Imagine a mixture of Maurice Chevalier (Gallic charm), Max Miller (the Cheeky Chappie), and Don Juan, with a boastful list of sexual conquests on which contesse, baronesse, marchesine, principesse line up with famous literary and theatrical ladies as well as top professionals in another field. The man is also a racing driver, yachtsman, avant-garde theatre and film producer, poet, translator of Elizabethan verse and Christopher Fry, and the inventor of the windscreen-wiper, starlight electric bulbs and château bottling, not to speak of his being a Rothschild. He owns Château Mouton Rothschild, which he raised to the rank of a premier cru by means of hard work and a craftily fought campaign against the other five who wanted to keep him out. He also established a wine museum at Mouton, not the usual mouldering old presses and dusty glass cases full of corks and tasters, but a beautiful pleasure dome filled with works of art connected with wine.
During the war he spent eight months in a French military prison in Algiers, returned to France, then escaped on foot across the Pyrenees, joined the Free French forces in England and landed in Normandy just as his elegant first wife was being ‘dragged from her plank bed by the hair of her head and thrown into the oven alive’ at Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was born Comtesse de Chambure and married a ‘bold and jealous Belgian baron’ from whom Baron Rothschild managed to snatch her after he had made her pregnant. He is now 82, so it is not surprising he needed help with all this material. How lucky he was in his ghost: not some wan emanation from a publisher’s stable, but punchy Joan Littlewood, formerly the director of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and the co-author of Sparrers can’t sing and O What a lovely war. She writes with tremendous verve and seems to get the Baron’s tone exactly right with debonair period idioms like ‘legally spliced’ and ‘young-fellow-me-lad’.‘I have a flair for the dramatic moment and an excellent memory for dialogue,’ he says. Littlewood has them too, and between them these two engaging old monstres profanes have produced a book as entertaining as a James Bond novel with the same pace, excitement and high standard of consumer durables, feminine splendour and male chauvinist piggery. The Baron broke all the rules of seduction, he says, with ‘two exceptions. I never deflower and I do not persist if the lady doesn’t want me.’ Regarding one of these statements the present writer’s recollection is slightly different.
And then, of course, there is the wine. The reader can learn a good deal about its production and the internecine politics of the growers. But apart from that the authors tell nothing except a rattling good yarn. The hero’s life is measured out in anecdotes and he himself is their sum total. Early on in life he must have imagined a persona and adopted it for good: the deliberate and gleeful enfant terrible of the Rothschild family. They call him ‘mad cousin Philippe’, he says (do they really?), while he defiantly tells truths they would probably rather not hear told; but never any fundamental truth about himself or any other human being; and his daughter is the only creature except his dead American second wife and Joan Littlewood for whom he expresses any feeling or respect.
The facts of his life are exceptional enough, in that comparatively few people are Rothschilds: but his unconventional story is told with every known cliché of fiction – from the very beginning when the poor little rich boy is abandoned to an unsympathetic English nanny by his remote father and uncaring worldly mother. The most vivid character and best lay in the story is not the writer Louise de Vilmorin who questioned the Baron about circumcision while running her fingers through his pubic hair, but Charley Brighton, née Charlotte Bouquet, the daughter of a hotel doorman in Grenoble: ‘I spotted this piece of skirt strolling along the sidewalk. What a silhouette: a mauve parasol, a silver Pekinese, long, long legs and high-heeled shoes with ankle-straps. She was followed at a distance by a chauffeur-driven Voisin, the very latest coupé, dark brown, highly polished, with a chauffeur to match.’ This haughty poule de luxe straight out of a novel by Colette finishes up exactly like Chéri’s mistress enjoying her retirement in ‘a house with many shutters, Venetian blinds and lace curtains so that no one will ever see me and everyone will know my time is done.’ To be a great tart you have to invent yourself, just as Rothschild invented the Baron Philippe, and if you have sufficient aplomb, other people will accept your creation.
Milady Vine goes up like a rocket: not loaded with scientific research equipment: just a celebratory feu de joie. Jean MacGibbon manages to celebrate only at the very end of her memoir. It’s her 70th birthday and there are nine grandchildren round the table. Her journey goes in the opposite direction from the Baron’s, being an expedition into the interior. She is not presenting herself to the reader so much as trying to discover how she got to be who she is. And that – apart from a grandmother of nine and the author of a novel, several short stories, and a number of children’s books published under her maiden name, Jean Howard – is a woman half of whose life was spoilt by mental illness.
‘My Golders Green, where I lived till I was twelve,’ she writes, ‘was all green dusted with buttercup yellow, a little furred at the edges, contrasted with dark, jungly Weybridge, where I was often sent to stay with my father’s parents.’ How delectable it sounds: no wonder she grew up to be ‘neither a Londoner nor a countrywoman, but suburban at heart’. She fosters nostalgie de la banlieue, the feeling that made one wish V. S. Pritchett and Richard Cobb would never get to the last page of their childhood memories.
You could adapt the famous remark about religious sects and say that England has sixty kinds of suburb and only one sauce – except that sixty would be an underestimate and all of them now have take-aways with lots of sauces. The Howards’ suburb was peculiar in being treated, not begotten. It was founded early in the century by Dame Henrietta Barnett on the model of Ebenezer Howard’s Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. It was not really Golders Green at all, but Hampstead Garden Suburb. ‘How I hated that featureless name,’ Jean MacGibbon says. Nevertheless, ‘over us all brooded the spirit of Dame Henrietta Barnett who had designed the all-embracing noble plan of the Suburb. She ordered the innocent pattern of our lives, shielding us from the corruption of the material world: shops were forbidden within the confines of the Suburb; as to pubs, none of us would have entered one had they been allowed. She it was who laid down what plants were to be grown in squares and public places – magenta Rugosa roses in odd corners, yellow standard roses in our square garden, William Allen Richardson pink climbers on the pergola overlooking the crematorium, favourite meeting place for nursemaids and prams. (“There goes another poor soul!” as a column of brown smoke rose in the still air.)’ This passage not only shows Jean MacGibbon at her funniest, but also how tastes in gardening have changed – not to speak of the nannies who would at best be replaced by Scandinavian au pairs with an interest in love, not death.
The middle classes not only had nannies and maids, there were tennis and cricket clubs for them in the Suburb, and rounds of neighbourhood parties, the most enjoyable being in fancy dress. In spite of all this, though, ‘the people who lived in Golders Green fell into two categories: those who lived there for cheapness and convenience, waiting for promotion or a father’s death, whereupon they would up sticks and make for central London; and those who meant to live out their lives in Dame Henrietta’s demi-Paradise.’ Jean MacGibbon has a sharp eye for social distinctions and aspirations, and a comical deadpan way of presenting its findings. For instance, when she and her husband joined the Communist Party in 1937, an unforeseen problem arose, and she found herself having to call a friend Mr Parker because she wasn’t sure whether to go on saying ‘Rafe’ or ‘if, like other middle-class comrades, he’d changed his pronunciation (to “Ralph”) to suit the Party’.
This was the merry world of Cyril Connolly’s ‘Where Engels fears to tread’. Jean MacGibbon distributed the Daily Worker from her eldest child’s monogrammed Harrods pram, and everyone did a lot of rallying and marching, the girls in pretty dresses (or gowns if they were Oxford undergraduates) because ‘the Party was very hot on our being well turned out.’ As they swung along they sang the ‘Internationale’. Jean was proud of knowing all the verses, but Philip Toynbee ‘could be heard intoning his own version of the advertisement for Horlicks Malted Milk: “Masturbation not Night Starvation’”. In fact, the Communist Party version was ‘Masturbation not Mass Starvation’.
The MacGibbons assumed that their maid Edith was with them politically. ‘She even consented to appear on the platform in the Conway Hall at a meeting to discuss the formation of a Domestic Servants’ Union, and spoke shortly and to the point – after the chairman had announced that her employers had given her the afternoon off for the occasion, at which the audience clapped.’ Edith had joined the MacGibbons when she was 19 and they a newly-wed couple of 21 living in what sounds like a warehouse-ful of wedding presents, including cut-glass finger-bowls which they used at every meal. ‘The significance of possessions in a young girl’s marriage cannot be overestimated.’ This psycho-anthropological observation is one of many perceptive and pregnant remarks scattered through the book. It is a shame the author hasn’t enough complacency to elaborate on them.
James MacGibbon, her husband, was a childhood friend. He belonged to the same circle as the Howards – first or second-generation Scottish expatriates with a background in solid business, farming and the professions, including the Kirk. Singing Scots ballads after dinner and sending their children to Scottish schools (St Leonard’s, in Jean’s case), they formed a small separate layer in the mille-feuille of the London middle class. Accountancy was a favourite profession, but James had become a publisher – inadvertently, almost. Constant Huntington of Putnam’s had taken a shine to him because he saw him salute a funeral cortege – in Golders Green, of course – ‘as is customary in Scotland’.
Because of her husband’s profession, Jean found herself going to literary parties in a wine-red dress with a matching hat. She looks divinely chic in her pre-war photographs – one feels that even Baron Philippe’s mother whose impeccable taste extended to her own ‘simple elegant coffin’ would have approved of her appearance. She describes an ivory satin dress from Vionnet, cut on the cross with no fastenings so that getting into it was like having cream poured over one’s head; and cream silk one-piece pyjamas inset with café-au-lait lace. She was not shy: she could even invite herself to tea with a famous stranger, the reluctant and unenthusiastic John Galsworthy. But in spite of the advantage of her looks and social courage she could not, in Forster’s sense, ‘connect’. She attributes this to ‘lack of insight into the lives of others. I was curious, I “observed” them, but was insensitive to what they might be feeling.’
She herself was subject to ‘mini-break-downs’ and, from a child, to ‘attacks of acute anxiety. Women’s lavatories, especially, terrified me, the scent of powder partly disguising women’s smells, the horror of being shut with my mother into one of Debenham’s mahogany and mosaic cubicles.’ When she was writing this book, she asked a school friend whether she had seemed disturbed. ‘Not disturbed, just different,’ was the reply. She wanted to know whether another friend’s family had considered her an oddball. ‘No... we were such oddballs ourselves.’
Was he just being kind? Mrs MacGibbon is not kind to herself, and does not make herself appear particularly kind to others – though she has a splendid opportunity when she describes looking after Basque refugee children during the Civil War. She can speak ruthlessly of ‘casualties’ in ordinary families. Cancer sufferers talk like that of other victims of the disease. Her honesty is quite exceptional, but it does not help her to make her experience as vivid as she does the inside of Debenham’s lavatory. ‘It has always puzzled me how people can write – and interestingly too – about madness. Mine was a monotonous treadmill, an unending torment of fear.’