April 5, 2018

For twenty years Drue Heinz supported the RSL, most notably through our annual Anglo-American literature events. An Honorary Fellow, she was an extraordinary philanthropist for literature, and here our Literary Advisor, Maggie Fergusson, reflects on how she became a friend as well. 

I first met Drue over lunch in Odin’s, off Marylebone Road, in the mid-1990s. Roy Jenkins, then President of the Royal Society of Literature, made up a trio. Roy was keen that Drue should fund some activity at the RSL, but this white-haired old lady (she was already in her 80s) was no pushover: she asked us beady, searching questions. Still, by the time pudding arrived, Drue had agreed to sponsor a series of RSL lectures – the Hawthornden Anglo-America lectures – for which we would invite American writers to speak about British subjects, and vice versa. They have been an annual feature of the RSL programme ever since.

It soon became the custom that after each lecture Drue would host a lavish dinner at her home off Berkeley Square. Reached through an ordinary-looking front door in what looked like a row of garages, this was a tardis of a residence. Once over the threshold, one found oneself in a kind of giant palazzo, complete with balconied courtyard. In the vast dining-room, Drue’s latest art acquisitions would be displayed on easels. The food was always sumptuous, and on every table there was a bottle of up-market ketchup – not Heinz.

Somehow, over the years, Drue morphed from a formidable patron of the RSL into a friend. Every so often, she would invite me round for tea – an elaborate ceremony involving a great deal of silver: teapot, jug for hot water, domes covering sandwiches and cake. She loved peanut butter, and believed it aided longevity.

Every so often, she made a sudden gesture of extraordinary generosity. One Christmas, she had delivered to me a dozen partridges from a butcher in Mount Street. We froze them, then invited Drue round to eat them with us in the new year, with Michael Holroyd and Maggie Drabble, and Ronnie and Natasha Harwood. She was the life and soul of the party. She could receive as well as give.

Drue had many houses, but the one she loved best – and where she died – was Hawthornden, a castle clinging vertiginously to the rocks in Midlothian. She once invited my husband, Jamie, and me to dinner there during the Edinburgh Festival. In front of each guest, when we entered the dining-room, was one entire lobster – and in places of knives and forks a set of pincers and crackers I had no idea how to deploy. To make things more alarming, Drue had seated me next to Richard Ford, and I was thoroughly overawed. But Richard Ford was charming, and the lobster proved manageable, and it was – as always with Drue – a wonderful evening.

About a year ago, Drue invited Jamie and me to drop round one evening after work. She was, by then, too blind to read – but, undaunted, she had arranged a rota of young actors and actresses to come and read to her. We spoke about books, but about many other things besides. She reminisced about her first meeting with Donald Trump, when he turned up very late for a lunch party she was giving, 30 years ago. She talked about hairdressers, and how, as soon as one touched her head, she could tell whether he was worth his salt.

On our next visit, she insisted, we must bring our daughters – “And we’ll send out for fish n’ chips”. Alas…

Maggie Fergusson, Literary Advisor, has worked for the RSL for over 25 years.

(Photo of Drue Heinz taken in June 2017 at a special fundraising event for the Society).