Fame and fortune: Amanda Foreman The biographer’s heroine had no sense of money

Amanda Foreman wrote the bestselling biography The Duchess, which inspired the new film starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. The book, also known as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, won the Whitbread prize for Best Biography in 1999.

Born in London in 1968, Foreman grew up in Los Angeles with an English mother and an American father, Carl Foreman, an Oscar-winning screenwriter whose films include High Noon.

Since publication of The Duchess, Foreman has worked as a presenter of TV and radio histories including Wellington’s Women on Channel 4. She also writes for newspapers and magazines.

Foreman lives between London and New York with her investment banker husband Jonathan and their children Helena, six, Theo, five, Halcyon, three, and twins Xanthe and Hero, 14 months.

How much money do you have in your wallet?

£200 and about $200. I bought sandwiches on the motorway on the way up to Chatsworth [the Devonshire family seat]. My husband and I drove up and decided it was the perfect place to spend time alone together.

Do you prefer cash or cards?

I am a card person. We pay off everything at the end of the month.

I am the worst person to talk to about money. I share one trait with Georgiana, which is that I try to hide bills under the desk or in the drawer or under the carpet if possible. We bank with HSBC, and my credit card is with them as well.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I veer between the two extremes — a kind of binge saver. I have recently spent a lot of money on books.

Often the books I consult are out of print and so I have a lot of antique publications hanging around. I usually look for them online at specialist websites.

However, I remember a few years after The Duchess came out, I spent £500 on a beautiful leather-bound edition of the The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire by Gibbon, which I was very proud of and still have.

What property do you own?

A battered three-bedroom, 19th-century terrace in Fulham.

I’ve had it for about 17 years and bought it for £160,000 with some help from my mother after my father died. I would say it is definitely worth more than £500,000 now.

The place is a bit small for us now, though. When we come to London, all the children sleep in the same bedroom because Jonathan and I use one of the rooms and we still rent out the other.

The lodger has been with us for about eight years so he’s become part of the family — he writes speeches for a top politician. Besides, he looks after the house. We only charge £75 a week.

We have to find somewhere soon because I don’t think we can squeeze everybody in like this anymore.

We live most of the time in New York, where we rent. It’s where I do my research on the American Civil War. I went over eight years ago and have kind of stayed there ever since.

Why have you never bought in the US?

I’ve always thought I’d come back to Britain so I never got round to buying. Besides, where we are, in Manhattan, the prices are still astronomical despite the housing slump — a $5m property is now offered at a bargain price of $4.8m, or something like that!

Have you ever been hard up?

No. You can’t go to university and say that you’ve been hard up. Being unable to buy a new pair of shoes is different to having to stay in a hostel because it was either that or the street.

Most people in writing are scratching a living. I was a graduate student at Oxford until I was 30. Some of my contemporaries were earning anything up to £50,000.

I got some money from the Henrietta Jex-Blake bursary although it was something like £1,000 for the year.

My parents helped me out as well. I also made a small income by reviewing books for some of the nationals — mostly because I begged the editors. I’m sure that kind of thing doesn’t work anymore. And of course, there was the rental income.

How much was in your first pay packet?

My first job after I graduated was working at The Week magazine. Jeremy O’Grady was my boss and I was foreign editor. I was paid £90 a week part-time.

How much did you earn last year?

I didn’t earn a penny because I was very ill, so I didn’t work at all — I didn’t leave my room for six months.

My husband was the most amazing saint looking after me — three children and a wife expecting twins.

What is the most lucrative work you have ever done?

I think writing for American magazines because they pay extremely well. The standard is £1 a word, but I think the most I got was $5 a word for one of the big glossies.

The single most lucrative work was giving a 45-minute talk in Palm Beach about The Duchess a few years after it was published. I think I got paid $10,000.

What about your fee for the film version of The Duchess?

I sold the rights for the film eight years ago for a six-figure sum. How much nicer, though, would it have been if I’d sold the rights yesterday — I could easily have doubled it.

Were you involved in the filming?

My role during the filming was to spend 10 days on set with the characters in order to provide the cast with a historical perspective. Over the years there were many drafts but while the script was in development my role was to be a sounding board. I am very happy with the results.

Do you invest in shares?

No. I don’t really understand them. I think what always attracted me to Georgiana was that she had the world’s worst sense of money. I don’t have a gambling problem but I can’t bring myself to balance my books.

Property or pension?

I personally can’t stand thinking about it.

Are you financially better off than your parents?

I have no idea of their financial position. My father was a screenwriter and settled in England after he was blacklisted during the McCarthy period.

As a filmmaker at the time, he had quite left-wing views. He also belonged to the Communist party when he was a teenager. He was a man of great principles and refused to name names when he was asked to reveal any Communist friends.

After being blacklisted it meant he couldn’t work in America. They also threatened to take away his passport, but he managed to get out and move to the UK just before they did. In 1991 Irwin Winkler made a film which is loosely based on his life, called ‘Guilty by Suspicion.

What has been your best investment?

I showed some great financial promise when I was 14, and asked my father to invest in some shares for me with my $100 of savings. It was really for a lark, but he actually invested it in a Costa Rican racetrack that he and some of his friends were investing in anyway.

It turned out to be a great little earner. For about six or seven years I think I got between $10 and $200 at the end of each year as a dividend payment.

And your worst?

When I think about how much money I have invested in my garden and how everything in it dies every year it has been a total money pit.

What aspect of the taxation system would you change?

I agree with [my friend] George Osborne’s raising the inheritance threshold to £1m — meaning married couples get £2m — because as a mother of five children I obviously want them to inherit as much as possible.

I would also change the way they tax royalties and advances. You have to pay in a lump sum every year, and as someone who is self-employed, it’s not always easy to set aside the correct amount for tax.

What is the most extravagant thing you have bought?

I bought a painting by Mary Fedden about eight years ago for £14,000. It was at the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. It was absolutely beautiful and I went mad and just bought it.

When you have children your extravagances either get turned off or get turned towards them.

What lessons have you learnt about money?

Not to spend foolishly. There are two things in me screaming to get out. One is a fat person desperate to get out and the other is a notorious spendthrift.

Copyright© 2008 The Times