Charles Laurence remembered: A friend for life

An appreciation by MARGARET ASHWORTH

I was shocked a couple of weeks ago to see a Times obituary of Charles Laurence who has died in America, his adopted home, at the age of 72. I counted him as one of my oldest and dearest friends, though neither of us felt the need to be in constant touch and it was probably six years since we last emailed. I had no idea he was ill – I wish I had. The Times obit and another in the Telegraph  relate his successful journalistic career. This is a personal recollection.

I met Charles at the end of the Sixties, when we were at the (then very new) University of Kent at Canterbury. We were both involved with the student newspaper, in fact I think we were successive editors. It was printed fortnightly at the Kent Messenger in Maidstone and many times Charles drove us there to stone-sub the edition. His car (I can’t remember the make) was like a tank – it took ages to get up to any speed then it was nearly impossible to stop. But it had a cream leather bench front seat that made you feel as if you were in a Hollywood movie. Funny, because we must have gone at all times of the year, but I can only remember when the orchards of East Kent were in blossom.

Charles was born in 1950, less than a year after his sister Kate, and they were very close. She would console him after Charles, already a rebel, was chastised by their father. Peter Laurence had been awarded a Military Cross at the age of 21 during the Second World War; later he was a diplomat and was knighted in 1976. A younger brother, Benedict, was born a few years later.

As Charles recalled in The Social Agent, a memoir he published in 2010 (it was not ‘semi-autobiographical’ as the Telegraph and Times both called it in their remarkably similar obituaries), Peter Laurence was posted to the Prague embassy in the late 1950s and the family moved there with him. Looking back, Charles suspected that his mother Elizabeth had been seduced by a Czech double agent, the secret police having determined that Peter had ‘huge self-discipline’ and was ‘in no way the kind of person who could be swayed by pressure’. Charles believed that Kate, then aged about 11, was aware of something being badly wrong, and that this may have contributed to her developing anorexia.  

Charles was sent to his father’s old school, Radley College in Oxfordshire. He didn’t enjoy it. However at some stage he met the journalist Neal Ascherson and decided that he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, an ambition he achieved with distinction.

He must have been about 19 when we met at Kent. He was utterly gorgeous but if he knew it he didn’t show it. He had a calm self-confidence and a lovely deep voice with classic public-school diction (the Times obituary said he spoke in a slightly camp way – total nonsense). He had an open, friendly manner and innate style, as evidenced by that glamorous brute of a car. There was then a succession of powerful motorbikes, and finally he acquired a Jaguar XK8 convertible, one of the most beautiful cars ever made – I would not have expected anything less. Plus he was the only man I have ever seen who looked good in leather trousers.

laurence mug.jpg

At Kent Charles, pictured left, met Janet Stewart, a pretty redhead. It was the age of mini-skirts, and I mean mini. It was impossible to be modest. Charles told me he had been standing at the end of a flight of stairs as Janet descended, and he caught a flash of white knickers. They married soon after leaving university. I remember at the reception his parents standing stiffly to one side. I chatted with Kate, a tiny figure in a sapphire blue suit.

The marriage did not last.

In our 20s and early 30s Charles and I were working in Fleet Street and used to see each other around. I had my first burger with him at The Hungry Years in Earls Court Road. The music was so loud you could not taste the food, but I loved it. He married for the second time, to the delightful, sparky Evening News fashion journalist Mia Scammell. They had two children, Charlotte and Luke. However the marriage fell apart and divorce No 2 followed.

His sister Kate’s condition worsened and she lived in a residential home for some years, gradually fading until she died in 2000 at the age of 50.

After Charles went to America in 1987 we never met again. Our contact was by occasional emails. In 2006 he sent a copy of a piece he had written for an outfit called the First Post ‘started by a bunch of old Telegraph hacks’ concerning his marriage to ‘an all-American girl’. Unfortunately the article has disappeared, as indeed did the marriage, rather quickly. Charles wrote later of the ‘last, wildest wonder from Alabama, who departed with my hopes for a comfortable retirement (all my own fault).’

After his book was published I wrote to say how much I liked it (it is a terrific atmospheric read – there was a problem with some woman marginally featured in it whose son obstructed publication, which kept sales right down, a great shame). In his reply he wrote: ‘I raise a glass to a friendship that lasts a lifetime.’

By then he had met Laura Johnson, a New York arts administrator. In 2015 I wrote: ‘Glad to hear you have a lovely on your arm. Mrs Laurence IV?’ He replied: ‘Laura and I have agreed not to marry officially. That way, it seems, we might have a chance of making it to the end. No more divorces, please!'

Nevertheless they started to have second thoughts about marriage. I have made contact with Laura who tells me that during a trip to Tuscany in 2018, Charles said ‘Come on, let's just do it, let's get married.’ They did so in 2019. In March this year they bought a house in Laura’s home town of Cedar Falls, Iowa.

A month later Charles was told he had lung cancer.

He died in his own bed, with Laura, his son and daughter-in-law, and Rumpus the family dog at his side. So they did make it to the end, but I never dreamed it would be so soon.

Thanks to Laura for a number of details.

Charles Laurence: Born July 1 1950, died October 23 2022.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre