Interview: Gail Ronson
The wife of tycoon Gerald Ronson opens up about his spell in prison, her charity work and their tussle over moving out of Hampstead
Gail Ronson at her home in north London. She says that she and her husband relax by watching the EastEnders omnibus
Dame Gail Ronson has moving on her mind. Jewish Care's new deputy president is looking forward to the organisation's departure for its new headquarters in Golders Green this autumn. She is also beginning to wonder whether it might just be time to put the family house in Hampstead up for sale. Not that the matter is up for discussion with her husband, property millionaire Gerald Ronson. "It's a sore subject," she laughs. "I'm not allowed to bring it up. But I would love to move. I have to spend a lot of time in central London and the driving is killing me. It adds two hours to my day."
The way the Ronsons deal with this little dispute goes some way to explaining why they have been happily married for more than 40 years.
Gail recalls her husband's last birthday: "We made a little film for him and in it we put a 'For Sale' sign outside his house. Then we had a fellow walk by with a 'Sold' sign. It was hilarious. It's a good house and we've never needed to move. But still…"
Gail is the opposite of flighty. She has been married since the age of 21, has lived in the house for nearly as long and has devoted the past 27 years to Jewish Care among other charities, including the Royal Opera House. However if her work is worthy, she is the opposite. Over a cup of coffee in the sitting room of the family home, Ronson is engaging and modest - she admits to feeling nervous about spending an hour talking about herself. "I'm much better talking about other people."
If I'd had my own career I would have loved to have been a forensic scientist. I'm mad about it. Doesn't that sound ridiculous?
She is every bit as committed to her work as is her famously workaholic husband. Indeed, having married at a young age (she had four children by the time she was 27) and given up her modelling career, she did not want merely to live in Gerald's shadow. "He was successful at a very early age - he picked me up for our first date in a convertible Bentley - and I didn't want to be left behind."
Charity work became her passion. In the early part of her marriage, she handed out meals on wheels to elderly Jews living in Stepney and was shocked by what she discovered. "It was very upsetting. Some people had to wrap themselves in newspaper just to keep warm. When you go into these houses you just want to give them money, but obviously you can't give everyone money."
What she could do, however, was raise funds. Her first big project was a dinner in 1983 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Jewish Care (formerly the Jewish Welfare Board) where the guests of honour were to be Prince Charles and Princess Diana. "There were 700 at the Guildhall. It was a breakthrough. Nobody went to domestic charity events in those days - the JIA was the organisation which held the big dinners."
As deputy president, she will be stepping down from Jewish Care's board. "It's time to let younger people be involved. I've watched Jewish Care evolve, which means I really understand the organisation. I want other people to get the kind of education I got from being a board member. I still visit the homes and day centres and if I see things that aren't quite right I tell Simon Morris [the chief executive]. Of course, if I see things that are amazing, I tell him too."
Fortunately, given the economic climate, the funds for the new HQ are already in place. "It's more difficult than it has been in the past few years, but I hope people will think, as I do, that Jewish Care should be a priority. If we don't look after our own, then who will? Our funds have not dropped much but we are having to work very hard to get the money in. We have to do it, though - there is no alternative."
Like her husband, Gail left school young, and she stopped work entirely when she married. If she were a young woman today she would certainly have pursued her own career. But what would she have done? "Don't laugh, but I would love to have been a forensic scientist. I'm mad about it. Doesn't that sound ridiculous?" she giggles.
Although she clearly does not take herself too seriously, Gail has been through some very trying times, most notably when her husband was convicted in the Guinness share-trading fraud trial in 1990 and went to prison for six months. "I was a young girl when I met him and got married and I had never really been on my own. Suddenly here I was with the children and I found I had more strength of character than I had ever realised. Gerald was very strong all the way through and I completely believed in him. He was absolutely straight about everything and we communicated very well. To see a man like that in prison was very difficult. I only got to see him every 10 days. I would never want to go through that again, but it made us a closer family. I went to America on behalf of the business, and I went into his office to look after things. I didn't run the business but I was his spokesman. I was there to show that everything was still functioning."
Gail continued to support her husband through more difficult times as his Heron International empire teetered on the verge of collapse in the recession of the early 1990s. She had no doubts that he and the family would come through it. "He made it easy for us. My life never changed. He left his problems at work - he never screamed or shouted when he came home. I have the utmost admiration for him."
All in all, despite the hard times, Gail considers herself privileged. After all there is the sumptuous (soon to be on the market?) home in Hampstead, the holidays on their yacht in the Mediterranean, taken whenever Ronson can tear himself away from work, and then there are her friends -"I'm a lady who lunches," she announces with another giggle.
But most of all she enjoys the moments at home with her husband. Like on Sundays when they curl up together to watch the EastEnders omnibus. "He does come to the opera to support me but I think he enjoys this more," she laughs.