They wrote it this week: Why the grand duke wasn’t interested in sex
Extracts from diaries and letters written between February 3 and February 9
[To her lover, Gaston Palewski] A ball, my dearest Colonel. The talk for weeks has been of nothing else & I must say it was great great fun. I haven’t been to a ball for 6 years – one or two were given in the war but I never would go, it seemed unnatural. But last night I rigged myself up in white satin & went off to it. I must say I felt like a drowning man, the whole of my past life was there.
Chips [Channon] said to Emerald [Cunard], surveying the scene “This is what we have been fighting for” to which clever old Emerald replied “Why, are they all Poles?”
- Nancy Mitford, British writer, 1904-1973 (Chips Channon, a Tory MP, had been born in Chicago. Having moved to England when young, he married a Guinness and fell madly in love with the British upper classes. Lady Cunard, a famed hostess, was also American, but a good deal more intelligent and quick-witted than her compatriot.)
Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford edited by Charlotte Mosley, Sceptre, 1993
[Palin had been watching the rushes of his travel series, Around the World in 80 Days.] Am struck by how much longer interviews seem on film than when you’re filming them. That and my walk. Ron Brown was quite right, my feet stick out at 45 degrees when I’m not concentrating, my shoulders fall and I lead off with my stomach. Not a pretty sight.
- Michael Palin, British actor, comedian and TV personality, b. 1943.
Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-98 by Michael Palin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014
I had been very bad all night. I lay in direful apprehension that my testicle, which formerly was ill, was again swelled. I dreamt that Douglas stood by me and said, “This is a damned difficult case.” I got up today still in terror. Indeed, there was a little return of inflammation. I had catched some cold. However, before night I was pretty easy again.
- James Boswell, Scottish laird and writer, 1740-1795.
Boswell’s London Diary 1762-1763 edited by Frederick A Pottle, William Heinemann, 1950
1896, Gotha, Germany
[To her daughter Marie, Crown Princess of Romania, describing a visit by another of her daughters, Victoria Melita, the Grand Duchess of Hesse, whose family nickname was Ducky.] She is too comic, for she discusses quite calmly the best time for her again having a baby and at what season of the year it would be less disagreeable. Fancy, the utter happiness of having a husband who is ganz damit einverstanden [wholly in agreement about it], as she says I really need never have any children at all, as he is perfectly happy like we are now! Yes, Ducky, I said you would not find a man in a thousand, in ten thousand like this and you cannot appreciate enough or be grateful enough for it. How different my whole life would have been if I had had a happier youth and had not had to labour under maternal duties.
- Marie, Duchess of Coburg, daughter of Russian Emperor Alexander II and daughter-in-law of Queen Victoria, 1853-1920 (Their husbands’ sexual demands, and the resultant serial pregnancies, were a misery for many Victorian women, but particularly for princesses stuck in arranged marriages with men they did not even find attractive. The reason that Ducky’s husband Ernie was so surprisingly indifferent to sex was, as she was soon to discover, because he was in fact gay. To use her own words, “there wasn’t a footman who was safe”.)
Dearest Missy: The Letters of Marie Alexandrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia, Duchess of Edinburgh and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and of her daughter, Marie Crown Princess of Romania edited by Diana Mandache, Rosvall Royal Books, 2011
[To her daughter] Yesterday the Archbishop of Rheims was coming back from Saint-Germain in great haste, like a whirlwind. If he thinks he is a mighty noble, his servants think so even more than he does. They were passing through Nanterre, trit trot trit trot; they met a man on horseback: Look out! Look out! The poor fellow wanted to draw to one side – his horse did not want to; then the coach and six horses knocked the poor fellow and his horse head over heels and passed over them so clean that the coach was tipped up and overturned. Meanwhile, the man and his horse, instead of amusing themselves by being broken on the wheel and maimed, got up again by some miracle and remounted one on the other, and fled and ran on, while the lackeys and coachman, and the Archbishop himself, started to shout: “Stop him! Stop the knave! Give him a good beating!” When telling this story, the Archbishop said: “If I had got hold of that rascal, I would have broken his arms and cut off his ears.”
- The Marquise de Sevigne, French aristocrat and courtier, 1626-1696.
Selected Letters of Madame de Sevigne edited by HT Barnwell, Everyman’s Library, 1959
[Brandreth had been tasked by the Oxford Union with playing host to the Irish songwriter Dominic Behan, who was a member of a notorious IRA family.] When he arrived he was already wild with drink and I simply found him impossible to control. He ranted, he rambled, he lurched around the President’s office, alternately breaking into song and demanding more drink. He asked me to show him where the lavatories were. I said I’d take him down to them. He stumbled down the stairs from the President’s office and – on the landing – proceeded to undo his flies and produce his member for me to admire! “I’m bursting!” he declared and then turning towards the wall walked quite sedately down the corridor peeing profusely against the wall as he went. “Don’t!” I bleated. “That’s William Morris wallpaper! It’s original!” “Fuck William Morris!” he cried, warming to his task and spraying the precious wall with ever greater gusto. “He was a Socialist!” I called out. “Fuck Socialism!” he declared, turning to me triumphantly and shaking the final drips in my direction. What a nightmare. The historic wallpaper is seriously damaged.
- Gyles Brandreth, British politician, writer and entertainer, b. 1948.
Something Sensational to Read in the Train: The Diary of a Lifetime by Gyles Brandreth, John Murray, 2009
1934, Dresden, Germany
On Saturday we went for supper to the “respectable” Kohlers in Waltherstrasse. It does one good, that these completely “Aryan” people from quite different circles of society – the son of a probationary grammar school teacher, the father a railway inspector – hold on to their vehement hatred of the [Nazi] regime and to their belief that it must fall in the foreseeable future.
- Victor Klemperer, German-Jewish academic and Holocaust survivor, 1881-1960.
I Shall Bear Witness: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1933-1941 translated by Martin Chalmers, Phoenix, 1999
[To her husband, Duff Cooper. Lady Diana was touring the US in the play The Miracle.] Chaliapin [the Russian singer, considered the greatest of his time] was at The Miracle tonight in the front row. He came to my dressing room red with love and bent on a romp. Unfortunately since learning the English language he makes love in it, instead of the more attractive veiled Russian tongue and so his choice of erotic words wasn’t too delicate, I had a wave of nausea. He said he wanted to have Baby [her husband’s nickname for her], and I had a struggle with him in which he pressed Baby’s white-washed hand on his placey. I tore it away, and in so doing left a cloud of white. So imagine my consternation when Befeki [a fellow cast member] came in, he unconscious and me trying to stand between them and knowing the construction she was bound to put upon it – fly ripping. When she left I wanted to tell him and couldn’t but by inspiration manoeuvred him in front of the tall glass. It worked and he laughed heartily.
- Lady Diana Cooper, British aristocrat, 1892-1986.
A Durable Fire: The Letters of Duff and Diana Cooper 1913-1950 edited by Artemis Cooper, Collins, 1983
2013, an old-age home in Amsterdam
Unrest in our rest home. There was a note on the noticeboard announcing that residents could apply to their GPs for a bracelet saying Do not resuscitate. The note was not signed. At elevenses many of the residents expressed outrage over this far-from-subtle pitch.
“They would like to be rid of us.”
“We cost too much.”
Fat Mr Bakker was amenable to being revived by a girl, but was adamant he would not want a man to give him mouth-to-mouth. “I’d rather die.” Was there a special bracelet for that?
- Hendrik Groen, pseudonymous Dutch pensioner.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old, Michael Joseph, 2014
[Beaton was at Buckingham Palace to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.] Then my turn. I cannot say I felt nervous. I felt quite confident that this was surely the least of my troubles and I looked very piercingly at Her Majesty as she wielded the sword on to my shoulders. But what was she saying? Was she saying anything? I have a theory that she knows me well enough not to have to say a few words. I did hear her, however, say, “This is a great pleasure!” Since she didn’t have anything to impart to me I felt bold enough, after she had shaken my hand, to say that I never thought taking photographs of her in a little girl’s pink taffeta dress would lead to this honour. “It’s a pleasure!” She seemed anxious to get rid of me as fast as possible.
- Cecil Beaton, British photographer, 1904-1980 (Before the ceremony, Beaton and his fellow honorees had been given strict instructions to retreat as soon as the queen had shaken their hand.)
The Unexpurgated Beaton Diaries edited by Hugo Vickers, Phoenix, 2002