Sir John Leslie, Bt – obituary
20 APRIL 2016 • 5:55PM
Sir John Leslie, 4th Bt, who has died aged 99, was an Irish baronet who led a life almost totally isolated from the modern world until, in his eighties, he took to attending discos near his home, Castle Leslie, Glaslough in County Monaghan, dancing to what he was pleased to describe as “the boom-boom music”.
“It electrifies me,” explained Leslie, a cousin of Sir Winston Churchill. “I can leap up and down. It shakes the liver up – like riding in Hyde Park in my grandparents’ day.” Tall and erect, his bald head covered by a Tam O’Shanter, he cut an arresting figure on the dance floor.
The tabloid press described him as the “disco King” of Ireland and he enjoyed his celebrity. He had become their darling when, in 2002, he leaked details of the wedding between Paul McCartney and Heather Mills which was held at his ancestral home. “I have to keep it dead secret,” he muttered with characteristic innocence after he had spilled the beans.
John Norman Ide Leslie, always known as Jack, was born on December 6 1916 in New York where his father Shane, a writer, diplomat, convert to Rome, and supporter of John Redmond’s moderate nationalist party (also a dedicatee of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned) had gone to counter Irish-Americans trying to keep the United States out of the war. Jack’s mother, born Marjorie Ide, was a well-connected American whose father had been governor general of the Philippines.
Young Jack caught the Spanish Flu in the epidemic of 1918 and was given up for dead when his temperature reached 106. His father, he recalled, asked the nuns next door to pray for him; that night his mother woke with a start to find his temperature had returned to normal. Soon afterwards, however, he developed a mastoid that left him deaf in his left ear.
Jack was almost three when in 1919 he and his elder sister Anita were brought back by their parents to Castle Leslie, to be received by his grandfather, Sir John Leslie, 2nd Bt, and his American wife Leonie, whose sister Jennie was the mother of Winston Churchill. The Leslies had lost their eldest son Norman in the Great War, making Jack the ultimate heir apparent to the title and the vast estates that went with it.
But his parents were based in London and, apart from blissful holidays in Ireland, it was there that Jack was brought up.
“My world was populated by lords and ladies,” he recalled, “and naturally I believed that they were the people who ruled England and the enormous British Empire. Although our cousin Winston Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, I thought the House of Commons was a purely advisory committee.” Asked by his parents when he was 15 what he hoped to do in later life, he told them that he intended to become Viceroy of India.
By this time he was at school at Downside, of which his chief memory was being birched frequently for trivial misdemeanours. At Magdalene College, Cambridge, he rowed in the college VIII and joined the officer training corps. On graduation in 1938 he was commissioned in the Irish Guards and enjoyed a short period as a “Deb’s delight” before war intervened.
Ordered to cross to Boulogne after the German invasion of Holland in May 1940, Leslie’s platoon were rendered helpless when their bullets bounced off the advancing German tanks. “I was trembling all over,” he recalled, “as we were forced to duck down under a hail of fire and prayed 'oh God save us!’ ” When a German sergeant appeared suddenly with a stick bomb in his raised arm, they surrendered. Marched across Germany to a prisoner of war camp in Bavaria, Leslie spent the rest of the war in captivity.
On release, he returned to civilian life. His grandparents had died and he found himself the major shareholder in the company that owned Castle Leslie. Charming as he found an Ireland which, despite independence, was so unchanged that tax-averse English gentry were settling there, it was too restrictive to accommodate his interests.
So, having planted thousands of trees on the demesne, he embarked on a peripatetic life in Britain, continental Europe and the United States. His only recorded period of employment was as a kitchen steward in a hotel in Houston, Texas.
In 1953 Leslie settled in Rome in a 16th century house he had restored in Trastevere. He was cared for by an Italian man whom he attired in a white jacket and the crested brass buttons of the Leslie footman’s livery. As a connoisseur of art, Leslie found much to enjoy in Rome, and as a devout Catholic he relished its religious life and was a pillar of the Order of Malta. He restored an ancient monastery and was rewarded with a papal knighthood.
It was the sudden death of the man who had cared for him that led him to return in 1994 to live in Castle Leslie, which was by then being run as a guest house by his niece Sammy. (During a drunken evening with a friend he claimed he had shot the man dead after he had announced his intention to get married, though there is no corroborative evidence). Attired in a flowing black cape, he ran ghost tours for visitors with great theatricality. To assist his niece he washed up – using cold water to remind him of his days as a PoW.
In 2001 he celebrated his 85th birthday by travelling to Ibiza to party at Privilege, then the world’s biggest nightclub. In 2006 at the age of 90 Leslie drew on his elephantine memory to write his autobiography, Never a Dull Moment. Full of evocative photographs, it gives little away and is really a record of the vanished haute monde in which he had spent his life socialising. It was indicative of his kindly nature that nobody received an unfavourable mention except cruel teachers in his childhood and Adolf Hitler.
In November last year he was among Irish veterans of the Second World War whom the French government appointed to the Legion d’ honneur at a ceremony in Dublin.
He never married and his nephew Shaun succeeds in the baronetcy.
Sir John Leslie, born December 6 1916, died April 8 2016