I first met Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor in the summer of 1977, in Corfu. I was on board Gianni Agnelli’s boat, and the charismatic Fiat chairman asked me to go ashore and bring “a very smart Englishman whose Ancient Greek is much better than yours.” I knew Paddy, as everyone called him, by sight, because among us Greeks he was on a par with our ancient heroes. Not only was Leigh Fermor famous for his books on Greece—Mani and Roumeli—he was renowned for his incredible heroics in a guerrilla operation in Crete in April 1944. Having spent two years disguised as a Cretan shepherd in the rough mountains of the island harassing German troops, Paddy dressed as a German police officer and stopped a car carrying Gen. Karl Kreipe, the island commander. Having killed the general’s chauffeur, Leigh Fermor proceeded to wear the general’s hat and managed to bluff his way through the capital, Heraklion, and 22 subsequent checkpoints. Kreipe was stuffed under the back seat while Leigh Fermor’s bat man and three hefty Greek rebels sat on him. For three weeks the group managed to evade frantic German search parties, finally marching the general over Mount Ida, the mythical birthplace of Zeus.
One moonlit night, high up, Fermor was guarding the general when Kreipe, gazing up at the snowy peak, recited the first line of an Horatian ode (Ad Thaliarchum): “Vides ut alta stet nive candid” (“See how Soracte stands white with snow on high”). Leigh Fermor then continued the poem in perfect Latin until the end. The two men stared at each other, realizing, as Paddy later wrote, that they had “drunk at the same fountain.” The German and the Englishman then made a pact: Kreipe gave his word as an officer that he would not try to escape, and in return . . . Leigh Fermor never revealed.
What follows came straight from Paddy to me in Corfu. Six months after the kidnapping of Kreipe, Leigh Fermor landed yet again on the island to celebrate the liberation. He was taken behind the main square of Heraklion, where the general who succeeded Kreipe was about to be shot. Paddy was aghast because the German was cool as ice, and when Paddy introduced himself the condemned said, “Ah, Leigh Fermor, you were lucky. Kreipe was an intellectual, a softy. I would have killed you on the spot.” When Paddy asked him if there was anything he could do for him the German asked for one last cigarette, thanked him, smoked it, inhaling rather deeply, then said goodbye and went off and got shot ramrod straight.
Heroics aside, Leigh Fermor was often compared with Lord Byron for being a man of both action and learning. His very good friend, Robert Byron (no relation) was a travel writer who greatly influenced Paddy, whose most celebrated book told the story of his walk across Europe from Rotterdam to Constantinople. He was 18, and the title of the book was A Time of Gifts. Leigh Fermor wrote more books on travel, and they stood out for rendering the past visible, for their evocation of youthful exuberance, and for the joy one felt reading them. He was a very good-looking man, an Anglo-Irishman, whose adventures in Crete were made into a film back in 1957, Ill Met by Moonlight. The irony was that he was played by Dirk Bogarde, an outrageous homosexual whose greatest talent lay in spreading terrible rumors about others.
Leigh Fermor was 96 when he died, but he lived vigorously until the end. Two years ago his correspondence with the last surviving Mitford Girl, Deborah, dowager duchess of Devonshire, was published to great acclaim. What a cast of characters make up the book! Norman Douglas—another great influence—Steven Runciman, Osbert Lancaster, Cyril Connolly, the present Duke of Devonshire, Bruce Chatwin, and many others rich and famous and literate. Paddy was a hell of a ladies’ man, although he married only once—Joan Rayner, who was his close and understanding companion until her death in 2003. He also wrote the script for John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven, a vastly underrated film in which Errol Flynn made a comeback by playing a has-been of sorts, a character Flynn repeated successfully to the end.
One of Leigh Fermor’s great regrets was that, while cleaning his weapon whilst in the mountains of Crete, it accidentally went off and killed his trusted guide. He told George Seferis, Greece’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature, that his guide’s death was probably the lowest point of his life. He built a beautiful but very simple house, which he and his wife designed, in Kardamyli, deep in the Peloponnese and overlooking the sea, and lived there for most of his adult life. I was lucky to have met him, and now that I am of a certain age I realize how much better it must have been to have lived during heroic times—no matter whose side one was on—than in the celebrity, empty, horrible culture of today. Paddy, Rest in Peace.