Dom in the flesh: carnal passions of the great socialist

Unprecedented access to his personal memoirs and his confidants have given us Mark Montebello’s biography of the man behind Mintoff – Dom – granting us passage into a secret world

It’s time the tale were told.

Of how the architect of Malta’s post-Independence industrial and welfare society – Dom Mintoff – jealously guarded a secret life of philandering. Or at least, one to which he freely admitted to in the memoirs bequeathed by his one of his children to Dominican friar and philosopher Mark Montebello.

In a one-of-kind biography of Labour’s ‘salvatur’, the fiery, anti-colonial, anti-clerical, patriarch of Maltese socialism, Montebello has given Mintoff back to the people: as a human being, prone to existential frailties and fears, as a man of imperfection striving as much as possible to stray away from the fall, a man of action trying to keep death away from the door with every word uttered, every single burst of energy, every single political action.

Fittingly, it is titled The Tail That Wagged The Dog, and  perhaps surprisingly, embraced by Labour’s own publishing house, SKS. For  this door into the mind of the energetic, intransigent, mean, stingy, iron-fisted, Oxford-educated socialist visionary, who took up arms against Paul Boffa to control Labour from after the war right up to 1984, brings home the personal life of Dom. Dom was a man of excessive self-regard: as with his fixation for health, sports and daily swimming, so was his quest for power and his command of public adoration coupled with a craving for female attention, variety and passion. ‘Brinkmanship’ Dom, Dom the risk-taker, Dom the challenger... how could monogamy even exist in this psychological bandwidth?

Debonair Dom: a pin-up look with sunglasses and pipe
Debonair Dom: a pin-up look with sunglasses and pipe

Sex on his mind

Dom and Moyra Bentinck were joined in wedlock in the stealthiest of manners. The couple married on Saturday, 22 November 1947 at a tiny 19th century chapel at Bir id-Deheb, the outskirts of Żejtun, in the middle of nowhere. The chapel’s rector was Canon Ġwann Vella, Dom’s friend who served at Bormla’s parish.

Dom’s witness was his closest friend and ‘dearest socialist comrade’ Speditu Gatt – the man he met in 1935 at the Paola Labour club and with whom he would enjoy ‘romping sprees’ in Birżebbuġa meeting up with girls, ‘some single, others married, to have sex under the aegis of Socialism’. 19-year-old Dom was back then nursing a soon-to-end relationship with Melita ‘Lita’ Lucchese, which he describes in detail: ‘We caressed, petted, kissed, embraced, pressed our bosoms, and like all healthy teenagers on the loose, satisfied all our cravings, shot of hard-core intercourse’ – all avenues Dom and Lita took to defy ‘sin, traditions and conventions’ and the State-Church edicts and taboos on sex. But Lita was faithful; Dom was not. With Speditu’s clan, Dom’s escapades were a ‘weekend respite’ from Lita’s amorous beckoning. Montebello writes that Dom “convinced himself that Lita herself benefited from his regular philandering. ‘It also gave Lita a sensible let-up from my daily late evening sieges’... Dom seems to  have been full of excuses... It was a sort of innocuous training sessions, he seems to suggest, of the amorous type... ‘it was a game of hazards like diving off a cliff...’.”

Dom would confess to these erotic Saturday afternoons only late in old age, when he started writing his memoirs in the 1990s. This mix of camaraderie, sexual impulses, water games, flirting and singing till 2am became unmissable. ‘At no time during my long life has work stopped me from finding time for my carnal passions’, Dom wrote. No clerical sanction or work pressure could deprive him from ‘savouring the prohibited thrill of a Saturday afternoon secret sex session’.

Even at Oxford in his semi-monastic life as Rhodes scholar, Dom would confess to embarrassing himself ogling pretty women ‘in a social environment totally out of my Bastjun depth’, and feeling ‘lonely and sex starved’. The devil found work for Mintoff’s idle hands, who when close to a girl he fancied, ‘the erotic impulse to undress her, grab her appealing flesh into my aching arms, and entwine my body with hers was stronger than I had known since leaving home.’ His vacations there were spent at British guests thanks to the Dominion Services and Students Hospitality Scheme: during Easter 1940, it was at Great Milton, where his hosts, a septuagenarian squire and his wife, no children of their own, invited a pretty girl to keep him company. She arrived riding through the snow on a horse. ‘She was a lively lass... her light movements competing in grace with those of her horse.’ But Pamela would not ‘stifle the voice of reason’ and allow Dom to cross the border ‘from innocent fondling to hard sex’.

But his next visit that same Easter was to the home of Moyra Bentinck at Cheltenham – she was the third of four siblings (Zeno – whom everyone called Zak, Primrose, Gwynella – or Toots, and Moyra – Babs). She was the daughter of Lt.Col. Reginald Bentinck, of Dutch and British noble lineage related via the Cavendish-Bentinck line to Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother. Moyra was then 23, 11 months younger than him. The ring of her voice attracted him. “Quickly afterwards, as he never forgot, it seems to have been, in the following order, the blonde hair, then the ‘shapely bust’, next the ‘smooth well-shaped face that needed no make-up to enhance its beauty’, and finally the ‘inch and a half taller than me [sic].’” There was no love-at-first-sight crush on Moyra’s part – who only noticed his tawdry overcoat (shocking sky-blue and as ugly as sin).

A memento from the practically clandestine marriage of Dom and Moyra in 1947. Not even family members were present for the marriage in a Bir id-Deheb chapel, with just two witnesses, two priests and Dom’s bestman
A memento from the practically clandestine marriage of Dom and Moyra in 1947. Not even family members were present for the marriage in a Bir id-Deheb chapel, with just two witnesses, two priests and Dom’s bestman

Dom and Moyra however hit it off. ‘The erotic impulse to undress her… grab her appealing flesh into my aching arms, and entwine my body with hers was stronger than I had ever known since leaving home.’ “Though Dom began to travel to Cheltenham whenever he could, even on some evenings during the week, sometimes staying overnight, this did not prevent him from flirting with one of the Harrises’ in-laws” – (Mintoff was a lodger at the ageing Harrises’ home on Divinity Road) – “‘Total abstinence,’ he brazenly acknowledged years later, ‘was not in keeping with my normal thinly disguised libertine ways’. This might have been the first time that Dom was unfaithful to Moyra, though definitely far from the last,” Montebello reveals.

In 1955, Moyra and Dom before meeting Queen Elizabeth in Malta aboard their royal yacht
In 1955, Moyra and Dom before meeting Queen Elizabeth in Malta aboard their royal yacht

An almost ‘clandestine’ marriage

Seven years later, Dom and Moyra are getting married in an empty countryside chapel. The other witness is Leli Tabone, and Birżebbuġa businessman Zaren Dalli as his bestman. None of the couple’s family relations were present. “Not even a bridesmaid for his spouse. Not even his parents; especially his parents,” Montebello writes, asking why. The banns had been published months before, since the couple needed dispensations from the respective bishops – him a Catholic, she a Protestant. Neither was Moyra pregnant. “Perhaps Moyra would not have been as yet sufficiently aware that, for better or for worse, her betrothed shielded his privacy with a ferocity that could sometimes be almost preposterous... Quickly will she discover that it would become ever more intense, verging on obsession, as the years went by. When it will be finally eased, Moyra would have been long gone, and so would he. For Dom at long last decided to throw caution to the winds when he set to writing his memoirs in the mid-1990s, knowing perfectly well that they would only see the light of the day, if ever, well after his death.”

Montebello displays the contrast between the unassuming, humble and pious Moyra and Dom the great pretender, larger than life but “the all-too-human Dom nearly nobody could know”. Years later, Dom would cry crocodile tears for his loyal and faithful Moyra, his tower of strength. For in the forthcoming years of his marriage and his immersion into a lucrative profession and full-time politics, together with his sporting passions, Mintoff’s brash and domineering attitude was part of family life at The Olives in Tarxien. “Moyra might have merely put her husband’s bullying down to culture... she was an extremely gentle person. However, her husband’s attitude was not only a question of sternness. At times it was also the mystifying way with which Dom dealt with his wife and daughters, keeping them on edge lest they peeved him in any way. ‘It was as if living in the shadow of a volcano’, one of his daughters affirmed graphically many years later. He rarely if ever commended them.”

Moyra was frugal with money “but not as mean as her husband. Nonetheless, the girls were brought up with second-hand clothes. Even with Dom’s salary from parliament and proceeds from the office, he gave Moyra very little money to run everything in the house and the family, allowing her just a mere £60 a month (some US$470 in today’s purchasing power).” Profoundly religious, Moyra discreetly helped countless vulnerable women make ends meet or doing their shopping.

“Undeniably, Moyra’s life with Dom was no pleasure cruise. Almost nobody outside the Mintoff’s house would ever come to know the anguish she went through living with a husband she barely could speak with. It went on behind closed doors, and Moyra herself ‘guarded this privacy’... Even when, years after Moyra had passed on, Dom confessed that ‘I strained and abused her saintly patience’, this was a gross understatement. To begin with, Dom shouted at Moyra a lot.... ‘You’re so bloody stupid!’ he often yelled at her. ‘A f**king ignoramus!’ He went on and on at it, screaming his head off, like anything.

Dom’s father Lawrence
Dom’s father Lawrence

“Anything could irritate him or trigger off his fury... Moyra never shouted back. She loved him dearly, and it was nigh impossible for the terrified children to comprehend why she put up with him while he went into these terrible invectives, incessantly bellowing from wherever he was, downstairs or upstairs. Though the bullying was habitually more verbal than physical, sometimes Dom did indeed go as far as striking his wife, very often by kicking her hard. Moyra only cried her eyes out. She crept to some corner and wept alone to herself. Sometimes, at night, perhaps when her forbearance was at its limit, she broke down beside her elder daughter’s bed.

“Moyra could not have been happy...”

Seducer Dom

Mintoff’s “closet narcissism”, his fear of dirt or illness as harbingers of premature death, and hence his need for cleanliness and physical exercise, perhaps propelled his insistence that Moyra and his children, Yana and Anne, comply with his foibles. “He vehemently detested for them to have friends of their own... Dom would actually check on Moyra’s and his daughters’ friends, and actually prevent them from meeting them if, for whatever reason, they were not to his liking... for them it was either his crowd or nothing.” Dom made his dislike of Moyra’s family clear early on – they only ever visited once.

Over a 13-year ‘interregnum’ from 1958 to 1971, Dom built a property fortune: 18 separate purchases estimated at present-day values of US$2 million, and 16 sales for US$3m. In 1962 he could afford a Mercedes from West Germany. He had US$80,000 in rents by 1968, a building site he leased out for US$100,000 (together with five others, two of whom his brothers), together with a one-sixth key money for the site of US$1.5 million. Big money for the 1960s where low-grade salaries started at £7 (about today’s US$550) a week. Apart from speculative purchases, he built Ix-Xabbatur at Baħrija and L-Għarix at Delimara, his private hide-outs.

Here he would have enjoyed the company of his confidants, as well as his intimates.

Dom’s public displays hid the reality of his imperfect ‘devotion’ to Moyra, who loved him dearly but which he repaid by ‘abusing her saintly patience’ with his philandering and irascibility. She left the marital home for the UK many a time, at one point Dom calling on British PM Ted Heath to intercede between the couple
Dom’s public displays hid the reality of his imperfect ‘devotion’ to Moyra, who loved him dearly but which he repaid by ‘abusing her saintly patience’ with his philandering and irascibility. She left the marital home for the UK many a time, at one point Dom calling on British PM Ted Heath to intercede between the couple

Moyra would not have been surprised at the story reproduced in July 1977 by the Nationalist Party’s English-language newspaper The Democrat, reproduced from Jack Piler’s report in London tabloid Reveille, on an alleged tryst between Dom and the young actress Charlotte Rampling, during the filming of Orca in Malta (or did he just make a move with her?). The police prosecuted for criminal libel, and the court found for Mintoff. But according to claims by Mintoff confidant Lino Cassar (editor of the satirical Ix-Xewka, also deceased) to the late minister Joe Grima (relayed to Montebello), Dom had taken Rampling to Paradise Bay... “and there became intimate with her.” Truth, or just part of the Mintoff legend?

Many of Mintoff’s close confidants at the time, male and female, opened up to Montebello about the fiery premier’s personal life. “Dom’s chronic unfaithfulness might have been as baffling to Moyra as it perhaps was to Dom himself... Even Dom’s young daughters, aged seven and six, were conscious of it. That was in mid-to-late 1950s. Apparently, Dom’s oft-used subterfuge was to befriend the British or Maltese husband of whichever particular married woman he was interested in, and give both all to frequent access to the family’s intimate life. Tensions at  home mounted as much as they did in Dom’s political career.”

His children were sent to boarding school. But soon, Moyra left in late 1966, fleeing one of his crazy frenzies at home. She would leave Dom again in years to come, returning after promises from him. But as Montebello makes out clearly, Dom’s political battles in these years and in the 1970s, created a severe strain on family life. “Dom very often seemed to value work more than [Moyra]. Subsequent to her daughters’ departure to England, especially between 1963 and 1966, Moyra was terribly lonely. Her husband’s chronic infidelity, which must have been all too obvious to her did not help. Dom could easily cherry-pick from the hundreds of adoring women who flocked to his meetings quite ready to indulge his every bidding. And he did.”

Montebello says his go-between was Lino Cassar, who even arranged private viewings of pornographic movies at the Renters cinema in Valletta’s Zachary Street. “When it came to lovers, Dom had a further helping hand from his friend Louis Naudi, the handsome womaniser architect” (and partner in Prestressed Concrete with Mintoff’s brother Raymond) “who willingly passed some of his girlfriends to Dom,” Montebello writes, speaking to one of Naudi’s draughtsmen at the time. “This must have been of course very taxing on Moyra… Despite his disloyalty and frequent outbursts of rage at home, such devotion must have been incomprehensible to people close enough to see her anguish. It must have been obvious how she was recurrently left on the verge of a complete breakdown,” Montebello writes, speaking to daughter Anne McKenna. In 1966, Moyra upped sticks and left Malta with her daughters, at one point beginning British law proceedings for separation. She returned in 1970, only to discover Dom had never been as lonely as she was made to believe.

Moyra leaves again

Now arriving at his hallmark premiership of the country, Mintoff’s imperiousness and heavy-handed politics came to the fore; his own private practice appears to have flourished through his faithful architect Louis Naudi; and between 1982 and 1990, he sold eight pieces of land that yielded him an income of some US$13 million in today’s economic value. Also now his rage-control became notoriously out of hand, both at work and at home. Moyra left again in 1972 while Dom was negotiating the British defence finance deal. He asked British prime minister Ted Health to intercede with his estranged wife, successfully.

But then in 1973, she left him again. And here Montebello details in a harsh light yet another disputed, but so talked-about excerpt of the Mintoff legend – relayed to him by Dom’s private secretary Joe Camilleri and daughter Anne. “Shortly after Moyra’s flight, Dom brought home to live and sleep with him the 50-year-old wife of his younger brother Daniel. Astrid, eight years Dom’s junior, made herself quite at home, and acted accordingly. Her husband, however, could not take it for too long. On one particular occasion, on 22 February 1974, he came to blows with his brother, and Dom ended up in hospital with serious head injuries which needed being operated upon. Thirty stitches were required,” Montebello says.

Mintoff with GWU general secretary Matty Grima (right). Behind Grima is ‘Kelly’ Fenech
Mintoff with GWU general secretary Matty Grima (right). Behind Grima is ‘Kelly’ Fenech

The family of Daniel Mintoff object to this representation of the incident. A former Times of Malta newspaperman also took issue with Montebello’s assertion that Mabel Strickland, the Times of Malta proprietor, covered up the lewd story by letting it out that Dom had fallen from his horse at Delimara. But Strickland’s decision was relayed to Montebello by Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici. Moyra returned in 1974. “Dom’s ugly scar on his forehead remained a memento for the rest of his life. He persisted in seeing Astrid covertly nonetheless” – so was the author told by Maria Camilleri.

Many years later in December 1991, compromising photos of the couple were produced in parliament by Lorry Sant, the former Labour minister, in a threat to Astrid’s son Wenzu Mintoff, then a Labour MP on the warpath against the corrupt Sant. The photos were secreted away by the Speaker, and remain under lock and key to this day. As told to Montebello by Dom’s anointed successor Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, the photos had been passed on to Sant by Mikelanġ ‘Kelly’ Fenech.

Maria Camilleri, one of Montebello’s sources and a confidant of Dom Mintoff
Maria Camilleri, one of Montebello’s sources and a confidant of Dom Mintoff

It is often disputed that Dom actually won the affections of the actress Vanessa Redgrave in 1978. Be that as it may, Montebello states that Mintoff never relented in his philandering. “His flings, both with foreign and local girls persisted even when... he took a steady lover thirty-six years his junior. Marica (not her real name) was a stunning 23-year-old who volunteered to help the Labour Party during the 1975/76 electoral campaign,” as told to him by ‘Marica’, who would have been born in 1952. “She certainly got more than she dreamed of bargaining for. Dom fell head over heels for her. As might be expected, l-Għarix became their alcove, as it was for most of the other girls. Marica, however, was different since she and Dom forged a truly earnest bond. On and off the relationship remained for more than three decades.”

Moyra and Dom had prepared their will in August 1979, and again in July 1997. “Monetary means apart, their fortune of immovable property, made up of thirty-two pieces of property in nine different localities of Malta, amounted to around US$12m in today’s economic value.”

Scarface: Montebello says Mintoff’s brother came to blows with him after the latter’s wife moved in with her brother-in-law when Moyra upped sticks in 1974
Scarface: Montebello says Mintoff’s brother came to blows with him after the latter’s wife moved in with her brother-in-law when Moyra upped sticks in 1974

Man of a thousand myths

Time was not kind on Mintoff. Even with all the affluence he could enjoy, Dom grew paranoid, obsessing with foreign spies hounding him at home, a fact that exposed him to public ridicule. “His neglect of himself, maybe also medically, seemed to be hastening an irreversible deterioration process... it became a frequent occurrence for people in the streets to see a scruffily-dressed diminutive 94-year-old Dom tottering alone with leaden plastic-bags in hand as if going somewhere, talking to himself, lost in some reverie of his own. It was heart-breaking. On Thursday, 16 September 2010, Dom’s final passion commenced.... the first of seven hospitalisations in the next two years.... Even if in the offing for a long time, when death came to Dom in the evening of Monday, 20 August 2012, at his home in Tarxien, just fourteen days after his 96th birthday, the nation was stunned.”

Indeed – as Montebello prefaces his seminal work – Mintoff’s memory is matted with a thousand myths. But Dom’s memoirs and his biographer have separated the wheat from the chaff. Montebello did not give us Mintoff. He gave us Dom, the man “devoid of the embellishments and disfigurements which mutated his public image, both by him and by others, mainly for political reasons.”

Montebello knows very well that his work is disappointing, right now, those who expected a eulogy or denunciation of Mintoff. But it would be crude to rob Dom of the complexity that all men and women of action, of historical note, possess. “It would be unreliable to... try to unlock his individuality with a single key... presuming to understand the man in one sniff as if he were a child’s open book.” Montebello, by being granted passage into the Mintoff’s secret world, is allowing us to marvel, with him, at the contradictions, triumphs and regrets of one of Malta’s enduring men of power.

Right of reply

The family of Dom Mintoff has made it known that it considers the Montebello biography to contain unsubstantiated allegations. A full statement is carried here.