I can’t claim to have spent a lifetime hobnobbing with the rich and famous, but I have run into a few celebrities along the way. The oddest thing about the first of these notables, the Nicholsons, was that though I spent some pleasant afternoons with them as a boy of ten, I never realized who and what they were. And, of course, I couldn’t possibly have known how public their lives would later become.
They lived in an elegant house called Sissinghurst Castle, which is now famous for having one of the most beautiful private gardens in the British Isles. I knew that, under the name of Vita Sackville-West, Mrs. Nicholson wrote the gardening column in the London Sunday Times, but had no idea what her husband did for a living. From their life-style it was certainly clear that, as their gardeners on the estate might have put it, they “weren’t wanting for a few quid.”
Mrs. Nicholson looked just what she was, a wealthy woman whose passion – well, it was the only one we knew of at the time – was evident in the flowers printed or embroidered on her expensive, voluminous dresses. Had we guessed, we might have supposed Mr. Nicholson to be an eminent surgeon, or maybe a judge.
The Nicholsons used to invite boys from our boarding school to join them and their house-guests for tea on Sunday afternoons. We thought these were sumptuous affairs. In the summer we’d gather on their flagstoned terrace, overhung with climbing roses and wisteria. In winter we’d sit in their cavernous drawing room behind drawn damask curtains, warmed by crackling apple and cherry wood logs in a baronial fireplace. Tea would begin with dainty anchovy paste or egg sandwiches, from which the crusts had been pared. Then there’d be tiered cake-stands loaded with rock buns and little sugared cakes in bright pastel colors, decorated on top with candied peel and angelica. Finally, while Mrs. Nicholson herself poured the tea from a big Chinese teapot, a maid in a lace cap and apron cut and served slices from cakes. There was seed cake, madeira cake, and fruit cake as heavy as lead with currants, sultanas and raisins. In a time of wartime shortages and strict rationing -- in 1941 -- this was a schoolboy’s dream.
It was some years afterward that Mr. Nicholson was dubbed Sir Harold Nicholson, for his services to literature, as an eminent biographer, and a member of the literary circle known as the Bloomsbury Group. Decades later came the public revelation of the fact that Vita was the long-time lover of Virginia Woolf, and that it was she who inspired Woolf’s book Orlando. Virginia wrote of the affair in her letters and diaries published in the 70s and 80s. Was Virginia among the guests at those long ago tea parties? For it was some time in that year that, after finishing her book Between the Acts, she drowned herself in the river Ouse in Sussex, our neighboring county. I suppose I’ll never know.
And then there was ‘Tom.’ I was in my late-twenties and newly married when my in-laws took me and my wife to a cocktail party a few minutes’ walk from their own posh Kensington flat. The host was the Keeper of The Privy Purse, who can best be described as the man who doles out the Queen’s pocket money. His drawing room was abuzz with distinguished people. There were members of Parliament and the House of Lords, who’d made the fairly short taxi-ride from Westminster for a few pink gins before sneaking back to vote on the day’s motions. Their wives and other women guests, freshly coiffed and manicured, looked as though they lived permanently in glass cases. Even their immaculate, diffident children seemed already convinced that it was better to be seen than heard.
At one point during the party, Bess, my mother-in-law, took me by the elbow, and steered me through the noisy throng. “You really must meet Tom,” she said. “You’ll find him fascinating.” Tom turned out to be a tallish man with straight black hair parted in the middle. He had what I, who couldn’t at that point have pointed accurately to a single U.S. city on a map, thought was the accent of a well-bred American such as, let’s say, the late, loved Alistair Cooke, who sounded to us in his BBC broadcasts a little more American than British.
I didn’t find ‘Tom’ fascinating. He looked like a senior civil servant, and spoke precisely in a quiet voice, but everyone around him seemed to be riveted, and craned to hear him above the babble in the room. I don’t remember the topic of conversation, but it was probably something un-enthralling, such as Britain’s new M1 motorway, or the latest pictures from Luna 3, showing the dark side of the moon -- none of the things that absorbed me at the time, books, music and poetry. He seemed lackluster, even boring, whoever he was.
A minute or so later, Bess appeared beside me, and even she seemed in awe of this dreary man.
“Who is he?” I whispered.
“Oh,” she said, “didn’t I tell you? It’s T.S. Eliot.”
Somewhere between that brief encounter with Eliot and the much earlier meetings with the Nicholsons, I was freshly commissioned into the South Staffordshire Regiment in Northern Ireland when the colonel summoned me to his office.
“John,” he said, “I’ve got an interesting job for you. As you know, the Duke of Gloucester’s coming to present us with regimental colors (ceremonial flags) in a couple of weeks, and I want you to be his supernumerary ADC.”
I thanked my CO with a mix of awe and delight for what he clearly thought to be an honor. ADC’s are aides-de-camp who, for a year or two, act as secretary cum general factotum or gofer for a high-ranking royal or military figure. No special qualifications are necessary for this impressive-sounding job, which is most often to do with making sure that their man’s staff car arrives and departs at exactly the right time, or dashing out to a store because the field-marshal or general has forgotten to buy his wife a birthday present. Sometimes one of the duties might be looking after his dog, or horses, or both.
For me this was a short-term post while the Duke was visiting Belfast, which was just as well, because it turned out to be a dull, even stultifying assignment. His Royal Highness was a heavy, Teutonic man, as was most every monarch and prince in the House of Hanover back to King George I. He revealed little sense of humor, and rarely spoke to anybody, even to the Duchess, his charming, graceful wife.
For most of the time the Duke looked out the window, read newspapers and drank alarming amounts of single malt Scotch whiskey, and my most critical function was making sure there was always a bottle of Glenmorangie near at hand.
But the actual parade and ceremony were an experience of a lifetime for any young officer. The colors were two finely embroidered silken banners on gold staffs, one with the Union Jack, and the other with the names of battles and victories in which our regiment had fought. They replaced standards that have since hung for more than sixty years over the nave of Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, beside their faded predecessors, which date back to 1760, when the regiment was founded.
One night, after dinner, one of the Duke’s entourage asked me to take a staff car to the railroad station in Belfast to meet the Countess of Antrim, who was coming by train to attend the ceremony. Standing on the platform that night I conjured up an image of the countess in my mind’s eye. Maybe she’d be like Marlene Dietrich, or even Ava Gardner, in an alluring costume, with a poodle on a long leash, smoking a cigarette in a long ivory holder. But the countess turned out to be more like my Auntie Kate. She was a little stout, and dressed in powder blue from her fussy hat to her flat sensible shoes that looked for all the world like bedroom slippers. And she was crying as she shuffled along the platform.
The old lady was inconsolable. It turned out that, while waiting at Antrim station for the train to Belfast, she’d been chatting with her chauffeur, and had boarded the train leaving ‘some very important things’ in a paper shopping bag under the bench on the platform. And she was desperate to get them back.
Nobody answered my hasty telephone call to the station in Antrim. The last train had left, and the stationmaster had gone home to bed. There was nothing for it but to drive there. We sat together in the back of the staff car and, as we careered through a moonlit landscape of peat bogs and stony villages, the countess, encouraged by the expectation of recovering her important things, became quite animated and cheerful. She told me that her castle was soon to have electricity installed, and that tomorrow, before the parade, she planned a shopping spree to buy lamps in a Belfast department store.
The station was, indeed, closed for the night, but I managed to scramble over the iron fence, and there, in the moonlight under a bench, was the paper shopping bag on which were printed the words ‘Finnnigan’s Fine Fish.’
Waiting in the car, the Countess of Antrim chuckled with pleasure as I passed the bag through the open car window. As we drove home she happily assembled the bag’s contents on her lap. In it were jewels such as I’ve never seen outside the Tower of London, including a sapphire and diamond tiara, a pearl necklace and the biggest brooch I ever saw, twinkling with gems. “You’re a dear boy,” she said, “A dear, dear boy.” And she gave my knee a motherly pat.
Until she died quite a few years later, wherever the regiment was in the world, she sent me a card at Christmas, care of my regimental depot.
I’ll bet Ava Gardner wouldn’t have done that.