Vanessa Branson — sister of the Virgin entrepreneur — has revealed how her life fell apart when her husband left her and their four young children.
Here, in the concluding part of her devastatingly frank memoir, she reveals how she later had a boob job, took a lover — and astonishingly, tried to make her marriage work again…
A year after my husband, Robert, left me for a younger woman, I was still struggling. Our four children were so young — aged from just two to nine — and it made my heart ache to see them so sad.
One day, Louis, who is dyslexic, told me: ‘Mummy, I know why Daddy’s gone and it’s all my fault.’
‘Oh my darling Lou,’ I replied. ‘It’s not your fault. Why do you think it’s because of you?’
Vanessa Branson – sister of the Virgin entrepreneur – has laid herself bare in a frank memoir
‘He left because I can’t read and write,’ he said, burying his head in my lap.
It’s impossible to hold a weeping six-year-old boy who’s blaming himself for his parents’ separation and not feel a surge of anger towards the woman who has taken his father away from him.
Certainly, rather than blame Robert, the easiest narrative for me to grasp was that a 26-year-old had offered a man overburdened with responsibilities an exit route, along with plenty of ego-massaging and sex.
Meanwhile, I was fast approaching 40 and drinking too much. Being continuously topped up was draining me of self-esteem — and sometimes of self-control.
That year, in 1997, I was also facing my first summer holiday without the children — two full weeks. We never resorted to lawyers for matters of access or assets, and my parents would be taking them to Robert while I flew to Los Angeles to see a friend.
As I was waving the children off, Louis lay on the floor, clinging to my ankle and wailing uncontrollably.
When the other children began to cry, my usually restrained father said under his breath: ‘That f***ing man — how could he do this to his children?’
Eventually, they all left hand in hand, and I made it to my flight just in time. My friend, Fiona, picked me up from the airport.
The split with Robert Devereux left Vanessa feeling both grief and anger at the same time – she would later allow him back into her life following a family holiday in Venice
‘My God, Ness, you look absolutely dreadful!’ she said.
Driving along the highway, she continued: ‘What you need is a nice little boob job.’
‘Fiona, don’t be so ridiculous,’ I replied. ‘It’s the last thing I need.’
‘Don’t be such a prude, Ness. Everyone does it here.’
‘That may be so,’ I told her, ‘but I’m completely against plastic surgery. It’s superficial, and anyway, I’m rather fond of my boobs — they’re just a bit deflated because I’m so thin.’
Fi was focused on her goal: ‘I know this brilliant surgeon in Beverly Hills. He does all the stars. Honestly, Ness, he’s brilliant.’
‘Fi,’ I replied, already feeling somewhat worn down, ‘I’m honestly not interested.’
The next day, we were sitting in the surgeon’s office. Before I knew what was happening, he was drawing dotted lines around my bosoms with a Magic Marker.
‘Please, I’m really not sure,’ I said lamely. He had a cancellation the next day, and offered us two boob jobs for the price of one.
I went in first. After an hour or two in theatre, the doctor went to check with Fiona what size of implants I’d asked for.
‘Ness asked for Meg Ryans,’ she told him. Apparently, he went ashen and rushed out. It appeared he’d made an error and implanted Monroes.
The pain I felt on regaining consciousness was indescribable. My chest was in spasm, my blood pressure began to drop alarmingly and I was losing the ability to speak. ‘I think I’m going to die, Fi,’ I whispered.
Paramedics jammed me in the service elevator. In intensive care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, I blew up to such an extent that a nurse had to cut off my rings. My liver was struggling, along with my kidneys. The surgeon defensively explained that my post-op collapse was my own fault for not telling him how much I’d been drinking. A few years later, he’d lose his licence to practise medicine.
Thankfully I did end up with the Megs, with no need for another op to fix matters.
Do I regret the episode? Well, it would have been a bloody silly way to die. And it’s true that, if I hadn’t been in that vulnerable emotional state, I’d never have elected to do something so invasive.
Slowly, my confidence began to return, though this had less to do with my new boobs than my decision to stop drinking after my near-death experience.
One night in London, my friend, Lindy, invited me to supper to introduce me to a softly spoken windsurfing champion who’d recently split from his girlfriend. He was a complete Adonis, and in a moment of madness I slipped my phone number into the breast pocket of his shirt.
He rang to arrange a date. Before we met, I joined a friend in the pub. ‘Be warned, Vanessa,’ she cautioned. ‘The first time I went to bed with a man after my divorce, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I just couldn’t stop crying.’
Vanessa pictured with Richard (right) at Eve Branson ‘Mum’s the Word’ book launch in 2013
I met the surfer at a bar, determined to feel strong. We rather hastily found ourselves back at Lindy’s house, kissing and losing ourselves in each other’s chemistry.
‘I can deal with this,’ I thought, as I ran my hands up and down his delightful muscular arms. ‘I’m not going to cry.’
I looked into his dreamy blue eyes — and thought I detected a tear. Then I felt his body emit a barely disguised sob. ‘I’m so sorry, Vanessa,’ he said. ‘It’s just too soon for me — I miss my girlfriend.’
I felt instant relief as we blew out the candle beside the bed and snuggled down, spooning like two children on a sleepover.
A few months later, I reluctantly accepted an invitation to a wedding in Kent, and found myself seated next to the groom’s brother. The groom’s very handsome brother.
He told me his wife had recently left him, and an hour later, we were kissing behind the marquee alongside a gaggle of snogging teenagers. We met up subsequently: I’d go to his flat, where we’d talk and make love under the stern gaze of his ancestral portraits. Then we’d talk some more, both of us grieving the loss of our previous partners.
Enough! I cut out a headline from a newspaper and stuck it on my fridge: ‘GIVE UP MEN AND TAKE UP THINKING INSTEAD.’
It was now two years since Robert had left me. With the children all at school or nursery, I started working again for the first time since the early Nineties — among other things, setting up an art fund for investors, with a friend.
Robert was no longer working for Virgin; at the time he and his girlfriend first hooked up, he’d just negotiated selling his shares and was working out his notice. Yet overwhelming sadness would still catch me unawares, a sickening, all-encompassing grief that I couldn’t throw off.
On one of my feeling-sorry-for-myself days, another friend — Caroline, known as Pidge, who’d recently been left by her husband, Matthew Freud — invited me to dinner. Among the guests was Howell James, who’d been an aide to John Major.
His partner had run off with Peter Mandelson, so the three of us sat at one end of the table, licking our wounds.
Vanessa, pictured seated on the floor at the the Marrakech Biennale, knew she needed to turn her life back around, for her own sake and for the children
In 2001, the children and I holidayed at a palazzo in Venice along with Howell and several friends. Plus Robert — five years after he’d walked out on me.
I can’t even recall how he came to join us. Nor do I remember the discussion we must have had about the dearth of bedrooms, which meant we had to share one.
Why did I allow Robert to re-enter our lives? His departure had profoundly unsettled our family, and we were just beginning to thrive again. Yet I still remembered the good times, and deep down I knew the children would be better off if we were united as parents during their teenage years (our eldest was now 13.)
As for Robert, he missed home, the family and the comfort of knowing he was doing the right thing. I missed all these things, too, but I also missed Robert — the Robert I still loved.
When we came home from Venice, he just sort of moved into the home in London we’d once shared. And I clung to the belief that our family had strong enough foundations to give us a chance of rebuilding a meaningful life together.
To draw a line under our old, contaminated marriage, we visited our divorce lawyers and signed the decree absolute, which we’d never got round to. ‘I wish all our divorcing couples came in looking so happy and in love,’ said one lawyer, as Robert and I hugged each other when the paperwork had been completed.
We were still in a state of shock at finding ourselves back living together. But while I yearned to rebuild trust, security and love, from the day of his return Robert was looking for any reason not to be at home.
Rather like a schoolboy trying to stop his neighbour copying his homework, he seemed to be hiding chunks of his life from me, developing a business in Africa and spending an increasing amount of time away. Each time he boarded a plane, I felt the same sense of abandonment as when he’d left me.
Worse, Robert still felt the need to justify having left his young family, focusing only on the negatives of my character, viewing everything I said through a dark prism.
Inevitably, this took its toll on my confidence.
He also seemed unable to acknowledge the suffering that his actions had inflicted on us.
In retrospect, choosing to step backwards was verging on the suicidal. At times, it felt like he’d returned home to torture me with his unhappiness; for to live with someone you’re unable to love is an act of indescribable cruelty.
Of course, the elephant in the room was the 26-year-old he’d been having an affair with when he left. I couldn’t even mention her name, for fear I’d be making her real and inviting her to re-enter our lives.
Robert kept asking me to give him time, but as the months passed I became even more depressed and insecure. Seeing myself reflected in his cold eyes dragged me ever lower.
Our friends and family were overjoyed to see us living as a family, so we had little option but to play along. But we were only just managing to hold it together.
One Sunday morning, about five years after Robert’s return, he made a particularly hurtful verbal assault. I stopped kidding myself and gave in to a good weep. A couple of days later, I began to feel excessively tired.
That Wednesday, an X-ray revealed that my left lung had collapsed. A specialist told me that the collapse had probably been precipitated by heavy weeping, and that I needed an operation.
When I came home from hospital, I felt totally exhausted — to the point that dying didn’t seem like such a bad option. At least there’d be no more pain.
Still, Robert and I stayed together. And life flashed by at a fearsome pace, with the four children fast becoming adults. Eleven years after his return, we all travelled up to Eilean Shona, the small Scottish island he’d insisted on us buying many years before.
It was summer. Flanked by friends in kayaks, we took our motorboat to the mainland for a picnic on a beach.
As we embarked for home in late afternoon, I decided to swim back to the island.
‘I’m not sure this is a good idea, Ness,’ Robert said.
The idea of swimming the two miles home made me feel sick with apprehension, but something was driving me on.
Something buried deep inside me wanted to prove that I was worthy of Robert, that I was unbreakable — even if it killed me. I’d never embarked on a swim this ambitious before. And bloody hell, it was cold.
After about half an hour, I noticed my fingers begin to curl, forming a fist rather than a paddle, as every spare drop of blood retreated to my core.
Kick, kick, crawl, breathe. And then suddenly the effort was just too great. I stopped swimming and felt peace flood my being. I just wanted to sleep. No more struggle.
As I closed my eyes, I saw the smiling faces of each of my children. Somehow, I kicked on, strength arriving from nowhere.
Arriving at our jetty at last, I sat for a second on the concrete before passing out. A friend carried me back to the house, where my daughter plunged me into a hot bath — undoubtedly saving my life.
I remember floating down through a dark-green, velvet-lined tunnel. At the same time, I could hear Flo shouting: ‘Come back, Mummy — don’t leave us. Wake up!’
After that swim, I knew I had to turn my life around. The way to do this was not only to stop battling upstream, I realised, but to get out of the water altogether.
Robert and I were ‘talked-out’ — there was nothing more to say. I was still hurt, smarting from a sense of injustice, and he was still angry at my inability to understand. It was time to let him go free.
So I sold our rambling London family home of 20 years. And when we moved out, I drove in one direction while Robert drove off in another. Within months, he had a new girlfriend.
But still the demons hovered, their ugly chants asking: ‘Where did you go wrong?’, ‘How could you have failed your children like that?’ and ‘If only you’d done it differently . . . ’
It’s now January 2018. I am 58. I settle down to read my emails – and, unexpectedly, there’s one from Robert.
I want to try to keep this short and clear. I accept sole and complete responsibility for ending our marriage.
For over 20 years, I have allowed my attempts to explain and understand what happened to obscure the truth. Which is that whatever the circumstances of our relationship and whatever my state of mind, it was me that jumped ship, shattered my marriage vows and reneged on my commitments to those that I love most.
It was my actions, for which I take sole responsibility, that caused such a mountain of pain and suffering to you and to our children.
Sorry is a completely inadequate word in the circumstances but sorry I am — deeply, deeply. You have every right to be angry . . .
If I could wind back the clock and behave differently, I would. I would pay more attention, be more caring of our relationship, be more aware of mine and of your feelings and not enter into an extramarital affair.
But these words amount to nothing. I don’t know what I can do apart from leave you in peace…
Adapted by Corinna Honan from One Hundred Summers: A Family Story by Vanessa Branson (£20, Mensch) out May 21. © Vanessa Branson 2020. To order a copy, visit bloomsbury.com and online bookshops.