Tuesday, 22nd August 1939
Orchard Close, Ramsbury
‘Spending the hols with Granny is really quite an experience. The service was incredible, with everything done for you. I wish I could have seen the head housemaid’s face when she unpacked my case and found a grubby suspender belt and my signed photo of John Gielgud in Hamlet-not to mention a paperback of Casanova’s Amours.‘ -Extracted from Love Lessons.
Though Joan Wyndham shunned her upper-class upbringing for a life of bohemian influences, her pedigree was staunchly aristocratic. Her mother, Iris, was the illegitimate daughter of Lord French, Viceroy of Ireland, and her grandmother, Wendy Bennett, had an exotic upbringing in Romania whose family used to greet guests with bread, salt and a five gun salute. Joan’s father, Dick Wyndham, also known as ‘Whips Wyndham’ – he had been exposed by Cyril Connolly as ‘one of Europe’s great flagellists’- was a scion of the aristocratic family of Petworth House.
She was born in 1921 at the sprawling family mansion, Clouds, in Wiltshire. It was often the base of the social group known as The Souls–the Victorian predecessors of the Bright Young People. It could have been an idyllic life of luxury had Iris and Dick’s marriage not been a monumental mismatch. They eventually divorced after she discovered him hiding-not in one of the forty bedrooms-but behind the Christmas tree in the arms of his mistress, Irene. At the age of four, Joan moved to the Fulham Road with Iris, sharing a house with her best friend, the lesbian sculptress, Sidonie ‘Sid’ Houselander.
In pursuit of the ‘pretty smashing’ John Gielgud, Joan aspired to become an actress, which led to a successful audition at RADA. It was the summer of 1939, and had the fate of WW2 not intervened she may have become a stage actress. Instead, her dreams were crushed and she turned to art, enrolling at Chelsea Poly where she was taught sculpture by ‘darling’ Henry Moore. Embracing the life of a shabby art student, Joan leased a studio on the Redcliffe Road, spending her days painting life models and her nights being plied with alcohol at bohemian parties. At such a gathering she met the dashing Rupert, who loathed parties and looked like a ‘handsome seal’. Another suitor who had his lecherous eye on her was the fumbling Leonard who demanded, ‘Joan, please, for Christ’s sake, take this wretched dress off!’ She declined, with a stern warning, ‘Don’t rip it, it’s new!’ Upon his departure, Joan discovered he had pinched all of her cigarettes.
When she became acquainted again with Rupert, he announced, ‘This is Joan…she’s going to be my new girlfriend.’ It was a strange and glamorous world she was living in despite the horror of war, though she felt less like a siren, describing herself as ‘all Kirbies and cardigan and size 7 sandals’. During a near miss with a German bomb, Joan bargained, ‘If I survive this, I should go round to Rupert’s and get myself de-virginized.’ Afterwards, Joan rationalized, ‘Goodness, is that all it is? I’d rather have a jolly good smoke and go to the pictures any day!’
‘You may look innocent enough but every now and then you talk like an old French whore.’ – Rupert to Joan
A life of debauchery ensued; as a WAAF in the north of England, Joan had an encounter with a Norwegian naval first Lieutenant who carved notches into the bedpost, and from whom she caught fleas. She was seduced by Lucien Freud and fended off boozy kisses in the back of a taxi from Dylan Thomas. Disillusioned, she preferred to spend a quiet night in with a cup of Ovaltine, though with her door bolted shut to ward off highly sexed officers. At the end of the war no one was as alarmed as Joan when she tallied up her wartime liaisons, it amounted to only four. She made up for lost time, beginning an affair with the ‘unbearably attractive’ Lord Lovat. She kissed and told, and in 1986 the fables were published in her second installment of diaries, Love is Blue.
After the war Joan tampered with domesticity, and she married Maurice Rowdon, the son of a docker who admired his new daughter-in-law turning up to the wedding ‘all dolled up like a tallyman’s ink bottle’. Joan and her baby daughter, Clare, relocated to Baghdad where Rowdon had landed a teaching post. Upon their return to England, the marriage ended and Joan bought a small cottage in Kent with the inheritance from her father, who had been shot dead by a sniper whilst covering the Arab-Israeli war for The Sunday Times. Joan fell in love with her Russian lodger, Shura Shivarg and they had a child, Camilla. He later became her second husband.
Joan was revered by the youthful set of the Swinging Sixties, and an endless stream of politicians, aristocrats, actors and escorts, including ‘Rabbity teeth’ Christine Keeler, passed through the door of her Georgian townhouse off the King’s Road. Following a stint as a horoscope writer and a publisher’s reader, she found joy and profit in opening one of the first expresso bars in Oxford, running a hippy restaurant on the Portobello Road, cooking for actors at the Royal Court theatre and catering at festivals. And at the age of fifty, Joan experienced her first ecstasy trip. The experiences were recorded in a kaleidoscope of remembrances in Anything Once, the third and final installment of her diaries published in 1992.
In the 1980s Joan moved back to the Fulham Road, and though old age had caught up with her, she continued to live life by her own rules. During a birthday gathering for a grand relative, Joan was asked to step aside for the Queen. ‘Oh fuck off!’ she roared, the response was met by a frosty glare from her Majesty. As the evening of her life drew near, Joan became an avid supporter of Chelsea FC, a faithful viewer of Blind Date and admirer of Diana, the Princess of Wales. Her last literary work, a memoir, Dawn Chorus, was published in 2004. She died in 2007, at the age of eighty five.