Judith Simons, my dryly funny, chain-smoking friend


MAUREEN PATON remembers her good friend and colleague Judith Simons

Lots of people will have fond memories of the dryly funny, down-to-earth, chain-smoking  Judith “Jude” Simons, veteran Daily Express showbusiness writer, who has died at the age of 93. 

One of the inspirations for the title of Paul McCartney’s 1968 hit Hey Jude, her access to The Beatles  (through contacts that included John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi and  Brian Epstein’s mother, a distant relative of Judy’s) led to her becoming the only journalist permitted to sleep in the Fab Four’s private tour suite. 

(Important to note here that there was no hanky-panky, Judith was in her late 30s when she went on the road with the Fab Four and utterly devoted to her husband-to-be Gary, while the Beatles were in their early 20s and teased her like an older sister. Ringo called her Judith Christ Superfag and made her the butt of various unprintable jokes.)

When she retired from the Express at 60 in 1985 (although continuing to freelance as a celebrity interviewer until the age of 73), tiny, bustling Judy and her ever-present cigarette-holder were immortalised in Daily Express art director Tim Holder’s farewell cartoon. She had it framed and displayed on a wall in her North London flat along with a famous Express photograph of her on a sofa with The Beatles.

But until she broke her silence about her early pre-Beatles career and gave a scoop to the Daily Express in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, very few of her colleagues knew about Judith’s extraordinary start in journalism as a 21-year old cub reporter at the Ravensbruck  Nazi war-crimes trials in Hamburg from 1946-48.  She had covered the very worst of times as well as the best but kept quiet about it for years, haunted by the memory of “those horrible faces in the dock”. 

Born in Sheffield on 27 February 1925, she had first wanted to be a reporter at school. “I had read somewhere that a person who can  keep a secret can be a secretary, but a person who likes telling other people’s secrets can be a reporter. And that was me: I had the right temperament for it,” she told me.  

An uncle who worked for the Sheffield Star had said that “journalism was not a job for a girl”, which only made Judith all the more determined. Her first job after school was in the obituaries advertising department of  the Sheffield Telegraph, where she worked as a clerk.  As she later recalled: “I had to ring  up people and remind them of the anniversary of the deaths of their loved ones and ask if they were going to put another In Memoriam notice in. They would often contribute self-penned poems, such as, ‘We saw her suffer, we heard her sigh, we could only sit by and watch her die.’ Keats it wasn’t!  

“I saw the magazine The Journalist on someone’s desk, so I didn’t give up. In fact I was offered a journalism job in Blackpool, but at that stage I couldn’t afford to leave home and work there. The Foreign Office was sponsoring people to go to Germany to work for the Allied Control Commission, which had been set up to restore democracy to the country after the war. Someone else I knew had applied for a job there and I thought, ‘I can do that’ because I had studied German at school.  

Judith achieved the distinction of getting the sack from the Rotherham Express for laughing in court

“The Control Commission said they had a nice job for me in the department for food and agriculture, but I said no, I wanted to do news, so I was assigned to the new newspaper Die Welt that the British had set up in 1946. 

"I was working alongside a German girl, Renate, who spoke very good English, and the Ravensbruck trials were in English. Between us we managed to get a story together when a solicitor representing one of the criminals asked for time off in the middle of the trial because he had another court case to go to. The judge said, ‘This is impossible: these defendants are fighting for their lives and you want to go off and do a civil case?’ 

"So Renate and I wrote a story about this, which became the splash. We were only two kids and we couldn’t believe we had made the front page. That was the making of me – after that I didn’t look back.” 

She spent three years in Germany, including time in another town, Bunde, where she worked on a second paper, the Control Commission Gazette (CCG). In Hamburg, she even encountered the future James Bond Roger Moore, then a glamorous young British army officer organising entertainment for the troops.

When she came back to Blighty, she became a trainee in the Rotherham Express branch of the South Yorkshire Times alongside fellow junior Michael Parkinson (yes, him), where Judith achieved the distinction of getting the sack for laughing in court. But she went on to a West Hartlepool paper where presumably they didn’t mind the laughing and eventually came down to London to work for Kemsley Newspapers and teenage magazines such as Marty and Mirabelle with Fleet Street in her sights.

Judith had worked for a while for the Daily Mirror at their Sheffield office after catching their eye with a scoop about a woman whose five children had all died within a few weeks. But Judith found she didn’t fit in there because “the Mirror would run sexy stuff and I wasn’t a sexy-stuff writer”.  Another journalist advised her to try for the Daily Express instead ”because they take unusual people”. 

 As one of the first female pop writers on the nationals, Jude was a pioneer – especially when she was given the Street of Shame’s first morning daily pop column (the Daily Express’s Go! Go! Go! The Column With The Rhythm Of Youth). Never one for self-promotion, however,  she  later paid tribute at her leaving party in 1985 to the way the Express had opened so many doors for her. 

It has to be said, though, that when Jude was pounding out her Fab Four exclusives, some Express colleagues at the time could be very sniffy about what they assumed was just another flash-in-the-pan pop group. Nancy Banks-Smith, the future esteemed TV critic of The Guardian who sat next to Judith, would mockingly refer to Ringo as “Bingo”.  

Heady days, however. One of Judith’s surviving relatives recalls going as a boy to see her at the Express’s old Black Lubyanka building in Fleet Street and finding Marianne Faithfull sitting next to Judith’s desk while placidly waiting for Judith to “get off the blower to Dusty (Springfield)”. 

Yet although she loved interviewing the stars, Jude was very clear-eyed about the downsides of showbusiness and would often say that she wouldn’t even put a dog into it. 

Despite ghosting the autobiography of Joe Collins, the theatrical agent and father of Joan and Jackie Collins, Judith always refused to write a memoir of her Beatles days — for which the obvious title would have been Hey Jude. 

As she explained: “Publishers want blood for their money — and I didn’t want to give away Beatles' secrets because they came to rely on me.”

Those interested in Judith’s war-crimes reports are referred to the following link:

 Judith Simons on Nazi concentration camp for women ... - Daily Express

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