His wife was called Cherry Hatrick??? Cool! Was she a drag artiste, by any chance?
Should we start a 'quotes' section here? Donaldson was a great one for witty remarks – I particularly like his description of Stephen Fry as "The stupid person's idea of a clever person"
William Donaldson has been tipped as the subject of Carly Simon's song "You're So Vain". The Telegraph obituary gives a number of clues (how he wears his hat, his affairs with his friends' wives, his sale of family treasures) that this might be the case.
Donaldson, (Charles) William [Willie; pseud. Henry Root] (1935-2005), writer and impresario, was born in Sunningdale, Berkshire, on 4 January 1935, the son of Charles Glen Donaldson (1904-1956), shipowner, and his wife, Elizabeth (Betty), nee Stockley (d. 1955). His father was co-chairman of the Donaldson Line, a family shipping firm established as Donaldson Brothers in 1854, which owned a fleet of nineteen passenger and cargo ships. Although the company was based in Glasgow he had moved south five years after marrying Elizabeth Stockley in 1927. For complicated psychological, and less complicated comical reasons, Donaldson was later to portray his mother as an overbearing snob. The truth was rather different: she was a loving, occasionally indulgent mother to her two children, Eleanor Jane and Charles (as Donaldson was known at the time).
From 1942 Donaldson attended Woodcote House preparatory school, where he became a boarder in 1944 at the age of nine. By the time he went to Winchester College in 1948 he had become known as William, or Willie. He was remembered by old Wykehamists with varying degrees of fondness as a restless and subversive figure who had great charm but also a well-developed talent for disruption. When Lord Wavell inspected the college corps, it was Donaldson who right-turned and quick-marched, while the rest of his house platoon turned left. He did his national service in the submarines, developing an intense friendship with a fellow old Wykehamist, Julian Mitchell, with whom he shared a passion for ballet, the arts, and intellectual discussion. Mitchell already knew that he wanted to be a writer; Donaldson's ambition was to be a ballet critic. In April 1955 the two sailors travelled to Paris vowing to lose their virginity. After a week the mission was accomplished after a fashion but, on his return to London, Donaldson was summoned to Sunningdale. There he was told that his mother had been killed in a car crash near Winchester. The tragedy was particularly devastating to Donaldson's father who effectively gave up on life, staying at home and drinking heavily. He died less than two years later.
Now rich, Donaldson went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his most notable achievement was to set up and edit, with Julian Mitchell, who was at Oxford, a literary magazine called Gemini whose contributors included Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Geoffrey Hill. Meanwhile his personal life was becoming complicated. While attending Ascot and smart parties in the expected way, even becoming engaged to a beautiful, tennis-playing debutante, Sonia Iris Avory (daughter of Edward Raymond Avory, stockbroker), in his last year at Cambridge, he spent increasing amounts of time in the company of the girls he was truly attracted to-those who plied their trade around Curzon Street. 'I knew that I was a pervert when I was twenty', he said years later. He nevertheless married Sonia Avory, at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, on 17 July 1958. She was then aged twenty.
On leaving Cambridge, Donaldson became a theatrical producer. His first enterprise, an atom bomb satire by John Bird called Here Is the News, was a brave and expensive failure but Donald Langdon, agent to Peter Cook, was sufficiently impressed by Donaldson's nerve to offer him another satire, Beyond the Fringe (1961), which became a huge hit in the West End and on Broadway. Characteristically, Donaldson finessed failure out of triumph, investing what money he had made in a series of original, eccentric, money-losing revues. Although he was among the first to recognize the talent of Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, he was more or less broke by 1964 and definitively bankrupt by 1966.
Donaldson's personal life was equally eventful. For the first part of the 1960s he lived the life of a typical wealthy, fun-loving bachelor of the time. Unfortunately he was married. In 1960 Sonia gave birth to his son, Charlie. The marriage ended in divorce in 1965. For a while Donaldson lived with the actress Sarah Miles (b. 1941), a period interrupted when he moved out, soon becoming engaged to the young American singer Carly Simon (b. 1945). When Simon returned to America to prepare for marriage, he revived his relationship with Miles. The relationship was again short-lived. In 1967, broke and on the run from creditors, Donaldson travelled around the country with Claire Gordon (b. 1941), an actress. They were married on 1 September 1967. The following year, after the death of a grandmother, Donaldson received his last family bequest, which he spent on buying model agencies and throwing famously exotic, drug-fuelled, and debauched parties at the flat in Ranelagh Gardens, Chelsea, where they lived.
After one final theatrical disaster, a production of Oscar Panizza's The Council of Love (1970) that was unsuccessfully sued for blasphemy, Donaldson debunked to Ibiza, where he spent what money he had left on a glass-bottomed boat called (coincidentally) Capitan-Wylly. His relationship with Gordon broke down during this period, although they were not finally divorced until 1975. In Ibiza Donaldson contacted a colonel's daughter who had become a successful call-girl. In October 1972 he returned to England to move in with the woman he called Emma Jane Crampton. Surrounded by a wealth of comic material, Donaldson began to write, reworking the events of his life in the form of semi-fiction, with himself as the fall guy and villain. Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen, whose first line was 'Living in a brothel isn't everything it is cracked up to be', was published in 1975 to some favourable reviews. By this time, Crampton had been replaced in Donaldson's affections by his former secretary Cherry Jane Hatrick (daughter of David Lindsay Hatrick, production engineer), with whom he lived at 139 Elm Park Mansions, off the Fulham Road in Chelsea, for several years.
In 1980 Donaldson's most successful book, The Henry Root Letters, was published. Inspired by an American book, Don Novello's The Lazlo Letters (1977), it took the form of a series of letters (often accompanied by a £1 note) written to politicians, policemen, and media stars by a vulgar and ferociously right-wing wet-fish merchant, many of which received gratifyingly vain and stupid replies. The book became one of the great best-sellers of the decade. Briefly fashionable, Donaldson was the first gossip columnist of the Mail on Sunday and replaced Julian Barnes as restaurant critic of The Tatler. There was a second book of Root letters and Henry Root's World of Knowledge (1982), an application of the idea behind Flaubert's dictionary of received ideas to Thatcher's Britain.
For the rest of his life Donaldson regularly wrote comic volumes-'toilet books', as he called them - sometimes in collaboration with other authors. A gleeful literary impersonator, he created a series of alternative personae, including the oleaginous court correspondent Talbot Church, the French intellectual Jean-Luc Legris, and the demented TV producer Liz Reed. His more directly autobiographical work, from the semi-factual novel Is This Allowed? (1985) to the semi-fictional memoir From Winchester to This (1997), and his memorably frank column 'William Donaldson's week' in The Independent, reflected with lacerating, self-immolating humour and wildly varying degrees of accuracy the downward spiral of his private life. In 1985 he became passionately involved with Melanie Soszynski, an escort agency girl with a fondness for cocaine. At the end of an exciting and destructive relationship Soszynski was in a rehabilitation clinic and Donaldson had developed a liking for crack cocaine, which he continued to take for the next fifteen years. Having confessed his infatuation to Cherry Hatrick, he married her on 5 August 1986 (after she had insisted they either marry or separate), but the relationship was already over. Hatrick moved out of Elm Park Mansions nine months later, though they never divorced.
Although Donaldson continued to write with a brilliant, savage wit, his life in the 1990s took a melancholy turn. After another doomed affair with a call-girl, he was declared bankrupt for the third and final time in August 1994. His final years were brightened by two things: a relationship with the model Rachel Garley, and his last great triumph as a writer, Brewers' Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (2002), a 300,000 word compendium of bad behaviour. 'Willie Donaldson has never had the recognition he deserves as a comic genius', Francis Wheen wrote in the Mail on Sunday. 'Perhaps this magnificent volume will do the trick' (Mail on Sunday, 15 Dec 2002).
Throughout his life, Donaldson acquired a reputation as a corrupting influence, but in person he was a respectable, quietly spoken, slightly frayed figure of naval bearing, beguiling company, and as funny at first hand as he was on the page. His years of recreational crack abuse finally caught up with him on 22 June 2005 when, during a heatwave, his lungs finally gave out and he died of respiratory failure, alone in his Elm Park Mansions flat. He was cremated at a sparsely attended funeral at Mortlake cemetery. A memorial reading of his work at the Lyttelton Theatre six months later was, however, a sell-out.