The Duff Cooper Diaries
Edited by John Julius Norwich Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 512pp, £20
Until I read these previously suppressed diaries Duff Cooper was one of my political heroes, as he was to many others of my generation. How could it be otherwise, given the breadth of his appeal? Not only was he a decorated hero of the First World War and a statesman whose record as an anti-appeaser was second only to Winston Churchill's: he was also a bestselling author, wit, dandy and bon vivant. Most appealing of all, as a poor young man from a relatively modest background, he defied the furious objections of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland to win the hand of their daughter, Lady Diana Manners, the reigning beauty of her day.
Sadly, these diaries show that he was also a compulsive philanderer whose persistent infidelities caused his wife - at least until she finally became accustomed to them - deep distress. The number of Duff's conquests is matched, it seems, only by the number of times he returned home to find his wife in tears. In the early years there are frequent references to Diana resorting to alcohol and morphine. While it never crossed his mind that this could have had anything to do with his philandering, readers can hardly fail to spot the connection.
Does the unflattering light these diaries cast on Duff Cooper tarnish his reputation? To judge by the early reviews of this book, many think not, but to my mind it does. There has always been something a bit hairy-heeled about him, but from now on the words "shit" and "bounder" may be more readily applied.
Possibly such tarnishing would be worthwhile if the diaries told us anything we didn't already know about English social life in the first half of the 20th century - which is one of the justifications Duff Cooper's son, John Julius Norwich, put forward for their belated publication. But to my mind this excuse does not wash. The aristocratic social circles of the day are already familiar from countless other upper-class diaries, memoirs and biographies. This highly unrepresentative section of society is already grossly over-exposed, and these diaries add little that is new. As for literary life, Duff Cooper's observations are mainly confined to perfunctory and sometimes philistine references to such figures as T S Eliot, H G Wells, Arthur Koestler, Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly. Mostly these occur during luncheons or dinners, when what is on the menu, rather than his fellow guests (the male ones at least), is what most preoccupies him.
The political sections are a different matter. Duff Cooper's first-hand accounts of Edward VIII's abdication, the Munich crisis and the VE celebrations in Paris as observed from the British embassy are inevitably fascinating. But even here scandalous goings-on dominated, making it hard to concentrate on public affairs. The following examples - the first from when Cooper was a junior clerk at the Foreign Office and the second from when he was ambassador in Paris - give a flavour:
October 31, 1916. Dined at Romano's with Babs Walter. When I saw her again I didn't think her so pretty as I expected. She was quite good company and apparently has recently married a rich man who is now in France. She talked a lot about her country house and her motors. At last we went home to her town house - a small louche one in Charles Street, Knightsbridge - which she told me had been hers before she married as I was quite willing to believe. There I rapidly had her which was very agreeable. I promised to dine with her again but I doubt if I do. She doesn't really attract me.
Now fast-forward to 13 April 1946:
Loulou [one mistress] was very sweet and sad this morning. She said that she had cried all night - and she wrote me out a speech to make at Biarritz. I picked up Gloria and we drove to the very well named little Auberge du Fruit Defendu. There we had an excellent dinner in a small room where there were three or four tables, but none of them occupied save ours. Up a few stairs there was a bedroom.
For the first time Gloria gave herself to
me. I don't think I have ever loved anybody physically so much or been so supremely satisfied . . .
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Duff the soldier and statesman cannot hold a candle to Duff the amorist. John Julius Norwich must have hoped that the splendid record of public service would cast the shameless self-indulgence into the shade, but in this case, alas, it is very much the other way around.