Politics

Anthony Holden, Royal Chronicler Who Ruffled the Palace, Dies at 76

Anthony Holden, a polymathic and prolific British author, journalist and poker player who found accidental fame as a royal biographer and critic of the monarchy, but who was happier writing books about Shakespeare, Laurence Olivier and Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, died on Oct. 7 at his home in London. He was 76.

The cause was a brain tumor, his son Ben said.

Mr. Holden was writing the gossipy “Atticus” column — a frothy mix of politics and celebrity — for The Sunday Times in London when, in 1977, he was sent to cover Prince Charles’s visit to Canada to open the Calgary Stampede, a rodeo. As “Atticus,” he had written about Brigitte Bardot and Rudolph Nureyev, accompanied Margaret Thatcher to China and been whacked on the head with a rolled-up copy of Playboy magazine by Frank Sinatra (apparently in a gesture of affection, not press bashing).

The prince was sort of a dud assignment, but Mr. Holden made the best of it, even though the most interesting thing Prince Charles said to him was: “Married, are you? Fun, is it?”

The column Mr. Holden wrote about the royal junket amused both Queen Elizabeth II and her son, now King Charles III, and Mr. Holden soon received a book deal to write a biography of Charles. Though he thought the subject was boring, the advance of 15,000 pounds was too large to turn down.

When “Prince Charles: A Biography” was published in 1979, it was mostly charitably reviewed, even by its subject. Prince Charles told Mr. Holden that he liked the fact that he’d depicted a life that “was not all wine and roses.”

Mr. Holden returned to his own life as a journalist, working as a Washington correspondent for The Observer, briefly as features editor for The Times of London and as a freelancer for other papers. Yet the royal beat dogged him.

News programs invariably called on him to comment on royal matters, American journalists sought him out in trying to understand that peculiar British institution, and publishing executives kept offering him royalty-themed book deals, for soft stuff like “Their Royal Highnesses: The Prince & Princess of Wales” (1981), “A Week in the Life of the Royal Family” (1983) and “Anthony Holden’s Royal Quiz” (1983).

Then, in the late 1980s, his publisher asked him to write a second biography of the prince, and what he delivered was a chilly picture of the marriage of Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales. In the book, titled simply “Charles” and published in 1988, Mr. Holden wrote that the prince “no longer understands her — nor even, it seems, much likes her,” and that the princess seemed bored with him. (The book was serialized in The Sunday Times.) Buckingham Palace denounced Mr. Holden in a statement, igniting a tabloid frenzy.

Mr. Holden’s second biography of Prince Charles delivered a chilly picture of his marriage to Princess Diana. They were photographed in 2005 in Bangkok.Credit…Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

“A Distorted Portrait of the Prince,” read one headline, which quoted a royal aide as saying the book was “fiction from beginning to end.” A writer in The Express called Mr. Holden “the most reviled man in Britain.” And as Mr. Holden recalled in a 2021 memoir, “Based on a True Story: A Writer’s Life,” The Daily Mail ran a hit piece declaring that he had left his first wife, a “classy pianist,” for a “blonde American bimbo”; was living the high life in a mansion on the Thames; and had slandered the prince to pay off his gambling debts.

What wasn’t reported, as Mr. Holden recalled, was that his house and car were ransacked more than once, and that his research material about Prince Charles was stolen.

Mr. Holden became so irritated by the pile-on that he gathered up all his negative tabloid clippings and consulted a libel lawyer about suing the prince.

“Mr. Holden,” the lawyer said, as Mr. Holden recalled, “you have a prima facie case against the Prince of Wales for defamation. But I would strongly advise you not to pursue the matter.” He would not win in the court of public opinion, he was told.

The lawyer did give his permission, however, for Mr. Holden to include his name, Peter Carter-Ruck, as well as their exchange in a future memoir. Which he did, decades later.

Anthony Ivan Holden was born on May 22, 1947, in Southport, Lancashire, on England’s northwest coast, to John and Margaret (Sharpe) Holden. His father owned a sports equipment store. His mother worked as a secretary for her father, Ivan Sharpe, an Olympic soccer star turned sportswriter.

Anthony attended two British boardings schools, Trearddur House, a horrible experience, he wrote, marked by beatings and other indignities, and the Oundle School, which was less awful. He studied English language and literature at Merton College, Oxford; edited Isis, the student magazine there; and translated ancient Greek works for the Oxford University Press.

After university, he was hired as a reporter trainee by a regional newspaper chain. In covering the usual beats of police and fire, he reported on the trial of Graham Young, a notorious and prolific poisoner. His coverage led to his first book, “The St. Alban’s Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Graham Young,” published in 1974. All in all, he wrote some 40 books.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called Mr. Holden’s biography “William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Genius,” from 2000, “breezily readable” (it was not a complement). But some reviewers found his “Laurence Olivier” (1988) more revealing than the actor’s own memoirs. Tchaikovsky was another of his subjects.

Mr. Holden wrote about more obscure subjects as well. In addition to the one on Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, he wrote a biography of Leigh Hunt, a Dickens’ era poet. He also tackled Hollywood in “Behind the Oscars: The Secret History of the Academy Awards” (1993).

The book had the New York Times book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wondering why Mr. Holden had devoted nearly 700 pages to the effort.

“Since, as Mr. Holden is the first to admit, the Oscars are trivial in themselves,” Mr. Lehmann-Haupt wrote in his review, “details about the Oscars represent an order of trivia whose contemplation no rational mind can hope to survive intact.”

As to why he took on the project, Mr. Holden said he had received a large advance and had been happy to spend time in Los Angeles.

More esoterically, he translated operas into English with his first wife, Amanda (Warren) Holden, a pianist, librettist and multilingual opera translator. The couple divorced in 1988.

In addition to their son, Ben, Mr. Holden is survived by their sons Sam and Joe; his stepchildren, Ben and Siena Colegrave; four grandchildren; and a brother, Robin Holden. He married Cynthia Blake, a novelist, in 1990. They separated 10 years later but did not divorce.

Mr. Holden in 1980, when he was a Washington correspondent for The Observer of London. “He was the classic Grub Street reporter,” his friend the editor Tina Brown said.Credit…via the Holden family

Mr. Holden was a lifelong poker player, with a regular Tuesday game that included the British poet Al Alvarez (known to his readers as A. Alvarez). Mr. Holden once decided to try his hand at big-time by spending a year playing tournaments. He finally qualified for the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and wrote about it in “Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player” (1990). He said it outsold any book he had ever written. “Bigger Deal,” its sequel, followed in 2007.

“Tony was a real scholar,” said Tina Brown, the veteran magazine editor who was a longtime friend. (When, in 1981, she married the British newspaper editor Harry Evans — Mr. Holden’s boss at the time — in East Hampton, N.Y., Mr. Holden walked her down the aisle.)

“He was immensely talented, but he did it with such a light touch,” Ms. Brown said in an interview. “He could write the best gossip column. He was the person you turned to do the elegant, smart take — very fast.” She called him “the classic Grub Street reporter” and added, “The royal stuff was almost a pass-through situation, but he did it brilliantly.”

An avowed anti-monarchist, Mr. Holden wrote a number of ever more critical books about the royals. When one of them, “The Tarnished Crown,” was published in 1993 by Random House, which Mr. Evans was running then, Mr. Evans took out a full-page ad in The New York Times saying that if readers didn’t learn everything they ever wanted to know about the royal family from the book, they could ask for a refund. There were no takers.

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