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A wartime Christmas with Nancy Astor – Laura Grenfell

Blog | By Laura Grenfell | Dec 20, 2020

Nancy Astor in 1908 (Library of Congress)

27 December 1940

37 Chesham Place. S.W.1.

Darlings all. I just simply didn’t manage to get a Christmas letter off to you all which was quite awful. But never the less I do hope you all had the happiest Christmas under the circumstances. This brings you all my very very best love, and I hope that we will all be together again by this time next year. It might be you never know!

The most extraordinary things have been happening to me lately, and I am now not remotely surprised by anything that turns up. I would never have dreamt, in my wildest moments that I would have been dining with the Trees [1] at the Ritz, spending Christmas at Cliveden, dishing out custard at the party at the Canadian hospital, collecting a consignment of toys from ‘The Coppins’ on Christmas day, to say nothing of watching Geoff [2] toss off cocktails, while reading bits of Maria’s letters out to Lady Reading! One never knows what is coming next. In comparison to this, the fact of the Blitz going on outside, and not spending Christmas with all of you seems somehow quite ordinary, if horrid.

It seems such a long time since I last wrote, and there is such a lot to tell you that it's difficult to know where to begin. For Maria’s benefit I’ll start off with Geoff’s visit here.

I had a message one day to ring him up urgently. I dashed to the telephone and put a call through, in the middle of the afternoon. When I got through I found he just wanted to chat, and he was reading my last letter out to his brother offices and roaring with laughter at it. Nothing could have been intended less for publication in any shape or form; anyway we had a long chat, and the outcome was that he thought he might come up for a sight of us here in London, so he arranged for his two Colonels to have to come up, and then arrived in the largest military car that ever has been, with an ex-chauffeur at the wheel.

We booked two rooms at 20 Chesham Place for the Colonels and Geoff came and stayed here. When he arrived at tea time Pat (Lort Phillips)[3] was here having just rung up to say he was in this part of the town. So he and Geoff compared notes, though it must be admitted that Geoff did most of the talking! We then rang up on the chance to see if Miss Fenno [4] and Lady Reading [5] were in, and were asked round. Geoff was in terrific form, and tossed off the cocktails like nothing on earth.

Lady R. was fascinated. She said that the last time she had seen him on the English Speaking Union he had been an old, old man and she couldn’t believe that Geoff was the same person. He talked absolutely non stop, and read some delicious bits out of letters from Maria. We stayed a long time and Geoff held the floor all the time. Geoff then came back here and we picked Mummy up and had dinner at number 20.

Geoff’s two Colonels were there, and I must say one needed to remember that appearances are not everything. Two more unimaginative, bottle nosed, whisky drinking soldiers would be hard to imagine, but I gather from Geoff that the bits of work he tells them to do, they do quite well.

Poor Geoff didn’t enjoy his London night much I don’t think. There was what we considered a very mild blitz on, but even after his own home town raids, he hasn’t got his second wind, and of course with his technical interest, he keeps counting and multiplying the answer and finding the cubic root and from that working out how long the shell has taken to travel from A to B and where that is etc. Thank heavens I very seldom know which is gun and which is bomb, it makes life much easier.

Geoff and his General seem to be having rather fun, and Geoff is bossing the show completely, quite irrespective of any senior officer over him, and has the satisfaction of being the only one to know the job. He has been going back to Chewton quite a lot. When he goes there, there is an awful lot of work to be done. Lady Waldegrave [6] is really recovered but has awful rheumatism at the moment. She most kindly asked me down for Christmas, but there wasn’t time to get down there and back. I would have liked to have gone for Geoff’s sake as it must have been horrid for him.

Its now Monday the 30th. How awful.

To go back to the beginning of my surprising activities since I last wrote. My American journalist friend [7] was returning to America for a month, so I asked him here for a farewell dinner. He rang up during the afternoon to say that he had to go the next day, and the Trees (with whom he has been staying most of the time) had asked him and me to dine with them at the Ritz. I spent hours putting on all my best clothes, never dreaming for a moment that I could ever be overdressed in such a place, but of course when I got there they were all dressed in (ultra expensive) wool frocks and coats and even hats.

The company consisted of the Trees, Leonora Corbett [8], the actress, Helen Kirkpatrick [9], the leading American journalist here at the moment, Ben, a Mr Kirkpatrick [10] of the F.O. and a man called Anthony Head [11]. When we arrived the room was full of everybody practically, but they drifted away and we sat down just the above company for dinner.

What a dinner too! For the first half hour I didn’t begin to even understand what was said, it was all in a language far stranger than any French dialect to me. After a while by stretching my ears and neck in all directions, and remaining quite dumb, I began to see the outline of one or two shapes, and for the next hour I was frantically adding two and two, and just as I came to four, it turned into something quite else.

Leonora Corbett [12] looks quite lovely, and is just what a leading actress should be. All the tricks, great wit, but if the conversation strays from her, it's just hauled back again. I’ve never believed that sort of character when I’ve seen it in films, but it's true through and through and couldn’t be exaggerated. I was fascinated. The great thing seemed to be to hold hands, and fight terrific mock battles over the corpse of any male within sight. You can imagine that I stayed as mum as any dormouse!

The conversation ranged from the most inside political discussion, to “Nancy darling, look at Ronnie, aren’t you jealous he’s holding Helen’s hand now?” all in the same breath. It needed careful attention to keep the different sets of personalities separate, and at moments I wondered whether I was getting real Daily Mirror gossip about all the Cabinet, then I found out the conversation had switched back while I wasn’t looking, and had returned to the present company. All very confusing. I got such giggles at being there at all, which didn’t help.

It was very good entertainment though, although rather nerve racking at the time, as I felt so much like something the cat had brought in. Actually apart from the amusing side, it rather got my goat to think that a certain section of our politics is dealt with by such people in such a manner, and I can’t but believe that Ronnie Tree is one of the very stupidest men that has ever been born, even though he may have a heart of gold. (Solid 18 carat at that too).

All the little personal string-pullings and intrigues that they talk about in the most off hand way, make my stomach turn rather. I couldn’t help saying to Ben in the taxi, coming home that nothing could be less English than that, and Cliveden, and I rubbed it in hard, as I think it is a pity that most of the American journalists only see England from there, which though pleasant, couldn’t be less typically British. After that dinner, they certainly won’t go back and say we are starving!

I seem to have flown rather high socially lately. I went down with Joyce [13] for Christmas day, and after spending a lovely cosy Christmas Eve with her at the cottage, we went up to Cliveden after breakfast on Christmas day. I always become painfully aware of a hole in my stocking, a spot on my skirt, a smut on my nose, and untidy hair, when I go there.

There were innumerable officers, all very young and very Eton and Oxford who are billeted there, belonging to Michael’s[14] unit, added to these were several American naval attaches, various other friends of different ages and descriptions, and an airman and his wife, (who I’m afraid I thought was the new secretary all the time) and thank heaven there was Dinah Brand [15],and Jim, who is so nice now.

Before church, Dinah and the others opened their presents, and never in all my life have I seen such a display. Bottle on bottle of the most expensive scent, at least 2 dozen pairs of the very best silk stockings (from Lady Astor [16]) several pairs of stockings for country wear (from Lady Astor) several super expensive flap jacks (the best from Lady Astor) and several very luxurious cigarette cases, a pair of terrific bedroom slippers, and goodness knows what else, you’ve never seen anything like it.

We went to church at Hitcham, which was very nice and obviously the same as it always has been, war or no war. Back to an enormous dinner, we sat down thirty. I had an officer on either side, and made the very best ex-deb conversation I could. In the afternoon I had to return to my character of member of the W.V.S. and in that capacity drive over to the Coppins [17] to collect some toys graciously given. And then was sent from the front door to the back, where I received very haughty treatment at the hands of Mr Jenning the butler. I crawled away with a fort and a huge box of toys in the back of the car, which I then took and dumped with the caretaker of the Slough Town Hall. Goodness knows what has happened to them now.

I returned to have tea with Joyce, at the cottage, and immediately after we had to get dressed in long velvet frocks, for the party at the hospital to begin at 6. Off we went all dolled up, and went to the recreation room of the hospital, where there were about 300 men, all dressed in hospital blue, with neat and gay scarlet ties. They each had a mug, plate and spoon, and their form of applause was to bang these against each other and whistle. Joyce led the proceedings, to great applause, Lady Astor did her bit, and a band came from Skindles for about an hour.

After a good deal of singing and music in one form or another, it was announced that there was to be a meal of hot dogs and Christmas pudding, and coffee. Unfortunately some hitch occurred. (I don’t think the chef had ever met a hot dog before so wasn’t going to try). The rolls came first and there was quite a time lag before the Hot sausages arrived to go in it. With the result that the soldiers at the front ate their rolls without sausages, procured second rolls and stuffed that with a handful of hot sausage. The men at the back, who were the less well ones any way, had to go without, and there was quite a lot of shouting and exhorting from all concerned.

You’d never have thought that dressed in my blue velvet bridesmaid's frock, with all me jewels (!) on, I should have seized a handful of very hot and greasy sausages out of the pan, to pass them over several rows of Canadian heads to the back row. I’ve never been so greasy in all my life, and that’s what we were all doing.

For the next course I thought I would seize the part that looked as though it couldn’t run out, so with two staunch men carrying the cauldron, I wielded an enormous ladle and dished out a sauce (which was said to contain rum) onto plates on which a dollop of Christmas pudding had already been put by various other people. During all this, Joyce had slipped away to sing to the bed patients in her ward, and I gather had a delicious time, and found a co-star in a cockney who was in the hospital receiving treatment for a chest, who came out with a glorious series of songs.

After the party we went up to Cliveden again, washed off some of the custard and sat down to an enormous dinner, forty strong this time. This meal I sat between an officer, and the airman, name of Waite [18] I believe, he was very much what one would expect an airman to be, but was rather intriguing as he worked in Joubert’s [19] office, and had done instructional films, and talked about the broadcasting, and fan mail, and suggestions they had received etc. After dinner we went into the long drawing-room, and after some community singing of all sorts, Joyce at the piano, they started to do charades.

Hugh Fraser [20] had arrived during the day, and did a brilliant imitation of Laval [21], in flowing French and somehow managing to look just like him. Jakie [22] did a very good Colonel Blimp. Joyce then did her canteen lady, and then her new sketch, in the Lending library. As we had to start fairly early the next day, and she had two performances, one on Boxing Day morning, as well as the afternoon, we didn’t stay on after. It was all great fun.

Nothing could have been a a greater contrast than the party I went to the next day. In the capacity of chauffeur to Lady R. I took her to two hotels where Gibraltar refugees are housed, where they were celebrating Christmas. I’ve never seen so many children in proportion to grown ups, even Mary would look quite silly there. When Lady Reading started giving things off the tree, she was just mobbed, and the tree rocked from side to side (luckily it was lit by electric bulbs and not candles).

In the second hotel there were even more people, but they seemed to have organised themselves rather better. They gave us an entertainment which was rather touching. There was one little girl of about 6 or 7 who danced beautifully, and reminded me so of Jenny [23], and then a little fat girl of about 4, dressed in a kilt and a little scotch bonnet who insisted on dancing a reel all by herself, with a roguish look in her eye. She was so nimble on her feet and so round and comic, she reminded me of Patrick [24].

On Boxing day, we had a luncheon party here, Mummy and Doria between them, contrived a sort of fork luncheon quite beautifully. The Wyndhams, the Baileys, Anne Talbot, and Roger Makins [25]came, and V [26] came too. It ended up by being a sit down lunch. Unfortunately, as I was chauffing, I didn’t get there till late, and I had to leave early, but it was fun having a glimpse of them all the same. Mummy I’m afraid had a miserable Christmas. She refused to go north with Daddy to Ardchattan [27] as she said the Minister of Transport had asked her not to travel. She equally insisted on my going down to Joyce, though I hated leaving her. She spent the time divided between the evacuees and then stayed with the Stocks one night and had them here the other night. Still she’s gone to Ardchattan now, and is I hope getting a real rest at last.

Gosh I must stop, I thought the clock said 11, but it was really 12 on looking again. There won’t be much to write about in next week’s letter so I’ll save up for that.

By the way please note that Patrick’s address is now Oflag V11 C/Z [28] not H. Do write to him there. Wasn’t it wonderful, Fuff had a card from him on Christmas day itself! He’s with James MacDonald in this new camp, which will be nice for both of them.

Love to you all, and Oh my goodness I hope 1941 has some improvements in store on 1940, for all of you,


[1] Ronald Tree (1897-1976). American. MP (Con) for Harborough 1933-45. Married (1920-47) to Nancy Tree, née Perkins, later Field, finally Lancaster (1897-1994). Daughter of Elizabeth Langhorne, sister of Alice Winn; first cousin of Joyce Grenfell. Noted decorator, garden designer, took over Colefax & Fowler in 1944. Ditchley was used by Churchill as a retreat from London between November 1940-1942 when Chartwell and Chequers seen as vulnerable.

[2] Geoffrey, Earl Waldegrave (1905-95), married to LMG’s sister Mary (“Maria”), who had evacuated to Canada in July, with five children, and a son being born on 8 December 1940. Serving with the Royal Artillery near Bristol.

[3] Patrick Lort-Phillips (1911-79), in Grenadier Guards (later Lt.Col., with DSO and bar). Married to LMG’s sister Katie (1912-2008)

[4] Pauline (“Paulie”) Fenno MBE (1899-1975). American, based in London throughout the war, funding good causes and was active in the W.V.S., developing important links with US partners. (Her mother, also Pauline, established the Massachusetts Women’s Civilian Defense Corps).

She remained a friend of LMG: my parents sometimes borrowed her house in Chester Street in the early 1970s. I remember my mother’s excitement when a large bunch of flowers ’For Laur…’ was delivered, and she accepted it before noticing that it was for Lauren Bacall at the house next door. She re-delivered it and was thrilled to hand it over to Miss Bacall, not the less for Bacall appearing to think LMG was a florist’s delivery assistant. GF

[5] Stella, Lady Reading. Chairman of the WVS, LMG’s boss.

[6] Anne, Lady Waldegrave (1868-1962). Mother of Geoffrey.

[7] Ben Robertson (1903-43), London correspondent of PM (founded June 1940 as a liberal New York daily). Killed in February 1943 en route to London to take up appointment as head of New York Herald Tribune’s London Bureau: his PanAm Clipper flying boat crashed into the Tagus at Lisbon in a storm, and he was one of 23 fatalities.

[8] Leonora Corbett (1908-60), British theatre and film actress.

[9] Helen Kirkpatrick (1909-97), London correspondent of the Chicago Daily News 1939-46. Previously freelanced for various British and US papers and jointly published The Whitehall News, a strongly anti-appeasement weekly.

[10] (Later Sir) Ivone Kirkpatrick (1897-1964). Director of the Foreign Division of the Ministry of Information. Wounded at Gallipoli, worked on propaganda in First Word War, then ran intelligence network in occupied Belgium. Served in Rome and Berlin Embassies in 1930s. Head of European Services of BBC 1941-44; political adviser to Eisenhower 1944-45; British High Commissioner in Germany 1949-53; PUS FO 1953-57.

[11] Antony Head, later 1st Viscount Head (1906-83). Serving in the Life Guards; had been awarded an MC on 20 December 1940. Ended Second World War as Brigadier. MP (Con) 1945-60. SofS for War 1951-56, Minister of Defence 1956-57. High Commissioner to Nigeria 1960-63, Malaysia 1963-66.

[12] Leonora Corbett (1908-60), theatre and film actress.

[13] Joyce Grenfell, married to LMG’s half-brother Reggie. At the time appearing in a revue Diversions in the Fortune Theatre; and helping (and entertaining) in a Canadian Red Cross hospital near the cottage at Cliveden she had been lent by her aunt Nancy Astor

[14] Michael Astor (1916-80), later Capt. Royal Artillery. MP (Con) Surrey East 1945-51.

[15] Dinah Brand (1920-98), daughter of Robert Brand and niece of Lady Astor; first cousin of Joyce. Friend of LMG’s

[16] Nancy Astor, née Langhorne, Viscountess Astor (1879-1964). MP (Con) Plymouth Sutton 1919-45: first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. Born and brought up in Virginia. Joyce’s mother was her sister.

[17] Berkshire home of Duke and Duchess of Kent.

[18] Possibly Wing Cdr (later Air Cdre) R N (Rex) Waite (1901-75). Served Air Ministry 1940-41. Proposer of Berlin Airlift in 1948.

[19] Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté (1887-1965). 1940-41 Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Radio); well known as military broadcaster on BBC. Commander of RAF Coastal Command 1936-37, 1941-43.

[20] (Later Sir) Hugh Fraser (1918-84), served in Lovat Scouts; later with MI9 in Belgium (directorate of Military Intelligence supporting European resistance organisations); MP (Con) 1945-84, SofS for Air 1962-64. Married to Lady Antonia Pakenham 1956-75.

[21] Pierre Laval (1883-1945) Vichy Foreign Minister June-Dec 1940; Prime Minister 1931-32,1935-36; Chief Minister of Vichy France 1942-44. Executed for collaboration.

[22] (Later Major Sir) John Jacob Astor VII (1918-2000). Wartime service in the Life Guards and SAS. MP (Con) 1951-59.

[23] Lady Jane Waldegrave, later Howard (1934-2019), daughter of Geoffrey and Mary Waldegrave.

[24] Patrick Campbell-Preston (1911-1960). Served in the Black Watch, captured at St Valéry with 51st Highland Division June 1940. PoW 1940-45. Commanded 1st Bn Black Watch in Germany 1951-52. Married to LMG’s sister Frances.

[25] Roger Makins, later 1st Baron Sherfield (1904-96). Diplomat, Minister in Washington 1945-47, Ambassador in Washington 1953-56.

[26] Vera Grenfell (1902-86). LMG’s oldest half-sister. Running Highways Clubs, Shadwell, East London. Chairman of the National Association of Mixed Clubs and Girls' Clubs between 1949 and 1960.

[27] Home of the Campbell-Prestons in Argyll.

[28] In Tittmoning Castle, in Launstein, north-eastern Bavaria.