in the garden

 

Mar 2001 Journal

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Profile – Richard Fry

Even in these days of longevity, a man like Richard Fry, who celebrated his
100th birthday last September, is a rarity. Now living in Balint House, he looks back on a tumultuous century in which he played his part as a distinguished journalist. And he can still give sharp advice and opinion on major contemporary issues.

He was Richard Freund when he was born in Berlin of Bohemian parents. Old
enough to be called up for the Kaiser's army just as the First World War reached its end, he studied at Heidelberg and Berlin Universities. Interested in current affairs, he worked as a foreign political correspondent for a German publishing group in Rome in the early 1920s. Mussolini had just come to power and Richard saw the tyrannical violence of his Fascist regime at first hand, a foretaste of what was yet to come in Nazi Germany.

A few years later he moved to London, where he married a beautiful Hungarian
artist's model, Katherine Maritz, who later worked in stage design with Oliver Messel. They married two weeks before the Wall Street financial crash of 1929 — a watershed which Richard confesses to remembering only hazily. Meanwhile he observed the rise of Hitler and was sacked by his publishing employer on the day Hitler came to power in 1933. As a liberal Jewish journalist, he was persona non grata on every count. But, although penniless, he at least had a safe base — "a tiny flat in Baker Street and a wife who knew how to be very economical."

The 1930s, years of recession and unemployment, produced a strange interlude when he was recommended to an Indian maharajah who was looking for PR assistance with his forthcoming golden jubilee celebrations. Despite the overwhelming experience of India at its most crowded, vibrant and brilliant at the celebration in Bikaner, Richard managed to meet modern-minded young politicians — including Nehru — and hear their aspirations for independence from the British Empire. He was later able to respond to their wishes from a position of responsibility.

Back in London, he wrote two prophetic books on the deepening European crisis, Zero Hour in 1936 and Watch Czechoslovakia in 1937. He admired Czech president Dr Benes, whom he interviewed for his book, but the logic of the situation was inexorable.

With a growing journalistic reputation, he was invited to be a leader writer on The Times. But he responded to an offer from an old friend from his Rome days, Cecil Sprigge, who worked on the financial pages of the Manchester Guardian. The paper suited his liberal inclinations and he wrote occasional leaders advocating, among other things, Indian independence. Although initially deputy financial editor, he was soon appointed editor, as his colleagues were called up for active service. It was an interesting but abnormal period for financial activity and reporting.

Through his friendship with such figures as the governor of the Bank of Canada, Richard learned about the secret transfer of gold reserves across the Atlantic to Canada. He met refugees who were to become future governors of their countries' national banks. His discretion and judgment could always be counted on.

With war's end, his advice was sought in 1946 on the re-establishment of the
Banque de France. He also visited the USA in 1947, talking to its financial and industrial leaders, and was deeply impressed by the country's economic boom. He was particularly interested to meet Germany's Nazi Reichsbank governor, Dr Hjalmar Schacht, on a visit to London in 1955. He had followed Dr Schacht's operations and distrusted but respected him.

Britain meanwhile was suffering from exhaustion and austerity, as well as the Labour Government's financial inexperience. With the difficulty of evaluating renascent economic life, Richard Fry thought up the idea of regular national industrial surveys carried out by regional reporters. The Manchester Guardian Industrial Survey started in the early 1950s. Although fairly short-lived, it was the forerunner of many later surveys for up-to-date information on multiple areas of business activity. Richard Fry also got a journalistic scoop on European currency convertibility at the end of 1958 through his earlier Continental contacts.

When he retired in 1965 and was appointed CBE, London had already started on the path of financial regeneration. Fry continued to follow events closely and comment on them. From 1965 - 1975 he wrote for the specialist journal, The Banker. In 1970 he published A Banker's World: The Revival of the City 1957-70 and in 1976 Bankers in West Africa. At the age of 89 he wrote a three-page assessment of world financial journalism for The Economist under the title When Money Makes News and News Makes Money.

Visitors still find him spry, knowledgeable, and with a shrewd judgment of today's financial world. As one regular visitor remarked: "Talking to him is like having a weekly history lesson."
Ruth Rothenberg

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