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 weekend. I do not think we have ever loved each other so much. D. says that ours is a love that comes to very few people and I wonder more & more at the beauty and happiness of it. It is a thing that nothing but death can harm, and even death has no terrors for me now, for D. asked me yesterday if I would come with him when he went. He begged me not to stay behind, but for both of us to go together, and I promised him to do so, unless I have any children of his to claim me. So, I am not afraid now of the misery if D. is taken away, for then I shall go too & his end will be my end, and until then everything is happiness, if our love stays. I hope by any chance I shall not go first, for I know his misery would be great, and he could not leave his work, which is a great one. I am so happy now that we have decided this, for sometimes my heart would stop beating with terror at the thought of life without D.
It might be remembered that at the time David Lloyd George coaxed this promise from the young woman he was prime minister of England, a nation engaged in fighting the most destructive war that had yet been fought on earth. Back home in Wales he had a formidable wife, Margaret, and four living children—their oldest daughter, Mair, had died in 1907. Margaret Lloyd George, quite unawed by her husband, and with no desire to have her face rubbed into his many infidelities, mainly stayed in Wales.
Frances Stevenson was a well-educated young woman. She had won a scholarship to London University: she read classics at Royal Holloway College, and, besides, she had a French grandmother. Her good French came in handy in the great social swirl of the Peace Conference. She had initially been hired as a tutor for the Lloyd Georges’ youngest daughter, Megan. She and Megan were chums for a while, but chumship turned to loathing when Megan and the rest of the family found out what was really going on between Frances Stevenson and David Lloyd George.
When, at the end of 1912, Lloyd George asked Frances to be his secretary, the job, she recalled, was to be “on his own terms, which were in direct conflict with my essentially Victorian upbringing.” Talk about the casting-couch approach! Megan Lloyd George was later to describe her former friend as “a thick pile of carpet into which one’s feet sank gratefully.”
Perhaps it was the “thick pile of carpet” sort of comfort that David Lloyd George mainly sought; certainly his wife, who had rather condescended to marry him, was not especially inclined to coddle or cosset. And as for Frances Stevenson’s essentially Victorian upbringing, there’s no sign that it ever caused her to break stride. She took the job and she took the man, quite pleased to be active in the great world of London and Paris. No shrinking violet, she danced, she golfed, and she flirted, the last of which activities did not entirely please her great man—hardly a surprise, since he was eager to see her dead rather than think of her being possessed by another man. At the same time, going about as they did, they came to need a beard. A mariage blanc for Frances was considered, and a compliant candidate more or less vetted. But Frances was not enthusiastic about this strategy, and neither, probably, was Lloyd George. What if the mariage somehow ceased to be blanc?
This was an age that produced some notable seducers: Beaverbrook, for example, and H.G. Wells. But neither of these rabbity gentlemen suggested that their mistresses kill themselves, should they themselves happen to die.
John Grigg rightly condemns the brutality of Lloyd George’s resort to a death pact. Perhaps, as he suggests, the pressures and uncertainties of wartime played a part. Lloyd George had had a couple of chancy Channel crossings; and the Deep, after all, had claimed even the great Lord Kitchener only the year before. All the same, the terms stank. All who knew him considered David Lloyd George to be outrageously spoiled (and this in a time and place where spoiled men were not in short supply). At the slightest suggestion that he might not get his way he employed the full range of Welsh histrionics; tears flowed frequently, and seldom failed to move his Frances, at least at first.
Somehow Frances Stevenson managed to be a thick pile carpet without ever quite becoming a doormat. Like Cynthia Koestler she aborted two children in the first years of the relationship, but in 1929, persisting, she had a daughter named Jennifer, whom Lloyd George acknowledged, privately.
By then his great work was behind him. Margaret Lloyd George died in 1941; in 1943, more than thirty years after the intimacy commenced, Lloyd George married Frances. He died two years later; she survived him by twenty-seven years, dying in 1972.
In 1967 she published an autobiography, in which there was no mention of the death pact. In 1996 her granddaughter, Ruth Longford, published a solid biography; again, there is no mention of the death pact. We know about it because, when Max Beaverbrook purchased the Lloyd George papers, her diary was thrown in. Not being “official,” it could be published, and A.J.P. Taylor prepared it for publication, though not before Beaverbrook had skillfully mined it for his Decline and Fall of Lloyd George. The diary was duly published in 1971, but Beaverbrook’s Lloyd George is much more interesting than Frances Stevenson’s. Possibly by the time she became Countess Lloyd George she had forgotten that she ever made a death pact with her David. Her mood may have scarcely outlasted their happy weekend; but his need to feel that no one but himself would ever have this appealing young woman was most likely dead serious. When he finally “went,” in 1945, she showed no interest in accompanying him; she went on enjoying life as Countess Lloyd George, for another quarter-century.
The entry about the death pact is the most interesting passage in the whole diary. Forget the Peace Conference, forget Balfour and Curzon and Woodrow Wilson and all the other great characters who trod that stage. Frances Stevenson’s sharpest personal reaction is regret that she lost all her bets on the Derby. In a way it is more Lloyd George’s book than hers, which suggests that women who are like thick pile carpets do not the best diarists make.
May 29, 2003