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John Julius Norwich, who has died aged 88, called himself a writer and broadcaster. He was really a man of many enthusiasms – for books, music, architecture, paintings – and his great talent was to be able to convey those passions to the public at large, through books, radio broadcasts and in nearly three dozen television documentaries from the BBC, on subjects ranging from the fall of Constantinople, through Napoleon’s final 100 days’ campaign, to Haiti’s revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture.
The great love of his life was Venice. He visited the Italian city more than 200 times and spent decades dedicated to its preservation and protection, from 1970 as chairman of the Venice in Peril fund and company chairman of the World Monuments Fund. He also ensured that people knew why it was worth protecting, publishing the massive two-volume A History of Venice (1977, 1981), as well as The Italian World (1983), Venice: A Traveller’s Companion (1990) and, with HC Robbins Landon, Five Centuries of Music in Venice (1991).
John Julius was the son of the Tory MP Duff Cooper and his wife, Lady Diana Cooper (nee Manners), daughter of the 8th Duke of Rutland and a well-known society beauty. At his christening, John Julius’s mother arranged 17 godparents, all chosen, according to her son, for the size of their wallets. They included the financier Otto Kahn, the writers Maurice Baring and JM Barrie, the press baron Lord Beaverbrook and the Aga Khan. (On Norwich’s first marriage, he related, the Aga Khan gave him a nest of wickerwork tables, “and I’ve never been more disappointed in my life”.)
The child of older parents, born after a long wait, he was cherished and adored by his mother, with whom he spent a great deal more time than was usual for the period. She taught him to read at four, and at five he was learning French, with trips to Aix-les-Bains, in south-eastern France, in the holidays to improve his accent. Diana “was my greatest inspiration”, he said, and his unconventionally conventional upbringing can be read in the early chapters of Scoop, where his mother’s friend Evelyn Waugh immortalised her as Mrs Stitch.
Duff Cooper was shy, even with his own child, and his main method of communication was to read to him, and recite, teaching his son to do the same in return and thus beginning John Julius’s long career as a performer. In 1937 Duff Cooper was made first lord of the Admiralty, and the family moved to Admiralty House, off Trafalgar Square, where John Julius’s nursery overlooked Horse Guards Parade. This did not last long.
Cooper resigned in disgust at the Munich agreement, and shortly afterwards John Julius was evacuated to the US for the duration of the war. Not for him the tragic plight of the small child wearing a luggage label. He went with his nanny, and spent the first part of the war living with William Paley, the multi-millionaire chairman of CBS television, at his family estate in Long Island. He was sent to a private boys’ school, Upper Canada college in Toronto, before returning to Britain and Eton college.
By this time, his father had been made ambassador to Paris (an episode wickedly guyed by Nancy Mitford in Don’t Tell Alfred), and John Julius was sent to the University of Strasbourg before a more conventional stint studying French and Russian at New College, Oxford.
In 1952 his father was made Viscount Norwich. In the same year, after national service, John Julius entered the Foreign Office, and married Anne Clifford. From 1955 to 1957 he was third secretary at the British embassy in Belgrade; crawling up the ladder, in 1957 he was moved to Beirut, as second secretary, where he served until 1960. From there he began to explore, when on leave, the Middle and near east, whose history was to preoccupy him for so many years. In 1960 he joined the British delegation to the disarmament conference in Geneva.
During this time, when on leave, he went to Sicily for two weeks. He was fascinated by the meeting of three great civilisations in the middle ages: Norman, Byzantine and Saracen, “and of course I wanted to know more”. There were no books about it in the London Library, so he decided that he must write one instead, and in 1964 he resigned from the Foreign Office. He wrote first a book about Mount Athos, with Reresby Sitwell, and then published The Normans in the South (1967), which was received as a work of popularising genius, and set his course.
At the same time, he was beginning his career as a documentary film-maker and broadcaster, in particular covering the city of Venice. He had first set foot in the city aged 16, when he was taken on a day trip by his parents. Nearly half a century later, he combined the two in Maestro (1991), a five-part televised history of music in La Serenissima.
For music was another passion, and, more particularly, opera. From 1977 to 1981, he sat on the board of English National Opera, and in 1985 wrote 50 Years of Glyndebourne: An Illustrated History. From high to low, he covered it all, and on Radio 4 was a frequent contestant on Round Britain Quiz, and chair of My Word between 1978 and 1982. He joined a group of like-minded “great and good” who wanted to set up Heritage Broadcasting, a radio station for “accessibility and awareness of all the arts”. When that did not materialise, and after Classic FM won the franchise, he joined it in 1994, broadcasting an “evening concert” five days a week for two and a half years, to an audience of five million, until he was abruptly sacked in order to bring in a more “popular” style. The great populariser was hurt, and there was a loud protest from his audience, who relished his knowledge, his wit, and his ability to pronounce Dvořák without flinching.
In the late 1980s Norwich set about a history of the Byzantine empire from its creation by Constantine the Great in the fourth century to its ignominious fall to the Turks 1,100 years later. Astonishingly, considering the magnitude of the task, he accomplished it in eight years and a mere thousand pages. It is indicative of the author’s populist character that, while historians lined up to praise his achievement, the two readers he was proudest of were an immigration officer at an airport in New York, who looked at his passport and simply said, “When is volume three coming out?”, and a man in Oregon who wrote to him: “Tomorrow I will go back to work as a welder for the railroad, but tonight I am the acting emperor of Byzantium.” The three volumes of Byzantium appeared between 1988 and 1995.
Two thousand years of history was no obstacle, and his history of the popes appeared in 2011, with Norwich modestly claiming to have met only four (Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul I). Despite such access, he was acerbic when necessary, condemning John Paul II’s 500-odd canonisations, and noting waspishly that “suddenly we have saints like other people have mice”.
He was appointed CVO in 1993 for having curated an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum to mark the 40th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. In 2015 he was awarded the Biographers’ Club award for his lifetime service to biography.
Accessible to all, Norwich was happy to list publicly his home address and phone number, latterly adding his e-mail address, in case the first two were not sufficient.
His first marriage ended in divorce in 1985, and in 1989 he married Mollie Philipps. She survives him, as do his son, Jason, an architect, and daughter, the historian Artemis Cooper, from his first marriage, and a daughter, the writer Allegra Huston, from a relationship with the dancer Enrica Soma, wife of the film director John Huston.
• John Julius Cooper, Viscount Norwich, author and broadcaster, born 15 September 1929; died 1 June 2018
Source: The Guardian
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