Lady Rothermere’s Fan

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • The Letters of Ann Fleming edited by Mark Amory
    Collins, 448 pp, £16.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 00 217059 0

‘We missed you at Chantilly,’ Ann Fleming wrote to Evelyn Waugh in 1956, after she’d been to visit Diana Cooper in France. ‘Mr Gaitskell came to lunch and fell in love with Diana ... He had never seen cocktails with mint in them or a magnum of pink champagne. He was very happy. I lied and told him that all the upper class were beautiful and intelligent and he must not allow his vermin to destroy them.’ Mrs Fleming wrote a great many letters to Evelyn Waugh, telling him where she’d had lunch and where she’d had supper and who’d been there and made a fool of himself. It can’t be said that there’s anything in them that the rest of the world badly needs to know; and some people might find her tone of voice offensive. On the other hand, the letters were written for Waugh and he liked them. The question that’s hard to answer is: why are we reading them now?

The Observer, who serialised the letters, described their publication as ‘the literary event of the season’, which shows a doubtful sense of what’s what. Ann Fleming was married for 12 not very happy years to Ian Fleming, with whom she’d been infatuated for most of her life. Her previous husbands, Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail, and Lord O’Neill, never counted for much, though she had had a glamorous life with Rothermere and had been in love with him for a few years when still married to O’Neill. Being in love, unlike being married, is part of having a good time – and good times are what she chiefly writes about. After a supper at Petworth where Harold Macmillan had been present, she told Waugh that ‘except for a weakness for anecdotes about the peerage, everything he said was interesting,’ but added: ‘I doubt if he would enjoy a jolly jokes evening.’ That, to the extent that it’s fair to judge from these letters, is what she liked best: jolly jokes evenings with her friends. She was witty (‘that’s the cosiest Fan tutte I’ve ever heard,’ she said after she and her friends had been listening to it round an open fire with cushions and blankets); gave good, and when she was married to Rothermere spectacular, parties and is generally remembered as the sort of woman who could create a conversational fizz.

Her friends, as one would expect, were all grand, even those who weren’t straightforwardly upper-class. On the one hand, Boofy Arran; on the other, Lord Goodman. Mark Amory inadvertently sets the scene when he says in his foreword that he’d had to tidy up her spelling because ‘she never spotted the first “a” in Isaiah.’ ‘People born in all sorts of strata of society enjoyed the fruits of success,’ Cecil Beaton wrote apropos of the party she gave to mark Cyril Connolly’s 50th birthday. ‘And no one wasted their time in banalities.’ Not everyone – especially not her husbands – could handle so much brilliance, but there was always a chance that the outsider’s bemusement would further enhance the occasion. Invited to Chatsworth for ‘a high society pheasant shoot’, she reported to Waugh that the other guests, ‘Sandyses and Radziwills’, had ‘fled to their bedchambers alarmed by Mitford and Cecil wit’. But then three of them were foreigners and the fourth ‘a humourless politician’.

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