It was a warm spring day in 1965, as the New York Harbour tugs slowly pulled the SS United States away from Pier 86, bound for Southampton. I was a passenger, a 24-year-old junior copywriter working for the London advertising agency J Walter Thompson.
I had managed to upgrade my passage to first class by spending the voyage writing a brochure encouraging Europeans to travel on the ship.
One morning, the telephone rang in my cabin. ‘Hello, this is Lord Avon here. I have a favour to ask,’ he said. ‘The purser has told me that you are the only other Englishman on board and I wonder if you could drop by our stateroom for a drink this evening.’
I duly turned up. ‘As you can see,’ he said introducing me to his wife, Clarissa, propped up amid a sea of pillows in the bedroom adjoining their salon, ‘My wife is not feeling well and doesn’t expect to be appearing much during this voyage.
‘I, however, am told by my doctors that I must take exercise. I wonder if you could bear to accompany me on my twice-daily walk around the decks?’
For the following three days, I learnt an enormous amount about the Second World War, as well as anecdotes about Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and de Gaulle. The one subject that was never touched upon was Suez.
Halfway through our tour of the promenade decks one day, Eden turned to me and said, ‘I think I ought to tell you that there is a gentleman aboard this ship whom I most definitely do not want to meet. His name is Sol Linowitz.’
My heart sank. Linowitz was one of a convivial group of Americans who gathered round the first-class bar before and after meals. They were industrialists, oil men and lawyers; I think it amused them to have me as a kind of limey joker in the pack. Linowitz was chairman of the Xerox Corporation, later to become a United States diplomat. That evening, Sol turned to me at the bar. ‘Didn’t I spot you walking on deck with Lord Avon this afternoon? I need to meet him.’ I burbled my way out of a direct answer to the request.
From then on, my walks with Lord Avon took on a cloak-and-dagger aspect. I had to prepare routes passing the maximum number of hiding places: lifeboats, hatchways, nooks and crannies. We melted into these backgrounds whenever Linowitz loomed into view.
After a few more sorties, Lady Avon had recovered enough to take her husband’s arm again. We parted as comrades at Southampton. I never discovered what the problem with Sol Linowitz was.