The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (10 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Saturday, July 10

I think everybody who works should have Saturday afternoons off, but they have got goofy ways of managing it over here.

Went down to Fortnum & Mason to buy small tokens of esteem for friends back home and by the time I finished it was lunch time. The store has an attractive coffee shop so I went there. There was a long line of people waiting for tables but a few counter seats were empty and I climbed up on a stool and picked up a menu. People were being served on both sides of me and the waitress was rushed. I waited till she'd brought everybody else's tea-and-tart and when she finally turned to me, I said:

“I'll have a—” and she said:

“We're closed, Madam,” and I said:

“You're what?” and she said:

“We're closed.”

And she pointed to a waiter who was carrying a standard to the door. He set the standard down in front of the long line of people waiting for tables and sure enough, the sign on the standard said
CLOSED.

At high noon on a Saturday with the store open and jammed with shoppers, the coffee shop closed. Which is what I call having a good strong Union.

Did the Temple this afternoon. It was raining when I came out, I took a bus home. You have to watch it with these buses. A sign on the bus says
DO NOT ALIGHT FROM THE COACH UNTIL REQUESTED TO DO SO
. Believe me, it's there for your health.

The driver is at one end of the bus with his back to the
passengers. Theoretically, the conductor is at the other end, where you get off. But he also has to go through the bus asking new passengers how far they're going and giving them tickets and taking money and making change, and the buses are double decker so half the time he's upstairs.

If he's upstairs when the bus comes to your stop, DO NOT GET OFF THE BUS, just ride past your stop and wait till he comes down. Because if the conductor isn't there to signal the driver when you're safely off, the driver doesn't really stop at your corner, he just slows down there and pauses, and then drives on, on the
assumption
that you're safely off. I'm small and limber, I hopped nimbly off the bus and even so I nearly fell on my face, that bus took off with my left foot on the bottom step.

I just phoned Jean Ely at the Connaught to thank her for asking PB to show me London. She said come to dinner Thursday night, she wants to hear all about it.

Sunday, July 11

I saved my three high spots—the Abbey, the Tower and St. Paul's—for the last week and I'm glad I did. Knowing I'm going to see them has kept me from getting depressed about going home when I'm not ready to go home. Woke in high excitement this morning because Sheila and Nora and I were doing the Abbey this afternoon.

It's full of odd things nobody ever told me about—like a plaque to the memory of Major John André, “Mourned Even by His Enemies,” it says. “His Enemies” were us rebels. André was the British spy Benedict Arnold betrayed us to. The Americans caught him and hanged him just as the British had caught and hanged Nathan Hale a little earlier. But you wouldn't believe how many American historians make a much bigger fuss over André's death than they do over Nathan Hale's. Nathan Hale was a poor farm boy. John André was a dashing British aristocrat—see. In class-conscious Philadelphia, where André was stationed, you'd better believe he was “Mourned by His Enemies.”

It positively outraged me to find Henry Irving buried in Westminster Abbey when Ellen Terry isn't. Henry Irving was one of those legendary actors like Garrick, he was the idol of London in the 1890's. Ellen Terry was his leading lady. I got very fond of her through her correspondence with Shaw and I consider it pure male chauvinism to bury Irving in the Abbey while Ellen's ashes, according to Sheila, are in the little Actors' Church near Covent Garden Market, I'm going there.

Sign of the times: there's a long bench now placed over
one grave so all you can see of the inscription is “Rudyard Ki
.”

We passed the War Office when we came out. It was hot today—eighty-four degrees, very hot for London. Outside the War Office, sitting on a horse in the hot sun, was a guard. He wore a solid brass helmet-and-noseplate, which must have been blazing hot. He was dressed in a heavy wool uniform, long leather gloves and leather knee boots, he had a Persian lamb saddle rug tucked around him and he was clutching a spear which was bending slightly from the heat. Bundled up for the Russian Front, all by himself on a hot Sunday, he was guarding the atomic secrets of the War Office with a bent spear. Him and his fur-covered horse.

Sheila says he's there to please tourists like me, he's the fancy-dress London we come looking for. Maybe so. But far away in Wales I could hear a light voice remarking:

“They haven't missed a night in seven hundred years.”

On the way back to Highgate for dinner we stopped off at Waterlow Park; it's so high above the city the legend on the park sundial informs you:

THIS SUNDIAL IS LEVEL WITH THE

DOME OF ST. PAUL'S CATHEDRAL

and when you look across the hills the dome is level with your eyes.

In the center of the park there's a two-story house with a high balcony, Sheila told me Charles II built it for Nelly Gwyn. Nell bore him a son there and she kept asking Charles to give the baby a title and Charles kept putting it
off. So one day, when she saw the King riding toward the house to visit her, Nelly walked out onto the balcony with the baby in her arms and called down to him:

“If you don't give your son a proper title this instant I shall drop him to his death!”

And Charles II cried:

“Madam, don't drop the Duke of—!” and that's how the baby got his title.

Later

Ena just phoned, they're back. They want me to have dinner with them tomorrow night and then see their flat in Ealing. She and Leo will pick me up here at hoppusseven. Nobody over here says “six-thirty” or “seven-thirty,” they say “hoppussix” and “hoppusseven.” And “in” at home is “trendy” here and “give it up” is “pack it in” and “never mind!” is “not to worry!”

And when they pronounce it the same they spell it differently. A curb's a kerb, a check's a cheque, a racket's a racquet—and just to confuse you further, “jail is spelled “gaol” and pronounced “jail.”

And a newsstand's a kiosk, a subway's the tube, a cigar store's a tobacconist's, a drug store's a chemist's, a bus is a coach, a truck is a lorry, buying on time is hire purchase, cash and carry is cash and wrap and as Shaw once observed, we are two countries divided by a common language. I am now going to bed because it's quataposstwelve.

Monday, July 12

O Frabjous Day!

From now on I remember the
Reader's Digest
in all my prayers. I picked up mail at the desk, there was a letter from the London
Digest
office, I assumed it was page proof on the three new pages. I opened it and inside was a check for FIFTY POUNDS, I thought I would die where I stood.

I hunted up Mr. Otto and asked if I could keep the room an extra ten days, he was shocked at the question, he said, “Did you think we'd put you out?!” and clucked.

I tore up the street to Deutsch's to tell everybody the news and Carmen said Ann Edwards of the
Sunday Express
wants to interview me Wednesday over lunch.

“And guess where? The River Room of the Savoy! It's the most divine place in London, I'm so happy for you.”

Mr. Tammer couldn't cash the check for me, he said it's made out in such a way only a bank can cash it. Will take it to the bank tomorrow.

I phoned Nora and told her the news and she wants to give a buffet supper for me on Friday to meet all the rare-book dealers, she wanted to do it before but they were all “on holiday.”

Joyce Grenfell phoned about dinner tomorrow night, she's putting a note in the mail with complete instructions for finding their flat by bus. It impresses me that in London you can mail an in-city letter on Monday and know for certain it will arrive on Tuesday. In New York you can mail a letter on Monday to an address a block away—and maybe it'll get there on Wednesday and very possibly it won't get there till Thursday.

My social life being what it is, I just faced the fact that I can't get along for two more weeks on one dress. God bless my Democratic Club and my brother, am off to Harrods with the gift certificate and the last of the cash reserve, Ena says they're having a close-out sale of summer dresses.

Later

Harrods sale overpriced and mostly midi-skirts they got stuck with. I went up the street to Harvey Nichols and bought a toast-and-white linen on sale and then went back to Harrods and swapped the gift certificate for a sand-colored shoulder bag on sale. Transferred everything to it and threw my old white straw in a Harrods' wastebasket, it's been unraveling for a week.

Took a cab to Johnson's house and lunched at the Cheshire Cheese (money means nothing to me) and stopped at the
Evening Standard
to see Valerie—the girl who interviewed me the day I landed—to tell her the
Standard's
interviewing me over again. (Now-that-I've-been-here-how-do-I-like-it.) While I was there, the catch on my new shoulder bag broke. Valerie was very shocked; I said, “That's why it was on sale.” She said, “Yes, but not
Harrodsl
” Nobody ever says “Bonwit's” in that tone.

She sent me to a little shop off Fleet Street to have it fixed, and while the man repaired it for me I asked if he could point me toward Bloomsbury, I wanted to walk home. He said:

“Go on up to O-Burn Street and follow the bus.”

Looked for O-Burn Street, looked for Auburn Street
and finally stumbled on the street he meant: High Holborn. And that's what they mean by a cockney accent.

Time to go crouch under that sadistic shower and then climb into the new dress for Leo and Ena.

Midnight

Leo took us to dinner at a plush seafood restaurant. The shellfish looks the same here as at home but tastes very different; the crabmeat and lobster are much richer here but very bland, almost tasteless to an American palate till you get used to it.

They drove me to their flat and I saw Ena's portrait of Hayley Mills and Pamela Brown. Pamela Brown I have a special love for, dating back to an old, old English film called
I Know Where I'm Going
and to a stage performance I saw her give in
The Importance of Being Earnest.

I know nothing about painting, not even the right thing to say when you like it; but those faces spoke to you. I was bowled over, I told Ena it's indecent to be that talented when you're pretty and blond and look fresh out of school.

Leo announced he was going to make me his special summer drink, for which he is famous, and he trotted off to the kitchen and banged around and came back with three long, tall drinks. I don't drink after dinner and I don't like carbonated drinks so I don't know one long-tall-drink from another. I sipped this one and said:

“It's ginger ale, isn't it? It's very nice.”

“It's gin and tonic,” said Leo, wounded.

“The gin kind of gets lost, doesn't it?” I said, and he
loped back to the kitchen for the gin bottle. Ena was doubled up with unkind wifely laughter.

“That's his special drink, he's so proud of it!” she gasped and went off into convulsions. I felt terrible. I told Leo I go through life saying the wrong thing. He put some more gin in my drink and then sat and watched me as I sipped it. When he thought I had enough of it inside me, he said:

“The little thing wants to ask you a favor.”

I looked at Ena and said, “What's the favor?” but she just smiled nervously. And Leo said:

“She wants to paint you.”

And I said:

“You're crazy.”

I know that painters see planes and angles in faces that look commonplace to the rest of us—and I still cannot understand why anyone should want to paint a plain, ordinary middle-aged face. Which I told Ena. To her, I have an interesting face, “it changes all the time.” I said I wished it would.

I never felt so trapped. All my life I've avoided being photographed—and here was Ena asking earnestly Would I sit for her? She'd only need a few sittings, “p'raps three or four?” Anxious little face peering at me wistfully.

I told her I'd do it on two conditions: one, she has to paint me in Russell Square, I'm not sitting indoors in some studio; and two, she has to promise not to make me look at the portrait either in progress or when it's finished.

She agreed to both conditions. She's finishing something this week, we start next week.

Tuesday, July 13

Paranoid morning.

Joyce Grenfell's note arrived with instructions for finding her flat tonight but nothing on how to find St. Mary LeBeau's Church in Cheapside for her dialogue with the minister at noon. I located Cheapside on my map and then decided to get the
Digest
check cashed before I went down there.

I went to the nearest bank and then to another one across the street from it. Both banks were shocked to be asked to cash a
Reader's Digest
check for a total stranger whose identification they declined to look at. Neither would phone the
Digest
or Deutsch's for me, it wasn't bank policy.

I went to a third bank, where a teller passed me on to an officer who conferred with another officer and then came back and said Wouldn't it be better if I just mailed the check to my bank in New York? I explained that I needed the cash here, which shocked him deeply. You do not say “I need cash” to a banker.

I told him my New York bank was Chemical and asked whether there was a branch in London. He said Yes, reluctantly, but he doubted whether the London bank would cash the check. (He said “could.”) I went down to Chemical—and after asking to see everything but my teeth, they cashed it. Nothing infuriates me like those friendly, folksy bank ads in magazines and on TV. Every bank I ever walked into was about as folksy as a cobra.

By this time I had barely half an hour to get down to Cheapside. I got on a bus and discovered I'd forgotten my map. I told the conductor I wanted to go to St. Mary LeBeau's, Cheapside, and he let me off down near St. Paul's, pointed to a yonder street and said:

“Walk that way a bit and turn left.”

I walked that way a bit and turned left and walked this way a bit and turned left and turned right and asked six people, all of whom turned out to be tourists. A bus slowed down at a corner, I called to the conductor Could he tell me how to get to St. Mary LeBeau's Church and he called back:

“Sorry, luv, it's m'fìrst day on the job!”

I wished him luck, you might as well, and kept on walking. Found three wrong churches, a Godsmith's Hall and a lot of interesting alleys but no St. Mary LeBeau's. By this time the dialogue was over anyway and I holed up in a smoky little pub and ate myself pleasant.

Midnight

Joyce met me at the door and took me on a guided tour of the living-room walls, hung with Grenfell and Langhorne family portraits and photographs. Her mother was one of the Langhorne sisters of Virginia. One sister married Charles Dana Gibson and was the original Gibson Girl, another married Lord Astor and was the famous Lady Astor, M.P., and the third married Joyce's father.

Very few theatrical photos on the wall. The one she's proudest of is the Haymarket marquee with her name in lights. The Haymarket had a rule against putting a star's name in lights, it only lights the name of the show. But when Joyce did her one-man show there, she wasn't just the star, she was the show.

She gave me a biography of Florence Nightingale she thinks I'll like. She sets her alarm for six every morning and reads in bed till seven; she said if she hadn't formed that
habit, she'd never find time to read anything. As it is, it seems to me she's read everything.

I'm always so ashamed when I discover how well-read other people are and how ignorant I am in comparison. If you saw the long list of famous books and authors I've never read you wouldn't believe it. My problem is that while other people are reading fifty books I'm reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.

After dinner they drove me around Chelsea and showed me the house where they were married. Joyce told me they were almost childhood sweethearts.

“I was seventeen and Reggie was just down from Oxford. The first time I played tennis with him I still wore my hair in a braid, I only put it up in the evening.”

They drove down into the old City of London and showed me St. Mary-Le-BOW's Church, it now turns out you spell it. Only the English could tack “bow” onto “le.” Too dark for me to see where I went wrong.

They kept up an amiable running argument about what to show me.

“Oh, not St. Paul's, dear, she'll have seen that.”

“She might like to see it illuminated, RegGEE!”

“She's probably seen it illuminated half a dozen times, why don't you show her Fleet Street?”

I piped up from the back seat that I'd like to see London's slums.

“I'm afraid,” said Joyce gently, “there aren't any.”

Add that fact to Britain's free medical care and you know all you need to know about the difference between Capitalism and Socialism.

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