11 December 2010


Robert O'Byrne. Desmond Leslie; The Biography of an Irish Gentleman. The Lilliput Press, Dublin. 2010.

You will probably know Desmond Leslie best for three things: he co-wrote Flying Saucers Have Landed with George Adamski; he once punched theatre critic Bernard Levin on the nose, live on prime-time TV; and he used to own the Irish stately home where Paul McCartney entered his ill-fated marriage to Heather Mills.
These are, however, only the tiniest fragments from the life of a remarkable man.

Born in 1921 to a family which included an uncle who walked home after the First World War all the way from India, another uncle who wrote a novel about a man who invented a silent lavatory, and a much earlier ancestor know as the 'Fighting Bishop of Clogher' who at the age of sixty-seven married an eighteen-year-old girl and managed to father eight children before he died just a few weeks short of his hundredth birthday.

Not to mention having a godfather who simultaneously held the post of Privy Chamberlain to two Popes whilst conducting ceremonies at his ancestral home with Aleister Crowley and at the same time kept a trained parrot which would climb up inside his trouser-leg and pop its head out of his fly.

Desmond Leslie was born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, a sometimes rather eccentric section of society that also produced Brinsley le Poer Trench, and in the emotional and sometimes physical absence of his parents was largely brought up by his nanny, 'Nanny Weston', in the rambling house and grounds that was Castle Leslie and the Glaslough estate. His schooldays seemed to have been full of all sorts of upper-class japes such a turning up for a bicycle expedition across the Yorkshire moors in a steam traction engine.

After making the discouraging discovery that in order to attend Trinity College, Dublin he would have to take an examination to show evidence of academic attainment, he decided to adopt what presumably he saw as the easier option, and joined the RAF. Here he seemed to carry on the tradition of japery, at one point being caught out whilst sky-writing a four-letter obscenity, and on another occasion being charged with "handling His Majesty's aircraft in a manner prejudicial to good order" when he knocked a pub-sign off with the wing of his Spitfire after flying under a bridge which was only a foot wider than the plane's wings.

Presumably being a cousin of Winston Churchill meant that the punishments were not too severe! Also he does seem to have been a genuinely brave flyer despite, by his own admission, destroying more RAF aircraft than German ones.

After the war Leslie moved to London, his elder brother having taken over the Irish estate. In the face of some family opposition in 1945 he married his first wife Agnes Bernell, the daughter of a Hungarian theatre impresario and herself a budding actress. It was in fact one of Agnes's performances that Leslie was defending when he punched Bernard Levin in front of a few million people on the BBC's iconic late-night satirical show That Was The Week That Was in 1963. He may have been prompted by a guilty conscience because it is likely that his installation of an inadequate sound system for the theatre may have been one of the reasons why the critics gave it such poor notices!

In London he began a career as a writer and journalist. He published several novels which had strong autobiographical elements, and wrote articles - many about Irish country houses - for the lively post-war magazine market.

Although receiving a small inheritance following the death of his mother, the Leslies were frequently short of money, and according to his wife, Desmond decided that one way of making a significant amount was to write a 'potboiler'. He started collecting cuttings about flying saucers, and began studying historical records, assembling a collection of material which he believed proved that, amongst other things, Venusians first visited earth in 18,617,841 BC. This was "calculated from ancient Brahmin tables", and that the Brahmins were "exceedingly accurate people".

This however was not Leslie's only venture into the esoteric at the time, as he also joined the 'White Eagle Lodge', a group founded in the 1930s by the Spiritualist Grace Cook, channelling a Native American spirit guide called White Eagle. After he returned to Castle Leslie later in life he established a temple for the Lodge at his home, and this seemed to give him a great measure of spiritual comfort. It is clear that Leslie's interest in UFOs was very much from an esoteric and occult angle, and the idea of 'space brothers' fitted in well with his own philosophy.

This biography does not make it clear who initiated the link between Leslie and George Adamski, which culminated in the publication of Flying Saucers Have Landed in 1953. [See 'comments' from cda below] Three-quarters of the volume was Leslie's historical survey, just 50 pages covered Adamski's account of his extraterrestrial meeting.

The mixed reaction to the book, indeed the downright hostility, suited Leslie's combative spirit, and he vigorously defended his theories in writing and on radio. He was perhaps the first person, in 1953, to claim that the Air Ministry had a special department to investigate UFO reports.

After a successful promotion tour in America, Leslie became the first point of call for any journalists looking for a controversial opinion on the subject, and appeared in a BBC TV debate with Patrick Moore. Curiously, despite having such divergent opinions, the two became good friends and co-operated on a number of ventures in later years.

Leslie's writing extended to film, TV and radio, including a synopsis for a never-produced six-part TV series called The Venusian. It would seem that the concept was too close to The Day the World Stood Still to interest backers. However he wrote a number of other film scripts which were produced.

He carried on with writing novels - including the semi-sciencefictional The Amazing Mr Lutterworth, and also began experimenting with what would now be described as electronic music. He used tape-recording of random sounds which he processed by speeding up, slowing down, playing backwards, etc., to produce what he called musique concrete.

A room in his flat was eventually converted into a sophisticated recording studio. He sold the resulting sounds as music and sound effects for films and TV, some of it being used in the early Dr Who episodes. In 1960 he produced an LP entitled Music of the Future, which was re-issued as a CD by a specialist label a few years ago,

Following the death of his eldest brother, Leslie abandoned his career in London, and returned to manage the Irish estate. By this time his marriage was in crisis; fidelity, he admitted himself, never being a particularly strong suit for him. At one point he shared Castle Leslie with his wife and his mistress Helen Strong, whom he later married.

A great deal of the rest of his live was spent trying to cope with the problems of running a country estate at just about the worst period for such a venture, watching as the 'family silver' (and paintings and furniture) was sold off bit by bit, but also helping to maintain the eccentric - 'very eccentric' he would maintain - lifestyle of the Irish country house.

Attempting to open the estate as a craft and tourist centre was not helped by it being on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic at the height of the Troubles. At one point he was obliged to take a group of British soldiers who had accidentally crossed the border as prisoners of war. They signed the visitors' book and 'escaped'.

Much of the latter part of his life reads like a rather absorbing upper-class soap opera, with disputes over inheritance, dealing with the offspring from three relationships, and trying to preserve Castle Howard, to which was so emotionally committed, as well as continuing to write.

He died in 2001 in the south of France, quite literally surrounded by his family.

This is a fascinating book, which not only presents the amazing life story of an eccentric, exciting and multi-talented character, but also gives an insight into the vanished world from which such characters were able to emerge. Highly recommended. -- John Rimmer


  1. I always assumed the link between Leslie and Adamski was made by Waveney Girvan, who was the chief editor at Werner Laurie in 1953 when FLYING SAUCERS HAVE LANDED was published. Girvan had intended to publish Leslie's manuscript but at the last minute was given the Adamski 'addendum' (which must have increased the sales tenfold at least).

    Otherwise Leslie may have got in touch with Adamski through reading his writings, and seeing his saucer photos, in FATE magazine in 1951/52.

  2. I was a bit wrong in the first paragraph of my comment about how Leslie & Adamski first came into contact.

    It appears that there were a number of newspaper reports of Adamski's meeting with the Venusian during late 1952 & early 1953. These were in the Californian press. Leslie heard about these and managed to get in touch with Adamski in due course. (Adamski's FATE article and photographs may have provided an impetus also). Adamski then supplied Leslie with more photographs and the 50-page text of his Venusian contact story.

    Thus when Leslie approached Waveney Girvan (at Werner Laurie) with his own manuscript he had Adamski's portion with him and Girvan decided to add this as a supplement (some supplement!).

    It was not until several months after FS HAVE LANDED was published that Leslie first met Adamski face-to-face in California in 1954, and stayed with him for 3 or 4 months, I believe.

  3. I think you will find all the answers you need to these questions, and others, in chapter 3 of The Flyingsaucerers - which is devoted to Desmond Leslie and his links with 50s UFOlogy and the British aristocrasy. Surprised to find no mention of this in the review!