The Perfect Secretary

Lloyd George: War Leader, 1916–1918

by John Grigg
London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 670 pp., £25

The Years That Are Past

by Frances Lloyd George
London: Hutchinson, 296 pp. (1967; out of print)

Frances, Countess Lloyd George: More than a Mistress

by Ruth Longford
Gracewing, 214 pp. (1996; out of print)

Lloyd George: A Diary

by Frances Stevenson, edited by A.J.P. Taylor
Harper and Row, 338 pp. (1971; out of print)

Many lovers, in their first raptures, nourish—usually briefly—the hope of dying at the same time; and yet it is commonly only the long-mated who manage nonviolent but near-simultaneous deaths: the Buckminster Fullers, for example, or Will and Ariel Durant, or Sir James and Lady Frazer, so much of whose life was spent beneath The Golden Bough. It is as if the Gatekeeper, having come for one partner, obligingly keeps the gate ajar long enough for the other partner to slip through.

On a more operatic level there are the rare double suicides, one of the most discussed of which—at least in the world of letters—was that of Arthur and Cynthia Koestler, which occurred in their house in Montpelier Square, London, in 1983. That Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born author, intellectual, and provocateur, killed himself was no surprise. At the time of his suicide Koestler was seventy-seven years old; he suffered both from leukemia and from a relentlessly advancing Parkinson’s. His coherence was slipping away; many, in that situation, have chosen to depart. The shock, where the Koestlers were concerned, had to do with Cynthia, a competent, healthy woman of fifty-five. (A third victim was David, their twelve-year-old Lhasa apso, whom Cynthia had put down on the day of the suicides.)

Arthur Koestler’s farewell note, written some months before he killed himself, mentions how sorry he is to leave Cynthia—he clearly did not envision her dying too. Perhaps she had not conclusively meant to, until the dread day arrived. Here is her note:

I should have liked to finish my account of working for Arthur—a story which began when our paths happened to cross in 1949. However, I cannot live without Arthur, despite certain inner resources.

That note appears in a book called Stranger on the Square, a jointly written account of the Koestlers’ more-than-thirty-year association. He did not want children; she obligingly aborted two. Cynthia was Koestler’s third wife; his second had been the much-sought-after Mamaine Paget, in whom Edmund Wilson, among others, had shown a marked interest before Koestler snatched her away.

To say that Arthur Koestler was a womanizer is like saying that water is wet. Cynthia had felt suicidal years before, at times when she felt Arthur had lost his feeling for her. And yet, the decision to go with him may have been last-minute; once she put the dog down one feels the decision had been made. That she seemed so able added to the shock; and yet sheer inconsolability following the death of a mate is common. Some drag on, some subside, some go.

What led me to these reflections is a passage I came across while proceeding happily through the last volume of the late John Grigg’s great biography of David Lloyd George. The passage, dated April 23, 1917, is from the diary of Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress:

We went down to Walton H[eath] on Saturday afternoon, & had a perfect …

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