Lisa Wilkinson: The Night Clive James Saved Me At A Dinner Party When Too Many Celebs Turned Up
It was one of the most extraordinary nights of my life, and it came back in my magazine editing days.
The year was 1986 and I had not long been in the editor’s chair at CLEO, when it was time to celebrate this iconic title’s 14th birthday. Exactly what I was thinking when I decided to throw what we dubbed “The Ultimate Dinner Party” escapes me. I had never thrown a dinner party even privately, so why on earth would I want to do one so very publicly, one so open to being a complete PR disaster if those I had in mind didn’t get on? Or worse, if I gave a party and nobody came?
The idea was to invite 14 of the biggest names of the '80s to help us celebrate this magazine that could hold its head high as a true ground-breaker for Australian women. (For a reminder, just go back and watch Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo starring the brilliant Asher Keddie playing Ita Buttrose, for proof.)
Billy Connolly, Pamela Stephenson, David Frost, Barry Humphries and Clive James were all on my wish list... along with Deborah Hutton, Wendy Harmer, Ken Done, Athena Starwoman and Angry Anderson.
Eclectic, to say the least.
So I sent out the invitations, and blow me down with a champagne cork if they didn’t all turn up!
The venue was the legendary rock and roll hotel of choice, the Sydney Sebel Townhouse where, just a few years before Elton John had famously married Renate Blauel.
Truth is, I would have been thrilled if even half those names had accepted. And how, on the night, I got up the stupid courage to host this extraordinary lineup, I’ll never know. But it turned out, I didn’t have to, because Clive, ably assisted by David Frost, ended up holding court the entire night and well into the early hours.
From Clive having his horoscope read to him by Athena Starwoman, to Angry singing tunes with Billy Connolly, to David Frost giving us the full lowdown of his iconic Watergate interview with Richard Nixon -- the eclectic mix, thankfully, had worked.
Sadly, there was one deeply embarrassing moment for me when I first greeted the wonderful Pamela Stephenson as she entered the room that night, that even now I struggle to believe happened. But I think I'll save that story for my autobiography. Perhaps by then I'll be able to laugh at just how young and naive I really was.
Clive and I kept in touch for years afterwards, and often when he returned to his beloved Australia from his adopted home in England, we would catch up for interviews for whichever TV show I was hosting at the time.
Occasionally we caught up for coffee, and always the chat would eventually turn to that amazing night at the Sebel. His life and work in the UK fascinated me, as did the insatiable crush he had on Princess Diana. They were coffee mates too, and she regularly sought his counsel as she navigated the press and paparazzi, her divorce from Charles, he coached her ahead of that now-infamous Panorama interview and, according to Clive, they got together to just have a good old-fashioned gossip.
His tribute to Diana in the New Yorker magazine a week after she died is, like all his writings, simply superb. That piece helped to consolidate the long-held belief that Clive had had a huge hand in writing the extraordinarily eloquent eulogy delivered by Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, at her funeral.
It’s a discussion Clive never entered into. I think it spoke to the romantic in him that some things should always be left unsaid.
Clive passed away this week, and with that, the world lost one of its most brilliant creative writing minds.
Among the untold number of poems, essays, and books he penned, it was the one he wrote of his childhood growing up in 1940s suburban Sydney, Unreliable Memoirs, that remains one of my all-time favourites. It is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Read it on public transport at your peril.
Vale Clive. Your legacy is extraordinary. You saved me on that fateful night back in 1986.
Much more significantly, though, thank you for all the laughs, and the incredible literary catalogue you leave behind.
In your own, always superb words, remembered by Andrew Denton in his tribute to your passing: “A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.”
As always, well said.