“Oh, the horror of love!” Nancy Mitford once exclaimed to her sister Diana Mosley.
Elegant and intelligent, Nancy was a reknowned wit and a popular author. Yet this bright, waspish woman gave her heart to a well-known philanderer who went on to marry another woman. Was Nancy that unremarkable thing—a deluded lover—or was she a remarkable woman engaged in a sophisticated love affair? Gaston Palewski was a Free French commander and one of the most influential politicians in post-war Europe. She supported him throughout his tumultuous career and he inspired some of her best work, including The Pursuit of Love.
Lisa Hilton’s provocative and emotionally challenging book reveals how, with discipline, gentleness, and a great deal of elegance, Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski achieved an affair of the heart.
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The Horror Of Love
By Lisa Hilton
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2011 Lisa Hilton
All rights reserved.
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All his life, Gaston Palewski's father, Moise, sought to recreate the elements of a family which, in his own words, had been 'brutally dispersed'. The Palewskis were Polish Jews: on the paternal side they had their origins in Vilno, in Russian Poland, on the maternal they came from Galicie in southern Russia, near the Romanian border. The family were linked by trade and marital alliances to a large Jewish community in the Grodno area, with many relatives in the small cities of Antopol, Pinsk and Kobryn. Educated members of the lesser middle class, many of the men trained to be rabbis while accommodating the concessions demanded of a devout, insular community in its negotiations with the commercial world. In a memoir written after the First World War, Gaston's brother, Jean-Paul, observed a certain quiet humility in his relatives, an ability to combine remarkable intellectual talent with 'the legitimate contentment of duty done, a bottomless instinct of charity and an often mystical devotion to the nicest forms of ideas'. He also remarked on the laws of segregation which caused the 'unhappy Jewish nation in Russia' to live in a tightly closed circle, never aspiring to worldly success beyond the most unassuming of trades. Gaston Palewski had an uneasy relationship with these origins all his life. No one could have been more eager than he to shake off the heavy garments of the shtetl, to recreate himself as the sophisticated mondain he so brilliantly became, yet the qualities identified by his brother – duty, kindness and the capacity for a certain mystic idealism – shaped his life as surely as his more explicit rejection of his family's past.
Moise's father, Peisach Abramovich, was born in 1840 in Kobryn. A cultivated, emotional man with a fondness for poetry, he was employed as a manager for a Polish landowner and well respected in the city. He married Rachel Notkowa, a devout, intelligent woman five years his junior who spoke four languages and raised her six children with scrupulous respect for Jewish tradition. Moise was born in 1867, and as a small boy showed a rebellious streak. He recalled being reprimanded by his father for sneaking off to the theatre or displays of military exercises when he ought to have been at his studies. The family lived a quietly comfortable life until Peisach developed cancer of the mouth at the age of thirty-three. According to Jean-Paul's memoir, it was not the disease that killed him, but the poisonous concoctions of a local chemist. Whatever the case, Rachel found herself a widow at thirty. Without her husband's wages, her prospects looked extremely bleak. Her brother-in-law, a doctor named Michel Israel Rabbinowicz, offered to take the Palewski children with him to Paris, where he would oversee their education, and Rachel agreed to make the sacrifice, though she was unable to part with her youngest boy, two-year-old Paul. The others, Moise, Albert, Leon, Frieda and Judith, aged between twelve and four, set off with their uncle for France.
The Palewskis later liked to claim that one of their family had been active in the anti-Russian insurrection of 1863 which saw many liberally inclined Polish aristocrats looking to France in a diaspora known as the 'Grande Emigration'. Michel Rabbinowicz belonged to a less grand category of emigrants, a group of doctors, lawyers, artists and intellectuals, many of them Jewish, seeking refuge from Russian persecution. Michel lived in the unfashionable Faubourg-Poissonière district, in what is now the tenth arrondissement of Paris. His nephews attended the College Rollin and subsequently the Springer Institute, where Moise passed his baccalauréat in 1887. Although Michel had so conscientiously provided them with a home, there was little money, and Moise's experiences of Paris during the flowering of the Belle Epoque were far from gay. He remembered weary miles walked to save the price of an omnibus ticket, sandwiches carefully divided on chilly park benches, an upbringing which while not actually deprived was nevertheless shabby and pinched.
There remained also a disturbing current of anti-Semitism in French society, which created an atmosphere of danger, a sense of a precarious existence lived permanently on the brink of poverty and persecution. France was still recovering from the bitter divisions provoked by the Dreyfus Affair, in which a young Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, had been falsely accused of passing military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. The inflammable conflict between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards had exposed anti-Jewish prejudice in the most exalted echelons of French society, creating an enduring legacy of hostility and suspicion. Moise was troubled by the visits of an elderly relative, a refugee of the pogroms, who was to die in penury in London, and he grew up with a sense of uncertainty which propelled him to seek a secure place in a threatening world.
Moise was a talented and driven student who won a place at the competitive Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, achieving his engineer's qualification in 1892. For the next few years he held a series of engineering jobs, none of them lucrative, but his ambition can be discerned in the metamorphosis that had taken place in the year of his marriage. By 1895, the Polish immigrant Moise had become the ingénieur diplomé Maurice. He did not, however, marry 'out'. His twenty-six-year-old bride, Rose Diamant-Berger, came from a similar Eastern-European Jewish background, with roots in Russia, Moldavia and Bucharest. Rose's father, Yvan-Joseph, had brought his family from Romania to Paris in 1882 and was granted French citizenship a decade later. He had some success in business, as evinced by the fact that in the declaration of means required for French civil marriages, his daughter was provided with a dowry of 25,000 francs, as compared with the groom's meagre savings of 1,000.
Rose might have been something of an heiress by the standards of the Faubourg-Poissonière, but the young couple were by no means well off. Their first home was an apartment at 51 Rue Rochechouart, a similarly unfashionable address, where their second boy, Gaston, was born on 20 March 1901. (The desire of the Palewskis to become thoroughly integrated is discernible in their choice of the Frenchest possible names for their sons.) Soon afterwards, the family moved to the nearby Square Petrelle in the ninth arrondissement, a quadrangle of severe post-Haussmann-style buildings around a small courtyard. The third-floor flat featured a salon with an orange velvet sofa and a dining room overlooking the court. Gaston later claimed (with perhaps something of the Mitford capacity to reinvent history along more charming lines) that he and his brother spent much of their time in a large cupboard opening off their shared bedroom.
The Palewskis lived a tranquil life of modest routines, but Maurice clearly tried to give his boys a more joyful upbringing than he had known. Gaston recalled rollerskating in the square downstairs, violin lessons, trips to the Coliseum cinema in the Rue Rochechouart and weekly visits to museums to hear tour guides explaining the exhibits. Gaston and Jean-Paul would wriggle beneath gilded tables to reach the front of the audience. Both boys shared a greedy delight in beautiful things and the histories behind them. Gaston recalled vividly the feeling of holding his father's hand as they walked through the immense salons of the Louvre and the Petit Palais, and at home the boys turned the drawing room into their own 'museum'. Jean-Paul, too, retained a vivid physical memory of traversing the city on huge exploratory walks, from the peaks of Montmartre to the château of St Germain-en-Laye. From the first, Paris belonged to Gaston as profoundly as did the Cotswold uplands of her own childhood to Nancy Mitford. It was in his blood and in his bones, and its poetry called to him all his life.
During the excursions with his father, Gaston was particularly struck by the nineteenth-century Escalier Daru, which houses the Victory of Samothrace in the department of antiquities at theLouvre. The staircase is disarmingly plain, monumental in both the grandeur of its scale and the austerity of its lines, drawing the eye upwards to the perfect classical female torso of the sculpture. 'One day, ' Gaston said, 'I'll live in a house with a staircase like that.'
French literature of the nineteenth century abounds with adventurous young men on the social make: Julien Sorel, Lucien de Rubempre, Eugene de Rastignac. Gaston was often compared by contemporaries to Rastignac, the charming, unscrupulous society mountaineer of Balzac's Comédie Humaine, whose talent, and particularly his attraction for women, propel him to the zenith of the Parisian world, the gratin of the old aristocracy who inhabit the Faubourg Saint-Germain. There could be no more apt correlative for the trajectory of Gaston's ambition than the Escalier Daru. He always knew where he wanted to be, there at the top with Paris at his feet and a beautiful woman in his arms. His arriviste tendencies were not among his most endearing qualities and his snobbery was often figured as risible, but his desire to move amid les gens du monde – society people – formed part of his concept of the best way of life. As Fabrice explains to Linda early in their relationship:
Les gens du monde are the only possible ones for friends. You see, they have made a fine art of personal relationships, and of all that pertains to them – manners, clothes, beautiful houses, good food, everything that makes life agreeable. It would be silly not to take advantage of that. Friendship is something to be built up carefully, by people with leisure, it is an art ... You should never despise social life – de la haute société – I mean, it can be a very satisfying one, entirely artificial of course, but absorbing. Apart from the life of the intellect and the contemplative religious life, which few people are qualified to enjoy, what else is there to distinguish man from the animals except his social life? And who understands it so well and who can make it so smooth and so amusing as les gens du monde? (The Pursuit of Love)
This was entirely Nancy's view, and one that she spent much of her early years trying frustratedly to live out. Yet there was another aspect of Gaston's personality which, according to his nephew Dominique Palewski, informed his relationship with France on a more profound level. At the end of the war, Gaston presented Dominique with an illustrated book on the Hôtel des Invalides, in which he inscribed: 'To my nephew Dominique, that he also might be accorded the honour of bearing arms in the service of a great cause.' Dominique believed that, as an immigrant family, the Palewskis were intent on becoming enracinés in France (in French, as well as meaning 'rooted' it has implications of national identity) and that their love and respect for their new country, which had allowed them to flourish, was manifest in a deeply emotional loyalty. This was one of the sources of the absolute commitment to the service of France, which, above all else, dominated Gaston's life.
The Palewskis were also typical immigrants in that they wanted the best possible education for their children. Both Jean-Paul and Gaston were to prove superlative students, though Gaston experienced more struggles than his older brother. Until 1911, Gaston attended the College Rollin, as his father had done, after which he entered the Lycée Michelet. At first he seemed a promising pupil, even brilliant, but in adolescence something went wrong. Maurice and Rose grew concerned that their lively, intelligent son was growing lazy and lumpen, complaining of headaches and seemingly incapable of applying himself to work. A doctor prescribed a change of air, and in 1915 the Palewskis decided to send Gaston for a year to England, where he would study the language at Brighton College. He mastered English perfectly and though he always spoke it with a comically thick accent, his fluency would prove to be one of his most defining accomplishments. When he returned to Paris, it was to the family's new home on the Left Bank at 162 Rue de Grenelle. It was hardly the Faubourg Saint-Germain, but the Faubourg-Poissonière lay safely on the other side of the Seine. The Palewskis were definitely on the up.
In 1901, Maurice had entered a partnership to set up a machine-tool company. At first the rewards were 'very mediocre', but by 1913 he and his partner Morin had premises of their own in the Rue Vivienne and Maurice was developing his interest in the exciting new business of aeronautics, in which he became a pioneer. The company was now directed to manufacturing protective coverings for planes, and the First World War made Maurice a wealthy man. Gaston was just too young to fight, but Jean-Paul enrolled at the military academy of St Cyr and spent two years at the front. Rose and Maurice were doubly blessed. Unlike so many, many parents, both of their sons survived. One writer has attributed Gaston's 'powerful taste for all forms of existence ... gardens, books, paintings, pretty girls' to this sense of having escaped, of having been spared conscription at the last moment. This does not mean that he was unaffected by what a recent French critic has called 'the unprecedented moral crisis' of the war.
Young people of Nancy's and Gaston's era, the 'Bright Young Things' who danced their way through les Années Folles, were beset by both a feeling that they had been betrayed by the older generation and a powerful guilt that they had avoided sacrifice. 'It is a queer world which the old men have left them ... they will not be a happy generation, ' observed Evelyn Waugh in an essay for his school magazine. Rejection of everything the 'old men' stood for, contempt for the nineteenth-century faith in the infinite march of progress, produced a sense of futility that many attempted to subdue in frenetic hedonism. Every generation of teenagers believes itself to be unique, but the phenomenon of the Bright Young People contained a self-consciousness of their status as a 'lost generation', who, as Linda complains to Fanny in The Pursuit of Love, were doomed to be sandwiched together between two world wars, obliterated, forgotten.
Jean-Paul Palewski, who had served at the front, criticized his brother for what he saw as his 'girlish' need for physical affection and reassurance. One of Nancy's complaints about her own mother was that she was physically undemonstrative; Rose Palewski, by contrast, was warm and gentle, holding her youngest son for hours on her knee, kissing and caressing him whenever he was unhappy. Jean-Paul saw Gaston as 'soft', unable, as a student, to choose a path and stick to it. One of the notable features of the Twenties generation was their infantilism, their urge to recreate a happy childhood with nursery parties and nursery pranks, as though the world beyond the schoolroom was too terrifying to cope with. Dressing up as babies, albeit with gin in their bottles, was obviously a way of rejecting the 'adult' values that had almost destroyed Europe, but in a culture which had sent teenage boys to die in their thousands in the trenches, why would any of them have wanted to grow up?
Excerpted from The Horror Of Love by Lisa Hilton. Copyright © 2011 Lisa Hilton. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- List of Illustrations
- Author’s Note
- PART ONE
- 1: Gaston
- 2: Nancy
- 3: Coming Out
- 4: Faux Pas
- 5: The Fascisters
- 6: The Pursuit of Honour
- 7: Losing
- 8: War
- 9: Le Premier des GauUistes
- 10: Flight
- 11: Poor Frogs
- 12: Love
- PART TWO
- 13: Liberation
- 14: The Advance on Paris
- 15: Politics 1944–6
- 16: The Embassy
- 17: The Pursuit of Chic
- 18: Les Femmes du Monde
- 19: Government
- 20: Despair
- 21: Theory of the Leisure Class
- 22: A l’Ombre de l’Embrassadeur en Fleur
- 23: Politics 1962–9
- 24: Marriage
- 25: The Horror of Love
- Copyright Page
From VOGUE.COM, by Megan O'GradyNancy Mitford was a 37-year-old author and an inveterate master of the tease when she met her match in Free French commander Gaston Palewski at a party in London. It was 1942, the war raged on, and their initial encounter seemed like a coup de foudreor, as the heroine of the wildly popular novel he inspired, The Pursuit of Love, explains, “She was filled with a wild, strange, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love.” Mitford’s mutually influential 30-year relationship with the Colonel, as she dubbed Charles de Gaulle’s charismatic right-hand man, is the subject of historian Lisa Hilton’s piquant latest, The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London (Pegasus). Following Palewski to Paris, where he embarked on a distinguished political career (and an ambitious private life), Mitford, armed with a spiky intellect and an elegant Dior wardrobe, made her home amid the city’s gratin. As allergic to sentimentality as Palewski was to monogamy, Mitford maintained a determined “shop-front” dedicated to the “civilized” vision of romance expressed in her novels, for which she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, hand-delivered to her by Palewski before her death in 1973. Via e-mail, Vogue chatted with Hilton about why Mitford’s work deserves fresh attentionand what women of her time might have to teach us about love.The Mitford sisters have inspired bookshelves’ worth of biographies and collected letters, but Nancy has always stood out as the family’s great wit and literary talent. What attracted you to her? I came to Nancy very much as a reader rather than a biographer. I think Nancy’s later novels have much in common with those of Jane Austendeceptively elegant and witty, with a strain of toughness, even darkness, beneath the surface that makes them superlative works of art. As I read biographical material, I began to feel that Nancy’s reputation was unfair, that she was not only a serious and substantial writer but that she was also a woman who managed a difficult relationship in an intriguing and impressive manner. When the series Sex and the City came out, I loathed it. I felt that my generation of women had been infantilized by a very old-fashioned version of love, where an essentially conventional idea of happy ever after masqueraded as liberation. So I began to explore the relationships and mores of Nancy’s generation and discovered a way of thinking about love and how women might live that was instinctively more appealing to me.You spoke to many people who knew Nancy personally, including Charlotte Mosley and the Duchess of Devonshire, Nancy’s lone surviving sister. Were there any surprises in your research? The first thing I did was contact Charlotte Mosley, who was very supportive. Then I met the Dowager Duchess at a party at Claridge’s, and she said, “Oh, you’re the girl who is writing about the Colonelyou must ring me up!” We had a delightful talk, and she particularly emphasized what wonderful company Nancy and Gaston were when they were together. Once I felt that the idea had been endorsed, I probably interviewed about forty people, and was also given permission to read in the archive of the Fondation Charles de Gaulle in Paris. The relationships between the French and the Americans were both dense and fascinating, and I felt that Gaston’s politics did much to shape Nancy’s notoriously anti-American views.Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was that Nancy was not in the least bit snobbish. Her notorious article on etiquette, “The English Aristocracy,” [which included a “U and Non-U” glossary] was really written as a joke. She wasn’t really interested in grand people, although she knew a great many. At the end of her life, when she was living at Versailles, she was friends with the local mechanic and the daughter of the chemist. And many of the people I spoke to were astonished to learn that Gaston was JewishNancy has been accused of anti-Semitism, and her brother-in-law was [British Union of Fascists leader] Oswald Mosley. Some readers might be surprised to learn that during the war she turned over her family’s London home to Jewish refugees.Nancy’s biographers have generally cast her love for Gaston in a pitying light; he had many other paramours, and he ultimately married another, far wealthier, woman. But you argue that it can be reductive to judge affairs of the past by contemporary mores. What challenges are involved in writing about an historical relationship? I had to be careful not to idealize Nancy’s relationship with Palewski, yet at the same time to respect and understand it on its own terms. A powerful influence was the Second World War: After what Nancy’s generation had been through, there was a sense that magnifying one’s emotional troubles was self-indulgent, and that excessive earnestness was rather bad form. That doesn’t mean that Nancy didn’t sufferher letters reveal that she did, terriblybut that she made a conscious choice not to allow the inadequacies of her relationship to dominate her life. Looking over her letters to Gaston over thirty years, it’s clear that they built a mutually supportive relationship, based on genuine love. Above all, they had fun. The letters almost to the end are full of chat and gossip and jokesone has the sense that here were two people who really liked one another. And the tenderness displayed by Gaston in Nancy’s last years, as well as his regrets after her death from cancer, made a very poignant coda.