I know you would be the first to agree that the past is a comfortable pillow on which to rest your pin curled locks. We both tend to alight on the 20s and 30s as a period in which exotic flowers bloomed. Hugo Vickers’ biography of Cecil Beaton was a bible to me as a teenager as was Philip Hoare’s consideration of that poisoned petal Stephen Tenant. The London of the Bright Young Things does tend to haunt those of us who are no longer bright or young as I was unchivalrously reminded recently.
While in Derbyshire over Christmas I happened to pick up Michael Bloch’s biography of James Lees-Milne. On paper Lees-Milne had a life every man who preferred his carnations green would envy. A pretty boy at Eton he was enchanted by Tom Mitford. A protegee in youth he was recommended for the secretariat of the National Trust and spent the late 1930s and 1940s in the enviable role of driving the length and breadth of England visiting stately homes in private hands.
When houses of architectural significance were signed over to the Trust Lees-Milne had the responsibility of arranging the rooms and assessing the merits of art, antiques and libraries collected over centuries. Though ostensibly homosexual, Lees-Milne married the fascinating Alvide who in her twenties had had a profound affair with Princess Winnie de Polignac who left Alvide a rather wealthy woman.
I found echoes in Lees-Milne’s life though I fear it was only crumbs from his table. Writing about the diary that earned him immortality, Lees-Milne pondered ‘if a man has no constant lover who shares his soul as well as his body he must have a diary – a poor substitute but better than nothing’. He believed ‘true love can only exist between a man and a woman, true sex between a man and a man’. On his 50th birthday Lees-Milne pondered mournfully that ‘though his latest book had won a prize, his writing career had not brought him much fame or fortune…he owned no property (and) had managed to save no money’. Well, shake hands.
Though James Lees-Milne’s architectural books and diaries earned him immortality, he always wanted to write novels and those that he did were pretty awful. He had a long and successful life though he did not perceive it as such. Lees-Milne also had a varied sex life with many men that segued from rampant to platonic and eventually found contentment with Alvide as partners in crime rather than lovers. If only!
Reading Michael Bloch’s delightful book one gets the impression that le tout London was decidedly bisexual, intellectual and financially blessed for being ‘in the club’. The book doesn’t dwell on the casualties who committed suicide in their twenties or were subject to more prosaic fates such as James Pope Hennessy – the brilliant biographer of Queen Mary – who was beaten to death by rough trade.
Those rose tinted spectacles must be taken off at this point. Mr Boweing gave me a copy of the marvellous The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff. Zinovieff inherited Berners’ country house Farringdon from her grandfather the Mad Boy who was the lover of Lord Berners. Most folk now know Lord Berners through Nancy Mitford’s novels in which he was caricatured as Lord Merlin: a man who dyed his doves in pastel shades and stabled his horse in the drawing room of Farringdon in order to paint the white beauty’s portrait.
The truth I suspect was more prosaic. Lord Berners came into money and a title as a relatively young man and lived a sybaritic life between Farringdon and his houses in Rome and London. He was an intimate of Elsa Schiaparelli, Stravinsky and the Sitwells. It is overwhelming to read about Lord Berners entertaining Cole Porter, countless Mitford sisters, Rex Whistler, Cecil Beaton, Daisy Fellowes and John Betjeman. The breathless name dropping is quite overwhelming until you read between the lines.
The glittering house parties at Farringdon don’t bear close scrutiny. Here’s an example. Lord Berners met and rather admired the Italian high priestess of Art Nouveau the Marquesa Casati. He invited her for the weekend with his mother to Farringdon where the Marquesa allegedly arrived with her pet boa constrictor in a crate. Imagine the old bird arriving powdered and painted like a corpse with a snake in a casket. This is not one’s ideal weekend houseguest.
What about Gertrude Stein coming for the weekend with Alice B Toklas her lover? You’d worry about what the servants would think and lock up your daughters. Pope Hennessy arriving? Lock up your stable boy. I think the point one is making is that the legends that burnish these characters completely blinds one to the monsters they probably were. Great poetry or impeccable taste doesn’t preclude these people being flatulent, drunk, boring, frisky or simply having a bad day. So plus ca change.