The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (9 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Monday, July 5

Nikki's Barbara phoned this morning; we made a lunch date for Friday. I gave her a couple of questions to ask Nikki over the teletype, she'll bring the answers to lunch with her.

I called the
Reader's Digest
office and the girl there said they're using the fan-mail article in the English edition but it deals only with American fan mail, didn't I have any English fans? Shades of the Colonel, didn't I just. I explained that the article was written and sold before the English fan mail arrived, and she said Would I dreadfully mind writing a page or two about the English fan mail? They go to press in a few days, they would have to have the new pages tomorrow, could I possibly?

I felt like saying, “Lady, this is the first real vacation I've ever had in my life and I've only got ten days of it left!” But unfortunately it crossed my mind that I wouldn't be having the first real vacation of my life if it weren't for the
Reader's Digest
, so I said it would be a pleasure.

Will now shlep up the street to Deutsch's and borrow a typewriter.

Later

Wrote three new pages and took them down to the
Digest
office in Berkeley Square and walked home by a lovely new route, straight up the Visitors' Map to the Regent's Park area and then over. Somewhere along the way I came upon a mews with a small sign on the entrance gate addressed to the passing world. The sign orders flatly:

COMMIT NO NUISANCE

The more you stare at that, the more territory it covers. From dirtying the streets to housebreaking to invading Viet Nam, that covers all the territory there is.

There was a letter at the desk for me when I came back:

Can you be here Wednesday at noon
sharp
, for a visit to two stately homes of England?

In haste—

P. B.

Mary Scott just phoned. She wrote me last spring that she and her husband are Californians who spend every spring and summer in London, and she offered to take me on a walking tour. She told me she's had house guests for a month, they've just left and she's finally free for that walking tour, she'll pick me up for the tour Thursday morning and take me home to dinner afterwards.

Tomorrow night I'm having dinner with the English couple who phoned me while I was in Stratford, and the Scotts are feeding me Thursday, so I may just spring for a hairdresser on the dinner money I'm saving.

Tuesday, July 6

Had my hair done at a little shop out Regent's Park way on Paddington Street, and the pretty hairdresser asked Was I from the States, and I said Yes.

“How do you find London?” she asked. “Do the noise and the crowds bother you?”

The what?

For a big city, London is incredibly quiet. The traffic is worse than at home because the streets here are so narrow; but the cars are very quiet going by in the street and there are no trucks at all, a city ordinance bans them. Even the sirens are quiet. The ambulance sirens go
BlooOOP, blooOOP
, like a walrus weeping under water.

And I haven't seen anything here, not even on a bus, that a New Yorker would describe as a crowd.

Midnight

Those English fans who invited me to dinner are a charming couple, they live in Kensington in a mews. A mews is an alley built originally for stables and carriage barns, and the fad is to convert the barns and stables into modern homes, everybody wants to live in a converted stable, it's chic.

But stables and carriage barns were built of stone and they don't have windows. And the horses weren't interested in indoor plumbing or electricity. You buy one of these stables and kill yourself turning a horse's stall into a very peculiar kitchen (cramped between two high stone partitions); you wire all the stalls for electricity, you pipe them
for water, you get all your kitchen and bathroom equipment and furniture moved into the proper horses' stalls—and when you're all through you still can't chop a hole through a foot-thick stone wall for windows, so you have everything you need but air. The couple I had dinner with live in a charming little stable which, they explained to me cheerfully, is so hot all summer they get out of it as soon after supper as possible. In winter they freeze without heat and suffocate with it.

Across the street from them is Agatha Christie, just as comfortably situated and a lot older.

Demented.

They fed me an elegant salmon steak and drove me through Chiswick—pronounced Chizzick—and we walked along the Strand on the Green. The Strand on the Green is a lovely avenue overlooking the Thames, you can run down the front steps of the houses and jump in the river. The houses were built by Charles II for his mistresses. They are very beautiful and charming, very expensive and sought-after, and the elite who live in them are envied just as much as if the Thames didn't overflow every now and then and flood all their living rooms.

I don't remember what we were talking about, but I described something-or-other in Central Park and my hostess looked at me in horror.

“You mean you actually go into Central Park?” she asked. “I thought people got killed there.”

I said I was in it almost every day, and offered to take her and her husband on a guided tour of it if they ever came to New York. And then they told me that last year they spent three days at the Plaza Hotel and never left their hotel
room for fear of being killed. They didn't walk down Fifth Avenue. They didn't see the park, even from a hansom cab. They didn't set foot in a single skyscraper. They didn't get on a sight-seeing bus.

They never left their room.

“We were too terrified,” the wife said.

Since I arrived in London, three college boys have been found shot to death as they slept at a camp site; a girl was found stabbed to death in her flat; and there are signs all over town reading
LOCK UP LONDON.
I asked PB about them, he said they're part of a campaign to get Londoners to lock doors and windows when they go out because of the wave of robberies; three of his friends' flats were robbed in one weekend.

Crime is a hundred times worse in New York. We probably have more murders and muggings there in a week than London will see in a year. Still, for what it's worth, no umpire or fan in Shea Stadium will ever take his eyes off the baseball diamond long enough to make a pass at a girl. And no New York dog will attack three children on the street, killing one of them, which happened here last week.

I mean things are tough all over. Tougher in New York. But not so tough as to justify two Londoners huddling together in a hotel room for a weekend,
declining
the only chance they'll ever have to see the one fabulous city the twentieth century has created.

One of these days I'm going to write a book about living in New York—in a sixteen-story apartment house complete with families, bachelors, career girls, a ninety-year-old Village Idiot and a doorman who can tell you the name and apartment number of every one of the twenty-seven resident dogs. I am so tired of being told what a terrible place New York is to live in by people who don't live there.

Wednesday, July 7

PB took me to Syon House, the ancestral home of those miserable Northumberlands who tried to make Jane Grey queen and sided with Mary of Scotland against Elizabeth. The rose gardens there are beyond anything I've seen: acres of roses in a spectacular rainbow of colors. PB told me he spent the weekend with friends in the country who had a double rose garden and didn't offer him so much as a bud to take home. Londoners miss their gardens, he and the other tenants in his building do a little gardening in pots on the roof.

We went from Syon House to Osterly Park, another ancestral home, I forget whose. I'm learning a little about Nash houses and Wren churches; today at Osterly Park it was Adam walls: polished wood panels covered with intricate marquetry. You can examine a single wall for hours and not see all the details in the carving. In a century dominated by watches, cars, planes, schedules, it's hard to imagine an age in which men had the endless time and patience needed for such work.

Driving home, PB told me he worked in Hollywood off and on for years as a consultant on films with English locales. The notion of PB in Hollywood in its heyday, when it was a synonym for everything tasteless and overdone, was grotesque at first, but then I realized he's one of those originals who would be at home in almost any setting; nothing rubs off on him. He's been everywhere and knows everybody, he's very social—there are always a dozen invitations propped up on the mantel—but he seems always a little apart from those around him.

He told me he once spent months hauling an American architect all over England for the Essex House in New York. The Essex House was doing over its cocktail lounge and wanted to re-create an English pub.

“They sent a chap over here to see me and I drove him round the country to see all the best of the old pubs. He went back to New York and drew up the plans and sent them to me. I'll show them to you when we get home.”

We got back to Rutland Gate and he showed me the drawings and they were marvelous: a pub with wood-paneled walls, antiqued wooden tables and benches and a high, old-fashioned wooden bar with kegs above it. The pub looked warm and mellow and the woods burnished in the glow of old-fashioned lamps that swung from the ceiling.

“Is the pub still there?” I asked.

“I think so,” he said.

“I'll go see it when I get home,” I said. “Did he write and tell you how it looks?”

“Oh, yes”—in that light, noncommittal voice—“the Essex House did the pub in lucite, chrome and black leather.”

He goes to Wales for a week on Saturday. I'll be gone when he gets back.

Thursday, July 8

Mary Scott took me on a walking tour of Knightsbridge and Kensington, we went to Harrods first because I'd never seen it. It's an incredible store, you can buy anything from a diamond necklace to a live tiger, they have a zoo. I thought of Chester, the sheep dog who lives in my building, he came from Harrods.

On the ground floor there's a florist's shop, and if you want to buy a dozen roses you can choose twelve roses individually. You can pick all buds or all open blooms or half and half, and you can buy one of every color in stock. I ran amok rounding up twelve to send to PB to brighten his flat before he leaves for Wales. Didn't know any other way to thank him.

We wandered the mewses and closes and poked into hidden gardens and alleys. Chelsea, Kensington and Knightsbridge all seem to me self-consciously charming, compared with Regent's Park. The Scotts live out that way and I told Mrs. Scott if I were able to take a flat in London it's out Regent's Park way I'd want to live. She said it's not called Regent's Park, it's called Marylebone.

They have a spacious flat on Gloucester Place and she'd made a beautiful salmon mousse for dinner, loaded with cream. Salmon is a great delicacy here; people serve it as a compliment to their guests the way they serve filet mignon or lobster at home.

Got back here about ten and have had the Lounge to myself for an hour but my luck just ran out. A woman just came in looking for somebody to talk to. She says Be sure
and see the Temple, locate Middle Temple Lane and you'll see two large white doors leading into the Temple, the Inner Temple and Middle Temple Hall, and the porter will show you the room where Dickens wrote
Great Expectations.
Doesn't seem the time to tell her I found
Great Expectations
very boring, it's the sort of conversation-stopping sequitur you learn is really
non
sequitur.

She says the Knights Templar were buried under the floor of the church and that's why it's called the Temple. She says the church was destroyed during the war and after the war all the Knights' bones were dug up and they're now in a common grave under the floor of the rebuilt church. It's a good thing I want to see all this, because if I didn't plan to I'd have to keep out of the Lounge, I gather she spends all her evenings in here.

Two women just came in—early thirties, very neat, they may be schoolteachers; they're from Toronto—and it seems the Temple woman sent them somewhere on a day's outing and they are now telling her How Right She Was. Greenwich-by-boat. Maritime Museum.

Temple woman says This will interest me because I'm an American, she says there are Pilgrim artifacts at Greenwich, the Pilgrims took ship from there. Always thought it was Plymouth. Didn't say so. I'm controlling an insane impulse to turn to the three of them and say chattily:

“Did you know that when the Pilgrim Fathers caught a Pilgrim having a love affair with a cow, they not only hanged the Pilgrim, they also hanged the cow?”

One of the teachers wants to know Am I the writer? They've heard such a lot about me at the desk. If they should
be able to get a copy of my book tomorrow would I be kind enough to autograph it for them? Soitinly. Told a woman the other night she was passing up a chance to own the only unautographed copy in existence, she just looked at me baffled, nobody understands me.

Friday, July 9  
Russell Square

A man came by at 10
A.M.
to interview me for Radio London and I dragged him and his tape recorder over here, I'm not sitting in a dark hotel lobby on a sunny summer morning.

He told me a play was done here last season about Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton and a script was sent to Buckingham Palace. It came back to the producers office with a note:

The Duke of Edinburgh thinks you've treated Lady Hamilton very shabbily. The Queen reserves judgment.

Everybody over here has a Philip anecdote for you, they're proud of the fact that he's so unstuffy. It's appealing how people regard the Royal Family as relatives, it's a kind of Cousin-Elizabeth-and-her-husband-and-the-children attitude. So everybody feels free to criticize them, what else are relatives for? Elizabeth, Philip and Prince Charles all very popular. Feelings mixed about Princess Anne; most people I've met are defensive about her. You ask an Englishman:

“What's Princess Anne like?” and the Englishman says:

“Well, you must remember she's still very young, she's new to all this, after all she's only twenty, you can't expect—”

And all you said was: “What's she like?”

But they're very impressed by her horsemanship, they
tell you with great pride: “She's good enough to ride for England!”

Feelings also mixed (this surprised me) about the Queen Mother. One woman told me:

“Her public image is a masterpiece of press agentry. I once stood next to her at Harrods and caught her eye, and she has the coldest eyes I ever looked into.”

Have to go back to the hotel to meet Nikki's Barbara for lunch. She doesn't like curry but she's being magnanimous and taking me to a curry place near me on Charlotte Street.

Later

There was a thank-you note at the desk when I got back from Russell Square.

The super roses arrived—they are on my desk as I write this and perfume the whole room. How very thoughtful—thank you. I just spoke to Jean Ely, she and Ted arrived at the Connaught last night. I thanked her for introducing us.

Will be back on the 18th. Do be in London still.

In haste—

P.B.

I leave Thursday, the fifteenth.

VIA TELETYPE

JULY 6, 1971

TO NIKKI FROM HELENE VIA BARBARA TWO REQUESTS FIRST ANDY CAPP COMIC BOOKS OUT OF PRINT COULD YOU THINK OF SOMETHING MORE CULTURED FOR HER TO BRING YOU SECOND SHE WOULD LIKE NAMES OF TWO BEST INDIAN CURRIES SOHO IN THE NATIVE TONGUE ALIVE AND WELL

TO BARBARA FROM NIKKI MANY THANKS FOR THE MESSAGE FROM HELENE HER POSTCARD SOUNDS LIKE SHE IS HAVING A BALL HAVE YOU MET HER YET

NOT YET BUT AM HAVING LUNCH WITH HER THIS FRIDAY DO YOU HAVE CURRIES FOR HER

NOT YET WILL CHECK IT OUT WITH MY INDIAN FRIEND AM JUST BACK FROM VACATION TELL HER I AM IN LOVE

GOOD FOR YOU BI

JULY 8, 1971

1510 GMT LONDON

TO BARBARA

FROM NIKKI

TWO CURRY NAMES ARE MURGI KARI AND MURGI MASALAM ALSO COULD YOU GIVE HER
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE FROM KEN MILLS ALL IS LOST ROOT FOR DODGERS IN WESTERN DIVISION OR BETTER STILL TAKE UP CRICKET HAVE FUN AND THANKS NIKKI END

OKAY NIKKI WILL DO BI

JULY 9, 1971

TO NIKKI NEW YORK

JUST HAD LUNCH WITH HELENE AND SCRIBBLED OUT THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE FOR YOU DUCHESS OF BLOOMSBURY STREET SAYS HOW THE HELL CAN ALL BE LOST ITS ONLY JULY METS WILL START WINNING WHEN SHE IS HOME TO ROOT THEM THROUGH DUCHESS SAYS YOU ARE FORBIDDEN TO ENTER INTO BETROTHAL WITHOUT HER CONSENT SHE WILL HAVE TO LOOK HIM OVER FIRST END

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