Successful: Lady Antonia is still writing at the age of 88
The most expensive item that author Lady Antonia Fraser has ever bought for fun was a heated swimming pool for her lodge in the Scottish Highlands.
Fraser, the daughter of a count and whose second husband was the playwright Harold Pinter, told DONNA FERGUSON that her biggest money mistake was betting on the horses because she always loses.
The 88-year-old is still writing as passionately as ever and her latest historical biography – The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton – is out Thursday.
What did your parents teach you about money?
They taught me two very different things. My father, Frank Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, was extremely flamboyant and actually had no money. He taught me that it doesn’t matter what you have in your pocket – you decided first what to spend.
My mother, who stayed at home, was just the opposite. She was extremely careful, which, of course, children don’t appreciate. She taught me that I should keep money in my pocket and under no circumstances should I spend it on something pleasant.
My father worked as a Don in Oxford when I was growing up. He then became Minister of Labor and later Chairman of the House of Lords. He was also a great prison reformer.
He came from a noble Anglo-Irish family, but he was not doing well. He was the youngest son and only became a count when his older brother died, which happened when I was 30 years old. Until then, my father had only the money he made, and with eight children available for academic wages, money was tight.
I always knew that I wasn’t doing as well as my friends. I was the oldest child and by the time I got to the end of my college education I realized that the next money I had would be what I had made. So I got a job. I am very grateful to my parents for this, although I wasn’t so grateful at the time.
Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?
Yes, in the 1950s and 1960s when I was married to my first husband, Sir Hugh Fraser, who had six children. He was a MP, and in those days that were upfront, MPs were paid little.
We had an overdraft and would get letters from the bank. I think there may have been problems paying the mortgage – in fact there were problems paying everything. But we were young and it was a happy fight.
The money that came unexpectedly from my first big book on Mary the Queen of Scots was important to us. But I can’t pretend that money is my motive for writing it because at the time I wanted to tell its story more than anything in the world.
Have you ever been paid stupid money?
No. My books make money, but they don’t make millions – and it takes a long time to write. But I’m not there for the money. I am very happy because what I do in life is what I want to do and it allows me to earn enough to keep going.
What was the best year of your financial life?
It was 1969, the year my book on Mary Queen of Scots was published here and in America.
So many were sold that I was able to pay to renovate our vacation home, a lodge in the Scottish Highlands that has remained untouched for years. I could do exciting things like install a heated swimming pool.
We have spent all of our vacations there and I have some wonderful memories. I didn’t see it as a remarkable achievement to have six children in the 1950s and still manage to make so much money as a woman in her own right. I just did what I always wanted and had a very happy life.
The most expensive thing you bought for fun?
I would probably have to say that swimming pool. It was 50 years ago so it’s hard to remember how much it cost. But I remember it was expensive back then.
I love swimming. Having this heated pool was like a dream come true. I’ve spent some of the happiest days of my life there. We swam in it on New Year’s Eve with snow around us.
How have your finances changed since you met Harold Pinter?
He was infinitely the higher earner. He was already a successful screenwriter and famous playwright. I wouldn’t say he was extremely rich, but we had a very comfortable life.
Tying the knot: Lady Antonia with the playwright Harold Pinter on their wedding day in 1980
We could do what we wanted and go on vacation abroad with the children. It was lovely. I have such wonderful memories of those holidays.
What’s your biggest money mistake?
I love betting on the Derby and the Grand National. But that’s where I’ve made my biggest money mistakes over the years because I’m an extremely unlucky player.
If you’re near me with a bet on the Derby, you’ll want to bribe me so I don’t bet on your horse. I always lose.
The best money decision you’ve made?
I am buying my house in West London. It’s an eight bedroom house with a garden in a famous square that I bought for £ 18,000 in 1959. I went in and it was dark brown with no heating and nothing worked – and I said, “I have to have it.” I just had a feeling.
Its value has increased. I had offers for amounts I would rather not divulge – but several million pounds. I do not sell. I love to live there. I don’t need eight bedrooms now. A large part of the house is rented out, which brings me an income.
Are you saving for a pension?
No, I will receive a state pension at my age. When I was younger I never saved up for a private pension, which I don’t regret. My home is my retirement and I still write. I have to be very happy.
What is the little luxury that you indulge in?
The occasional painting. I buy them for pleasure. I recently bought a lovely Amy Shuckburgh painting of a moon and various objects. It’s a picture full of imagination. She also made a portrait of Harold that I gave to the Harold Pinter Theater in London.
She was his favorite portrait artist and painted the last portrait of him before he died. He liked it a lot, so I guess your work reminds me of him.
If you were chancellor what would you do?
I would set up a special, wheelchair-friendly taxi service for the elderly to locate them and make them more mobile. Anyone would make a token payment to use it, but it would be almost free and funded by the taxpayer. Ideally, it is manned by Black Cab drivers because they are so kind and helpful.
Do you donate money to charity?
Yes, I am donating to Give a Book, a wonderful charity that provides books to disadvantaged people, including prisoners and young children. It played an important role for many people during the lockdown.
What’s your number one financial priority?
Not thinking about or worrying about money. And I think I achieved that for the most part.
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