Sir Stirling Moss may not have won a Formula One World Championship, but he was one of those drivers so damn good that you could easily forget about that. His decade-long career was cut short by a devastating accident that left him in a coma and with partial paralysis. But the recently-released Ciao, Sterling isn’t so much about the man as it is about his impact on the people and the world around him.
Ciao, Sterling is written by Valerie Pirie, Moss’s longtime personal secretary and friend. Pirie started working for Moss when she was just 17 and became a close confidante during thick and thin. She was a stable presence to count on to celebrate his wins, but she also was one of the people who sat by his bedside round the clock after his accident. The book talks much about Moss, yes, but it also expects you to have a working knowledge of Moss that can be built upon by Pirie’s inside story.
I think my biggest takeaway from Ciao, Sterling is that it’s definitely a book for someone who’s already something of a Sterling Moss fan. You’re not necessarily going to learn the nitty-gritty details of all his race wins or his path to Formula One; instead, it’s definitely more of an inside look at how the man behaved in one-on-one situations or when he’s not at the track.
But it certainly retains a bit of a dated quality, which I can imagine is just all Part Of The Times. Pirie tells plenty of stories about Moss searching out “bits of crumpet,” which was his name for attractive women. She talks about how, after Moss got a divorce, she essentially moved into his home and performed not only his secretarial duties but also served as cook, maid, chauffeuse, and emotional support. When Moss started building his dream home, Pirie was frequently left to take on the role of foreman.
Some of the stories are a hell of a lot of fun, like one Pirie tells about how she finally got some eternally slow construction workers to hurry the hell up and finish Moss’s bedroom in his new house: She had it carpeted and required that no one wear shoes on the carpet. As she had guessed, the workers were annoyed at having to take off their shoes outside the door, so they finished the room in record time. Moss was, apparently, quite impressed.
But it’s hard to read the book as a modern woman. Pirie was regularly underpaid for the round-the-clock work she was expected to perform, which she justifies by noting that Moss was stingy with literally everyone he met. She often notes that all this work was okay because it did introduce her to lifelong friends and enriched her life, but at the same time, things also sounded kind of miserable. She started racing on her own time after Moss had his career-ending accident, and he swooped in to become her manager, attempting to transform her hobby into a career while also expecting her to continue on as his secretary.
I don’t want this to sound like I was expecting some sort of liberated feminist anthem. I wasn’t. But even throughout Pirie’s recollection of absurdly funny stories, it was hard to shake the vaguely uncomfortable undercurrent. I mean, I’m sure Pirie expected her story about Moss having her out to Silverstone but not even thinking about providing her transportation home after all the trains stopped running was supposed to be a funny example of Moss’s single mindedness, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how that would not fly today.
Pirie and Moss had a wonderful friendship well after Pirie quit working for him, which was something I was far more interested about. The two trusted and respected one another (there’s a genuinely funny scene where Pirie tells Moss it’s a damn good thing they aren’t attracted to one another because they’d make a painfully good match), and they preserved a longstanding correspondence, even going so far as to vacation together with their respective families.
But as someone who isn’t super familiar with Moss’s history and therefore only had the most basic framework in which to fit Pirie’s book, I have to admit that I don’t think I appreciated Ciao, Stirling as much as I could have. We’re all very familiar with James Hunt’s womanizing, for example, but I also knew the straight facts about his career before I knew that. I’m sure I’d have a different view of him if I read a biography about Hunt from a different point of view.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading Ciao, Sterling. I maintain that it’s a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at how a legendary racing driver managed his career in tandem with a bold and colorful life. But, for me, there are some things best left to the realm of mystery.