Max Aitken, destroyer of the Express, was ‘a Grade A shit’

CHAIRMEN: Sir Max, left and his father Lord Beaverbrook

Keith Graves’ hilarious account of being summoned to the office of Max Aitken is accompanied by the caption ‘Sir Max  Aitken: Destroyer of the Express.’ It is an entirely accurate summary of his role as inheritor of the legacy set by his father Lord Beaverbrook.


Equally correct is the verdict of my friend, a member of the Beaver’s family:’Max was a Grade A shit.’ The fact is when his father pleaded with him to stay in the Express fold, which he did in 1938, the Beaver was putting family before his natural instinct.


To explain: Father and son had a spectacular falling out three years earlier when Max met the old man’s mistress Toto Koopman and, in love for the first time at 25, wafted her away. Max was banished from the family firm where he was a frequently absent and permanently disinterested junior manager. So he did what young, privileged types did at the time, he went abroad with Toto, first to Switzerland and then to Spain.


The Swiss jaunt probably sums up the strange lives of young aristocrats of the era. He and Toto were on honeymoon, not their own (they never married) but that of Max’s sister Janet and Drogo Montagu, son of the Earl of Sandwich.


Janet describes the events of her wedding night in her memoir The Beaverbrook Girl. ’Toto and I had gone to bed tired after our long journey and the champagne. We expected our men, and in my case my brand new husband, to put in an appearance after one last nightcap in the bar.’


After two hours Drogo and Max were still AWOL. The girls went searching without success. Only the hotel bedrooms remained and when Janet knocked on the suite marked Private: Baroness von Thyssen, bingo, there was her new husband about to have his ardour put out by a well-aimed jet from a hotel fire extinguisher.


As for Max, Toto found him in another bedroom with its attractive and naked occupant. There being no extinguisher to hand, a bucket of water had to suffice.


After an estrangement of three years Beaverbrook pleaded with his son to return. And pleading it was: ‘My Dear Son, if there is anything I can do to make your life easier or your vision clearer let me help you now ... apart from your own desires I would urge you to consider my anxieties, the desperate uncertainties and the exhausting mysteries of your rejection of every avenue of communication.’


The result: the two men met and Max agreed to carry on his affair with Toto but never to marry her. His reward was a bigger job back in the Express, a vast salary for doing very little, and a settlement for life for Toto of, in today’s values, £140,000 a year.


Toto Koopman went on to be a brave Allied spy ending up in Ravensbruck concentration camp for her efforts; the Beaver went from strength to strength when, as Minister for Aircraft Supply, he doubled the number of Spitfires and Hurricanes just in time for us to win the Battle of Britain, and Max, louche and dilettante he may have been pre-war, but he won the DFC and DSO as a fine fighter pilot.


Sadly when Beaverbrook died in 1964 the ruling genius that made the Express the greatest newspaper in the world was gone. Max took over and spent his days golfing, flying , powerboat racing and, to use a euphemism of The Times obituarists, ‘extra-marital activities.’


The Express titles were doomed from that moment.


 What an absorbing weekend of Six Nations rugby; Italy proving that they should be the team to watch next championship, Ireland (sadly) not invincible and England not to be written off. And what a unifying game it is. No separation of supporters, by all means have a drink, and where the only violence is that going on the field.


In Ireland it has been particularly so. The four provinces standing shoulder to shoulder, Catholic, Protestant and None of the Above, all for the green jersey.


Never was that more movingly apparent than in 2007 when the old Lansdowne Road stadium was being demolished for the current venue the Aviva stadium. The IRFU asked the Gaelic Games authority if the forthcoming Ireland match against England could be played at Croke Park, home of the predominantly Nationalist games and with a capacity of around 85,000.


History was not on the side of the request as it was Croke where in 1920 British Black and Tans killed 14 spectators. But on February 27, 2007, the first game of rugby was played in front of, not the 85,000 capacity but more like 100,000 who wanted to be part of everything that occasion represented.


We were in Dublin and, unable to get tickets, watched from armchairs in the Westbury hotel eating the best-ever ham sandwiches and drinking Guinness. In the stadium God Save the Queen rang out for the first time and tears fell like the rain of that day.


Ireland won by a resounding 43-13 but the only winner was unity and decency. Oh happy day.


 Good to see that the Sycamore Gap tree has produced seedlings and will rise somewhere again. In poor old Michael Fish’s  Great Storm of ’87  we lost a decent 15ft apple tree along with others. We were advised to chain saw the remaining few inches parallel with the soil, then drill holes in the stump and pour in a nasty killer liquid. That will see off the roots, we were assured.


I followed the instructions to the letter and hey presto, within months a new and healthier apple tree was on its way. Within a couple of years it bore fruit by the bucket load and stands to this day, better than ever.


Experts eh? Just ask Mr Fish.

ALAN FRAME’S book Toto and Coco is available on Amazon

11 March 2024