A strangerlooking at the woman I was in the summer of 1937 might have wondered why an education was so important to me. I had a good job. I wrote a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance then as now, and the important people of the film industry bowed low before me. I had many friends in Robert Benchley's set, which comprised some of the most interesting people in Hollywood. I didn't know too much about the events of the day, or about anything, but no one seemed to care. I listened without interrupting when Bob and his friends discussed books and politics, and was careful to nod with a practised look of intelligence during the pauses. I could have settled happily into my role of pleasant scenery, but I wanted to be more like them. I wanted to know as much as they did. I was like a balloon filled with air, smooth and soft to the touch, but God help me if anyone flicked a pin. I was afraid someone would expose me as a fake and there would be laughter at my stupidity and lack of learning. It was lonely always being on the outside. I was usually on edge, always vaguely guilty.
Perhaps the guilt had started at the London orphanage to which my ailing and widowed mother had dispatched me at the age of six (my father had died when I was a baby). If I had been a valuable person, I thought to myself, why would my mother banish me to such a dreadful place? Why were the children I read about in books living at home with their parents? Was it because I was homely and afflicted with an eczema rash? I was sullen, unfriendly, and my hair, like that of the other girls, was cropped to the skull and would remain so until I was twelve. Obviously I was the kind of child who could not be loved in a home. As far back as I can remember, there was a sense of apprehension, the waiting for an axe to fall.
I was surprised when I evolved into the brightest student at the orphanage. Sometimes my mind would take fascinating leaps. I could usually solve arithmetic problems as fast as they were written on the blackboard. But on days when I was unhappy there was a numbness that terrified me. All I had was a brain, and if it did not function there was no reason at all to admire me.
The school system of the orphanage depended on the City of London for support and followed the standard curriculum for County Council grade schools—what we call in America public schools. Today in England you cannot leave school until you are fifteen. In my time at the orphanage, we left at fourteen, accompanied by a wooden box containing a coat, a skirt, two blouses, two calico nightgowns, and two changes of underwear. I had something extra, three books—prizes.
Looking back, I suppose I probably learned more at the orphanage than I would have learned at home in the East End of London. It was better than playing in the streets. Our education and recreation took place where we lived. We depended upon one another. Cheeky newcomers were soon brought into line. We developed a double code of ethics, for ourselves and for the bullying teachers. It was important to me to be admired. Other girls were popular because they were outgoing or pretty. I could earn admiration by my prowess in the classroom.
Books were the breath of my existence. David Copperfield was my favourite—the first part. His childhood was worse than mine. My Mr Murdstone was the headmaster, but he was a remote dragon, except for the terrifying times when I happened to pass him and he would for no apparent reason give me a whack across the back to speed me on my way. Charles Kingsley's delightful story Water Babies, in which the children attended schoolunder water, enthralled me. They were spanked when naughty, but always lovingly. Bernard Shaw has written that children will accept being smacked by their parents as long as they know the parents love them. When we were beaten at the orphanage, there was a lack of interest which made the blows more painful. I longed to meet someone like the hero of Daddy Longlegs, my second favourite book. The heroine had been adopted by a handsome trustee of her orphanage and sent to a good school where parents or guardians paid for the privilege and the children went home for the “hols”. I devoured stories like The Girls at Hadley Hall. It was the next best thing to going there. When I was Head Prefect, I tried to follow the same impossibly high code of conduct. Those girls were proud of their school, and I tried to be proud of mine.
I thrilled to epic songs and poems, the rousing Welsh song “Men of Harlech”, “Rule, Britannia”. I dreamed of performing acts of heroism, like Boadicea, the British warrior queen at war with the Romans, who
Rushed to battle, fought and died,
Dying, hurled them at the foe:
Ruffians, pitiless as proud,
Heaven awards the vengeance due.
Empire is on us bestowed
Shame and ruin wait for you.
And there was the brave Sir Richard Grenville—
At Flores in the Azores, Sir Richard Grenville lay,
And a pinnace, like a flutter'd bird, came flying from far away.
“Spanish ships of war at sea! We have sighted fifty—three!”…
Then sware Lord Thomas Howard,” “Fore God I am no coward.”
He wanted to flee because they were six to fifty—three, but Sir Richard wouldn't hear of it. They went down, of course, but were patriotic to the last gurgle of water. Iwept for them and was proud of being British, as 1 was in the poem I wrote at the orphanage on the Battle of the Somme:
We came out victorious
As Englishmen always do,
But still we were precautious
And so were our allies too.
This wasn't much worse than my play Dame Rumor, written in 1938 under the supervision of Scott Fitzgerald and abandoned after the second act. At twelve I wrote an essay titled “The Night” that began, “When twilight visits the earth, and the world is shrouded in a thick mist of darkness.” Not very good, but it was considered brilliant at the orphanage, and I was made to recite it to the assembled school. I knew it by heart and afterwards repeated every word over and over, remembering all the eyes fixed admiringly on me. We put on a revue for the teachers, and, wearing a soldier's cap and a cane with the drab school uniform, I marched up and down on a stage made of long dining tables and sang:
“I'm Burlington Bertie,
I rise at ten—thirty …
I stroll down the Strand
With my gloves on my hand,
And when I come back they are off…
I'm Bert, Bert,
And royalty's hurt,
When they ask me to dine I say no.
I've just had a banana
With Lady Diana.
I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow.”
Another girl, a blonde cherub, sang:
“I'm Pierre de Bon Ton de Paris, de Paris.
I drink to ze wine, eau de vie, eau de vie.
When I walk in ze park
All my friends zey remark,
‘He's Pierre de Bon Ton de Paris, de Paris.’”
I would have preferred to sing that one because of the French.
I can never forget the songs of the orphanage.
Here, a sheer hulk, lies poor Tom Bowling,
The darling of our crew—oo;
No more he'll hear the tempest howling,
For death has broached him to.
Some of the words don't make sense, but that is what I sang. And “Where the bee sucks, there suck T. And “Night of love and night of stars” from Tales of Hoffman, and from where I don't— know, “Buddha made the harvest and made the winds to blow, Sitting at the doorway of a day of long ago”. I could sing you the rest but I can hear my daughter saying firmly, “No, Mother. No.”
After being clumsy as a child, I became well co—ordinated simply because I longed to be. I had to shine in all areas of endeavour, and sports were important. In my last year I was appointed captain of the girls” cricket team —the only team at the school ever to beat the boys. How proud I was of that. I can still hear them calling, “Lily Shiel [my real name], are you ready?” And me drawing a deep breath and replying, “I am ready.”
There were debates at the orphanage. One I remember: Monarchy versus a Republic. The headmaster called my name unexpectedly to lead the side for the Republic. I was thirteen and, beneath the cocksure exterior, full of uncertainty and shyness. My cheeks burned. I looked wildly for escape. There was none. Everybody was looking at me, waiting. My mind has always worked fast when I am in danger. Like a shaft of heavenly light, the sudden memory came to me from a Bible class that God had been very much against the children of Israel having a king. He had insisted that a God was enough. They wanted a king and had crowned Saul and after him David and all the others. But disaster had followed, and now look where we all were. I was complimented by several teachers for making such a good case. I could notstop repeating what I had said. As later, when Constance Bennett called me the biggest bitch in Hollywood and I replied quickly, “Not the biggest bitch, Connie, the second biggest bitch.” Saying it over and over, weeping, as I drove home. I sometimes think I have a record—player in my head.
In the winter of my thirteenth year I decided to teach myself French. I had found a small French dictionary, and I can see myself after a supper of two slices of grey—white bread covered with rancid margarine, and a watery mixture they called cocoa, sitting on the lukewarm heating pipes that spanned the classroom floor and memorizing French words but not knowing how to pronounce them. French was the language of the well—educated young ladies at Hadley Hall. In the other exclusive schools I read about, the girls all struggled with French. Even then I wanted to be as good as the best. I was trying to create my own College of One.
I was two classes ahead of my closest rival, and it was suggested to my mother that I try for a scholarship that would ultimately take me to a university where I would be trained to teach. I wanted to go to college, although the idea of taking the examinations alarmed me. What if my brain had one of its numb periods and the fallibility of my scholastic prowess was exposed? My genuine disappointment was mixed with relief when my mother informed the headmaster that the scholarship was not possible. She needed me at home to do the housework and look after her. She was dying of cancer. If things had been different, I might have had my education then. I probably would not have come to America, halfway round the world to Hollywood and Scott Fitzgerald.
And then, as if rocketing to another planet, I was blasted from my warm place as the best student at school, admired by my contemporaries, revered by the smaller girls, a big figure on the sports field, debating on this and that, reading the poems of the nineteenth—century social reformer Elizabeth Fry in an impassioned voiceand dreaming of conquering the magical world outside—to the reality of scrubbing floors, waiting my turn at the food shops, scraping fish, cooking, washing dishes, washing clothes, and looking after my poor uncomplaining mother.
My education froze at the point of leaving the orphanage. I had a fair amount of English history, including the First World War, a faint smattering of European history and ancient Rome—I would never forget Pope Gregory the Great's comment on the blond blue—eyed English slaves, “Angels, not Angles”—nothing of American history except a brief chapter on the war of 1776. Later, when my College of One professor mentioned the War of 1812, I didn't know what he was talking about. The mowing down of the British at the Battle of New Orleans was absent from my history books at the orphanage. My arithmetic had reached: If Farmer John's 15 chickens lay 30 eggs in 4 days, how many chickens would be required to lay 72 eggs in 6 days? This problem was always difficult for me to solve even when my brain was racing. Songs, but no knowledge of music. No art at all, although we drew some still lifes, flowers and an occasional apple or orange. I had no talent for painting and envied the girls whose daffodils and fruit were recognizable. My handwriting is poor to this day. The subjects taught were simple history, geography, arithmetic, and English—very little grammar, and mine has always been weak. I understand verbs because Scott Fitzgerald explained they were essential to good writing, but I still sometimes have to be reminded of what a pronoun is, and I have never quite conquered the 'I” and “me” puzzle. This is what I learned during my childhood. It wasn't bad, considering the circumstances, but it wasn't much and it stopped too soon.
At home in the East End, I lived only to visit the nearby dance halls, where my new prettiness (my skin had emerged petal—smooth from the years of eczema) brought me the same kind of attention from the Cockney seventeen— and eighteen—year—old boys that my excellence as a student had given me at the orphanage. Perhaps my looks would be a door of escape from the drudgery at home. I dreamed of “Young Lochinvar'—a favourite poem at the orphanage—who would come out of the West, lift me on to his white charger, and away we would go. I never quite knew where, but it would be a place where people were admired without the pressure of having to be the brightest scholar. I couldn't guess that Young Lochinvar would be an exhausted, married, middle—aged American author.
In the East End no one cared that I could recite poetry by the yard and that I knew all the dates of the English kings. Having a smart line with boys was more important. Dancing. Hokey—Pokies (ice—cream sandwiches) afterwards. Pressing hard against the boy. Kissing passionately in doorways. Reading the News of the World. Wondering about the girls who, according to the newspaper, were raped or who vanished mysteriously in the alarming business of white slave traffic. You must never go off with a stranger. He or she might be an agent. You would vanish into a brothel in South America and be cast out when you were twenty—five, old and broken. It was safer to tease the boys to the limit and remain technically pure for the knight who would carry you off to his castle and marry you.
We were all in the same boat in the East End. We had all left our schoolbooks at the age of fourteen. No one asked embarrassing questions, nor did many persons ask them later in my “society” period—for different reasons. The poor didn't know. The well—educated were so sure of their position that there was no necessity to discuss what they had learned at Eton, Harrow, Oxford, Cambridge, or the smart finishing schools in Paris or Lausanne.
If my mother had not died when I was seventeen, I might have married one of my ardent dance partners and lived ignorant ever afterwards. I would certainly nothave met my first husband, Major John Graham Gillam d.s.o., and, at his urging, emigrated to America. However, it is a probability that I would have left the East End. From the time I had been taken with my class at the orphanage to the Tower of London, an expedition that culminated in the West End with tea and currant buns at Selfridge's on Oxford Street, I had dreamed of revisiting that dazzling community. While my friends in Stepney and Bow were content with the movie palaces in the neighbourhood—if you went alone, as I sometimes did in the afternoon, you were likely to find a male hand halfway up your clothes—Saturday night would usually find me in the gallery queue for a musical comedy in the West End. If I could not get anyone to go with me, I went alone. From the top tier of the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand I saw the first Chariot's Revue, with Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence. I have never forgotten Miss Lillie's monotone rendition of 'I've got ten baby fingers and ten baby toes, waiting there for me, down in Tennessee”. When we sang it together not long ago, I knew the words better than she did.
I sometimes wonder how I jumped the barrier. In England your accent is the straitjacket that holds you securely in the class to which you are born—with some exceptions now. If you can sing and play a guitar, and come from Liverpool, you might go pretty far. It's easier in America, where ambition, success, or merely the desire can erase the class and poverty lines.
After my mother died and I obtained a job selling toothbrushes at Gamage's store in Holborn, halfway between the East End and West End, I decided to go all the way and live in a boarding house in Sussex Gardens, a brisk five—minute walk from Oxford Street and Selfridge's. I was immediately aware that Major Gillam was “class' when he bought a toothbrush from me and at the same time offered me a job. He had the voice and manner I remembered from the trustees at the orphanage. He was a gentleman. I knew that even before he said, “By Jove!'which I imagined was standard conversation for majors. He was in his early forties, very handsome, and I fell in love with him.
Major Gillam, an agent for iron and steel foundries on the Continent, with a soft—goods department—lamps, laces, clocks, Turkish delight—on the side, had two girl secretaries and a young man assistant, who whenever he deigned to notice me was scornful, or so I thought. While the two secretaries were less class—conscious, one in particular made no attempt to hide her amusement at my mispronunciation of the French words that sometimes came up in the letters I was delegated to close and stamp. Major Gillam had written a book, A Gallipoli Diary, and was engaged on another that necessitated frequent visits to the British Museum. When he asked me to go with him, I hastily invented an excuse. He would be aware at once that I was extremely ignorant. I have learned since that time that men who are in love are not interested in whether the girl knows an A from a B at the beginning of the relationship. Afterwards they usually try to improve her.
My manners were on a par with my level of learning, and they were more noticeable. When I ate, I stuffed my mouth to capacity and tried to guzzle things down as though fearful they would be grabbed away if I didn't. Bits of food from my mouth dribbled all over my clothes. I had only a faint idea of the function of a knife and fork. There was a grab—all, snatch—all system to my eating. The first time we ate a meal together at the Mars, a Greek restaurant in Soho, Johnny watched me in friendly amazement as I ploughed through the seven courses. For three shillings and sixpence—a carafe of wine was a shilling extra—they gave you hors d'oeuvres, soup, a small sole and salad, followed by a somewhat hairy chicken with two vegetables and tiny roast potatoes. Vanilla ice cream for dessert. Then cheese and crackers, fruit and nuts, and coffee. I was like a runner who couldn't wait for the starting pistol. I devoured everything in sight and it was as though a locust had dined. Johnny in his kind manner showed me how to fold my hands on my lap between bites and to place my knife and fork side by side on the plate when I was finished. In England, if you want to be mistaken for a swell, you never shake salt directly on the food. 'You pour it on the side of your plate,” said Johnny. I have never seen the sense of this. My table manners are much better today, although I still eat as though every meal were my last.
When Johnny married me and asked me to break the news to the sister and brother—in—law who were financing him in his business, I realized from their distress that Johnny had made a very bad match indeed. A girl from the East End with a Cockney voice! How awful. The brother they loved could have married a girl with a good education, and to waste himself on someone whose vowels were so atrocious! I could understand their chagrin.
With the lack of family assistance after our marriage, Johnny's business failed. I hesitantly suggested that perhaps he should get a job where his experience could be useful. He became angry and told me I didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't. But it made no sense to me to be in business on your own when there was no money and no business. I soon concluded that Johnny and Mr Micawber in David Copperfield had a great deal in common. The fortune to be made was just around the corner, tomorrow, meanwhile lend me a fiver today. With his sister unyielding, Johnny turned to the moneylenders. It was a nightmare: the gas and the electricity discontinued, the telephone suspended, the threat of eviction from the small flat on Wigmore Street (Wi) that I had begged him to rent after a succession of dreary boarding houses, some of them worse than that of my first adventure in living alone.
Johnny had acted as an amateur with the Birmingham Repertory Company, and he was convinced that my accent could be cured by stage experience. He used some ofthe moneylenders” cash to enrol me at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where I suffered the humiliations of an outsider. I had nothing in common with the other students. They always seemed in a hurry when I made attempts at conversation. And what could I say to the woman who sat next to me in most of my classes, a twenty—eight—year—old graduate of Girton College, Cambridge? Charles Laughton, bored with his father's hardware business up north, had enrolled on the same day I had, but while his accent was strictly Yorkshire, no one dared laugh at him. His startling talent was aristocracy enough. He spoke French like a native and starred in all the French plays.
I was determined to learn French. Shortly before our marriage Johnny had sent me to Paris for two weeks, hoping the experience would widen my horizon and make me less awkward. I was tremendously excited and had written to a finishing school for girls at Neuilly. To my delight it accepted me. But when the principal learned that I had only two weeks in which to be finished, he said in English, “It would take two years at least to make a lady out of you”—and, in an aside, something about its being impossible to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, which made the girls at the round dining table giggle while my cheeks burned with shame. A sow's ear. Would I always be so low?
When my isolation at RADA became unbearable and Johnny's desperate situation with the moneylenders made it difficult for me to stay there, I used my low rating at the end of the first term as an excuse to leave. I would never be a Shakespearean actress. I might have done better if I had dared to let go, but I was always on guard and miserable about my vowels, which one of my teachers mercilessly exposed to the grinning class. I was fairly good at miming, but too self—conscious to go far. At the end of the term my class put on a Cockney play for friends and relatives. I was so carried away by the applause (mostly from Johnny's corner) that, completelyignorant of my lapse of etiquette, I stepped forward and took the bow for the entire cast, Laughton included.
I told Johnny that a student had said rather condescendingly “With your face and figure, you really should go in for musical comedy.” Johnny thought it was a good idea, and we could use the money. He found the cash for singing and dancing lessons and after about six weeks of intensive training believed I was ready to explode on the West End. With his sublime faith and my desperate determination, I landed in the final weeks of The Punch Bowl at the Vaudeville Theatre, then into Charles B. Cochran's chorus at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus, where I was an unexpected success.
I became the ewe lamb for a group of lively wolves that included an equerry to the Prince of Wales and one of his friends, a rich fiftyish baronet, Sir Richard, who wanted to fulfil my childhood dream by adopting me. It was too late for that, which was fortunate, as he proved to be a masochist. One day after an exquisitely cooked luncheon in his elegant home in Belgravia, he suddenly bared his chest and excitedly asked me to pinch his nipples—'hard”. It was my first experience of this sort of thing, and I was shocked. I hesitantly touched one of Sir Richard's nipples. “Harder,” he begged. I made an excuse about “a rehearsal” and fled.
Johnny, far from being upset by all this—I told him nearly everything—encouraged my seeing these men. He was deeply involved with the moneylenders and hoped that one of my admirers would rescue him from his financial troubles. In fact, one married man, a Catholic, to whom I was introduced by Mr Cochran—a man who prayed for his wife to die so that he could marry me, while I prayed that she would live so he couldn't—gave Johnny a job in one of his companies. The reason, Johnny convinced himself, for allowing me so much freedom with other men was that they were “gentlemen', had all been to good universities, and some of it might brush off on me. Unfortunately, culture is not catching,although you can acquire a veneer if you are observant and possess a talent for mimicry. I was soon saying “gel” for girl and “orf” for off; but I was still Lily Shiel, a sow's ear although I wore silk, courtesy of the enamoured Catholic. Poor Johnny. Like Scott, he was always desperate for money. How could he survive except through me?
I hated the stage with its glaring tinsel, the straining ambition, the exhaustion, although I smiled and went through my paces because there was no escape. I was riding in Rolls Royces with men who admired me, this year's pretty thing. There would be a new one next year. I was the girl I had envied a few years ago on my trips to the West End to savour how the rich lived, but I wanted to shout at the smug men, 'You have made a mistake about me. I am not a tart and never could be.” If Johnny was awake when I came in, he would take me to bed with gentle teeth on the nape of my neck as a mother cat transports her kittens, and there we slept in platonic harmony. His money worries and my late hours—the stage at night, the suppers afterward—and the tiring dancing lessons by day had soon destroyed the husband—and—wife relationship. He became my child, although he was old enough to be my father, for which he was often mistaken. He was an oasis where it was falsely peaceful. The problems were there, but we ignored them. One night I awakened to find him sprawled across the bed. He had suffered a mild heart attack. “When I came to and saw you, I thought I was in heaven with an angel,” he said. And yet I sometimes wondered. “Would he turn me in to the highest bidder?” I did not judge him. He was as helpless as my mother had been when she had been forced to send me to the orphanage—and as Scott was when he had to work on trashy films in Hollywood. I am different. I am afraid sometimes, but I am not helpless. All my life I have found solutions to situations I dislike. I had the gifts for seizing a lucky moment, the energy to follow through on an opportunity. In his notes on Kathleen for The Last Tycoon, Scott wrote, “This girlhad a life—it was very seldom that he met anyone whose life did not depend in some way on him or hope to depend on him.” I had learned early to depend on myself.
The first glimpse into a different life—and I was aware of its importance—was when I wrote a brief article about the stage and it was accepted by the Daily Express. From my brain, atrophied though it had been, the putting of an idea on paper had earned me ten dollars. It was exciting. To be an author. To be on a different plane, not just a pretty girl. It was also worrying. You had to be clever to be a writer. You must be more educated than I was. Full of the fervour of being in print, I called at King's College in the Strand, which is part of London University. I realized, I told the young man at the information desk, that I could not attend the regular classes. I did not have the proper background for that—how I envied the young men and women casually strolling around the campus accepting the miracle of being there as an ordinary thing—but were there professors who gave private lessons in English literature? There were. There are always teachers who need money. It would be a guinea a lesson. The money I had earned from the article would pay for two sessions.
A thin—faced young teacher sat opposite me across the table in a small room at the college. I showed him my article, explaining, “I want to be a good writer. I used to write well in school.” I didn't mention the orphanage. He gave me Sterne's Tristram Shandy and asked me to come back the following week with a report. It was a struggle reading the book, and I didn't know where to start with the report. At the next session he gave me Moll Flanders. After reading it, I asked my tutor, “Are you sure it's good literature?” It was pornographic —a word I didn't know then—but I liked it. After a week with Tom Jones, which I also enjoyed, though I couldn't imagine how it would turn me into a good modern writer we dropped the lessons. My small joust with English literature affected my journalistic style, and it took severalweeks before I was able to return to the saleable mediocrity of my articles about the stage. The few pieces in the Express and the Daily Mail made me something of a celebrity in the Cochran chorus. They set me apart from the other girls, and I enjoyed the distinction as I had been proud to be the best student in the orphanage. I was different. I was not content to be what I was, where I was.
It was only indigestion, I am convinced now, but the Queen's doctor, called by my titled admirer, ordered “an immediate operation”. I didn't know it then, but my stage career was over. Recuperating in the South of France with a carefree Johnny, staying at the expensive Hotel Eden at Cap d'Ail, I decided to go all out for a career in journalism. It would be less agonizing than the stage, the late evenings with officers in the Guards, the undergraduates who drank too much, and the strain of pretending to enjoy the suppers at Ciro's and the Embassy Club with the sex—hungry, tongue—tied, frustrated young bloods who wanted a night on the town with a real actress, who fumbled inexpertly and sometimes couldn't control themselves. I hadn't the faintest idea what to say to them. It was easier to let them kiss me in the taxi taking me home to Johnny, who would sometimes awaken briefly to ask. “Did you have a good time?' It seems incredible that such a marriage could exist. Not only did it exist, but even with the divorce in 1937, after I had packed up and gone to the United States, the father—daughter, mother—son love we had for each other lasted until his death in January 1965.
Through his uncle, Captain the Honourable Jack Mitford, I met Tom Mitford. Jack had married a princess of the Krupp munitions dynasty shortly before the First World War. The princess had dissolved the marriage during the war at the insistence of the German government. Jack, a loyal Englishman, had fought against the Germans with his regiment in the Life Guards, as Tom (who had admired Hitler with his sisters Unity and Diana) fought the Germans in the Second World War. Tom was killed on the very last day of the war—blown up by a land mine, his cousin Randolph Churchill told me later in Hollywood.
Randolph and Tom were the first visible intellectuals among the people I had met through a society girl, Judith Hurt, who lived in Scotland with her family. During the London season they occupied the apartment above ours in Wigmore Street, and we had become friendly after meeting several times on the stairs. I had gone ice skating with Judith and she had introduced me on the rink to Captain Mitford. At this time I also met young Bill Astor, whom Randolph detested. He despised him along with all the “Cliveden set', believing they were Nazi sympathizers. He sneered at Bill's “American mother', although his own grandmother was American.
I hadn't any idea of what being a Nazi meant, though I had been enamoured of a blond blue—eyed Bavarian I had met with Johnny in Garmisch—Partenkirchen near Munich early in 1931. Over his garage door he had proudly painted “Eustace the Nazi”. Tom and Randolph were the best—looking men I had ever seen, and I was flattered that they seemed to enjoy my company. They were young and detested the bluestocking type. I was decorative, safely married, and my role was to listen while they settled the affairs of the world. Tom was a brilliant pianist, and I was uncomfortable while he played the works of composers whose names I didn't dare pronounce—Chopin, for instance, I would have called Chopp—in. I was afraid he might draw me into a conversation about music, but he never did. He read Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus to me. I liked the line, “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss', but I did not understand much of the rest and would not have dared to ask for an explanation. Tom probably knew where I stood in the realm of education, but would never have embarrassed me with a direct question. Randolph recited poetry andquoted from books I had never heard of. I smiled while squirming at the possibility he might want me to comment on the readings, but he was too enraptured with the sound of his beautiful voice. The glow lingered on his handsome face in the silence afterwards. Randolph, like his father, Winston Churchill, was passionately interested in politics. His father was considered too impetuous politically at this time and had been rejected by the electorate. His son would pound the air and talk vehemently of “when my father returns to power”. His good friend Brendan Bracken was sometimes along. They were always planning to bring the senior Churchill back to his rightful place in the government.
To keep up with the events of the day, I read the Daily Telegraph; The Times was too much for me, although I joined the Times Book Shop on Wigmore Street. I have always loved books, always enjoyed touching good bindings and found pleasure in expensive paper and good print. After my marriage I spent many afternoons staring at the rare books in the Bond Street shop windows, regretting I could not own them. The books I read were mostly biographies of famous people. A reviewer of Lady Asquith's autobiography, Margot, stated that other women could learn from the book. I rushed to buy it and was disappointed at not being turned overnight into an intellectual. Later, in America, I heard that Dorothy Parker, reviewing the book, had quipped, “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.” During the war, after Scott's death, when I wrote about the women's effort in England for my syndicate, I decided to interview Lady Asquith, whose husband had been Prime Minister at the beginning of the First World War when I was an ugly duckling at the orphanage. She suggested we lunch at the Savoy. “I hope you're rich,” she said, “because the food here is very expensive.” I was fascinated at the way she polished it off. She told me her husband had left her only three hundred pounds. I wondered how she managed the big car, the chauffeur, and a house in Scotland. She kept calling me up, trying to get another lunch or dinner.
In those earlier days it became essential for me to learn French. It didn't matter about German. Not too many of the English people at the winter sports in St Moritz spoke German, although the Mitfords, with whom I went, used it as easily as they did English. But they all knew French, and lack of this language could betray my lack of education. Johnny learned of a Catholic order near London where unmarried French girls came to hide from the scandal of motherhood. They were allowed to stay a year and usually lived with a family to teach the children French. I applied for an unmarried mother, and the prettiest young lady rang my bell one day, with a suitcase, ready to stay. She had been engaged to a count and all the lingerie in her trousseau had been embroidered with her new initials, but he had abandoned her a week before the wedding. The baby boy 'avec ses yeux si gros' was with her embarrassed mother in Paris.
My friends were not as enraptured with Raimonde as I thought they would be. I kept her secret, of course, but while the men understood French, most of them preferred to speak English with English girls. When I had sufficient mastery of the French language, I brought Raimonde with me on the week—ends in country homes. I'm fast at languages, as my daughter is, and I jabbered happily with Raimonde, convinced that I sounded like a girl who had actually attended a finishing school in Paris or Switzerland. Raimonde had her own insecurities and wanted to belong to these charming people as much as I did. One week—end in the country, she insisted on riding a frisky horse with us. Johnny had had me taught to ride at the Cadogan Riding School in Belgravia, and I sat my horse well, although I was afraid and expected the beast to throw me off, which it did frequently. Raimonde had never been on a horse before, as I realized at once. The horse went into a wild gallop, and she felloff, and broke her two front teeth. To this day I can hear her wailing, 'Mes dents! Mes dents!'
I was moderately successful as a free—lance journalist, but my horizon was limited. I had met A. P. Herbert at a charity matinee and he had advised me, 'Write only about what you know.” My articles were about a young girl married to a middle—aged husband—I was paid eight guineas for that one—or about the young society people I knew and what an enchanting life theirs seemed to be. Which was preferable, a baby or a car? I was quite a celebrity in my circle, a blonde who had brains enough to write. Sometimes I wondered what these confident boys and girls had learned at their schools and universities. It was considered bad form to flaunt too much knowledge, and so I was able to participate in the conversations and the parties and the tennis. Johnny had me taught tennis and squash at the Queen's Club. I became so expert at squash that I was number three on the team of five women who played for the International Sportsmen's Club. At this time I met the Marquess of Donegall, who captained the men's squash team.
The surface of my life was delightful, but, a notch below, there was always great anxiety. I was afraid that in my present life I could be exposed at any time as someone who didn't belong. When I had interviewed Viscountess Rhondda for the Sunday Chronicle, she had asked sharp questions that I was unable to answer. I felt undressed, all my ignorance revealed. I wanted to be the brightest girl in the school again. I was exhausted from the continual worry. America was a new country. It had something called syndication. You wrote an article and it appeared in hundreds of newspapers. With Johnny's urging and blessing, I made my first trip to New York in 1931 with what I thought at first was resounding success.
Published as College Of One by Sheilah Graham (New York: Viking, 1967).