holy Trinity, Brompton, with Adam Butler and the Hon Flora Fraser, now Lady Saltoun, acting as godparents. This was the same church to which he would return for comfort after the death of his first child in a car accident in Paris, and where he first felt called to the ministry.
The marriage between his parents did not last. Within three years, Jane Welby petitioned for divorce on the grounds that her husband was "guilty of adultery". Mr Welby did not contest the claim. The divorce was finalised in February 1959. Jane Portal went on to marry Charles Williams, the former Essex county cricketer and oil executive, in 1975. When he was elevated to the House of Lords as a life peer in 1985, she became Lady Williams of Elvel.
After the marriage ended, Gavin Welby went back to dividing his time between Britain and America. He stood for Parliament again in 1955, as a last-minute replacement candidate in Goole, Yorkshire.
The local party chairman wrote: "His qualifications seem so astonishingly good ... [we] are extraordinary lucky [to have] a man of such calibre."
"I have something very special to tell you," Miss Redgrave wrote to her father. "I am going to marry a sweet, darling man called Gavin Welby."
Her father, Sir Michael Redgrave, did not approve. Her mother, Rachel Kempson, wrote to him: "Vanessa is completely infatuated ... I only pray we can prevent marriage." They feared Welby was a "rotten piece of work".
The actress did eventually end the relationship. She told her father: "I have decided not to marry Gavin because, although I do love him, for various reasons I know it wouldn't work ... I had a talk with Mum this evening and realised that it is the only thing to do."
So much of this astonishing life was hidden from his son, who was moved by the story The Sunday Telegraph was able to share with him.
Bishop Welby did not know, for example, that his father had Jewish ancestry, or an older sister called Peggy.
She married a future Labour MP, the communist sympathiser Lester Hutchinson who was expelled from the party in 1949, and she died in 1983. Bishop Welby continues to wonder whether he has secret brothers or sisters.
"In many ways, I think the story you have told me brings more credit on him than the story he himself told," Bishop Welby said.
"It is the 'making good' story isn't it? It's a great thing of overcoming setbacks. I would have thought 'wow, that's a fantastic story' if he had told me about it when I was a child."
He went on: "There is no hiding the fact that he was a complicated man. He was really, really, brilliant. I think what you have said shows he was really brilliant in many ways. But there were, probably from his background, complications in his life that hindered that brilliance really being deployed fully."