'The day Princess Diana asked me what I thought of her topless photograph'
From stopping a stressed editor jumping off the fourth floor to being arrested in Sri Lanka, Nicholas Coleridge, head of fashion and society magazines publisher, Condé Nast, is a font of glorious tales, writes Charlotte Edwardes
Only Nicholas Coleridge could get away with referencing, in a speech to 200 guests at his 60th birthday party, the story of how he fell for an 18-year-old intern called Georgia Metcalfe fresh from St Paul's, pursued her to Jaipur and then married her "four years later in 1989, "when she'd finished her degree at Oxford".
He adds: "This is exactly the kind of thing that one has an HR department now to prevent: people hitting on interns. One would definitely be given a first formal warning. But in the crazy Eighties it was considered perfectly normal to go and harass a backpacker."
Coleridge describes the mix of guests as a "cocktail, three parts old school friends and university friends, and three parts work and other editors and journalists, there's an awful lot of them. And then a kind of twist of some politicians and a few 'slebs' and who else? Oh yes, museum people. So all the different things I am interested in are all coming together with their special dietary requirements! Of all, I am now an expert".
If the outgoing president of Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Tatler and GQ to name a few, were to write his memoirs it would be called The Glossy Years, in deference to his 45 years in magazines, and would open with the following - true - anecdote.
"It's a terrible story," he begins, "and this room was the scene of the crime." He casts an arm around his wood-panelled office: very Fifties, very Mad Men, with a diptych of Chairman Maos by Andy Warhol opposite his Corbusier desk. "We had an editor who had possibly gone a bit - um - highly strung. It became clear that there needed to be a changing of the guard. But when told, this editor was so horrified they climbed onto the windowsill, threw open that window and stepped onto the ledge outside, saying that if they could no longer be the editor of that magazine, then they might as well jump." My God, but this is the fourth floor. What did he do? "Well, they had to be hauled back in," he says with unreasonable calm. "By me and the human resources director."
Of course, life at the apogee of all fashionable London is not always so dizzying. For the past 28 years Coleridge - 60 this week - has arrived at the peaceful hour of 7.45am in his Savile Row "uniform" for a job he describes as one third editorial, one third business and only "one third ego control - and I don't mean mine, obviously".
This summer he will step down as MD and president of Condé Nast International and go "upstairs" as chairman of the British operation.
Will he miss it? After all, it's here in Vogue House in Hanover Square that Alan the Tatler dachshund met his death in the revolving lobby doors, where Alexandra Shulman, formidable editor of Vogue, made a professional documentary film-maker weep, where one former editor would scream at Coleridge to do something about the bitchy newspaper diaries that called her the Purley Queen (a pun on her home town) and made constant reference to her dog Kenzo (described by one writer as "a tiny thing like a guinea pig in drag") defecating on the office carpet.
He won't reveal the name of the dramatic editor who threatened to jump (though "they" are fine now, "they've put it behind them"), but happily names James Brown, former editor of GQ as "a very big party animal".
"There was a terrible thing about him: he came back after a very long lunch once and continued into the afternoon with a bottle of wine. Suddenly he took against his deputy and he threw the bottle through one of these glass windows, down into the street, where it hit the Golf GTi of a chap who'd come to collect his girlfriend who worked on Vogue".
Today Coleridge is "dressed down" in a thick-weave blue shirt with gold cufflinks. He loves fashion. "I really do. As chairman of the British Fashion Council I spent eight seasons going to ice-skating rinks, abattoirs and warehouses in Hoxton." At the weekends, at his Worcestershire estate, he prefers "very bright clothes" - "orange shirts and things".
Laid out on the boardroom table is the seating plan for the previous night's birthday dinner - held at the Raphael Court at the V&A (he was made chairman of the museum in the last appointment by David Cameron).
He produced a hardback "going away" book for the occasion, a "social history" of photographs of all the guests that have intersected in his life - from prep school to Eton, to Cambridge, to his years working on Tatler under Tina Brown, a stint on the Evening Standard as a columnist (where on his first day someone who'd been assumed asleep at their desk for five hours was finally found to have had a heart attack), at Hearst and finally Condé Nast.
There's a picture of him cradling his godchild Cara Delevingne (another is model Edie Campbell), and each of his four children. Elsewhere, they're on a family holiday in Iran. There's endless "slebs", as he calls them - John Galliano, Kylie Minogue, Elton John - and toffs, Amanda Harlech, the Princess of Wales. There's his wedding to beautiful Georgia in 1989 "when she'd finished her degree at Oxford".
He laughs now that "Georgia must be getting very bored" by all these years of marriage to him but Coleridge is anything but dull. For instance, just after university he hired the actor Rupert Everett to clean his Chelsea basement for £3. He found the telephone was always on the bed, next to the indent of where someone had been lying. "I'm going to get the money back one day."
Coleridge is the most brilliant raconteur, exploding with laughter, twinkling with mischief. The slightest squeeze of the trigger will set him off. He starts a "surreal" story about Princess Diana and then stops himself. "Am I going to tell this? Yes, I am, it's my birthday." And so he regales me about a lunch he held for Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, in the boardroom with a "melange" of journalists, actors and the Princess of Wales (left), who was recently separated.
"That morning the Daily Mirror had a front page of a long-lens photograph of the princess sunbathing topless on a balcony. Of course the printing was grainy and the distance great, so you could sort of see she wasn't wearing a top, but frankly little else. Anyway, she was a very tactile person, unusually so. She rested her hand on your elbow or on your hand or against your back.
"Suddenly she said: 'Nicholas, did you see the photograph on the front of the Daily Mirror?' I said, 'Well, ha ha, your Royal Highness, we do get all the newspapers. I may have glanced at it for a second.'
"She said, 'Good. I'm glad. I want you to tell me truthfully: do you think that my breasts are too small?'
"And I went completely red, and actually became breathless. I heard myself doing that terrible bluster, 'Well! Ah! Insofar as I can see your Royal Highness, in your very beautiful dress - ha ha ha - they look, um, perfect!
"After she left, I had to lie down on the sofa. The whole thing was so odd." He pauses, then recovers his characteristic charm, "By the way, she was fabulous and terribly pretty."
Was he ever tempted to escape this world of superficiality and go to an actual war zone? "I once did!" he exclaims. "Perhaps in any job but particularly in glossy magazines, you get a mad moment in which you think, 'Maybe I should be doing something more serious than compile lists of the 100 most socially relevant people in Britain, or the 300 best-dressed men'."
So when he was approached to make a television documentary about the Tamil war in Sri Lanka, "it appealed". He flew to Colombo and hired a car from one of the major hotel chains and drove north via the small roads "dodging barricades or army blocks - it was quite dangerous" to Jaffna. For three days he and his team filmed and conducted interviews with Tamil "terrorists". On the fourth day, the Sinhalese army "grabbed us filming in the jungle and took us to a camp and we were held for three days before being flown south by helicopter and put into jail in Colombo for another eight days".
He breaks off to say he still worries about the hire car. "It's probably still there. I live in fear that one day this hotel group is going to say that I owe 28 years of rental on a day rate".
The jail was "not Abu Ghraib" but "quite arduous". "We were endlessly cross-questioned. Then one of the guards sold the story to a local newspaper. It was picked up on the wires and then by the Evening Standard, saying: 'Three English journalists arrested'. My mother was having her hair done in Walton Street and had been wondering where I was when she read this article and rang my father, who at that time worked at the City [as chairman of Lloyd's of London]. He got his PA to find out the phone number and get me on the line.
"In Sri Lanka this guard said, 'Come quickly, long-distance telephone call'. So I was taken into the governor's office, thinking who is this, and said 'Hello?' And it was my father. And he goes, 'God, Nicky, what the hell are you doing? You're in prison and your mother is beside herself with worry'." He explodes into laughter. "So that was my only attempt at being a war correspondent. It's not quite Don McCullin, is it?"
No surprise, Coleridge is a best-selling novelist. He writes on Saturday mornings and already has eight books under his belt "and another on the way".
Oh good. I do hope it's his memoirs.