Hillary Clinton (July 20, 2014)

It has been said many times that Hillary Clinton’s lack of warmth and empathy cost her the 2008 Democratic candidacy. A friend of mine who is a respected editor in Australia told me she finds her smug and cold.
Before I was to meet her I watched her appearance on The One Show which has been described as ‘Einstein doing Play School’. I’d go one step further: it was Einstein loving every second of being on Play School – laughing at the frivolity and making everyone else laugh to. Everything she was asked she responded to with fire cracking wit and political diplomacy that was charming and at the same time revelatory.
When asked if she prefers the dress sense of Dolly Parton or Angela Merkel she replied, ‘Dolly for night time, Angela for day.’ And when asked who was her favourite President, Bill Clinton or Barak Obama, she said that she was glad to serve Obama who had taken the worst global recession since the Depression and turned it around and created healthcare for everyone in the US, and glad to be married to Bill who rebooted the economy and created 23 million jobs.
When Rylan Clark greeted her on This Morning referring to her as ‘babe’ she beamed with delight. She can take anything in her stride. But strength doesn’t mean froideur in her case.
I wait for her in her empty suite at Claridges. There’s none of the rude, pushy sullen security that has been described in the Press and on Twitter.
She arrives with her aide smiling. She is wearing black trousers and a jacket that is white, patterned with tiny black and yellow flowers, pointed flats. She is so much smaller than you expect. Her presence is so big you expect her to be.
She is curious: Why is Seven called Seven? Why have I flown in from LA? It’s as if she’s trying to feel her way around me, make a connection, which his easy. She admired my necklace, a gold chain with charms, and while you could think that this was a politician’s ploy to create empathy, she is wearing a more dainty version of the same necklace herself. She has huge eyes; blue, round, enquiring, searching, missing nothing.
She is here of course on a book tour to promote her memoir Hard Choices where she chronicles the exhilarating and gruelling life of being Secretary of State, the world’s number one diplomat covering over a million miles, visiting 112 countries. A life of tough decisions, very little sleep, and endlessly on the road.
She tackled it with gusto and seems to have derived great satisfaction, no longer just Mrs Clinton a woman in her husband’s shadow but a woman who learnt from the best and used it in her own hard graft.
In person she is much more fun and funnier than the book and that you’d ever expect her to be. David Milliband, when he was Foreign Secretary, said, and I paraphrase, that Hillary was great, that you could have a laugh with her and tease her. She laughs a big booming laugh.
How important is that to her? To bring fun into an agenda which is incredibly serious? ‘Oh Chrissy, it’s so important, I mean really. So many of the issues you deal with when you are in Government these days, and particularly when you do foreign policy. National security is serious and dangerous. If you don’t have time to be a human being and let your hair down, have a joke, tell stories, you can lose perspective on what you are really doing. And so I have had fun with David, and others. ‘
She seems relaxed, sparkling, fluid. I wonder if she has grown into this person or this was just the person people didn’t see?
The most moving part of her book is when she talks about her mother Dorothy Rodham who had a cruel, abusive and neglected upbringing. Dorothy, who died in 2011, was rejected by her own parents, sent from Chicago to California when she was eight the sole carer of her three-year-old sibling to live with strict disciplinarian grandparents who didn’t know the meaning of love.
Dorothy went out trick or treating one Halloween without permission and as punishment was confined to her room for an entire year. Yet Dorothy took solace in the comfort of strangers and any small acts of decency. She became a lifelong campaigner for social injustice and a woman who knew how to love.
How did Dorothy affect Hillary and formulate the person she became? ‘When I was a very little girl all I knew was that she was my mother. As I got older, probably into my teen years, I could reflect. She was devoted and she was fun. She loved sports. We would go swimming. She loved to play golf. She was an active involved person in our church and in our school. When I learned about the terrible set of issues and challenges she faced as a child my admiration for her grew. I couldn’t imagine – I had this very stable, loving, supportive family – I didn’t know how she did it; how she came from what she experienced to be what I experienced. It was extraordinary.’
What stayed with Hillary Rodham Clinton was the notion you respect someone getting up after they have been knocked down. No matter how rejected, betrayed or mistreated you feel, you don’t become a whiner because Dorothy never did. You don’t become a victim if you want to survive and enjoy your life. If you are a victim you never move on.
Much has been made of the fact that Monica Lewinsky’s visit to London briefly coincided with HRC’s. In a recent Vanity Fair article Lewinsky described herself as ‘arguably the most humiliated woman in the world.’ That is taking the victim role by storm. One could argue in that particular three-way it was HRC who was the most humiliated. The man she stood by and loved cheated on her and it all played out in public.
How did she take that humiliation and turn it round so dramatically? Her huge eyes widen. How did she come from being that humiliated person to the respected Secretary of State? How did she turn that around?
‘I moved on,’ she says simply and profoundly. And that doesn’t make he cold. It doesn’t mean it was easy.
Lewinsky couldn’t move on. Does she feel a little sorry for her? ‘I think she is someone who has to express her own feelings. I can’t characterise her, that wouldn’t be right. I’m just grateful that I made the choices I made, to move forward and from that I’ve had an extraordinary set of opportunities and experiences that I’m very grateful for.’
In her book she also talks about the necessity of forgiveness. Most religions talk about it as liberation. Did she find it easy to forgive? ‘NO, NO,’ she says loudly, emphatically and with a vulnerability that moves me.
‘Forgiveness is a hard choice. It’s empowering and liberating to be able to reach the point in your life where you feel you can forgive. Everybody feels they have been trespassed upon and nearly everybody has trespassed on somebody else, maybe not intentionally…
‘I’m inspired by the example of Nelson Mandela who led a country to a new future through the example of forgiveness and reconciliation. That doesn’t mean you forget – it’s truth and reconciliation. You have to be honest, face the truth about whatever your situation personally or nationally might be, but he often made the point that if you carried bitterness and anger around with you for whatever reason, you would remain in prison. You would in fact be imprisoning yourself and be unfair to yourself because you can’t get beyond what happened to you.
‘I think about my mother and what happened to her when she was growing up – the abuse, neglect and meanness she was subjected to – and she had to find it within herself to rise above it, to keep going or she would have been miserable. Or she might have got married and had kids and been miserable to them. But she didn’t.’
Did you find that after that, I mean Lewinsky but I don’t say the word, it made you and Bill stronger and closer? ‘I feel that we always had a close relationship. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t disappointed each other or fallen short in some way because of course we each have in everyday life. There are things that you do or fail to do. I feel very blessed to have a partner in life who supports me, who is enthusiastic about what I want to do, who has been a great father and who will be a fabulous grandfather. I feel very lucky.’
Throughout the interview there is direct and indirect clucking about the advent of her being a proud grandmother. Chelsea is to give birth in the autumn and you sense the conflict. Of course she wants to enjoy that time of being with her daughter and the baby. She says she hasn’t made up her mind yet if she will run. I feel her sense of injustice is too huge and passionate to allow her not to.
In the book you feel the adrenalin, the fear she refuses to take on, when she writes about her role in Bin Laden’s capture and demise. National security was paramount. She had to keep the operation secret from her husband. How did that make her feel? Was it hard? She is so direct and thrives on the bravery of honesty I imagine it would be.
She nods. ‘It was hard in two ways. Hard because I had to keep it from everybody. I had to do the work, the analysis and the recommending based on my own efforts and I had to keep it from my husband because of the admonition we couldn’t tell anybody. I would have loved to have talked it over with him because I value his advice and experience, but I didn’t. And when President Obama called him and the other living presidents about what had happened, he said to Bill, “I assume Hillary has told you.” He said, “No, she hasn’t told me anything.” And I laughed about it with him later and he said, ”Well good, people will know you can keep a secret.”’ And she laughs now.
Did Bill keep secrets from her when he was in office? ‘Yes, he did. I don’t think very many, but there are some things that you are expected to keep secret. Even though in our cases we could add value in thinking through these decisions together we didn’t.’
How does she think the dynamic of their relationship has changed since she has become more powerful and a more public figure and he less? ‘I don’t think he will ever be anything but a public person, especially in our country. He has his work with the foundation; his special envoy work with the UN, some of the work that President Obama has asked him to do, and he has an enormously high profile. So I view it as a conversation we started many years ago in law school (they both went to Yale) where we each tried to support and really listen to each other and provide our best advice.
‘So although he ended his public electoral office in 2001 and I began mine, we never quit sharing views and ideas. When I was a senator for New York and he was one of my constituents, I used to tell him I represented him.’ She laughs, almost conspiratorially.
‘When I was Secretary of State there were many things we could talk over, and we did. We view ourselves as being very much partners in our marriage.’
Bill Clinton is hugely charismatic. I interviewed him once briefly. His voice was mesmerising and he was electric. What’s he like around the house? Is he electric all the time? Now she guffaws. ‘I know that when I see it. No. H e is very much an around the house husband; let’s clean up the kitchen, let’s take the dogs for a walk, what are we going to do with our garden? Very matter of fact everyday issues.’
I have to say I thought Bill Clinton was very nice. ‘Yes,’ she considers. He is very nice. Yes.’ We laugh again.
One of the most amusing photographs in her book is where she is playing the piano with Bono and they are singing. It takes guts to sing with Bono. It takes guts to send in helicopters with Navy Seals to Bin Laden’s lair. It takes guts to stay human when you are in power.
Because of that and her ability to triumph over tragedy, she has become a gay icon. ‘Really?’ she purrs. ‘That is so touching to hear that. I have a chapter called Unfinished Business about women’s rights and gay rights. To me you cannot be fully human, fully civilised, unless you recognise humanity in everyone. Our country has made a lot of progress in issues of racism and sexism and homophobia, but many places around the world are dangerous for women and dangerous for gays and we have to keep working.’
As a feminist she is unswerving. On Twitter she describers herself as ‘wife, mom, lawyer, women and kids advocate, US senator, Sec. State, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD.’
She says she was thinking of naming her book The Scrunchie Chronicles because of the amount of attention that gets paid to her hair, especially when she pulls it back in a scrunchie.
Does she feel being a woman in power she has to modify the way she dresses, for instance be more masculine, more conservative, play down a girlie side of herself? ‘When I was younger and women first started to get in public positions, in my case the law, we went through a period where we wore those little ribbon ties, little bows. We tried to figure out what was our appropriate dress. Now it is sorted out. Women can express who they are more. You are running up against conventional expectation and your personal identity. It doesn’t mean to say you can wear a bathing suit to court. You can be aware of conventions but not be a slave to them. I wear pants of various kinds because it solves a lot of problems. Different jackets, heels of different heights, but I also like to ear something that is more fun, more happy, not be so predictable.’
Her coat today is a happy coat. If it were a cocktail it would be margarita. ‘Yes, thank you. I happen to love margaritas and it was my mother’s favourite drink. It’s a happy drink.’
Her clothes in the past have been criticised. She has been criticised for her hair and basically every move she’s ever made. She says she has developed the skin of a rhinoceros. She takes criticism seriously, but not personally. Especially when it’s about the double standards applied to a woman in the public eye.
Is there any criticism that still hurts her? ‘I feel like I’ve run the gauntlet of criticism. When somebody is saying something about another person that is unfair, it’s not that it’s about me so much as the meanness that can be displayed towards people. I don’t like that.
‘It used to bother me and I would get frustrated and then I didn’t have the energy for it any more. And I also thought if I’m spending energy worrying about what somebody is saying about me, then how am I ever going to make the point I want to make. So now I wear my hair how I want it. I’ll wear my glasses if I want to. Women should not be entrapped by those expectations. This book is to encourage young women in particular to find their style, their identity and their voice.’
I wonder if she is referring to what has been dubbed ‘the Beyoncé voters’ the single ladies, which have been categorised as a new demographic of potential voters who Clinton will need if she were to run.
‘Yes, I read the article to which you are referring to. I think what you have to do is make the case that Congress has an enormous impact on matters that are important to you. If you are worried about your student loan, saving for a house, worried about the conditions in the workplace, it’s not just the president you elect, it’s who you elect to Congress. Single women have not been a target for that kind of message and I think they should be because they deserve to hear that.’
Of course if she did run, much has been made that she would be an old president (She would be 69). She’s been dubbed a Golden Girl. But retorted that that was a very popular TV show. These days she loves House of Cards but hasn’t seen Scandal or Game of Thrones.
She had a health scare – a concussion, had to take blood thinners. Today she is glowing, energetic, relaxed. Does she have a fitness regime other than the yoga I’ve read about? ‘Clearing closets clears my head. It makes my head fitter and I love a project that has a beginning, middle and end. I love organising, going to the container store. When I got out of the State Department I promised myself I would do it and I have.’ She beams. She feels liberated from the throwing away of old clothes. ‘I love the letting go,’ she laughs.
What will she do if she’s not going to run? ‘Work in the foundation that Bill and I started and that my daughter is also a member of, the three of us together. I’m going to keep fighting for women’s full participation, their equality and opportunity in every society. I have more than enough to do, it’s just a question of making these hard choices of where I want to put my energy and emphasis.’
Does Bill want her to run? ‘He wants me to do whatever I decide to do.’
Having seen the job first hand, what is the best and worst thing about being President. ‘The best thing is you can help people solve their problems and manage difficult situations. The worst thing is it’s a never ending daunting set of responsibilities that 24/7 is not enough time to deal with.’
She described her campaign for Democratic candidacy as physically and emotionally exhausting, which is surely nothing to the stress of being the actual President. Hasn’t she noticed how quickly and dramatically they age? ‘YES. Just look at them, they go in young and vigorous and…go grey.’ Does that worry her? ‘No, because I can colour my hair. They don’t.’
She looks good for her 66 years. Her face is lined but not excessively. Her face is kind and un-botoxed. Overall you sense strength and huge warmth which is an impressive combo.
She caused brouhaha by announcing how when they left the White House at the end of the Clinton presidency they were completely broke and hugely in debt. Yet she makes vast amounts from public speaking and book deals. Can she remember what it was like to really have no money?
‘Absolutely, yes. Bill and I started off scraping our way through law school. We each had to work several jobs to get through and each had student loans to pay off.’
When they got married there was no money for a proper wedding reception. They had a do at home and she wore an off the peg dress she bought the day before the ceremony. What does she like spending her money on these days?
‘Experiences. Going to the theatre. Going on vacations to new places.’
What keeps her awake at night apart from jet lag? ‘I sleep very well. But I do worry about violence from extremists, rogue states that have nuclear weapons. We all worry about that.’ I wonder if she has a recurring nightmare about how to stop this. She might just have to be President to try to have a full night’s sleep after all.
Does she feel that men and women wield power differently? ‘Yes. I have observed differences. You can’t generalise but in general women have a more collaborative collegiate style and women may be attuned to what I call kitchen table issues, what’s happening in families, the stresses they’re under, how difficult it is to make ends meet.’
Towards the end of the book when she talks about her mother’s death she is reminded of the quote: ‘I have loved and been loved. All the rest is background music.’ This seems to ring true. And that’s how she would like to be remembered.
In a relationship does she like to be the person who loves most or is loved most? ‘It goes back and forth. That’s why I loved that quote. I have loved and I have been loved. I think it describes any long-term relationship because clearly sometimes you are in greater need than your partner and sometimes it is reversed.’
You don’t think that women love doing the loving? ‘That’s not been my experience. I think there are different phases in men’s and women’s lives. I know a lot of men who are now retired who are much more loving now than when they were working 16 hour days.’
I don’t think she’s referencing Bill, but part of me would like to think so because even women who are strong need nurturing.
We have already gone over our allotted time and now I want her aide to take a picture. We stand together. She is not afraid of arm to arm contact. We smile. We look united, side-by-side. I examine the picture afterwards. Both wearing black trousers, patterned tops, many bracelets, and a gold charm necklace. Both the same height. Both unnatural blondes. We could be sisters and that makes me feel strangely pleased.
Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simon & Schuster, is out now.



Niki Lauda (August 25, 2013)

I am not sure how, or even if, I can look Niki Lauda right in the eye. I am waiting for him in a multi-chandeliered and cream cake heavy hotel suite in his native Vienna. I have just seen the movie Rush. Utterly compelling.
It is based on his story, the danger, rivalry, excitement and brushes with sex and death in the world of 1976 Formula 1 when the sport was so dangerous at the beginning of each race there was a certainty 20 per cent would not make it to the end.
The Ron Howard movie chronicles the impassioned rivalry between Lauda and the first British Formula 1 champion James Hunt. In one vital race at Nürburgring in the 1976 Grand Prix Lauda’s tyres lost grip and his Ferrari caught fire. He was dragged out
‘Another ten seconds and I would have died.’
There followed gruelling operations to remove smoke and debris from his lungs and his face was irreparably burned, he lost half an ear. He refused to give up. Showing spectacular strength and verve he appeared just a couple of months later at a race meeting in Monza with for want of a better description, a new face.
Fellow drivers recoiled in horror and couldn’t look at him. He was shocked and hurt. The damage was horrendous and this was first time he saw the impact on the rest of the world. Even though he’d missed races he was still in the lead.
He enters the room relaxed, jeans, checked shirt. Eyes like pale blue Swarovski crystals, they burn and sparkle. His charisma almost takes my breath away. He sees me looking at him, examining him and gives a slow knowing smile.
He has just seen the movie, which is basically his story – he was a constant companion to writer Peter Morgan and helped him with memories and knowledge of the sport. Apparently Morgan knew nothing about Formula 1 and he tells the story with the passion of its discovery. Undoubtedly his best work.
I look at Lauda’s face. The scars have faded with age. He is now 64. ‘Yes, the wrinkles improved it,’ he says with an almost impossible confidence. He is comfortable with me looking right at his face. In fact he enjoys. He enjoys staring tragedy and disaster in the eye and dealing with it. He enjoys strength. This is a man who has not only learned to live without his face but has enjoyed living despite it.
‘When after the accident I came out into the world and people looked at me they were shocked. It upset me. I thought they were impolite not to hide their negative emotions about my look. When I saw the movie it let me see the story from the other side, from the point of view of other people looking at me. It helped me understand why people were shocked.’
What was it like for him when he first saw the scarring? ‘My then wife fainted when she first saw me, so I knew it could not have been good. I wondered is this really the way I look? As I get older the scars get lost in the lines and well…’ he shrugs to himself, ‘you just get used to it.
‘It took a long time though. I never realised because I accepted the way I looked at the time. I never thought about it, I just kept on going.’
It’s interesting in the age of cosmetic microsurgery where transformations are commonplace that Lauda refused to have any more work done after the initial surgery to keep him alive.
‘I only had to do surgery to improve my eyesight. Cosmetic surgery, it’s boring and expensive and the only thing it could do is give me another face. I had the eye surgery so that my eyes could function and as long as everything functions I don’t care about it.’
You believe him when he says that. He is striking in the way he has very few insecurities. Born to a wealthy Austrian family in Vienna. His parents had expected him to follow into a comfortable life. Lauda wanted none of it. He’d never been afraid of speed and always had a passion for the way things worked.
He peers out from under his ubiquitous red cap that only slightly disguises the fact that half of one ear is missing. ‘You have to accept it. You can’t think how you would be until it happens to you. If a person gets burnt somewhere when you are in that situation you think differently, you think what do I do now, how do I find my own way of handling it and when you’ve found it it doesn’t bother you any more. People who have never been in your situation they can’t imagine what they would do. They just ask themselves why is he like this? Why doesn’t he do something about it?
‘Maybe if they were in my situation they would behave the same way as I did. I was always being offered cosmetic procedures. See this little thing here and he gestures to the side of his face. This was done by Ivo Pitanguy in Brazil. He was the most famous plastic surgeon in the world at the time. He wanted to do everything. He asked me, “Are you nuts? Why wouldn’t you want this?” I just don’t like the look of it.’
He looks up at me, through me, examines my face. ‘You have not had work done. What do you think of the stupid women who get work done all the time?’ I’m not sure. Ask me in ten years.
‘I think it’s bad. If you have something done people can see right away that you’ve had surgery.’
The point of good surgery is that you don’t see. ‘I see it straight away,’ he says as someone who is hyper aware.
‘What about women who have their lips done and have all this shit? (He mimics the trout pout). I hate it because it becomes part of your personality.’
Does he automatically find a woman unattractive if they’ve had any cosmetic surgery? ‘I would hate it. It means they can’t stand whoever they are. I’ve had a lot of incidents in the past where people were wondering how I looked. At least I can say I had an accident. The idea that people would work on themselves, who hadn’t had an accident… I can’t stand plastic surgery. You have to have enough personality to overcome this beauty bullshit and find the strength to love yourself the way you are.’
There’s no point in telling him many people could never find that strength. When you look at him you don’t see scars you see strength and that strangely makes him really good. His eyes seem to glint even bluer when I tell him this. He says, ‘I’ve learned from my life experience. I think I was much less charismatic before.’
In the movie it shows the young Lauda being very determined, practical and pragmatic. His personality was the opposite of the flamboyant catnip to all women James Hunt.
Actor Daniel Brühl who played him had to have prosthetic teeth. He was known as the rat for his protruding large teeth which strangely you don’t notice at all now.
‘Marlboro was the sponsor. They put The Rat on my visor. A marketing guy thought of it because of my teeth. He wasn’t vain before the accident or diminished by being called The Rat and he wasn’t diminished afterwards. He has never counted on his looks.
His psychological journey to overcoming his brush with death and a face that was so scarred it shocked people, was one that he treated with his usual sportsmanship and pragmatism and got on with it. He didn’t falter. Was he ever afraid?
‘I’ve had lots of positive and negative experiences. I don’t really have any fear.’
Did he ever have fear? ‘I was brought up in a well-educated family here in Austria. I knew how to use a knife and fork. I had a very good and stable personality from a very young age. I don’t know the reason I don’t have fear in me. I’m very secure and always have been. I went through a lot of terrible things, like my accident, which again taught me how to be stronger.’
He retired from Formula One in 1979 but made a comeback in 1982 with McLaren, hanging up his helmet in 1985. Still fascinated with fast and powerful travel he decided to start airline Lauda Air having gained his own commercial pilot’s licence. It did well for a while.
‘Another terrible thing was the airplane that crashed, the Boeing 767.’ The flight crashed in Thailand in 1991 killing all 223 people on board. He talks of it still solemn.
‘I’ve been through a lot and I realise the future can’t be controlled. I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties. That said, I’ve always been a stable person.’
Is that why he was attracted to Formula 1? You wanted to test that stability. ‘No. Formula One is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits. This is why people race, to feel the speed, the car and the control. If in my time you pushed too far you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive.’
He says this recalling the precision not the danger. It was always a mathematical equation for him. ‘I was more technical than the other guys. I didn’t just want to make it go quicker, I wanted to understand the car so I knew exactly how to make it go quicker. I always knew that the car makes me successful. The faster the car the better my chances of winning were, but in those days it was always a fight to stay alive. You had to push to the limit without making any mistakes.’
Much is made of the physical scars that remain from his 1976 crash at Germany’s Nürburgring, but it left his lungs weakened and he was in severe pain. It took him all of his strength to breathe. Was there never a moment where he felt simply grateful to be alive and not need to get back in the car? ‘No, not one moment, because I knew how things go, I knew about the risks. They questioned me, did I want to continue? But I always thought, yes, I do. I wanted to see if I could make a comeback. I was not surprised to have an accident. All these years I saw people getting killed right in front of me.’
He was married at the time to Marlene – who passed out when she saw him and went on to have a nervous breakdown. ‘Yes, I remember. I expected her to tell me that everything would be alright but she passed out. It didn’t help at the time. Other than that it didn’t really affect things. We went on to have two sons.’
Did having children change your desire to race, to take those risks? ‘No, I was very focused and continued racing and now I am married again and have twins, a little girl and a little boy.’
He talks of his Max and Mia born in September 2009 with great pride telling me that his wife is away, that he’s been looking after them on his own. Does he think his twins will be racers? ’I hope not. Too early to say. My daughter though is fearless. She climbs everywhere with not a care at all. She is like me. This is actually my first time alone with the kids while my wife is in New York. I’m going to rush home after our meeting because that’s when the nanny will leave and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a nice experience. Birgit Wetzinger (his second wife) said I would never be able to do it, but it’s all working out.’ He beams.
Birgit, 34, used to work for his budget airline company FlyNiki, also now sold. She was a stewardess. Did he meet her on a plane? ‘I met her at a party and I fell in love with her. It was one of those things where you see someone and you just know. I connected with her right away because of her boots. They were a hippy type, flat boots. The opposite of the high heels that everyone else was wearing at the party. That was my first interest.’
You fell in love with her because of her boots? ‘Yes. Then I found out she was working for me. Long story short I asked her out and that’s where it started. We got married and after eight months Max and Mia came along. She is a Scorpio and I am a Pisces. Scorpios are very difficult to handle,’ he chortles to himself.
In the movie we see that he met his first wife when she hitchhiked a ride. Is that true? ‘Actually I met her at a party but I did drive her somewhere soon after and she did not recognise who I was and she thought I was a tennis player.’
In the movie he picks up hitchhikers and half scares them to death when he is suddenly not the sedate saloon car driver they imagined him to be. They then recognised him by the way he drove.
Is he still in touch with his first wife who he divorced in 1991? ‘Yes, very much so. She is part of our life. We have a house in Ibiza. She lives there. My old family and new family often get together. We went to a restaurant the other say, Marlene, Birgit and myself. She is an outstanding woman. When everyone is happy she is happy. We were joined by Lukas and Mathias (his sons) and their girlfriends. There’s no issue at all. Marlene never wanted to get married. I wanted to as everyone I knew at 28 was married. Later on I said I wanted to divorce and she said “Okay, if you stay who you are and take care of me” – which I do – “I have no problem with this.” We got divorced but we are still friends. Nothing has changed. What is more, Birgit is her friend too. It’s really an outstanding situation thanks to Marlene more than anyone else. She’s a secure, straightforward and warm hearted person with a positive way of thinking.’
The more I sit with him the more I’m impressed by his positive way of thinking, the more I realise what an unusual person he is to make seemingly impossible situations miraculously straightforward.
German actor Daniel Brühl did a very good job of capturing him. ‘He speaks English better than me. He came to Vienna to meet me and studied me for a while. I also took him to the Brazilian Grand Prix a couple of years ago. I like him. I asked him what he found difficult. He said because people know me from television, interviews and talks, they know how you speak so you can’t not get that right. He did a good job.’
Nowadays Lauda lives a little outside of Vienna. ‘Nothing fancy,’ he shrugs. I have a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake.
Does he ever get tempted to speed through suburbia? ‘No, but when I am stopped by the police if I go a little fast I always tell them I cannot help it, it’s in my blood. They either laugh or give me a hard time.’ He laughs now, an easy throaty chuckle.
His relationship with James Hunt is one where he laughed. In the movie they are portrayed as extreme rivals who eventually come together out of mutual respect and become even friends. ‘Yes, we were friends. I knew him before we met at Formula One (Formula Three). We always crossed each other’s lines. He was a very competitive guy and he was very quick. In many ways we were the same. When I looked into his eyes I knew exactly what was going on. I had a lot of respect for him on the circuit. You could drive two centimetres from his wheels and he never made a stupid move. He was a very solid good driver.’
The movie shows them as very different characters, Lauda very serious and pragmatic, Hunt loving to party, to womanise, to drink.
‘I liked his way of living. I did a little bit of what he did. I was not as strict as I appeared in the movie, but I was more disciplined than he was. I would never drink before a race. Certainly after it, I had to. Every race could have been my last. It’s different today, but then it was a tougher time. Every race we went out and survived we celebrated, had a party. It was a different time. We all had lots of girlfriends. I was not as bad as James but we were similar. He was just more extreme, so the movie emphasised this. We never had rivalries over girls. With the others we would have a beer after the race and then goodbye. That was not friendship. With James it was different. James was different.’
Does he think that Britain could ever produce another driver like Hunt? ‘No. Today life is different for the racers. They start younger. They do go-karts first. Everything is as safe as possible. The last driver to be killed was Senna 19 years ago, and the improvements were so big since that. Now nothing ever happens. It’s just not the same.’
Does that make it less exciting? ‘Maybe. But Hamilton did well in the race the other day. A little into the race his tyre exploded. He is a very good guy. A great personality.’ Then he gets a little gossipy. Asking me if I’d seen the tabloid headline about Hamilton and Nicole Scherzinger breaking up. He knows her well as he doesn’t often miss a race. ‘I have to as I’m in charge of the Mercedes team and I also commentate for German TV.’
Did he ever love airplanes as much as cars? ‘No. Cars are my profession. Airplanes I use for my own comfort. I’ve been a commercial pilot for many years, so if I want to go to Brazil I would go in my own plane. I go to any races I want on my Global 5000 12-seater airplane which can fly for 12 hours at a time. I never fly commercial.’
Does he miss his own airline? ‘No. I sold it as soon as I started the job I have with Mercedes. (He runs their team). Air Berlin wanted me to sell. It was the right time and the right price, so I did.’ He refuses to say how much he sold it for.
Can I assume that he doesn’t need to work for money any more, just for love? ‘I’ve never worked for money, never raced for money. You cannot do this for the money. You have to first race and if you are successful money comes. This is the way I’ve gone through my life. I did things I liked, and if I did it right money came. Money is not important to me at all. It’s nice when you have it.’
It’s been written that he’s not a very emotional person although I can’t believe that’s true? ‘I am emotional but I don’t show it. I protect myself. I’m always being watched so I cover myself. I cry easily when I see a stupid movie. I don’t know why, but I cry.’
He is very unflamboyant, not like his friend Bernie Ecclestone. Did he go to Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding, said to be one of the most lavish and over the top ever in the history of nuptials? ‘No. There was a race somewhere. But I know him well. It’s not Bernie who is ostentatious. He is the opposite, but the rest of his family. When I’m in London I go for lunch with Bernie a lot.’
Does he stay in touch with Hunt’s family? ‘I’m in touch with his brother, but that’s it.’
What quality does he think he shared with Hunt to make them both not ordinary drivers? ‘In many ways he was my opposite. We both tried to win. It’s sad that he’s not here now sitting with me. He had a rough time. He was sober and clean for four years and then had a heart attack. He died too early, too young. I wish he’d been here to see the movie. It would have been the best.’
I’m not sure if I don’t see a little watering in his eyes just now. He himself has no fear of death. He recently had a kidney transplant. Was that related to his lung damage? ‘Nobody knows. My brother gave me one of his kidneys which lasted for eight years and then I had one donated by Birgit. Unbelievable. She was a perfect match for the kidney. At first I refused to take her kidney. I found it impossible after only eight months of knowing me she wanted to donate an organ, but I felt responsible for her and she kept insisting. It was very hard to find a match. My son would have given me one but he was not a match. Lukas manages a company in Barcelona, and Mathias my other son is in Bali surfing. He raced cars until last years.’
Was he good? ‘He was medium.’
He has another son Christophe from an extra-marital relationship. ‘I have no contact with him. His mother wanted to have him on her own. That was it. He’s now 31 and I respect her wishes. I know him. We just don’t have day to day contact.’ He says this very controlled and matter of factly.
Did Birgit donating you a kidney make you more in love with her? ‘No. I was always in love with her.’
Could anything tempt you back into getting into a car and racing again now? ‘No. I’ve tried every type of car in every possible way. I retired. I came back. I nearly killed myself. I’m not interested any more. Now I behave.’
Fortunately he says this with an extra twinkle in his eye so I know he doesn’t entirely behave.