The Muse: Diana Mitford and Paul César Helleu

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Diana at Cecil Beaton’s ‘Opposites’ party. The Sketch, 1932

At the age of sixteen, Diana Mitford arrived in Paris under less than glamorous circumstances. Her father, David, had succeeded in selling the family’s home, Asthall Manor, and with the money garnered from its sale, he set about building a new family home, Swinbrook House. The final phase of building was yet to be completed, and the Mitford family, along with their pet gerbils, chose to economise by taking cheap lodgings at the Villa St Honoré d’Eylau. Caught between the world wars, Paris was bustling with excitement. The epitome of the roaring twenties, the jazz age brought rich American tourists and bohemian writers alike to sample the cosmopolitan delights the city had to offer. The reconstruction of the Boulevard Haussmann, damaged by bombs during the First World War, was underway, and Paris was once again a vibrant, metropolitan city not yet plunged into austerity by the Great Depression.

The topic of beauty would govern Diana’s Parisian experience. Whilst in Paris, her mother, Sydney, rekindled her friendship with the celebrated artist, Paul César Helleu who, in the years before her marriage, had immortalised her in a painting. Now this admiration transferred to Sydney’s children. Smitten by her offspring, his painter’s eye appreciated the fine colouring of their blonde hair and blue eyes, with the exception of Nancy, who possessed the dramatic colouring of black hair and green eyes. But it was Diana who charmed Helleu. She, in particular, he likened to a Greek goddess. Advancing in his sixth decade, he was considered an old man, but Helleu’s liberal outlook did not let something as trivial as their vast age difference prevent him from admiring Diana’s looks. ‘Tu es la femme la plus voluptuesse,’ he often praised her. From a cynical point of view it was hardly an appropriate adornment for Diana, who stood at the statuesque height of 5ft 10in, with a slim figure to match.

Caught in the limbo between childhood and adulthood, Diana overlooked Helleu’s compliments, and her attention was absorbed by his drawing room. She thought his collection of Louis XVI furniture, especially the chairs upholstered in white and grey silk, to be aesthetically pleasing. She was curious as to why Helleu hung empty eighteenth-century gilt wooden frames on his walls. His answer was far more peculiar than his action. He advised Diana that if one was not rich enough to possess the pictures one wished for, it was best to have empty frames and use one’s imagination. She was further elated when Helleu drew her into his confidence, telling her that he admired three things above all else: women, racehorses, and sailing boats.

Fearing that her impressionable daughter would fall victim to boredom, the opposite sex, or both, Sydney enrolled Diana in the Cours Fenelon, where she was to study art. After the lessons, Diana walked one-hundred-yards around the corner, to take afternoon tea with Nanny Blor and her siblings at the hotel. This ordinary advancement of walking home alone meant the world to Diana, as it was the first time she had been without a chaperone. This freedom was confined to Paris, as she learned when the family returned to England to spend the Christmas holidays in London.

In the new year of 1927, Diana prepared to return to Paris, this time without her parents and siblings. Travelling alone in those days was strictly forbidden for a young, unmarried girl of her social class. The idea of sending a member of staff, or worse still, paying for a chaperone to accompany Diana, troubled Sydney. Much to her relief, the journey coincided with Winston Churchill’s visit to meet Mussolini and he offered to drop Diana off in Paris on his way to Rome. Accompanying his father, Randolph was thrilled to see Diana again – in love with her during his childhood, he would continue to carry a torch for her long after she had broken his heart by marrying Bryan Guinness, and then Sir Oswald Mosley. But his hope of cutting a dashing figure was thwarted when he fell victim to seasickness, brought on by the rough Channel crossing. ‘Poor little boy!’ Churchill said when Diana told him of Randolph’s plight. Upon reaching the Gare du Nord, Diana spied two elderly sisters with whom Sydney had made boarding arrangements. She summarised her first impressions of the elderly sisters: ‘One of them is horrid and wears a wig, the other is downtrodden and nice’. Pressed for time before catching his connecting train to Rome, Churchill swiftly entrusted Diana into their care and the three left for her new dwellings at 135 Avenue Victor-Hugo.

The elderly sisters’ apartment was not luxurious in any sense of the word, and Diana was alarmed to discover the French taste, which she held in such high esteem, had been lost on her landladies. If the outside was grim, the inside was strictly primitive. She was allocated a bedroom in the basement, its window level with the pavement, with tightly clamped shutters that were to remain closed, should a pedestrian attempt to break in. The room was dark, and as Diana lay in bed she could hear the hustle and bustle of footsteps on the pavement and the revolting chorus of men clearing their throats and spitting. The Dickensian surroundings extended to basic hygiene. She was permitted to bathe twice a week in a miniscule tin tub, brought into her bedroom for the occasion, whereupon a maid filled it with a scalding kettle, counteracted by a jug of cold water. The balance was never quite right and the bath, to Diana’s dismay, was freezing. She wrote a long letter to Sydney, moaning of her discomforts and was sent enough money for an occasional bath at the Villa St Honore d’Eylau. The elderly ladies thought this extravagant and an insult to their hospitality. Owing to Diana’s displeasure with her living arrangements, a frosty relationship ensued.

Despite the discomfort, Diana found the location useful with its close proximity to the Cours Fenelon, her violin lessons near the Lycee Janson, and Helleu’s apartment. She walked to all three places without a chaperone and the freedom was intoxicating. Emboldened by this freedom, she took the first step towards adulthood and cut her waist length hair into a shingled bob – a popular trend in the late 1920s. Her father affirmed to the Edwardian ideal of how women should look, preferring them with long hair and their faces free of make-up. Given this stance, she would have hesitated to cut off her hair had she remained at home. When Nancy first cut her hair, David recoiled in horror, proclaiming that no self-respecting man would want to marry her. Sydney sided with David, and she commented, ‘No one would look at you twice now.’ Having learned of Diana’s rebellion, David teased that her new look was ‘a symbol of decadent immorality’.

It had been almost a month since Helleu last set eyes on Diana, and her short hair, he opined, was ghastly, but it did little to diminish her looks. When she was not taking lessons, Helleu escorted Diana around Le Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, giving her impromptu lessons on paintings, fine art and sculpture. After their day-long excursions, he treated Diana to luncheon where she ordered Sole Dieppoise and Sancerre. Although infatuated by her appearance, his behaviour was always proper. Seizing this moment of high spirits, he asked her to sit for a portrait. There was no question of what her answer would be, for Diana it was the ultimate compliment. ‘I pose for endless pictures,’ Diana confided in a letter to her friend and admirer, James Lees-Milne, and Helleu’s flattering comments, she claimed, ‘never become boring because they are always unexpected.’ Helleu sketched and painted Diana several times, and his most favourable piece was a dry-point etching of her head in profile view. The strong lines detailed her ethereal beauty; an attractive jawline, emphasised by her shingled hair, cut as short as a boy’s at the back with the sides reaching her ears, formed into soft waves. The sketch was reproduced in the popular magazine, L’Illustration, and the prolific recognition turned Diana into a minor celebrity at the Cours Fenelon. The excitement was short-lived and the elderly sisters hastened to plant a dart; ‘Helleu?’ they hissed at the modern-looking girl sitting before them. ‘It is not Helleu to me at all. Frankly I think it is very pre-war.’

Helleu’s flattery was never ending and, blinded by Diana’s beauty, he expected his peers to share his enthusiasm. He brought Diana to visit his friend, the sculptor Troubetzkoy, who at the time was working on a head of Venizelos, the Greek politician. ‘Bonjour, monsieur, la voici la Grèce!’ Helleu jubilantly cried as he pointed to Diana, who stood before the sculptor in her plain clothing and her face devoid of make-up. Venizelos, engrossed in his work, cast a lacklustre eye over Diana, before turning away, barely acknowledging her. She felt a fool and thought her exuberant friend had gone too far. To the sculptor and politician (and many of the grown-ups around her) she was merely going through what the French called ‘l’âge ingrat’ – the awkward age.

Sensing that her husband’s young friend was pining for familiar home comforts, Madame Helleu provided Diana with an inviting atmosphere away from the Avenue Victor-Hugo. After lessons, she would drop in for tea and often stayed to supper, indulging in Madame Helleu’s heavenly cuisine of roast veal, boeuf en gelee, iles flottantes and rich black chocolate cake. Helleu loved to see Diana eat and he would happily exclaim: ‘Mais prenez, prenez donc!’ The Helleus’ daughter, Paulette, although several years older than Diana, became a critical friend. Paulette found fault with Diana’s clumsy home-made clothing and her lack of make-up, still strictly forbidden. She might have attacked Diana’s weak spots, but she could not deny her beauty, and that sparked an unspoken rivalry between the artist’s daughter and his adolescent muse.

Although flattered by Helleu’s treatment, Diana was becoming accustomed to receiving compliments on her beauty rather than her brains. In a letter to James Lees-Milne, she asked him ‘not to feel jealous’ about her flirting with French boys. Having gained his confidence, she confessed that she only confided in him because he was ‘so far from England’s green and pleasant land, where scandal travels fast’. During this time she had become an expert in deceiving the elderly ladies, and although she was permitted to venture out without a chaperone during the daytime, she was forbidden to do so in the evenings. She cared little for their rules and she feigned invitations to sit for Helleu, or cited extra music lessons with her violin instructor. Once out of their supervision, Diana met the young man in question. She juggled several suitors, always escaping with them to the darkness of the cinema, then the height of sophistication for a teenager. She spoke confidently of a trip in a taxi around the Bois de Boulogne with a boy named Charlie (Charles de Breuil), a fairly rich count, extraordinarily handsome, but very vain. Before Diana had encountered Charlie, she enjoyed a flirtation with a young suitor named Bill Astor, heir to Viscount Astor and his immense fortune. Diana said little of her experiences with Bill, except that she had only flirted with Charlie because French flirting interested her and because it made her think of Bill. At a loss for words, Jim praised her mental fidelity towards the unsuspecting admirer.

Diana dutifully penned chatty letters to her mother, but Sydney was too preoccupied with the preparations for Nancy and Pamela’s parties – they had already come out as débutantes but had failed to become engaged – to give much thought to her younger daughter’s daily life. A dull round of lessons, she imagined. Only Diana and her diary knew the truth. Neither Sydney nor David relished the idea of entertaining and they made a dreary saga of the details, writing to Diana, ‘The dance is turning into an immense bore …’ Sydney sent her a parcel containing a pair of ‘evening knickers’ and a dark blue silk dress with white polka dots. Diana was delighted with the underwear, a sophisticated treat having only just shed the fleece-lined liberty bodice her nanny forced the children to wear. The euphoria dimmed when she tried on the silk dress, only to discover it was too big. The whirlwind of Diana’s social life did not interfere with her schooling and her end of term report, that March, spoke glowingly of her ‘parfait’ conduct, describing her as ‘excellente élève dont nous garderons le meilleur souvenir.’

The glittering atmosphere was not to last. At the end of March, Helleu fell gravely ill and his unexpected death from peritonitis was a bitter blow to Diana’s self-esteem. The man she worshipped and who, for three months, had worshipped her, was dead. ‘I shall never see him again …’ her letter to James Lees-Milne ached with melancholy ‘… never hear his voice saying, “Sweetheart, comme tu es belle”’. Shortly before Helleu’s death, Diana had called at his flat, hoping to visit her ailing friend. Paulette answered the door. ‘May I see him?’ she desperately asked. ‘Of course not.’ Paulette brusquely turned her away. His death was to have a lasting effect on her. ‘Nobody will admire me again as he did,’ she said at the time.

Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is published by The History Press. The above was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV

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Something Higher Than A Friend

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. III

Diana was 14-years-old when she first met James Lees-Milne, known to his friends as ‘Jim’. He had come down to Asthall Manor, the family home in Oxfordshire that was said to be haunted by a poltergeist, with Tom Mitford in the summer of 1924.

Both Diana and Jim were intrigued by one another, and he was bewitched by her beauty as he silently observed her sitting next to Tom as he played the piano. Diana, too, thought Jim the cleverest person she had met. She was impressed by his loathing of games and his preference for sitting indoors, listening to classical music and conversing about art and literature. Tom appeared to share an easy-going, brotherly type of affection with Jim, but their schoolboy camaraderie concealed a discreet affair that had taken place at Eton. The close bond between Diana and Tom reminded Jim of his loneliness and lack of familial ties – he despised his father, saw little of his mother, and had nothing in common with his siblings. Adding to his misery, all through his childhood and early adolescent years, Jim wished he were a girl. Society’s expectations placed on Jim as a boy, and his countrified father’s disapproval, conspired to make him ‘feel desperately ashamed’ of his wish. Adding to Jim’s feelings of shame was the guilt of his affair with Tom, and he desired to replace him with Diana, a socially acceptable catalyst for romance.

After Jim departed Asthall, he immediately wrote Diana a letter, asking her: ‘May I treat you as a much cherished sister to whom I can say everything? You don’t realise how essential they are to boys. Why are you so amazingly sympathique as well as charming?’ Diana, who was surrounded by six sisters and an all-female staff, was unsure how to respond to such flattery. She acted with indifference, which could have been mistaken as modesty – an appealing attribute in one so beautiful.

Jim returned to Asthall, and he, Tom and Diana became a peculiar trio. When the other Mitford children were outside riding and hunting, they spent their days indoors, lapping up joyous hours in the library where Jim expressed his devotion by teaching Diana to read the classics. They read poetry and fantasised about going to live in Greece, where they ‘would scorn material things and live on a handful of grapes by the sea’. Around this period, Jim had appointed himself as Diana’s faithful correspondent and the letters exchanged during this precarious time provide an insight into her outlook. As her intellect developed, she felt comfortable to confide her innermost thoughts to Jim. She told him: ‘There will never be another Shelley. I wish I had been alive then to marry him. He was more beautiful physically and mentally than an angel.’ And her philosophy on life was extremely modern for a sheltered teenager in the 1920s: ‘Why on earth should two souls (I wish there was a better word, I think SPIRIT is better). Why on earth should two spirits who are in love a bit have to marry … and renounce all other men and women?’ Monogamy, to Diana, was ‘SUPREMELY foolish’, but she was quick to acknowledge that speaking of ‘free love is almost a sin’. However, to dispel any hint of romance, she quickly informed Jim of his platonic place in her life: ‘I sometimes feel that I love you too much, but you are my spiritual brother.’

In 1926, Diana left for Paris to spend a year studying art at the Cours Fénelon, and during this period her letters to Jim became few and far between. She had fallen in love with the city, and had formed a circle of admirers who were a world away from Jim and his shy advances disguised by the written word. The ageing artist Paul César Helleu feted Diana, and this form of flattery coming from an adult turned her head more than Jim’s romantic prose.

After Diana’s departure for Paris, Jim had become morbidly obsessed with a recent divorcee, Joanie, the daughter of his mother’s cousin. Jim sent her love poetry – the typical gesture he would use time and time again with those he admired – and Joanie responded by driving down to Eton to take him to tea. In the New Year of 1926, they eventually began an affair, resulting in Joanie becoming pregnant. However, there is no certainty that Jim fathered the child, for she had so many casual affairs. The baby was stillborn, and Jim was haunted by guilt, stemming from his view that he had caused a human life, conceived in sin, to perish. Deeply disturbed by the incident, Jim fled England for Grenoble, where he studied a university course in French. His thoughts turned to Diana and the memories he held from their happier days in the library at Asthall Manor. The notion of being in love with an unworldly teenager was less troublesome than his love affair with the older Joanie, whose life came to a tragic end when she drowned herself at Monte Carlo.

Overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia, Jim wrote to Diana, in which he played to her frivolous vanity by addressing her as ‘Mona’ (after the Mona Lisa). Her letter, after a spell of silence, ‘dropped here today like the gentle dew from heaven. I cannot express my delight but imagine it as being intense … How I would adore to have a picture of you by M. Helleu’. He implored Diana to send him a memento; a snapshot of her Parisian self so he could see for himself if she had retained her Raphael face. ‘You can’t imagine what a joy it is to me the thought of having your face with me.’ Diana had become accustomed to receiving compliments on her beauty, rather than her brains, and the tokens dispelled in his letters were not a rarity. Jim confessed: ‘One can never love a friend too much,’ though by now he thought of Diana as something ‘higher than a friend’.

As for Diana, she was secretly pleased with Jim’s infatuation and had begun to recognise her power over the opposite sex, using it to exploit those who cared about her. Her letters adopted a priggish tone, boasting of her liaisons with French boys, after which, she warned Jim: ‘Don’t feel jealous’. It thrilled her to evoke feelings of jealousy, to torment the poor love-sick Jim, and she made it clear that she only confided in him because he was ‘so far from England’s green and pleasant land, where scandal travels fast’.

The hedonistic atmosphere was not to last and Diana suffered a bitter blow when Helleu died, suddenly, of peritonitis. The man she worshipped, and who for 3 months had worshipped her, was dead. She turned to Jim for comfort. ‘I shall never see him again …’ her letter ached with melancholy ‘… never hear his voice saying, “Sweetheart, comme tu es belle.”’ In another letter, she confessed: ‘Nobody will admire me again as he did.’ Jim might have disagreed, but he refrained from telling her otherwise, and wrote only to comfort her.

When Diana returned to England for the Easter holidays she was disheartened by the family’s new home, Swinbrook House – a grey, rectangular building designed by her father and decorated in mock rustic charm. Perhaps longing for a sense of familiarity, she wrote to Jim. ‘I have grown a little older, and more intense in my passions of love, sorrow and worship of beauty. To look at, I am the same. Pray for me, to your gods whatever they are. I am very unhappy.’ But, somewhere beneath her morbid facade, Diana was still a romantic at heart.

Jim’s letters from that time, although an escape from the dullness of everyday life, drew her attention to his love for her. In a sophisticated manner, she declared: ‘Sex is after all so unimportant in life. Beauty and art are what matter. Older people do not see my point of view.’ Diana failed to elaborate on the ‘older people’, surely a jibe at Jim, who was 2 years her senior. She did not, however, discourage the correspondence. In a similar light as Helleu, Jim praised her looks. ‘I have got dark skin and light hair and eyes which is an unattractive paradox,’ she dismissed his compliment. In the same sentence, Diana asked if he had seen the various beauties: Mary Thynne, Lettice Lygon and Georgie Curzon, to name a few. Jim’s passion could not be quelled, and Diana accepted his gifts of books, though she often critiqued his poetry when he sent it.

Finally, Jim was reunited with Diana in person. The sight of her in the flesh stunned him at first. She was no longer the sweet natured 14-year-old girl he had mentored in the library at Asthall. The long hair, which he had admired and likened to Botticelli’s Seaborne Venus, had been cut short. Although not outwardly fashionable, she began to alter her looks to appear more grown-up in her appearance. This adult version of Diana inspired the same feelings of passion he had felt for Joanie, who wore chic clothes and Parisian scent.

Hoping to instigate a romance with Diana, though from afar, Jim impulsively sent her a poem. Diana’s response was not what he had anticipated, and with a critical eye she advised him: ‘Read Alice Meynell’s short essay on false impressionism called The Point of Honour. This is not meant to be rude …’ Adopting an intellectual tone, she confidently told him: ‘Byron was a selfish, beautiful genius and not really more selfish than many men and most artists. As to Augusta, she was of the same temperament as I am, and just about as silly.’

Diana’s letters to Jim fizzled out, and tormented by her lack of communication, he turned his attention to Diana’s cousin and friend, Diana Churchill, whom he had met that summer. The other Diana, ‘like a fairy’ with her puny frame, pale complexion and red hair, was a haphazard substitute for his original love interest. In September, Diana invited him to the Churchill family home, Chartwell, and he readily accepted once he learned that Diana Mitford would also be staying with her brother, Tom. Unlike at Asthall and Swinbrook, where Jim could escape with Diana and Tom, the ‘brats’ (a Churchillian term of endearment) congregated in the drawing room and at the dining table. They listened to Winston Churchill’s monologue on the Battle of Jutland as he shifted decanters and wine glasses, in place of the ships, around the table, furiously puffing on his cigar to represent the gun smoke. With Churchill’s attention fixed on the children, his boisterous son Randolph seized an opportunity to flatter Diana, with whom he was madly in love. ‘Papa,’ he mischievously asked his father, ‘guess who is older, our Diana or Diana M?’
‘Our Diana,’ came the reply from Churchill, spoiling Randolph’s plan.
‘Oh, Papa, nobody else thinks so but you!’
During the stay, Diana was surrounded by her two most ardent admirers and Jim noticed that she outwardly relished being in Randolph’s company, despite her frequent protests about his immature behaviour. Jim could only look on, his hopes and feelings deflated.

In the new year of 1928, Jim returned to Swinbrook to stay for the weekend. Diana hoped to corner him for a congenial chat about literature, but the pleasant visit took a turn for the worse when, over dinner, Nancy praised an anti-German film she had watched at the cinema. Still harbouring a strong dislike for Germans, their father, Lord Redesdale, made his usual offensive remark: ‘The only good German is a dead German.’
Leaping to the defence of the film and of the German people, Jim said: ‘Anyhow, talking of atrocities, the worst in the whole war were committed by the Australians.’
‘Be quiet and don’t talk about what you don’t understand. Young swine!’ Lord Redesdale exploded.
Mortified by her father’s outburst, Diana broke the heavy silence when she haughtily announced: ‘I wish people needn’t be so rude to their guests!’
Flexing his authority as master of the household, Lord Redesdale ordered Jim from Swinbrook. Frogmarched to the front door, he was thrown outside where it was teeming with rain. After several failed attempts to start up his motorcycle, he sneaked back into the house and crept up to bed.
Awaking at 6 o’clock the next morning, Jim bumped into Lord Redesdale, stalking the hallway, as he did every morning, wearing his paisley print robe and drinking tea from a thermos. Anticipating another scene, Jim was pleasantly surprised when Lord Redesdale appeared to have forgotten the offensive exchange and greeted him warmly.

The turbulent visit settled into a bittersweet memory for Jim and, although he did not know it at the time, it would be his last visit with Diana at Swinbrook. He rightly sensed that Diana’s mind was focused on finding a suitable husband to rescue her from the great boredom of family life. With his ‘impecunious and melancholic’ nature, Jim knew he was not an ideal candidate, and long after he had departed from her life, Diana remained ‘the unattainable object of his desire’.

In 1928, Diana met and became engaged to Bryan Guinness. Jim received the news of Diana’s engagement with little enthusiasm. It came like a ‘cruel blow’ which greatly upset him. Diana attempted to console him with a short, but sweet, letter: ‘I know you will like him [Bryan] because he is too angelic and not rough and loathes shooting and loves travelling and all the things I love.’ She was preoccupied with a glamorous, materialistic world, and given Bryan’s wealth, it served to make Jim feel worthless. ‘When we are married and live in London, you must often come and see us,’ she gently coaxed him. He sent Diana a wedding present of books, and apart from her customary thank you note, he did not set eyes on her for the next 25 years.

Quotations from the letters between Diana Mitford and James Lees-Milne were taken from James Lees-Milne: The Life by Michael Bloch (John Murray, 2009) and reprinted with permission in Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford (The History Press, 2015).