Gotham Diary:
Tidying Up Memory Lane
7 April 2015

Last night, after dinner, while Kathleen and I were reading quietly, I was stunned by a instance of eccentric excess that beat just about everything. A Rolls-Royce fitted out with a harpsichord! As this automotive wonder was said to have plied the roads of Europe between the wars, what was almost as stunning was my never having run into the anecdote before. During the early Seventies, I did practically nothing but scoop up tales of musical curiosity, usually from the liner notes of classical LPs. How could I have missed this one?

Before Kathleen could fill out a search request, I was already wondering if the keyboard instrument in question might not be a clavichord, rather than a harpsichord, so I suggested searching for “chord,” and, wouldn’t you know,  I was right. The downgrading dropped from there. Not only was it a clavichord, but it was not actually installed in the Rolls; rather, it was packed in a tool compartment under the front seat. The instrument could not be played en route. Having built and owned a clavichord myself — I built it from a kit — I understood the practicality, insofar as a very wealthy musician might have to worry about practicality, of toting the most quiet of instruments on road trips. The vision of bizarre self-indulgence that would mount a harpsichord keyboard on the back of the panel separating the passenger from the chauffeur evaporated before we could stop laughing at it. Kathleen was sorely disappointed: she had hoped for a photograph.

Let me tell you a funny story about Lord Clavichord. Annoyed by a lesser, not-yet-titled acquaintance in whose Chelsea house was prominently displayed a large bowl full of press clippings, he placed an even larger bowl in his entry hall, and deposited into it a single, utterly uninteresting snippet from the Times, announcing that he had returned to London from a trip abroad. Not that I can vouch for this story any more than I should for the harpsichord in the Rolls. Both tales come from the same source, John Pearson’s 1978 book about the Sitwells. (Osbert Sitwell was the friend with the smaller bowl and the deeper thirst for vainglory.) I hope to learn more about Lord Berners, the musical millionaire, from a recent book — well, not so recent that you can’t buy it used at Amazon — that the NYRB just got round to reviewing (with a nice notice by Alan Hollinghurst), Sofka Zinovieff’s The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me: A High-Society Scandal and an Extraordinary Legacy. Meanwhile, I’m filling in a long-partial picture of the sometime literary trio.

I can’t remember why I bought Pearson’s book, but I’m glad that I did. I’ve tried to read biographies of Edith Sitwell, but I’ve never got very far, because she was so hysterically self-important. The family approach works much better. Just when I want to put Edith on a diet of arsenical buns, Pearson shifts his focus to someone else in the family. Osbert, if hardly more likable, was not quite so mad. The poor fellow was always trying to achieve a literary success that would make him rich. Like his sister, he had a nose for notoriety, but although everybody knew who the Sitwells were, or at least that they existed, it was difficult to transmute this celebrity into pounds sterling. Which was all the more galling because Osbert had expensive tastes, having cultivated them as the son of a wealthy but disapproving baronet. Money was everywhere, around Osbert, except in his pockets. The third child, Sacheverell, was far better-adjusted than his siblings. Indeed, he enjoyed a long and happy marriage to an attractive Canadian, complete with children (and  heirs). The villain of the piece is Sir George Sitwell, the meddlesome but unloving father. Having reached the year 1930 — each of Pearson’s chapters is dated — I suddenly had to know how much longer I was going to be asked to put up with Sir George, and I was shocked to learn that he would be around for another thirteen years. Sir George Sitwell was so mean that, rather than pay his wife’s gambling debts, he allowed her to be packed off for a three-month stay as His Majesty’s guest — at Holloway Prison. Oh, the horror!

But why, you ask, am I reading about the Sitwells at all? Out of a kind of completism, I suppose — tying up loose ends that have been dangling for decades. Permit me to explain. In the first years of the Sixties, I should say for Christmas 1961, I presented a wish list of books that represented, more than any physical development, my jump from childhood into adolescence. All of a sudden, and out of seemingly nowhere, I became a reader of more or less serious books and a listener to classical music. It took a few years for my taste to cohere, or for me even to know what was going on, but what I can reconstruct of that wish list is evidence of my mind in embryo. I still have two of the books, both of which were new at the time, which is how I learned about them, probably in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. One was Edith Sitwell’s The Queens and the Hive, a narration of the deadly duet that Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart danced for almost thirty years.

So that’s how I came to know about Edith Sitwell. Not from Façade (although I quickly got to that), but from a book not of poetry but not really quite history, either. I haven’t looked at The Queens and the Hive in ages, but I think it safe to say that the writing is more colorful and expressive and, yes, even poetical, than is usual in worthy histories. Over the years, I learned that Sitwell was not considered, by anyone who mattered, to have been an important literary figure. Worse, she was something of a clown. Along the way, however, I had acquired a pile of books, most of which I still have simply because I have had them for so long. (Memo to Marie Kondo: they still spark joy when I hold them.) I had one book by each of her brothers, but I have read neither. (I came across Osbert’s Noble Essences just the other day. I suspect that I’ve held onto it because there’s an Edward Gorey drawing on the cover.) For some reason or other, I appear to have felt, when I ordered The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography, that it was time to pin them all down, to organize the information accrued.

I was also interested in the Sitwells as social creatures in civil society. It cannot be said that Edith or Osbert behaved particularly well. In fact they were awful. They combined the lurid hauteur of the anxiously titled with intellectual-class disdain of the masses (no less rooted in fear than their snobbery was), making a classy cocktail of modernist contempt. I fear that I shall have to place them in my rogues’ gallery. Lord Berners, with his clavichord and his bigger bowl, promises to be much more sympathetic.

The Admiral said, “You could never call —
I assure you it would not do at all!
She gets down from table without saying ‘Please,’
Forgets her prayers and to cross her T’s,
In short, her scandalous reputation
Has shocked the whole of the Hellish nation;
And every turbaned Chinoiserie
With whom we should sip our black Bohea

Would stretch out her simian fingers thin
To scratch you, my dears, like a mandoline;
For Hell is just as properly proper
As Greenwich, or as Bath, or Joppa!

(En Famille)

I had to pull down the text, but only for the inaudible elements of punctuation and capitalization.