British politician Hugh Fraser (1918–1984) was a veteran backbencher in the House of Commons for nearly four decades as a Tory Party member of parliament (MP). A decorated special-operations intelligence officer during World War II, Fraser came from a long and illustrious line of Scottish aristocrats, but his political career was at times overshadowed by the salacious details surrounding the end of his marriage to the writer Antonia Fraser.
Afather of six, Hugh Fraser was the scion of a venerable Scottish line that adhered to the Roman Catholic faith, a marker of their long-ago allegiance to the monarchs that ruled the highlands before the 1706 Treaty of Union with England. Over the course of his 39-year career as a lawmaker, Fraser won a stunning 12 elections to the House of Commons and was respected by his peers. He was also on cordial terms with members of the Kennedy family, the Irish-American political dynasty whose members were also staunch Roman Catholics. In the fall of 1975, Fraser and his houseguest Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the slain U.S. president John F. Kennedy, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by a faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Hugh Charles Patrick Joseph Fraser was born in London on January 23, 1918, the second son of Lord Lovat, a Scottish peer with a seat in the House of Lords. Fraser's English mother, the former Laura Lister, was the daughter of Baron Ribblesdale and once sat for the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent. Lord Lovat, in addition to his political career at Westminster and various ministerial offices, had a long and illustrious military career, a tradition of sons in the Fraser line. In the early 1900s, during the Second Boer War, he established the Lovat Scouts, a regiment that became the first sniper commando unit of the British Army.
Fraser's childhood homes included Beaufort Castle, an impressive estate in the Scottish Highlands that was built on a site once home to Alexander I, a 12th-century king of Scotland. The title inherited by Fraser's older brother Simon upon the death of their father in 1933 dated to the first Lord Lovat, who had died exactly 600 years earlier in 1333. The family claimed descent from the Gaelic chiefs of Clan Fraser, which emerged as a political and military force in the 1200s, following fortuitous alliances with descendants of the Norse rulers settling Scotland's outer islands during the Viking period of conquest.
Fraser's immediate family included three sisters, one of whom died at age 14. He spent his formative years at Ampleforth College, a North Yorkshire boys' school run by Benedictine monks. At Oxford University, he was elected to the career-making office of president of the Oxford Union debating society. Freed from the obligatory responsibilities that weighed on older brother Simon as heir to the Lovat peerage, Fraser studied modern history at Oxford's Balliol College. He also polished his French during a term at the Sorbonne in Paris, and socialized with a moneyed set of London and Oxford friends whose numbers included an heir of the fabled Astor fortune and the Ormsby-Gore men, all of whom followed Fraser into Tory politics later in life.
As a practicing Roman Catholic in predominantly Anglican-oriented British high society, Fraser became a favorite squire-about-town for the daughters of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., an American tycoon and the father of nine who served in London as ambassador to the Court of St. James during the late 1930s. Fraser was on friendly terms with older Kennedy sons, Joe Jr. and John, and he also mixed with their sisters, Kathleen and Eunice, at social events and posh country-house weekends. Fraser would maintain close ties to the Kennedy family throughout his life, a relationship that culminated in an official visit to the United States in June of 1963, when John F. Kennedy was two years into his term as the first Roman Catholic ever elected to the office of U.S. president.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Fraser joined the Lovat Scouts and volunteered for an elite unit officially known as GHQ Liaison Regiment; GHQ was the acronym for General Headquarters, the British military high command. The Liaison Regiment was more familiarly known as the Phantoms because its members parachuted or slipped undercover into enemy-occupied territory in Europe and Africa to gather top-secret information about German and Italian positions and troop strength. The intelligence data they passed on to GHQ decision-makers enabled effective strategic planning for the British and Allied forces in the effort to vanquish the fascist threat in Europe.
Fraser entered politics in the summer of 1945, still wearing the military beret cap of his regiment. During his university days, he had been part of a set that pundits had branded the Young Conservatives due to their allegiance to conservative Tory Party politics at a time when liberal Labour Party figures tended to dominate at Westminster and Whitehall, the seat of government. In the U.K. general election of July of 1945, Fraser sought a seat in the House of Commons for Stone, a constituency in the West Midlands, as the Tory candidate. He was one of a handful of new Tory members of parliament (MPs) to be elected that year; otherwise, it proved a landslide victory for the Labour Party under Clement Attlee.
The campaign in Stone briefly reunited Fraser with John Kennedy, who had also served with distinction in World War II and was working as a reporter for the Hearst newspaper chain at the time. The second-born and now oldest surviving Kennedy son, John was already a minor celebrity known even to West Midlands voters. Some of that name recognition came from his bestselling book Why England Slept (1940). Based on Kennedy's undergraduate thesis at Harvard College, the book was also informed by his time in England during the late 1930s, when Britain was resistant to involving itself in the instabilities roiling the European continent. Kennedy's affiliation with Fraser's campaign for the Stone seat added an element of glamour to the 1945 election season in the West Midlands, but the appeal was tinged with sadness: in the past year, Kennedy's brother Joe and his sister Kathleen's husband had both been killed in action.
Fraser won the 1945 contest and was reelected in 1950, this time as the MP for a newly configured constituency that included both Stone and Stafford. He was regularly returned to his seat all the way through the 1983 election—his 12th—which took place nine months before his death.
On September 26, 1956, the 38-year-old Fraser married 24-year-old Antonia Pakenham, daughter of the earl of Longford, a Roman Catholic peer who in later years emerged as an eccentric anti-pornography crusader and prison reform advocate. Their resplendently Scottishthemed wedding took place at the Church of Our Lady of Assumption and St. Gregory, a Catholic church located in London, with Fraser wearing his clan tartan kilt and a blast of bagpipes heralding the newlyweds. Antonia, a former debutante, was also unusually well-educated for her time and background. After earning an Oxford degree, she went to work for London publisher Weidenfeld & Nicholson, and she met Fraser at a festive New Year's Eve fancy-dress ball at the city's Royal College of Art. “In 1956 he had an MP's salary of roughly fifteen hundred pounds a year,” Antonia Fraser recalled in her 2015 memoir My History: A Memoir of Growing Up. She added that Lady Lovat, his mother, was dismayed over the news that her second son was affianced to one of the Pakenham daughters. “When Hugh told his mother he was getting married to me, he added cheerfully: ‘She hasn't a bean,’” Fraser wrote. Fraser and Antonia had six children in a near-exact ten-year span: Rebecca, the first of their three daughters, was born on May 4, 1957, and on May 9, 1967, youngest child Orlando became the newest resident of the bustling four-story Fraser home in London's lively Notting Hill neighborhood.
The Fraser family's home address became a crime scene on the morning of October 23, 1975, when 14 pounds of the explosive gelignite sent Fraser's red Jaguar XJ6 airborne and killed his neighbor, the renowned oncology specialist Dr. Gordon Hamilton-Fairley. One of a number of domestic-terrorism attacks carried out by the IRA on civilian targets, the bomb planted under Fraser's car was purportedly linked to the MP's firm stance on Northern Ireland, which he believed should remain a part of Great Britain. The fact that the late John F. Kennedy's teenaged daughter Caroline was staying with the Fraser family at the time of the bombing drew international attention to the terrorist act. She was interning with the art auction house Sotheby's and Fraser dropped her off every morning en route to his office at Westminster.
In the wake of the IRA bomb blast that killed his neighbor, Fraser joined a chorus of fellow MPs in calling for the restoration of capital punishment in the United Kingdom for those convicted of deadly acts of domestic terrorism. He was greeted with a standing ovation in parliament when he spoke at Westminster later that day, according to the New York Times. “We can all agree that every politician in this house is at risk, from whatever party—and all parties are determined to extirpate terrorism whatever the cost,” he told his House of Commons colleagues.
Apart from the 1975 bombing, Fraser's Notting Hill house had already become a target of the press earlier that year when tabloid newspapers picked up on the story that Antonia had moved out temporarily, the result of her extramarital affair with playwright Harold Pinter. By this time, she was a successful writer of historical biographies and popular detective novels, the latter under a pseudonym. In fact, the royalties from North American sales of her 1969 bestseller Mary, Queen of Scots helped keep the Fraser's ancestral Scottish home from being sold at a time when the family's financial situation was dire. She and Fraser would divorce amicably two years later, in 1977, but the end of Pinter's marriage took considerably longer to wrap up. His aggrieved spouse was actress Vivien Merchant, perhaps best known for her role as the wife of the police detective in Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 thriller Frenzy.
Fraser and his ex-wife remained on friendly terms and she occasionally chided him over media reports that he had been spotted with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Caroline's mother. Fraser knew the former First Lady from a visit he made with Antonia to visit the Kennedys in 1961, a visit unrelated to his official role as U.K. Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. In July of 1962, he reached the highest rank in his career as a government minister when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appointed him to serve as Secretary of State for Air. In that capacity, Fraser made an official visit to the United States with Antonia in September of 1963. They were President Kennedy's guests aboard Air Force One as it toured U.S. Air Force bases in the western United States.
In early 1975, Fraser made a surprise bid for the Tory Party leadership, but he dropped out after the first round of voting at the annual party conference. The winner, Margaret Thatcher, became the first woman to lead a major political party in Britain and she carried the Tories to victory in the 1979 general election. Thatcher was still prime minister of Great Britain on March 6, 1984, when Fraser died at St. Thomas Hospital in London at age 66 from lung cancer.
Fraser, Antonia, My History: A Memoir of Growing Up, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2015.
New York Times, October 24, 1975, Bernard Weinraub, “Bomb Kills a Doctor Near London Home of Caroline Kennedy,” p. 1.
Times (London, England), September 26, 1956, “Marriages,” p. 12; October 24, 1975, “Mr. Fraser Pays Tribute to Dead Neighbour,” p. 8.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library website, https://www.jfklibrary.org/ (January 17, 1966), Joseph E. O'Connor, interviewer, “Oral History Interview of Hugh Fraser.”□