Tennis

Farewell Michael Constantinidi, January 1928 to February 2019

11 Feb 2019

It is with great sadness that the T&RA reports the death a few days ago of Michael Constantinidi, one of the game's greatest servants.


Farewell Michael Constantinidi, January 1928 to February 2019

Michael Constantinidi, who has died aged 90, was the son of a Greek diplomat yet became a pillar of England’s most celebrated sporting institutions, helping to revive the game of Eton Fives and marrying a beauty celebrated in verse by John Betjeman.

Michael Dukes Constantinidi was born with his twin brother George on June 28 1928. Their father, Spiro, had arrived in London as a counsellor at the Greek embassy in 1924, having previously represented his country at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. His mother, Ariadne, was from a Greek family, which had fled to London from Chios after the massacre of 1822.

Michael arrived at Eton in 1941, quickly proving himself a highly accomplished player of Fives – the handball game played by teams of two – which would continue to be a passion throughout his life. He became Keeper of Fives. After National Service with the 5th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, serving in Osnabrück, he returned to Christ Church, Oxford, to read Law.

But it was in advertising that he made his mark. While at his first firm, Armstrong Warden, he met Joan Price. She also worked as a beautician, wrote for The Queen (later Harper’s & Queen) and opened two fashionable beauty salons in Chelsea called Joan Price’s Face Place. The couple married in 1956 in the Grosvenor Chapel and it was there, later, that Betjeman spotted “the most beautiful creature … I didn’t even know her name.” The poet’s daughter, Candida Lycett Green, identified Joan Constantinidi as the subject of “Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican”, whose last line describes her as “a hint of the Unknown God”.

Michael Constantinidi, meanwhile, had moved to SH Benson, where he worked on, among others, the celebrated Guinness account. In 1963 he had a walk-on role in the Cold War when, with superpower relations improving after the near-catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis, he organised a delegation of British advertisers to visit the USSR. The trip included a contingent from The Sunday Times, whose owner, Lord Thomson of Fleet, boarded the plane to Moscow with the foreign correspondent Tom Stacey. Hearing of the delegation, Nikita Khrushchev invited Thomson and Stacey to an interview while Constantinidi entertained potential clients outside with lashings of caviar. After SH Benson merged with Ogilvy & Mather in 1971, he left to form his own agency, BCB, with two colleagues. He remained there until the early 1990s.

Retirement, however, was only the spur to extend his sporting interests, and he took up Real Tennis, playing at Queen’s and at Lord’s, where he had been a member since 1955. In 1996, when the post of chairman of the Eton Fives Association (EFA) became vacant, it was suggested that he run against Tony Hughes, a fine former player burdened with a divisive reputation. He was duly elected and displayed typical charm in smoothing all acrimony from the race. He then deployed his great energy and business acumen in putting the EFA on a more professional footing and was also a key figure in the construction of four new Fives courts – the first built for the public since the 1930s – at the Westway Sports Centre, west London. The courts opened in 2001 with the express aim of widening participation in the game and they remain a pivotal development for Fives.

Michael Constantinidi was engaging, voluble company and an irrepressible enthusiast. He and Joan had no children, but they gathered their many friends at Sunday lunches over a menu (roast beef, chocolate and apple tarts) that remained unchanged for decades. She survives him, as does his twin and sometime Fives team-mate George, whom Michael continued, jokingly, to blame for their defeat in Eton’s House Fives competition well into their eighties.

Michael Constantinidi, born June 28 1928, died February 7 2019

 


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