Prue Leith: My af­fair with an older mar­ried man

She ad­mits it was un­for­giv­able. But in a sear­ingly hon­est au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, the new Bake Off judge says she was over­come by pas­sion –and sim­ply couldn’t re­sist

Irish Daily Mail - - Front Page - by Prue Leith

WHEN I was 21, I fell in love with the man I would go on to marry. There was just one prob­lem — he hap­pened to be the hus­band of my mother’s best friend.

Was it dif­fi­cult? Ter­ri­bly. We kept it a se­cret for 13 years. But it was also thrilling — and deeply ful­fill­ing.

We mar­ried in 1974 and were happy for the next 28 years, un­til his death in 2002. Our re­la­tion­ship lasted more than four decades, though I’d known him far longer than that, hav­ing hero-wor­shipped him since the age of seven. But it wasn’t un­til I’d be­come an adult that we fell in love.

It was 1961 and I had left home in South Africa to study at the Sor­bonne in Paris. But for the sum­mer, my mother sent me to Eng­land to stay with her best friend Nan and her hus­band, the writer Rayne Kruger.

Nan and Rayne had met in South Africa in 1946 when my mother, Mar­garet, then a well-known ac­tress, had put on a pro­duc­tion of Pyg­malion. Nan, who was 40 and a widow with three young chil­dren, played El­iza. Rayne, de­spite be­ing 17 years her ju­nior, was Henry Hig­gins.

Rayne be­came in­fat­u­ated with Nan and, al­though she ag­o­nised about the age gap and wor­ried that he would fall out of love with her as the years passed, they were mar­ried a year later, in 1947.

Nan’s daugh­ter An­gela was my best friend and Rayne used to carry us around on his shoul­ders. He held even seven-year-old me in thrall; he was a ter­rific lis­tener and very good with young peo­ple. I had a se­cret pas­sion for him, and would fan­ta­sise that he had a younger, iden­ti­cal brother who would mirac­u­lously ap­pear and fall in love with me.

So when I ar­rived in Lon­don, I headed for their house in Kens­ing­ton like a hom­ing pi­geon.

That sum­mer I was gen­tly civilised by the Kruger fam­ily. Grad­u­ally I lost some of my South African raw­ness or, some would say, brash­ness. I learnt to have grown-up con­ver­sa­tions at Sun­day lunch (for which you were ex­pected to take an in­ter­est in cur­rent af­fairs, the arts, pol­i­tics) and oc­ca­sion­ally met Nan’s theatre friends, some of whom — Alec Guin­ness and John Giel­gud, for ex­am­ple — were awe­somely fa­mous and very po­lite and so­cially pol­ished.

NAN taught me not to nick fruit from the bowl ev­ery time I passed it, and to bring home the oc­ca­sional bunch of flow­ers or mini present. Rayne taught me, with­out much suc­cess, to talk less and lis­ten more, and Ange let me into her cir­cle of drama-stu­dent friends.

They were a fas­ci­nat­ing, in­tel­li­gent, gen­er­ous and lov­ing fam­ily. Their sons Don­ald, a doc­tor, and John, who worked for the BBC, were no longer at home, while An­gela was at Rada dur­ing the day and of­ten out with friends at night. Nan, a suc­cess­ful ac­tress, was usu­ally at the theatre. So I saw more of Rayne than any of the oth­ers.

Be­ing a writer, he worked at home and I would make lunch or sup­per for him and we’d talk. He was by far the most in­ter­est­ing per­son I’d ever met. Rayne was born, il­le­git­i­mate, in 1922 in South Africa. By the time he was 22 years old he had worked down a gold mine; prospected for tung­sten in Rhode­sia; been thrown out of univer­sity for or­gan­is­ing a don­key derby and fail­ing to re­turn the don­keys to their own­ers (the lads in charge had got drunk and let the an­i­mals go); be­come an ar­ti­cled clerk while pur­su­ing his law de­gree by cor­re­spon­dence; joined the mer­chant navy and gone to war; and come home to Jo­han­nes­burg, where he re­sumed his law stud­ies while work­ing as a radio an­nouncer and ac­tor and writ­ing his first novel.

By 1961, he was an es­tab­lished au­thor in Lon­don. But since writ­ing is a pre­car­i­ous oc­cu­pa­tion, he worked part-time on prop­erty de­vel­op­ment. He would oc­ca­sion­ally have to visit some prop­erty or go to a meet­ing and I’d go too. Some­times we went by bus, but more of­ten on foot.

He knew the city in­side out — its his­tory, art and ar­chi­tec­ture —

and, ig­no­ra­mus that I was, I soaked it all up.

He was a good sto­ry­teller and I fell back into my old herowor­ship. Soon there was noth­ing I would rather do than be with Rayne. I told my­self I was not fall­ing in love with him, that he was out of bounds. And any­way, he loved Nan.

Then, one evening when we were in the kitchen, he kissed me. I wish I could say I ob­jected, but I didn’t. Guilt about Nan would creep in later, but what I felt at that mo­ment — apart from a leap­ing de­sire — was surprise and de­light that he con­sid­ered me kiss­able; a woman, not a child.

So be­gan a 13-year af­fair. I was ut­terly in­fat­u­ated.

Bet­ter ed­u­cated and far clev­erer than I, Rayne none­the­less found me in­ter­est­ing. He made me feel tal­ented, beau­ti­ful, admired.

There are few things more se­duc­tive than some­one who de­lights in you, be­lieves in you, wants you to be happy; and few things more at­trac­tive than that some­one know­ing much more than you do.

To this day, I am an in­tel­lec­tual groupie. Not clever, artis­tic, or par­tic­u­larly tal­ented my­self, I re­main in awe of writ­ers, artists and mu­si­cians, I am ‘turned on’ by in­ter­est­ing, achiev­ing peo­ple.

Of course, I re­alise my af­fair with Rayne was un­for­giv­able. I be­lieve adul­tery is wrong, and feel an­gry with men who be­tray their wives. I pre­fer to for­get that I en­cour­aged Rayne to do just that: I fell com­pletely, thun­der­ously and ir­re­deemably for the hus­band of my mother’s best friend.

Poor Nan had no idea what a ser­pent she had al­lowed into her nest. I had never met any­one like Rayne be­fore. Ironic though it might sound in view of his se­cret life, he held al­most Vic­to­rian val­ues of hon­esty, pro­bity and kind­ness. He was also, in those early days, beau­ti­ful.

Be­tray­ing the hos­pi­tal­ity and love of Nan should have been im­pos­si­ble for me, but I pushed all feel­ings of anx­i­ety and guilt away. I re­fused to think about it — at least at first. I told my­self I was no threat to her, that I loved her and would never hurt her. And nei­ther would Rayne.

Some­how, I can­not now imag­ine how, I man­aged to per­suade my­self that what we were do­ing was noth­ing to do with any­one else. In the age-old ex­cuse of all adul­ter­ers, I couldn’t help it.

Af­ter that first kiss, we spent more time ex­plor­ing Lon­don, a good bit of it look­ing for a flat or a room for me, all the while both of us fall­ing in love.

It is not much of a boast, but I’m glad we never slept to­gether at their house. I can’t claim any credit for this be­cause if he’d wanted me to, I would have. I would have stripped in Pic­cadilly Cir­cus if he’d asked me.

We found a room in Bayswa­ter, and one evening af­ter a Soho jazz club sup­per and a bus ride home to my new flat­let we fi­nally made love. It had been about a month since that first kiss.

The room was tiny, with al­most no space to stand be­tween cup­board, sin­gle bed, kitch­enette and tiny shower room. It be­came our is­land. I would spend all morn­ing pre­par­ing first me and then the sup­per.

My long hair had to go into rollers and I would strug­gle with Six­ties false eye­lashes. (When one flut­tered into my wine at a party, I gave them up.)

With only a fridge and a ket­tle, fix­ing sup­per was eas­ier — it came cold from the deli. There was no ta­ble, but a flap on the wall op­po­site the bed was wide enough for a tray. We ate sit­ting on the bed, and then we squashed into it.

I did not want to go back to France. ‘I’ll never be a lin­guist. The Sor­bonne is wasted on me; I want to be a cook,’ I told Rayne.

‘Even if you be­come a cook, an­other year in Paris can only do you good. You could get an evening job in a restau­rant or cafe.’

‘I’d be bet­ter off go­ing to the Cor­don Bleu in Lon­don.’

‘You can do that later. Be­sides, dar­ling girl, isn’t it time you fin­ished some­thing you started?’

Maybe he hoped we would for­get each other. Per­haps it was a last­ditch ef­fort not to fall com­pletely in love with me. I don’t know. Rayne had an ex­tra­or­di­nary power to pre­vent con­ver­sa­tions he did not want to have.

So, at the end of Au­gust, I went back to Paris, tak­ing a room with a mid­dle-aged French­woman to im­prove my lan­guage skills. But she hardly spoke to me and I ached for Rayne all the time.

Once, I tele­phoned when I thought Nan would be at the theatre for a mati­nee, but I mis­took the day. In those days, you had to make long-dis­tance calls through an op­er­a­tor and when she said: ‘Mr Kruger is not in, but would you like to speak to Mrs Kruger?’ I heard Nan’s voice, con­cerned and kind: ‘Prue, dar­ling, it’s me. Is some­thing wrong? Can I help?’

I pan­icked, put the phone down and curled my­self into a ball of an­guish, eyes shut tight, teeth clenched.

I tried not to think about the fu­ture. I was too happy to con­cern my­self with what might hap­pen to the re­la­tion­ship, whether I would marry and have chil­dren, or what dis­cov­ery of our af­fair would mean to my fam­ily and Rayne’s. There weren’t any an­swers. I just loved him, I told my­self, and I could not make my­self un-love him.

When I even­tu­ally re­turned to Lon­don, Rayne helped me find my first long-term flat, a bed­sit in Barons Court. It cost £4 a week — £1 more than I could af­ford. Rayne chipped in the ex­tra pound, and teased me about be­ing a kept woman.

I was in­or­di­nately happy. For the first three months, I was at the Cor­don Bleu cook­ery school in the day. I would bring home lit­tle boxes of coq au vin or pots of choco­late mousse, a quiche Lor­raine or a soup, and Rayne and I would toast bread on a bar­be­cue fork in front of the two­bar elec­tric fire and talk about my busi­ness-to-be.

From the start, Rayne was my ad­viser in all things, from my hair (he dis­liked it long) to run­ning a busi­ness. He wasn’t a sven­gali — he did not con­trol or dom­i­nate me — he just knew a lot more about ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing than I did. Ex­cept food — to which, iron­i­cally, he was pretty in­dif­fer­ent.

I must have been a very good liar to keep my love af­fair with Rayne se­cret for so long. My restau­rant, Leith’s, kept me very busy and I was happy. But as I got older I some­times re­sented what I con­sid­ered to be Rayne pulling rank on me, just as­sum­ing that he knew best.

The first cracks in our idyll started to ap­pear in the early Seventies, when I was a few years into my 30s. Nan’s chil­dren were all mar­ried and hav­ing ba­bies, my brother David’s youngest was al­ready a teenager and ev­ery visit to my brother Jamie and his tal­ented, beau­ti­ful, preg­nant wife Penny fed a long­ing for mar­riage and a fam­ily of my own.

I ached to tell Jamie about Rayne. But some­how I couldn’t. I knew he would be sym­pa­thetic but I also knew he, and par­tic­u­larly Penny, would ask some hard ques­tions about where the af­fair would end. And what about Nan? They all loved her too, and would be rightly ap­palled.

But I longed for a baby. Rayne’s baby. At the cen­tre of me was an un­com­fort­able ache: a nev­erceas­ing yearn for Rayne to be­long to me, and for us to have a child.

Yet I never be­seeched Rayne to leave Nan. In­stead, I pro­posed our hav­ing a child that I would bring up my­self, some­how pre­tend­ing it was the re­sult of a one-night stand with some­one I never wanted to see again.

But Rayne would not hear of it. He had al­ready brought up three chil­dren, he had no de­sire for

She had no idea what a ser­pent was in her nest I yearned to be his and to have his baby

more, and he thought my scheme a ro­man­tic dream. So we went on as be­fore.

Then, one evening in 1973, I got talk­ing to Jake, a cus­tomer at my restau­rant. Jake was con­fi­dent, self-made, good-look­ing, my age and ob­vi­ously at­tracted to me.

The fol­low­ing evening, he picked me up in a chauf­feur-driven limo and took me to Tramp night­club. I spent the night with him in his grand house in Not­ting Hill Gate.

The next morn­ing, we ran away to­gether. It was crazy. We hardly knew each other. He was try­ing to ex­tri­cate him­self from his mar­riage, and I saw him as my es­cape route from an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion. I left Rayne a note, just say­ing it was over and I was go­ing away with some­one else.

Jake and I flew to Aus­tria, where he had some busi­ness to do, and then on to Is­rael. Be­ing whisked away on a whim felt like a dream, a Mills & Boon ro­mance.

We flew next to South Africa. Miss­ing Rayne dread­fully by now, I rang a friend in Eng­land, who told me that he had left Nan and was liv­ing in a ho­tel room. I sim­ply could not un­der­stand it. All those years of fi­delity (of a sort) to Nan, and now, when there was no need, he’d aban­doned her.

My emo­tions veered from anger — why could he not have left her be­fore? — to an­guish at the depth of un­hap­pi­ness that must have led him to leave her now.

Poor Jake. I was pre­oc­cu­pied and silent, think­ing all the time of Rayne. And Jake be­came ever more moody and mo­rose. In three weeks, the zing had gone.

We flew on to Jo­han­nes­burg to see my mother, who was full of the ter­ri­ble news of Rayne leav­ing Nan. He had writ­ten a let­ter full of sad­ness, ask­ing her to write to Nan, say­ing that she was in a bad way and in need of her friend­ship.

She handed me the let­ter, and as I read it I bit my lip to stop my­self groan­ing or wail­ing. He said noth­ing of his long, now de­funct re­la­tion­ship with me.

My mother asked whether I had seen any cracks in his and Nan’s mar­riage: ‘Is there an­other woman, do you think?’

I shook my head, not trust­ing my­self to speak, then made an ef­fort and said I didn’t know, but no, I didn’t think so.

‘Poor dar­ling Nan,’ said Mum. ‘She said be­fore she mar­ried him that if he gave her five years, it would be worth it. But it’s harder to be left af­ter 25 than five.’

Jake and I flew back to Eng­land via Is­rael. One night, in the mid­dle of din­ner in the Tel Aviv Hil­ton, the waiter told me there was an ur­gent phone call for me.

It was Rayne. He was more emo­tional than I had ever known him — des­per­ate, close to tears.

He said all the things I’d longed for him to say for 12 years: that he could not live with­out me, that he wanted us to get mar­ried, that I should come home and we would have a baby.

I said no, it was too late. He should re­turn to Nan.

That night, Jake and I made love with new desperation.

Back in Lon­don, I went to see Rayne in his of­fice. I told my­self that I was in love with Jake now, that I didn’t want to go back to Rayne. So why did I take such pains to look my best?

I’d lost a lot of weight, col­lected a sun tan and was bet­ter dressed than was my wont, wear­ing a tan leather jacket that Jake had given me.

My heart was bang­ing in my chest like a school­girl’s. Rayne was com­posed. He said he loved me for good and would wait in the hope that the Jake thing would run its course. And then he would bear what­ever he had to bear.

He had left, he said, be­cause my go­ing had made him re­alise that I had been the coun­ter­point that bal­anced his life and made it pos­si­ble to stay in a mar­riage that had long ago lost any spark.

If I mar­ried Jake, then he would know it was over and then, yes, if Nan still wanted him, go­ing back and try­ing to make her happy was the least he could do.

My af­fair with Jake lasted per­haps an­other six weeks. He missed his wife, I missed Rayne; and in the end, he dumped me. Deep down, I knew he was right.

I kept telling my­self that Rayne should re­turn to Nan, that we would all get over it even­tu­ally. But I couldn’t keep it up. How could I pre­tend that Rayne was not the great love of my life?

One evening, I went to him in his ho­tel room. And that was that. It felt like com­ing home.

We re­sumed our clan­des­tine re­la­tion­ship, but now at least we were con­tem­plat­ing hav­ing a baby. We agreed we’d have one and adopt an­other.

We didn’t want to come into the open yet. Nan was des­per­ately un­happy and Rayne knew that a con­fes­sion of his love for me would be un­speak­ably hurt­ful so soon af­ter his de­ser­tion. He saw her once or twice a week, but of course she was mis­er­able.

In March 1974, I dis­cov­ered I was preg­nant. My heart felt as if it might stop from too much emo­tion. A baby!

I did think of Nan. Of the rest of the fam­ily; Ange; my mother. They would be aghast.

But Rayne’s re­sponse to my wor­ries was typ­i­cally wise.

‘Dar­ling, they are all good peo­ple. Of course they’ll be up­set, but that’s be­cause they all love Nan. And Nan is the most gen­er­ous woman on earth, if she can come to terms with it, and she will, you’ll see, they will too.’

We de­cided not to tell any­one about the length of our in­volve­ment. Rayne said it would be bad enough for Nan that he had so swiftly taken up with me af­ter leav­ing her, but worse still to know that he’d been de­ceiv­ing her for so many years.

So he told Nan that we had sud­denly fallen in love, and I was preg­nant.

Her sons were nat­u­rally out­raged and Ange said she had put Rayne on a pedestal, but now re­alised he had feet of clay.

My mother as­ton­ished me. She had, af­ter all, been Nan’s friend for 30 years and had been deeply an­gry with Rayne. But when I told her that I was hap­pier than I had ever been, she was won­der­ful.

She told me later that she thought I had adored Rayne be­cause he had filled the gap my fa­ther left when he died just be­fore I turned 21.

Fi­nally, Nan asked me to come and see her for lunch on her roof ter­race.

Heart bang­ing, feel­ing sick, I fol­lowed her up a steep cir­cu­lar stair­case, watch­ing her sen­si­ble shoes tread­ing care­fully on the iron steps and know­ing that in a few min­utes, I would have to admit to lov­ing her hus­band.

Nat­u­rally, she wanted to know when we had started our af­fair and I stuck to the lie Rayne and I had in­vented. I said it had hap­pened five months ago, at a New Year’s party, and that the baby was a mis­take (not true) but that we wanted to keep it.

That conversation must have been tor­ture for Nan. Maybe it would have been eas­ier if she had ranted or cried, but she was calm and gen­er­ous. Not for­giv­ing — of course not. But she un­der­stood my fall­ing in love with Rayne.

She had done so her­self 25 years be­fore, and all through their mar­riage there had been younger women moon­ing af­ter him.

More hurt­ful for Nan was Rayne lov­ing me, but even that she tried to un­der­stand.

The fact that both fam­i­lies re­mained friends was due to her de­ter­mi­na­tion as well as his.

Nan told her chil­dren that they must try to be­have well to us be­cause the fam­i­lies had been friends for ever and a feud would be un­bear­able.

In the sum­mer, when I was very vis­i­bly preg­nant, we went, at Nan’s in­sis­tence, to her 70th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion. I think she wanted to show the world that she ac­cepted the sit­u­a­tion.

It must have been in­cred­i­bly hard for her, but she was as strong as she was gen­er­ous.

It was Nan who pushed for a speedy di­vorce: ‘I’m not go­ing to be re­spon­si­ble for your baby be­ing born out of wed­lock,’ she said. It was a close-run thing.

We were mar­ried on Mon­day, Oc­to­ber 21, 1974, and our son Daniel was born on the Wed­nes­day. Rayne and I even­tu­ally adopted Li-Da, a 16-month-old girl from Cam­bo­dia, and bought a house in the Cotswolds.

My mother came up to visit a lot, and so did Nan. Friends would some­times re­mark on the odd­ity of Nan re­main­ing such close friends with Rayne and, even more oddly, with me. But we both loved her and he was still her best friend.

She once told me that now, mar­ried to me, he was much nicer to her and that she saw more of him at our house than when he had been mar­ried to her and shut up in his study all the time.

I can­not know if this was true, but she cer­tainly be­haved as a friend, con­tin­u­ing to in­vite me over, with or with­out Rayne.

She would of­ten come to us for Christ­mas. When Nan be­came ill in her 90s, Rayne went to see her ev­ery week. Then, one day in 1992, I had to break the news that she had died.

He shut down, re­treated to his study and stopped talk­ing al­to­gether for a while. I felt real sor­row for ev­ery­one, for all that had been, and for the un­hap­pi­ness Rayne and I had brought her.

I found the last decade of Rayne’s life hard. I was in my 50s, en­er­getic and up for ev­ery­thing. He was in his 70s and grow­ing grumpy and di­dac­tic.

I’d al­ways known that marrying some­one so much older would mean a dif­fi­cult fi­nal lap to­gether. But it was more than a fair price for the hap­pi­ness he’d given me.

His last months were good ones in many ways. Once he ac­cepted that he was ill — with em­phy­sema and other smok­ing-re­lated con­di­tions — he be­came gen­tle, re­signed and very lov­ing.

A week be­fore Christ­mas 2002, he got a lung in­fec­tion and had to go to hospi­tal. A few days later, as I walked into his ward, a nurse steered me into a side room.

When she told me he had died 15 min­utes be­fore, I could hear my­self wail­ing: ‘No, no, no.’

How could I not have been at his side?

Grad­u­ally, a kind of calm set­tled on me. I talked to him and held his hand, stroked his cheek, kissed his fore­head and fi­nally just buried my face against his side.

De­spite my sor­row, I felt pro­found grat­i­tude. He had been not only my lover and my hus­band for 40 years, but also my men­tor, guide and busi­ness part­ner.

Maybe my mother had been right to say he’d also re­placed the fa­ther I’d lost.

I just breathed in the com­fort­ing smell of him and thought: ‘Good­bye my dar­ling. Good­bye. And thank you.’

Back home, I opened Rayne’s desk drawer and found notes from him to Li-Da, Daniel and me.

Mine was a post­card. Rayne wrote: ‘How can I say good­bye to her who has been the glory of my life? What ex­pres­sion of thanks can en­com­pass all you have given me, done for me, been to me?

‘No words, my dar­ling girl. But my soul now re­poses in you — to help you call on the courage I know you have to con­front your new fu­ture with a level eye, and find hap­pi­ness in it.’

OEXTRACTED from Rel­ish: My Life On A Plate by Prue Leith (Oc­to­ber 5, pub­lished by Quer­cus).

I left a note to say it was over and ran away Did he re­place the fa­ther I had lost?

The truth is out: Prue and Rayne in Paris in 1974, af­ter fi­nally re­veal­ing their re­la­tion­ship

PRUE’S MOTHER HER BE­TRAYED BEST FRIEND Un­fail­ing bond: Prue’s mother Mar­garet Inglis with her best friend Nan Munro. Left: Prue in her youth

Fam­ily bliss: Prue and Rayne with their son Daniel and adopted daugh­ter Li-Da

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.