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Obituaries

Denis Thatcher, 88; Prime Minister's Husband

June 27, 2003|From Staff and Wire Reports

Sir Denis Thatcher, the well-regarded but often-lampooned husband of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, died Thursday. He was 88.

Thatcher died at London's Lister Hospital, a family spokesman said. He underwent coronary bypass surgery in January and had been hospitalized for several weeks.

Born into an upper-middle-class family, Thatcher took over his grandfather's paint and chemicals company after serving in World War II as an army officer. He sold the family company in 1965 but remained in the business until he retired.

His first marriage ended in divorce, and in 1951 he married 26-year-old Margaret Roberts, with whom he had two children. The couple moved to 10 Downing St. after his wife led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979. They remained there until 1990, when she was ousted in a party revolt.

That same year, Queen Elizabeth appointed Margaret Thatcher a member of the Order of Merit and her husband received a baronetcy, entitling them to be addressed as Lady Thatcher and Sir Denis.

Lady Thatcher, 77, suffered a series of small strokes last year that forced her to give up most public speaking engagements.

Before that, she turned down an invitation to visit the Falkland Islands to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1982 war between Britain and Argentina because of her husband's poor health.

Famous as his wife was, Denis Thatcher became a character in his own right, tossing off bon mots and cheerfully enduring being characterized as a henpecked gin drinker who was obsessed with golf.

Although he never denied he enjoyed his golf and gin-and-tonics, the exaggerated view of him stemmed mostly from articles in the satirical magazine Private Eye, which ran spoof letters from Thatcher to a golfing pal, Bill Deedes, now Lord Deedes, former editor of London's Daily Telegraph.

"It was an awful long way from the real Denis Thatcher, who was an immensely successful businessman and a very sharp operator," John Whittingdale, former political secretary to Margaret Thatcher, said Thursday. "But he didn't resent the fact that he was portrayed in this way, and occasionally played up to it."

A fictional Denis Thatcher was the basis of a 1982 stage play, "Anyone for Denis?"

Thatcher's motto for his job as first spouse was: "Always present, never there." He avoided talking to the press, once commenting, "Whales don't get killed until they spout."

He made an exception recently for his journalist daughter, Carol Thatcher, for a TV documentary. In the interview, he disclosed that he "never commented at all" on what his wife said in her speeches.

"Most of the time I said, 'It was a jolly good speech,' and most of the time it was," he said. "I reckoned I was there to help -- shadow on the wall, out of sight out of mind, if necessary."

Despite his modesty, most who knew the couple believed that Denis Thatcher was vital to his wife's political career.

"He was the archetypal Englishman of the old school: immensely courteous, very thoughtful, very generous and immensely supportive of all that Margaret Thatcher achieved," Whittingdale said.

Others who knew him also had high praise for him Thursday.

"Denis' loyalty, his love of life outside politics, his occasional eccentricities and foibles earned him the affection of many millions and made him a national institution," said former Conservative Prime Minister John Major.

Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith said that Thatcher was "one of the most decent, determined and kind people that we have known -- in a world that so often seems to have lost its manners, [he] represented so much of what was best in the wartime generation."

On Thursday, Prime Minister Tony Blair opened his news conference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin with a tribute to Sir Denis, calling him "a kind and generous-hearted man, a real gentleman."

Margaret Thatcher called him "the golden thread running through my life."

In the TV interview with his daughter, Denis Thatcher said, "You've only got one life to live and it isn't a rehearsal -- you might as well enjoy it."

He added, "And in the enjoying I like to think I was useful -- not very useful, but I was useful."

Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by a son and two grandchildren.

Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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