Michael's insatiable appetite for good works came from a feeling of civic duty. His parents were rather rackety bohemians, but at the age of 15 he was sent to Dartington Hall School, where he was more or less adopted by the school's founders, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst. Dorothy was an immensely rich American heiress, having originally been a Whitney, and she imparted to Michael her acute sense of noblesse oblige. For the next few years he spent his summers in America with the Elmhirsts, at one point even dining with Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. It was in such an atmosphere that his own political philosophy was born, a combination of utopian socialism and aristocratic paternalism.
A few years ago, my father wrote a magazine piece in which he recalled his meeting with Roosevelt. As soon as he got a full blast of the President's personality, his sheer life force, he realised he didn't have the joie de vivre to go into politics. Michael was immensely public-spirited, yet he didn't enjoy public occasions. This, too, was behind his long list of achievements. He knew he could never be a great public figure so he chose to make his presence felt in other ways. It was in his office, working away on an endless succession of projects, that Michael grew to his full stature.
A version of this article first appeared in the Observer last year.
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