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The real story of Virgin tycoon; MARRIAGE DESTROYER; Branson vowed to leave my wife alone but it was all a lie . . he took Joan and wrecked my life.

By GRAHAM BROUGH, OONAGH BLACKMAN, TANITH CAREY and ANNETTE WITHERIDGE

RICHARD Branson used the kind of cut-throat determination that has made him one of Britain's richest men to steal the wife of one of his best friends.

In an exclusive interview with The Mirror, that friend, musician Ronnie Leahy, has revealed how the Virgin tycoon broke a gentleman's agreement in his relentless pursuit of Joan, now Branson's wife.

The keyboard player, currently on a US tour with rock group Nazareth, has spoken out for the first time about the life-long scars of Branson's betrayal.

Speaking from Tennessee, Ronnie, 50, who has never remarried, said: "Even now it hurts to talk about what happened.

"It's part of my life I've buried. It was a deeply personal thing, obviously upsetting."

Ronnie Leahy and Joan Templeman, a topless model, were childhood sweethearts in Glasgow.

They met in 1966 and Joan watched proudly as Ronnie's first band, Stone The Crows, started to hit the big time.

They married and moved to London where for the next 12 years Ronnie believed they had the perfect marriage "until Branson appeared on the scene".

In the early Seventies Ronnie was at the height of his career. "He could have had any woman he wanted," said one of his close pals.

"There were groupies aplenty who would have thought they'd died and gone to Heaven if he'd so much as looked at them.

"But he only ever had eyes for Joan. He thought they'd be together for ever.

"They'd got their future mapped out. They were married 12 or 13 years and having lots of fun. Children were on the horizon but they decided to wait a while.

"Then Branson came along and wrecked everything. He simply couldn't leave Joan alone. Even now, Branson's name is dirt to Ronnie. We've all tried to joke about it but he doesn't find it funny."

FOR Branson it was love at first sight when he first stumbled into Joan in the kitchen of his Oxfordshire recording complex in Shipton-on-Cherwell.

While Ronnie worked next door in the studio, Branson was chatting up his wife.

Dazzled by the combination of Joan's blonde curls and unflappable Glaswegian straight-talking, Branson was transfixed.

From that moment, he chased her with all the ruthlessness he would apply to securing a multi-million-pound business deal. Branson admitted: "I was completely smitten and pursued her immediately."

A week after their first meeting, Branson surprised Joan by turning up at her workplace, a shop near London's trendy Portobello Road which sold Victorian posters and antiques.

Anxious to impress, the young Branson swept her off to Duveens, the restaurant he owned nearby. It was the start of a concerted campaign to woo her. Whenever Ronnie was away, Branson was quick to move in with dinner invitations.

He was a regular visitor to the shop, usually walking out with another memento he didn't need.

In fact, everywhere Joan went, Branson would appear, tipped off by mutual friends who worked at his record company.

He even earned the nickname Tag, for his habit of asking if he could tag along with friends who were meeting Joan that evening.

They seemed an unlikely pairing. While Joan was confident and chatty, Richard was socially awkward and tongue-tied.

She was the daughter of a ship's carpenter and grew up sharing a bed with six siblings.

Unlike many young women around Branson, Joan was unimpressed by his public school education and the millions he already had in the bank. And she certainly wasn't interested in his pranks and business ventures.

AT THE time, despite his millionaire status, Branson wasn't considered much of a catch.

His first marriage to American Kristen Tomassi had failed after a year and bachelorhood left him looking unkempt with a notoriously poor dress sense. But he never gave up and eventually his relentless pursuit and flattery won Joan over.

When Ronnie found out about their affair he was devastated.

Still feeling pain and anger towards Branson after all these years, he said: "I discovered Joan was having an affair with Branson and 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.

"He agreed not to contact her for three months. I went away confident Joan and I could make our marriage work. Two weeks later she left me for Branson."

It was late in 1978 and within two weeks of their "gentleman's agreement" Ronnie heard that Branson had flown to New York for a tryst with Joan. A short phone call delivered the news that was to shatter his hopes of saving his marriage.

Joan called him from the hotel room she was sharing with Branson to say it was all over.

Ronnie pleaded for another chance but Joan told him it was too late - she was hopelessly in love with Branson.

Ronnie said: "It must have been true - she went on to marry him and she's the mother of his children. They're still together, so what more can I say?

"I suppose you could say Joan and I are now friends. We stayed in touch and I last saw her a couple of years ago.

"But it's still hard. I moved back to Glasgow and I still see her family around. We grew up together and our families are friends. At home there are still reminders of her everywhere.

"What do I think of Branson? The least said 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."

AFTER Joan made her decision, Branson never looked back. The couple returned to England and settled down to life on his houseboat in London's Little Venice.

But while her new lover was madly in love with her, Joan soon discovered he was less keen on the idea of becoming a father.

When she found out she was pregnant, it threatened to tear them apart. Although Branson was already a business success, his career still came first.

When he mustered the courage to confess to Joan that he was "not sure", she fled their house-boat and decided to have the child on her own.

Frantically Branson phoned friends trying to find her and eventually persuaded her to return.

But when he was away in Europe that summer on business, Joan, six months pregnant, was diagnosed with appendicitis.

She was operated on and Branson flew back to help her recover. But she went into labour a few days later and the tiny, premature baby girl died four days later.

Friends say Joan has never recovered from the event but it brought the couple closer together.

Aged 35, Joan was determined to conceive again as quickly as possible and she gave birth to a daughter, Holly, in 1982.

Branson finally proposed to Joan in 1989 after 12 years together. He said: "I didn't realise quite how much getting married meant to both Joan and the children.

Their Christmas marriage on Necker, his Caribbean island, was a romantic spectacle witnessed by showbusiness friends.

While Branson's fortunes have gone from strength to strength, Ronnie Leahy now ekes out a living with Nazareth, the veteran Scottish rock band.

THEY spend months at a time on the road playing tiny venues.

After coming off the stage at a rock festival in Lexington, Tennessee, Ronnie said: "I've just spent 16 hours on the tour bus, I can't even remember where we were last night. I'm exhausted."

Their tour bus is a glorified caravan with a cramped living area and bunk beds. "Tonight Tennessee, tomorrow Chicago," said Ronnie.

As diehard Nazareth fans clustered round to get autographs, one of the entourage said: "Ronnie could have his pick.

"But even after all these years, he's still grieving for Joan and still furious with Branson."
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 8, 1998
Words:1332
Previous Article:WORLD CAN RUN ON MUD.
Next Article:FROM BAD TO NURSE.


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