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Happy 100th birthday to Clarissa Avon, Anthony Eden's widow

Blog | By Hugo Vickers | Jun 26, 2020

Anthony Eden by William Timym (National Archives)

On Sunday, June 28th, the Countess of Avon turns 100.

Lat year, at the age of 98, she was awarded a distinguished prize by the Oldie Magazine – The Oldie Who has seen it all Before and Worse Award.

Lady Avon must surely be the last intimate survivor from the world of Winston Churchill, Evelyn Waugh, Lord Berners, Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Nicolas Nabokov, Edith Sitwell and Orson Welles. I could list dozens more. When she was young, she had the exceptional advantages of being beautiful, extremely intelligent and well read. Being a Churchill, by name if not by temperament, and niece to Winston, she grew up surrounded by the most interesting men and women of the day. She studied philosophy in Oxford, was tutored by Isaiah Berlin, A.J. Ayer and Lord David Cecil. She worked for Alexander Korda, and George Weidenfeld in the worlds of film and publishing.

Clarissa was and still is remote, preferring her own company to society, which never greatly interested her. As a young girl she remained silent for hours at a time. Her line was: ‘I only spoke when I had something to say.’

In war-bombed London, James Pope-Hennessy described her as looking ‘with her freshness and her swinging golden hair, like a Hans Andersen princess in a dungeon. It was hard to know what she was thinking.

There is about her a withdrawn aloofness that just misses being haughty and widely misses being absurd. It is an unmodern quality, and I find it arresting … she demands, I think, a French background, the pillared elegance of the Second Empire, or the lofty saloons of Versailles to frame her to perfection.’

And at Faringdon, Lord Berners could not drawing on her as his heroine in Far From the Madding War: ‘Her hair, as a poetical undergraduate had once said, was reminiscent of a cornfield at daybreak. Her complexion was of that fairness that invites freckles, but as she never exposed herself to the sun this was not a serious defect … She looked like a nymph in one of the less licentious pictures of Fragonard.’

In 1952, Clarissa surrendered a life in high Bohemia to become the wife of Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister in the 1950s. She lived the middle part of her life at the very epicentre of politics. She met Khruschev – ‘he was frightening, pale and bullet-headed, like a Russian peasant’ – and Bulganin – ‘like a professor, full of chit-chat’ – and Molotov ‘jaundiced and bourgeois, with his pince-nez.’ She was disappointed by President Eisenhower – ‘charmless! – I had imagined someone live and dapper, with strength and repose, but he was heavy, hearty and bland’, but liked his wife, Mamie – ‘perfectly natural, she had no side whatever.’

When I read her letters to Cecil Beaton some years ago, I was astonished to see distinguished cabinet ministers whom I had innocently (and ignorantly) respected, being dismissed as idiotic buffoons, and I do hope that one day her views on the departure from politics of Harold Macmillan can be published in full.

In her memoirs, she is politely restrained: ‘Harold Macmillan played no personal role in my life, either before or during the Suez Crisis, though inevitably I formed an assessment of his character from the wings.’ When Macmillan visited Lord Avon in retirement in Wiltshire, she would meet him at Salisbury Station and drive him to Alvediston ‘in as much silence as possible.’

More appealing to her were the men of letters, philosophy and art. She selected her friends with care and precision. Had a bomb dropped on the 90th birthday party given by her niece, Sally Ashburton, in Chelsea in June 2010, there would have been bumper supplements of obituaries over a series of days. The disparate group included Mary Soames, Lucian Freud, Peregrine Worsthorne, Robert Harris, Colin Thubron, Mollie Salisbury, Barry Humphries, Colin Glenconnner, George Weidenfeld, John Stefanides, Melvyn Bragg and many more besides. I have always been surprised and quietly flattered that she chose me as a friend.

Clarissa’s father, Jack Churchill, had been a partner in my grandfather’s firm, Vickers, da Costa. The 10thDuke of Marlborough described him as ‘a City man, of much stronger physique than Winston, a bulldog who always took the lead in our games of French and English,’ and her mother, Lady Gwendoline Bertie as ‘very feminine, more so than Clemmie.’ Her brother, Johnnie, had worked in the firm, but given it up to embark on a career in painting. Clarissa was born on 28 June 1920.

When I embarked on a biography of Gladys Deacon (Duchess of Marlborough) in 1975, my aunt, Joan Vickers, took me to see her at Alvediston. Lord Avon was in the house, but had retired to bed, so I never met him. I was never convinced that Clarissa liked my aunt – ‘She was the bane of my childhood’ - but her father certainly did and was forever rowing her about in a boat. Others said he was in love with her, and there exist some affectionate letters between them.

I had been aware of her since my earliest days and seen her many times, the most youthful of the wives of the Knights of the Garter, when they attended the annual service at Windsor.

Gyles Brandreth described me correctly as ‘a Garter groupie’ (I have been present at every Garter ceremony since 1965) and Clarissa had many stories about Garter luncheons of old. Sitting next to Gerry, 7th Duke of Wellington, grandfather of the present Duke, she recalled him saying: ‘The trouble with the Order of the Garter these days is that it is full of Field Marshals and people who do their own washing up.’

In turn she infuriated him by suggesting that the composition of the Order was a witches’ coven times two. She remembered that when Lord Iveagh was installed, he found himself seated next to Winston, each trying to avoid one another, due to a childhood spat in Ireland in the 1880s. And when Harold Wilson invested, he sat next to the Queen at lunch. The Queen Mother mused to Lord Avon: ‘Isn’t it wonderful – how she’s tamed him!’

She had serious reservations about Lord Mountbatten and how he tried to manipulate the facts. He had tried on one occasion to persuade Lord Avon to ‘go into one of the loose boxes at Broadlands and be recorded for his film saying that they had met at London Airport and he had congratulated him on his handling of India. Anthony asked his private secretary, Philip Noble, if they could possibly have met and Philip confirmed that they were never there at the same time. Anthony declined.’

Clarissa was one of Cecil Beaton’s special friends and his neighbour in the Chalke Valley, and it was when working on his biography that I came to know her well. On more than one summer, I house-sat for her at Alvediston. In 1980 she took me to Tuscany to stay with that wild self-exile, Lord Lambton, at the Villa Cetinale. I was delighted when she told me that he had described me as ‘a most sinister person’. ‘You really rattled him,’ she said. We returned some years later, the visit coinciding with the publication of the President Clinton – Monica Lewinsky drama. As the pages were faxed through from London, the running commentary was as entertaining as the alleged antics. Passed from hand to hand, Clarissa would study each page in turn, and occasionally comment: ‘I see…’

You can sometimes detect what she is thinking without her saying it. There was a sequence on television when she was taken round Ten Downing Street to see it as decorated in the days of the Blairs. Her quizzical inspection and her bemused silence as she observed the ‘latest improvements’ spoke volumes. Her own taste was impeccable. At other times she expresses herself with enjoyable forthrightness. When I told her that James Fairfax had most generously sent a car to collect me in Canberra, take me to lunch at his house at Bowral and then deposit me in Sydney, her comment was: ‘He must have been desperate for company.’

Greta Garbo took a considerable liking to her while staying with Cecil Beaton in Wiltshire in 1951. ‘Who can resist the fascination of Greta when the allure is turned on? - and it was certainly turned on for Clarissa’s benefit,’ wrote Beaton. In turn Clarissa was fascinated by Garbo – ‘her looks, certainly not her intelligence, obviously not,’ she commented recently. Anyone involved with Garbo had to get used to her games of hide and seek, but after Clarissa had married the Foreign Secretary, she happened to be in New York and asked the elusive star to lunch. She was surprised to find her standing waiting outside the restaurant, in awe of Clarissa’s new status: ‘I thought she was better than that.’

And oh what memorable lines she wrote! Describing Cecil Beaton’s diaries, she produced: ‘Those who found it hard to enjoy the live autopsy performed upon them could comfort themselves that no more loyal friend than Cecil Beaton existed.’ And describing his prostate operation: ‘When comparatively late in life he had to undergo a not uncommon surgical operation, the experience became a saga of such vivid drama and detail as to give a shock of revelation to anyone who had ever lain on an operating table.’

There was something of a conspiracy between Duff Cooper, Lady Pamela Berry and to some extent Beaton, that led to her marriage to Anthony Eden. She turned him down the first time, and Beaton wondered if she thought she had made a mistake. When Eden asked her again, she accepted and was propelled into the world of high politics. The long wait for Winston Churchill to retire and the serious illness of Anthony Eden during his premiership made these years difficult, and have been tackled by many historians with varying degrees of sympathy. Clarissa commissioned two authorised biographies of her husband – the first by Robert Rhodes James, which did not entirely satisfy her – and the second by that most distinguished of prime ministerial biographers, D.R. Thorpe, which pleased her better.

During those years she surrendered all her personal interests to being Eden’s wife. She loved the opera and the theatre, but she never went. She is of course remembered for her comment: ‘In the past few weeks I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room.’ This was said in a rare political speech at Gateshead on 20 November 1956 and widely reported. Recently she conceded that ‘drawing room’ was perhaps unfortunate.

During his long years of retirement, Clarissa devoted herself to the care of her husband. Following a long world cruise, they divided their time between two successive homes in Wiltshire, and spent winters in the West Indies. ‘I was pleased to leave politics,’ she said, ‘and that we could have a marriage without all the tensions, plottings and shenanigans of political life.’ When Lord Avon fell ill in America in January 1977, he was flown home in an RAF plane sent by Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, to die at Alvediston.

The twenty years of marriage and the vacuum following her husband’s death left Clarissa with an unaccustomed sense of loneliness which she had not experienced before marriage. She remade her life, staying on for some years at Alvediston, and then moving to London. She was a widow at 56, and in the next years, she spent many hours at the opera (often in the box of Lord Goodman who was inclined to comment at the end of a performance, when dead bodies were strewn across the stage: ‘Nothing that a good lawyer could not have sorted out!’) She relished the theatre, travelled widely, took up deep sea diving for some years, read voraciously and entertained discriminatingly. She had an impish sense of humour and, perhaps surprisingly, enjoyed the TV series, Dallas, the wickedness of J.R., and how these oil barons always talked about ‘their daddies’.

It must be ten years ago that she first mentioned with a sense of quiet resignation that she worried about her memory. She had a fine brain, analytical and what in a pre-politically correct world, would have been described as a man’s brain. When people came to interview her about people of the past, she did not talk about herself. She took it for granted that the interviewer knew that she knew the subject, and then assessed his qualities.

Today she reads the papers voraciously, and at times professes to remember nothing of the past. She retains her elegance and style, is always beautifully dressed, and gives sharp answers to questions. She makes expeditions to parks and galleries and sees close friends and most often her niece, Sally.

It is never dull to visit her, and she most certainly possesses ‘the snip in her celery’ that prompted the voting panel of the Oldie to bestow upon her this prestigious and enjoyable honour.