Musical Chairs with Ribbentrop

Bee Wilson

  • BuyNancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort
    Cape, 378 pp, £25.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 09016 2

In March 1936, a few days after the German invasion of the Rhineland, Nancy Astor threw a party at 4 St James’s Square. As well as being the first woman MP (elected in 1919), Astor was a legendary hostess. To this particular dinner party she invited various League of Nations delegates, the American and Russian ambassadors, an assortment of English friends and Hitler’s ‘ambassador-at-large’, Joachim von Ribbentrop. She placed Ribbentrop next to her at dinner. After the meal, she announced some party games, whispering to the English guests that they must let the Germans win. The actress Joyce Grenfell, who was Astor’s niece and a connoisseur of Nancy’s humour, was there:

What do you suppose Aunt N did after dinner? Made us all play musical chairs. She really is a remarkable woman, for who else could think of such a thing? Some of the older ones stood by thinking, no doubt, that the English are mad, quite mad. But they smiled benignly and were amused. After this, group conversations took place.

Playing musical chairs with the Nazis (and letting them win) seems almost too perfect an image for the particular brand of appeasement Astor and her ‘Cliveden set’ embraced. Cliveden in Buckinghamshire had been given to Nancy and her husband Waldorf as a wedding present by his father, William Waldorf Astor, who had called it ‘the most magnificent wedding gift ever made, I should imagine’: a Palladian mansion in 375 acres on the banks of the Thames. Waldorf and Nancy hosted epic house parties there, welcoming, among others, Shaw, Amy Johnson, Roosevelt (F.D.), Henry Ford, Asquith, Charlie Chaplin, J.M. Barrie, Churchill, Henry James, Edith Wharton, kings and queens and Mahatma Gandhi. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand spent a weekend there not long before his assassination. By the 1930s, the guest list – both at Cliveden and in St James’s Square – had evolved. Now, the Astors frequently invited Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, Nevile Henderson, ambassador to Germany, and Philip Kerr, the Marquess of Lothian, a Christian Scientist like Nancy, and one of several to express the view that in marching into the Rhineland, Germany was merely walking into its own backyard. Nancy and Waldorf also regularly entertained Neville Chamberlain. ‘Back from Cliveden. Lord! What a party,’ Chamberlain recorded in his diary after one weekend. ‘For a long time I disliked Nancy intensely but … now I have come to regard her with something like the tolerant affection one feels for a warmhearted, merry and sometimes naughty child.’ At one Cliveden gathering, not long after the Anschluss, Mrs Neville Chamberlain threw herself into Nancy’s after-dinner games, getting down on all fours as she pretended to be Battleship, the horse that had won that year’s Grand National.

The Cliveden set was ridiculed in Reynolds News as a kind of upper-class pro-Hitler cabal. It was felt that the house was becoming a second, covert Foreign Office, with the expertise of civil servants being trounced by cocktail party consensus. ‘For 18 months,’ the paper reported, ‘Cliveden has been the centre of friendship with German influence.’ There was some truth in it. After his merry game of musical chairs, Ribbentrop reported to Hitler on the likelihood of England and Germany forging a lasting agreement. He singled out the Astorgruppe as one of the circles ‘that want a fresh understanding with Germany and who hold that it would not basically be impossible to achieve’.

Nancy herself, however, was irked by the view that the parties at Cliveden represented any kind of pro-German conspiracy. And in her defence, she was no Diana Mosley. Waldorf may have been one of the first in Britain to meet with Hitler face to face, but it was not from any love of National Socialism. Waldorf wrote to the Times to defend the Cliveden house parties and to insist that he and ‘Lady Astor’ were ‘no more fascists’ than communists: ‘To link our weekends with any particular clique is as absurd as is the allegation that those of us who desire to establish better relations with Germany or Italy are pro-Nazis or pro-Fascists.’ Like many in their circle, the Astors were very conscious of the heavy burden the Treaty of Versailles had imposed on Germany and feared, as many did, the anarchy of another Great War. Yet much of what seemed to be pro-German bias in Nancy’s thinking reflected instead a deep hatred and suspicion of the Russians on the one hand and the French on the other. Adrian Fort, in his new biography, argues persuasively that ‘on European matters a paramount influence upon Nancy seemed to be an aversion to the French’ and to ‘Latins in general’.

As for the idea that she was organising conspiracies at Cliveden, Nancy vigorously disagreed: ‘We do not entertain with any plan or plot. With a purpose, yes; but not a plot or a plan. I am too impulsive to plot or even to plan ahead.’ This was disingenuous. Nancy was always planning and plotting. A lifelong teetotaller, she took little pleasure in most forms of relaxation. She disliked music in all its manifestations, though for form’s sake she sometimes hired the best bands to appear in the entertainments at Cliveden. Dinner guests were berated for failing to stay on the subject under discussion: ‘I’ve no time for this nonsense,’ she would complain. ‘Come to the point and stick to it!’ Her parties definitely had a purpose, but it was far more ambitious than promoting the cause of this or that nation state. In grander moods, she declared that the purpose of all her manic hostessing was democracy itself.

‘What I really like to have in my house is a party which contains thoroughly opposing elements – pacifists and fire-eaters, reformers and die-hards, rich and poor, old and young. When they meet each other they generally make friends, and when they make friends they can find some of the solutions to their problems.’ In Nancy’s view, there could be no harm in inviting Ribbentrop for musical chairs, because there was no chance that she would be converted to his politics. Bossy, wildly opinionated, a great finger-jabber and tongue-lasher, she was always the one doing the converting at Astor parties, attempting to force guests to a common ground whether they liked it or not. On meeting Gandhi, she clapped her hands in his face, called him ‘the wild man of God’ and told him off for making so much ‘trouble’ in the world. He seems to have taken it on the chin. ‘I have been warned to beware of Lady Astor,’ he said – ‘perhaps she is a wild woman of God.’

Asked to explain her forcefulness, Nancy sometimes replied that she was a Virginian: ‘My whole background was concerned with the Civil War’ – or the ‘war of northern aggression’, as she continued to think of it. Her father, ‘Chillie’ (Chiswell Dabney Langhorne), who made a fortune on the railroads, was a gambler, a drinker, a bully, a glutton and a spitter – in other words, a ‘gentleman of the old Virginia school’. His children kept pet billy goats and played tennis and squash on their own courts. Nancy’s older sister Irene was the more celebrated beauty – she was the original Gibson Girl – but Nancy was fiercer (she once killed a moccasin snake with her riding crop). The Langhorne family’s meals were prepared by a Negro cook and butler. ‘Don’t kill him, Dab,’ Nancy’s mother cajoled, to save the butler from an act of violence when he tripped one day while carrying a tureen of oyster stew. Chillie never lost his prejudice against the Damyankees or his conviction that work was for ‘niggers’. Nancy, too, the fourth of his seven children, nursed a grudge against the enemies of the Confederacy all her life, lamenting the ‘smashers-up and pullers-down’ who destroyed the old order: ‘homes and estates ruined, property split up, slaves all gone’. Though foul-mouthed, strident and cruel, she also retained Southern conceptions of grace. To the end, she ate Virginia hams, steeped in honey and cloves. During the Second World War, Cliveden – which she turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers – became like a second South to her. In 1940, she wrote that it all looked so beautiful, ‘one dare not think of this lovely land being invaded by barbarous hordes.’

How had this Dixie Belle become the first woman ever to be voted into the House of Commons? Not that she was strictly the first. In December 1918, the first election in which women were allowed to stand, there had been 17 women candidates; the only one to win a seat was Constance Markievicz, but since she was standing for Sinn Fein, she declined to take up her seat. A year later, in December 1919, Nancy was the first woman to be summoned by the Speaker to take her seat. The sight of the Conservative Lady Astor arriving for her first debate moved many other women to tears, even if they shared few of her beliefs. The wife of a miners’ leader said that she could have ‘shouted for joy’. A suffragette clasped her hand and said her success had justified all of the suffering. Nancy for her part made a show of solidarity with other women by announcing that in the House she would wear ‘nothing that the poorest woman elected to the House could not wear’. On that first day she wore ‘a dark tailored suit, white satin blouse, tricorne velvet hat with cockade and white kid gloves’.

It does seem extraordinary that Nancy – an American, and twice married – succeeded where so many others had failed. In his very readable if slightly too smitten biography, Fort is keen to contrast her pleasing appearance with that of the ‘hard-bitten’ suffragettes: unlike ‘the rugged, tough women who had suffered for their cause’, Nancy ‘was young and lovely, and not even English’. She also had the advantage of Waldorf’s colossal wealth and the fact that he preceded her as the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton. In fact, she already had experience of doorstepping: ‘For 11 years, I helped my husband with his work in Plymouth. I found out the wrongs and he tried to right them.’

The idea of Nancy standing only arose when Waldorf’s father, William Astor, died in October 1919 (‘after a favourite dinner of mutton, macaroni and Beaune’) and Waldorf succeeded to his peerage, forcing him to resign his seat in the Commons. A workaholic like Nancy, Waldorf felt he was making progress in his career and his causes – chiefly, the ill-health of the poor – and campaigned furiously for the right to relinquish his peerage. When his initial pleas failed, it occurred to him that Nancy could perhaps keep the seat warm while he continued to fight to become eligible once more. She could press on with his social reforms in Plymouth and ‘keep it in the family’, as Nancy herself put it. The notion, she insisted, had been Waldorf’s.

A letter from Nancy’s friend J.M. Barrie gives a sense of what she was up against: ‘I hear of your presumptuous ambitions at Plymouth. How any woman can dare to stand up against a man I don’t understand. What can you know about politics? These things require a man’s brains, a man’s knowledge.’ And so on and on until Barrie concluded, sensibly, that it was no use arguing with her. The local Plymouth Conservative Party was far from unanimous in wanting her as their MP. Those who didn’t rejected her both for being a woman and for being Nancy: ‘from what we know of Lady Astor, she is more unfitted than most of her sex.’ Yet when they tried to hold meetings to discuss the matter, they found themselves thwarted: the Astors booked up every meeting room in Plymouth. Nancy also had the advantage of numbers. With the Representation of the People Act, 17,000 female voters had been added to the register in Plymouth – more than there were male voters in the city. And so, on Monday 27 October, she was sent a telegram asking her to stand as the Conservative candidate.

On paper, the châtelaine didn’t have much in common with the citizens of Plymouth, whose Barbican area near the fish market was described by James Fox, an earlier Astor biographer, as ‘a place of violence, extreme drunkenness and abject poverty, a Calcutta-like inferno of human misery on the coast of Devon’. Yet Nancy entered the docks of Plymouth and saw in her mind the original settlers of Virginia, brave sailors setting off for distant lands. She also saw herself as heir to the great Plymouth man Francis Drake: ‘You sent out Drake in a little ship to fight for what was right. Now you are going to send a woman, and a little woman at that, to a great place called Parliament where she is determined to be a help and a credit to you.’

She proved to be a brilliant campaigner. Her bossiness, her manic energy and her determination to win every argument all helped her take Plymouth. For her family and friends, Nancy’s insensitivity could be galling. She had no compunction in announcing to a roomful of strangers that one of her guests was wearing an ‘awful hat’ or reducing a pregnant daughter-in-law to tears by asking: ‘Where have you come from? The gutter?’ On the political trail, however, her rhinoceros skin was a virtue. She seemed to relish hecklers. ‘Now, you Bolsheviks at the back,’ she would say, ‘just you listen to me.’ When someone criticised her in a crowded meeting for being American, she threatened to have them turned out. ‘The likes of you,’ she said, ‘ought to be only too glad you have an American who will stand up and fight for what is right.’

The squalor of the Plymouth streets didn’t bother her. If she saw a group of ragged urchins, so far from feeling threatened, she would challenge them to a race to the end of the street (a lifelong squash player, she was physically very competitive). A newspaper reporter followed her into a filthy dockside dwelling containing six children, and a dog asleep in the bath. She seized a baby and lent it the pearls from her neck. ‘I know how working mothers keep their children happy,’ she remarked (her own six children were cared for by nannies and boarding schools): the secret was ‘letting them play with a rope of pearls’. When someone protested that she should be looking after her own children she said: ‘Well, I want to help you look after yours.’ Meanwhile the Labour and Liberal candidates complained that they couldn’t compete with this ‘circus procession’.

Where suffragettes, following John Stuart Mill, argued from a position of equality, Nancy founded her plea on difference: what she deemed to be the essential qualities of women, hitherto lacking in British politics. She happily called herself an ‘ardent feminist’ and later attempted, unsuccessfully, to found a ‘women’s party’: ‘Much as I love you, gentlemen, you have made a terrible muddle of the world without us.’ While she didn’t see much difference between the political parties (all contained ‘a lot of scallywags’), she did perceive a difference between the sexes, and she did believe that she would bring the specific attributes of motherhood and womanhood – whatever those might be – to the job. In the run-up to election day, she held a series of ‘women only’ events. She taunted hostile male crowds with the thought that even if they didn’t vote for her, their wives would. And so they did. Nancy begged Plymouth not to elect her with a ‘nasty, stingy little majority’ because she wanted to ‘bound in’. She was elected on Saturday 28 November with a majority of over 5000. Almost as remarkable was the fact that, once elected, she retained her seat until 1945 – Waldorf had begged her not to stand again.

The House of Commons didn’t impress her much. ‘I can’t think of anything worse than being among six hundred men none of whom really wanted you there.’ It wasn’t that she was shy, which was fortunate, given the jibes and jeers she had to withstand. Within a few months, Fort writes, she had fallen ‘into the habit of maintaining a more or less audible running commentary when others were on their feet: a newspaper report of a typical day soon after she had taken her seat told of her interrupting 15 speeches, and breaking off in the middle of her own to shout comments at other members.’ As time went on, she became still more confident, frequently shouting, ‘You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!’ when someone annoyed her.

Her great obsession was drink. Partly because her father was an embarrassing drunk and partly because she was a natural puritan, Nancy had a profound dislike of alcohol. It was one of the things that had cemented her relationship with Waldorf when she first arrived in England with her son Bobbie, leaving behind a failed marriage to a heavy drinker from a grand Boston family, whom she had married at the age of 18 in 1897. ‘I hadn’t been married a month before I found out that he drank,’ she later recalled. ‘I’ve always had a perfect horror of that.’ Waldorf, thankfully, as well as being stupendously rich, shared her aversion to alcohol, despite the fact that some of the Astor fortune had been made thanks to it. Unusually for his social circle, he ‘drank none for pleasure’, Fort says, though he would ‘taste the champagne before it was poured, to satisfy himself that it was good enough for his guests’. She didn’t let up on her campaign to restrict the sale of intoxicants, despite the presence of powerful brewers in Plymouth, and it is thanks to her that the legal age for consuming alcohol in a public house was raised from 14 to 18 in the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under 18) Bill, nicknamed ‘Lady Astor’s Bill’. Her ultimate goal of total prohibition remained more elusive.

Another, almost equally important cause in her early years as an MP was child welfare and, in particular, nursery schools. At the heart of her ‘women’s’ politics was a concern with poor households, a subject on which she was far more radical than most in her party. She was passionate about housing and with Waldorf’s capital, built model homes for the poor of Plymouth. She was also preoccupied with the education of the poor, sharing the McMillan sisters’ vision of nursery schools as a route out of ill-health and poverty. As well as establishing several nurseries in Plymouth, she helped the McMillans to establish a training college for nursery school teachers. (Luckily she was able to persuade Waldorf to buy a site for the college.)

She was so proud of the McMillan nurseries that she mentioned them to Stalin. In 1931 she and Waldorf were visiting the Kremlin as part of a group that included Shaw, with whom she walked giggling through the Hermitage, laughing at a picture of a large-breasted female saint whom Shaw contrasted with Nancy’s own flat chest. What larks! In Waldorf’s account of the meeting, Stalin ‘spoke with pride of the great social work being done and cited the nursery schools. Nancy laughed at him, and said if he wanted to see how they should be run, he had better send someone over to England. This he did later on, and she was able to show them a Margaret McMillan Day Nursery.’ She had less success in persuading Stalin to mend his ways. Asked by her how long he intended to continue dealing with political opponents by exiling them to Siberia, Stalin replied that he would do so ‘only so long as may be necessary’ to the state. ‘He had quite a sense of humour,’ Waldorf remarked.

Waldorf himself must have needed quite a sense of humour too, to put up with Nancy, who seems to have been fairly horrible to him much of the time. She didn’t like sex; ‘conceived without pleasure, born without pain’ was how she described the emergence into the world of her six children – ‘Sex is just like going to the lavatory’ was another of her bons mots, wheeled out to reprimand her sons for their lax morals. She gave the shy and easily embarrassed Waldorf a hard time by pretending to suspect him of affairs. After one public ribbing, in 1911, he wrote: ‘you may like being teased publicly, I hate it & you know it – therefore why do it? You always say I don’t make friends easily – then if I do by chance happen to make a friend, why criticise me? Believe me, whatever else you think you’re the only person for me & I just ache to see you.’ In another letter from 1913, he wrote that her ‘sole occupation appears to be to see what fresh daily complaint you can hurl at my hot head’.

Yet they were remarkably close. Both rose early – often at 4 a.m. – and both had a strong desire to be useful. After resisting for many years, Waldorf allowed her to convert him to Christian Science, to which she had turned after a bout of persistent bad health. ‘It couldn’t be that God made sickness,’ she argued. ‘It turned people into useless self-centred people who became a burden to themselves and to everyone else.’ The religion’s antipathy to medicine added a further strand to the Astors’ troublesome relations with their children. When their oldest daughter, Wissie, had a serious riding accident in 1929 at the age of 20, Nancy’s faith in Christian Science was the reason she delayed to call a spinal surgeon. Wissie ‘never fully recovered’, Fort writes, nor did her attitude to her mother. Nancy couldn’t understand why, once Wissie moved into her own house, she never asked her mother round for a meal.

After the State Opening of Parliament, 1948
After the State Opening of Parliament, 1948

Nancy remained closer – on and off – to Bobbie, the child from her first marriage, who turned out to be bisexual, something which Fort oddly describes as having a ‘flawed character’. In 1929 Bobbie was forced to retire from the armed forces after being ‘detected with a soldier in conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman’. Two years later, he was charged with ‘importuning a guardsman’, tried at Vine Street Magistrates’ Court and sent to prison. The Astors managed to keep the story out of the papers – Waldorf owned the Observer and Beaverbrook agreed to stop the news appearing in his publications. Nancy wrote to thank him adding that ‘for the first time in years I am really fond of my son.’ For all her intolerance, she accepted Bobbie’s sexuality, remarking that Frank – his long-term boyfriend – was ‘the prettiest of all my children’s girlfriends; the rest of them are just overpainted hussies’.

After she retired from the Commons in 1945, the family bore the brunt of her views. She continued to shout ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ but now the recipient would be whoever was next to her at dinner. ‘She had built up what the family called “an array of dragons” including socialism, Roman Catholicism, psychiatry, the Jews, the Latins and the Observer.’ Given that the Observer was owned by Waldorf and edited by her son David, this didn’t make life easy. When another son, Jakie, married a Catholic from Argentina, Nancy refused to attend the wedding.

Nancy’s own political life, once so radical, withered away. Fort suggests that she found herself out of sync with the times as politics moved to the left, but she had lost the plot well before this. After the fearsome early years, campaigning against drink and poverty in Plymouth, she never found such clarity again. By the 1940s, her tendency to ramble when addressing the House of Commons had become ‘chronic’. She herself admitted that she often had no idea what she was intending to say until she stood up and started to say it. ‘The noble lady,’ Bevan said, ‘gabbles and gabbles.’

Having complained of the muddle that men had made of the world, she did little to unmuddle it. She did, it’s true, raise the age at which we can buy alcohol, but someone else might have done that. It may be that her most characteristic bequest was something she has seldom been credited with: the introduction of name-tags. Without knowing it, she had invented networking.