Gotham Diary:
13 March 2012

We are very quiet today. Kathleen is in bed; she had an attack of food poisoning, yesterday afternoon. At least that’s all we can think it might be. As in my case last week, she hasn’t run a fever. It seems very odd, these attacks, spaced too far apart to suggest contagion of any kind.

For my part, I’m all right, and my appointments for tomorrow’s Remicade infusion have been confirmed. I have no ambitions for the day beyong quietly passing through it. I’ve started reading George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. So far, I’ve learned about the origins of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton — which I was piqued to discover didn’t become “Princeton” until 1896. Before that, it was the College of New Jersey. It sort of makes me want to visit the island of Jersey, to try to get an idea of why anybody would name anything after it. Where’s New Guernsey?


After yesterday’s errands, I found myself unmotivated to do anything productive, so I sat down with Lisa Hilton’s The Horror of Love and finished it. The title is Nancy’s comment on a romantically disagreeable coincidence involving Marguerite de Gramont, one of Gaston Palewski’s many lady friends other than herself. Hilton writes,

Nancy caught Gaston dining with her in the most unfortunate of cirumstances. She had taken Peter [Rodd, her husband with whom she was no longer intimate] and his two nephews to a restaurant and there at a nearby table were Margot and Nancy’s colonel. She then invited her guests to see the Louvre by night, surely one of the loveliest sights in the world. As if they were all players in a hideous farce, there were Gaston and Margot, hand in hand. Later, she explained to Diana that what she couldn’t bear was that he had looked happy, “so dreadful to prefer the loved one to be unhappy…Oh, the horror of love.”

Hilton’s book is aptly titled and subtitled (Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London). It is not a love story. How can it be, when Gaston was never in love with Nancy? He adored her cleverness and intelligence, but these were after all traits that he might just as easily find in a male friend. It was rotten luck that Nancy had never before experienced the sexual pleasure to which Gaston introduced her, because she would otherwise have realized that there are lots of good fish in the sea. The Mediterranean Sea, not the North Sea. She had known clever and intelligent Englishmen by the dozens, but they were either gay, uninspired, or, like her husband, they preferred “to make love with ladies whose profession it was.” Gaston Palewski’s taste for charming amateurs came as a delightful surcaprise, one from which Nancy never recovered.

So she fell in love, to the extent that it’s not unintelligent to speak of unrequired passion as love. Nobody wants to read a book about that, and Hilton wisely assumes that readers will be familiar with her source material, which of course they will be, since it consists of three volumes that anybody interested in the matter will have already acquired, Love From Nancy, a selection of Nancy’s letters; the correspondence that Nancy had with Evelyn Waugh; and The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sixters (all edited by Charlotte Mosley). I think it’s safe to say that these letters are the reason for our interest in the Mitfords today; without them, we would just have a handful of interesting lives led by ladies of long-ago. Nancy’s letters bring the girls and their muddles to life. Perhaps because she never had children of her own, perhaps because she was “the lady writer,” or maybe simply because she was who she was, she encompassed her sisters in a sense of family that the others never quite shared. 

Instead of rehashing what we already know about Nancy, then, Hilton tells us what we didn’t know about the love of her life, Gaston Palewski, the son of a Polish Jew who was brought to Paris by an uncle when he was a child. Gaston grew up in relative prosperity and was well-educated, complete with a year at Brighton College and a term at Oxford (his English was fluent if heavily accented), not to mention the Sorbonne and Sciences Po’. His eventual career owed much to the good fortune of having a cousin in the military who, during World War I, had escaped from a German POW camp with none other than Charles De Gaulle. When De Gaulle made his heroic stand against the Vichy capitulation of Hitler, Gaston, by now a close friend, was among the first to recognize him at his own peril.

After World War II, De Gaulle would make Gaston the ambassador to Italy (a post which installed him in the Palazzo Farnesse, of Tosca fame), president of the Constitutional Council, and minister of scientific research. I see that there is a new book about Gaston, intriguingly subtitled “premier baron de Gaullisme.” Hilton’s account makes one wonder why Palewski’s career failed to secure him a clearer place in the firmament. It is suggested this his fluency in the language of amour caused him to be regarded as a lightweight by men less doués in this regard. Perhaps his handicap was nothing more complicated than the bachelorhood that he did not bring to an end until he was nearly seventy. Instead of Nancy, he married a Franco-American with a Polish title.

Curiously, Hilton’s assumption that we already know how ardenly Nancy longed for Gaston, that we’ve already wondered if Gaston’s wedding announcement caused Nancy to succumb to Hodgkins’ Disease, that, in short, we’re all on the same page about the horror of love — all of this frees her to write give us an assessment of Nancy’s career that is free of romantic contortions. Among other things, Hilton sets us straight about Nancy’s “denunciation” of her sister, Diana Mosley, in 1940. Diana was not interned in Holloway Prison on Nancy’s say-so alone; nor did Nancy one day up and take a taxi to Whitehall in order to stir up trouble. The inquiry into the possibility that Diana might be a dangerous traitor was launched (unsurprisingly) by her former father-in-law, Lord Moyne, and Nancy was called in as a character witness, to confirm what the Home Office already suspected. It must have been an awful spot to be in, and it’s hard, even now, to say that Nancy did the right thing. But the notion that she acted out of spite or jealousy (Diana’s having married not one but two handsome, rich men) is an idle one. Diana never did grasp that the Nazis were bad eggs, and there was no question about her welcoming an invasion. It was her own testimony that put her away. Hilton quotes the advisory committee’s judgment: “It would be quite impossible, having regard to her expressed attitude and her past activities with the leaders of Nazi Germany, to allow her to remain at liberty in these critical days.”

Hilton also indulges in some righteous America-bashing. (Don ‘t expect any strenuous objections from me.)

From her Parisian perspective on the transatlantic culture of the 1940s and 1950s, Nancy saw America as representative of precisely the opposite of this cherished list of values. She greatly enjoyed herself in the role of heretic. Sixty years after The Blessing‘s publication, it is more true than ever that “it is considered nowadays perfectly all right to throw any amount of aspersions at poor old France and England, but one tiny word reflecting anything but exaggerated love for new rich America is thought to be the worst of taste.” Unlike many of Nancy’s declared passions, including her devotion to France, which she exaggerated to tease friends like Evelyn, her loathing for America was entirely serious. In 1957 she told the Herald Tribune, “I hate everything that has to do with American civilization, your plastics, your skyscrapers, refrigerators, psychoanalysis and Coca-Cola.” One really is not allowed to say things like that anymore. [!] People whom Americans term”liberals” can get away with criticizing particular political policies, the injustice of big business, violence or racism perhaps, but to declare that one loathes everything about America is blasphemous. To be declaredly anti-American is to be instantly dismissed, as Nancy was by Rhoda Koenig in The Sunday Times: “Mitford’s anti-Americanism was merely the more obvious expression of her unpleasant personality.” Only nasty people, after all, dislike America.

Zut! I only wish that Hilton had worked into this passage Nancy’s earnest objection to “youth culture,” which, if not the root of the American problem, is certainly its most toxic outgrowth.

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading the British edition of The Horror of Love, which is, so far, the only one. I’ll be curious to see if it comes out here.