Diplomats usually have a short shelf life. They’re paid to retreat into the woodwork and lie for their country, as the old saying goes, but, with Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton celebrated exceptions, diplomats are here today and gone when a president is through with them, usually tomorrow. Like old times, they’re often easily forgotten.
One more exception is John Freeman, the British ambassador to the United States four decades ago who was once an important figure in Washington. His death four days before Christmas, at age 99, has kindled an unusual remembrance in Britain of a public man who, by his own determination, disappeared from public life and told a prospective interviewer in retirement: “I wish everybody would forget I was alive.”
His death has, in fact, gone curiously unremarked in the newspapers in America, where he was an important figure just as Richard Nixon and his administration began unraveling as the first hints of Watergate mischief began dribbling into the press (notably The Washington Post). He forged an unlikely friendship first with Henry Kissinger and then with Nixon, whom he had, in the pages of the influential British magazine New Statesman, mercilessly flayed as “a discredited and outmoded purveyor of the irrational and inactive,” whose defeat in 1964 would have been “a victory for decency.”
He was a man’s man with a heroic record in World War II. He was one of the “Desert Rats” immortalized in the Anglo-American dash across North Africa in 1942. Bernard Montgomery (“the viscount of Alamein”) called him “my best brigade major,” and three years later he took the surrender of several German generals in the last hours of the war. He was apparently irresistible to women without making a fuss about it. He had four wives and credible rumors of a romance with the writer Edna O’Brien, who wrote about a bitter breakup in a famous short story, “The Love Object.” No scandals. He was British, after all.
He had returned from the war to a brief but dashing career in Labor politics, elected to Parliament in a stunning upset in a Tory constituency. He was “tall and handsome with a shock of ginger hair,” and when he stepped up to speak in his major’s uniform, bearing the mark of the Desert Rats, Winston Churchill grumbled to an associate, “They have all the best young men now.” He was “tipped” as a future prime minister, but, with neither hint nor intimation, quit politics to become editor of the New Statesman. A few brief years later, he quit journalism to go to Delhi as high commissioner, or ambassador.
It was from Delhi that he was called to Washington to repair strains on “the special relationship,” with considerable titillation in London in anticipation of how he would get along with Richard Nixon. In the event, his cool, detached manner apparently appealed to the president and his secretary of state, despite the earlier angry and dismissive words. “I don’t make friends easily,” Mr. Kissinger told a friend, “and Nixon doesn’t make friends at all.” The three of them became fast friends.
His embassy on Massachusetts Avenue became a popular one, credit due in no small part to his third wife, the tall, stunning Catherine Dove, whose dinner parties were soon a hot ticket in town. She became the queen of Embassy Row, known for her sparkling lists of a variety of interesting, often unexpected, guests. “Her year in Washington was her championship season,” an admiring doyenne once remarked, “and John and Britain got the benefit of it.”
The ambassador became a devoted Redskins fan. That’s how I came to know him, as well as a stranger might. We watched games together from end-zone seats, and when I remarked that he might enjoy the conviviality of the owner’s box, he shook his head. “I prefer sitting here,” he said. Years later, when he was a professor at the University of California at Davis, he called one day to ask if I would write a character reference to accompany his application for American citizenship. Henry Kissinger was writing one for him, he said. I agreed, flattered to be asked, and wrote at once. He never became an American, and I never knew why. He watched American football to the end of his life on Dec. 20 in a military nursing home in London.
He was a curious man, living a life behind privacy walls he guarded as only a brigade major might. When Hugh Purcell, who is working on a biography, asked through a mutual friend for an interview. He was told that “he won’t co-operate, but if you write it he won’t sue.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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