Global perspective Human stories

Character Sketches: Gladwyn Jebb by Brian Urquhart

Gladwyn Jebb, who served as the Executive Secretary of the UN Preparatory Commission and then, from October 1945 to February 1946, as the Acting UN Secretary-General. He later served as the UK's Permanent Representative to the UN.
UN Photo/ES
Gladwyn Jebb, who served as the Executive Secretary of the UN Preparatory Commission and then, from October 1945 to February 1946, as the Acting UN Secretary-General. He later served as the UK's Permanent Representative to the UN.

 

Before I went to see Gladwyn Jebb in August 1945, several well-meaning people warned me that he was glacial, supercilious, and rude. I was going to see him because I wanted to work for the fledging United Nations, and Gladwyn had just been put in charge of the Preparatory Commission that would set up the new world organization. He was, effectively, the first UN Secretary-General. Gladwyn could not have been more friendly or helpful. Although I had virtually no qualifications except my war record and a reasonable command of French and German, he took me on at once as his personal assistant. This was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me. Not only did it get me in on the ground floor of the one institution I wanted to work for. Equally important, it gave me the chance to do my apprenticeship for a civilian career under a remarkable man.

24 May 1945 - Along with delegates from 50 nations, Gladwyn Jebb (seated at the table, second from left), representing the United Kingdom, attends a meeting of the Coordination Committee at the Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, which led to the production of the UN Charter. In all, the San Francisco Conference was not only one of the most important in history but, until that time, possibly one of the largest international gatherings ever to take place.

At the age of 45, Gladwyn Jebb was already something of a Foreign Office legend. He gave new meaning, both in appearance and attitude, to the word “patrician.” He was tall, sleek, immaculately dressed, and completely self-confident, but he also had original ideas and liked interesting and unfashionable people. At Oxford, he had been one of Sligger Urquhart’s coterie of promising young men and, as a young diplomat, he had always had interesting postings—Constantinople, Berlin, Rome. There were lots of stories, probably largely apocryphal, about his arrogance. Gladwyn’s wife Cynthia looked like a Dresden porcelain figurine and behaved like a true Edwardian grande dame. She was a formidably perfect British ambassador’s wife.

Early in the war, somewhat to his dismay, Gladwyn had been chosen to lead the British team in the international group that was designing the post-war international system. He made such an impression on his foreign colleagues that when the time came, they appointed him Executive Secretary of the UN Preparatory Commission, which was to build a working organization on the specifications of the United Nations Charter. It was at this point in his career that I joined him in London.

I soon found that Gladwyn’s allegedly overbearing manner concealed an essentially kind and humorous nature. Our headquarters in London was in Church House, Westminster—in normal times, the head office of the Church of England. The House of Lords had sat there during the war after it had been bombed out of its own chamber. The building was encased in sandbags and barbed wire and guarded by a detachment of Royal Marines. One evening early on, Gladwyn and I, returning to the office after dinner, were challenged by the Marine sentry and required to show our passes. I was still in uniform, and the sentry saluted me when I showed my pass. Gladwyn had forgotten his pass and was barred from entering. He was quite irritated when I pointed out that he himself had ordained that none could enter the building without a pass. “Doesn’t this man know who I am?” he asked rather plaintively. (The sentry had begun to mutter about “pinstriped gents—think they’re everybody” etc.) “Of course he doesn’t,” I said, “but I’ll explain it to him.” After an exhortation not to forget his pass in the future, the sentry finally allowed Gladwyn to enter. For some reason, he was delighted with this small incident and frequently recounted it against himself.