A new biography of Dom Mintoff by Fr Mark Montebello has lifted the lid on the late prime minister’s very private family life, and it does not always put the fiery leader in a good light.
The 640-page publication – The Tail that Wagged the Dog: The Life and Struggles of Dom Mintoff (1916–2012) – traces Mintoff’s life from childhood and right through his formative years, his studies in the UK, his private practice as an architect and his eventful political career, characterised by his ‘battles’ with the Church and the British government.
Montebello does not hide his admiration for the warrior but does not shirk from the grey areas of his life: family life, apparently, was one of them.
Mintoff met his future wife Moyra while studying in the UK. It was love at first sight, though that did not mean loyalty.
Montebello takes up the thread again after Mintoff had married and had two daughters:
Excerpts of the bio:
“Dom very often could not help donning a brash and domineering attitude. However, if outside the house this would have been taken as somewhat bearable by clients, colleagues and an adoring public, even if for the sake of propriety, amid the four walls of home, within such a closed environment, it only charged the air and created tension.
“While most probably unaware of what really was going on deep within Dom’s mind, Moyra might have merely put her husband’s bullying down to culture.
“If anything, he was evidently very like his mother in this regard, and like most other Maltese mothers and fathers, for that matter. Moyra must have been thoroughly appalled, at least initially, by (Mintoff’s) mother Ċetta’s roughness and pushiness in dealing with her adult children, Dom included.
“Both by nature and by nurture, the considerate and sensitive Moyra could not in any way possibly fit into such a mould. She was an extremely gentle person. However, her husband’s attitude was not only a question of sternness. At times it was also the mystifying way with which Dom dealt with his wife and daughters, keeping them on edge lest they peeved him in any way.
“‘It was as if living in the shadow of a volcano,’ one of his daughters affirmed graphically many years later.
“He rarely if ever commended them. Sometimes, it was such a relief for them when Dom left the house that Moyra and the girls literally opened all the windows, put music on, and danced…
“Despite his sternness, Dom never seems to have struck his kids physically or smacked them hard. Though he could criticise them sharply or scream his head off for something they had done, not once does he seem to have taken the belt to them or hit them.
“He always spoke with them in English, as did Moyra too. Though he did not like kids messing around, and certainly not in his study – it was Moyra’s job to keep them on a tight rein while he was around – Dom did enjoy their company, but only to certain extent.
“They were not allowed to shuffle the cards. ‘He liked children just to pat on the head and that’s all,’ his elder daughter affirmed a lifetime later. Rather than loving him, his girls feared him. ‘We always did exactly as he wanted,’ his younger daughter revealed, ‘so as not to create any stir.’…
“When he was favourably disposed, he could be quite very amusing and good fun at lunchtime, having the girls in stitches. At home around guests he allowed them and Moyra to sit in, even when dignitaries such as Louis Mountbatten and his wife Edwina came over…
“Dom enjoyed teaching his daughters to swim and taking them to the seaside in the afternoons whenever possible, once saving his youngest from drowning herself. Before that, however, he would have taken his half-hour rest.
“To get to his room, Dom enjoyed being walked up the stairs by his young girls. While he pretended to be leaning on them, he always told them that they had to help him in his old age.
“Though it cannot be doubted that Dom loved his daughters dearly, it seems that he was disappointed in never having a son. Perhaps to make up for it, he treated his girls as if they were boys, encouraging them to be strong and tough. Moyra was his opposite in this regard.
“Maybe due to her upbringing in an all-female household, it was daughters that she wanted, and, almost having the girls all to herself during their childhood for most of the time, certainly much of her warmth and kindness rubbed off on them.
“As the wife of the most well-known man in the Maltese islands and a little beyond, Moyra was basically not only unknown but also an utter political non-entity. Besides, politics was outside her range of interests.
“Perhaps for this reason, to a nation of busybodies she piqued nobody’s curiosity. That was how she most likely preferred and wanted it to be…
“Apart from attending to her husband’s and daughters’ daily nourishment and all their clothing, for neither Dom nor the girls ever went to shops, she was kept busy by maintaining the house spick and span, even if with the help of a maid; minding the large garden and the many animals kept in it at any given time; seeing to Dom’s mail; handling to perfection the three thousand or more books randomly kept around the house; keeping Dom on time for his innumerable meetings, parliamentary sittings and appointments…
“She and the kids would even be made to drudge with the tricky preparation of architectural plans for Dom’s office. Moyra was frugal with money, but not as mean as her husband. Nonetheless, the girls were brought up with second-hand clothes. Even with Dom’s salary from parliament and proceeds from the office, he gave Moyra very little money to run everything in the house and the family, allowing her just a mere £60 a month (some US$470 in today’s purchasing power)…
“He also could see that his wife was ‘deeply religious’. Nevertheless, this did not seem to have rendered her in any way narrow-minded, though neither did it lay off an intense belief in supernatural phenomena.
“Moyra was an Anglican, part of the Church of England, both by birth and by choice. When she came over to Malta, Archbishop Michael Gonzi, probably with a concerned eye on public pertinence, suggested that she converts to Catholicism, but she courteously declined.
“Instead, he was content with her promise that she raises in the Catholic faith any children she would have, a promise she kept to the letter. In stark contrast with typical Catholic piety, Moyra’s deep religiosity was not for flaunting about.
“Perhaps not, for, ordinarily unbeknown to him, the essence of his wife’s Christian belief consisted in regularly driving to the home of inconspicuous people, mostly vulnerable women, and very discreetly assisting them in any way they needed, often doing their shopping or helping them make ends meet.
His controlling inevitability made him domineering and very often even oppressive within the household
“As from his youth, Dom himself never attended mass if he could help it, and it indeed seems that, unlike his wife, not once did he ever accompany his daughters to church, though he would playfully quiz them afterwards about the gospel read or the sermon delivered. In fact, he apparently never prayed at all. He seems to have had no religiously spiritual life to talk of.
A husband she barely could speak with
“Undeniably, Moyra’s life with Dom was no pleasure cruise. Almost nobody outside the Mintoffs’ house would ever come to know the anguish she went through living with a husband she barely could speak with. It went on behind closed doors, and Moyra herself ‘guarded this privacy’, as Dom learnt earlier on in their relationship.
“However, his controlling inevitability made him domineering and very often even oppressive within the household. Back in the fifties, when Dom had become the darling of an admiring public, this would have been utterly surprising. It would have thoroughly conflicted with his image at large. Yet there it was. Even when, years after Moyra had passed on, Dom confessed that ‘I strained and abused her saintly patience’, this was a gross understatement.
“To begin with, Dom shouted at Moyra a lot. This was in English, for the foul language and the swearing, a lot of both, came out in colourful Maltese. ‘You’re so bloody stupid!’ he often yelled at her. ‘A f**king ignoramus!’
“He went on and on at it, screaming his head off, like anything. Anything could irritate him or trigger off his fury. It could happen at any time – before going to work, in the evening, at night – one never knew. When he stormed out of the house to go to work after one of his tirades, he always came back and behaved as if nothing at all had happened that very morning.
“Moyra never shouted back. She loved him dearly, and it was nigh impossible for the terrified kids to comprehend why she put up with him while he went into these terrible invectives, incessantly bellowing from wherever he was, downstairs or upstairs.
“Though the bullying was habitually more verbal than physical, sometimes Dom did indeed go as far as striking his wife, very often by kicking her hard. Moyra only cried her eyes out. She crept to some corner and wept alone to herself. Sometimes, at night, perhaps when her forbearance was at its limit, she broke down beside her elder daughter’s bed. Moyra could not have been happy.
All the same, according to Dom’s own admissions in his memoirs, she never ever stopped supporting him in his professional and political careers, encouraging him to overcome his fear of strangers, and doting over him. Of course, she must have had her flaws. Her very dry sense of humour, for instance, could perhaps sometimes verge on the sarcastic. She might also have been exasperatingly cool to the point of appearing impassive or insensitive…
“Dom was apparently less interested in her idiosyncrasies and more in her, and the kids’, compliance to his foibles. One thing, for instance, which he vehemently detested was for them to have friends of their own.
“He merely allowed them to keep only to the company of the trusted friends who he allowed to tag along wherever he went. Dom would actually check on Moyra’s and his daughters’ friends, and actually prevent them from meeting them if, for whatever reason, they were not to his liking. Though to his wife and kids it might have seemed that he was jealous of their personal friendships, it probably had more to do with his controlling mania to keep his environment as secure as possible…
“The choice of school was a very difficult decision for their parents because there were no government schools about. Attending British schools, however, while their father was persistently confronting the British, could not have been very reassuring. The girls were taunted and chided incessantly because of this. Indeed, it was not comfortable to be Mintoff’s daughter.
“The poor girls were insulted by the English children whose parents were in the forces. They would have heard what their parents said, and took it out on Dom’s girls at school…
“For a time, Dom’s family life was inexistent. Not only was he taken body and soul with his political work, but also his daughters had by now a life of their own.
“Yana lived mostly abroad, unexpectedly surfacing in July 1978 (she was 26 years old) to embarrass if none other her father, then prime minister, when she hurled horse manure during a sitting of the House of Commons from the strangers’ gallery to protest the treatment of Irish prisoners.
“She and her English 24-year-old unemployed partner John McSherry were found guilty and each fined a £100 each.
“Anne was never so notorious as she settled more or less permanently in Malta after 1976.
“Their mother Moyra had decided to leave Dom, again determined never to return back from England. This was actually her second time that she had done so since her husband became prime minister. The first was while Dom was negotiating the defence and financial deals with the British. We have it on John Carrington’s authority that Dom requested none other than the British prime minister, Ted Heath, to intercede with his estranged wife, and he did so; successfully, it must be added. But the reunion was not to last much.
“Over a year later, in the latter part of 1973, Moyra again could not take it anymore. ‘Even my loyal and faithful Moyra had left me,’ Dom lamented, ‘and showed no sign of ever returning to my country.’ His were crocodile tears. For shortly after Moyra’s flight, Dom brought home to live and sleep with him the 50-year-old wife of his younger brother Daniel.
“Astrid, eight years Dom’s junior, made herself quite at home, and acted accordingly. Her husband, however, could not take it for too long. On one particular occasion, on 22 February 1974, he came to blows with his brother, and Dom ended up in hospital with serious head injuries which needed operating upon. Thirty stitches were required.
“The story was hushed up by the Times of Malta’s proprietor, Mabel Strickland, who was so ashamed to divulge so lewd a story involving Malta’s prime minister that she let it out that Dom had fallen from his horse while riding at Delimara.
“Though that is how it became known officially, the rumours persisted, and another of the island’s open secrets arose. While Moyra eventually returned to Malta for good in April 1974, Dom’s ugly scar on his forehead remained a memento for the rest of his life. He persisted in seeing Astrid covertly nonetheless.
“Many years later, in December 1991, long after the affair had lost its spark, compromising photographs of the couple were produced in parliament to the embarrassment of both Dom and Astrid’s son, at the time also a Labour MP.
“Dom never relented in his philandering. The gorgeous Vanessa Redgrave in February 1978 was just one of his conquests. His flings, both with foreign and local girls persisted even when, possibly for the first time in his life after Lita’s affair many years before, he took a steady lover thirty-six years his junior.
“Marica (not her real name) was a stunning 23-year-old who volunteered to help the Labour Party during the 1975/76 electoral campaign. She certainly got more than she dreamed of bargaining for. Dom fell head over heels for her.
“As might be expected, L-Għarix became their alcove, as it was for most of the other girls. Marica, however, was different, since she and Dom forged a truly earnest bond. On and off the relationship remained intimate for more than three decades.”
The second excerpt of Mintoff’s biography will be carried next Sunday.
The book is available online from www.skspublishers.com.