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I can't forgive Branson for stealing my wife.

Unlike her husband, who lives constantly in the glare of publicity, Joan Branson prefers to shun the limelight.

For years she has been the rock who keeps the home fires burning while he sets off on one dare-devil adventure after another.

But the man famous for exploits in trains, boats, planes and balloons is not the only one to enjoy the occasional act of daring.

As these pictures show, Joan has not always been a shrinking violet.

She posed for this set of saucy snaps at the age of 28, while holidaying on the Greek island of Crete.

At the time, Joan combined nude modelling with running a clothing business in Kensington market in London.

But the pictures resurfaced almost 20 years later when, as the wife of world-renowned tycoon Richard Branson, a glossy magazine couldn't wait to publish her nude shots.

Naturally, the extremely hot-under-the-collar Virgin boss rang the photographer immediately ... and requested his own personal set of pictures.

Far from being angry, Branson boasted: "I'm very proud of these pictures. Joan looks lovely in them and I'll keep a copy beside my bed when she's away from home."

Branson's pride in his beautiful Scots wife is typical of the man who moved heaven and earth to make her his.

Branson met Joan in the kitchen of his country house recording complex in 1976, while her first husband Ronnie Leahy was producing an album in the studio next door.

Dazzled by the straight-talking blonde Glaswegian, the business mogul pursued her with the ruthlessness of any multi-million pound business deal.

And it was not long before he had lured her into an affair which saw her leave her musician husband for him.

The split almost destroyed Ronnie, now 50 and a keyboard player for ageing rockers Nazareth. He still carries a torch for his childhood sweetheart, Joan Templeman.

The pain of losing the love of his life is still raw and he has vowed never to remarry. But still he cannot bring himself to voice his feelings about the Virgin tycoon.

Ronnie said: "The least said about him the better. I vowed years ago I would keep quiet and I still stick by that.

"I think my silence speaks volumes. I wouldn't want to get into a slanging match. It's still deeply personal."

But the memory of how his perfect life was snatched from him is still crystal clear.

IRONICALLY, Branson's first bitter experience of being a loser in love did not stop him stealing the musician's wife.

Kevin Ayers, himself a musician, yesterday told the Record how he won the Virgin boss's first wife Kristen Tomassi in a bizarre wife-swapping session.

Branson tried in vain to win his wife back, as did Ronnie many years later.

When Ronnie discovered Joan's affair with Branson, he sought out his love-rival and warned him to steer clear.

Ronnie said: "I did what any man would do in that situation - I confronted him.

"There was no violence or anything. We had a meeting and I asked him for the sake of our marriage to leave Joan alone."

Branson reluctantly agreed not to contact her for three months,

At the beginning of 1978, Joan accompanied her husband to Los Angeles, where he was working with singer Donovan. Ronnie said: "I went away confident that Joan and I could make our marriage work. But two weeks later she left me for Branson."

Ronnie discovered the tycoon had broken his promise when Joan called him from a hotel room in New York to say their marriage was over.

Branson had flown across the Atlantic to meet his lover half-way for a secret tryst.

Despite pleading for another chance, Ronnie was told it was too late. Joan was hopelessly in love with Branson.

Ronnie said: "It must have been true, since she married him and became the mother of his children. They're still together, so what more can I say?"

The Glasgow-based musician is still in touch with his ex-wife, and last saw her a couple of years ago.

He said: "But it's still hard. I moved back to Glasgow and I see her family around.

"We grew up together and both of our families are friends. At home there are reminders of her everywhere. Even now I don't like to talk about it. It's part of my life I have buried. It was a deeply personal thing, obviously upsetting."

Despite Ronnie's best efforts to get on with his life, memories lie around every corner.

The daughter of a ship's carpenter, Joan grew up in a Glasgow tenement, sharing a bed with her six siblings.

She met Ronnie as a fresh-faced young woman on the dance band scene, and supported him when his first band, Stone the Crows, hit the big time 30 years ago.

They moved to London where they married and spent a blissful 13 years as man and wife - but it proved an unlucky number for them, as their 13th year heralded the arrival of Branson in their lives.

And so began a battle for Joan's love - a fight Ronnie was destined to lose.

A week after their first meeting, the Virgin king surprised Joan by turning up at the antiques shop where she worked, close to Portobello Road.

Anxious to impress, he swept her off to the restaurant he owned nearby, Duveens. Whenever Ronnie was away, Branson pressed dinner invitations on his unsuspecting wife. He was a regular visitor to her shop, buying one antique after another, just for an excuse to see her.

In fact everywhere Joan went, Richard popped up. He earned the nickname "Tag" because he was always asking mutual friends: "Are you meeting Joan? Can I tag along?"

The couple seemed an unlikely match - the socially awkward and ill-groomed divorcee with notoriously poor dress sense, and the cool, self-assured Glasgow lass five years his senior.

Joan's then-husband was at the height of his career and could have his pick of women, but all he ever wanted was her.

"There were groupies who would have died for him," said one of Ronnie's rock and roll pals. "But he only ever had eyes for Joan. He thought they'd be together forever.

"They had their future mapped out. Children were on the horizon, but they'd decided to wait a while.

"Then Branson came along and wrecked everything. He simply couldn't leave Joan alone.

"Even now, all these years later, Branson's name is dirt to Ronnie. We've all tried to joke about it but he doesn't find it funny."

Branson and Joan have never been parted since. They lived together for 14 years and reared two children Sam, now 12, and Holly, 16, before marrying in a lavish ceremony on his Caribbean island of Neckers in 1989.

He said: "I didn't realise quite how much getting married meant to both Joan and the children."

After the marriage, their lifestyle became increasingly luxurious.

Branson bought Joan a pounds 2 million house in Holland Park, near London's Notting Hill, as a wedding present. The four-storey home with indoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi and games room was sold two years later for double its original price and the couple now have homes in west London and Oxfordshire.

While Branson's wealth is unquestionable, Joan's wealth of tolerance at some of his ill-fated antics is seldom discussed.

SHE always puts on a brave face for the media, even when a former employee accused him of sexual harassment.

Joan has observed her husband's two weaknesses in life are sticky puddings and pretty women.

While his gleaming smile demonstrates he is moderate with the former, his wife makes sure he shows the same control with the latter - by putting up with some of his hair-brained schemes.

Branson said: "Since I'm married and not allowed to touch women any more, I use my energy to start new things.

"Joan is convinced it's the reason I go ballooning and do all these dangerous things.

"I'm expending all that energy in a positive, non-sexual way. That's her theory and I'm sticking to it."

While the Branson family fortunes have gone from strength to strength, Ronnie Leahy still ekes out a living with Nazareth.

The Scottish band spend months at a time on the road playing tiny venues and are still producing records. Their new album, Boogaloo, which will be released next month.

Strangely enough, Ronnie opened his heart about his marriage split in America - the country where it all happened 20 years ago.

After six weeks on the road with Nazareth, the band stopped to play an obscure pop festival in Tennessee.

Ronnie said: "I don't know whether I am coming or going. I've just spent 16 hours on the tour bus. I can't even remember where we were last night."

The bus - a glorified caravan - will move on to Chicago after the gig. Fans asked for autographs, and girls queued up to meet Ronnie and his fellow rockers.

One of his entourage said: "Ronnie could have his pick. But even after all these years, he's still grieving for Joan - and furious with Branson."
COPYRIGHT 1998 Scottish Daily Record & Sunday
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Brough, Graham; White, Donna
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 8, 1998
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