'I was having a love affair with a man who'd been half uncle, half godfather': Cooking guru Prue Leith's extraordinary confession
Shocking revelations: Prue Letih, pictured at the opening of her restaurant in 1969, says her affair with Rayne Kruger was 'practically incest'
Prue Leith, CBE, conveys such a forceful image of middle-class shires respectability, it comes as a surprise to see her flaunting long legs in black skinny jeans and wearing killer five-inch heels.
I’d expected a neat, mumsy suit, flat shoes and a sensible hairstyle. But Prue, who turned 72 a week ago, sports a choppy blonde crop and a fabulous pair of red, suede ankle boots she bought for herself as a birthday present.
Even Prue — a widow and grandmother who has achieved eminence as a cook, businesswoman, restaurateur, broadcaster and writer — thinks the persona she projects is sedate and unadventurous.
‘I’ve got such a boring middle-class voice. I sound exactly like the sort of woman who organises the church flower rota,’ she exclaims, aggrieved.
The real Prue, however, is far more multi-faceted.
A formidable amalgam of talent, grit and hard work propelled her career, but until now she has never revealed the true story behind the long and happy marriage that underpinned her success.
Prue married writer Rayne Kruger, who was 18 years her senior, in 1974 and they remained content together until his death nine years ago.
But their marriage was attended by a frisson of scandal because Rayne’s first wife, actress Nan — who was 18 years older than him — was the best friend and former business partner of Prue’s mum.
What Prue has not revealed until now, however, is a far deeper and more ignominious secret: Rayne had been having an adulterous affair with her, behind Nan’s back, for 13 years before they made their relationship public.
Prue had grown up with the Krugers. Although she was raised in South Africa, she would spend long holidays at their London home. Rayne was an honorary godfather, as close to her as an uncle, and young Prue hero-worshipped him. Nan regarded her as one of their family and the three children from her first marriage were Prue’s close friends.
Yet when Rayne left Nan and swiftly set up home with pregnant Prue, Nan was remarkable — even saintly — in her magnanimity.
Would she have been so forgiving had she known the real story behind Rayne and Prue’s relationship We can only speculate, because Nan is now dead.
Out in the open: Prue and Rayne Kruger celebrate being together publicly after 13 years at Rasputin's in Paris in 1974
And her passing has freed Prue to disclose the truth about her affair with a man whose familial ties were so close that her love for him was, she admits, ‘practically incest’.
In her new memoir, Relish: My Life On A Plate, Prue reveals that her relationship with Rayne began when she was 21 and he 39, and was conducted with such scrupulous discretion nobody, it seems, suspected they were lovers.
Only three people — two close girl friends and Prue’s elder brother David — were told about the deception, which was possible because Nan, a successful theatre actress who numbered John Gielgud and Alec Guinness among her friends, was often away performing, while Rayne worked from home, writing.
Prue recalls how, during a visit to the Krugers’ Kensington home, her infatuation with Rayne — his knowledge of art and architecture; his facility for story-telling — developed into an illicit physical attraction.
‘I told myself I was not falling in love with him, that he was out of bounds. And anyway, he loved Nan,’ she recalls. ‘Then one evening, when we were in the kitchen, he kissed me.
Fruitful career: Brilliant businesswoman Prue has now revealed all in her autobiography following the death of Rayne's first wife Nan
‘I wish I could say I objected, but I didn’t. Guilt about Nan would creep in later but what I felt at that moment — apart from a leaping desire — was surprise and delight that he considered me kissable; a woman, not a child.
‘I was utterly infatuated. Rayne was far cleverer and better educated than me, but nonetheless he found me interesting. He made me feel talented, beautiful, admired.
‘There are few things more seductive than someone who delights in you, believes in you, wants you to be happy,’ she writes.
She chose to ignore the extent of their duplicity: ‘Of course, I realise my affair with Rayne was unforgivable.
‘I still believe adultery is wrong and feel genuinely angry with men who betray their wives, and prefer to forget that I encouraged Rayne to do just that: I fell completely, thunderously and irredeemably for the husband of my mother’s best friend and business partner. Poor Nan had no idea what a serpent she had allowed into her nest.
‘Betraying the hospitality and love of Nan should have been impossible for me, but I pushed all feelings of anxiety and guilt away. I refused to think about it, at least at first.
‘Somehow I managed to persuade myself that what we were doing was nothing to do with anyone else. It was the age-old excuse of all adulterers: I couldn’t help it.’
She was, she says, captivated by Rayne’s edge of danger. ‘He knew where to get hold of illegal [cannabis] joints, and numbered some dodgy, but interesting, Soho low-lifes among his friends,’ she remembers. But why write such a searingly — and scandalously — frank memoir when she and Rayne had concealed the truth successfully and for so long
‘I thought: “There’s no point in writing an autobiography unless it is an honest and full one,” ’ she says. ‘Everyone has secrets. I just loved Rayne. I couldn’t make myself un-love him.’
She did not sleep with Rayne in the Kruger family home, but moved out into a tiny rented room in Bayswater, West London, where one evening — about a month after their first kiss — they first made love.
They had established a routine of shared suppers and trysts when Prue, who had been studying French at the Sorbonne in Paris, returned reluctantly to finish her course.
Although she missed Rayne desperately, she was hardly nun-like in her rectitude. On the contrary, she socialised with bohemian friends and was drawn into the louche nightlife of the city. Once she found herself at an orgy where, in order not to look conspicuous, she duly stripped off.
Living life to the full: After Rayne's death, Prue had a romance with entrepreneur and musician Sir Ernest Hall (pictured), with whom she is now just friends
‘I spent the next two hours walking purposefully from room to room . . . avoiding the men patrolling the party. They brought to mind cars prowling about in search of a slot to park in.
‘I was amazed at the variety of models on offer. I was torn between wanting to look and not wanting to be seen looking.’ Did she join in ‘Nooo! I absolutely didn’t! I was too embarrassed,’ she cries.
It is hard to equate our culinary national treasure with the eyebrow-raising antics of her youth. Prue lost her virginity at 15, swiftly evinced a penchant for older men and was caught by her horrified parents snogging a married father-of-two.
The fact that her family was monied and middle class — her father was a director of an ICI subsidiary; her mother, an acclaimed actress — underlined her waywardness.
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The way we were: Prue and Rayne with daughter Li-Da and son Daniel
When I ask her about the disparity between her achievements, which are legion, and the apparent reckless abandon of her youth, she says: ‘People think we spent the entire Sixties drifting down Carnaby Street. Actually, I was working incredibly hard building my business. If I went to a rave, I was behind the bar pouring drinks.’
She opened her first restaurant in 1969; swiftly it gained a Michelin star. Then she founded the acclaimed Leith’s School of Food and Wine. /02/24/article-2106096-00037E30000001F4-24_638x377.jpg” width=”638″ height=”377″ alt=”'Sedate persona': The cook, restaurateur, broadcaster and writer in her garden in 1991″ class=”blkBorder” />
'Sedate persona': The cook, restaurateur, broadcaster and writer in her garden in 1991
Rayne, close to tears, phoned Prue. ‘He said all the things I’d longed for him to say for 13 years: that he could not live without me, that he wanted us get married. That I should come home and we would have a baby,’ she recalls.
Within six weeks, Prue’s romance with Jake had run its course and she was back with her adored Rayne. And, although he had professed never to want children, preferring not to add to the world’s population, he honoured his promise to Prue that they should have a baby. Between them it was agreed: they’d have one ‘home-made’ and adopt a second.
In March 1974, Prue became pregnant. Her joy was alloyed only by the misery she knew Nan would endure when she was told the news, and they resolved to keep their long affair secret. ‘It was bad enough for Nan that Rayne had so swiftly taken up with me after leaving her, but worse still would be to know that he’d been deceiving her for so many years,’ she reasons.
Nan was duly informed that Rayne and Prue had ‘suddenly’ fallen in love, and that she was pregnant. It is hard to imagine the turmoil of emotions Nan must have felt.
Her two sons were ‘outraged’. Angela, her daughter, felt bitterly betrayed. But the reaction of Prue’s widowed mother astonished her most of all. ‘She had been Nan’s friend for 30 years. They had founded and run a theatre company and shared a house together, and she had been deeply angry with Rayne for leaving Nan.
National treasure: Prue founded Leith's School of Food and Wine and won the 'Business Woman of the Year' award in 1991
‘But when I told her that I loved him and that I was pregnant and that, in spite of everything, I was happier than I had ever been, she was wonderful. She told me later that she thought I had always adored Rayne because he had filled the gap my father left when he died when I’d been not quite 21.’
Nan, meanwhile, was ‘strong and generous’ and welcomed a visibly pregnant Prue back into the family circle, inviting her to her 70th birthday party. She told her children a feud would be unbearable, and instructed them to be kind; an injunction which, magnanimously, they obeyed.
Prue and Rayne, in accordance with their plan, adopted a little girl — Cambodian orphan Li-Da — in 1975. Their son Daniel, now 37, went on to become special adviser to David Cameron, leaving the job to set up a charity for ex-prisoners with his wife Emma. They have presented Prue with two grandchildren. Li-Da, 38, is a film-maker.
When in London, Prue billets herself with her children; otherwise she lives in the Cotswolds home she shared with Rayne. When he died, he left her a letter. ‘How can I say goodbye to her who has been the glory of my life’ he wrote.
Five years after his death, she enjoyed a romance with entrepreneur and musician Sir Ernest Hall, but his volatile temperament alienated her. Then he discovered he was bipolar and, although the relationship fractured, they remain friends.
So I ask if there is now someone else. ‘It’s too early to tell,’ she smiles cryptically. But the spiked heels, the skinny jeans, that youthful blonde crop — they all tell me a new relationship cannot be far away.
Relish: My Life On A Plate is published next week by Quercus at 16.99. To order a copy for 14 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.