Authors: Anne de Courcy
The great proconsular figure of Lord Curzon holds immense fascination for anyone as interested in the quirks and byways of human nature as in brilliance of intellect and ferocity of will. A man noted for the splendor of his way of life even in an age of magnificos, unable to resist women while regarding them in no way as the equal of men, as capable of poring over a butcher's bill at 2:30 in the morning as of planning a great enterprise of state, Curzon often bewildered those around him. What must he have been like as a parent? And how would the legacy of such a father affect his three daughters, daughters of a man who longed above all for a male heir? Would he inspire or overwhelm them, and would they discover the happiness he found with their mother or the disharmony that overtook his second marriage?
In writing their story I am above all grateful to their children: to Lord Ravensdale (Nicholas Mosley) for making available to me the whole of his aunt Irene's copious diaries, early family letters and photographs; to David Metcalfe for his generosity in allowing me access to his family papers and letters, his mother's diaries and his wonderful collection of her photographs; to Davina Eastwood for all her help with memories and reminiscences, and particularly for her friendship, despite her reservations about the writing of such an intimate family portrait; and to Vivien Forbes Adam for many fascinating talks and memories of her parents.
I would also like to offer my most grateful thanks to Lord Holderness for so kindly allowing me to quote from the letters of his father, Lord Halifax; to Francis Sitwell for letting me read and quote from the diaries of his mother, Georgia Sitwell; to Sir Edward Cazalet for generously sending me copies of the diaries of his uncle, Victor Cazalet, to read and quote from; and to Christopher Davson for allowing me access to the papers of his grandmother, Elinor Glyn, and the essays sent to her by Professor Thomas Lindsay. Lord Rosslyn was extremely kind in allowing me to see the unpublished memoir of his mother, Lady Loughborough, and to quote from it. I am most grateful to Lord Romsey for permission to quote from the diaries of Lord and Lady Mountbatten; to Hugo Vickers for his extracts from the diary of Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough; to Mrs. Westropp for the loan of the late Miss Monica Sheriffe's Melton Mowbray photograph albums; and to Mr. Frank Cakebread for the loan of his photographs of Savehay Farm, Denham.
I am very grateful to Robert Barrett for his genealogical research; to Janet Tomlinson for her help with photographs; to Miss Betty Hanley for photographs and descriptions of the ChÃ¢teau de CandÃ© in the time of her aunt, Fern Bedaux; to Sir Dudley and Lady Forwood for their hospitality and reminiscences of the Duke of Windsor; to Dame Gillian Wagner for information and letters relating to her uncle, General Sir Miles Graham, and for photographs; and to Count Franco Grandi for all he told me about his father.
Among those who helped me with their memories of the sisters, their families, their friends and their times were Michael Clayton, Lady Clarissa Collin (whom I must also thank for photographs of her father), the late Quentin Crewe, Lady Kitty and Mr. Frank Giles, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, the Honorable Lady Mosley, Nigel Nicolson, the Countess of Plymouth, Kenneth Rose, Alfred Shaughnessy, Lady Thorneycroft, the late Michael Tree, Alice Winn and Elizabeth Winn, all of whom I would like to thank. As always the staffs of the British Library, the London Library and the Kensington and Chelsea Library were immensely helpful, as were Mollie Chalk, archivist at Broadlands, and Helen Langley, head of Modern Political Papers at the Bodleian.
I am also immensely grateful to David Metcalfe and to Nicholas Mosley for kindly reading my manuscript and offering their comments and, last but not least, to the superlative editing of Benjamin Buchan of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Any mistakes are mine, not his.
Anne de Courcy
The Curzon daughters were born when the wealth and privilege of the British upper classes were at their zenith. Powdered footmen in brilliant liveries stood behind chairs at dinner parties of ten courses. The pavement outside a grand house was covered with sound-deadening straw if the occupant was ill, or with a red carpet if there was a ball, so that guests in tiaras or tailcoats could proceed in style to a ballroom filled with flowers from the hothouses of the host's country estate. Most of them, born into this tight and exclusive circle threaded through with networks of cousinage, already knew each other, their friendships flowering during the long Saturdays to Mondays spent at one another's country houses.
The grandeur, the sports, the pleasures, the elaborate clothes washed, ironed, mended and packed by lady's maid or valet, the dressing gongs, the carriages, the silver tea things on a white lace cloth beneath a cedar tree on the lawn, were expressions of a society secure in its own powerâa power which extended over roughly a quarter of the world and which was, equally securely, held in the hands of its ruling class.
No one epitomized the concept of the Englishman born to rule better than George Nathaniel Curzon. As Lady Cynthia Asquith, the daughter of Curzon's friend, Lady Elcho, tartly observed: “It certainly needed no trained psychologist's eye to diagnose him at a glance as a man who would prefer to be mounted on an elephant rather than a donkey.” When his daughters Irene, Cynthia and Alexandra were born, in 1896, 1898 and 1904 respectively, he was at the height of his powers and influence.
The Honorable George Curzon, the eldest of four brothers and six sisters, was born on January 11, 1859, at Kedleston, the Derbyshire estate that had belonged to the Curzons for more than seven hundred years. The house, a northern palace, was built by Robert Adam with a saloon based on the Pantheon in Rome, and was surrounded by a park. George's father, the fourth Lord Scarsdale, who as a younger son had not expected to inherit the manor, was the village rector. All his life Curzon was passionate about Kedleston and constantly sought to enrich and improve it, a passion that expanded to embrace the other grand houses which he later bought or rented.
Curzon's brilliance and belief in himself were apparent from an early age; the future prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who met him while he was at Eton, was more struck by his self-confidence than by any other quality. Brought up by a sadistic governess, a cold mother, who died when he was sixteen, and a distant, eccentric father, the realization that he could depend only upon himself and on what he could make of his life had come to him early.
Just before his mother died, George had taken a fall while riding in the Kedleston woods, hurt his back badly and spent three days lying in bed in great pain. Like any fifteen-year-old, when he got better he forgot about it. Then, on holiday in France just before going up to Oxford in the autumn of 1878, he was suddenly struck by agonizing pain in the lower back. His right hip, he realized, had altered shape. He went straight back to London where he immediately consulted a specialist, who told him that he was suffering from curvature of the spine and that in future he must wear a corset or brace and avoid violent exercise. From then on, he was in more or less constant pain, often having to take to his bed as the only alleviation. Work provided distraction, consolation and a lifeline out of the self-pity into which he occasionally fell.
The effect of this constant suffering permeated Curzon's character, aggravated by the steel corset he was obliged to wear. This rigid framework made him literally stiff-necked, giving him an appearance of pride verging on self-importance, a man prepared to stand on his dignity on all occasions. And, just as stiffness of body is often reflected in rigidity of mind, so his attitudes and prejudices all too easily became set in stone while his will dominated his emotions.
This did not stop him from becoming the center of a notable group of friends both as an undergraduate at Oxford and after. There was the masculine society of the Crabbet Clubâfounded by the traveler, poet and womanizer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt at his home in Sussexâwhich would meet for what Curzon called “bayarnos” (he was under the impression that “beano” was Italian for a festivity) in the first weekend of July, when around twenty members arrived bringing with them presents of wine, cigars and other delicacies. In 1883 he was elected a fellow of All Souls; and three years later ran for Parliament and became the Conservative MP for Southport in Lancashire.
Curzon was also a founder member of the coterie of aristocratic and intellectual men and women known as “the Souls.” Though the nude tennis-playing of the Crabbet Club after a long night of talk had no place among the Souls, they were equally impressed by an elegance of intellectual style. They were not afraid of expressing emotionâindeed, they had been christened the Souls by Lord Charles Beresford in 1888 since, as he said, “You all sit and talk about each other's souls”; and the name was confirmed by Curzon's banquet for them of 1889 at the Bachelors' Club, where each guest found on his chair a set of Curzon's verses describing the characteristics of each individual Soul. Their articulateness, freedom of expression and extravagant displays of affection made their conversation the very opposite of the convention and banality that had trickled down from court circles. One favorite after-dinner game was Styles, in which guests were given half an hour to write something in the style of Shakespeare, Macaulay, Wordsworth or Tennyson.
Their influence, especially that of the female Souls, on the young Curzon was immense. Beauty, if possible accompanied by voluptuousness, chic and charm, became for him a prerequisite in a woman. Many years later, when Lord Peel was being considered as a possible viceroy, he remarked in Cabinet: “I need hardly say that I have no objection whatsoever to our friend Willy Peel but I feel bound to remind those of my colleagues who may not be personally acquainted with his wife that whilst she is undoubtedly a lady of colossal wealth, she has a calamitous appearance.”
Women, he felt, should be the brilliant, decorative adjuncts of a husband's career, the solace and relaxation of his private moments, rather than individuals in their own right. Even while at Oxford he spoke in the Union against a proposal to allow women students to use the university library (unavailingly: the motion was carried by 254 votes to 238). Although he preferred spending what leisure time he had with women rather than with men, he liked them, as his lover Elinor Glyn shrewdly wrote, “rather in the spirit in which other men like good horses or fine wine, or beautiful things to embellish a man's leisure but not as equal souls worthy of being seriously considered or treated with that scrupulous sense of honour with which he would deal with a man.”
His attitude to women was contradictory in other ways. Though he was emotional, even sometimes sentimental, his cool, aloof facade belied his longing for affection. He was drawn to the feminine qualities of warmth, softness and decorative serenity as to a fire. His libido was powerful, impelling him into flirtationsâone young woman complained that when he found himself alone with her at a country-house breakfast he immediately tried to kiss herâand full-blown affairs where sex, rather than love, was the motivation. In his early years he was the subject of would-be blackmail by a lady of very easy virtue; later, he chose mistressesânotably the romantic novelist Elinor Glynâfrom his own world, where discretion would be assured.
As a wife, he selected one of the richest and most beautiful young women in America. Mary Leiter was the daughter of Levi Ziegler Leiter, a Chicago millionaire whose forebears had come from Switzerland and who, in 1811, founded the village of Leitersburg in Maryland. In 1854, Levi Leiter had left Leitersburg for Chicago to work for a firm of merchants; there, he met a friend of his own age called Marshall Field who, like him, had begun his commercial life by working in a country store. Both of them were intelligent, hardworking and ambitious. Together, in January 1865, they founded the American store today known as Marshall Field. By the time Mary was born, in 1870, her father was hugely wealthy.
Mary was educated as befitted the family's new status. She was taught dancing, music, singing and art; she learned French from a French governess and history, chemistry and arithmetic from a Columbia University professor. She was tall and slim, with large gray eyes in an oval face, glossy chestnut-brown hair drawn back into a loose knot at the nape of her neck and small, pretty hands and feet. Everything that could be done, through her father's wealth and her mother's social ambition, to turn her into the debutante of the year was done; and when she became a friend of the attractive twenty-three-year-old Frances Cleveland, wife of the president of the United States, success was assured.
Thanks to the Cleveland connection, when the Leiter family arrived in New York at the end of the 1888 Washington season, Mary was adopted onto the all-important Social Register. In New York, too, she triumphed and then, fascinated by the idea of the English aristocracy, with its titles and country houses, she determined to conquer London as well.
Thanks to her beauty and letters of introduction, Mary was soon launched. When Asquith's wife, Margot, saw the eighteen-year-old Mary in a black lace dress with a huge picture hat trimmed with roses, she was “struck dumb” by Mary's loveliness. At the duchess of Westminster's ball in July 1890, which Mary had the signal honor of opening by dancing a quadrille with the Prince of Wales, she met George Curzon. When they saw each other again at a house party, Mary, now twenty, fell in love.
As for Curzon, “I had a strong inclination to kiss you, with difficulty restrained,” he told her laterâbut then, it was an inclination he often experienced. Although they wrote to each other daily during the ten days before Mary left England and saw each other as often as possible, their courtship hung fire. While Mary ached for him to propose to her, Curzon was too busy traveling through the Pamir mountains and thence into Afghanistan, gathering material for an eventual five volumes he would write about Asia.
After three years of sporadic contact Curzon, returning home from Cairo via Paris, learned that Mary was there too. Her mother invited him to dine with them at the HÃ´tel VendÃ´me. After dinner, while Mrs. Leiter tactfully left them alone, Mary told Curzon how she had pined for him during this period, rejecting countless suitors as she waited for him to make up his mind. It was enough: Curzon proposed on the spot, but he stipulated that the engagement must remain secret until he had finished his travels in the Pamirs. During the next two years, they were to meet for just two days and a few hours.
Mary's superhuman devotion and submissiveness were exactly what Curzon wanted. Here was a beautiful, loving, faithful woman who knew her place. “The terrace of the House is as crowded with women as the Royal Enclosure at Ascot,” he wrote disgustedly to Mary on June 21, 1893, “and the encroachment of the sex fills me with indignation which no blandishments can allay. Give me a girl that knows a woman's place and does not yearn for trousers. Give me, in fact, Mary.” That she was also immensely rich was an understood part of the bargain: the tide of American heiresses marrying British titles was then in full flood. Ironically, it was this very wealth that would later drive a wedge between those whom its owner loved mostâher husband and children.
The question of the Leiter fortune arose well before the official announcement of their engagement on March 4, 1895. (Describing the engagement, the
St. James's Gazette
wrote of the bridegroom: “He is superbly clever and not unconscious of the fact.”) Lord Scarsdale gave his son an allowance of one thousand pounds a year and promised to settle on him land worth seven thousand pounds a year in income. After much discussion, Levi Leiter made a marriage settlement on his daughter of seven hundred thousand dollars, invested in fixed-interest railroad stock, to give her an annual income of thirty-three thousand dollars. Should she predecease Curzon, he was entitled to one-third of this income, with another third to go to any children they might have. The remaining third was to be left as appointed by Mary or, in default of that, by Curzon. Levi Leiter also promised Mary a further one million pounds either during his lifetime or in his will.
They were married on the morning of April 22, 1895, at St. John's Church, opposite the White House, in Washington, D.C., Mary in a white dress from Worth and the Scarsdale diamonds. A few days later they sailed for England from New York. Mary never saw America again. Their first house in London was No. 5 Carlton House Terrace off Pall Mall. Curzon, setting a precedent that was to endure through both his marriages, was more familiar with its domestic minutiae than Mary.
In June 1895 he was appointed undersecretary of state at the Foreign Office. The following month there was a general election; Curzon, his campaign for reelection funded by his father-in-law and aided by the charm and beauty of his young wife, increased his majority.
Within a few months the young couple had decided they could not afford Carlton House Terrace and instead leased No. 4 Carlton Gardens from a fellow Soul, Arthur Balfour, renting a Georgian house in Reigate, the Priory, while Balfour's house was being made ready for them. Mary was not allowed to choose so much as a single curtain; Curzon, although working sixteen-hour days, took the entire decoration out of her hands, despite the fact that she would have enjoyed itâand that her father was paying. In many ways, it was the template for their marriage.
For the next few years Mary was miserable, alone in a foreign country, with little to do and a husband hardly ever there. Because his work prevented him from escorting her, the ordinary social round passed her by. During the London season of 1896 they went out to dinner only twice, and it was the same during the Jubilee year that followed. Only Mary's baby, Mary Irene, born on January 20, 1896, lightened her wretchedness. She pronounced the child's name
in the American fashion; Curzon, a classicist, gritted his teeth every time he heard this but loyally said nothing.