The year was 1932 and the name Doris Delevingne, or rather, the title of Lady Castlerosse, was synonymous with scandal and debauchery. She had outgrown her marriage to Viscount Castlerosse, the portly gossip writer for the Sunday Express and Lord Beaverbrook’s employee and stooge. Having married in 1928, before the Roaring Twenties ended not with a whimper but a bang, due to the Wall Street Crash and economical depression which followed, the warring Castlerosses were yet to divorce. Although Castlerosse had tried, Doris could not play by the rules, and so their divorce case would drag on for a decade. A powerful but penniless man, the journalistic viscount had all of London on his side, and Doris was something of an outcast. But she had one ally, in the form of Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, the eccentric 14th Baron Berners, who was seventeen years her senior. His estate, Faringdon House, in the market town of Oxfordshire, was a haven for social pariahs. With the tension mounting between herself and Castlerosse, Doris came to look on Faringdon as a second home. Also residing there was Gerald’s long-term lover and heir, Robert Heber-Percy, known as ‘Mad Boy’, who was thirty years his junior. Not in the least effeminate or camp, Doris thought Mad Boy was entirely heterosexual and, when they were formally introduced, she asked with total sincerity whether or not they had slept together, as she could not seem to remember.
Carrying a torch for Doris, Gerald was ready to leap to her defence when others spoke badly of her latest hijinks. Taking her place on the sofa and with Gerald behind the piano, it was the custom routine for Doris to say, ‘Let’s dish the dirt!’ and he would listen to her tales of rascality. After exchanging society gossip, she spoke of her dwindling finances and he offered his financial support. Acknowledging his kindness, she kissed him on the lips and said: ‘Dear Gerald, anything you could do wouldn’t last me two days’. More than a friend, she would serve as a muse and he would include Doris in his farcical novel, The Girls of Radcliff Hall, which included characters inspired by Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel and Peter Watson. She was the only female to feature in the story and, ironically, her character was a male. She was the dancing master, Mr Vivian Dorrick, an oversexed gentleman who was ‘no novice in the art of lovemaking…his personality was veiled, to a certain extent, in mystery’. Gerald wrote the novel while staying at his Roman villa with Diana Mitford, and it was privately published for his friends. Doris laughed at the portrayal, but Beaton did not, and he attempted to and succeeded in destroying almost every copy.
It was at Faringdon where Cecil Beaton had first met Doris, who arrived in her chauffeur driven Phantom Rolls Royce with several trunks bearing a viscountess’s coronet. She carried with her a heavy box containing the precious Cartier jewels she had collected from her various rich lovers over the years. With his spectacular eye for detail, Beaton noticed Doris’s slender legs and he admired her ‘Giselle-like ankles’; her exquisite clothes – suits and dresses – were from Worth and Reville, and she continued to shun skirts in favour of tailored shorts – a daring choice – to display her best features. A Bright Young Thing, Beaton moved at the centre of this set, photographing mischievous young aristocrats, and as the 1930s advanced his status was further elevated when he photographed Queen Elizabeth. But Beaton did not confine his lens to the Court; he worked for Vogue, photographing models, film stars and New York socialites, which ultimately boosted his standing across the Atlantic. The professional merits were many, but his love life stalled. Peter Watson, a wealthy young man who, along with Cyril Connolly, would later co-found the literary magazine Horizon, was the subject of his infatuation. However Watson was not attainable to Beaton, for he was in love with Oliver Messel. And, moving on from Messel, he attached himself to Mad Boy. In an attempt to avert Beaton’s passion, Watson dismissively told him: ‘I’d be delighted if you had an affair.’ Beaton took this advice but, surprisingly, it was not another young man to whom he diverted his attention.
In August, Doris travelled to Venice where she stayed for a fortnight at the Villa Foscari, known as ‘La Malcontenta’, its name derived from the spouse of one of the Foscaris who was imprisoned in the house because she would not fulfill her conjugal duty. The villa was owned by the Baroness d’Erlanger, whose guests for the fortnight included Sir Oswald Mosley, who had since founded the British Union of Fascists, and his wife, Cimmie; Emerald Cunard and her lover, Sir Thomas Beecham; Lady Diana and Duff Cooper; Randolph Churchill; Brendan Bracken; and Tilly Losch, who was estranged from her husband, Edward James. It was a louche circle of wealthy revellers who were interconnected by society marriages and, more than anything, illicit love affairs. Diana and Bryan Guinness joined this set on the Lido, verifying the truth behind the rumours sweeping through high society that she was having an affair with Mosley. There, Watson’s suggestion of an affair came to fruition when Beaton looked to Doris with the hope of making him jealous. But it was not Beaton who made the first move. And, perhaps, owing to his homosexuality he never would have approached Doris in the first place. She took the initiative and, planning her seduction of Beaton, she scattered tuberose – ‘the most carnal of scents’ – on his bed. Beaton adored attention, and he responded to the flattery she paid him. Doris herself refused to believe his sexual orientation would pose a problem, and she told him: ‘There’s no such thing as an impotent man, just an incompetent woman.’ To ease Beaton’s reluctance in going to bed with her, she assured him he ‘wouldn’t have to do a thing’, and she advised him to ‘think of your sister’s wedding’.
The affair was not confined to Venice, and when they returned to London, Doris and Beaton often stayed at Faringdon. Guests, eager to judge if the affair had been farce, crept to the lovers’ bedroom door and were further astonished when they overheard Beaton squealing: ‘Oh goody, goody, goody!’ The droll antics continued when Beaton threw a party, and the guests were ordered to dress as their opposite. For this, Doris came as a nun. There was also a circus-themed party which Doris and Beaton attended with Lady Diana and Duff Cooper, Chips Channon, Nancy Mitford, and Daphne Weymouth. Doris – along with Nancy, Daphne and Beaton – dressed as an eighteenth-century equestrian, and Beaton chased her with a whip. They were photographed for Tatler, and Doris commented: ‘We all look very drunk, I think.’
However, when she joined Beaton at Ashcombe, his Georgian manor house in Wiltshire which he had taken a fifteen year lease on in 1930, the reception was not as welcoming as it had been at Faringdon. She was shunned by Beaton’s friend, the ageing writer Edith Olivier, who was enraged by this ‘common little demi-mondaine’ attaching herself to him. Edith recalled how she and Lady Ottoline Morrell were invited to lunch by Beaton, who claimed he was ‘alone with Gerald’. When they arrived they found him sitting in the courtyard, with Gerald painting a portrait of Doris, who was sitting on a mattress, her legs on show in a pair of shorts. This confirmed to Edith that the rumours she had heard were true. ‘It is a liaison between the two. “We” always includes her. It makes me feel I can never go there again,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘Why should one put oneself out for her?’ Lady Ottoline acidly noted that Mrs Keppel, at least, was ‘on the grand scale – a king’s mistress’. Doris, Edith bemoaned, ‘is nothing but a woman with a physical attraction which she exploits in a mercenary way’.
Doris defended her affair with Beaton, though she did not admit to the financial awards in which she hoped he would lavish her with – his salary from Condé Nast alone was $12,000 per annum. She was far more forthright in her confession: she claimed she was sleeping with Beaton for his own benefit. In an age when homosexuality was illegal, Doris maintained that she was merely trying to cure him of his sexual persuasion. But, in truth, this ran deeper than money; she had developed a deep and complex passion for him, and in turn he repeatedly warned her that he was ‘terribly homosexualist’. In his diary, Beaton wrote: ‘Peter loves people that are not in love with him and I in my turn am now worshipped and adored by Doritizins [his pet name for Doris] for whom I hold no emotion whatsoever. It seems so terribly unfair that there cannot be a great straightening out and saving of waste.’ In person, however, he played along with her, ‘if only to soothe the ache produced by years of rejection’ by Peter Watson. He went to bed with her ‘in desperation’, and he chastised himself when he realised he ‘could be so celestial with the bedfellow I love’. Although Watson had encouraged Beaton to have an affair, he did not imagine that it would have been with Doris, whom he loathed. It backfired on Beaton, and Peter, ‘so incensed’ by his ‘relationship with Doritizins,’ became ‘so bitter’ and refused to see him.
News of Doris and Beaton’s affair reached Castlerosse, and adopting the view of their contemporaries, he thought it a joke. On one of his outings to a London restaurant, Castlerosse spied his wife dining with Beaton and, turning to his companion, he quipped: ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian.’ This extramarital affair did little to stir him, and he added Beaton’s name to his growing list of evidence for his much sought-after divorce. In March 1933, a deed of separation was entered into between Doris and Castlerosse, with no financial clauses. They had, for some time, maintained separate abodes, and the legal confirmation of their status was of little consequence to either of them. A month prior, a man had arrived to subpoena Beaton, who had been listed as evidence in their divorce petition. But, he was in New York and thus narrowly avoided being drawn into the lengthy saga.
With Beaton in New York, Doris was momentarily reunited with her old flame, Sir Alfred Beit, but she was more than he could handle and he broke off the affair. He was looking for the stability of marriage and someone with whom he could share his passion for art and philanthropy, and although Doris was in the process of divorcing Castlerosse, she was not the type of wife he sought. He would later marry Clementine Freeman-Mitford, a first cousin of the Mitford girls. To escape Doris, he fled to South Africa ‘to cool down’, for it was only with a great distance between them that he felt safe from her preying clutches. Diana Vreeland, who ran a lingerie shop near Berkeley Square, was friendly with both Doris and Beaton, and she repeated the familiar bon mot that circulated London society at the time: ‘Beaten by Beaton and bitten by Beit.’
Beaton returned from America, and they restored their old routine of lunching at the Ritz Hotel. On one occasion, he and Doris dined with Elsie Mendl and her companion, Johnnie McMullin, the social columnist and fashion editor of Vogue. During their luncheon, Elsie exclaimed, ‘I love whores!’ Doris responded by yelling, ‘What about homosexuality?’ The question was a veiled jibe at Beaton, whose diary she had read. She was still reeling from the shock of learning about his love for Peter Watson. However, aside from the confession in his diary, Beaton harboured another secret which he kept from Doris. He had met a rich American, William Odom, and he invited Beaton on a European tour, all expenses paid. This balancing act of a faux romance with Doris and attaching himself to Odom for self-gain was an ‘exciting game’ to him, and he admitted: ‘I am always fond of anyone who is fond of me.’ Gradually, as she realised the true nature of Beaton’s feelings, Doris detached herself from him. Though, she continued to enjoy his company and appeared good natured about his departure with Odom. She joined Beaton in Paris, where he had callously abandoned his American admirer on the grounds that he was not cultured enough for his cultivated tastes. They went to the ballet with Daisy Fellowes, who was working for the French Harper’s Bazaar in her short-lived position as editor of the magazine. And they mingled with the artist Pavel Tchelitchew, famous in Paris but relatively unknown in London, the poet Edith Sitwell, and the photographer Horst P. Horst, whom Beaton viewed as a rival.
With Doris’s arrival, Beaton declared he had become the ‘envy of the city’; her appearance marked a ‘great sex interlude’ in which he became ‘a peacock and felt so self-assured and even beautiful’. The revelation of Beaton’s diary and, now, the belief that she had become a pawn in his game for self-promotion, conspired to upset Doris. He felt sad that she had suffered for his vanity, but he was not sorry because ‘being the loved one does me good morally’. Doris returned to London and Watson arrived in Paris, and she found herself usurped by the object of Beaton’s affection. But Watson did not reciprocate his feelings, and Beaton wept ‘in a taxi’ and ‘in the bright sunlight of the Ritz bar’.
When they returned to England, Beaton continued to string Doris along. His brother, Reggie, died on 18 October after he was hit by a tube train at Piccadilly Circus underground station. The driver told the inquest that Reggie had held out his hands in front of him and dived under the approaching train. It was believed to be suicide. Beaton heard the news after he had dropped Doris home from a dinner party given by Sybil Colefax for the American socialite, Mona Harrison Williams. His friends were sympathetic, though Beaton remained oddly unmoved by the death. Doris invited him to dinner at Ciros, but he felt it was too soon to be seen socially after Reggie’s demise.
The affair with Beaton fizzled out when he abandoned Doris after realising Peter Watson was not jealous and had become friends with her. They both formed a close bond after Beaton had ‘shoved them away’, though Watson did not shirk from firing the occasional acid remark in her direction. As Doris had displayed with her attachment to Beaton, she did not believe a person’s sexuality stood in the way of romantic love, regardless if they were compatible or not. She had no scruples when it came to sex, for she used it as a ploy to get what she wanted. It was, to her, a means of survival and a way to fund a lifestyle that had become such a way of life that she saw no alternative. To live within her means was foreign to her, and without her materialistic things she felt lost and without a purpose. So, when Castlerosse commented, ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian,’ he was honest in his observation. However, as time would tell, there was more than a fragment of truth in his statement.
The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne is published by The History Press. Click here to pre-order a copy. This edited extract was originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. IV.
Cecil Beaton: The Authorized Biography by Hugo Vickers
The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff
Castlerosse by Leonard Mosley
A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing by Anna Thomasson