Edward and Tilly and George

Robert Melville

  • Swans Reflecting Elephants: My Early Years by Edward James, edited by George Melly
    Weidenfeld, 178 pp, £8.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 297 77988 5

In 1935, Edward James, English and very rich, entered into an agreement to purchase from Salvador Dali his most important works. It was a funny sort of agreement, but it lasted until 1939 and during that period James acquired a large number of Dali’s Surrealist works, including the telephone with a lobster replacing the receiver, two of the sofas which represent Mae West’s lips, and the painting Autumn Cannibalism, depicting two ‘Iberian beings’ eating one another with the help of spoon and fork and, according to the painter, expressing the pathos of civil war. Almost every item James collected would have made an appropriate exhibit in what Dali called Surrealism’s ‘lawsuit against Reality’, but I particularly admired two very small paintings – certainly no bigger than nine by ten inches – which I think of as mirages: the loveliest is Phantom Chariot – a horse-drawn cart is crossing a desert and heading for a distant city; the driver of the cart is also the nearest of the city’s many towers. Some time after André Breton renamed Dali Avida Dollars, James had to sell a big chunk of his collection, to pay the army of peasants he employed to build architectural follies in the Mexican jungle.

A few old socialites probably remember James as the wealthy young cad who divorced the dancer Tilly Losch instead of letting her divorce him. Even the judge thought it was disgraceful of him, but reminded the jury that Tilly had used hearsay and malice in the hope of blackening the plaintiff’s character and had failed to bring a solitary fact to bear on her insinuation that he was a homosexual. Not that the judge or anyone else mentioned the horrid word. Tilly was much more aware of his homosexual inclinations than James was himself and was genuinely surprised when he asked her to marry him. She consented only because she sensed the promise of a split and a big settlement. She realised that his infatuation with her was his protection from ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, and set about disenchanting him, partly by pretending to be convinced that he had sexual intercourse with his male friends (with, for instance, Oliver Messel, of whom she said, in feigned anger, ‘I hope he sucks you dry’), and partly by her own brazen infidelities, which led to her having almost as many abortions as periods. She was good-looking.

The divorce and its aftermath came on the last of the 11 tapes which recorded Edward’s recollections of the first 27 years of his life. George Melly handled the tapes and later pruned and rearranged their contents. The book didn’t appear until five years later, but the recording had been a rush job for George, occupying four days between two singing dates with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers. Edward asked him to undertake the job because they had both been collectors of Surrealism. Edward had been a collector of Dali and Magritte on a scale that can be called patronage; George made a faultless selection of Magrittes from the stock of the poet, collagist and art dealer E.L.T. Mesens, to whom he was apprenticed when he came out of the Navy. I expected him to ask Edward a lot of questions about his associations with Dali and Magritte: if he did, he found the replies less interesting than the marriage à la mode. One of the stories which came out of Edward’s friendship with Dali appears early in the book when he is talking about his father and two uncles, who were all diligent big-game hunters. When his father died, he inherited the big country house called West Dean, in which stood and hung a multitude of stuffed animal carcasses. These included a polar bear eight feet tall, shot in Greenland: it had got moth in its chest, so Edward sent it to Dali as a surprise. Dali was delighted, had it dyed mauve and turned its chest into a chest of drawers, to hold his cutlery.

Edward’s father was a multimillionaire. He bought West Dean two years before he married, and it is now the Edward James foundation. Edward was probably given his Christian name because his mother was an illegitimate daughter of Edward VII. At Eton and Oxford there was always someone in love with him, but because of his preoccupation with the horrors of homosexuality, he suppressed his feelings and never went beyond a return kiss. He had sisters too, the way travellers in hot countries have tropical diseases. They were older than him and could not forgive him for being the one who would inherit West Dean. His American cousin, Arthur, was even richer than his father and when Edward came down from Oxford in 1929 he went to New York to spend the winter with Arthur and his wife Harriet. They were childless and it was thought that Edward might inherit. Arthur was worth about four hundred million dollars, but when the Depression came he was down to a mere 98 million. Harriet had crying fits to think of all that money going into thin air. Edward’s chances of inheriting diminished when he turned up in New York with his own Rolls Royce and chauffeur: it was all too evident that he was a big spender.

When he left New York an English aunt got him the offer of Honorary Attaché to the British Embassy in Rome. He was the only one at the Embassy with a Rolls Royce and his presence was appreciated. A handsome woman named Lady Jardine introduced him to the pleasures of physical sex and he spent one day a week in London to see Tilly dancing. Her contract with C.B. Cochran paid her a thousand pounds a week: she had the star part in Coward’s Wake Up and Dream, and shared the honours with Lifar and Nikitina in a Christian Bérard ballet. Edward was given indefinite leave after wrongly decoding an important telegram and has not been recalled to this day.

He was married to Tilly by the Mayor of New York in a registry-office, but insisted on a Church wedding next day to please Arthur. He didn’t know anything about such ceremonies and thought he had to take Tilly up the aisle to the altar: when he tried to take her arm she broke into ‘squeals’ of laughter (not ‘peals’, you notice). Afterwards, cousin Arthur invited them back to a wedding luncheon at his town house, but Tilly refused, and didn’t even thank him. (I would think that just about put paid to his chances of inheriting Arthur’s millions, but it’s one of those little items he doesn’t mention.) They celebrated their wedding at a bistro, with some of Tilly’s former Austrian lovers. After spending their honeymoon in Hawaii (he thinks they meant to go to Tahiti), they were met off the boat by Count Friedrich Ledebur, yet another of her former lovers. (He had sent her flowers in Hawaii.) He asked them how they had enjoyed their honeymoon. Edward was under the impression that they had enjoyed it very much, but Tilly said: ‘Oh, I didn’t see much of Edward, he was more interested in the Hawaiian boys than in me.’ After the Count had gone, Edward rounded on her: ‘What on earth induced you to say such an untruthful thing?’

They went on to New York, with the intention of returning to England for the coming season. The servants were all back at West Dean, getting the guest-rooms ready and stocking-up for parties. But two days before they were due to leave Tilly told him that she had signed a contract to take a star part in a revue called Bandwagon, for the entire American run. It meant that he had to keep a house for her in New York and cancel all his arrangements in England. Fred Astaire was starring with Tilly and his sister Adele in Bandwagon. Tilly was afraid that Adele might become too intimate with Edward and began to tell very bitchy stories about her. ‘She has quickies with the stage-hands. She calls them into her dressing-room and they fuck her on the floor.’ He says he was still rather prim and was shocked, not by Tilly’s vulgarity, but by Adele’s supposed conduct, and he remembered an incident that he thought confirmed Tilly’s stories. He had given her a lift, and she got out of his side of the Rolls by lifting her legs over the gear lever and deliberately showing ‘everything’. She was amused by his shocked expression and said: ‘Oh, hello! Did you see the Ace of Spades?’ Like Tilly, she ultimately succeeded in marrying a member of the English aristocracy. She was a good dancer.

In the chapter called ‘From Bad to Worse’, Edward and Tilly had returned to London and Tilly was rehearsing for a revival of The Miracle. It was produced by Max Reinhardt, with Lady Diana Cooper as the statue of the Madonna and Tilly as the nun who was seduced by a knight and ran away with him. The statue of the Madonna comes alive, steps off her pedestal, dons the nun’s discarded veil and assumes her duties. The Mother Superior accuses her of allowing the statue to be stolen and has her whipped by the other nuns. It’s essential to the plot that Lady Diana’s face should be hidden by the veil: it’s the only thing that lends any plausibility to the failure of the nuns to see that she is the Madonna. But on the first night Tilly tied a knot in the veil. After a desperate struggle, Lady Diana had to settle for arranging it round her shoulders and it quite ruined the scene. Tilly was having her own back on Diana’s mother, the Duchess of Rutland, who had demanded more light on her daughter and less on Tilly. Edward and Tilly were late for Nancy Cunard’s big first-night party. By that time, everyone knew that Tilly was the culprit, and they were greeted by total silence.

Down at West Dean for an indefinite stay, Tilly, who was having her fourth pregnancy since their marriage, started a haemorrhage. She lay on a silk couch in a room that had been the boudoir of Edward’s mother, and the whole couch became soaked in blood. She admitted to the doctors that she was trying to bring on a miscarriage because she couldn’t find anyone who would perform an abortion without the consent of the husband. Fortunately, the blood stopped flowing of its own accord and the doctors said the baby could definitely be born healthy. She insisted that she didn’t want a child; after hesitating for ‘less than a minute’, Edward told the doctors to operate. The baby was due in a fortnight, and they removed it in pieces, so that it would not leave a scar. It was a fully-formed male. Tilly saw that Edward had a struggle to keep back the tears when he went to see her in the nursing-home. ‘Dear Edward,’ she said, ‘it’s a pity because it really was your child.’ One wonders how she could tell.

He bought her a necklace from Cartier’s and she liked it so much he thought she was beginning to love him. She announced that she intended to go to New York as soon as she could travel, and to keep her in Europe he organised a season of ballet in Paris, with Tilly as the leading dancer, and repeated it in London. In spite of the fact that he expected some of his own ideas for ballets to be used, his wealth attracted the collaboration of some famous people – Balanchine, Derain, Bérard, Tchelitchew, Brecht and Weil among them. Tchelitchew pretended that he didn’t know Tilly could dance and had her rushing about the stage in a dress made from 12 metres of green satin. The choreography – presumably by Balanchine – ensured that she could turn at different points without tripping up. Towards the end of the season Edward put on a concert. Stravinsky had written a cello concerto and it was going to be played by Piatigorsky, who was a friend of Edward’s. An oratorio, The Book of Job, by Nicholas Nabokov, had been written for the Princesse de Polignac, but she decided that it couldn’t be played in her salon because she was in mourning for a friend. Nabokov was so miserable that Edward took pity on him. He decided to include it in the concert, and landed himself with the whole of the Vlasov Choir at enormous expense. At the last moment Stravinsky asked him if the concert was being put on for his concerto or for ‘that mischief-maker Nabokov’. Edward says that he answered, ‘for both of you, maestro,’ so Nabokov had the concert to himself. It was not quite a disaster. Edward had arranged for slides to be made of William Blake’s engravings for the Book of Job, and projected huge enlargements onto white sheets. Everyone was bored by the Oratorio, but found the engravings an impressive spectacle, except Misia Sert, the Parisian culture queen. She had never heard of Blake, and gave Edward some kindly advice: ‘If you want to help your little friend William, give him a cheque, but don’t show his things for goodness sake.’

Many infidelities and studied insults brought him to his decision to sue for divorce. He paid for Tilly to be represented by a counsel of her own choosing, and she chose Sir Patrick Hastings, a star performer whose brutal cross-examination technique had won him many cases. Edward’s account of the court proceedings is effective but very one-sided. One is scarcely aware of Tilly’s presence. Edward spent six days in the witness box and to everyone’s surprise made rings round Sir Patrick. The only man who had succeeded in seducing Edward was Nabokov, and it was such a well-kept secret that he is able to say, somewhat sententiously: ‘the only thing you must never do is to give your lawyer false information.’ He won his case. Judge and jury were on his side, but Society was scandalised by the result. Poor Tilly. One of Edward’s sisters sent her a big bunch of roses.

Finally, I’m sorry that George Melly didn’t persuade Edward to put the portrait of himself by Magritte on the book jacket instead of the far from first-rate example of Dali, Swans Reflecting Elephants, which gives the book its title. The portrait is a back view of Edward, featuring his beautiful head of hair and looking into a mirror which reflects not his face but the same back view with its beautiful head of hair.