Settling down didn’t come naturally to Simon Sebag Montefiore, the English banking scion with a playboy reputation who gave up finance for war reporting. Then he met the woman he knew he couldn’t let slip away, and started producing a series of acclaimed histories. Our correspondent drops in on the toast of London as he is fêted for his latest prize-winning book, Young Stalin.
On a rainy Monday evening in London last May, several hundred royals, politicians, socialites, journalists, intellectuals, and leading businessmen gathered inside the Bond Street jewelry store Asprey to toast the U.K. launch of Young Stalin, a biography of the early years of the Soviet dictator, by the prize-winning English historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. The book went on to become a best-seller in the U.K., winning the prestigious Costa award for biography this month. Miramax and Ruby Films, in a deal with Film4, have bought the film rights and signed John Hodge, the screenwriter of Trainspotting, to write the script. The book was published in October in the U.S.
The author, 42, and his wife, Santa, 37, also a best-selling author, of romantic historical fiction—she has written nine books, which have sold more than two million copies in 20 languages—arrived at the party with their nanny and two children, Lily, 6, dressed as a princess, and Sasha, 4. For the next two hours, Simon, wearing a gray Dolce & Gabbana suit and a white shirt, open at the neck, hovered around a table piled high with copies of his book. Slender, with dirty-blond, spiky hair and glittering blue eyes, he hunched his shoulders nervously from time to time.
Santa made a glamorous hostess. A tall, graceful blonde, she was dressed in a slim-fitting, knee-length black Prada cocktail dress. Diamonds sparkled in her earlobes and around her neck as she greeted guests and made introductions, at one point bringing Prince and Princess Michael of Kent over to meet Simon’s boxing instructor, Stewart Taylor.
Santa, it is well known, is a close friend of Prince Charles’s—her parents, Hampshire landowners Charles and Patty Palmer-Tomkinson, have skied with him for 30 years. Guests at the party included British shadow minister for housing Michael Gove and Sir David Frost. Also on hand were writers such as Lady Antonia Fraser, Alain de Botton, Philip Kerr, and the Honorable William Shawcross. The publisher Lord George Weidenfeld came; so did Luke Johnson, the head of Britain’s Channel4 network, and Alan Parker, the head of the Brunswick Group, the financial-P.R. behemoth. Andrew Neil, chief executive of The Spectator magazine and a political commentator on television, stood with friends in a corner.
Around 7:30 p.m. Kate Middleton, Prince William’s on-again, off-again (now on) 25-year-old girlfriend, walked into the crush accompanied by her younger sister, Pippa. She made straight for her hosts, and Santa deftly tucked the star guest into a niche by the bar and protected her.
‘Only the Montefiores could have given a book party as glamorous as this,” said one guest. Lord Weidenfeld explained the couple’s unique appeal: “There’s really no one else in London now who is at the nexus of so many worlds.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s previous two books also met with critical acclaim. The first was Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair, published in 2000; the second, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, won the History Book of the Year prize at the British Book Awards in 2004. His books have been published in more than 30 languages. Young Stalin has already been called a watershed work, in part because the author unearthed the memoirs of Stalin’s mother—dictated in violation of her son’s order that she not give interviews—from archives in Georgia, but also because of a dynamism in Montefiore’s writing style that brings the past alive. Lord Weidenfeld sums up Simon’s talents: “It is very rare to find a historian capable of such serious research and such journalistic verve.”
That verve led Montefiore to the Kremlin, where he was given privileged access to Stalin’s papers and found much of the material that went into Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. He even tried, in vain, to persuade officials at Russia’s internal security service, the F.S.B., to give him access to K.G.B. archives. The Georgian archives reveal the young Stalin to be a complex figure, capable of poetry and brutality, hot-blooded romance and murder. “Young Stalin is a truly melodramatic story, which is meat and drink for the narrative historian that Simon is,” says Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta.
Montefiore’s personal allure stems not just from his intellectual accomplishments but also from his raffish charm. “He is the best lunch date in London,” says his friend the Honorable Hannah Rothschild, another writer. “His gossip is so clever, ranging through centuries and across all sections of society.”
In December 2006, the Montefiores hosted a private dinner party for eight, including the Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. Also at the Montefiore’s new Kensington house were two young Conservative politicians, David Cameron, the Tory leader, and Michael Gove—then the shadow secretary of state for children, schools, and families—and their wives.
Afterward the dinner was reported in the British newspapers, which noted that Cameron and the Prince, both active environmentalists, had gotten on extremely well. What was not mentioned was that the Montefiores were probably the only couple in England in a position to make such an introduction in such an informal setting.
Two days after the party for Young Stalin, Santa and I sit in the Montefiores’ uncluttered, light-filled drawing room in Kensington, beneath a vast, imposing portrait of Simon’s great-great-uncle the banker Sir Moses Montefiore, whose distinguished features used to be seen on the Israeli shekel. Dressed in track pants and an exercise shirt, Santa flips through her wedding albums, pointing out everyone. Santa looks like a stereotypical product of the English upper classes: all glowing, makeup-free skin, lanky legs, and thick dark-blond hair. She says, though, that her parents are unconventional. “My mother is never happier than when my sister comes home with her friends and we have a Rastafarian at one end of the table and a lord at the other, and pop stars. My father is the sort of person who just loves everybody.”
In March 1988, Santa’s mother almost died in a horrendous avalanche in Klosters, which resulted in many press reports of the family’s friendship with the Prince of Wales. Tara, Santa’s pretty, extroverted younger sister, subsequently burned out on the fame, getting caught half-naked in the British tabloid The Sun and eventually, after her fast-paced lifestyle caught up with her, going into rehab in Arizona. (Their older brother James, who is married with four children, is the head of portfolio management at the financial-services firm Kleinwort Benson.)
Santa followed the traditional career path of a well-connected, good-looking young woman of her background in London and took jobs in fashion-related businesses, first at the Italian perfumer Santa Maria Novella, then at the jeweler Theo Fennell, and finally at Polo Ralph Lauren. One day, when she was 24, Simon came into Theo Fennell and chatted her up, and then began to pursue her. His father, a doctor, is descended from a famous line of wealthy Moroccan-Italian Jews who became diplomats and bankers all over Europe. At the start of the 19th century, playing the markets on intelligence about the Battle of Waterloo, the Montefiores became banking partners of the Rothschilds. By contrast, Simon’s mother, April, a novelist, comes from a Russian-Lithuanian line of poor scholars. (Simon is related to Gwyneth Paltrow through his great-grandmother, a Paltrovitch.) Her parents fled Russia at the turn of the 20th century. They bought tickets for New York but were cheated and dropped off at New Cork, Ireland. There, in 1904, they faced the country’s last pogrom and fled again, to Newcastle, England.
When he met Santa, Simon had a reputation for being something of a playboy; his girlfriends had included the models Koo Stark, who had dated Prince Andrew, and Nicola Formby. Back then, “Sebag” dabbled in work as a war correspondent in places such as Chechnya, Georgia, and Estonia. He loved the nomadic, adventurous life, which he talked up vividly on the London cocktail-party circuit. Once, in 1993, when handed a gun in the war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the former Soviet province of Nagorno-Karabakh, he started to fire enthusiastically. While presumably not everyone found stories of such behavior enchanting, he was a hit with the ladies.
Santa says she knew immediately that this was the man she would marry—despite the fears of others, who were concerned he lacked a quality the English call “stickability.” She says her girlfriends at first “clutched me very firmly and said, ‘Do be careful.’ ”
“I’d never met anyone with that sort of energy,” Santa says. “He’s funny. Darcy [the romantic hero of Pride and Prejudice] would be so boring to marry. Lovely in Jane Austen as a novel. But to marry a man who is moody, sexy, sultry—you want a sense of humor.”
Santa was not even dissuaded when the object of her affections appeared to have no thought of marrying her. He frequently told her he considered her “marriage material”—“not as a compliment,” Santa notes, but rather to mean she was an obstacle to having fun. They dated for two years. In 1997 they took a vacation in Italy. Santa thought he would propose. He didn’t. Finally, as they sat on the bed one evening, she asked, “What are your plans?” “I have no plans,” was the response.
Simon admits he hadn’t thought about marriage at that point. He was at work on Catherine the Great & Potemkin, with at least another year to go before the manuscript was due. “I wasn’t sure that I was cut out for marriage, and I had this difficult thing, because I knew she was the right person if I did want to get married,” he says.
In turmoil, he talked to his father, who referred him to a psychiatrist and told him that Santa would be snapped up by someone else. “It was a clever thing of him to say,” says Simon. “I realized I didn’t want Santa snapped up by someone else.”
Until he met Santa, Simon was what some might call a “late bloomer.” The youngest of four brothers, he attended Harrow, the private boys’ school, then Cambridge. Upon graduating, he toyed with various careers. During his 20s he busied himself in London and New York as an investment banker for Credit Suisse First Boston, then for a smaller boutique firm, Ansbacher Investment Management.
David Tang, the U.K. fashion magnate, who was made Lord Tang this year, recalls how Ansbacher once assigned Simon to meet him at J.F.K. airport first thing in the morning. Simon never showed. “To my irritation I then checked myself and my bags into a hotel and spent the next few hours trying to locate my own banker,” Lord Tang says. Eventually Simon made contact. “He explained—not altogether too contritely—he had overslept.” By now it was six p.m. “I was livid. I said I never wanted to see him ever again,” Lord Tang remembers.
Simon quit banking and moved on to journalism. In December 1996 he made headlines when he interviewed the Spice Girls, then at the height of their fame and known for their motto, “Girl Power.” He got the group to admit to being supporters of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The unlikely confession, says Simon, was “utterly contrived.” It was elicited after he wrote the group a letter saying, “Dear Spice Girls: Most people think you are just pop stars, but I think you are the Voltaire and Rousseau of your day … ”
Years later, he says, he met then prime minister Tony Blair, who congratulated him on the piece, saying it was “very clever, very clever.” Ultimately, though, domestic journalism bored him. He preferred foreign affairs.
At one point Lord Tang decided to give Simon a second chance, feeling he now “seemed serious.” He invited Simon on a trip to China to meet with various government officials. The first of these meetings was an eight a.m. breakfast—which Simon missed, because he slept late again.
Lord Tang was furious. For the second time, he told Simon he hoped he never saw him again.
However, Simon was, on many fronts, growing up. His war-correspondence experience made him realize there was a fount of unexplored archives in Russia and China that had remained sealed during the Cold War, so he started to learn Russian in order to research his book on Empress Catherine and her lover Prince Potemkin. Montefiore was later led to believe that Putin was pleased with his book. “It basically rehabilitated these two great Russian heroes, Catherine the Great and Potemkin,” says Simon. It also caught the attention of President Bush, who, Simon says, read it aloud to the First Lady in bed at night.
“It wasn’t that no one knew about this history,” explains Gela Charkviani, the Georgian ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland. “It’s that Simon knows how to bring it alive. He knows what to highlight as important and what to leave out.”
In 1997, after their conversation in Italy, Santa recalls, she returned one evening from work to Simon’s apartment and found him looking “gray and green.… I actually thought he was really sick.”
In fact he took her hand and proposed. Santa accepted immediately. “I’d had the ‘yes’ planned for the last two years,” she says.
They married on October 29, 1998. She converted to Judaism to do so, which was considered highly unusual for someone from the so-called British country set. At their wedding, one of Santa’s former boyfriends remarked, “Well, it seems the Jew won.”
The ceremony, at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, in London’s St. John’s Wood, made the front pages of the British newspapers. It was the first event publicly attended by both Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles (though they arrived and left separately). Among the 400 guests were Sir David Frost, an old family friend of the Palmer-Tomkinsons’; Stephen Fry; Conrad Black; and Koo Stark.
The marriage has remained as atypical as it began, with Simon taking off intermittently on trips to Russia, Georgia, or Israel for research, or to the U.S., at the encouragement of his wife, who likens him to a horse who should not be constrained—particularly when she sees telltale signs of restlessness and depression. “I can tell when he needs another trip,” she says, “because he gets impossible to live with, and he gets snappy—he gets moody and he gets caged in. Then I say, ‘Go someplace—go to America or wherever.’
“I am the least possessive person. We don’t own anybody; we married, but it doesn’t mean that I own him,” she adds. “I haven’t looked at a man since I married him, I really have not looked at another man. Sebag looks at every woman on the street, but that’s just the way it is.”
The yin and yang of their partnership does not stop there. He is an insomniac; she falls asleep the moment her head touches the pillow. He likes to go out; she prefers to stay home. He is admittedly “neurotic”; she says she is not easily stressed out, noting, “If I were a dog, I would probably be a Great Dane.”
She is aware, however, that their relationship is based on something “fragile,” which could shatter, she says, “if he ever fell in love.” At that moment, for the first time during our interview, she looks vulnerable.
Two years ago Santa and Simon moved into a large, white Kensington town house, where they have deliberately left many of the walls bare. Santa says she wants to cover them with pictures from trips over the years. “I don’t believe in ‘doing’ houses all at once,” she says. For the first time they both have offices rather than writing at a table. Santa now puts out a book a year, and Simon is finishing a novel about four generations of Russian Jewish women from the time of Czar Nicholas II up to the 1990s.
To Simon’s delight, their rear windows provide views into the gardens of the mansions in what is known colloquially as Millionaires’ Row. The houses, former embassies, are now almost all owned by Russian oligarchs. Montefiore’s books are admired by the likes of Sir Elton John and Sir Mick Jagger, who wanted to produce a movie of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Lord Tang, now a close friend, calls Simon “third time lucky.” Is this how he sees himself?
Simon pauses, looking faintly appalled. “No. Never. You know what they say,” he remarks. “We Jews always have a suitcase packed … ”