‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’

Diana Cooper

by Philip Ziegler
London: Hamish Hamilton, 336 pp. (1981)
Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s
Lady Diana Cooper, May 1960; photograph by Cecil Beaton

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?

It’s a question we can answer, given the vast literature about her, beginning with her enchanting three volumes of memoirs, and including biographies of both her and her husband, Duff Cooper; his much-admired memoirs, as well as his uninhibited (to say the least) diaries; an ample collection of their mostly rapturous letters to each other; an ample collection of her correspondence with Waugh; the letters of her dearest friend, Conrad Russell; and the frank autobiography of her son, the historian John Julius Norwich. And now we have a volume of her letters to that son. It’s called Darling Monster, although there’s nothing monstrous about her beloved John Julius, and there’s nothing monstrous in her passionate but practical attachment to him. The apparent stability of their relationship suggests that she was as good a mother as she was a society figure, nurse, actress, wife, writer, hostess, ambassadress, farmer, and perhaps most of all, friend.

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.’” Harry Cust—“very beautiful, I thought him,” she would write in her memoirs—was “a man I loved with all my heart.”

You might think she had inherited her looks from this paragon, but Violet herself had been a great beauty (as well as an accomplished artist, her sculpture admired by Rodin among others). “The most beautiful thing I ever saw,” said Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and a favorite of Queen Victoria’s. The duchess’s notion was that Diana should marry Edward, Prince of Wales, but Diana had no use for him and the prince liked hard, sophisticated older women. Otherwise it would not have been an impossible match. Victorian dukes…

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