Charles William Donaldson
(4 January 1935 - 22 June 2005) was an English satirist, writer, playboy and, under the pseudonym of Henry Root
, author of The Henry Root Letters
Donaldson enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Sunningdale, Berkshire as the son of a shipping magnate. He was educated at Winchester College, and during his national service he met Julian Mitchell who introduced him to art galleries. Donaldson discovered prostitutes himself. While studying English at Magdalene College, Cambridge, he was orphaned and inherited a substantial fortune. He spent some of that inheritance supporting young writers such as his contemporaries Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
On graduation, Donaldson became associated with the set surrounding Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and worked as a theatrical producer. He married Sonia Avory in 1957 and she bore him his only child, Charlie. However, a sequence of affairs followed, including liaisons with Sarah Miles and Jacki Ellis, the wife of Jeffrey Bernard. He established himself as a central player in the UK satire boom of the early 1960s as co-producer, with Donald Albery, of Beyond the Fringe
(1960), and of dramatisations of J. P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man
(1959) and Spike Milligan's The Bed-Sitting Room
(1963). The pair earned a weekly £2,000 from Fringe
when the principal performers, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, were earning only £75.
However, he managed, not for the last time, to squander his fortune. Apart from supporting a debauched lifestyle of prostitutes and recreational drug use, he underwrote Bob Dylan's disastrous British debut at Peter Cook's Establishment Club. He abandoned Sarah Miles for Carly Simon whom he described as "the answer to any sane man's prayers; funny, quick, erotic, extravagantly talented" but this did not prevent him from jilting her once they were engaged. In 1968, he inherited another fortune and married Claire Gordon, the couple becoming the epitome of 1960s Swinging London. Donaldson later remembered "sex, whether in company or not, has been the only department in life in which I have demanded from anyone taking part the very highest standards of seriousness."
In 1971, Donaldson left for Ibiza where he imprudently spent his last £2,000 on a glass-bottomed boat. Before long he was scavenging for food on the beach. Returning to London, he found refuge with a former girlfriend who was running a brothel on the Fulham Road. His experiences there formed the basis of his first novel Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen
However, it was to be his fictional correspondent Henry Root that made him a final fortune. Root's satirical lampooning of the wealthy, famous and influential was retold in the books:
- The Henry Root Letters (1980),
- The Further Letters of Henry Root (1980),
- Henry Root’s World of Knowledge (1982),
- Henry Root’s A-Z of Women: "The Definitive Guide" (1985),
- The Soap Letters (1988),
- Root into Europe (1992), and
- Root about Britain (1994).
He lived at Elm Park Mansions on Park Walk, Chelsea, from which all the Root letters were sent.
His biographical survey of roguish Britons through the ages, Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics
(2002) has been described as a triumph of misdirected scholarship.
The phenomenal success of the books, especially the first, enabled Donaldson to resume his chaotic lifestyle and in the 1990s he became addicted to crack cocaine. He was survived by his third wife Cherry Hatrick.