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
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