Great beauties and unconventional lives

(Not much about language, but about books, art, great beauties, and unconventional lives.)

A coincidence of two items in the June 4th NYRB: an essay by Robert Gottlieb on Lady Diana Cooper, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’; and an ad for the book The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm — Max Beerbohm, the author of Zuleika Dobson, a comic novel about a woman so stunningly attractive that men fall hopelessly in love with her at first sight.

Lady Diana Cooper. Gottlieb’s essay is based on ten books about Lady Diana Cooper, her husband Duff Cooper, and their circle. From the essay:

What can it have been like to have been Lady Diana Cooper, “the most beautiful girl in the world,” “the only really glamorous woman in the world,” the most celebrated debutante of her era, the daughter of a duke, the wife of a famous diplomat (and so the British ambassadress to Paris), an internationally acclaimed actress, a character in at least half a dozen novels (by writers as unalike as Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Arnold Bennett, D.H. Lawrence, and Enid Bagnold), a dedicated nurse to wounded and dying soldiers in World War I, and a pig farmer?

… Lady Diana Manners (her name until she married Duff), born in 1892, was the last child of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, or at least she was the duchess’s last child: it was commonly assumed that her biological father was the brilliant, charming man-about-town (and serial seducer) Harry Cust, with whom Violet, the duchess, had a passionate affair. No one seemed to mind — not the duke, who politely (and affectionately) stood by as the baby’s official father, or the duchess, or Diana herself. “I am cheered very much by Tom Jones on bastards,” Diana wrote to a friend, “and like to see myself as a ‘Living Monument of Incontinence.’”

More on the unconventional lives of these people follows. Here’s Diana in May 1960, in a photograph by Cecil Beaton:


(On unconventional lives on this blog: a posting of 4/28/15 about Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton and about Lord Berners and Robert Heber-Percy.)

Max Beerbohm. From the ad for The Prince of Minor Writers: The Selected Essays of Max Beerbohm, edited and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate:

Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) was born in London and studied at Oxford. He published his first collection of essays, The Works of Max Beerbohm, in 1896 and soon developed a reputation as a brilliant caricaturist and critic. He was married to the American actress Florence Kahn and lived in Rapallo, Italy, for most of his later life. In addition to The Prince of Minor Writers, NYRB Classics publishes Beerbohm’s Seven Men, a short-story collection.

Virginia Woolf called Max Beerbohm “the prince” of essayists, F. W. Dupee praised his “whim of iron” and “cleverness amounting to genius,” while Beerbohm himself noted that “only the insane take themselves quite seriously.” From his precocious debut as a dandy in 1890s Oxford until he put his pen aside in the aftermath of World War II, Beerbohm was recognized as an incomparable observer of modern life and an essayist whose voice was always and only his own. Here Phillip Lopate, one of the finest essayists of our day, has selected the finest of Beerbohm’s essays. Whether writing about the vogue for Russian writers, laughter and philosophy, dandies, or George Bernard Shaw, Beerbohm is as unpredictable as he is unfailingly witty and wise. As Lopate writes, “Today … it becomes all the more necessary to ponder how Beerbohm performed the delicate operation of displaying so much personality without lapsing into sticky confession.”

On the novel, from Wikipedia:

Zuleika Dobson, full title Zuleika Dobson, or, an Oxford love story, is a 1911 novel by Max Beerbohm, a satire of undergraduate life at Oxford. It was his only novel, but was nonetheless very successful. This satire includes the famous line “Death cancels all engagements” and presents a corrosive view of Edwardian Oxford.

In the novel, men fall in love with Zuleika at first sight, but she doesn’t return their affection; eventually, all the Oxford undergraduates kill themselves by drowning in the River Isis, out of love for her. Truly a femme fatale.

As for an image of Zuleika, here’s John Singer Sargent‘s watercolor Zuleika (c. 1907):


This was painted before Beerbohm’s book appeared, but Beerbohm and Sargent were good friends and Sargent quite likely painted #2 after seeing some of the manuscript of Beerboh’s book.

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