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'I've never paid for sex. Never ever. I'm too mean'

He reckons he's had around 130 affairs and is on good terms with most of his exes, but now, at 72, Michael Winner tells Lynn Barber it might be time to tie the knot.

Published 4 November 2007
The Observer

Michael Winner certainly should know about women because he has been tended by them for 72 years. The current cast is Geraldine Lynton-Edwards who has recently been promoted to fiancee, Dinah May his assistant, various cooks, maids, secretaries, and cleaners, followed by an army of ex-girlfriends wending back into the mists of time. He claims to adore women - 'There's no question, women are nicer, kinder people'. On the other hand, he has never actually gone so far as to marry one. 'I have some congenital defect that prevents me marrying,' he explains. But that just possibly might be about to change . . .

So I trot round to his vast Kensington mansion to see how wedding plans are progressing, if at all. The maid opens the door and summons Dinah, his assistant, who shows me to the private cinema downstairs. It has two old director's chairs saying Michael Winner, and walls and walls of photographs of Winner with the stars he is so boringly besotted by - Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, John Gielgud, Diana Rigg, Sophia Loren, Charles Bronson. Presumably he has chosen to meet me in the screening room because he likes to remind people that he was a film director - something I always find it politer to forget. His tape recorder is already laid beside his chair (he always tapes his interviews) and Dinah brings coffee for me and peach juice for him.

I was expecting him to look frail because he'd told me on the phone, 'I'm crippled for life, darling' but even so I am shocked when he limps into the room. His hands shake; his voice is wheezy; he seems altogether shrunken. This is all as a result of the terrible (and terribly obscure) illness Vibrio vulnificus that he contracted in Barbados at New Year. He was flown back in an air ambulance and not expected to live. He was in the London Clinic for five-and-a-half months, and had 19 operations, one of which removed his Achilles tendon leaving him with a permanent limp. There is a terrible irony in the fact that he has just published a book, The Fat Pig Diet, which proudly recounts how he lost three-and-a-half stone last year by following his self-invented diet - eat less, eat early - but everyone will assume he lost the weight through illness.

But just when I'm thinking 'Poor thing - I mustn't tire him', he starts shouting at about 1,000 decibels, 'Di-nah! Di-nah!' and she comes running back. It turns out he wants a radiator switched off which I could have done if he'd explained, but anyway she turns it off and he gives her time to get back upstairs before bellowing again, 'Di-nah! Di-nah! Oh God!' This time he explains, 'She hasn't pulled all the curtains back. I asked her to do it and she hasn't done it. I'm a real old finicky arsehole, darling.' I can do it, I tell him. 'No. I like people to do what they're fucking well told. Di-nah!' So poor Dinah comes running back and he makes her draw all the curtains. (These aren't even window curtains, just sound-proofing curtains round the cinema screen.) 'Difficult patient, is he?' I ask Dinah and she rolls her eyes while Winner bellows, 'Difficult, darling! Difficult patient! Hahaha. Don't say a word, Dinah! The truth must not come out! Oh, she's wonderful, Dinah.'

Finally poor Dinah is allowed to go. She has worked for him for over 20 years so she must be used to it by now. I asked if she was an ex-girlfriend but he said no, she was already married when she came to him but, 'If I'd known her before she was married, I'm sure she would have been an ex-girlfriend!' Ex-girlfriend, I should explain, has a particular significance in Winnerworld. It is the equivalent to being, say, the fifth wife of a polygamous king who is now on to wife 37 - it means you have been superseded but not forgotten and still retain a certain status. Winner boasts that he remains friends with all his ex-girlfriends though his Fat Pig Diet book slightly gives the lie to this when he recounts how a woman recently came up to him in St Alban restaurant in Regent Street and said hello and he asked her name and she said 'You should know. I slept with you for a year!' But that, he explains, was unusual - 'I'd lost track of her. I haven't kept in touch with all of them, darling. But I'm on the phone to about two or three every day. Every day. Certain ones more than others. It's a great pleasure. People say I've never had a family but I do have a family - a family of choice who I still adore, and help. Some of them have fallen on bad times or had illness - two are very ill actually and I pay all their bills.'

How many ex-girlfriends does he have altogether? 'Well we did a count and funnily enough, it was very low, about 130. That's not a lot! How can it be a lot for 50 years? Any self-respecting rock star gets through that in a day. Hahahaha. And they're bloody nice people.' But if they were so nice, why did he keep changing them? 'Because I was a pig in my behaviour - as well as becoming a fat pig later - in that I could never resist temptation. So if I was with somebody and somebody else became available, I would have them. When I look back on the way I behaved, I feel sickened, absolutely sickened. I think: that person was loyal, decent, loved me - how could I have done that? And not really had any conscience about it? I mean openly going off with other people? It was cruel. And it was purely motivated by greed. They were all bloody nice people - I mean there were a few one-night stands in Hollywood and all that sort of stuff - but on the whole anyone I spent any time with was a really decent, terrific person.'

When were the one-night stands? In the Sixties? 'Well all the time, dear. I would never reject a one-night stand. I wasn't looking for them so much later on, but occasionally they'd turn up.' Wasn't he worried about catching something? 'Well . . . obviously not. And I never did catch anything. Quite early on I found I had quite a low sperm count so the chances of having a child were almost nil.' Did he ever pay for sex? 'Never. Never ever ever. First of all, I'm too mean and it wasn't necessary because I was getting it free. And the girls I've had were much prettier! Why should I trade in an Aston Martin for a battered 1936 Ford and pay for it?'

His detractors might assume that Winner's women were all gold-diggers who chased him for his money but 'That is nonsense!', he insists - it was for his lovely bubbly personality. 'Girls want to be entertained. They want to have a fun day. It's no fun being with a very rich man if he's unbelievably boring.' And anyway he was chased by rich women as well. One was the author of the Beverly Hills Diet, who pursued him with pineapples back in the Seventies: 'I would arrive at an airport somewhere and a chauffeur would appear with this enormous bag of pineapples. She thought pineapples were the way to my heart! Did she have the wrong number! I hate pineapples!'

But why was he always so reluctant to commit? Most of his girlfriends believe it was the baleful influence of Mumsy, Helen Winner, a compulsive gambler who spent all his inheritance in the Cannes casino and then took to suing him for more cash - it was one of her lawsuits, he believes, that brought on his first heart attack. He saw women as a threat to his money and he does care a lot about money: it is vital to his amour propre to be a very rich man. 'It's a dreadfully mean thing to say, but I used to see flashing above girlfriends' heads "Alimony. Alimony. Alimony". I would think to myself realistically three out of four marriages fail and my chances won't be any better than anybody else's and probably worse. So do I really want to give away millions of pounds? Which is a terrible thing to say. But I just never wanted to get married. And they were wonderful people. The only one who behaved as appallingly as I did was Jenny Seagrove.'

And yet the actress Jenny Seagrove was the one he came closest to marrying. He auditioned her for a part in his movie Appointment with Death in 1987 and rang her agent and said, 'I have two offers. Firstly, I wish to marry Jenny Seagrove. Secondly, I want her in the movie.' She got the part in the movie, but she couldn't marry Winner because she was already married to an Indian actor called Madhav Sharma who refused a divorce. (This could explain Winner's willingness to propose.) And when she eventually got a divorce, Winner somehow failed to marry her though they lived together for six-and-a-half years. She left him in 1993 just two weeks before he was going into hospital for a triple heart bypass. So she behaved pretty badly? 'Oy vey! I couldn't walk 30 yards without breathing problems and she left. She wasn't nice then. But I had not been nice before so you have to make allowances. She went off with Bill Kenwright [the theatrical impresario], and I remember saying to a very famous actress "I'm sure that all happened afterwards", and she said "No, no, I can tell you Michael - there were rehearsals going on". Hahaha. But it doesn't matter because I did it first.'

They are only just on speaking terms again. 'A few years ago, a mutual friend said Jenny would love to have a chat. So I wrote her a card and said love to see you sometime to have a chat. To which I got an answer eight weeks later: "I don't feel quite ready for a chat yet." That was after we'd been apart for three years! I wasn't asking for a blow job! And then the same thing happened the other day - a mutual friend said she's so keen to talk to you, she wants to know your mobile. I said I don't have a mobile and she knows the phone number - she lived here for six-and-a-half years. So then she says to this fellow, "Well I don't think this is the time to call him. And if I do call him, he'll ask me out to dinner." So I said Emil, can you take a letter: "Dear Jenny, May I make it clear that I do not wish to have dinner with you, nor do I wish to have breakfast, lunch, tea, or night-time cocoa. But I wish you well." And then - humiliated by this letter which I sent through an intermediary, hahahaha - she rang me at five to one, when she knows I always have lunch at one, and we had a very nice chat. But that was the first time in eight years.'

Anyway, all this mad pursuit is now in the past because, at 72, for the first time in his life he is engaged. The lucky girl is Geraldine Lynton-Edwards who has been his girlfriend for several years but is now officially his fiancée. Perhaps girl is a bit of a misnomer - Winner admits that he met her in 1957 when he was making his first movie. 'I spent a day interviewing people in my father's office near Olympia and next day the secretary rings here and says, "There's a girl turned up for the interview". I said, "Well, that was yesterday". And - I'll never forget the way she said it - she said, "I think you'd like to see her". So I thought Oooh! And I walked round to the office and there was Geraldine, and we had an affair then, and we've seen each other from time to time over the years.' Hang on, hang on! I cry. He met her 50 years ago? So how old is she? I've always assumed she was in her early fifties. 'Oh listen, she annoys me greatly. She looks like a well-preserved 50 and she keeps telling everyone she's 68 or 69 or whatever she is! I say, "Why are you telling them this? Keep your bloody mouth shut!" Because she looks incredible. At all times! And she hasn't had plastic surgery or anything.'

Anyway they had an affair half a century ago, then she moved to Paris, married, had children (she is now a grandmother) but, like any good ex-girlfriend, kept in touch. When she moved back to London a few years ago, she started seeing Winner again and became the reigning girlfriend. She was the one who got him dieting and doing Pilates and walking for one hour a day. All his friends agreed that she was very good for him. But of course he could never resist temptation and in the spring of 2005 he had a fling with 'Princess' (not really) Paola Lombard and Geraldine went off to Milan to teach at her sister's dance school. The affair with Paola only lasted a few months and very shortly afterwards she was diagnosed with breast cancer. To the cynical eye it might look as if Winner left Paola Lombard because she had cancer but he insists, 'Ohnonono. She didn't have cancer when we fell out. Oh I would never leave anyone like that. We fell out and then two weeks later she discovered she had cancer. She still is unbelievably unwell and I support her completely. I haven't seen her for over a year - because I think it's a very delicate issue for Geraldine - but I speak to her on the phone.'

Paola having departed, he immediately invited Geraldine back but she said no, she had promised to stay in Milan for a year. But she returned in July 2006 and has been with him ever since. She has her own flat, but has been living with him since his illness and has been 'a beacon and saviour' throughout. 'She was unbelievable during this illness. I said I've been in hospital for five months and she said, "So have I". I mean she would get me food, help me get dressed, she did everything, she was incredible. You couldn't have asked anyone to do more - or expected as much. She is a remarkable person.' Would he do the same for her if she were ill? 'Well, I would wish to look after her, and I think I would, yes I would. Because I love her and I would have to. I wouldn't desert her. I wouldn't say, "Well this is getting rather boring now, I'll go somewhere else".'

I thought maybe you would?

'No! I don't think I would. No, that would be really horrible.'

So Geraldine's reward for her loyalty is to be made official fiancée. Are they busy making plans for their wedding? 'No! Listen - I said to her it's taken me 72 years to get engaged, so don't hold your breath for the wedding! She took it very well. It's enough we got engaged - I'm still in shock from that.' Even so, I have a hunch he might amaze his friends by getting married eventually. He seems to have given some thought to it. For instance, I asked whether, if they did marry, he would want it to be in a synagogue? 'No - you can't be less Jewish than Geraldine Lynton-Edwards, darling. She is, as they say, the shiksa of all time. And she ain't going to convert. That takes a long time and I wouldn't wish her to. No, we'd find some moron who's licensed to make people man and wife.' I reckon a nice juicy offer from Hello! or OK for the wedding exclusive could swing it.

Is he still up for sex? 'Well, I'm up for sex to a somewhat lesser degree than I used to be, hahahaha! I'm certainly not looking for it. This is the first time in my life - since the return of Geraldine - the first time ever that I'm not looking to have an affair. I don't wish to have an affair, I don't wish to be unfaithful. And it's taken 72 years to reach this point of god-like tranquillity. As far as I'm concerned, that's it.'

The Fat Pig Diet is published by JR Books, £12.99. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875