Sister of billionaire Richard Branson lays bare the emotional fallout

Torment of a Branson betrayed: The sister of billionaire Richard Branson had four small children when her husband confessed he was in love with a 26-year-old. In her searingly honest new memoir, she lays bare the savage emotional fallout

  • Vanessa Branson has penned a memoir about her husband Robert’s infidelity   
  • Couple had houses in London and Sussex, after getting married in 1983 
  • Mother-of-four said Robert’s affair made her go from coping to borderline insane

On the weekend that everything changed, we were at our farmhouse in Sussex. Our four small children — including the youngest, Ivo, who’d recently turned one — were finally asleep and I’d settled down to stick photographs into an album.

Some were of my husband Robert and our naked babies running into the sea in Scotland, hand in hand, whooping as they hit the freezing water, him throwing each laughing child high up in the sky.

As I stuck them in the album, I was happy and relaxed. Then Robert came into the kitchen and asked: ‘Would you like a glass of wine, Ness?’

He sat down opposite me, not speaking. Then, quite out of the blue, he said: ‘Ness, I’ve got something to tell you.’

Vanessa Branson (pictured) reflected on discovering that her husband Robert, had been having an affair with a 26-year-old 

There followed a long pause. ‘I’ve fallen in love with someone else.’ I carried on sticking photos as my stomach turned to liquid, my heart raced and our future flashed before me as if I were drowning. I couldn’t speak.

Sweat began streaming down my back, as if I’d been bitten by a rattlesnake.

The phone rang in Robert’s study next door, and he got up to answer it. I could hear his voice through the wall. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid she hasn’t taken it very well.’

At that moment, I realised this was not something the two of us could work out on our own. There was someone else in the room, and that person was intent on invading our lives.

I’d met Robert many years before while visiting a friend at Cambridge University. Then an undergraduate, he was 6ft 2in, clever and opinionated, with unruly blond hair.

Cupid had fired a direct hit: I visited Cambridge every other weekend for the next two years. Later, Robert ended up taking over the publishing arm of Virgin, the company started by my brother Richard, while I embarked on a career as an art curator.

Infidelity didn’t cross either of our minds. And although there were times Robert threatened to overpower me with the force of his personality, I weighed these nagging doubts up against the positives: he was never dull and I couldn’t imagine loving another man more.

Vanessa claims the years sped by after she married Robert in 1983, at her parents’ local church. Pictured: Robert and Vanessa sharing a kiss 

In 1983, at my parents’ local church, we said our vows — and I became so overwhelmed I had to use one of his gloves to wipe my tears and streaming nose.

Afterwards, my brother congratulated Robert by throwing him in my parents’ pool, rendering our marriage certificate a soggy, illegible mess.

We left the party in a hail of whoops for the inn where we’d booked the honeymoon suite.

When we arrived in the oak-beamed room, Robert asked: ‘Did I notice you having a cigarette during the reception?’

‘Well, I may have had a puff,’ I laughed.

He didn’t find it funny. ‘You promised me you’d give up smoking when we got married . . . Honestly, Vanessa, I’m disgusted by you,’ he said. ‘If you smoke one more time, I’ll divorce you.’

I stopped smiling, realising he was deadly serious. He really was going to make a big scene about this, on tonight of all nights. I didn’t know it, but the culture of our marriage had been set.

When you’re newly married, you can’t admit you’re unhappy to anyone — not even yourself. I was convinced we were just having teething troubles. However, the reality was that our patterns of behaviour became entrenched.

Everything I did became an unconscious attempt to please Robert. For instance, I became defiantly stoic because he hated illness, dismissing it as a sign of weakness.

Why did I allow him to dominate me so? The answer is that Robert was 90 per cent wonderful. I revelled in his energetic company and wallowed in his sweet smell, the texture of his skin, his open smile. Let’s be straight here, he was pretty damned sexy. I loved him deeply.

The years sped by. In 1986, I opened my own art gallery in Notting Hill. Robert started a film arm of Virgin, called Virgin Vision. In 1987, our first child, Noah, was born, then Florence and Louis — three babies in three years.

Vanessa said she turned a blind eye when her husband was struggling with the pressure of work and family life. Pictured: The couple’s wedding day

Why did I then get pregnant again? Obviously, I felt our family had someone missing. But in taking the plunge unilaterally, boy did I go about it in the wrong way.

I also turned a blind eye to the fact my husband was struggling under the pressure of work and family life.

Nothing I did seemed right: I bought the wrong coffee, socks went missing, the Christmas tree was crooked. And Robert was finding the chaos of small children infuriating.

Meanwhile he was facing 40, and like many men that age, clutching at straws in the hope of retaining his youthful vigour.

His first straw was buying a farmhouse in Sussex — and when this didn’t do the trick, he said it had always been his dream to own a Scottish island.

We didn’t need another house, and we certainly didn’t need an island, so I sulked as he drove me — heavily pregnant — to view one that looked promising.

Buying Eilean Shona was an act of lunacy: it consisted of over 2,000 acres crying out for attention, and a house with a leaking roof and ancient boiler. The day after we completed, in March 1995, I gave birth to Ivo, our fourth child.

Robert hated the cliché of leaving his 37-year-old wife for a 26-year-old. In order to reconcile the misery their actions were causing, he had to prove no one had ever experienced a love like this before.

‘She’s like heroin — I know I have to give her up,’ he said once, wringing his hands. ‘I know it’s difficult for you, but you have no idea how much I’m suffering.’

He wanted me to give him three months. ‘Then I’ll know which direction to go in,’ he promised.

Vanessa said she hated lying to the children when Robert would go away with his girlfriend. Pictured: Vanessa and Robert with three of their children

I can’t believe I had so little self-esteem that I agreed, but I’ve since found out this is common with an affair.

During those three dreadful months, I lost weight, functioned on a few hours’ sleep per night and drank for Britain. To describe the pain as torture is no exaggeration, for this is a pain inflicted knowingly by a person you love deeply.

I hated lying to the kids when they asked where Robert occasionally went off to, knowing full well that he was yomping around the Kenyan bush or languishing on a Mexican beach with his girlfriend.

One day, between their travels, the phone rang. It was her, asking to speak to Robert. ‘No, you can’t,’ I said, almost laughing at her audacity. ‘Do you have any idea of the damage you’re causing to our family?’

‘But I love him,’ she replied.

‘So do we. All of us.’

Silence. A few seconds later, she put down the phone.

A doctor friend thought counselling would help, but reader, never contemplate couples therapy when your partner is high on the dopamine of furtive sex — it is, without doubt, the most humiliating experience I’ve had to endure.

Vanessa admits negative thoughts flooded her brain and kept her awake, as Robert continued to deceive her. Pictured: Vanessa with her brother Richard Branson

I could see Robert’s eyes literally roll in boredom as the therapist greeted us with: ‘Now tell me, what seems to be the problem?’

Once three months had passed, Robert told me his affair was over. Yet he couldn’t stop deceiving us. Each fresh discovery, whether a hotel receipt or some foreign change on a bedside table, was like a fresh snake-bite.

It eats into your soul. Negative thoughts flooded my brain as I lay awake in bed: you’re not pretty enough, not young enough, not clever enough, not wise enough, not sexy enough, not witty enough, not enough, enough, enough.

In retrospect, I should have shown Robert the door the minute he told me his heart was elsewhere. There would have been fewer lies to bear and more time to heal. Yet I believe even now that we were essentially a good couple and could have addressed our issues.

That first summer, six months after he’d told me about the affair, we went on holiday to Eilean Shona, cautiously tip-toeing around each other. I was naively optimistic — until Robert announced he had an urgent business meeting in London.

That night, I learned he’d taken his girlfriend straight down to our Sussex farmhouse. I lay on the kitchen table and wailed.

Not long afterwards, I took the kids to visit Mum and Dad. The children were convinced my parents had excluded Robert from the trip because they didn’t approve of him — it was time to tell them the truth.

Vanessa (pictured) said the children would get anxious when he came to the house and disappointed when he didn’t 

The boys cried silently, while Flo became hysterical. ‘Is Daddy’s girlfriend prettier than me, Mummy?’ she wailed.

I’ll never forget holding each child’s chin, looking them in the eye and telling them I would never lie to them again. It was one step in the right direction.

Soon after, Robert told me yet again he’d ended his affair, and once again I found out that wasn’t the case. ‘How dare you accuse me of lying?’ he said, even though the evidence was right before my eyes.

I was a wreck: I found it hard to be civilised when we spoke, yet yearned for him to come home. The kids were getting anxious when he came to the house and disappointed when he didn’t.

One day, I asked him how he could pursue his own happiness while causing such lasting emotional damage to his children. ‘It’s strange, Ness,’ he said, ‘but I can’t help thinking that having a broken childhood will make them into more interesting adults — more creative in some way.’

What the f***! Yet I still thought he simply needed time to ‘sort himself out’, and a large part of me was still in love with him. That autumn, our friend Hamish encouraged Robert to take me to Ravello in Italy for a romantic weekend. The autumn weather was soft. We were, I felt, at ease as we wandered the narrow streets.

Vanessa (pictured) said she went from borderline-coping to borderline-insane, after her cleaner heard Robert and another woman cavorting in the bed of their home in London

One night, we were joined for dinner by the writer Gore Vidal. While his partner was talking to Robert, I turned to Gore: ‘Tell me something. You’re one of the most insightful men in the world. What do you do when your husband is having a midlife crisis?’

The ageing writer took my hands in his and paused before sharing his wisdom. ‘Darling,’ he said, ‘you seduce his lover.’ In the taxi to the airport, Robert talked about how grateful he was to Hamish for persuading him to give our relationship another chance.

When we arrived home, I caught our eldest son’s eye and gave him a tentative thumbs-up.

Noah clenched his fist and mouthed: ‘Yes!’

The following morning, Robert got up, dressed, helped make breakfast for the children and did the school run while I went off to play tennis. When I got back, I found an index card on my desk, saying: ‘I’ve gone.’

I’d been told that asking children to write their feelings down is a good way to help them organise their thoughts. So after telling them Daddy had left again, I suggested they all write letters.

‘I’m going to write to his girlfriend’s mother,’ said Noah. ‘She must be able to stop her daughter from taking Daddy away from us. It’s just not allowed.’

Flo wrote a letter to her father, while Louis decided to write to Robert’s girlfriend herself.

Vanessa admits she was enraged at her inability to stop fixating on Robert and his lover. Pictured: Joan Branson, Richard Branson and Vanessa

One day, our cleaner Maria blurted out that on a Saturday, while I’d been in Sussex with the kids, she’d been to our London house to sort the laundry — and she’d heard Robert and another woman cavorting in our bed. It wasn’t only the bed we’d conceived all our babies in, but the bed on which they’d taken their first breaths. Knowing about this betrayal flipped me from borderline-coping to borderline-insane.

When I later asked Robert why he’d done it, he said that men don’t think in the same way as women. I pointed out that his lover was a woman. He shrugged his shoulders. What could he say?

There were times when I’d be thrown off balance by a wave of despair. How was I going to get through the next hour, let alone the next day?

I was enraged at my inability to stop fixating on Robert and his lover, as if a lethal parasite was slowly devouring all the good within me, leaving only distrust, humiliation, paranoia, bitterness and shame.

One day, I drove down to our Sussex farmhouse from London and found a card on the kitchen windowsill, behind a pair of curtains I’d made just months before. It read: ‘Darling, Happy Birthday! What a year you’ve had — new job, new house and a new man. Congratulations! Love Mum x’. Her mum.

To think of doing anything constructive in those days was an effort too far. I could just about get the kids up, off to school, fed, bathed and put back to bed again, but nothing more.

Vanessa (pictured) recalls picking up a giant pot with the message ‘Homage to the Midlife Crisis’

One night in late 1997, more than a year after learning about Robert’s affair, I ended up drinking in the Colony Room Club in Soho with my friend Tracey Emin, the artist. I told her of my inability to stop playing a grubby, scratched, self-pitying record.

‘Vanessa, first you’ve got to get rid of your bed,’ she told me with utter conviction. ‘I’m going to write you a poem for your new bed — promise me you’ll use it.’

Less than a week later, I opened an envelope containing two poems written in her distinctive sloping hand. I ordered a new bed and had them embroidered on the headboard: ‘Oh God you made me feel so beautiful/ And then I wanted to feel it again and again.’ And then the lines that expressed it all: ‘With myself, by myself/ Never forgetting.’

Next, I visited [potter] Grayson Perry, thinking that a Grayson funereal urn on the mantelpiece would be a solid reminder of mortality.

‘So Vanessa, tell me, what’s going on in your life?’ he asked.

‘Well Grayson, I don’t know really where to begin…’

A month later, I picked up a giant pot. Scratched into it were images of motorbikes, alluring young women with pouting lips — labelled ‘marriage wrecker’ — and fat middle-aged men with drooping breasts and sagging scrotums. On the front was boldly written: ‘Homage to the Midlife Crisis’.

Oh joy.

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

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