The dashing life of society darling Lady Diana Cooper, captured in the illuminating letters to her son
Lady Diana Cooper was an aristocrat, a socialite, an actress of stage and early screen. When she married rising political star Duff Cooper, they became the golden couple who knew everyone who was anyone; they sat at the very heart of British public life.
Diana’s letters to her only son, John Julius Norwich, cover the period 1939 to 1952. They take us from the rumblings of war, through the Blitz, which the Coopers spent holed up in the Dorchester (because it was newer, and therefore less vulnerable, than the Ritz), to rural Sussex where we see Diana blissfully setting up a smallholding as part of the war effort. After a spell with the Free French in Algiers, Duff was appointed British Ambassador to France and the couple settled into the glorious embassy in post-Liberation Paris.
Over and beyond all the glitz, Diana emerges in these letters as highly intelligent, funny, fiercely loyal: a woman who disliked extravagance, who was often cripplingly shy, who was happiest in the countryside with her cow and goats and whose greatest love and preoccupation were her husband and son.
As a portrait of a time and some of history’s most dramatic and important events, these letters are invaluable. But they also give us a vivid and touching portrait of the love between a mother and son, separated by war, oceansand the constraints of the time they lived in.
|Publisher:||The Overlook Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
For the war effort, Diana converted their seaside cottage in Sussex into a small farm. In 1944, following the Liberation of Paris, the couple moved into the British Embassy, Paris. They then retired to a house at Chantilly just outside the city. After Duff’s death in 1954, Diana remained there until 1960, when she moved back to London. She died in 1986.
Read an Excerpt
To my grandchildren
Who would have loved their great-grandmother
As she would have loved them
She was an inveterate letter-writer. I can see her now, sitting bolt upright in bed, cross-legged, a pad of paper balanced on her right knee, a pencil in her hand – always pencil, so as not to get ink on the sheets. Bed was the bridge, the control tower, the centre of operations. On it was the telephone, the writing paper, the addresses, the engagements. Never did I see her sitting at a desk or other table if bed was within range.
She always maintained that she could never keep a diary; it was no fun writing to herself. So she wrote to other people instead – to my father if he was away somewhere, to her old friend Conrad Russell, or to me, her son. And she told us everything that happened, writing in a style that was entirely her own – there was no way that any letter of hers could be mistaken for anyone else’s. The writing was effortless; an hour would produce five or six long pages; then she would fold them rather roughly, give the envelope a quick lick, address it – still in pencil – and, as often as not, start on another.
Never did she seem remotely conscious of the fact that she was a celebrity; but a celebrity she was. First of all there was the startling beauty; second, she was a member of the high aristocracy – in those days still an advantage – born on Monday 29 August 1892 and brought up in one of England’s most spectacular country houses, Belvoir Castle, as the youngest daughter of the eighth Duke of Rutland. (Her adoring public would have been horrified to learn that she was in fact the result of a long and passionate affair between the Duchess and the Hon. Harry Cust, from the neighbouring estate at Belton.1) But there was more to it than that. Ever since her presentation at court in 1911, she had been the darling of the society and gossip columns; and when she married my father, Duff Cooper – a penniless commoner of whom no one had ever heard – at St Margaret’s, Westminster, a body of mounted police had to be brought in to control the adoring crowds outside.
She would have married him in any event; she was to love him to distraction until the day he died. But by then marriageable young men were thin on the ground. At the outbreak of the First World War my father, as a member of the Foreign Service, had been exempt from the call-up – a fact for which I am heartily thankful, since had he not been I should almost certainly not be here today – but most of his friends had not been so lucky. So much has been written of the massacre of that war – particularly of the young officers – that it seems superfluous to add anything further; but I remember my mother telling me that by the end of 1916, with the single exception of my father, every man she had ever danced with was dead.
In December 1916 Herbert Asquith resigned as Prime Minister, to be succeeded by David Lloyd George, one of whose first actions – in view of what was becoming a serious shortage of manpower at the front – was to extend conscription to several of the ‘reserved professions’, including the Foreign Service. My father, who had been increasingly embarrassed by what he saw as his enforced inactivity while nearly all his contemporaries were in France, felt nothing but relief.
The training, he always maintained, was the worst part. It had been described by his friend Eddie Grant as ‘being stuck in a six-foot bog, trained like an Olympian athlete and buggered about like a mulatto telegraph boy’, and he hated it. He loved to tell the story of a certain evening in early July when he briefly escaped to London from his training camp at Bushey in Hertfordshire, only to discover that no one he knew, male or female, was in town. For once, he felt genuinely depressed; there was nothing for it but to go to his club – the Junior Carlton in those days, rather than the beloved White’s of his later years – and to order the best dinner he could get, washed down with a pint of champagne. From the library he took down a copy of Through the Looking-Glass, always one of his favourite books. ‘Then,’ he wrote, ‘as if by enchantment my melancholy left me and I knew that I should not be unhappy again.’2 On 27 April 1918 he left for France.
Even there, his high spirits did not desert him. ‘From a comfortable dug-out’ he reported to my mother that ‘the horrors of war have been much exaggerated’, and offered to send her a food parcel; but he soon had reason to change his mind. At 5 a.m. on 21 August he and his company went over the top in a heavy mist, and before long his platoon became separated from the rest. They reached their objective of the Arras–Albert railway line – the only platoon to do so – but immediately ran into heavy fire from a German machine-gun post. He went forward to destroy it, not knowing that all the men following him had been killed, and on his arrival – almost miraculously unscathed – shot one man and called upon the others, in what German he could still remember, to surrender. Believing themselves to be outnumbered, to his intense surprise they did; and so it happened that a callow young second lieutenant with practically no experience of battle managed to capture eighteen Germans single-handed. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but had to settle for the Distinguished Service Order which, particularly when awarded to a subaltern, was generally considered to be the next best thing.
Only two nights later his company attacked again. This time he described it as ‘one of the most memorable moments of my life … a thrilling and beautiful attack, bright, bright moonlight and we guided ourselves by a star … it was what the old poets said it was and the new poets say it isn’t’. After one more battle ‘the sun rose beautifully and the enemy fled in all directions including ours with their hands up, and one had a glorious Ironside feeling of Let God Arise and let His Enemies be Scattered. And then they came back again over the hill and one was terrified and had a ghastly feeling of God is sunk and His enemies are doing nicely.’ Fortunately ‘the battle rolled away’. It was his last engagement. Meanwhile my mother – much against my grandmother’s wishes – the Duchess could not bear the thought of her favourite child washing the wounded and emptying bedpans – had become a nurse at Guy’s Hospital. For the past year she and my father had been growing closer; only he, it seemed, could provide the strength and consolation she so desperately needed.
They were married seven months after the Armistice, on 2 June 1919. Just three years later, at the age of thirty and to the undisguised horror of her parents and their friends, she became a film star, taking the lead in two films – silent of course – for the then celebrated though now long-forgotten producer J. Stuart Blackton. In one, The Virgin Queen, she played Queen Elizabeth I; alas, all the prints have been lost. Of the other, a swashbuckling seventeenth-century drama called The Glorious Adventure, I possess a copy. It is not, I think, likely to be revived. These two films did little for my mother’s reputation in London society; but they led to something far more important. They brought her to the attention of the world-famous Austrian theatre producer Max Reinhardt, who was seeking actresses for the two leading parts in his forthcoming new production of The Miracle. This free adaptation of a medieval miracle play had had considerable success at London’s Olympia shortly before the First World War; Reinhardt now proposed to take it to New York and to give it a completely new and far more ambitious production at the Century Theater. If successful there it would tour America.
The action of The Miracle is set in a vast medieval abbey, which houses a convent of nuns. It also possesses a life-size statue of the Virgin and Child credited with miraculous properties. The plot, in brief, tells of a beautiful young nun who prays before the statue for her freedom – at which the Virgin slowly descends from her niche, dons the nun’s habit and thenceforth takes her place, leaving the niche empty. The poor girl has gained her liberty, but her venture into the outside world proves disastrous: she is betrayed, abused, corrupted; and a year or two later she makes her way back to the abbey broken in body and spirit, a dying baby in her arms. While all the other nuns are congregated in prayer, one of their number suddenly rises from their midst, removes her habit – which she gives back to the girl – takes the baby, now dead, from her and slowly returns with it to the niche, where it becomes the Christ-child.
Reinhardt’s production was a triumph. The theatre was dark for six months while it was transformed into a Gothic abbey, the bells of which rang for half an hour every evening before the performance. During the long New York run, my mother played sometimes the nun and sometimes the Virgin – the latter being by far the more taxing as she had to stand motionless in her niche, holding a heavy wooden baby, for some fifty minutes before slowly coming to life. When the run was over, she stayed on with the company for its nationwide tour of America. Later they did two more tours, the first through central Europe, the second through England and Scotland.
I have told the story of The Miracle at some length because it was immensely important in her life. This importance was to a large extent financial; as – in theory at least – the fifth child and third daughter of the Duke, she stood to inherit virtually nothing. She had been expected to find a rich husband; instead, she had picked a comparative pauper who had little to live on except his Foreign Office salary. They married on £1,100 a year – obviously a good deal more than it is today, but still far from princely; and my grandmother, who had had visions of Belgravia or Mayfair, was appalled when they settled at No. 90 Gower Street, Bloomsbury.
But The Miracle also gave my mother something else: experience of other worlds totally foreign to her own. For what must have been a total of six or seven years she lived in the world of theatre – and not the English theatre either, but the Austrian-American-Jewish theatre, which was something quite different again. It was a milieu that she would love for the rest of her life. This explains, in the earlier years covered by these letters, the presence of the near-ubiquitous Dr Rudolf Kommer (Kaetchen) who had been Reinhardt’s factotum and was to be my guardian during my wartime stay in America. On the other hand, the long enforced absences that my parents were called upon to suffer with the broad Atlantic between them could easily have destroyed their marriage, particularly in view of my father’s constant infidelities. In fact it did nothing of the kind. They both saw the Miracle money as an investment – one that would enable my father to throw up the Foreign Office and its salary of £900 a year and launch himself into the political career on which he had set his heart.
In the letters that follow, he plays a supporting role only; yet one feels his presence all the time. Commoner he may have been, but his lineage was not altogether without distinction. He was, in fact, the great-great-grandson of King William IV, who had no fewer than nine illegitimate children by Mrs Dorothy Jordan, the leading comédienne of her day. One of their countless grandchildren, Lady Agnes Hay, married James, fifth Earl of Fife – curiously enough, at the British Embassy in Paris – and had four children, the youngest of whom was named Agnes like her mother.
Lady Agnes grew up to be extremely attractive but more than a little flighty, and in 1871 at the age of nineteen eloped with the young and dashing Viscount Dupplin. Two years later she gave birth to a daughter, Marie, who married into the family of Field Marshal von Hindenburg and settled in Germany. A romantic novelist, she loved to talk about what she called ‘the Jordan blood’, and no wonder: when she was only two years old her mother eloped for the second time, on this occasion with a young man called Herbert Flower, whom she married in 1876 as soon as Lord Dupplin had been granted a divorce – on the grounds, it need hardly be said, of his wife’s adultery. The Flowers went off on a world cruise, but their idyll was to be all too short: just four years later in 1880, Herbert died at the age of twenty-seven.
Agnes was heartbroken; he was the love of her life. She herself was still only twenty-eight, but what was she to do? Her family had disowned her; she was virtually penniless; and after two elopements and a divorce not even an earl’s daughter with royal connections – her brother Alexander had married the eldest daughter of the future King Edward VII – could hope to be accepted into society. But she had never lacked spirit. In the hopes of becoming a nurse, she took a menial job in one of the major London teaching hospitals, and there, in 1882, it is said while she was scrubbing the floor, she caught the eye of one of the consulting surgeons, Dr Alfred Cooper.
Now Dr Cooper was a good deal more interesting than he sounds. Born in 1838 in Norwich to a family of lawyers, he had completed his medical studies at St Bartholomew’s in London and by the mid-1860s had built up a highly successful practice in Jermyn Street. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:
Cooper, whose social qualities were linked with fine traits of character and breadth of view, gained a wide knowledge of the world, partly at courts, partly in the out-patient rooms of hospitals, and partly in the exercise of a branch of his profession which more than any other reveals the frailty of mankind.
It did indeed. That branch was, moreover, forked: syphilis and piles. Within a short time my grandfather and grandmother together were said to know more about the private parts of the British aristocracy than any other couple in the country. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – he quickly made his name in London society, becoming a member of all the right clubs and an ever-popular guest at dinner parties, country houses and even on grouse moors. Among his patients he numbered Edward, Prince of Wales, whom in 1874 he accompanied to St Petersburg. (From which of the above two distressing complaints His Royal Highness suffered is not known; the Palace announced at the time that Dr Cooper was treating him for a form of bronchitis – but what else could the Palace have said?) The two remained friends, and in 1901, when the prince succeeded his mother on the throne and became King Edward VII, he was to award my grandfather a knighthood in his Coronation Honours.
Dr Cooper had done well: well enough to send his only son Duff3 – there were also three daughters – to Eton and Oxford where, according to his biographer John Charmley, ‘he trailed clouds of dissipation’, drinking, gambling and pursuing regiments of women, whom he wooed – on the whole successfully – not only by his charm and wit but also by bombarding them with sonnets, for which he had a quite extraordinary facility. These were a by-product of a genuine passion for literature, in particular poetry and nineteenth-century novels in both English and French; by the end of his life it was almost impossible to find one of these that he had not read and remembered.
After the war he did indeed give up the Foreign Office, embarking instead on a political career, in the course of which he became Secretary of State for War in 1936 and First Lord of the Admiralty – effectively Secretary of State for the Navy – in 1937. He loved the latter post, which included the use of the Admiralty yacht, a converted destroyer called HMS Enchantress; but he did not enjoy it for long. At the end of August 1938 Nazi troops had begun to mass along Germany’s frontier with Czechoslovakia. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax were prepared to see the destruction of what Chamberlain famously described as ‘a far-away country’ and ‘people of whom we know nothing’; my father took a stronger line. He wanted us to make it absolutely clear to Hitler that if he marched into Czechoslovakia the result would be war. At first, he wrote, the alternatives seemed to be 1) peace with dishonour – allowing Hitler to take over Czechoslovakia; 2) war. But then Chamberlain made three flights to Germany to see Hitler; and when he returned after their last meeting, having accepted virtually all Hitler’s demands, my father saw that there was now a third possibility staring us in the face: war with dishonour – betraying Czechoslovakia and still having to fight, since Hitler was clearly not going to be satisfied. He could bear it no longer, and on 1 October submitted his resignation.
This, then, is the background to the letters that follow. They were written over a thirteen-year period, between 1939 and 1952. When I received the first I had recently celebrated my tenth birthday; the last found me a married man with a child of my own on the way, soon to be twenty-three and to enter the Foreign Service myself. For both my mother and me, these were eventful years. Their beginning virtually coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War. For her, this was followed by a lecture tour that my father undertook in America, the London Blitz, the establishment of a smallholding farm in Sussex, a five-month posting to Singapore involving extensive tours of South-East Asia, nine months with General de Gaulle in Algiers, three years at the British Embassy in post-liberation Paris and, finally, retirement in a house just outside Chantilly. For me, they saw my evacuation in 1940 to the United States, eighteen months’ education in Toronto, a return to England in 1942 on a Royal Navy cruiser, four years at Eton, two on the lower deck of the Navy and, to finish off, three years at New College, Oxford.
During that time, my mother wrote me several hundred letters, sometimes daily, hardly ever less frequently than two or three times a week. Despite repeated injunctions to keep them carefully, I fear that the very occasional bundle has been lost – almost certainly my fault. One particularly sad casualty is that which concludes the American lecture tour in the very first chapter. But the vast majority – at least 90 per cent – have survived, and it is the best of these that you now hold in your hands. They have in some cases been slightly abridged, but only to spare the reader those paragraphs which would have bored him or her stiff, or which I myself, after so long an interval, find incomprehensible. There are, alas, far too many names. Most of them are identified in the footnotes or – also by Christian names and nicknames – in the List of Names at the end of the book. Of those which are not, some are made sufficiently clear by the context, others are too well-known to need additional explanation. The remainder are left unexplained because I have no idea who they are.
Particularly during the early years, I was a far less dutiful correspondent than she – and, as her letters make abundantly clear, she never let me forget it. (‘This one only told me that your gym master had been ill.’) Increasing maturity showed a welcome improvement, and by the time I reached the Navy and had a good deal of time on my hands I was writing regularly, sometimes at inordinate length. The results you have been spared; but, simply to give a taste of the two-way correspondence, one of my own letters, ruthlessly abridged, has been included as a sort of prelude to each chapter, to be ignored at will.
‘Pray for Hitler’s sharks not to catch us’
USA, OCTOBER 1939–FEBRUARY 1940
February 2nd, 1940
My darling Mummy and Papa,
We are not snowed up any more, I am glad to say, but there is still a lot about.
The new music teacher, who plays the organ in church, is very nice. I have her twice a week, for half an hour, and am getting on fine.
We had films last night. One was about owls, hawks and things. It was frightfully good, showing hawks in midair, catching bones. Film No. 2 was pure humour but it kept going wrong. It was a maid who dropped all the best china, and it came to life and tortured her. I did not like it and you would have loathed it.
The master, Mr. Clinch, is an owner of performing fleas. We are going to have a demonstration this afternoon. He is also going to try to get a scout troop, and is teaching us many knots. Still, to go on with fleas. They are called performing livestock, since ‘fleas’ sounds too undignified. They are called Oscar and Cuthbert, and Mr. Clinch got them from the Sahara Desert.
I now know about thirty verses from Horatius.2 When I have learned it all, you will owe me £3 10s, since there are seventy verses.
Lots and lots of love,
Having resigned from the Chamberlain government in October 1938, my father found himself at a loose end. When, therefore, towards the end of the year, he was invited to lecture in America, he did not turn the suggestion down flat. He replied that given the existing situation he could not possibly commit himself at that time; he might, however, be able to do so in the following year, ‘if conditions were favourable’. He was in fact fairly certain that they would not be; but the inactivity that had continued month after month in 1939 had proved almost more than he could stand. War was declared on 3 September 1939. He knew there was no hope for a ministerial post while Neville Chamberlain remained in power; at the same time he did not feel that he could leave England without the Prime Minister’s approval. On 21 September he managed an interview; but, as he noted in his diary, ‘Chamberlain merely suggested that in six weeks’ time, when “things will be getting pretty hot here”, a man of my age might be criticised for leaving the country. I said that that was my own responsibility and was a question that I could settle for myself. After some humming and hawing he said that it would be a good thing for me to go – and so I left him. I wasn’t with him for more than ten minutes and I left with a feeling of intensified dislike.’
His mission, if he went, would be clear enough. He must do his best to persuade America that the isolationist policies then being advocated by Colonel Charles Lindbergh – and a good many others in high places – would prove disastrous to both our countries. The cause of Great Britain was not everywhere popular in the United States. There was in particular a deep suspicion of the Empire; not 1 per cent of his audiences, wrote my father, believed that the Dominions were really self-governing; nor did they have any idea of the bloodshed that was bound to follow a British withdrawal from India, which most of them wholeheartedly advocated. Above all, they had to be made to understand that the western world was fighting for its life. Without American help, the battle might well be lost.
He decided to go; my mother, as she always did, went with him; and the letters begin.
In the train to Southampton
October 12th, 1939
Papa and I have barged and battered our way through a mob of passengers and seers-off and are at last seated (not everybody is) in a Pullman car with eggs and strawberry jam. There was a crowd of photographers hunting Papa like sleuths, but I implored them not to take us as we don’t want the enemy to send a special torpedo. We gave a party last night at the Savoy and tried to forget we were going, not that I mind much except for leaving you. I’ll write, no cable you as soon as I arrive in N.Y. but I don’t suppose it will be for ten or twelve days. Work hard, play hard and don’t change till I come back anyway. Be just as I left you, gay and brave and good and sensible. Don’t forget that there’s a war being fought and that it’s got to be won and that your contribution towards winning it is to be better, more hardworking, more thoughtful and braver than usual … I love you very much.
The sea is rather Cape Wrathish3 and I have forgotten the terror of the torpedoes in my efforts to cope with standing upright. Everybody except Papa and me is sleeping five and six in a cabin on cots like you slept on in the Enchantress and all the big saloons are dormitories of fifty unfortunates all sicking together. We have a film every afternoon and we have to go and sit on our places two hours before it starts. The news that you will delight in is that we shall actually see the World’s Fair.4 I’ll send you pictures and details. The deck is black with children which makes me want you very much. They play a nice dart game on deck which I’ll send you for Christmas if I can get it over.
We get very little English news. What comes through is on a radio at its most confused and raucous worst. I’m trying to remember what Belvoir was like when I was half your age, with no taps, no electric light, no motors, but instead lamp-men and water-men carrying gigantic cans. Drives in the afternoon with Grandpapa in a big landau with a big fat coachman on the box driving a pair of spanking horses and a footman in a long coat and top hat who leapt down and opened a gate and scrambled up to the box again and did nothing else in life. If I can put it all together and make it interesting enough I might make a radio talk in America, and make some money to give to the Red Cross. I’ll stop now and add a bit more to this letter before we land.
Saturday. We are due to land tomorrow. It got lovely and calm again yesterday and there was a good film called Stanley and Livingstone5 and in the evening we gave a dinner party of two other people …
Shall hope to see old Kaetchen at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning. I shall be happy to arrive, the perils of the sea behind us for a bit. I shall be thinking about you all the time and longing for letters, nothing too silly to tell me about, remember that as I shall be hungry for news of you – air raid warnings, outings with Nanny.
October 27th, 1939
I’ve been to the World’s Fair for the first time – not, you will be sorry to hear, to the Amusement Park. I go there tomorrow, but I’ve been inside the Perisphere. It’s that large globe one sees in the pictures. One goes in the door at the foot of the pyramid and there’s a blue-lit, rather sinister moving staircase which shoots you off into the inside of the globe on to a revolving platform that carries you round the circle while you look down upon the city of the future – done like panoramas are done. The dome above you looks just like the real sky and changes to night and stars and the model city lights up. I did the English Pavilion – good but dull – and the French one – good and exciting – and the Russian one, immense and made of marble and showing with tremendous pride things the U.S.S.R. has made and invented and developed since their new regime – all the things we’ve had for years, such as an underground railway. The Exhibition doesn’t look half as lovely as the Paris one – fountains much less good, but one doesn’t get so tired as there are little motors and little chairs a man pushes you in. I saw too a room of minute babies in incubators. That was fascinating, and you would have very much liked the Palace of Health, with transparent men with pulsating kidneys and brains, etc. I’ll write you about the Amusements next time.
It seems dreadful being so far from you and the family and unhappy England. No news from anyone yet, only stories of Germany’s hatred of England. It makes one desperately sad. Here the cry is ‘Keep out of the war’. A few years ago America passed a law called the Neutrality Act which meant that they might not sell any armaments or aeroplanes or oil or steel to countries that were at war. Now there is a big fight going on because Roosevelt, the President, wants to repeal that law, to tear it up and allow any nation at war to buy what they want, as long as they can fetch it in their own ships and pay cash down for it. (‘Cash and Carry’ it’s called.) He wants this because he is very pro-England and France, and he knows that the repeal of the law would advantage us, who have ships and money and the command of the seas. So we must pray that the President pulls it off, and now you know what the Repeal of the Neutrality Act is, or you ought to if you’re not a tiny idiot or if I am incapable of making myself clear. We are going to Washington next week and I hope to see my darling President in his White House.
Goodbye, my beloved. Don’t forget to say your prayers at night under the clothes – you needn’t kneel if the other boys don’t, but say them please.
November 3rd, 1939
You will be very sorry to hear that I never again got to the Fair. I’d promised myself two days – the last two before the Fair closed – to do all the parachutes and heart-stoppers. And on those two days the heavens opened and torrential rains that drowned everything, and now it’s shut till next year and it’s just too bad. We came to Washington D.C. yesterday to see our Ambassador there, Lord Lothian, and this evening – great excitement – we are to go to the White House and see the President, so I won’t finish this letter till later so that I can tell you what he is like. I’ve always loved him as you know, but he is unpopular with the very rich because he taxes them mercilessly and a good job too. He’s very pro-Ally and does not really think that America should be an ‘isolationist’ country that takes no part in the rest of the world’s troubles. He would like to come to our help and has already done so by getting the Neutrality Law repealed (it was done yesterday just as we arrived, by a big majority of votes). So now we can buy all the arms we can pay for from the U.S.A. and so can France, and Hitler won’t like it one little bit. That will do for my lecture bit of this letter.
Papa makes his first lecture next Monday at Columbia University – that’s New York – and three days later he makes one in New Jumper – I mean New Jersey, which is the next state. Papa has gone very American – he has given up carrying a stick or umbrella, he is very energetic and full of hustle as though he thought ‘time was money’. He speaks through his nose and soon he will be wearing pince-nezes and smoking a cheroot, and may even grow a little goatee beard. I’m going out now to the Capitol and to look at a colossal Abraham Lincoln made of marble sitting in a chair. I pray every night that you are happy and well. By the time you get this there will be only about three weeks more of school. Perhaps you’ll be preparing a play. I haven’t heard a word of you yet.
Saturday 4th. Well, the White House was a big success. Mr. President was gleeful over his repeal and didn’t pretend to be neutral at all. I was a bit nervous and didn’t do very well with him, but he did very well with me. If his legs had not been paralysed he’d have danced a war dance. Before the tea with the President we went to see the Hoover Institute of Criminal Investigation.6 You would so have loved it. When the gangsters and racketeers were at their worst and the kidnappers, Mr. Hoover was put in charge of the Police Department and made the ‘G-men’. (G stands for Government.) They are a severely trained body of men who know the law, who are husky and strong, and who are taught to shoot straight and carry guns. The result has been miraculous. The headquarters are at Washington and there you can see all the relics of the gangsters, their blood-stained bits, their death masks, their sawn-off shotguns, notes written by kidnapped children, millions of indexed fingerprints. To finish up you are taken to the shooting gallery where you are first shown how the different kinds of machine-guns and repeaters of all sorts are operated with tracer bullets that show in the dark, and then you can try them yourself on the target of a life-sized man. I did pretty well and kept my riddled man for you. I’ll send it if I can.
On to Williamsburg today to see what a colonial town in Virginia in the time of Queen Anne looks like. They have restored it to look exactly as it did. New York next day.
Manhasset, Long Island
November 12th, 1939
This letter will probably get to you before the last one I wrote you about Washington because I’m giving it to Ronnie Tree who leaves on the Clipper7 tomorrow. It’s a month since I left, and I haven’t had a letter from anyone except Conrad,8 and one from Hutchie9 by air. I really can’t wait to hear something of you. Tomorrow we are off to the Southern States for ten days and there will be seven lectures and seven or eight nights in the train. When we get back to N.Y. we shall be wrecks. I spend half my day at the washing basin scrubbing Papa’s socks and drawers and pyjamas and handkerchiefs, and the other half ironing them and perpetually burning them. You will say why don’t you send them to a laundry. The answer is that everything in this country is so expensive that it hurts my sensitive Scotch soul, and what Papa flings away on tips and leaving money about, and not taking the trouble to learn the currency and so giving 50 cents instead of 10 cents, I try to make up for by pathetic economies. We had a very successful lecture at Summit, New Jersey, the state on the other side of the Hudson river from N.Y. They’ve built a splendid tunnel, bigger and better and faster and generally more impressive than the Mersey Tunnel. We had dinner before the speech with an old American family, good and noble and high-principled and delightful. Grace before our dinner which was at half-past six. We had to eat the food though I wanted to regurgitate. I thought of you. Papa likes a drink before a lecture, but this home disapproved of anything but water!
This home, which belongs to Mr. Paley, the President of the Columbia Broadcasting, has too much alcohol on the other hand. Result – I’ve got a headache today and wish that I was back with the fine American middle-class family in spite of their abstinence.
I enclose the man I shot at in the Criminal Investigation Department with a hand machine-gun. My Washington letter will explain.
November 19th, 1939
At last I’ve got a scrubby little letter from you dated 29 October. You are the nastiest little pig I know and I despise the school for not urging you to be a little less beastly. Do you realise that you let eighteen days pass without giving your poor frightened exiled mother a thought? Please, darling horror, don’t do it again. Write as often as you can. It’s so sad waiting for letters that don’t come and are not even written.
I’m writing on very thin loo paper because airmail is so expensive and it goes by weight. Papa and I spend every night in the train, Papa up above monkeywise. He’s more like a monkey than I was because up above there is a criss-cross arrangement of green tape like a cage to keep him from being shot out. Most nights he lectures and yesterday at Pittsburgh, a huge town where they make steel (their Sheffield) he had to speak for an hour at 10 a.m. They gave him in return a large ivory penknife with the giver’s name which happened to be Duff engraved upon it. I should claim it from him when we get home. He’s more likely to cut himself than you are. It’s hot as summer and Washington is all avenues of trees and spaces and big beautifully designed offices for Government. Tonight it’s the train again for Charlotte, N. Carolina, and the next night train again to New York, three days break and off to Canada. I love my darling boy. Don’t treat me so badly again or I’ll have your lights and liver when I get home.
November 29th, 1939
Here we are at Ottawa where the Governor General of Canada lives in kingly splendour. He’s called Lord Tweedsmuir and we curtsey to him as though he were the King himself. Last evening Papa was on his legs bawling away at Boston Massachusetts and at 11 p.m. we got into our train bed and got out again at Utica, N.Y. State. There we waited an hour and had a glorious breakfast if rather curious, i.e. coffee, grapefruit juice, drop scones made of buckwheat, sausages, bacon and over the lot maple-sugar syrup. On again in a boiling train that went about three miles an hour and stopped with a sickening jolt at every station. My feet swelled with the heat and my back ached and we were both in a kind of coma, like people in a submarine that’s gone wrong. At last we came to the majestic St. Lawrence river that divides Canada from U.S. and where there is no frontier nonsense, no soldiers or forts or things like Mussolini ha sempre ragione10 (do you remember?). Canada and the U.S.A. understand and trust each other, hence the simplification.
Don’t forget to love me. I feel so far from you and frightened that you’ll grow away from me. Be determined not to, for if you did it would break my heart.
About December 7th, 1939
This will probably be your Christmas letter and where am I to imagine you as being? Where will you be delving into a bulging stocking? I hope at Belvoir. Wherever you are I want you to have a lovely lovely Christmas full of fun and presents and treats, and for war to be forgotten, anyway for the day. It’s the first Christmas I shall not be with you and I mind it dreadfully. Please pray hard that we’ll be together next year and that Hitler will be defeated, and that we’ll all be trying to mend our poor England. I shan’t be much of a mender because I’m so tired and weak, but you’ll have to do a lot about it, and so will Papa.
What a day we had yesterday. We tumbled out of the train at 6.30 a.m. at Cleveland, Ohio, and there were the merciless photographers and reporters. At 11 a.m. Papa gave a lecture. Then came a luncheon of 500 strangers at the end of which Papa had to answer their questions about the European situation. Then a two-hour motor drive with strangers and dinner with them and another lecture, and then an endless supper with a different lot of strangers at a place called Canton, Ohio. Then a two-hour motor drive to a place called Youngstown, and at last we tumbled back into the train at 1.30 a.m. – nineteen hours running without a break. We woke up next morning in Toronto, Canada, where everyone is in khaki and off to the war. Now we’re at Troy, N.Y. State, very unlike my idea of Troy, no Greeks, no gods, no visible heroes. These Trojans make shirts for all America to wear. Tomorrow we shall be in Boston, and so it goes on.
Just arrived Boston and found a wonderful account written by Martin of his torpedoing. Also three letters from Conrad and one from Hutchie and a scrubby little bit from you. Really your letters are too horrid, one side of a sheet, not one word of affection or love. This one only told me your gym master had been ill. It was not even signed. You can’t think how disappointing it is to get a letter like that. You used to write lovely long ones before you went to school.
Sunday, December 17th, 1939
Our mad bout of travelling is ending for a bit. In three days we shall get two weeks without lectures. Papa is like you and wants to sit quiet in town and go to the theatres and eat and drink and play cards, and wink at the lovely ladies, while I, as you know me, am trying to put a bit more enterprise and adventure into it. I am drawn to the snows, or to the hot beaches of Florida, or to cowboys or Indians or something. Papa will win.
The other night when we arrived at the lecture hall in Brooklyn we saw it to be completely surrounded by policemen with bludgeons. We were half an hour too early, so we went and sat at a café opposite and watched developments. It was raining and soon sad bedraggled young men began to appear carrying placards which read ‘Send Duff Home’, ‘We Won’t be Dragged into War’, ‘Don’t Listen to English Lies’ and so on, but no one was paying the slightest attention to them. When we got inside there were still more cops but nothing happened at all – no demonstration, no row. The only effect it had was to give us a friendly crowd at the stage door when we left. They cheered us.
I’m not expecting to get any Christmas presents. I hope you get a great many, you darling little boy. Write by air on a typewriter. There is sure to be one at Belvoir if you can get around the secretary. You write longer and better letters on the machine, I think.
The Ambassador Hotel
Park Avenue, New York
January 3rd, 1940
We had a lovely New Year’s Eve sitting up in a large kitchen till 5 o’clock a.m. cooking eggs and bacon and people were still dropping in when I left, treating night as day. I wonder how it all went at Belvoir, and if it’s all very different to normal times.
Yesterday I went to the Natural History Museum. It’s as lovely here as ours in London is awful. I missed you a lot. There were so many revolting exhibits you would have rejoiced in. One extraordinary peepshow was how a room, for instance, looks to you and how it looks to a dog. A dog sees no colour, whereas a fly sees more colours than we do. A hen sees other hens bigger or smaller according to the other’s pecking abilities and she sees the cock-a-doodle-doo enormous, though how they can tell I don’t know. No more do I believe they do.
The streets are still covered with ice and the roofs with snow. Tomorrow we start on our travels again. In two months we shall be starting home. I haven’t heard from you in a long, long time. All the ships are delayed and the Clippers too. Label your letters ‘Clipper’ and get them stamped. It’s 1/6d the ½ oz.
South Bend, Indiana
January 14th, 1940
We are keeping our peckers up splendidly. Sometimes it is gloomy and dull and other days the town is bright, the hotel lovely and the people full of life and fun, and everything seems good. South Bend, Indiana, is the worst we have been to, whereas Toledo, Ohio, was heavenly. At Akron, Ohio, there was a restaurant called the Hawaiian Room. It would have amused you, I think. It was very very dark with a sort of witch-doctory light on the tables. The bar was a native hut, but the fun was that one wall was a panorama scene of a coral reef – a sandy bay edged with palm trees. Suddenly, though no one was there except Papa and me and a group of very old ladies having lunch together, the panorama darkened and flooded itself with torrential rain. The artificial thunder and blinding lightning deafened us for ten minutes …
Now I must get up and wash Papa’s vest and drawers and socks and pack and have lunch and listen to the lecture and catch a train to Chicago where with any luck there will be a letter from you.
Fort Worth, Texas
(‘Where the West Begins’)
January 28th, 1940
I’ve had lovely letters from you lately. Belvoir sounds a hatful of fun and the letters were long and full of the kind of thing I like. What luck to have ice! It’s been ridiculously cold here but I haven’t smelt a ski or a skate. It was 22 below zero in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and snowing in Alabama, which should be as hot as summer, and at Palm Beach, Florida – where I have always been too hot in January, swimming and sweating alternately – it was so cold that they had to shut all the schools. They have no heating arrangements as it’s always hot, so they thought the children would suffer and get ill. Palm Beach is known as the ‘millionaires’ playground’. Lorna Mackintosh’s11 father runs a bar there called the ‘Alibi’ Bar, his name being Ali. I think Ali-Bar-Bar would have been a funnier name.
Believe it or not I went flying yesterday.12 A man who had a two-engined, two-piloted plane offered to take us for a joyride. The conditions seemed perfect – no wind and perfect visibility – ground flat as a pancake and few buildings, so I thought it a golden opportunity of breaking the ice. Oh John Julius, how I hated it! I had to stay up an hour and twenty minutes and I was agonised with fear all the time, but of course couldn’t say so and the owner thought I was liking it and kept telling the pilot to go further and to circle round things. When you turn in a plane you tip right over and see the ground alongside you, and you feel you’re going about five miles an hour because nothing passes you in the way of hedges or traffic. So if it wasn’t alarming it would be boring and I shan’t go up again ever for fun. All the old ladies travel by air in this country and nobody thinks anything of it, but your mother is a shuddering funky old mouse and you must make the best of her.
Kansas City, Missouri
(‘The Heart of America’)
I got a delightful letter from you yesterday, still from Belvoir. How can you explain your letters being so horrible to start with, and so nice now? Was it, is it, the dreadful influence of school, do you suppose? We went to see Gone with the Wind at Oklahoma City, and when we got into the theatre all the audience stood up and ‘God Save the King’ was played. The Americans are all very pro-Ally, thank goodness, but they are also determined not to get into the war. Someone in the question period after the lecture always asks ‘Why didn’t England stop Germany sooner?’ and Papa answers ‘Because all our actions and all our policy was affected by wishing to keep out of the war. There is no policy more dangerous – every insult will be put upon you if the offender knows you will not fight, and in the end you are forced into it.’ That makes them think a bit. I wonder often if all our dear sailors of the Enchantress are safe. Hitler’s sharks are so hungry.
One more stop in Amarillo, Texas, and then the real West. San Francisco next. Papa has gone American, but not much hope I fear of his going cowboy. He’s been given a white Texan hat, but not what they call a ten-gallon Tom Mix one.13 Still, he wears it with a certain swagger.
February 7th. We’re in the desert now, in Arizona – distant spiky mountains and all the rest desert covered with a grey-blue-lavender sort of bush and tiny stunted palm plants; soon there will be cactuses like this:
February 8th. The cactuses have come and gone.
February 9th. We woke up, still in our train, to find the world changed from desert to garden. California is as green as England in May and laden with flowers and fruit – orange trees, mimosa, eucalyptus trees, grapefruit, vines. It’s a paradise of sun and sea and plenty – the Promised Land, milk and honey everywhere. I’ve seen it before but Papa hadn’t, so he is doing a Cortez. If you don’t know what that means get a book of well-known poems and look at a sonnet by Keats called ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’.
I’m in Hollywood you’ll be thrilled to hear and who should I sit next to the other night but your favourite Errol Flynn. He certainly is very good-looking but I’m sorry to tell you I took a violent dislike to him. First of all he was disgustingly anti-English, which being an Australian-Irishman he should not be, and secondly he’s got an awful lot of ‘side’, and kept on pointing out other men as giving themselves airs. Another night I sat beside Charlie Chaplin. He has dyed his grey hair black to look like Hitler in the new film14 he has just finished. They say that he has made dictators so ridiculous that we ought to show the picture on a screen opposite the German trenches and thereby stop the war.
Marlene Dietrich we often see – she wears a velvet trouser suit with Fauntleroy collar and cuffs. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh are here. She’s made the greatest success ever known in Gone with the Wind. My favourite is a young man called James Stuart. I saw him acting in the studios yesterday. All the time I wish I had you with me. It would amuse you so much to see the sets indoors and out. I saw for instance yesterday the inside of Waterloo Station and a trainload of Tommies steaming out of it. You turn a corner and there is Peking under snow and a London street next to Tarzan’s jungle. The quite big trees are on flat wooden trays so they can be transplanted on wheels. I lunched there in the studio restaurant among Austrian peasants, Nazis in uniform, Victorian young ladies, Napoleonic young men. Another thing that you’d love is films called ‘blow-outs’ of 1938 or 1939. These are all the pieces cut out of films because actors either forget their words, or drop something, or fall down. They always swear of course, and those are the bits you see. We are staying with Mr and Mrs Jack Warner in great luxury. He is the head of Warner Bros. We’ve been over the Metro-Goldwyn studios and tomorrow we go over Warner’s.
Back next month. Pray for us both – pray for Hitler’s sharks not to catch us.
‘No country for vile invaders’ feet’
LONDON, JULY 1940–SEPTEMBER 1940
Kiluna Farm, Manhasset,
Long Island, New York
My darling Mummy and Papa,
I do hope you are well, happy and free from bombs. I am having a lovely time here. As I got up at 5.30 a.m. on Saturday the 13th I was so excited, and at about 6.30 passed Brooklyn, Ellis Island, New Jersey and the Statue of Liberty. It was so lovely, but as we were queuing up to have our passports, etc., examined, lots of reporters came on board. We kept them off for about twenty minutes but they knew I was there, and they were so persevering, getting me over the heads of the crowd that at last we were forced to surrender to them.
When we got off, Kaetchen was there on the dock, waiting. We were in New York only two hours and then we went to the Paleys. Mr. Paley has arranged for a tennis pro, Mr. Farrell, to come and teach me. He says I am very good indeed and that I shortly will be playing marvellous tennis.
Lots and lots of love,
On their return to London my parents ‘camped out’, as my mother put it, for three months in my grandmother’s old house at No. 34 Chapel Street. I’m not sure what had happened to Gower Street and why they didn’t move back there – Admiralty House, after all, was never going to be more than temporary. I can only assume that they had decided to sell it and finally to settle in Chapel Street instead; with its huge library it certainly had far more space for my father’s books. After my Easter holidays – spent with my mother at our seaside house near Bognor Regis1 in Sussex – I returned to Westbury Manor. Soon after the summer term began, however, it became clear to a good many of us that the young schoolmaster who had just arrived to teach us English was in fact a German spy. We took turns to keep a watch on him, and it was one evening when two of us were shadowing him to what was clearly the hiding place of his short-wave transmitter that I suddenly felt hideously sick and threw up in the bushes. On my return to the house I was found to be running a high temperature, and on the following day measles was diagnosed. Of the next fortnight I remember scarcely anything – which is a pity, since it means that I have totally forgotten the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation. Then one Sunday, when I was on my feet again but still shaky, my mother appeared and took me out to lunch at a hotel in Buckingham.
From the moment we sat down I could see that she was worried; at one moment I thought she was going to cry. Then she told me that I was being sent to America, and that I should be leaving in three days. My reaction was far from what she had expected. She had thought I would burst into uncontrollable tears, fling my arms round her neck and say I wanted to stay with her for ever; but no – for me, America was simply the most exciting place in the world. It meant New York and skyscrapers, and cowboys and Indians, and grizzly bears and hot dogs, and Hollywood, where I should at last meet my hero Errol Flynn. I couldn’t wait to be off. The next afternoon I was put on the train to London, and two nights later Nanny and I left Chapel Street on the first stage of our adventure – far more frightening for her than it was for me – first by train to Holyhead and thence on the night ferry to Dublin.
There, early the following morning, we were met by someone from the American Embassy and taken to breakfast with the Ambassador, Mr David Gray, an old friend of my parents. We were then bundled into another car and driven straight across Ireland – with the occasional stop for me to be sick – to Galway, where the gigantic SS Washington awaited us, the largest Stars and Stripes I have ever seen painted all over its hull in order to leave German U-boats in no doubt of its neutrality. We landed a week later in New York, whence we were driven to the house of Mr and Mrs William S. Paley, who had very kindly agreed to take care of me for as long as was necessary. Bill Paley was President of the Columbia Broadcasting System; his house on Long Island was not uncomfortable.
My father, meanwhile, was having a distinctly rough passage of his own. His old friend Winston Churchill, who in May 1940 had succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, had appointed him to a new post which he had just invented, that of Minister of Information. The appointment was not a success. He alone had been responsible for arranging – in the teeth of violent Foreign Office opposition – for General de Gaulle to make his historic broadcast to the French nation after the fall of France; but the press, terrified of censorship and led by Lord Beaverbrook’s Daily Express, mounted a virulent campaign against him, and the news that he was sending his son to safety in America provided them with just the ammunition they wanted.
Left to himself, my father would never have considered the idea for a second; but my mother was adamant. Was it not true, she argued, that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of other English children were being similarly evacuated in American ships? All the signs were that London would, over the next few months, be bombed to smithereens; alternatively, Hitler might at any moment invade. Would my father – whose name was among the top half-dozen on the Nazi hit list – ever forgive himself if his only son were killed – or, perhaps worse, taken hostage to ensure his father’s good behaviour? And so he allowed himself to be persuaded – with my mother in her present mood he had very little choice. There were one or two indignant questions in Parliament; but the Government had a few rather more important matters to concern itself with, and the storm soon blew itself out.
Within a few days of my departure my parents locked up Chapel Street – this was no time to begin all the trouble and expense of setting up in a new house, particularly if it was shortly to be bombed to bits. Instead they hunkered down for the winter in two rooms on the eighth – and top – floor of the Dorchester Hotel. They got them cheap, since few people were prepared to live so close to the roof.
The large London hotels were very popular during the earlier stages of the war. Their very size spelt a sort of safety; private houses were a good deal more vulnerable, besides being impossible to heat. Domestic staff were hard to find – nearly all had been swept up in the war effort. Moreover, commuting in wartime was a nightmare: buses and taxis were scarce, while the tube stations were themselves used as air raid shelters; everyone tried to sleep as near as possible to their place of work. Inevitably, different people favoured different hotels; but Claridge’s and the Ritz were relatively old and fragile buildings, while the Dorchester on the outbreak of war was only eight years old and appeared to be made entirely of concrete.
Like all her friends, my mother spent her days doing war work. At one time she was on the top floor of the Army & Navy Stores making camouflage nets; at another she was involved – I can’t remember how – with the distribution of gas masks; on yet other occasions she worked in canteens, sometimes for the forces, sometimes in factories or hospitals or the YMCA. The great thing, she used to say, was to keep busy – which she certainly did.
July 5th, 1940
I’m going to try to write to you every day even if it’s only a scrap and even though it’s about things that won’t interest you a great deal. That way there will be a record of these hideous days and I shall feel I am in touch with you and you with me. You had rather a pale little face at the train window but I hoped that was excitement and not sadness. I went back to dinner with the parent Trees2 and talked about sinking and capturing the French Navy.3 Everyone is glad, even if some of them are horrified at the same time – horrified at firing on one’s allies the French. I did not feel horrified. It was vital that the Germans should not possess the strips to use against us and the French had broken every pledge in signing them away to their enemies. I woke sadly early this morning July 5, and thought about you hard. Phyllis4 looked in and Conrad on his way back to the farm to lift his last load of hay. Jones5 writes that they were nearly blown out of bed by five bombs falling on the beach. Soldiers are in possession of the long strip of grass along our sea front and are digging up the tamarisk hedge, for what purpose I forget, trenches or guns or a loo or what-not.
July 6th. I went to [censored, but I knew it was Rottingdean] this morning to see poor Maurice.6 He is half the size he used to be. A bright blue budgerigar sits on his shoulder always chattering into his ear, pecking his cheek and making little messes. He claims Dempsey (that’s his name) talks. I doubt it. I wasn’t allowed to drive along the front where the camouflaged six-inch guns are. Now we’re establishing ourselves in the Dorchester high up, for England, on the eighth floor. We can see all London beyond the green sea of Hyde Park.
When the parachutists land in their thousands they will probably be wearing battle dress indistinguishable from our own soldiers. The confusion ensuing is what they rely on to gain an advantage, so I was thinking all day in the train what one could do to mark our own men. If they had armlets the Huns could take them off the dead or wounded ones and wear them themselves. The same would apply to any badge or flag. I suddenly thought of warpaint. Paint all our boys’ faces blue one day, scarlet the next, tiger stripes another day, or snow white. I don’t see how the enemy could catch up on that, so if you hear of it being done you will know that it was Mummy’s idea.7
July 7th. It’s rather lovely living at the Dorchester. Here I feel as free of possessions as a bird – just the clothes I am wearing, the book I am reading, the letter that has to be answered and a few preparations for sudden descent into the shelter. Wadey8 suggested that I should wear a particularly comic robe that I bought in America, and when I said ‘Oh no, I’d look too funny’ she said ‘I didn’t think you minded that.’
Conrad has had bombs ¾ of a mile from Mells. He’s stuck posts and wire all over his big field to stop aeroplanes landing – his own idea and at his own expense. I can’t understand why every soul in the country isn’t hammering or digging or drilling against the invasion. The Army and Navy and Air Force are hard at it but the ordinary countrymen and women don’t seem to do much. The tables are laden with food, taxis buzz about. Last war we never could get anything like petrol or meat or butter. We expect the greatest struggle ever known and possible catastrophe. We imagine it in every detail and in every horror, and yet we all seem as cool as cucumbers.
July 8th, 1940
Well my darling, I’ve just heard that you did not leave till Sunday afternoon.9 What a late date. I wonder if you stayed on in Dublin or waited on the ship. In the old days when the world was like home, we should have been able to wireless to each other every day, now the sea is silent for all but wrecks and disasters. I have remembered too that I never warned you about the press reporters, who will have swarmed on to the ship on your arrival in New York. I meant to tell you to avoid them if possible, and if brought face to face with them to say the minimum with the maximum civility. However, it’s too late now, though I cabled to Kaetchen to do his best. Reporters are nice boys if well treated, but I am fearful that English children arriving in the U.S. will be written up as indications that we expect to lose the war.
July 10th. This evening I dined with your old friend Mason10 who had got a famous writer called Somerset Maugham who had just landed from the south of France off a coaling ship with no water, no food, no loo, no nothings. He broadcast his ordeals but I didn’t hear it unfortunately. Papa tells me nothing. It’s been a grievance for twenty years. Today Venetia11 said ‘I love the letters I get from Duff. I always feel they are addressed to me personally, though of course “Dear Madam” gives it away.’ Only then did I learn that he sends a fortnightly letter to all people who by their position or profession see a great many other people, i.e. doctors, schoolmasters, clergymen, etc. I enclose one of them.
July 11th. A day of rage. All morning it was Mumble at Rottingdean, no lunch, debris-righting at Chapel Street. Exhausted and hungry I bought myself a strawberry ice cream at Gunters, also a strawberry tart in a paper frill, and took them to the house of Jimmy Sheean12 so that I might eat them in company there. I found a German. Now a lot of yesterday I had been wrestling with the police and the Prisoners of War department under which internees come, in a great struggle to get some unfortunates liberated. My heart was torn by the poor alien anti-Nazi women whose husbands have been interned, and who are as demented as I should be if Papa were taken and I left, not knowing sometimes where they are or if they will ever connect up with them again. However, after half an hour’s talk with the German so-called anti-Nazi man, I found myself wanting to intern him and all his kind for ever. He felt so violently against us for daring to intern him or any anti-Nazi and could not see that even though the innocent suffer temporarily we cannot risk a lot of the fifth column spies and Nazi propagandists sent as refugees to this country being at large, weaving insults to tangle us.
I left the house furious and when I got back to Dodgems13 what did I find but all the air gone from my tyres. I bawled for the policeman who I saw walking away rather fast. He came back sheepishly and I asked him what had caused him to be such a brute. ‘You should lock your doors,’ he replied. ‘If you will look at my doors you will see they have no locks. It’s a 1909 model,’ I said with pardonable exaggeration. ‘Try and start it,’ I said, ‘here is the ignition key, get in and try and start it.’ I had been to all the pains of taking out the distributor, which means plunging oneself into the engine and covering one’s clean summer dress with oleaginous muck.14 He apologised and looked guilty and ashamed, but that didn’t help me. I had to telephone a garage and get a man with a pump and there was no vengeance that I could take upon the policeman.
July 12th. A further rage day. I wake up to find my letter to you written a week ago returned to me by the Censorship Office, because I had denied a rumour which is what we are told to do. The rumour and its denial are also in the paper. The censorship comes under the M. of Information so I am the boss’s wife and wrote my name outside the envelope. I shan’t do that again because I suppose they think they will not be considered thorough if they let my letters pass. Again furious and with no redress. The letter will have missed the boat and you will think I have neglected you. I hope you will guess what the words are in the heavy blackouts. I went to lunch with Winston. There, instead of it being four or five of us which is what I’m used to and which is like a holiday on a mountain for me, I found a large spread, with a lot of people I don’t like at all, but the P.M. was his brave confident self and said that production was splendid and with America’s help – and it was coming over in mass – we won’t be beaten and we’ll save the world yet.
I still continue to get letters from you and Nanny from different parts of Ireland. Thank her very very much – her letters tell me just what I want to hear and are very sweet too. I think about you and wonder, wonder all the time.
July 14th. Quatorze juillet. On this day 150ish years ago the tyrannous Bastille fell and the Frogs thought they had won freedom for ever. Freedom takes a lot of maintenance. Yesterday I went to Ditchley and was greeted with the news of your arrival. Ronnie Tree had had a telegram from Jeremy. It was a real joy to hear of you in America and to picture Kaetchen on the dock, where I have so often seen his good dear face after long peering from the deck at the masses. Coalbox15 was there and Noël Coward and your great-aunt Norah Lindsay, and a beautiful American called David Bruce, and Bobbety and Betty Cranborne. The country, which one goes to for a rest, is so much noisier than London. The planes are deafening and always it may be an enemy one. No one quakes. It’s strange. One used to be told that the people in the Spanish Civil War got completely callous to the danger and I can believe it now.
The censorship had no more right to open my first letter to you than the policeman had to deflate my tyres. They have grovelled and in future I shall use the word parachutist when and how the fancy takes me. This morning I read with pride the enclosed cutting. You did very well, better than I would have no doubt.16
July 15th. Nothing happened today to amuse you or me. It rained in torrents and I got soaked to the skin in Dodgems because (a) it is not watertight and (b) I had to spend so long under the waterspout taking its appendix out. All the American journalists went to meet the Queen today.17 Jimmy Sheean did a big personal reconstruction and Mr. Stoneman – whom I call ‘Lava’ because he said all Europe will shortly be lava – bought a new shirt and had a shave and a shine. They fell for the plump little siren as all men do, and I hope after all their efforts they impressed her.
July 16th. Jones writes from Bognor that the military – the licentious soldiery – are making havoc at home. They broke into the house too, but Jones thinks took nothing. They steal cushions and mattresses chiefly and then books. I so sympathise with both these needs that I can’t resent their intrusions. I got a telegram from Raimund18 and one from Henri Bernstein and one from Dorothy Paley all saying they had seen you and that you were well and happy.
July 20th, 1940
The blow19 hasn’t fallen yet – it’s always to be next Tuesday or next weekend. Still, however, it is calm in London town and people go about their work and play with strong bright faces, and the inhabitants of the little houses that are blown to fine powder drink a glass of ale on the ruins. I saw this on the newsreel. I hope it’s seen over there. It’s an answer to those who say ‘You don’t realise.’ One realises all right if one’s house falls on top of one but one still smiles apparently, so why not smile before it falls? Great excitement as I write, the telephone rings and it is St. George’s Hospital telling me to come and give my blood. I’m thrilled and only hope I shan’t go green in the face and sweat with cold fear when the moment arrives.
July 21st, 1940
After lunch a lot of us went to Warner’s Theatre to see The Sea Hawk, with your admired Errol Flynn acting a privateer’s part. I expect you will have seen it. If not do, it’s rather your affair. Papa is having a rough passage in the press. They got it into their hysterical heads that he wanted to put a stricter censorship upon them. He never did, but they went off the deep end and attacked him on everything – on the Silent Column,20 and on you going to the U.S. Now that it is all settled and they know that they are not going to be muzzled and never were, they will think that their abuse and baiting have gained their point. It’s a hard life, politics, and one must have all the things in ‘If’.21 Papa has most of them and is unaffected by bludgeonings but your poor Mummy has none of them and is not unaffected.
I’ve just come back from the hospital minus a pint of my rich blue blood. I was shown into a fine empty ward and led to a bed surrounded by screens. Now being an old hospital bird, I know that screens are put round beds only for the gravest cases and death. So that gave me a bit of a gasp but having just had a nip of brandy I was feeling in good heart and in good tongue. A young doctor came and pinched my forearm, and another one a bit older said ‘How are her veins – nice and big?’ ‘No, I’m afraid they’re very small’ said the younger doctor. Now funnily enough I was glad they were small, in spite of the fact that being small they would less willingly release their blood. It sounded more charming, more graceful, more delicate, finer workmanship. Next they gave me an injection with a fine needle that doesn’t hurt of novocaine which numbs the spot. Then into my frail flesh was jabbed a needle the size of a skewer which turned into a rubber tube that ran into a pint bottle.
They wiggled about for a long time to get it into the vein. Once it was in I had to open and shut my hand (gi-me gi-me gi-me) to expedite the precious flow. When the bottle was full it was corked up and sent to an ice box where it is good for three weeks. If we have a lot of raid casualties then they will have a good supply ready. Meanwhile they use what will not last on ordinary hospital cases who would before now have had salt and water dripped into their veins. Blood is much better for people who are desperately weak, collapsing or dying. They then bound my arm up, made me drink tea which I hate, so as to get the amount of liquid I had lost back into my system, and forced me to stay resting on the bed. At last the ordeal was over for good but their last words were ‘We shan’t need you for another three months.’
July 22nd. A letter this morning from Nanny. I was so delighted to get it. The ship sounds great fun – games – boys – no sickness – but no word yet of how you were impressed by New York. Also this morning the Mirror has a picture of you sitting on your pathetic bottom on your pathetic trunk – I nearly howled. You looked like all the refugees of the world rolled into one wistful little victim of the Nazis’ Follow-my-Leader.
July 24th. Went to Brighton to see the paralysed Major.22 Found him in high spirits. Owing to being in acute pain, he said. His blue budgerigar was pecking hairs out of his ears and talking to him incessantly. The visit passed in a flash. We both felt so gay, sipping sherry and nibbling chocolates and arguing about the Pope. Last night at about 1 a.m., when Papa was asleep and I was reading, a gentlemanly voice on the telephone said ‘I’m speaking from Hoxton’ (Hoxton is a sadly poor quarter of Greater London) ‘and a great many parents in Hoxton would like to come and see you because they resent your having sent your son to America.’ I was nice to him but cross in myself partly at the time of day he’d chosen to telephone and partly at the general injustice. I said I’d be delighted to see the parents and what day would he come. He chose a day and let me choose the hour ‘between 8.30 and 9 a.m.’ I said sharply. I thought he’d gasp a bit and sure enough he did. He wanted to think I wasn’t called till noon and didn’t of course know of the hard school of frozen legs greeting my waking moments at 7.30. He agreed reluctantly to the hour and I insisted that he should ring me an hour before the date, because in my heart I did not believe the thing. No one serious rings up at that hour.
July 25th. Another voice bawls into my ear at seven this evening that it is speaking from Deptford and that the parents in Deptford would like to come and have a look at me too. He knew about the man from Hoxton, so I said ‘Do you know I was afraid he could not have been quite sober, ringing me up at that hour?’ ‘Not sober!’ yelled the voice. ‘Mr Wingfield is a teetotaller. He thought you were at the theatre.’ Why not call before the theatre (which I was not at) or next morning? I said he could bring his parents. Both men suggested bringing fifty strong. I said I didn’t see how a hundred adults were going to get into my small room but they could try, and there was always the passage to surge into. I don’t know what I shall say to them and I’m really shaking in my shoes, as I stutter and stammer and gobble and gulp if I have to speak to more than two people at once.
The canteen23 has folded up on me so now instead of having a happy afternoon tearing and bustling around giving and taking orders, the morning’s telephoning goes on all day except when I go and argue unsuccessfully with the Home Office or the War Office or Scotland Yard. I try cajolery and blackmail and braggadocio and bootlicking and I’m only very seldom successful in increasing efforts to have men put in prison or taken out or children sent to New Zealand or Canada. Papa is attacked daily with great malice by my oldest demon-friend Lord Beaverbrook. He announced to a dinner party of his own adherent yes-men and to two outsiders who blabbed that he was not going to stop until he got Papa and the Minister for Air – Archie Sinclair – out of office. Papa weathers it well but it makes me sick and ill and sleepless all night and yawny all day.
Today I got a cable from Kaetchen about your going to school at Aikin.24 I hope you will think I was right to say you had better stick to Canada. After all it’s your own country, which in peacetime I wouldn’t think an important factor, but in wartime an Englishman had better, I think, be in a country that is at war with his enemy, don’t you. In Canada you will become a great skater and perhaps a second Grey Owl.25 The U.S. will take you back for holidays. I should like it above all things, that way you’ll learn about both countries. I don’t like to look too far ahead because I want you back so dreadfully and so I don’t want to envisage terms and holidays and more terms, all divided from me by a waste of seas.
I’ll post this now and tell you if the hundred mothers engulf me or if they are just a hoax. Get hold of a typewriter when you can because you write with much great abandon on the machine, unlike everyone else.
July 27th, 1940
Darling Monster, the deputation of Hoxton and Deptford mothers never came. I fussed a good deal from 7.30 on but by ten I felt safe from the visitation. It’s been a good day. When Papa came in he brought a letter from an unknown colonel who said ‘Your wife has been the victim of a hoax. The secretary of the man who rang up and purported to be from Hoxton is a swine of a nouveau riche.’26 Now I am dying for the hoaxer to ring up again, and I am going to say ‘I am rather upset about what happened. I feel I ought to warn you of the danger you are in. What at first I took to be a joke, as you must have realised when I said I thought the Hoxton man was drunk, has now become through my talking and laughing about it a rather serious matter and quite out of my control. All Mr. Cooper’s telephones are naturally tapped by Scotland Yard, and I have every reason to believe that they have traced you.’ The other good news of the day was that the Queen has settled to adopt the Queen’s Messenger idea which I sent her (not alas my own). It seems that special women with their headquarters in Buckingham Palace and armlets round their arm arrive at the home of anyone whose child has been killed or wounded by air raids and bring comfort, help, sympathy and a roll on which to inscribe the child’s name, and some token from the Queen – like soldiers get medals.
There is a famous American called Wild Bill Donovan, who was a colonel in the last war commanding the 59th Division. (They made a film about him which you may see.) He was awfully good to Papa in N.Y. last time and gave him two or three dinners of representative men – lawyers, journalists, financiers, politicians, heads of enterprises, writers, everything. Now he has arrived in London practically straight from the President’s arms, to see and report on how things are shaping over here. I asked him to dinner tomorrow and got Winston to come and meet him. The only fly in the day’s ointment was when Wild Bill rang me up and said he simply could not get out of dinner with Joe Kennedy the Ambassador. I’ve heard since that Joe is in such a rage over his coming to England that he threatened to resign. ‘If-he-can’t-report-to-the-President-then-he’d-better-go-and-Bill-can-do-it-himself’ line. So I’ve got Winston up from the country under false pretences, but he’ll be just as happy and less strained.
July 28th. Dinner was a great success. Rex27 and Caroline28 came too, Rex with a tough military moustache. He says that there are not so many hairs, but each one is thick as a hedge, so they make a brave show. He was dreadfully funny about his agonies as an inexperienced subaltern of the Guards. He was told suddenly to form his men up and march them to church. Every order he shouted produced greater chaos, soldiers scuttling in opposite directions forming sixes and sevens instead of fours, or is it threes now? At last he found himself isolated in the middle of the parade ground. One day’s more experience would have taught him when in doubt to say ‘Carry on, Sergeant-Major.’ Standing in a row to be inspected, he realised he’d forgotten his collar. The colonel inspecting felt it so apoplectically that he was robbed of speech, which didn’t return to him till he came to the next officer, who got the whole blast of blimp rage for having a loose shoelace. Poor Rex – he’s not suited to the life. He can’t paint, so he has no money at all because the little pay accorded to him by a country at war has to keep the wolf from his mother’s door. This is a sad bore at the bar, and Rex likes a bar as much as you do and drinks of a strengthening nature a good deal more than you do, and now the tired youth has to pretend to like a glass of rain best.
I just turned on the radio and by ill luck got the news in Welsh. It was so funny, like this: ‘Llanfair Duffcooper pwelliwin gegerereth duffcooper sinscreillio gogooth Duffcooper.’ Torture, too, not knowing what they were saying about poor Papa. Poor Papa indeed, the papers get worse every day. He made a very very good speech in the House. I went to listen and he counter-attacked the press, which is bound to have the result of more mud in Papa’s eye, but things will be better after this outburst, I am sure. Perhaps invasion will put it right.
Today England was white with German leaflets. Everyone delighted, because we love to see any inefficiency on the part of the Germans, and to think that they should go to the expense and danger of sending us only what we ourselves have published causes great rejoicing. Martin looked in this morning, all the better for having been torpedoed – at least he looked it. He is a captain now, so is Mr. Wu.29 Charles, too, an exquisite grenadier,30 often comes to see me. I thought it was love at first, but I’m not sure that it isn’t for my petrol coupons that he comes. Dodgems is so abstemious that I don’t use half my ration. Miss Marler is married to Mr. Wakefield, an engineer. She is Daphne to me now. Her husband has to open dud German bombs that drop about very often. The last one he opened was stuffed not as you might have thought with explosive matter, but with old Berlin newspaper. So someone in Germany disapproves of the policy of his country. I wonder how it seems to you, looking at us from the outside – very different from the inside view? I expect so.
Tell America we’ll hold on all right with our arms and teeth and nails, but tell her too to hurry up. Always my grateful love to Dorothy, Bill and Kaetchen. Write often. Don’t forget it’s a hard world – in America one is apt to, especially staying with the Paleys. Your report has come. I’ll copy it out for you next time. This term doesn’t really count. Because the term was measle-term, but not keeping your mind on things seems your greatest crime. Tell Kaetchen to teach you concentration. He’s failed with me but you are younger.
August 4th, 1940
Your godfather Lord Beaverbrook was yesterday made a member of the War Cabinet. From the hour of his promotion he changed his tune about Papa. Orders from his boss, no doubt, to cease bludgeoning a colleague. The sheepish press will take his lead, and so the assault I hope is over. Today in the Sunday Pictorial is a Duff Cooper ballot – a coupon to be cut out and sent back to the editor. There is a picture of Papa as a debauched criminal and the coupon says ‘He gets £5000 a year for being Minister of Information. Do you think he should hold the office? Yes or no.’ Now only cross people who hate you or are indignant fetch a pair of scissors, cut it out and buy a stamp and send it off, and those women who are in love with you, but they are very few. The large majority who are quite satisfied with you and think the press is making a fool of itself always and anyway just dismiss the idea and of course don’t look for the scissors. So today I started buying Sunday Pictorials at the street corner – never more than four or six could I get. Suddenly at St. Pancras Station I found 240, so I shamelessly bought the lot and shall send them scissored and enveloped to friends to send in. It probably won’t make any difference because by next Sunday Hitler may be here, or interest may be quite dead, or anyway they probably don’t play fair. For all that I enjoyed collecting them on a Sunday. It was like digging for gold – so many disappointments and then striking a seam.
August 5th. A lovely long letter from the Cat31 this morning and one from George Moore* enclosing a photograph of you and him and Kaetchen on the top of the Empire State. You look very happy and indeed the letters tell me how good and nice you are. It all sounds like a fairy story for you, and I am as jealous as a prisoner. Today is a Bank Holiday and I never realised it. Business as usual, the shops open and hundreds of gentle-ish-men with their coats off digging in that patch of earth opposite St. George’s Hospital. The Battle of the Press versus Ministry of Information is completely over. Olive branches are waving everywhere. Papa has won, but he must see that this does not happen again. We always knew the Ministry was a hideous shapeless chaotic mess and a lot of people are being sacked and one can only hope the new ones won’t be worse.
I lunched with the Cranbornes and dined with three American journalists – Sheean, Helen Kirkpatrick and Mr. Robertson representing P.M.32 here. We went to the Players Club and to the Savoy and to a flat, jabbering and drinking till the small hours. Papa meanwhile was jabbering and drinking with sixteen English pressmen, chiefly editors who had been abusing and insulting him, guying him and spitting ink in his face for the last ten days. This ‘get-together’ meal was arranged in the height of the fight by Frank Owen (Evening Standard editor). They all told Papa what a good chap he was and that they approved wholeheartedly of the snoopers33 and that all newspapers used the method. All of which makes me think most journalists exceedingly low.
August 6th. More squaring of the press today. A dinner party in our sky [eighth floor] sitting room for Lord and Lady Camrose, owner of the Daily Telegraph, Lord Ashfield too and Shakespeare Morrison (Postmaster General). Eight of us, and I ordered grouse – half each at fantastic expense as it’s the first day of shooting,34 and then Papa brought Crinks Johnson (Department of Trade) in as a ninth and with a mouth drooling like a retriever dog’s I had to say ‘No’ to mine. ‘O no, thank you, as a matter of fact’ swallowing the mouth-water with squelchy noise, ‘I never liked grouse.’ Papa told us of a man, an English aviator he had seen, who had been obliged to bale out and as he got near the ground he could see only guns and shotguns pointing out of every hedge. Tortured by fear he guided his parachute, in the limited way one can, to the bang centre of a cornfield hoping that would give him a little time, but no, on landing there was an old farmer a few yards away drawing a relentless bead upon him and a soldier following up. He had a horrible feeling that something was behind him and flashing an eye round saw a burly man with a large iron railing in his hands, just about to crown him with it. He managed to convince them he was a friend and not a foe, but the farmer was so disappointed he kept his gun aimed at the unfortunate, and went on saying ‘I’d like to shoot your bloody head off!’ I dread to think what would have happened to a Polish flier in our service with at best a few words of German and a flood of Polish. ‘Dead for a ducat’, as Shakespeare would say.
August 8th. All the people I love and respect are longing for the invader to come. Your poor Mother was never as brave as that. I would rather victory was achieved by famine and revolt in Europe than by hideous hordes in England. The people sing and hammer and swear that here at last the enemy will meet with a new and devastating experience – defeat. Good, but still the war goes on, and they write their loss off and call it a preliminary skirmish. That august man I went yachting with in ’3635 says he thinks every soul in England is mad not to see that we are doomed. Well, maybe.
August 10th, Sunday. I went yesterday to consult Mrs. Massey (wife of Vincent Massey, the High Commissioner for Canada in this country, brother of Raymond Massey the actor) about your new life in Canada. Upper Canada College, Toronto, is your destination, poor puppet. I think though that it sounds good and that you will be happy there. Milo36 and probably many other English boys will be there, and everything they told me sounded right for you, but of course it’s only hearsay, so you must promise to tell me exactly how you feel about it when you get there. I know that you are good and naturally happy and brave and good at making the best of bad jobs, so I shall believe and approve your judgment and move you only if after a real effort to adapt yourself you are unhappy.
I fear my letters are very dull and uneventful. Coming from the war, they should read much more blood and thundery, but it’s only outside this inner fortress of London that the air is disturbed. We live on ‘report’ and thank God we believe it. Daily the battle intensifies. ‘Is this really [the invasion]?’ is the commonest question. One dares not hope that it is. Tonight Papa and I go to Woodford, a town in Winston’s constituency, for a large meeting. It is in Essex, though not quite in the front line. Still it’s a likely place for a dive-bomber. He’d catch a few thousand people closely packed, plus that old warmonger your father. The best answer to be given to Papa’s attackers (and remember it in case of need) is – those that Hitler hates most are Churchill, Duff Cooper and Eden. Judge from this fact how far they should be trusted.
Monday August 12th. We should be shooting grouse over bonnie purple heather today instead of stewing in offices, but the poor birds paid their debt to nature and sport a week ago. It shows when such traditions break that there’s a war on. They didn’t bomb us last night at Woodford. It was a terrific to-do – the band and the Mayor in scarlet and his aldermen and his mace, and the Home Guard, and the V.A.D.s and A.R.P.s,37 all in procession, and crowds in thousands. The speech relayed to crowds outside the hall and everyone cried and cheered and yelled ‘Good old Duff.’ We drove home in brilliant moonlight through the suburbs to the heart of this strange city. It doesn’t seem strange any more – as normal it is to me as the lights and Rollses and the displays in shops seem to you in N.Y. I lunched with Rex Benson38 and Lesley. He had been around inspecting foreign troops and he told me (what was news) that we have part of the real Foreign Legion in this country – wonderful troops, he said, as highly disciplined as the Guards and of every nationality – many Germans among them. The Poles are next best, Belgians worst, Dutch medium. I went next to Olympia where I was told help was urgent. The Free French are billeted here – the free and the keen-fighters. The ‘free anti-fighters’ are at the White City, huddled and bored and frightened. I found nothing to do except to sew tricolors on to the shoulders of new arrivals, speak French to them in my inimitable way, sell them toothpaste and bootlaces, and promise to procure two girl-friends for two particularly nice very young Frogs. I shan’t go again, not enough doing.
There are two schools of thought in England about the invader’s reception – shall every man and woman shoot to kill and poison and trap and snipe and stab in sleep every Hun they come across, or shall only the Army and the Home Guard deal death? I’m for the former method of ending the war, though whether my courage would stand up till the end I can’t think. I think the majority think my way. Another poor airman falling in a home ditch found an old woman with a scythe bearing down on him – Dame Death no less.
August 15th. Lunched with Oggie,39 where I saw Cecil Beaton just down from a north-eastern town where he’d been photographing. He was sent there as being one of the towns most harassed. He was surprised to find how little damage there was – only two-storey houses that crumple and crumble into such fine debris that wonderfully few people are hurt even if they fall upon them. No military objectives, no big buildings. He’d been too to see the patients in hospital and moved me to tears by telling of their fortitude and cheerfulness. One poor woman had had her daughter killed and was rather badly hurt herself. She started to talk of it to Cecil, and the nurse said ‘No, Mrs Brown, you know you mustn’t think about it.’ ‘No, I know I mustn’t,’ she said and changed the subject. Everyone is self-disciplined and even sorrow is checked.
I took Bloggs40 and the farmer41 and Katherine Asquith to Thunder Rock.42 It’s the fourth time I have seen it. Tell Kaetchen – he will laugh at me as I have so often laughed at him for the same idiocy. That was yesterday. This evening was quite another picnic. At 7.30 the farmer and I were sitting in my room talking about a course of guerrilla warfare he is to take next week at [censored]. (Too funny thinking of Conrad on all fours in a ditch or dropping sugar into petrol tanks when not observed) when he said ‘There goes the raid warning.’ Some people, though sharp-eared, can’t hear a bat – it is out of their ear’s register. I have that peculiarity when it comes to air raid warnings. I took his word for it and down we went to the lounge. I fetched out the dispatch case with the diamond dolphins and trembling diamond spray and other precious stones and essential papers and passports, £200, powder, rouge, brows and lashes, a comb – but forgot book, knitting, gas mask and tin hat. It didn’t matter because it only lasted a quarter of an hour, but I was ashamed of my lack of method. The lounge was full of quite gay43 people ordering tea and cigarettes. A few streetsters came in and many freaks came out of their rooms for the first time. Even the elevator boys said they had never taken them up. I suppose some went to the shelter below but I think very few. Wadey was in her element, all smiles, and went up first to the roof before taking to the cellars. When we all got back to our eighth floor Wadey pointed out an enormous column of black smoke about ten miles away. I don’t know yet what it was.
This raid happened on a day when I could almost have welcomed a bomb to destroy me utterly, because at five minutes to midnight I had said, to please Desmond MacCarthy44, that I would broadcast in a programme called And So To Bed in which people read and comment upon a favourite verse or piece of prose. I settled that I would give them the Battle Hymn of the Republic. It pleased my own American complex of love. I thought twenty lines and the five verses would last five minutes all right. Papa wouldn’t or couldn’t help me so I sweated in blood to put the twenty lines together. When at last I thought it could go at that, I found that reading slowly it took just two minutes. I tore off to the shutting London Library and got a life of the authoress and against time dug out of the two fat volumes two episodes that I hoped would pass muster. At 11.45 I was at the B.B.C. with my pathetic script rustling in my moist hands. No sooner had I got to my studio on the third floor than there was what is called a ‘purple light’ – almost the red which means ‘take cover’ – so down we went to the basement studios. I swear to you that I was longing for the purple to turn red, in the belief that such trivial talks as mine would give way before Government directions. The light didn’t change, so I was for it. I can’t tell you how it went – I think not badly, anyway I made no boggle or splutter, and my tongue though too big for my mouth did not twist.
Papa listening at home said it was all right, but Wadey asked me what programme I’d been on. I told her and she said she’d listened to the news at 12 but she hadn’t heard me. I said she must have. She said no. She’d heard a woman talking about the war but it wasn’t me. I let it go, but of course it was me but I suppose the old rasp was quite unrecognisable – all to the good.
August 16th. The column of smoke was, they say, a scent factory – somebody’s Lavender Water. Good, I say, but not so good if one thinks that some of the sensational conflagrations our airmen see as a result of a successful bomb on German soil may be eau de cologne only. I went to see a man at the Ministry about getting some rooms in the actual building for me and Duff to live in when he said ‘I’m afraid that’s the warning.’ I began to be frightened for my hearing – again I was aware of nothing. The whole million souls who occupy the M. of I. all trooped down to the basement, where the big boys conduct business as usual. One dreads, curiously enough, once reasonably safe, not bombs but boredom, and the fear that it may last four or five hours. There were tin-hatted decontaminators, Red Cross nurses, fire-fighters, all grades of A.R.P. Papa was sitting in a soundproof room with his big shots around him and fifty telephones and maps and signals and lamps and gadgets. He might have been conducting a war from G.H.Q.
I got some friends to talk to and was jabbering away when a male voice shouted ‘Quiet please.’ Silence followed, and then ‘All firemen upstairs.’ Of course I thought the bomb had hit us. Next order after the jabbering was again quieted was ‘This passage to be kept clear for Red Cross ambulances.’ Corpses next, I thought, but it was the All Clear next, thank God, and so far no news of anything dropped.
The M. of I. has put out a new short film to encourage the sale of War Savings Certificates and you will be glad to hear that the cast consists of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom and young Albert.45 Albert sells everything he’s got including his beloved stick with the ’orse’s ’ead ’andle to buy savings certificates, and then he gets so bitten with the idea that he sells his father’s ‘smoking set’ and the stuffed birds from the parlour. Stanley Holloway says the words and you never see Albert’s face actually; only the back of him is shown and very unlovable he looks.
7.30 same day. Just had our second raid warning today. It’s most tedious but I’ll get used to it. This time I happened to be in Chapel Street so I dropped into No. 3446 and joined Daisy and Claud Russell and three foreigners – nationalities indistinct – in our passage shelter. Daisy has filled it with green linen mattresses. It looked like a little Arabian room and we sat cross-legged and smoked and ate chocolates. We were there about an hour and it was wearisome in the extreme. Londoners will get used to it like the people in Dover have, and when they do life will just go on as though nothing were happening, but the orders of taking cover have been so drummed into us law-abiders that we suffer the ghastly waste of time and acute boredom to boot.
August 17th. I went to see poor shrivelling shrinking shaking Mumble at Rottingdean today. I took my tin hat along. The high white cliffs are bristling with guns. I can’t see how even the Huns are to scale that height of chalk. I fully expected some excitement but got none and saw nothing. I found myself unwilling to hang about the stations, so made a bolt in and out of trains. The thought of the glass roof falling on one is so unpleasant.
No fighting today. I think it’s a shade ominous, but the general spirit here is one of victory and Londoners seem pleased to have received their baptism of bombs. The provincials and bumpkins can’t jeer at us for being scrimshankers in cotton wool any more. Papa broadcast this evening. I couldn’t hear it because I had a dinner party downstairs here, thirty-two-strong, for overseas officers. I took my little receiving set to hold to my ear, but Ursula47 put it out of action by dropping it within five seconds of my asking her to hold it. The overseas high-grade officers had a great time. I got lovely women and famous men to meet them and we are to do it twice a week and have different hosts and hostess at each, but it’s quite exhausting.
I read this letter to Papa and he says you won’t understand one word of it. He got me so discouraged that I thought I’d tear the damned thing up, but I don’t think it’s so obscure and Kaetchen can help deciphering and explaining.
August 18th. Two air raid warnings today, but we rose above them and sat lunching in the Chapel Street garden for the first one and did not leave our roof sitting room for the second. There’s a completely demolished house with only its garden gate intact. The owner had stuck a collection box on it with a sign saying Fund for Spitfires.
August 20th, 1940
I enclose my broadcast, not that I’m in any way proud of it but that I like you to know as much as possible what I am doing so that we may not lose touch with one another. It’s so easy with a waste of seas between us. Space makes faces and memories dim as well as time. Please to remember this and not forget me when you are in Canada and if you were as Scotch as your grandmother you could say this poem. The author is unknown and it’s lovely, I think, and bad Beaverbrook’s favourite:
From the low sheiling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and a waste of seas
Table of Contents
1 'Pray for Hitler's sharks not to catch us' USA, October 1939-February 1940 13
2 'No country for vile invaders' feet' London, July 1940-September 1940 31
3 'Only one thing matters - not to be overcome' London September 1940-June 1941 67
4 'A happy Easter, dear egg' Bognor, February-July 1941 111
5 'Papa is a wreck' Singapore and the Far East, August 1941-May 1942 133
6 'Locusts, thick as lightly fallen snow' Algiers, January-August 1944 161
7 "The giraffe shall lie down with the duck' The Paris Embassy September 1944-April 1947 183
8 "I feel as though I were getting married' London-Paris-Chantilly, December 1947-February 1948 225
9 'I must get up without coffee, that's all' Settling in, February-August 1948 261
10 'I told him to imagine I was Winston Churchill' On the Move, August 1948-April 1949 291
11 'You really are a pig-child' France, Morocco, Spain, November 1948-April 1949 329
12 'I saw some cripples this morning, which makes me think I'm in the right place' Chantilly-Parts-London, April-July 1949 373
13 'I wonder if Dolly's up to her tricks again' France, October 1949-Februafiy 1950 401
14 'Like the unsettled colour of newborn things' September 1950-June 1952 423
Directory of Names 467
What People are Saying About This
“Intriguing . . . engaging . . . Cooper is always quick with a turn of phrase, and the collection reminds us of a time, not so long ago, when letters were a natural part of life. “ —Publishers Weekly
“Gorgeous, smart, witty, and observant . . . A personal, detailed view of a hugely changing, frightening, yet always interesting era . . . Many readers will thrill to details of lunch with the king and queen of England, encounters and adventures with dukes and duchesses.” —Booklist
“Gossipy and biting . . . Diana Cooper was not always serious, but she knew that she lived in serious times. This grave knowledge is what allows these letters to be so much fun.” —The Wall Street Journal