Harry Bensley, 1876-1956: Around the World in an Iron Mask

The first war ruined so many good things.  International travel, for one thing. The story goes that (Englishman) Rupert Brooke was able to cross America with nothing more than a personal calling card. My own (American) grandfather made a pre-war bicycle tour with nothing more than a Bicycle Club ID. His 1915 passport (US) is a single piece of heavy paper folded wallet size, with all the signs of haste in the planning and execution.

So the story of Harry Bensley (that’s him on the left)  is a fraction less preposterous than it seems.  Continue reading

John Harrington, 1561-1612 : Toilet Humor

Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?
If treason prosper, none dare call it treason

Old joke, and a good one.  The other night we were trying to remember whose it was.  Too light hearted for Milton.  Too old timey for Dr. Johnson.  Not quite good enough for Shakespeare, but about that period.

It was John Harrington.

He was one of your basic old Etonians who went on to Cambridge. He was also the godson of Elizabeth I, which connection helped him get a minor place at court.  He was witty, or close enough for courtly work.   Seemed to have a taste for dirty jokes.  They must have been utterly filthy – the story is they got him exiled to Kelston, near Bath.*  Well, the jokes, and the stuff insulting the government in general Continue reading

Thomas Whittemore, 1871 – 1950: Touching the Face of God

“…a man whom professional archaeologists and scholars dismissed as a pretentious amateur; and indeed, he had gift for making himself appear to be a charlatan.  …his persuasive powers enabled him to raise funds from rich American ladies, whom he handled with superb artifice….”

That’s Steven Runciman talking about Thomas Whittemore.

It’s about as sharp as Runciman ever gets, and you have to wonder where the D List rating for the poor fellow comes from.  Well, he went to Tufts despite being a Cambridge native for one thing, and he read English literature for another, and indeed, taught English there after graduation.  He sort of fell into the whole art history thing gradually and over time, and teaching both subjects in places like NYU and Columbia before going whole hog into the art side.  Did a little field work in Egypt before the first war, in which war his bit was chiefly humanitarian (French Red Cross) and some relief work in Anatolia, which are helped feed his Byzantine obsession.  Continue reading

William Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936 ): A Man of Few Parts

February, 1910.  Herbert Cholmondeley of the Foreign Office arrived at Paddington Station with a delegation of Emperor of Abyssinia in England on an official business.  He approached the stationmaster-  it seemed the dignitaries had planned a visit to HMS Dreadnought, pride of the British navy, down in Weymouth.  Would the station master be able to arrange a private car for the honored guests?  He could,  and he did.   Once arrived at their destination, the princes were greeted by an honor guard, and the national anthem of Zanzibar was played.  The foreign visitors were allowed to inspect the fleet and even bestowed military honors on some of the officers.   Mr. Chomondeley translated for the exotics,  and regretted that they could not stay for lunch for religious reasons. Continue reading

Count Alfred D’Orsay, 1801-1845: Charmed, I’m Sure

The one difficulty in Brideshead Revisited (okay, there are a lot of difficulties in Brideshead Revisited, but I’m only interested in one of them) is the question Sebastian Flyte’s charm.

We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but somehow it never quite gets off the page. Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise, the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd. Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.

As with Sebastian, so with Alfred. That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man. His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare. While the general was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit, Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others. (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.) Continue reading

Diana Vreeland, 1903-1989: The Scarlet Empress of Fashion

Empress of Fashion A Life of Diana Vreeland
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Harper 536 pages

All the stories that circulate about editrices of Vogue make a colorful mosaic of anecdotes.  There are the tales of Anna Wintour’s dislike of elevators, and her consequent habit of being conveyed  upstairs in makeshift palanquins by young lackeys, there are the ones of Jessica Daves, Vreeland’s predecessor in the top spot, who is reported to have said, “NO!” to a skirt three or four inches above the knee, very ill advisedly in 1962.  But neither of these ladies, however idiosyncratic, was ever a patch on Vreeland, who was a walking agglomeration of eccentricities.   Continue reading

Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

Read at any length about the Vietnam war and you will come across accounts of American GIs ditching  their M-16 rifles in favor of Kalashnikovs, a weapon better suited to abuse and jungle life.   It’s not the first nor probably the last time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in World War One, there was a similar problem with the Mark III Ross rifle, the brain child of  Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross.

Ross was born at Balnagown, Scotland, one of those Downton Abbey type estates, encompassing 350,000 (eventually 366,000) acres and 3,000 tenants.  He inherited the Baronetcy at age eleven,  making the lucky pre-teen the largest landowner in Scotland.  Continue reading

Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855; The Man Who Loved Lobster

I have a vague memory of a Robert Graves essay in which he decries people who steal jokes.  (Google is useless in finding it, suggestions welcome.)  One takes his point.

I have a stronger memory, easily googled, of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in his very best Sebastian Flyte mode walking his pet lobster about Magdalen College Oxford.  Ah, young wit!

Witty, but not original.

Though there may be others, I’m guessing that the first of the lobster walkers was the French poet Nerval.  And he had reasons other than style. Continue reading

Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957): The Case of Byron’s Slippers

I was reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor and came across the anecdote of Lord Byron’s slippers.  I’d read it before (it’s part of Leigh Fermor’s book of travels in Greece, Roumeli) , but I had forgotten it long since.  The only reason I pricked up my ears this time is that it referred to Judith Blunt-Lytton, 16th Baroness Wentworth,  who I had occasion to mention in this previous post.

Fermor first.  He was a cheerfully wayward autodidact , charmer, adventurer, writer, war hero and social climber who had a particular affection for all things Greek.

As a favor to a friend who was trying to compile a definitive collection of Lord Byron’s letters with a view towards publication (it happened, you can find them here),  Leigh Fermor and a friend  who happened to be on good terms with Lady Wentworth went down to Crabbet Hall for lunch. Continue reading

John Elwes, 1714 – 1789: Bah, Humbug

The man was said to be the template for Ebenezer Scrooge, and superficially there seems something of a case to be made.  In the end, however, he was far stranger than that, and one wonders that Dickens could not have done more with him.

He was born John Meggot (or Meggott) to a prosperous brewer who died when John was four years old, leaving a fortune of over £150,000.   Bereaved by her loss and presumably terrified of going into principle, Mom died of starvation.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man man possessed of a good fortune (and unencumbered by parents)  must be in want of a good time.  He had been a scholar at Westminster, liked high society, and liked riding. He liked travel as well, and spent some time in  Switzerland.  (Voltaire was supposedly the main attraction- Elwes preferred the horses.)  Continue reading