“I am very fond of Chips,” the London society hostess Maud Cunard declared in 1926, “and so is everyone else.” “I seem,” Chips himself remarked a few months earlier, “to be enormously popular.” Fondness and popularity are transient things, and Henry “Chips” Channon, a busy socialite and minor MP, would now be a mere footnote in political history, the fleeting flibbertigibbet of one or two other people’s diaries, if it weren’t for his own diary, the teeming, two-million-word monument to himself that he built up secretly, with occasional gaps, between 1918 and his death forty years later. The Diaries: 1918–38 is the first of three volumes that will present the text in as full a version as anyone is likely to need—its editor, Simon Heffer, says that cuts have been made “solely on the grounds of lack of interest,” and I guess he has included about 60 percent of the original. You might feel, even so, that such an edition gives Channon undue prominence, though the diary is a record of his follies as well as his successes—if the two can always be so clearly told apart.
“Chips” was the nickname he acquired at Oxford, though no one seems to know how. Perhaps it came out of some transatlantic joke about “fries,” or maybe it began as a mishearing of “Ships.” His father owed his fortune to a shipping business on the Great Lakes, and “Ships Channon” would have explained this well-off young Chicagoan to his fellow students at Christ Church, the poshest Oxford college.
The diary opens pre-Chips, in the last year of the Great War, with Henry, aged twenty, in Paris, where he’s a volunteer for the American Red Cross. He gives colorful accounts of the shelling of the city by German heavy artillery and the subsequent air raids, and he mentions “working hard, many long hours a day,” and later “overwork,” but the work itself remains vague. What excites him is that he’s living at the Ritz and is hugely in demand with the French aristocracy, on a typical day going “to luncheon with the Princesse d’Arenberg and to dine at the duchesse de Brissac’s.” When the air-raid sirens sound he takes shelter in the hotel’s cellars with a crowd of guests including Prince Luís of Spain (in mauve silk pajamas), the designer Elsie de Wolfe, the Duchess of Sutherland, and Winston Churchill. It’s a crowd that’s entirely characteristic of the vast social crush that the further three-thousand-odd pages of diary will describe. The index of volume 1 alone runs to fifty pages in triple columns. It is indispensable.
His friend Maurice de Rothschild attributes Channon’s “phenomenal” social success in Paris to his “extraordinary good looks and novelty”: he is “the embodiment of all that is young.” Channon was stocky, broad-faced, aquiline, with dark oiled-down hair parted off-center. Though he was born in 1897, he claimed for decades to be two years younger, until a mortifying exposure in the Sunday Express was published when he was forty-one.
His contempt for his father and mother, for Chicago (that “cauldron of horror”), and for America in general lent a special intensity to his identification with old Europe and its labyrinthine upper classes. I wish Heffer had said more in his introduction about Channon’s life before the diary opens—the time he had already spent in Europe, the schooling in Paris that must have made him fluently francophone but doesn’t explain how he came to be the darling of the faubourg Saint-Germain eight years later. The short spell at Oxford, a year after the war ended, seems to have confirmed his taste for high, and preferably royal, society. Thereafter he made his home in England, and in 1933 became a British citizen. He lived all his life on money provided by his father and later by his father-in-law, though his terrific energy and excitability meant he was capable of hard work. He certainly saw himself as playing a significant part in the affairs of his adopted country.
Channon published three books in his thirties, all forgotten now—a couple of novels and The Ludwigs of Bavaria, a study of the Wittelsbach royal family. His posthumous fame as a writer began in 1967, when a heavily censored reduction of his diaries was published, edited by the political historian and biographer Robert Rhodes James. One dimension of its interest was self-evident. At the age of thirty-six, after a decade of gallivanting, Channon married Lady Honor Guinness, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Iveagh, with an almost limitless brewing fortune on tap. Two years later he went into politics, following his mother-in-law as Conservative MP for Southend. His diary painted a crowded picture of London high society between the wars and gave a ringside view of British political affairs during the rise of fascism in Europe. Channon was strongly “pro-dictator” and worshiped Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler. He had a marvelous time as a guest of the Third Reich at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was a fierce advocate of appeasement. His pages were almost comically thick with “royalties”—the British royal family, of course, but also a large number of European kings, queens, princes, and princesses, often dislodged or in exile. The prince regent of Yugoslavia and Crown Prince “Fritzi” of Prussia were special friends. He was provided a riveting insider’s account of the romance of Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales, leading up to the high drama of the king’s abdication in December 1936.
The Rhodes James edition omitted the Paris and 1920s diaries entirely, and began in 1934, with the entries organized in narrative chapters. Its omission of the scandalous and the libelous was to be expected, since it appeared only nine years after Channon’s death, but the reader could not have been aware of the trimming, editing, and liberal rewriting of countless quite ordinary passages, or had more than a vague suspicion that a complex confessional picture of Channon’s private life had been suppressed. As Heffer reveals, Rhodes James was not allowed to see the original diaries at all and was obliged to work from bowdlerized transcripts prepared by Peter Coats, the writer and garden designer who was Channon’s boyfriend in the latter part of his life. The year 1967 may have brought the decriminalization of homosexual acts in England and Wales, but it was much too soon for anyone involved to want to come clean about Channon’s affairs with men, before, during, and after his marriage. As this new edition shows, Chips flirted with girls, found sexual relief with female prostitutes, and had friendships of “violent intimacy” with a number of grand and wealthy women, but the deep pull of his emotional life was toward men, male friendships, and masculine environments. The diary thus gives fascinating glimpses of queer desires and practices mixed in with a hectic narrative of social and political life, and of a failing marriage.
The new sexual details create their own surprise—not at the acts or fantasies themselves, but at the idea of a person you thought you knew performing or entertaining them. Sometimes everyone else was doing it too—going off to Paris with some rich pals for a weekend tour of the brothels or arriving at a country house party knowing that the hosts’ lovely daughters are “steeped in every vice” and that Sunday night will be an “orgy à quatre” until 4:30 in the morning. Other things are far more private. In Amsterdam Channon and a friend paid a couple of prostitutes and “soundly smacked their bottoms until they resembled large tomatoes.” But his interest in being spanked himself involved more furtive expeditions—so furtive that he traveled out to Richmond in southwest London by Underground, a very rare engagement with public transport. There he paid a sequence of visits to the critic, demonologist, and self-styled Catholic priest Montague Summers, who took him upstairs after dinner to his private chapel and beat him with his slipper, and on a later occasion with a dog whip. This answered a lack Channon felt of never having been beaten by a schoolmaster, and by extension of not having had the English boarding school experience that had shaped so many of his male friends.
Before his marriage Channon lived in two all-male ménages, first for a “gloriously exuberantly happy” two years in Mayfair with his Oxford friends Prince Paul of Serbia, “the love of my life,” and Henry, 6th Viscount Gage, always known for some reason as George. This sort of setup, of “‘chaps’ together,” was Chips’s ideal. When Paul went off to get married, Channon and Gage took a house near Buckingham Palace, where they lived in great but unequal intimacy for several years. Over a span of 150 pages of the diary we have a daily portrait of a kind of balked marriage, Chips ever more achingly in love with Gage, and Gage putting up with the adoration in a bemused, generally cheerful but sometimes grumpy manner.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a situation between two men described in any detail before—the practical niceties of cohabitation overlaid by Channon’s agonized but exhilarated feelings: “I think only of him…. I sometimes wish he would go blind so that I might show him and the rest of the world my love for him.” An entire culture of tacit understandings about gay feelings in this milieu and period glimmers just out of reach. To Gage, the bachelor twosome seems to have been happily homosocial; there was much lying round naked, chatting in the bath, and so on. Unlike Chips he had a job to go to, as lord in waiting to George V. He was always getting into uniform and dashing around the corner to the palace, and having a housemate who was also a doting slave must have been useful. He told Chips that he “wished I were a woman and then he would marry me,” and that he thought him “the best wife a man could possibly have.” They went on two trips together, each described by Chips as a “honeymoon,” but forlornly of course without the preceding nuptials.
Sexual tension was reduced by visits to a prostitute called Josephine, also frequented by Gage, and thus offering a further vicarious excitement. On occasion they went to a brothel together; Chips clearly liked seeing his male friends in action, and being seen. (“I am very attractive naked, as handsome as my face is dull.”) The great threat to this painfully pleasurable status quo was Imogen “Mogs” Grenfell, daughter of the detested Lady Desborough, a famous hostess who took a dim view of Chips’s habit of waiting to write thank-you letters until he could use the stationery of the even grander house he’d gone to stay in next. Gage announced his engagement to Mogs while Channon was on one of his reluctant visits to his family in Chicago, and on the back of his telegram Chips wrote, “Le cœur cas[s]é”—the heart broken. He pulled himself together to be Gage’s best man, but after that the spell was broken too: “How could I once have been fond of him?—gauche, rude, unfeeling and dull”; “Never again will I do anything for him.”
The meeting with and marriage to Honor Guinness occurred during a five-year gap with no diary, and we’re pitched back into the story six months after their wedding, fairly curious to know how it happened. Did Gage’s marriage to Mogs both free him and set an example? Honor was twelve years younger than Chips, and in photographs has a long-faced, somewhat absent look that you feel might turn actively mutinous. Their son, Paul, was born two years into the marriage. Honor must have been swept along on Chips’s social energy, through the incessant round of parties and dinners, many at their own house in St James’s, and then in the much grander house her parents bought for them in Belgrave Square, where their glamorous neighbors were the Duke and Duchess of Kent.
After a while, though, Honor is leaving parties earlier than her husband, and after three and a half years of the marriage she’s showing signs of leaving that too. When Chips comes home after two weeks’ skiing in the Italian Alps, Honor remains there for a further two months. Is she having an affair with her skiing instructor? Before the truth comes out, she breaks off conjugal relations—“never in our case particularly successful”; he mourns the rupture above all because he longs for a second child. The next three hundred pages give a muddled and grimly convincing picture of an estrangement, carried on under a strained performance of marital normality. Chips asks himself constant questions. Is she mad? Is she handicapped by her vast wealth? She’s “heartless,” “incapable of warmth,” and moreover “not helpful to me in my career.” He rarely seems to wonder what his own responsibility might be in all this. When a doctor at the end of this volume explains that “she manufactures too much thyroid,” a diagnostic light falls over the misery of the previous year, though evidently does not explain all that has gone wrong.
“People are never truthful in regard to their sexual kinks,” Channon observes in the period after Honor has “dropped the matrimonial portcullis,” when he feels the lure of male intimacy all the more strongly. Soon he is falling for his fellow Tory MP Jim Thomas, the “dark, vague, selfish, self-centred, faun-like young man whom I find irresistible,” driving lovestruck past his house late at night, “talking” till 3 AM, “nights of drink and lechery.” The diary is truthful but not the whole truth—there’s a sense of desires peeping out but shy to be named, even here. One night Chips puts Jim to bed; a bit later he records that Jim has crabs. The next morning “I feel anti-Jim…. I wish friendships were not so hazardous.” His feelings seesaw like a teenager’s for the best part of a year, until he comes to think that Jim has “the heart of a cocotte,” “the soul of a courtesan,” and at last, with the special scorn reserved for his own amatory mistakes, “not enough brains to fill a mouse’s French letter.” There’s something touching as well as funny in these glimpses of a covert gay romance. It’s an attraction without the usual aphrodisiac of rank, an office affair born out of the House of Commons, the “brown, smelly, tawny, male paradise” that Chips adores.
As a diarist, and as a stylist, uncensored Channon veers between the caustic and the idolatrous. He was by temperament a hero-worshiper and a fluent coiner of corny epithets that give an added frisson to his close contact with the famous: “Mrs Keppel, ever an enchantress of kings”; Prince Paul of Serbia, “the arbiter of Europe”; George V, “the monarch of the world.” But this novelettish sensibility, the tone of cheap historical romance, is combined with a sharp eye and tongue. The prompt epigrammatic obituaries worked into the diary prove his acquaintance with the dead while seizing the chance to say what he thought about them: Earl Haig, the British commander on the Western Front for most of the Great War, “was an unimpressive, uninspiring man. No one knew, loved or disliked him.” J.M. Barrie may have added Peter Pan to our literature, but he was “snobbish, boring and petulant.” Boredom was no doubt a constant hazard in Chips’s milieu, and he calls out bores whenever he can. Arthur Colefax, the husband of the interior designer Sybil Colefax, “was a good man, talented, high-idealled, kind and boring beyond belief.”
For a passionate royalist like Channon, the heir to the throne is naturally a great prize, his boringness as a man overlaid by imperial-scale glamour. At Lady Curzon’s ball in February 1926, “the Prince of Wales was charming and we had a long talk about our American friends. Everyone noticed…” But this enhanced mood is far from constant. He can find the prince “surly and ill at ease,” and repeatedly “looking rather vulgar.” On one occasion he looks “like a racing tout”; he has a “dentist smile.” Yet as Edward VIII he inspires Chips’s loftiest gush: he is the “adored Apollo,” the “world’s idol,” the “beautiful boy King” (he was forty-two at the time, two years older than Chips himself). His affair with Wallis Simpson is “one of the greatest romances in all history.” What a “temptation for a Baltimore girl! To espouse the Emperor of the earth.”
It was of course a supreme instance of the American assimilation into British society that Chips had devoted his life to—or could have been, if only the king had played his cards more adroitly, had his coronation, and then married the love of his life. Here Channon’s American common sense fails to get the measure of the powerful reasons of state and church preventing such a plan. The insight he has into the case is more psychological. He notes how Mrs. Simpson “enormously improved” the prince, and thinks her good, kindly, and clever; he sees how Edward, who was marvelous at being Prince of Wales, “will mind so terribly being King. His loneliness, his seclusion, his isolation will be almost more than his highly strung and not imaginative nature can bear.” Also, if the king abdicates Chips will no longer be in favor with the royal family, and this adds to his gloom at the prospect of the new king, George VI, who is “completely uninteresting, undistinguished and a godawful bore!”
The change of regime threatens the end of an age of fun conjured up in the previous six-hundred-odd diary pages: a world both crowded and strangely confined. The fun is relentless. An average day might see a long large lunch, an early-evening drinks party before dinner at 9, then on to the Duchess of York’s, perhaps, for her party starting at 11:30 PM, or maybe to a ball, home anytime between 3 and 6:30 AM—this several times a week. In the 1920s fancy-dress balls are all the rage. The Prince of Wales comes as a sheik and changes costume several times during the night; at the end he is “dressed as a girl in a pink gingham frock, socks and drawers…very painted and wearing a yellow wig”; Chips can only tell it’s him from “a nervous mannerism he has with his right hand.” A sense of telltale nervous twitches largely hidden by a life in masquerade emerges almost inadvertently as the vast gossip column of the diary rolls on. Chips’s desire to be known and seen is shot through now and then by disillusion at the world of “fashionable cretins…but then am I not one?” Eventually it takes its toll: “I’m tired of being ‘tiddly’ by night and ‘gaga’ by day”; and from time to time, the tired socialite exclaims, “I am only really happy alone.” It’s a telling riposte to another confession: “I am only happy really with royalty.”
Channon’s mesmerized obsession with titles and rank has its counterpart in a fatuous horror of the “middle-class” and the “common,” and a twittish disregard for the “gaping proletariat.” His daily existence was sustained and made possible by a large body of servants, but they’re next to invisible here. His life appears to float on a cloud of blind entitlement. One rare evening he finds himself alone at home, “this vast house, and only me—and thirteen servants” (though might there be something very slightly common in knowing the exact number?). The rare mentions of staff come when they do something wrong—fail to fill an inkwell or don’t know their way to the Ritz. No one can have been more important to the grandiose social life at Belgrave Square than the cook, who is never once referred to; if cooks are mentioned at all it’s as a type of commonness—Lady Cambridge “looks and talks like a cook”; the New York hostess Mrs. Goelet is “an amiable cook-like person.”
You might think this made him an unlikely candidate as MP for Southend, a large seaside resort popular with working-class Londoners. His attitude toward it was at first frankly careerist—“about five or ten years here and then a peerage” (which is something he repeatedly craves; a knighthood, the year before he died, was as far as he was to get). It’s mainly a question of what the “frumps and snobs” of Southend can do for him: Will they “help or hate me?”
The key to his success as a candidate and as a constituency MP was surely his craving of favor, the recurrent need to be “popular.” Southend had been held by his father-in-law and then by his mother-in-law for a total of twenty-three years, so there was also a family tradition to maintain. He surprised himself by his ease as a public speaker, drew on his great natural energy, and soon found that he had indeed become “very, very popular.” The affairs of his constituents possibly occupied more of the original diary than they do here, where they go almost unnoticed. He gives a woman £5 because he’s sorry for her, but when in 1937 he receives a deputation from Southend complaining of high food prices, he finds his sympathy for them dies after they say something “tactless” and “ill-informed,” and he writes that “one suddenly hates them, and all democracy as well.” Nonetheless, he was a success, and he too was their MP for twenty-three years.
Channon’s tendency to extreme fandom of the powerful is no doubt an expression of his own ambition, and is by turns engaging and troubling. The lineup of heroes worshiped in this volume starts with Lord Curzon. Channon had a way of charming grand and unapproachable old men, and in his earlier English life Curzon, who’d been viceroy of India for six years and foreign secretary for five, was a very grand example indeed, “the last of the patricians, the great political Olympians.” Curzon’s stepson, Hubert Duggan, “beautiful, strong and nectar-like,” was a friend and crush of Channon’s, and Curzon, you feel, was the sort of father Channon himself might have liked to have. Curzon’s last illness, death, and funeral in 1925 give the diary the first of those elegiac sequences in which Channon is an intimate witness to state affairs—the more so as Curzon’s second wife, Grace, an immensely wealthy widow from Decatur, Alabama, was one of several titled American women who became close friends of his.
Channon’s heroes of the 1930s are altogether more alarming. He was no doubt far from alone among MPs, then or now, in having a political mind of dogmatic simplicity, while seeing himself as a subtle and influential schemer. (His greatest political eminence came during a brief period in 1938 as parliamentary private secretary to the undersecretary at the Foreign Office, Rab Butler.) His interpretation of European affairs in the 1930s was the widely shared one that fascism in its various national forms was a necessary bulwark against Bolshevism, but he also shows a keen susceptibility to the Führerprinzip, a toxic version of his recurrent, and often merely silly, excitement at being close to power. He is electrified by the presence of Mussolini: “Suddenly the door opened and one had the impression that God himself had entered…. He held the audience spellbound. Cold chills ran down my spine.” In Berlin in 1936 he is in the arena when Hitler enters, and here again, “One felt one was in the presence of some semi-divine creature.” When the Anschluss occurs two years later, Channon is exasperated by the British failure to understand that the culture of Nazism is “vital and new, and infinitely stimulating.” That September, as Hitler threatens the Sudetenland, “He is always right, always the greatest diplomat of modern times.”
At the Berlin Olympics Channon had been a ready dupe for Nazi propaganda and was entirely taken in by a visit to a labor camp, repeopled for the purpose with “smiling and clean” eighteen-year-olds, “fair, healthy and sunburned.” But the diaries make horribly clear that his excitement at Nazism also fed on his own anti-Semitism, expressed in a casual, lurking contempt for Jewish friends such as Philip Sassoon and the Liberal MP and war minister Leslie Hore-Belisha: a semi-sedated prejudice easily reawakened. He records grotesque fantasies of shouting “Heil Hitler!,” on one occasion at a Jewish businessmen’s dinner in his own constituency. To a reader amused by the social whirl of the diaries, such things make disturbing reading, but Heffer was right to leave these and other even more offensive things in, not only for the fullness of the portrait but because they help explain the widespread British reluctance to take Hitler’s genocidal program seriously.
Heffer speaks of the diaries as revealing “a connoisseur’s knowledge of the fine arts, particularly painting, of architecture and of literature,” but I’m not sure this is right. Perhaps Channon was mimicking an aristocratic attitude toward houses and pictures as things inherited and taken for granted; to talk earnestly about pictures or books would be middle-class. At the age of twenty-six he makes an intriguing allusion to “my adored primitifs…Mabuse, Lucas van Leyden,” etc., hinting at a study of art history; but beyond that, “What marvellous pictures!” is his routine reaction to paintings. His engagement with contemporary culture is limited to figures on the edge of his own social scene, like Noël Coward, the painter Rex Whistler, or the composer Lord Berners. The writers who define the 1930s for us are not on his radar. (When Virginia Woolf dies in 1941 he surely gives a glimpse of the reason: she “did much indirectly to make England so Left.”)
It’s not until page 173 in the diary that Chips mentions reading a book at all—Casanova’s memoirs, which intrigue him, perhaps as a phantom model for his own diary, “absorbing and yet…dull enough in themselves”; he suspects that the life of anyone in his own world would be “more illuminating if as candidly revealed.” That’s the most he ever says about anything he’s read. Going to the theater is primarily a social business—“we went to a play”—and his review of Coward’s Hay Fever can be given in full: “It is very amusing.” Nights at the opera are valued above all for conversations he has in the interval. Götterdämmerung, he says, “soothes me” (an unusual reaction); at a performance of Otello, “Mr Verdi did the trick; I snored and slept for four acts.”
What excited Channon was display—what he calls his “curious baroque bad taste” but also his “flair, intuition, great good taste”: it’s not clear if he himself sensed the contradiction. Once he’s married to the daughter of an earl he becomes all the more obsessed with money, status, and possessions; their guests dine off gold plates—“All our plate looked lovely and we have a great deal.” His parents-in-law keep shyly pressing millions on him, riches “incalculable,” and set up a trust of £52,000 (some £3.7 million in today’s money) for them to buy a country house. They choose Kelvedon Hall, a red-brick Georgian mansion in Essex, though even before they’ve moved in Chips worries “whether Kelvedon is really grand enough for us?”
He loved fitting up houses, and at Belgrave Square the pièce de résistance was the dining room, modeled on the Hall of Mirrors in the Amalienburg in Munich, a masterpiece of rococo decoration built two hundred years earlier for the wife of Charles VII, one of his admired Wittelsbachs, and “a symphony in blue and silver,” the Bavarian colors. It was Chips’s way of expressing his inner German princeling, and a setting designed to lure and dazzle those who would most validate his fantasy of himself: his neighbors the Duke and Duchess of Kent, the Duke’s mother, Queen Mary (“I have never known such praise; she felt the walls in her black-gloved fingers, she patted the stove”), and, supremely, King Edward VIII, who came to dinner in June 1936, “the very peak, the summit, I suppose of social superiority.”
Heffer as editor can be a touch fogeyish (“Miss Mitford” and “Mrs Woolf”), and it’s not until a footnote on page 127 that he tells us Channon was bisexual; “close companion” is his genteel term for Coats. But his footnotes are astonishingly thorough in their pinning down of even the most peripheral figures in the diary. Since Channon’s friends were often called things like Princess Marie Franziska Anna zu Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingfürst von Ratibor und Corvey (1895–1946), they tend to take up quite a lot of space. On details of the British aristocracy, Heffer shows a thoroughness bordering on redundancy, though it’s quite in the spirit of Channon himself, whose command of every detail of the peerage was evidently at championship level.
It’s hard to describe the experience of reading this book straight through, the surprising compulsion of the diary form. The effect of seeing the world, over nearly a thousand pages, from the point of view of this rich, muddled, busy, and ambitious man is to feel admiration for the habit, and discipline, of writing so full a record, and a kind of awe at his conviction of its importance. The next volume will see him, in 1940, burying the diaries along with his Fabergé bibelots in Kelvedon churchyard, and in 1951 he will deposit “many volumes” of it in the British Museum; in his will he encouraged his heirs to publish the diary fifty years after his death, so he’s had his way, if a little later than planned.
The unfolding of a diary is always an adventure, a novel in which the writer has no prior knowledge of the plot. There is self-revelation both calculated and unconscious. It sounds perverse to say that Channon’s snobberies and prejudices make the diaries, but the unabashed exposure of these failings gives you an oddly impressive picture of a person in the setting of his time—the picture, I mean, is absorbing, whatever the subject’s shortcomings. And though this colossal self-portrait describes much that’s misguided, vain, and idiotic, it prompts you too to imagine those perishable qualities that history and biography so often fail to capture: the charm, generosity, personal magnetism, and brilliance of conversation that must have explained and sustained Chips’s progress, the “success after success” that the diaries record and celebrate. When so much is preserved you have a keener sense of how much is lost.