Interview: Vivien Duffield


Dame Vivien Duffield, arguably Britain’s leading philanthropist, is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of undergraduate life at Oxford. She herself began her degree in Modern and Medieval Languages at Lady Margaret Hall in 1963, when the presence of women in Oxford was still very much a novelty and 10 pm curfews were still very much enforced. Dame Vivien chuckles whilst reminiscing about her exploits playing backgammon into the early hours at Christchurch and then scaling the walls into LMH rather unsuccessfully, resulting in a broken arm, a 3 am hospital visit, and a very irate Jewish father (the entrepreneur Charles Clore who owned Selfridges).

Nevertheless, it is certainly fortunate for Oxford that Dame Vivien’s escapades left her intact to direct what she herself dubs ‘the campaign of campaigns’. This aims to deliver an almighty £1.25 billion to ‘sustain and enhance Oxford’, and to allow it to compete with the astronomical endowments of universities such as Harvard and Yale.

Launched in May, the campaign is backed by the Chancellor, Lord Patten of Barnes and Richard Dawkins among other notable alumni. With her characteristic chutzpah and impressive record there could be noone better suited for the job. ‘I’ve got one last big one in me,’ she says. ‘And this is the ultimate challenge. Oxford is everything rolled into one – it’s the British Library, it’s the National Gallery, it’s the Weizmann Institute. It’s got theatre.

It’s got everything. There is something for everybody.’ Her passion is infectious as she runs her fingers through her highlights in a theatrical way, becoming increasing vexed: ‘Why do middle-class English parents bleed themselves dry to send their children to private schools, and the moment they get to university, they won’t cough up?’ Without drawing a breath, she answers her own question: “It is this attitude we have that universities should be free. We have always taken them for granted. For a long time the colleges [at Oxford] didn’t even bother to raise money at all. It is a miracle that we have three or four universities among the world’s best. I don’t know how they do it.’ Refreshingly blunt, as always, she unabashedly proclaims: ‘I am a great elitist – for brains.’

Although of course committed to Oxford Dame Vivien has of course been engine behind a multiplicity of other noble causes, with tremendous success. She has been described my numerous people as ‘dangerous’ company, given her redoubtable reputation for conjuring money out of nowhere, and especially out of people’s own pockets. Her deep passion is, of course, opera, and she jokes that ‘Royal Opera House’ will be found engraved on her heart. It was she who was the driving force in the raising of around £100 million from private sources, most found within the pages of her own address book. Her money raising schemes included a gala performance of The Nutcracker in 1984 to raise money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “I had this mad idea of charging £5,000 for two tickets. It was a fortune. And we sold out, and raised £1m.’ Her major current project is the Clore Leadership Programme to train future leaders in arts management, which is helping to train the future generations of art leaders, inspired, she says, by the fact that ‘everything seemed to be being run by Antipodeans a few years ago.’

It is certainly not difficult to see why Dame Vivien achieves such remarkable results. What she lacks in stature she certainly makes up for in sheer force of personality. Whilst she may lament her age: ‘I’ve got a bus pass,’ her boundless energy and stamina are frankly alarming. With a plethora of charitable interests under her watch, a myriad of social engagements and five homes, she rarely spends more than two nights in a place. Even more important, she is a veritable social chameleon. Looking around her Chelsea flat the walls are festooned with images of the Dame. From the most glitzy gala event at the Royal Opera House, dripping in diamonds and discussing the last act of Onegin with Prince Charles, to interrogating Tessa Jowell about London’s bizarre 13 minute stint at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, to lunching with Mick Jagger in St Tropez; with each she is in her element.

At the drop of a hat she can turn on the most disarming of charm, with her deep smoky voice no doubt a devastating tool for schmoozing. However, when her patience is frustrated she readily admits to her consummate skill in ‘nagging and bullying.’ She certainly does not suffer fools glady: ‘England’s quite rich, but rich people here think everybody wants them for their opinions, not their money.’

Perhaps even more striking than Dame Vivien’s fabled ability to raise money is her even greater enthusiasm for giving it away. She has parted with an estimated £176 million from her various foundations and is still distributing $6 million a year. After putting £5.5 million of her own money into the reconstruction of the Royal Opera House she purchased Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge as a gift to the nation and given £2.5 million each to the Tate Modern and British Museum. To her the philanthropy is not a chore, rather, a pleasure. ‘I’m always saying how lucky I am that I can actually make people happy and do what one wants to do. Its part of Jewish ethics that one always looks after others.’

Nevertheless, on the subject of money, especially, she is refreshingly brusque. Emblazoned on a pillow behind her is the unabashed motto: ‘Better to be nouveau riche than no riche at all.’ Certainly, her advice on money is simple. ‘The only word of advice my father ever gave me was when I was 21 and they were letting women into Lloyd’s. He forbade me to join and said: ‘Never join anything you don’t understand. There is always someone cleverer than you.’

Perhaps the most striking feature about Dame Vivien is her total lack of self-righteousness, even given her own enormous personal generosity. Not once does she use the pious phrase ‘making a difference.’ All she does say, without a hint of sentimentality is: ‘It is the most wonderful gift in the world to be able to do things for other people.’ She repeats one of her favourite fundraising phrases: ‘Shrouds don’t have pockets.’ With this natural impresario at the helm, it certainly seems that Oxford’s future is in safe hands.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here