Byline: DANA BROOK
THE row between Esther Rantzen and her stepdaughter reached boiling point last week when The Mail on Sunday published the second part of her sensational autobiography.
In it, Esther claimed that Desmond Wilcox's first wife, Patsy, blamed her for the failure of that marriage and carried her bitterness to her grave in 1999, despite Esther's efforts to smooth things over. Patsy's daughter, Cassie, launched a fierce counterattack in the Daily Mail, accusing Esther of stealing Desmond from her mother and invading the marital home.
Here, in her first interview since the serialisation began, Esther talks of the emotional effect of the row and attempts to mend the relationship . . .
HERE, in a studio deep in the bowels of the BBC's London headquarters, Esther Rantzen is the undisputed-queen.
Dressed immaculately in a Ronit Zilkha silk shirt and skirt, spindly kitten heels and expensive costume jewellery she holds court - surrounded by guests and crew of her afternoon programme, Esther.
Only someone who had been on another planet for the past two weeks would be unaware of the bitter family row into which Esther has been catapulted following the serialisation of her autobiography in The Mail on Sunday. She has been vilified by her stepdaughter and pilloried by newspaper columnists - even journalists she regards as friends have questioned the wisdom of her revelations about Patsy Wilcox, her late husband Desmond's first wife and a former friend who took to her grave an implacable resentment of the woman she believed had 'stolen' her husband.
Yet to watch Esther on her afternoon TV show, you'd never know it.
Even today, when the surprise guest, yachtswoman Ellen Mac-Arthur, arrives at the last minute on the back of a motorbike and a bomb alert causes chaos outside, Esther's show flows without a hitch. And afterwards she rides calmly home in
her BBC taxi to the 18th Century Hampstead house she shared with Desmond for eight years until he died in September. Esther is in charge of Esther and always has been . . . yet her stepdaughter's contention is that the control extends ruthlessly into other people's lives.
She is in her dressing-room after the show, speaking in slow, measured tones. But underneath, her voice is shaking. She admits the row, which has erupted into an all-out battle since the book was serialised, has shaken her.
The thin, shapely legs are crossed and the slender fingers laced tightly together as though it is an effort to rein back those well-defended feelings.
'It's very distressing,' she admits.
'For all of us, I imagine. Certainly, for my children and me but I hope it will heal in time because what I've learned is that it's very counterproductive to keep one's anger going. Fury keeps you warm but you become consumed by it. Having seen the effects,' she pauses delicately, 'in the previous generation, in Cassie's mother, I've learned not to nurture anger. Patsy taught me that.' Her voice is whispery soft but the implication clear. Patsy would not forgive. Her hatred of Esther burned until the end. It affected not only Patsy's life but her children's - even now. As for Esther and Desmond, Esther would not go so far as to say it wrecked their peace of mind, but she knows how much it distressed Desmond and feels it was all a waste of energy, out of which no good has come.
'It's entirely negative,' she says.
THE legs uncross and she sits up. 'I don't know Cassie all that well, partly because she never lived with us. Her younger brother and sister, Adam and Claire, who did live with us, I have become very fond of. Desmond loved them all.
'The myth was that I stole Patsy's husband, home and family. But moving into their family home was not my decision and I wasn't happy with it. From choice, I'd have started again. Who wouldn't?' She tells me she and Desmond moved into Patsy and Desmond's marital home in Kew, when she was eight months' pregnant, only to provide continuity for his children - so while they were surviving the end of their parents' marriage they could at least sleep at night in their own bedrooms.
Yet if Desmond was so anxious to keep things harmonious between his two families, why did he urge Esther to write things in her book which might ignite the discord between them?
'Desmond wanted the record put straight,' she says. 'He read the synopsis and two thirds of the book, including the chapter about Patsy. I'd not have written one word about her without his say-so and without checking it with him.' But not with Patsy's children?
'No,' she shakes her head. 'I couldn't. I was padlocked by my contract not to speak to anyone about what was in the manuscript. When Cassie called, she wanted to know what I was writing about her mother, but I wasn't allowed to tell anyone anything. If Desmond had been alive he would have explained to Cassie what I was doing and why.
'He thought our story had been misrepresented. It is, after all, a very simple one - one many families go through. Two people get married when they're very young.
The marriage isn't happy. One partner meets someone and they marry. Those of us who have lived through divorce know everyone suffers - there are no winners.
'My view differs widely from Cassie's. The man I stayed married to for 23 years was utterly committed to our relationship,'
she says firmly. 'I have Desmond in my heart and head wherever I go. We were in love for eight years before he left home. We waited until we thought his children were old enough to withstand the pain of his leaving their mother.
'But in the end we realised our future had to be together.
Desmond told me, told other people, that he'd found real happiness with me and I did with him. I think it's very difficult for my stepchildren, especially Cassie, to accept that.
'Being a stepparent was difficult. I was so aware of becoming the stereotypical wicked stepmother that I always used to call myself that as a joke. It's particularly difficult for a stepdaughter because she must feel not only has the new wife taken her father away from her mother but away from her, too.
'Cassie and the twins eventually went to Australia for several years.
The twins are still there. Cassie married and had two children so although Desmond was in constant touch with them, his day to day life was here with me and our children.
He never rejected his first family but geography came between them.'
Cassie, she says, came back to England about two years ago with her two boys.
'She had a new partner, Andy, whom she has married now, and she was pregnant.
She had nowhere to live so I said I would buy her a flat. She lived there rent-free for two years.
Now her boys have gone back to Australia to live with their father, and she has bought a house with the money her mother left her. 'When the boys came to spend last Christmas with her, I was happy to pay half their fares. I helped to find her work. She did some excellent research for ChildLine.
HEN she had her baby, Rosie, whom Desmond adored, the boys came to stay with us for a week to take the pressure off her. I love them and Cassie knows how I feel.' Cassie's boys call her Esther. Her own children, Emily, 23, Rebecca, 21, and Joshua, 19, are too young to have families, she says, so she feels too young to be a 'Granny'.
'It would have been wonderful if we'd managed to get over the problems with Patsy, to share the children, to have family events like weddings and birthdays together.' Esther says Patsy created a new life for herself, travelled, went on holidays, took up golf, had men friends. 'But there was this deep anger in her . .. and I was the target.
'I wrote about it because I just wanted to be as honest as I could.
Desmond and I both felt that we should put it in context, but I was shocked by Cassie's reaction and it's the first tough time since Desmond's death I've had to face without him.' Crucially, Cassie disputes Esther's version of her father's dying moments, saying Esther went home before he died. But Esther is adamant.
'Earlier in the evening he had been feeling strong and well aware that death was approaching,' she says.
'He met it with the courage he showed all his life. He and I were together with my children. Cassie wasn't with us.' Esther says: 'He gazed deep into my eyes, kissed me and said he adored me. I said I adored him, too.
The most treasured memory I have was that kiss. It will be with me on my deathbed.' When death came, Esther was at Desmond's side. Her description is corroborated by close friend, Bry-her Scudamore, who says Esther, her three children and Cassie - plus Bryher and her husband - were at Desmond's bedside until quite late.
Desmond was by then sleeping peacefully and they were told he might live for several more days.
So Esther went home with her eldest daughter, Emily, to get Des-mond's personal prayer books, after which Cassie also left. But Esther says: 'When I returned to the hospital the doctors told me he had deteriorated.
We rang Cassie but she didn't answer the phone. It was 3am.
She must have been exhausted.' In her book, Esther tells the story that changed her life, of the little boy, Ben Hardwick, who would have died without a liver transplant.
They filmed him for That's Life!
and thousands of lives were saved over the years, as a result.
'Desmond had been deeply moved by Ben's story,' Esther says, 'and began to carry a donor card.' Next week Esther has been asked by the Department of Health to tell Desmond's story at a special summit called by the Minister on transplantation.
'In the wake of the Alder Hey scandal, it has become impossible to find donors," says Esther.
'Desmond was able to give tissue, bone and skin. It's typical that even after his own death his example continues to save lives.
'We took a lock of his hair which I wear in a locket around my neck, and his wedding ring, which I also wear. There was a little silver bull he wore around his neck every day.
He was a Taurus and Cassie had given it to him when she was 14.
'At first I wore that, too, just until the funeral. When she asked for it, I gave it back, although that was hard because it was so much a part of him.
But I understood completely.' STHER says she thinks Cassie feels she has to carry on the fight for her mother, that it's her mission.
'But my door is always open to my grandchildren and I hope the two families will reunite one day.' At Desmond's funeral, Esther made sure that photos of both families were on the crimson roses on his coffin. Esther's sister, Priscilla, who now lives in Australia, says Esther also made up folders for each of the children of letters she received when Desmond died, and special photographs.
Less than a month ago Esther organised a small ceremony for Cassie, her two sons, her baby daughter and new husband, at Esther's cottage in the country.
Desmond's ashes had already been scattered in a grove of trees in a family ceremony, as he had asked.
But Cassie's sons were in Australia, so Esther kept back some of the ashes so that when the grandchildren came over they could also have their own woodland ceremony.
'I've done what I know Desmond would have wanted,' she says. 'I organised the memorial service.
And at the BAFTA ceremony in his honour I said in my speech I was especially glad his grandsons were there to see how honoured and loved their grandfather was.
'Nelson Mandela once said if he had taken his anger with him out of prison he would have taken the prison too. I think that's what happened with Patsy.
My own release came with Desmond's final kiss.'…