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 were almost as esteemed as royalty, and the Manners family owned something like 65,000 acres of land, abundant coal mines, and Belvoir (pronounced Beaver) Castle, one of the grandest of ducal residences. The duke himself was a genial and well-liked if far from outstanding man, whose principal interests, as Philip Ziegler put it in his indispensable biography of Diana, “were dry-fly fishing and fornication; pursuits requiring much dexterity but not intellectually demanding.”
Diana was mostly happy in her home life, both in London and at the castle. She didn’t have much formal educating, but there were governesses and lots of reading—a lifetime passion. At ten she almost died of a rare form of paralysis called Erb’s Disease. Fully expecting to die she stayed firmly stoical. Her mother never suspected that Diana suffered from depressions, or “melancholias” as she called them. “If she had,” Ziegler writes, “she would have been uncomprehending and unsympathetic. Only housemaids moped.”
At first she was thought to be plain and lumpish, but by the time she was fourteen, she had grown into a renowned beauty—only a few years later, Winston Churchill and a friend were determining which of the new crop of young dazzlers deserved the accolade as “the face that launched a thousand ships,” and only two made the grade: Clementine Hozier, whom Churchill would marry, and Lady Diana Manners. When she was staying with friends in Norfolk in her early teens, she fell in with a group of young men from nearby Oxford, whom she enchanted and who enchanted her. The group named themselves “the Coterie” and the men became her faithful and ardent swains. Only the one she cared most for—Raymond Asquith, son of the prime minister—was ineligible: he was ten years older than the rest, and married. Even so, she grew intimate with both him and his wife, Katharine; his death in the war was one of the great traumas of her life, and she remained close to Katharine throughout their lives.
The years leading up to World War I were filled with fun and hijinks: balls, flirtations, jaunts around Europe. (When she went abroad with her mother, it was third class all the way: the duchess never liked to spend.) She had become a celebrity, her comings and goings avidly reported by the press—to her (secret) gratification. She was not only a beauty but an exotic, creating a somewhat outré style of dressing, getting in and out of highly publicized scrapes—she had a desperate desire to be conspicuous, to be acknowledged as different, original, singular. The boys in the Coterie were pursuing her relentlessly with self-consciously passionate and flattering letters and handsome gifts—her lifelong habit of gleefully accepting if not soliciting presents was already in play. She was restless and daring, and in no hurry to settle down. Yet she was still being chaperoned, and she was technically chaste.
Not everyone was amused by her carryings-on. Whereas the prime minister was all too markedly attached to her, his formidable wife, Margot, was one of the hold-outs:
What a pity that Diana, so pretty and decorative, should let her brain rot!…[Her] main faults are that she takes money from men and spends her day powdering her face until she looks like a bled pig.
“She loved to be told that she was beautiful,” Ziegler writes, “but never really understood what all the fuss was about.” She was pale, blond, oval-faced—“sheeplike,” one of the rare dissenters called her. And she was wretchedly aware of her lack of formal education, certain that she was stupid and uninteresting. What she didn’t grasp was that she possessed an incandescence that animated and delighted almost every person she met. “It was plain,” Enid Bagnold wrote of her in her 1951 novel The Loved and Envied, that she was “a person with an extra dose of life.”
All Diana’s young male admirers, who were also her best pals, were quickly swept up in the war. All but one. Duff Cooper, two years her senior, was working in the Foreign Office, and so was kept from enlisting. Although he had many other women on his mind (and in his bed), he was determined to capture Diana. His background was suitable—his mother, Agnes, was the sister of the Duke of Fife, who was married to Louise, the Princess Royal. On the other hand, Agnes had barely survived the scandal of two elopements and a divorce and took to nursing until she married a prominent society doctor who specialized in the most intimate of surgeries. He liked to remark that between them, he and his wife “had inspected the private parts of half the peers of London.”
If Duff’s lineage and background—Eton, Oxford—were acceptable to Diana’s family, nothing else about him was. He was already notorious for his drinking, his gambling, his womanizing. But to Violet, a far greater impediment was his impecuniousness—apart from his very modest salary at the Foreign Office, he had an income of only a few hundred pounds a year, and no expectations. Diana couldn’t have cared less. Slowly, steadily, as their heated correspondence reveals, she came to rely on him for both stimulation and stability. His brilliance was incontestable. And his passion for her was balanced by his understanding of her volatile and needy nature. From early childhood Diana had known what her needs were. She remembered sitting under the piano while her mother played, thinking, “O, I’m glad I’m a girl. I’m glad I’m a girl. Somebody will always look after me.”
Soon, the young men closest to Diana and Duff were dying. Duff would one day write to Diana, “Our generation becomes history instead of growing up.” (With their world collapsing, she and Katharine Asquith overindulged in morphine and chloroform. “I hope she won’t become morphineuse,” commented Duff; “It would spoil her looks.”) By the last year of the war, when he was finally allowed to join up, Duff was the only one left. Their ardent friendship had deepened into a serious love affair as they consoled each other. With regard to her parents’ opposition, Diana wrote to her brother, John:
For many years I have wanted to marry Duff because I know that when I am with him I am perfectly happy, that his mind I adore, that his attitude towards me and love and understanding are only equalled by mine towards him.
The increasing physical intimacy between them is charted in their letters, with Duff ever importuning and Diana ever adamant about retaining the final barrier. And indeed when they were finally married in 1919—Duff having survived the war, having won the DSO for bravery under fire, and Diana having at last broken her mother’s resistance—she was still a virgin. Just. It wasn’t only the rules of proper behavior that had kept her one, or the bothersome but ineffectual chaperones. She was a loving woman but never a deeply sexual one: she craved embraces, cuddles, caresses, compliments, but as she would write, “Like most well-brought up girls of my generation I was not much interested in it—sex I mean.”
Duff, on the other hand, was not only exceptionally amorous but a relentless, compulsive seducer—his first infidelity took place in Venice, on their honeymoon. And the infidelities never stopped. Throughout his life his mistresses came and went (and sometimes came and stayed). Just a few of them: the Singer Sewing Machine heiress Daisy Fellowes; two nieces of Diana’s, the beautiful Paget sisters; a beauty named Gloria Rubio, later Gloria Guinness—“I don’t think I have ever loved anyone physically so much or been so supremely satisfied”; the young Susan Mary Patten, wife of an American diplomat, on whom he fathered a child; and, perhaps most seriously, the well-known writer Louise de Vilmorin, who became Diana’s adored friend as well. Louise—suspected collaborator—often took up residency in the Paris embassy when the Coopers reigned there, and when Duff turned his attentions from her to Susan Mary, it was Diana who had to comfort her. In middle age Duff was still as driven a fornicator—like both her fathers—as he had been at twenty.
Diana didn’t look the other way, she just stood aside, perhaps unhappy but unprotesting: what mattered to her was not Duff’s faithfulness but his love, of which she was completely certain. (“They were the flowers, but I was the tree.”) “Did my mother know?” wrote John Julius. “Of course she did. And did she worry? Not in the least. ‘So common to mind,’ she used to say.” When Lady Cunard asked the same question, Diana replied, “Mind! I only mind when Duffie has a cold.” As Duff’s excellent biographer, John Charmley, put it, what she wanted was “a father-figure to take care of her, and a romantic adoration; Duff provided both of these for his ‘darling baby.’” Besides, from the very start of their marriage she put Duff’s needs and pleasures ahead of her own.
When Duff decided to leave the Foreign Office to become a politician, how were they to pay the costs of a campaign? Diana, who had always been stagestruck, made (for a handsome fee) two movies that were respectable but hardly a launching pad for a major film career. Her chance to earn serious money came when the illustrious Austrian director Max Reinhardt decided to revive his famous religious spectacle The Miracle and offered her the central role of the Madonna for the extended American tour he was planning. She had to stand for well over an hour—speechless, motionless—pretending to be a stone statue cradling an infant, before descending the steps from her niche in the cathedral to take the place of an errant nun who has been seduced. (Eventually, she would alternate roles and play, equally effectively, the sinning nun.)
Her radiant beauty and sublime composure thrilled and moved audiences everywhere—The Miracle toured America for six months of every year between 1924 and 1928, then went on to triumphs on the Continent and in England. All in all, and on and off, she played the Madonna to standing ovations for ten years. She had demanded a large salary so that Duff’s coffers could be constantly replenished. As Charmley writes:
Where she was eating macaroni cheese and persuading hoteliers to let her have her room for free, Duff was dining off oysters and champagne at Bucks, or flitting over to Paris for a weekend at the gaming tables and the whores…. The simple fact was that Duff was incapable of thrift and as unrestrained in his financial behaviour as he was in his sexual appetites.
Fortunately, it turned out that Diana was a real trouper, cheerfully sharing in the seedy life of rooming houses and relentless travel. She enjoyed it all—she was always attracted to what she called bohemian life. Duff hated it: comfort and luxury came first with him. Not that Diana failed to appreciate good clothes, jewels, furs, as long as she didn’t have to pay for them.
When Duff in due course ran for a seat in Parliament, she was there electioneering with him—a huge attraction to an electorate who had been fascinated by her for years. She proudly writes of how much she loved working up enthusiasm for him among a crowd of mill girls, promising that if her husband was elected she would come back and do a clog dance for them. He was—and she did.
After an acclaimed maiden speech, Duff quickly advanced into the government, eventually becoming First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1938 he achieved world prominence when, on the day after Neville Chamberlain signed the notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler, he resigned from the Cabinet: “War without honour or peace with dishonour, but war with dishonour—that was too much.” When his and Diana’s old friend Winston became prime minister, Duff reentered the Cabinet, but he chafed at his job as chief of war information until, in 1943, he was made the official liaison with the Free French, then located in Algeria, with the ambassadorship to Paris guaranteed as soon as the city was reconquered. It was a hellish job, given the mutual loathing of the two prima donnas—the rampageous Churchill (“Ducky”) and the ultra-prickly de Gaulle (“Wormwood”). But Duff turned out to be a born diplomat, more or less patching things up when they would defy and insult each other in outbreaks of misunderstanding and petulance.
Both in Algiers and in the Paris embassy after the Liberation, Diana, with her great talents as hostess, made everything work smoothly, winning over everyone who came near her. The Coopers were so popular that even when the Conservatives were defeated in 1945, the Labour government kept them on for an extra year. When, inevitably, they were replaced, Nancy Mitford wrote to her great friend Evelyn Waugh, “They’re gone at least for the moment and Paris is going to be dreary without them and my feet are cold and I’m on the verge of tears.” The comedy of Mitford’s novel Don’t Tell Alfred is largely based on a Diana stand-in—“the most beautiful woman in the world”—simply refusing to evacuate her part of the embassy even after her successors had moved in.
What would Duff and Diana do, once they were free of their Paris responsibilities? They were already spending their weekends in a small but charming rented château not far away, and now they moved there and went on with their life of entertaining. The world came to them—to a considerable extent, and somewhat naughtily, distracting le tout Paris from the official residency and its new residents. During this period of exile Duff wrote his much-admired memoirs, Old Men Forget. And in 1952 he was created Viscount Norwich, to the irritation of Diana, who refused to be known by the title Lady Norwich—merely the wife of a peer: a comedown from Lady Diana, the daughter of a duke. She wasn’t a snob, but there were limits.
Much as she had enjoyed her life in the embassy she had enjoyed just as much her life in the modest cottage at Bognor, on the Sussex coast, which her mother had once given her. During the early years of the war she spent most of her time there, Duff coming down whenever he would get away from London, flinging herself into farming, rattling around her few acres of garden, raising goats and pigs, milking the cow, dealing with her beehive, making (and selling) cheeses. She was also, of course, entertaining guests—from the Duchess of Westminster and Lady Cunard to Cecil Beaton and Waugh, all of whom were expected to pitch in.
Bognor was also where she spent her happiest times with her great friend Conrad Russell (nephew of the Duke of Bedford, cousin of Bertrand Russell). When they met at Katharine Asquith’s in 1933, there was an instant affinity between them. During the war years he would travel down from his home on Katharine’s estate—exhausting wartime trips in jam-packed railway cars—so that he could help out on the farm and spend long quiet evenings alone with Diana over simple food and Algerian wine while they read aloud to each other and basked in each other’s (completely platonic) affection.
They wrote to each other constantly. “Everything I do with you is always amusing, always just the things I like best,” he wrote to her in July 1941, “like feeding pigs, paper-hanging, reading about jealousy, picking nettles, making cheese, fetching swill and dabbling about in hogwash.” On the twelfth anniversary of their first meeting, he wrote, “And in all those years and months dear Diana, I have not seen one fault in you. No my darling Diana, not one fault have I seen. It is the truth.”
How different from her friendship with Waugh, punctuated by friction, disagreement, asperity! (Diana referred to it as “that jagged stone.”) Their correspondence (edited by her granddaughter, Artemis Cooper), beginning in 1932 and lasting until his death, in 1966, makes it clear that they enjoyed snapping at each other almost as much as they enjoyed being together. Diana’s need for unrelenting activity drove him crazy: “If only you could treat friends as something to be enjoyed in themselves not as companions in adventure we should be so much happier together.”
They also disagreed about religion, he writing to her on Christmas Eve, 1951, that he has been praying “that you may one day find kneeling space in the straw at Bethlehem.” She takes him seriously enough to answer:
One cannot embrace something so serious as the church, for a whim, a love for another—(not God) or as an experimental medicine. I must wait for the hounds of heaven—or some force—some instance—that is irresistible—no reasoning is any good (a) I’m incapable of the process (b) I don’t believe reasoning counts any more than it does when explaining music to the tone deaf or rainbows to the blind.
He addresses her as Baby (so did Duff), Sweet Baby-Doll. Once he calls her Darling Stitch Pug Baby, Julia Stitch being the name he gave her in Scoop (she sets the plot in motion, indulging in her genius for interfering with her friends’ lives) and again when she turns up in the Sword of Honour trilogy (“Everyone is a chum of Julia’s”). She was just too good a character for Waugh to use only once.
Her letters are filled with vivid snapshots of the great and famous. About “my darling President” (FDR to us), she reports to ten-year-old John Julius that at tea at the White House just after the repeal of the Neutrality Act, “if his legs had not been paralyzed he’d have danced a war-dance.” After a luncheon party at the palace alone with the king and queen and the two princesses, she reports, “They don’t listen to him much; it’s her family and household. ‘All right, Daddy,’ then a quick turn away and ‘What did you say, Mommy darling?’” About Truman Capote: “A sturdy little pink girl of fourteen, with her blonde straight hair plastered neatly down all round, short for her age in rather light grey trousers and turtle-necked sweater with feminine curves suggesting through.” Hemingway? “The greatest bore to end bores we’ve ever struck: gigantic, ugly, spectacles with fairy glasses.”
As for the Windsors (from an account in a letter to Conrad Russell of a royal cruise before the Abdication):
It’s impossible to enjoy antiquities with people who won’t land for them and who call Delphi Delhi. Wallis is wearing very very badly. Her commonness and Becky Sharpishness irritate…. The truth is she’s bored stiff by him.
And then there was Hitler, whom she and Duff encountered at a Nuremberg rally in 1933:
I watched him closely as he approached, as he passed, as he retreated, compelling my eyes and memory to register and retain. I found him unusually repellent and should have done so, I am quite sure, had he been a harmless little man. He was in khaki uniform with a leather belt buckled tightly over a quite protuberant paunch, and his figure generally was unknit and flabby. His dank complexion had a fungoid quality, and the famous hypnotic eyes that met mine seemed glazed and without life—dead colourless eyes.
That many of these descriptions appear in Diana’s letters to John Julius suggests the openness with which she always treated him—as the reliable, intelligent boy he seems always to have been. Diana had never been drawn to children yet very much wanted one, and when he was born, in 1929, it was by Caesarian, hence Julius. (Among his godparents, the Aga Khan, J.M. Barrie, and Lord Beaverbrook.) When in 1940 the bombing intensified, she panicked and sent him off to Canada, where he was installed in a good boarding school, spending vacations with Bill and Babe Paley. But then he was missed too badly, and the Coopers wangled his way home on a Royal Navy cruiser.
Diana’s letters to him are filled with good counsel. When, for instance, he’s abroad perfecting his French after quitting Eton:
Don’t get engaged or married in Strasbourg. You must see a world of women before you pick one and don’t get picked yourself, especially not in the street or bar. They’ll contaminate and deceive you and most probably give you diseases of all kinds and so…keep yourself and your love for something or somebody almost exactly like me, with a happier disposition.
She was always candid with him (and Duff) about her depressions. John Julius confirms that “‘melancholia,’ as she called it, had always been the bane of her life.”
Melancholia, and anxiety. “When I was six,” she wrote to her mother, “and you were late, I used to be sure of your murder and lie awake all night.” In London, Ziegler tells us, “she would rush from her bed to the window when he left in the morning to make sure he [Duff] survived the crossing of the road.” Once, in Monaco, she became hysterical when Duff was an hour late coming back from the casino, certain that he had been assassinated, and was relieved to learn that he had merely been visiting a lady friend. Her tenacious morbidity led her to imagine that she was dying of everything from heart failure to leprosy. She understood that she succumbed to her black moods when she was without occupation, excitement. “It’s not in my nature to be quiet. I have no wealth within me. All stimulus has to come through my eyes and ears and movement. Once still, I’m listless and blank and tortured by dread thought.”
Crushed as she was by Duff’s death, in 1954, in the thirty-two years that followed she kept going…and going. There were balls, parties, dinners; there was incessant travel—to Noël Coward in Switzerland; to Kenya, Portugal, Moscow, Washington, where she wowed the Kennedys. (“What a woman!” the president exclaimed.) She wrote and published her memoirs, spent time with John Julius and his family. And she was always driving—her favorite occupation. (At eighty-six she drove herself in her Mini to the north of Scotland and back.) But her driving, always erratic, got worse as her sight failed. Nor did she pay much attention to the rules, parking illegally and leaving notes for the traffic wardens. (“Dear Warden. Please try and be forgiving. I am 81 years old, very lame and in total despair.”) Then, John Julius reports, when she was eighty-nine, “she hit a traffic island in Wigmore Street. She drove straight home, locked the car, went up to bed and never drove again. ‘I never saw it,’ she told me later, ‘it might have been a child.’” And, he goes on, “She never left her bed again; there was no point.” She died in 1986, a few weeks before her ninety-fourth birthday.
In the final words of her memoirs she wrote:
Age wins and one must learn to grow old…so now I must learn to walk this long unlovely wintry way, looking for spectacles, shunning the cruel looking-glass, laughing at my clumsiness before others mistakenly condole, not expecting gallantry yet disappointed to receive none, apprehending every ache or shaft of pain, alive to blinding flashes of mortality, unarmed, totally vulnerable.
Yet, she concludes, “The long custom of living disinclines one to dying…. Besides, before the end, what light may shine?”