Obituary: Ronald Singleton, veteran Daily Mail reporter
Ronald Singleton, the Daily Mail’s former correspondent in Rome who has died aged 92, lived an extraordinary adventure, much of it made possible by a career that spanned 60 years and some of the best postings in a golden age for newspapers. To do justice to his own story in a shorthand version is impossible, but a few biographical headlines give a flavour of his life and times - a life interwoven with some of the greatest events and significant individuals of the 20th century.
He fought in Normandy soon after D-Day. He met Sibelius, Elvis Presley, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and four popes. He was there when the kidnapped Adolf Eichmann first appeared in an Israeli court, was himself abducted by white supremacists in Mississippi, and, as an Express-man (before committing the ultimate sin and joining the Mail), he saw at first hand the power and eccentricities of Lord Beaverbrook.
Postings in New York and Los Angeles gave Ronnie access to Hollywood and Latin America, including the Cuban revolution. He covered the Algerian War, then transferred to Beirut with all its intrigues of the wider Middle East, and eventually ended up, largely because of an earthquake, as the Mail’s man in Rome for four decades. In the midst of all that, whilst working in Havana there was drama too in his personal life. He fell for the model in a magazine advertisement and casually informed a colleague that he intended to find and marry her. And he did.
It all began in his native Lancashire when his father, frustrated by Ronnie’s lack of progress at grammar school, almost marched him into the office of the Bury Times and asked the editor if there was anything he could do with his 16-year-old son. There was. An otherwise threadbare school report indicated an interest in music, but mainly a talent with words. It was an era when academic qualifications counted for little against an instinct for news and innate curiosity about people and places.
Almost immediately the Second World War intervened and when normal reporting was suspended, Ronnie’s task every afternoon was to catch a bus to Manchester, hand over a package of news items and await the censor’s pencil. The war impacted on every aspect of the job, memorably so on an occasion he was phoning lineage to a national paper. “We’ve been blitzed!”, screamed the switchboard operator at the News Chronicle.
His Army call-up, and what he experienced fighting his way through France and beyond, had profound after-effects, not least an ambition to be a foreign correspondent. He met a Mail man on leave from New York who offered him shifts on the paper there, and a week later Ronnie sailed for America. Doors open, true enough, but not always the ones we expect. In the Rockefeller Plaza he discovered that his would-be mentor was on vacation for three weeks and in the meantime he’d have to make his own way. Ronnie’s boldness began seeping away. The lift was about to return him to the baking streets when, on the corridor wall, he saw an arrow pointing to the office of the Mail’s great Fleet Street rival. Could he? Should he? Would it be disloyal? He considered his predicament and knocked. A life-changing decision. They glanced at his cuttings and the acting head pointed towards a desk. “That’s Eileen’s and she’s about to leave to have a baby. Come in tomorrow. Have her typewriter and get cracking. If we like each other you can stay. It’s fifty dollars a week”. Singleton was working for the Daily Express.
Soon after he was one of only two British reporters allowed into Sing Sing prison for the execution of the ‘atom spies’ Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In an unpublished memoir, Singleton says that working for the Express was often exhilarating and absurd in equal measure, not least because its proprietor was a dictator, propagandist, and idiosyncratic genius.
He met Beaverbrook several times and learned to have a bible close to hand because he was apt to demand quotations from the Scriptures in the unlikeliest situations. When he came to town the staff worried as much about his asthma, and the threat of an attack, as the news schedule. No inconvenience was too great to ensure The Beaver’s well-being, the cost irrelevant. There was an occasion when he flew to the Bahamas and later that day phoned New York to say that he’d left his spray at the Waldorf Astoria. “Mr. Singleton, please bring it down on the afternoon plane”.
Whilst covering the post-revolution upheavals in Cuba, Ronnie also found a wife, and in circumstances worthy of a Hollywood script. Leafing through a magazine he was captivated by a photograph of a young woman. ‘It was an advertisement for brandy. Her Spanish background was obvious but I guessed it was more complicated than that. It usually was in Cuba. There was so much happening in that face; exotic features, hazel eyes, flowing hair, and her pouting, almost strange lips. I knew I’d marry her’.
Finding her was the immediate problem, but he did. It was easy. He was a reporter. Anyone but a believer in fairy-tales would say it had to have ended there and then. If temperament, cultures, geography and age are useful guides to compatibility, what hope for the relationship between a Methodist preacher’s son from a mill town in northern England in his mid-thirties, and a youthful, volatile Cuban Catholic beauty whose father was a Galician and mother from the Canary Islands? Implausibly, they did marry and had three sons.
They were born in Rome. Ronnie went there after being thrown out of Lebanon for going to Israel to cover the arrival of the Holocaust architect. That had prompted this memorable telex from an editor: ‘Fastest. You could beat everybody. A talk with Eichmann please. His reaction. Copy soonest repeat soonest. Aim for a splash..’
On arrival in Rome there was another from the foreign desk. ‘Let’s have lots of dolce vita!’ The Singletons’ new home coincided with the success of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s film with its theme of decadence and fame conflicting with convention and greater values, and all built around a journalist’s week in the Eternal City. The photographer in the movie was called Paparazzo, a character so memorable he gave his name to those who chase celebrities for the tabloids and magazines.
For a real-life reporter, life imitated art. At three in the morning Ronnie saw the statuesque Anita Ekberg, who famously cavorted in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita, chasing paparazzi from her apartment and firing at them with a bow and arrow. On the Via Veneto he spotted Noel Coward at a pavement café and asked him what he was doing in the city. “Oh, just watching the boys go by,” came the reply
Rome, and Italy, became Ronnie’s spiritual home and his by-line was a fixture in the Mail over the next 40 years after he joined the paper following his coverage of an earthquake for a rival. There was rarely a shortage of copy.
Conversations with the likes of Gina Lollobrigida and Audrey Hepburn were as routine as reading between the lines of Vatican pronouncements. There was the Burton-Taylor saga, the Mafia, more earthquakes, terrorism, Pavarotti, the constant intrigues of Italian politics, Diego Maradona at Napoli and, less happily, Paul Gascoigne at Lazio.
Ronnie covered it all, an adopted Latin but forever an Englishman in his crisp white or blue shirt, blazer and something akin to a regimental tie. He was well into his Seventies and snowy-haired when his energy ran out and he put the cover over his Remington for the last time.
His personal circumstances changed and he returned, reluctantly, to Lancashire. He spent his final years in a care home, a few miles from where he grew up. A remarkable life had turned almost full circle.
He shared his thoughts with a few of us on many occasions. We learned a great deal from him and many more were indebted to the help he gave them on any number of Italian assignments. It was a pleasure to have been counted among Ronnie Singleton’s friends. He truly was a journalist and individual of the old school.
Ronald Singleton. Born February 11, 1923, died February 2, 2016