Waldorf’s Birthday Present

Gabriele Annan

  • The Langhorne Sisters by James Fox
    Granta, 612 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 1 86207 071 7

By the time she got married in 1895, Irene Langhorne was 22 and had had 62 proposals. Getting proposals was what Southern belles were brought up to do. Irene was the second of the five Langhorne sisters of Richmond, Virginia. She married Dana Gibson, the inventor of the Gibson girl. Famous for her beauty from coast to coast, she never got divorced and never gave any trouble, so she doesn’t come into James Fox’s story much; and neither does the eldest Langhorne sister Lizzie. Lizzie just got on the others’ nerves and was poor. There were also three brothers, but they don’t come into the story at all. They drank a lot, as did many Southern gentlemen after the Civil War.

It isn’t difficult to connect drink with defeat, but James Fox thinks that the cult of the belle also was the result of defeat: ‘The belles became the pure white maidens of Provençal romance, antidotes to the surrounding blackness, whose honour was, literally, worth dying for ... The adulation of the belles had a direct relation to Virginia’s sense of defeat, the sense of injustice that could hardly be addressed in conversation.’ It sounds plausible, and true or not, it is an interesting notion. Fox often drops in speculations of this kind, usually with a psychological slant, and always imaginative, humane and stimulating. He doesn’t go on about them for too long but they are one of the small pleasures of this hugely pleasurable book. He is a natural storyteller (see White Mischief), and if his prose isn’t exactly elegant, it makes up for it with sparkle and an engaging irony.

The three younger Langhorne sisters all crossed the Atlantic and married Englishmen. They are not to be confused, though, with Edith Wharton’s New York ‘buccaneers’ or millionairesses like Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the Duke of Marlborough. The Langhornes despised jumped-up Yankee ‘dollar princesses’: their own blood, they knew, was blue, and it seems never to have occurred to them that they might be considered gold-diggers. Besides, both Nancy, the third sister, and Phyllis, the fourth, were divorced by the time they arrived in England. Divorce was still a disability at the turn of the century; that was why they moved on.

Nancy accumulated no more than 16 proposals; but then, she was only 17 when she accepted, and 18 when she married 24-year-old Bob Shaw. He was the playboy son of a rich Bostonian family and kept a permanent mistress. Nancy found she hated sex. She was still complaining about it after she had borne a daughter and four sons to her second husband, Waldorf Astor, and she ‘proudly’ informed them that they had been ‘conceived without pleasure, born without pain’. She also maintained that Bobbie, the child of her first marriage, was conceived only because Bob Shaw chloroformed her one night.

Phyllis Langhorne was a year younger than Nancy. On the photographs, she looks the loveliest of the five beauties, and she also sounds the nicest, and certainly the most soulful, though not without faults: she was terribly self-absorbed and self-pitying. James Fox is her grandson, but he gives her only just over two columns of entries in his index, while Nancy has four and a half, with a long section on ‘character’. It has subheadings for ‘ambition’, ‘attacks on children’ (only her own), ‘bullying’, ‘cruelty’, ‘energy’, ‘as entertainer’, ‘friendliness’, ‘generosity’, ‘inability to show affection’, ‘loyalty’, ‘possessiveness’, ‘tactlessness’, ‘as tomboy’ (she did cartwheels for Plymouth constituents while electioneering there), ‘wit’, ‘yearning for good’. The longest entry is for ‘possessiveness’, with ‘wit’ the runner-up. Nancy’s wit was in-your-face. To a man who claimed ‘that his family had never married beneath them, she replied: “I know they can’t but I never knew they realised it.” ’ Fox’s list tells you all you need to know about Nancy, but leaves out her charm, which was ‘such that we all fell easy victims’, Lord Brand wrote when he first met her. It must have been colossal to make her friends put up with some of the qualities in Fox’s inventory, not to speak of her relentless interference in their affairs.

Phyllis gets no ‘character’ subsection in the index, but one instead on ‘interests’: it has just three entries – ‘horsemanship’, ‘hunting’ and ‘intellectual circles’. Nancy’s divorce coincided with difficulties in Phyllis’s marriage to Reggie Brooks, a sporting Southern gentleman whose drinking was getting out of control. So the sisters set off to England for the hunting season. Nancy took Bobbie, and Phyllis took her sons Peter and Winkie; they also took horses and a governess or two, and went out with the Pytchley. Nancy met and married Waldorf Astor, who owned the Observer and was MP for Plymouth; his brother John owned the Times. The Astors were so rich that occasionally it embarrassed her: ‘My dear what do you think Mr Astor’ – her father-in-law William, later the first Lord Astor – ‘has done,’ she wrote to Phyllis. ‘Don’t breathe it even to Reggie or a soul. He has given Waldorf the Waldorf Astoria for a birthday present. It sounds like a joke, but it’s a jolly good one – about 40,000 pounds more a year.’ The Langhornes were a loyal clan (Nancy’s son Michael Astor called his memoirs Tribal Feeling), so it’s not surprising that Nancy was always giving money to her poorer sisters and buying them houses, nor that she financed her eldest child throughout his life. Bobbie was chucked out of the Army for being gay, jailed for the same reason, exiled to a Kentish farm bought by his mother, and eventually committed suicide. Nancy adored him and he her, and they telephoned each other every day.

Nancy and Phyllis also adored one another and were heartbroken when Phyllis had to go back to Reggie in the States. But in due course she, too, got a divorce, and then she was back with Nancy and the Pytchley, and in love with the Hon. Henry Douglas Pennant, a dashing captain in the Grenadier Guards, who embodied all the chivalrous romance she yearned for. Nancy thought him thick, and was determined that he should be swapped for one of the brilliant young men she was meanwhile collecting for weekends at Cliveden, the gigantic Astor château on the Thames. Pennant died in the trenches in 1915, leaving Phyllis shattered but free to find a beau ‘in intellectual circles’.

Nancy recruited her circle from Lord Milner’s Imperialist ‘Kindergarten’ (the group that helped him sort out South Africa after the Boer War). The Kindergarten evolved into the Round Table, a proto-think tank named after a quarterly started by Milner and edited by Philip Kerr. Much later the group metamorphosed into the Cliveden Set. Fox calls his chapter about the Kindergarten alumni ‘Brain Fag’ (Kerr’s coinage), ‘a form of anti-climactic stress ... contracted from years of cerebral overload at the altitude of Johannesburg’. They were a high-powered, high-minded lot, and Kerr in particular was also highly-strung, over-conscientious, sickly and a hypochondriac. Still, the last adjective applies to all their society: Nancy frequently took to her bed with various psychosomatic complaints, Phyllis with depression (relieved only by hunting), and all of them were always rushing to quacks and Continental spas for cures for this and that.

The two men in Nancy’s collection who are most important in this story are Bob Brand and Philip Kerr. Kerr became the Marquess of Lothian on his father’s death, and a hate figure because of his pro-Hitler stance in the Thirties. Fox does not try to exonerate him, only to explain why he behaved as he did. Appeasement, he says, was Lothian’s second great mistake about Germany, and he made it in order to atone for the first. He had served as Lloyd George’s secretary at the Versailles Peace Conference, and there he took the most savage line about reparations. In the Thirties, he saw the dire economic and political consequences of his policy; remorse overwhelmed him and he went too far in the other direction, doing everything he could to conciliate Germany. Fox presents him as a brilliant man of overwhelming charm, a deeply religious cradle Catholic with a conscience so over-developed that he seemed to hover hysterically on the brink of nervous breakdown. You can tell the kind of charm he had from one of the photographs (and a brilliantly telling collection they are): tall, thin and aquiline, he leans gallantly over Nancy to share one of her jokes, while his posture expresses disarming upper-class self-deprecation.

He fell in love with her and she with him. They were inseparable until he died while Ambassador to the United States in 1940. Their relationship was intense, but Platonic. ‘Not that Nancy would have welcomed the sexual aspect of any affair. But Philip was too full of deep inhibitions when it came to the opposite sex ... he was never to get closer with any woman than he became with Nancy. He was happier pursuing the monkish ideal.’ The affair was not at all furtive, which made it easier, Fox thinks, for Waldorf (‘saintly but not scintillating’) to tolerate. He behaved impeccably. In the English phase of the Langhorne story all the men behave better than the women.

Nancy had been a fervent Low-Church Christian from the age of 13, when she fell under the spell of an Evangelical preacher. She irritated Phyllis by reading her Bible in the grandstand at Newmarket. But Christianity didn’t stop her from wounding people with her savage tongue or buying great chunks of jewellery whenever she had the chance. Still, she strove to be good and was truly outraged by the lot of the poor. She worked hard to help them, especially when she became the first British woman MP, taking over from Waldorf, who had to give up his Plymouth seat to succeed his father in the Lords. Fox points out that although she was a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, her social policies were reformist to the point of socialism. In 1914, just before the war, she was converted to Christian Science by a Mrs Maud Bull, who had been invited to Cliveden ‘by chance’: ‘Nancy went up with her to have a talk one night before going to bed and came down a Christian Scientist,’ wrote Bob Brand. It took her no time at all to convert Kerr, who by this time was hunting around among the world religions for one that met his considerable need.

By far the nicest man in the book, the wisest, most intelligent and the most tolerant (though possibly also the most hypochondriacal), was Bob Brand (later Lord Brand). A Fellow of All Souls, he, too, belonged to the Kindergarten, the Round Table, the Peace Conference and the Cliveden Set, though he was to the left of the rest of them. They rather deplored his becoming a banker; especially Nancy, who nicknamed him ‘the Jew’ for choosing such an infra dig profession (she was a gut anti-semite). ‘I thought you were absolutely middle class,’ she said to him on one of his early weekends, surprised to see his mail addressed to the Hon. Robert Brand. Brand fell in love with Phyllis, and watched in agony as she flirted with Pennant and several other men. (She was a ‘callous and provocative allumeuse’.) He saw himself and his friend Kerr as inept at wooing. All the same, two years after Pennant’s death, Phyllis accepted his proposal in a faute de mieux kind of way. She soon learnt to love him, though, and the marriage turned into a ‘mutual love affair sustained for twenty years’. Phyllis wrote to Bob every day when they were apart (and because of his glittering public career they often were). She was able to express what he adored her for – her ability ‘to feel happiness as well as sorrow intensely’. He wasn’t used to that. His childhood had been emotionally deprived to an unusual degree even for an upper-class Victorian Englishman.

Fox is a shrink to the extent that every modern biographer has to be. He exhibits relief when Brand’s doctor at a Black Forest spa turns out to be a follower of Jung

whose break with Freud had occurred that year, 1913. It was the first time Bob Brand, or anyone in his circle, had encountered these theories about the irrational side of human nature, of the conscious and the unconscious and the interpretation of dreams, or had heard the word ‘complex’ mentioned in terms of psychology. It had a profound effect on him and he wrote exhilarated passages to Phyllis from his clinic, thrilled with his discoveries and the newfound jargon. He was not suffering from a bad heart, which he had believed for 16 years, but from a ‘sympathetic nervous system’ that was exceedingly sensitive to pain, pleasure, beauty etc which caused his pulse to race.

In Fox’s account, the marriage is the fairytale story of a sleeping prince awakened from the wicked fairy’s spell (English upbringing) by the kiss of a lovely princess. He is particularly moved at the thought of little boys separated from their mothers and sent away to school, and quotes heartbreaking letters home from Bobbie Shaw and Peter and Winkie Brooks. All three committed suicide. So Fox has no need to labour his point and he doesn’t.

The Langhornes brought transatlantic brio to chilly English society: ‘gaiety, laughter, high spirits, spontaneity’ plus, in Brand’s view ‘exceptional fascination and charm’. In Phyllis’s case these qualities were combined with a loving nature. ‘Despite her bountiful and compassionate heart Nancy never acquired the gift of selfless love, a virtue she hammered out in repetition, exhorted in others, and carried as her banner. She never understood why ... total devotion from her children ... had eluded her. She had assumed exclusive rights of ownership over them, for many years with a clear conscience, believing she was doing God’s work, and that they were better off under her improving wing.’ And she was horrid to her servants, too.

The youngest of the sisters was every bit as devastating to men as the others, and a caution. ‘It’s not that Nora has no sense of right and wrong, it’s just that she’s got no proper sense at all,’ they said. A mythomaniac shopaholic, she sent astronomical clothes bills on to Nancy or Phyllis, and ‘had a heart like a hotel’. She was also very funny, played the guitar, sang, tap-danced, and was always getting engaged, once even after she was married. Nancy insisted on her doing a London season, and that was how she met her first husband, Paul Phipps. He was an elegant English architect, impecunious, often out of work, and the best dancer in London. They produced two children. The eldest became the famous comedienne Joyce Grenfell. Nancy put them on the family payroll, which gave her the clout to ‘order them into’ Christian Science. While in New York in 1914, Nora eloped with Lefty Flynn, a former star fullback on the Yale football team (his nickname had nothing to do with politics: he used his left foot for kicking goals). She returned to Phipps quite soon. Nearly twenty years later she re-eloped with Lefty, married and later divorced him.

The Langhorne saga is as crammed with amazing characters as the Nibelungenlied and just as funny. Fox writes with real sympathy – even about hard-to-love Nancy – and with an endearing mixture of affection and irony about every player, including the servants. Preposterous as some of the cast are, he makes them believable and never lets them degenerate into caricatures.

Unfortunately, but unavoidably, he has to devote the last part of his book to the Cliveden Set myth, which concerns only one Langhorne: Nancy (Lizzie and Phyllis were dead, and the others out of the picture). By this time, she was metamorphosing into a vituperative harridan who shrieked insults at her fellow MPs in the House of Commons, turned against her children and wouldn’t speak to her husband. ‘There had been sudden political differences as Nancy moved, or jerked without any particular process of thought, to the right’. Fox calls one chapter ‘Cockburn’s “Cliveden Set” ’ (my italics) and reiterates convincingly the now generally accepted view that the Cliveden Set, in the sense of a pro-Hitler cabal, was the invention of the Marxist journalist Claud Cockburn. Nancy may have invited Ribbentrop to lunch, and she didn’t like Jews: but she didn’t want Hitler to be beastly to them either. As for her set, Fox points out, it included fervent anti-Hitlerites such as Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Bob Brand, who regretted that he hadn’t a gun to shoot the Führer when he found him sitting nearby at a concert in Berlin. Fox is a pushover for charmers, and makes Cockburn sparkle with intelligence, funniness and allure. But even Fox can’t exonerate Lothian: if his intentions were noble, then he was a fool and not the brilliant mind his contemporaries thought him. ‘With his stubborn blind eye, he was the last person in that band of influence, apart from Dawson and Chamberlain, to admit the true nature of the disaster.’ Still, even if there wasn’t a Cliveden Set, or if it wasn’t as awful as its reputation, there was a Langhorne set: not so much a mutual admiration society, as a case of group narcissism.