Those who lust for a New York Times obituary must satisfy at least two prerequisites: They must be dead—very dead—and they must have made news in the course of their lives. Bonus points accumulate if the deceased lived in New York City, died in New York City, was related to famous or wealthy people, worked as a journalist, married somebody famous, held a title of lady, lord, or viscount, or courted notoriety.
Lady Jeanne Campbell (1928-2007), who died at the age of 78 on June 9, according to an obituary in the New York Social Diary, qualifies for a Times obit on all counts. Although the British press belatedly noted her death, Lady Campbell has earned no U.S. press outside of the Social Diary.
Consider these bonus points: Campbell’s grandfather was press mogul Lord Beaverbrook. Her father, the 11th Duke of Argyll, was a playboy. In 1956, as a favor to Lord Beaverbrook, Time gave Campbell a minor photo department job. The magazine’s founder, Henry Luce, “became so openly smitten with this cheerful redhead, 31 years his junior, that rumors of the affair appeared in gossip columns,” a 1991 Time piece reports. Campbell married her first husband, Norman Mailer, in 1962 and had a daughter with him. They divorced in 1963.
And these: Campbell reported for her grandfather’s Evening Standard, although former presidential speechwriter James C. Humes didn’t think much of her work. “Lady Jean [sic] never would win awards for her journalism, but her libido, looks, and love life with the famous might have earned her an entry into Guinness’s Book of World Records,” he wrote in his 1997 memoir, Confessions of a White House Ghost Writer: Five Presidents and Other Political Adventures.
The British press plundered Campbell’s life and legend for hot copy. Leading the pack was the Telegraph, whose lengthy and salacious Sept. 22 obituary could be retrieved from the newspaper’s Web site and from Nexis as recently as yesterday. But the story has apparently been purged from both locations. The Telegraph obit exists in the Google cache (Page 1 and Page 2 of the obit) and as a Sydney Morning Herald reprint.
“Can there ever have been a courtesan to rival Lady Jeanne Campbell,” asked an item in the Observeron Sept. 23. “She conquered Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro—in one year. Oh, and as if to dispel accusations of left-wing bias, she also availed herself of Oswald Mosley. Even Claus von Bulow, no prude, found her a tad ‘fresh.’ “
How much of Campbell’s hose-beast legend is true? In England, journalistic standards are low, and anything previously published is usually sufficiently true for the purposes of republication. The Telegraph, Daily Mail, and the Herald of Glasgow all source Campbell’s fantastic head-of-state (heh, heh) triple play to speechwriter Humes’ book. But how far can he be trusted? He appears to have met her in 1964 * on his way to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, which she was covering, and to have spent limited time with her. Humes writes:
She reportedly slept with three heads of state within a year, an alliterative trio—Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro (JFK at her place in Georgetown in October 1963, Khrushchev in his Russian dacha in April, and Castro in Havana in May).
The key word here, of course, is reportedly, which is journalistic shorthand for “don’t blame me if it’s not true.” The British coverage alleges that her conquests also included Douglas Fairbanks Jr., former Defense Minister Duncan Sandys, and Randolph Churchill.
The New York Social Diary reports that Campbell was living “modestly” in a Greenwich Village “small walk-up apartment” at the end of her days. Talk about perfect obituary material. What is the Times waiting for? The Vanity Fair version? The Gawker take?
Do you suppose that the Times is hoarding the Campbell story for its annual wrap-up of important dead people in the Sunday magazine? Send your Jeanne Campbell rumors, innuendoes, and lies to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Correction, Oct. 15, 2007: This column originally gave the wrong date for the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. The Republicans met there in 1964, not 1960. (Return to the corrected sentence.)