the Insiders


September 16, 2011 4:59 PM


The Passionate Reader: September 16, 2011

As Michel de Montaigne put it, "When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and vanish the clouds from my mind." Here are my responses to some...

As Michel de Montaigne put it, "When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and vanish the clouds from my mind." Here are my responses to some of the books that I have found particularly absorbing recently.

Wait for Me.jpg"Wait for Me!" (Picador) is the memoir of Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. It's hard to imagine that anyone could have gloomy thoughts around Debo, as she is known -- the youngest of the celebrated Mitford daughters, and, at 91, the only one who's still alive. Her charm, brio and self-deprecating qualities come through on every page. She notes at the beginning of the book that her birth was so unremarkable that her mother wrote nothing in her engagement book for that day. The next few days are blank, too; then she writes in big letters, "CHIMNEY SWEPT." It seems that her parents had been longing for a big family of boys; they got the large family, of course, but of girls -- with only one boy -- instead.

The Duchess' life has also contained elements of the unexpected. Her husband, Andrew, was a younger son, and, as such, he was not slated to inherit the dukedom and the great country house, Chatsworth, that went with it. But his older brother Billy, the Marquess of Hartington, who was married to John F. Kennedy's sister Kick, was killed in the Second World War, and, after the early death of his father, Andrew had to rise to the occasion, which he did, with a not inconsiderable amount of help from his formidable wife. Many credit Debo with almost singlehandedly rescuing Chatsworth with the gift shops, restaurants, farm shop and her many other ideas, but she herself gives the nod to her husband, who had the foresight to sell Hardwick Hall to the National Trust to help pay death duties.

lk-blog002.jpg"All in One Basket" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is the Duchess' new book. It combines two collections of her occasional writing: "Counting My Chickens" and "Home to Roost." Speaking of those chickens, they have been great favorites of hers since she was a young girl raising them for pocket money, so naturally it's irresistible to photographers, among them Bruce Weber, to shoot her feeding them. In one piece, written when her novelist sister Nancy's letters were published, she tells a fashion anecdote: It seems that, in 1947, her mother-in-law, "Moucher" Devonshire, and her friend the Duchess of Rutland happened to be in Paris and wanted to see Dior's New Look. But they were wearing tweed overcoats, much the worse for their war service, and down-at-heel shoes. "They weren't allowed in," she writes. "Of humble nature, the two duchesses were disappointed, but not at all surprised. They sat on a bench eating their sandwiches to pass the time till they could decently return to the embassy where they were staying."

In her two memoirs, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood" (Random House) and "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness" (Penguin Press), Alexandra Fuller writes about a very different family, growing up as the daughter of British expatriates in Kenya, Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] and Zambia in the last years of colonial rule.

lk-blog001.jpgHer parents, Nicola and Tim Fuller, were passionately devoted to Africa, and their love for its wild, beautiful landscapes and unforgiving environments cost them a great deal. They had five children, and only two of them lived to be adults, and often they were barely scraping a living. They also belonged to a group whose time in that part of the world was drawing to a close, which meant that they were frequently in places which were on the border of skirmishes in wars for independence. Nicola, however, was at pains to distinguish themselves and their friends from the earlier, famous expatriates of Happy Valley in Kenya, whom she considered to be odiously louche. She had grown up in Africa, too, with a chimpanzee as a best friend when she was a child, and she calls Fuller's memoirs Awful Books, but her portrait in them as an intelligent, eccentric woman who was at times at her wits' end is actually quite sympathetic. There is a clear strain of racism, though. Both her parents joined Rhodesian police reservists fighting to retain white rule, and schools were segregated by race into three categories. Most of the whites were middle-class and most of the blacks poor.

lk-blog008.jpg"A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is an atmospheric book by the great biographer Michael Holroyd ("Lytton Strachey," "George Bernard Shaw"), which he says will be his last. Let's hope that it isn't. But, in the meantime, he has created a fascinating work. It centers around the Villa Cimbrone above Ravello in Italy, a wonderful house in a gorgeous setting that became the grand passion of the second Lord Grimthorpe, who was the lover of Alice Keppel and, Holroyd believes, the father of her daughter, Violet Trefusis, who famously loved Vita Sackville-West. This gave Holroyd the opportunity to write about Violet, Vita and their affair, which took place partly in the villa. But the most amazing character to emerge in the book is that of Eve Fairfax, who was Grimthorpe's fiancé and who modeled for a now-famous bust by Rodin. Either he rejected her or she rejected him, and the ceremony never took place. Fairfax, a beauty, had other opportunities to marry wealthy and titled men, but she never took them up. "When the Duke of Grafton proposed to her hoping she would accept him, not for his title or money, but simply for himself, she replied, 'Rather a tall order' and brusquely turned him down," Holroyd writes. (Not a circumstance that called for candor, one would have thought.)

Instead -- with no money of her own -- she embarked on a curious career as a perpetual houseguest. Armed with a huge commonplace book given to her by Lady Diana Cooper, which she thrust upon sometimes-unwilling contributors, Fairfax traveled from aristocratic friend to aristocratic friend, arriving for a weekend and staying for the better part of a year, like the Man Who Came to Dinner. She was able to keep this up for almost all of a very long life; at the very end, she was in a nursing home, her fees paid by old friends. She died at the startling age of 106! It's hard to imagine how Fairfax's seemingly rackety lifestyle -- she once had to be rousted from a disused men's club where she was squatting -- contributed to such great longevity. But it was interesting to be introduced to this extraordinary figure, whom I've never heard of before.

lk-blog006.jpg"After Long Silence" (Delta Trade Paperback) is a memoir by Helen Fremont, whose parents were both Jewish and who had eradicated that information (and their surname) in coming to the U.S. When Fremont learned of their background, she embarked on a detective search to find out who they were and what had happened to them and their relatives. It turns out that they were Polish Hasidic Jews and that her mother's sister, Zosia, had moved to Italy and married an Italian count in the Thirties. This enabled her mother, Batya, to eventually make her way to Italy. In the meantime, her husband-to-be, Kovik, who had studied medicine, had been deported to a gulag. It is Fremont herself who learned what happened to their other relatives, many of whom were killed at the extermination camp Belzec. She tried to tell her mother, who only wanted to know about what became of her parents and her husband's mother, and then shushed her. Fremont writes that she still does not know her mother's full name.

"The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception" by Emmanuel Carrÿre (Picador USA) is about the kind of family member whom nobody wants to have. Jean-Claude Romand was believed by everyone who knew him to be a doctor with a prestigious job as a researcher with the World Health Organization. In fact, he had attended, but never finished, medical school and was supporting himself on his wife's salary as a pharmacist and by embezzling from the accounts of family and friends which had been entrusted to him, a deception that went on for 18 years. On the verge of being discovered, Romand killed his wife and two children, then went to see his parents and murdered them. Next, he went for a drive with an ex-mistress to whom he owed 900,000 francs, who had asked for her money back; he tried to kill her, but she fought back and he stopped. He then returned to his own family and set their house on fire. Romand was rescued, then put on trial, convicted and imprisoned. Carrÿre, a noted author in France, on learning of this case, found it riveting and decided to write about it. It is a very disturbing portrait which suggests that we may not know our friends nearly as well as we think we do. Romand's medical-school friend Luc Ladmiral, for instance, found learning about all the deceptions particularly devastating, since he had considered Jean-Claude a close pal. He was, in fact, Luc's daughter's godfather. Soon one of Luc's brothers offered to replace him in that role.

lk-blog004.jpgBy contrast, the persona of playwright Alan Bennett ("The History Boys") in his memoir, "Untold Stories" (Picador) is an unmitigated delight. He grew up in Leeds, the son of a butcher and his wife who had somewhat painful pretensions to gentility and who worshipped education. So they must have been overjoyed when he went to Oxford University and got a First Class degree. After several years in academe, which led him to the conclusion that he wasn't suited to it, he began writing for "Beyond the Fringe." His other plays include "Forty Years On," "A Question of Attribution" and "The Madness of King George III." What makes this book fun to read is his sly, mirthful observations of his fellows. After describing the fact that Prince Charles went to see his play "The Lady in the Van," roared with laughter, and went backstage to say that he liked it, Bennett writes: "John Gielgud was once telling me about Mrs. Simpson and how smart she was. 'Mind you,' he said, 'she'd have made a disastrous queen. Didn't go to the theater at all.'"

Then there was director John Schlesinger, whom Bennett remembers liked to talk about his sex life, telling a story about going to a gay bathhouse in New York in the Seventies. A rotund man, Schlesinger was lying on his towel with the door to his cubicle open, which was the protocol for someone seeking a partner, when a young man looked in and said, "No, I couldn't. You've got to be kidding." The director's prim response: "A simple 'No' will suffice." Bennett longed to tell this story at Schlesinger's memorial service, but decided against it.
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