Frank Johnson, a former editor of the Spectator and one of Britain’s funniest newspaper columnists, has died of cancer at the age of 63. Among his badges of honour was the distinction of having been fired by Conrad ‘Lord’ Black. There’s a nice obit in today’s Telegraph, for which he wrote every Saturday. It ends thus:
Johnson endured cancer with exemplary courage for seven years. Last Sunday, just before he went into hospital for the final time, he attended the performance of Aida at La Scala in which the tenor Roberto Alagna (as Radames) walked off the stage in a fit of pique after being booed; Johnson immediately filed the story to The Daily Telegraph.
He once drafted his epitaph as a cod footnote:
“Johnson, Frank (dates unknown). Journalist. No relation to Paul (qv). Claimed to have been one of the last lovers of Maria Callas (1923-77), although his testimony in such matters was said to be unreliable. Published a distasteful memoir of the relationship.”
The Callas reference needs explanation. He was an opera fanatic from early on and at the age of 14 appeared on stage at Covent Garden in Norma alongside Maria Callas. [Children’s parts at the Royal Opera House were taken by pupils at Frank’s school, and he and a classmate were recruited to perform as Norma’s two sons.] Johnson recalled the experience 25 years later:
“I could not forget that when Callas bore down on us with the knife, her nostrils flared; that when, dropping the knife, she repentantly clasped us to her bosom, her perfume smelt like that of an aunt who was always kissing me; and that at the first performance on February 2 there penetrated, into my left eye, the tip of the diva’s right breast, which partnership remained throughout the subsequent duet with [Ebe] Stignani… there are few men who can truthfully say that their eye made contact with the right nipple of Maria Callas.”