Seriously ugly

Gabriele Annan

  • Weep no more by Barbara Skelton
    Hamish Hamilton, 166 pp, £14.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 241 12200 7

This, say Barbara Skelton’s publishers, is the ‘second – and some people will be relieved to hear, final – volume of her riotous autobiography’. On page one of volume one there is a quotation from Harriette Wilson about the meaning of the term ‘gentleman’ – a subject not really very close to Skelton’s heart. For an English autobiographer, she seems wonderfully free from snobbery, whether plain or inverted. But the presence of Harriette Wilson signifies because, like hers, these are the memoirs of a grande horizontale.

I have never met Skelton, but I know some of the people in her book who have and who, what’s more, read the London Review of Books. This is inhibiting: like reviewing a paper on DNA for Nature when one has never encountered a double helix. Still, I do have one thing in common with Skelton. She says that Erich von Stroheim was her ideal. Mine too, and what is more, on the first night of our honeymoon, my husband and I dined with him in Paris. There’s showing off for you. Skelton never shows off.

I am not sure whether psychoanalysis recognises a beauty-and-the-beast complex, but it exists. A penchant for Stroheim is a symptom of it, and among the many men in Skelton’s life, the three who got it into a serious muddle were all seriously ugly: Cyril Connolly, her first husband; George Weidenfeld, her second; and her last recorded lover, the French writer Bernard Frank. There is no photograph of her third husband, the millionaire Derek Jackson, but he did not seriously engross her. She bit him twice, really hard the second time, so he shuffled off into his sixth marriage, leaving her with a farmhouse near St Tropez and financial security for herself, her mother and her aunt.

New readers might like a summary of Skelton’s first volume. She is the daughter of a retired Army officer and his ex-Gaiety Girl wife and was sent to the kind of school you might expect: convent day followed by dim boarding. She left at 15, and very soon afterwards became the mistress of her father’s best friend. Unlike Harriette Wilson (‘I will not say how and why I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven’), Skelton tells exactly how – and very casual it sounds, and also very pre-modern: Sidney bought her a flat in Crawford Street, lots of furs, trips abroad and piano lessons. She left him from boredom. Again unlike Harriette, her heart wasn’t in becoming a professional, and she never did. Even her two-part affair with King Farouk (the second instalment encouraged by Connolly) doesn’t put her in the professional category. There were no spectacular pickings.

After leaving her father’s best friend Skelton earned her living by modelling for the London couturiers, and eked it out with free meals and drinks, which came her way in bulk, because she was irresistible to men. She for her part found men irresistible, especially if they were writers or artists, who did not even have to be particularly hideous. It is impossible to give a full list, but among those chosen were Peter Quennell, Feliks Topolski, Alan Ross, Kenneth Tynan and Charles Addams, as well as a lot of extras with names like Old B., the Bastard and Chuff. She did not waste her time with intellectuals, but absorbed their appreciation of art and literature. She has always got her nose in Henry James or D.H. Lawrence, becomes as fastidious about books as Hartnell, Mattli and Stiebel had taught her to be about tailoring, and moans if she finds herself on holiday with nothing to read. Her own writing is more in the style of, say, Isse Miyake: a casual, brutalist vêtement de travail elegance, unpretentious and uneffusive. It seems odd that Weidenfeld urged her to gush over his guests. Gushing is not her line at all. She is a taker-down rather than a builder-up of egos, her own included, which finds no favour with her. Her lack of self-love is striking in autobiography; towards the end, self-pity creeps in. But even that is part of her sensational boot-in honesty: she does not spare herself, deny unhappiness, or curry favour by displaying a socially acceptable stiff upper lip.

Skelton married Connolly in 1950 after a rackety affair. Weep no more begins with them living grumpily together in the tiny Kentish cottage she had bought for £400 in her modelling days. She loved the country. She doesn’t go in for describing it, but when she speaks of waking up to birdsong or sunlight on the grass you sense a little explosion of happiness. Otherwise there doesn’t seem to be much happiness about, though that may be an impression created by her deadpan, sourpuss recording of events. Still, all that sex must have been fun as well as funny. It’s funny in a Feydeau way, by virtue of the quantity and speed of almost overlapping lays. Fidelity was neither expected nor practised, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t jealousy. And rows: ‘After lunch we usually had a row.’ Lunch itself was important too. Connolly was a super-foodie before that horrid word had been invented, and Skelton had to learn serious cooking. There was too much of it, too much housework, too little money, too little space, and besides, Connolly developed a crush on Caroline Blackwood and wasn’t particularly nice to Skelton when she came out of hospital after an unsuccessful operation to enable her to conceive. Coatis and Abyssinian cats took the place of the children she couldn’t have and were much dreaded by hostesses when the Connollys came for the weekend. Skelton was a terrible guest anyway: ‘Come again when you’re not so cross,’ one hostess said in parting. There is a point where honesty about one’s feelings merges into bad behaviour. This was Alceste’s trouble. One is exasperated, and enchanted by his self-destructive honesty, and by Skelton’s too. Besides, bad behaviour is more fun to read about than good. So one is on Skelton’s side as she charges about like a cross between Molière’s hero and Lucky Jim, who destroyed his hosts’ bedclothes; Skelton lets her pets do it for her.

It was during Skelton’s post-operation spell in the Westbury Hotel that the great Connolly-Weidenfeld-Skelton triangle began to peak – an activity that triangles are destined for by their nature. Skelton says she became sexually obsessed by Weidenfeld although she didn’t care for him in any other way. She wanted to go on being married to Connolly but sleep with Weidenfeld as well. This was also Weidenfeld’s ideal scenario, but not Connolly’s. Connolly regretfully divorced Skelton, and Weidenfeld and Skelton regretfully got married, only for Weidenfeld almost immediately to begin divorce proceedings, citing Connolly as co-respondent. Skelton is brilliant at reporting the conversations (in Weidenfeld’s case mostly on the telephone) during this imbroglio. Her technique is a fusion of dead-on mimicry and heightened realism (she didn’t use a tape-recorder, after all).

The peak over, it’s really downhill all the way. ‘From Tynan on’ – the late Fifties? – ‘for several years it remained my fate not to be drawn to older people of either sex, as in the past, but to those far younger and you have to be a Lotte Lenya for that to work out.’ After the divorce there were a few years more or less on the breadline in London and New York, where she worked for a dentist, ‘swabbing out mouths, aiming the water squirt on the needle as he manipulates the drill, sterilising the burrs, dabbing the patients’ chins and administering shots of Bourbon to everyone at the end of the day’. One feels relief on the patients’ behalf when Skelton moves to modelling in the Junior Miss department at Bergdorf Goodman, although she was hardly suitable for that job either, being, as Tynan wrote in a letter of recommendation to a New York friend, ‘a wild-living honey round forty’.

The new lovers in New York were far from despicable. Back in London after a few years most of the old ones were still around – plus a police detective who came to investigate a burglary and got straight into bed with her. Then marriage to Jackson, with whom she lived in the Paris Ritz in clothes ordered from Cardin, Dior and Saint-Laurent. After he left she settled down in the house he had made over to her in the South of France and was soon joined by Bernard Frank, whom she couples with Connolly as ‘two exceptionally talented and witty writers’. Frank was also a gambler and a drunk, apt to throw not just crockery, but whole dishwashers. ‘He was a very lovable man, but when with a woman he cared about, he could be very sadistic.’ Still, she liked that, so she built on a wing for him and he stayed for 13 years, finally leaving her for a younger woman with whom he started a family.

They remained friends, but all the same, now it was bonjour tristesse. Frank belonged to the Sagan gang who hung out nearby, so perhaps it was a predictable turn of events. Connolly, too, had married and produced children. He came to stay quite often, but it wasn’t a great success: ‘What is sad, once a loving relationship is severed, is that there is nothing much left to say.’ On Connolly’s last visit he had a heart attack and had to have an operation. He was dying, but went back to England to complete the process. Skelton went to visit him in the Harley Street Clinic and left in tears to return to France. ‘The days following his death, whenever I came back from shopping, though I had no recollection of having touched the switch, the light bulb on the small terrace of my upstairs bedroom would be lit. It had never happened before and it was never to happen again. I like to interpret it as having been a signal of farewell.’ Whatever this phenomenon proves about the after-life, I think it shows that she loved him.

So now she is sad and lonely, but there is absolutely no lesson to be learnt from it. Unselfish, unsexy widowed mothers of large families are often sad and lonely in their old age too. The silent majority has nothing to gloat about, nor do we have to rumble on about whether we need this tale of scandals long ago which to this day resurfaces in the gossip columns whenever one of the survivors is in the news. Of course we don’t, but we’ve got it and should be grateful, because, for one thing, it’s extremely funny. Future students of social and cultural history might even find it useful for the sense it gives of Skelton’s louche and talented milieu. What makes it a good autobiography, and very nearly a novel, is the surreal vitality, the implausible plausibility, of the three main protagonists. And there’s another thing: in The Unquiet Grave Connolly says he is ‘attracted to those who mysteriously hold out a promise of the integrity which I have lost; unsubdued daughters of Isis, beautiful as night, tumultuous as the moon-stirred Atlantic’. Here is one of them; there can’t be many; and on the whole they don’t tell you how things look from their side of the moon.