Unconventional lives

Following up on my posting on Elsa Lanchester, some remarks on her unconventional family and her relationship with Charles Laughton. And then notes on the spectacularly unconventional lives of Lord Berners and Robert Heber-Percy.

Lanchester and Laughton. Elsa Lanchester’s parents lived decidedly Bohemian lives, and as a matter of political principle, refused to marry — scandalously for the times. Lanchester herself kept raffish company, and then she married Charles Laughton, knowing that he was gay. By all accounts, they were an affectionate couple and enjoyed each other’s company enormously (and worked well together in their movies). Such couples are not nearly as rare as people might think, and sex is often part of the equation; one or both partners might treat the other as an exception in their sexual life. (I speak from personal experience here.)

A little more on Laughton, who appeared on this blog in 6/14/14 in connection with film noir, in particular about actor Robert Mitchum and the film The Night of the Hunter:

[from Wikipedia] Following a series of conventional westerns and films noirs, including the Marilyn Monroe vehicle River of No Return (1954), he appeared in Charles Laughton’s only film as director, The Night of the Hunter (1955). Based on a novel by Davis Grubb, the thriller starred Mitchum as a monstrous criminal posing as a preacher to find money hidden by his cellmate in the cellmate’s home [and also featured Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish]. His performance as Reverend Harry Powell is considered by many to be one of the best of his career [and the lyric, expressionistic style of the film was a great influence on later directors].

The Night of the Hunter is a remarkable film, with a remarkable performance by Mitchum — both dark, though not film noir.

Lord Berners and Robert Heber-Percy. I’ll start with Wikipedia on Lord Berners:

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (18 September 1883 – 19 April 1950), also known as Gerald Tyrwhitt, was a British composer of classical music, novelist, painter and aesthete. He is usually referred to as Lord Berners.

… As well as being a talented musician, Berners was a skilled artist and writer. He appears in many books and biographies of the period, notably portrayed as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. He was a friend of the Mitford family and close to Diana Guinness.

Berners was notorious for his eccentricity, dyeing pigeons at his house in Faringdon in vibrant colours and at one point entertaining Penelope Betjeman’s horse to tea. There were paper flowers in the garden and the interior of the house was adorned with joke books and joke notices, such as “Mangling Done Here”.

… He died in 1950 at Faringdon House, bequeathing his estate to his companion Robert (‘Mad Boy’) Heber Percy, who lived at Faringdon until his own death in 1987.

… Berners obtained some notoriety for his roman à clef The Girls of Radcliff Hall (punning on the name of the famous lesbian writer), initially published privately under the pseudonym “Adela Quebec”, in which he depicts himself and his circle of friends, such as Cecil Beaton and Oliver Messel, as members of a girls school. This frivolous satire, which was privately published and distributed, had a modish success in the 1930s.


That’s Lord Berners. And here’s Heber-Percy, as painted by Berners:


Berners adored the studly (and not aesthetically inclined) Heber-Percy wildly and even erected a folly (intentionally phallic) in his honor. From a Telegraph piece about the building:

In 1974, Oxfordshire acquired one of the most famous folly towers in Britain, when the town of Faringdon was transferred from neighbouring Berkshire. Lord Berners’ Folly, as it was known from the start, is the last major folly tower to have been built in Britain. It is 110ft tall and was completed in 1935 despite strenuous local opposition, Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Lord Berners, was a talented and eccentric musician who drove around with a harpsichord built into his Rolls Royce. When the council met to decide whether to grant planning permission, one Admiral Clifton Browne bellowed that it would totally destroy the view from his house. When the counsel for Lord Berners pointed out that the proposed tower could only possibly be seen from house with a telescope, the sailor retorted that being an admiral he only ever looked at the view through a telescope. It was originally cream but that has washed away and, after many years derelict, it was reopened in summer 1989, allowing the public to climb to the top.

The Wikipedia piece characterizes Heber-Percy as Berners’s companion, but other accounts (two to come) characterize him as Berners’s lover. That’s not so clear: by some accounts, Berners was uncomfortable with his body and might well have resigned himself to worshipping Heber-Percy rather than satisfying him sexually. In any case, their relationship was not only unconventional (for the times) but also decidedly edgy.

Now we come to the recent book The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, by Sofka Zinovieff. I’ll post portions of two reviews: by Rachel Cooke in the Guardian last October; and by Miranda Seymour in the NYT Book Review on Sunday.

From Cooke:

“Beware of the agapanthus,” read a sign at Faringdon, the famously idyllic Oxfordshire home of the composer, novelist and aesthete Lord Berners. But it wasn’t the garden of which visitors – the glittering roll call included Gertrude Stein, Nancy Mitford, Igor Stravinsky and Salvador Dalí – needed to take care. In its heyday, Faringdon was a noted weekend haven, a stage set on which guests were invited thoroughly to enjoy themselves so long as they remembered always to play a suitably witty role. However, beyond the jokes and the ice-cold martinis could be discerned a fierce tinge of pain, the prime cause of which seemed mostly to be Berners’s younger lover, Robert Heber-Percy, aka the Mad Boy. It was this creature, dashing but often cruel, whom one had to approach with caution.

Heber-Percy was the writer Sofka Zinovieff’s maternal grandfather, and in her new book she tells the story of how she came to inherit Faringdon on his death in 1987 (she was then a 26-year-old anthropology student living above a shop in the Peloponnese). But to get there, she must first present us with a series of portraits: of the eccentric Berners, who kept a clavichord in his car and dyed his doves turquoise, pink and gold; of Heber-Percy, who cared nothing for books or music, preferring instead to shoot, to ride and to drink; and of Jennifer Fry, the society beauty whom Heber-Percy unaccountably married in 1942, 11 years after his arrival at Faringdon. (Fry’s daughter, Victoria, is the author’s mother, and among those Heber-Percy bypassed when he chose her as his heir). Yes, as family sagas go, this one has everything: money, sex, secrets, bad blood. There is even a terrifying Mrs Danvers figure in the form of Rosa Proll, Faringdon’s Austrian housekeeper.

In the midst of this is the ménage à trois involving Berners, Heber-Percy, and Fry. (For some years I was involved in such a relationship, but I like to think that I was generally affectionate, thoughtful, and companionable in a way that Heber-Percy clearly was not.)

Now from Seymour:

Sofka Zinovieff was 25 and working on her doctoral thesis in Greece when Robert Heber-Percy (the former lover of Lord Berners and the “mad boy” of Zinovieff’s title) informed his granddaughter that he planned to alter his will. Six months later, in October 1987, Heber-Percy died and an apprehensive Sofka inherited Faringdon, the gray-walled Oxfordshire mansion that had formerly offered a carefully eccentric welcome to luminaries like Nancy Mitford, the Salvador Dalís, the Princesse de Polignac and [Cecil] Beaton. Becoming the owner of Faringdon, Sofka confided to a friend, was like acquiring a very rich and eligible husband who had been picked out by someone else. Capricious though his bequest appeared, her grandfather was adhering to a pattern, one that seemed almost to have been dictated by the house and its famous owner, those twin presences that stand squarely at the center of Zinovieff’s story.

Berners was in his mid-30s and enjoying a cultured Continental existence when he inherited not only a title but the considerable fortune that enabled him to bestow Faringdon upon his mother and her second husband. Following their deaths in 1931, Berners moved himself in and, to the astonishment of his friends, also installed a young, muscular and alarmingly predatory companion. [I admire “alarmingly predatory”.] His name was Robert Heber-Percy and — despite some unnerving sideways skips — the “mad boy” was still at Faringdon in 1950 when Berners, after murmuring apologies for having wasted the time of his physician, quietly expired.

… Certainly, although Zinovieff merely hints at it, masochism must have played a strong part in the complicated relationship between Heber-Percy and his startlingly different patron. How else could Berners have endured Heber-Percy’s casual importations: first of a beautiful, sexy and troubled young wife (Zinovieff’s grandmother, Jennifer Fry, who lasted about two years in a strange ménage à trois) and then of a boyfriend of his own, Hugh Cruddas (brutally dispatched from Faringdon when he ceased to fit into Heber-Percy’s post-Gerald life)?

Wikipedia’s revenge: Berners and Faringdon both get substantial entries, but Heber-Percy appears only as an adjunct to them. That seems fair, since he seems to have had no accomplishments of his own.

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