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’.

Except in her letters to Fleming she doesn’t say much about herself beyond noting her often ‘sorry’ state of mind and prevailing Waugh-like animosities. The point of the letters is to broadcast the news: how everyone’s feeling (‘Cyril so down he was forced to spend ten days at the Ritz’) and behaving (‘by the time coffee appeared Randolph and Claud were unconscious beneath the table and June was uncontrollably weeping’); the effect the guests had on each other and the quality of the conversation at the various occasions she’d attended (‘Noël was making eminent playwright conversation to leading lady ... He should be used as a cabaret and not as a guest ... the deserts of pomposity between the oases of wit are too vast’); the look of delight on George Wigg’s face when Debo Devonshire asked him if he would tap her telephone and the ‘terrible tension’ on Evangeline Bruce’s when her husband took up 45 minutes of dinner-party time to answer a simple political question. She enjoyed embarrassment and records with pleasure the gaffes that she and other people made (‘You know Jamaica well, is the native problem worse than in Nassau?’ the Duke of Windsor asked Lord Rothermere, when it was her lover, Fleming, who had a house there). She played on the uneasy relationship between Waugh and Cyril Connolly by reporting to one the disparaging remarks made by the other; and if times were dull invented exchanges for the sake of the discomfort they would cause, or coaxed people into saying things she would later give them reason to regret.

Waugh with mock-envy thought of her as ‘living at the centre of the political web’, but though she enjoyed the company of politicians, provided they weren’t humourless, and liked to know what was going on, she says little about events at the political centre – which would in any case have been outside her stylistic range. The rights and wrongs of Suez are not raised, nor do we know what she thought about Eden’s abrupt resignation. The Edens’ subsequent touchiness, however, is a constant cause of complaint – it was so hard to know with whom they could safely be asked to supper – and a recurrent source of amusement, as in: ‘I went to the Second Empire exhibition in Paris and by force prevented James Pope-Hennessey sending Clarissa a postcard of “La Parure du Canal de Suez”.’ (The parure in question appears to have been a collection of necklaces and brooches presented to the Empress Eugénie.) One of her best moments comes when she is telling Waugh about ‘a noisy evening with Avons and Devonshires’: ‘there was a great uproar and lots of four-letter words; Debo said to Roy Jenkins: “Can’t you stop them by saying something Labour?” ’ – ‘but this,’ she says to Waugh, ‘is something Roy has never been able to do.’ There’s an interest, of course, in all this tribal chit-chat, but however stylishly done, it doesn’t exactly constitute a literary event.

Mark Amory, the editor of the letters, who was a friend of Mrs Fleming’s and her literary executor, has a strong tribal sense, as his many snobbish footnotes make clear. Apart from the footnotes, which aren’t always accurate, he has written an introduction which tells the story of her life up to 1946 when the letters begin. She was born in 1913; ‘during the last of the long hot summers before the First World War,’ he notes, reviving yet again the idea that the country and the weather lost their charm at the same time. (I thought the summer of 1911 was the really hot one.) Her parents were both the children of Souls, her mother a Tennant, her father a Charteris. She was brought up by her grandmothers, spent a term at Cheltenham Ladies’ College (it wasn’t a success) and a few months at the Villa Marie Antoinette in Versailles – a finishing school. In retrospect she didn’t think she’d been happy. ‘None of us,’ she said afterwards, ‘had any affection in our tempestuous childhood,’ but Mr Amory doesn’t altogether believe this, citing the letters she wrote to her father about her pet rabbits. In 1931 she came out, went to dances, had beaux and settled into the rest of her life.

Several young men proposed to her and for no reason that anyone can now remember she said yes to Shane O’Neill, a tall young man with a job in the City, whose family, Mr Amory reports, is ‘the most ancient in Europe that it has been possible to tabulate’. (There may be other contenders – but who’s tabulating?) At her memorial service Noel Annan told the story – it’s repeated here – of how ‘at a dance she heard O’Neill ask his partner to sit out on the stairs. “I don’t want to do that,” objected the girl, “I’ll ruin my dress.” “I don’t mind ruining my dress,” said Ann and plonked herself down beside him.’ They were married in 1932 and it wasn’t long before she was ready to ruin her dress again.

Yet the years dragged by without any harm being done to her dresses, and by 1936, she said later, she’d ‘given up all hope of falling in love’. In August 1935 she met Fleming by a swimming-pool in Le Touquet – no dice. The following August, in Austria, her luck turned. Esmond Harmsworth, the future Lord Rothermere was 38 and, according to Mr Amory, ‘devastatingly good-looking, athletic and a sophisticated lover’. He also had a wife and three teenage children but they don’t feature much here. That he was a rich and powerful press tycoon was another thing which, in later accounts, Ann always played down: ‘I regarded newspapers as I did the arrival of groceries and milk and paid but little attention,’ she wrote in 1955 to her brother Hugo Charteris. For six years, so she said, she lived only for physical contact with Rothermere while, in some sense at least, being both in love with the more difficult Fleming and married to tall O’Neill. In October 1944 O’Neill was killed in Italy; and eight months later she married Rothermere. On the night before the wedding she had supper with Fleming and went for a long walk with him in the park: ‘if he had suggested marriage,’ she wrote afterwards, ‘I would have accepted.’

Had he done so, metropolitan social life might never have recovered from the war, or so Mr Amory would have us believe. ‘With her emergence as Lady Rothermere, Ann’s life entered its most spectacular phase. She was 32. She had the money, the style and the energy to brighten the drabness that had descended on London, and set about doing so.’ These were the great party-giving years and Warwick House, where the Rothermeres lived, was ‘filled with the sound of the rich, powerful and amusing at play.’ (It’s sometimes hard to resist the impulse to make disagreeable remarks about the extent to which Mr Amory seems to wish that he too had been there.) To begin with, her guests – apart from the aristocracy who were already her friends when they weren’t her relatives – were mainly politicians and journalists, but gradually the balance shifted towards painters and writers (in the first instance, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Peter Quennell, who was known – someone had to be – as ‘Lady Rothermere’s fan’): Mr Amory cites this as evidence of her capacity to ‘develop’, and however off-putting a notion, it may be true. Rothermere with his devastating good looks is now seen as a kind but colourless figure who was nice to her two O’Neill children but couldn’t cope with her new friends: ‘Esmond was hardly allowed to speak as they roared rude remarks past him,’ an anonymous well-wisher is quoted as saying.

Her chief interest apart from her parties and Fleming was her husband’s newspaper, which she thought him scarcely fit to run. Discussing a possible new editor with her brother Hugo, who, like Fleming, worked on the paper for a time, she says: ‘he is as good a mould as one could get to pour our liquid chairman into and hope that he will set.’ It’s a memorable phrase. Fleming admired her editorial interventions: ‘you play with the little finger of your left hand a greater part in Esmond’s business than any other woman I know in any other husband’s business,’ he wrote to her in 1950. The remark might seem double-edged but probably wasn’t: fearfulness for the paper appears to have been a factor (among many) that caused the two of them to hesitate before going off together.

Two months after her marriage to Rothermere, Fleming sent Ann a letter telling her – presumably for the first time – that he loved her. A month later he seems to be saying little else. Partly because of the life he led and partly because of his novels Fleming has always had a bad press: ‘selfish’, ‘spoilt’, ‘unreliable’ – and full of the kind of moody self-pity that women are inclined to find attractive in men. ‘Someone cut the cards wrong at the beginning,’ he says in the first of the letters printed here, ‘and it’s been like that all along.’ It isn’t clear whether he’s talking about his current travel arrangements or the whole of his life, but it doesn’t seem to matter either. Amory ascribes his unfortunate character to the fact that he ‘had grown up in the shadow of just about the most promising young man in the country’ – his brother, Peter – ‘and had little alternative to becoming a black sheep’, which sounds a bit too much like the kind of observation Buchan’s characters used to make. Fleming, less Buchan than buccaneer, had broken any number of hearts and had any number of rich and wonderful mistresses in the time Ann had known him; and she was always conscious that an attempt to pin him down would cause him to run. On the other hand, it can’t be said that she was in every way different from him: most of the damaging epithets that were applied to Fleming could just as fairly or unfairly be applied to his wife, though she had qualities he didn’t have and wrote more entertaining letters. It is at least possible, for instance, that she found it even more difficult than he did to give all her attention to one other person. By 1956, Amory says, each of them had a lover but nothing more is said about hers: on grounds of libel, presumably, though everything in the letters suggests that it was her friends who were Fleming’s chief rivals. He, meanwhile, continued to take mistresses and to think of himself as alone.

By the time Fleming died in 1964 their relationship had long since soured: ‘If you were well and we were both younger our marriage would be over,’ she said to him in 1962, while also telling him that she loved him and in letters to her friends giving animated accounts of how they weren’t getting on. ‘Thunder-bird’s only happiness,’ she wrote to Waugh, ‘is pink gin, golf clubs and men ... I don’t like an empty house at sunset – d’you suppose Bowra or Sparrow would live with me?’ Fleming warned her before they got married that they ‘would be happy together beside the blue lagoon but not in Kensington Gore’. It’s a banal remark – not at all the kind of thing she would have said – but accurate enough. They’d been very happy chasing lobsters in the Caribbean: now he couldn’t stand her friends and she was embarrassed both by his novels and their success. Given these facts and their characters, it seems amazing that they managed to live together for so long.

The social round continued after Fleming’s death; she made new friends and was often thought to be about to marry Lord Goodman. When Waugh died in 1966 she asked Nicholas Henderson to replace him as her chief correspondent but her letters to him don’t have the same éclat – she’d had to work harder to keep Waugh entertained. With the deaths not long afterwards of her father, then her brother, and the suicide, in 1975, of her son, Caspar Fleming, the letters – at any rate those printed here – become more infrequent and much shorter. Adversity was another thing that fell outside her stylistic range and she said as little about her own as in previous years she’d said about other people’s. (In 1951, when her nephew Richard Charteris was drowned, she’d begun a letter to the boy’s mother: ‘My Darling Virginia, I should have written sooner but there was a rush of plans for holidays, a promotion party for Noël Coward, a television party ...’) In this she was at least evenhanded, asking for no more sympathy than she gave. She spent a week in a nursing-home because she’d been drinking too much; and told Patrick Leigh Fermor that Diana Cooper had rung her there ‘and said, “Hear you’re in a home for inebriates”: she then came along, seduced all and sundry and left after booking a bed to die in; my prestige much improved by the visitation.’ When in 1981 she wrote to tell her friends she had cancer her tone was scarcely less bright. Mr Amory, no doubt quite properly, pays tribute to her courage, but it was the sort of courage that’s more eloquent in life than in letters.