London Letter

London Letter


Beverley Baxter March 1 1954
London Letter

London Letter


Beverley Baxter March 1 1954

London Letter


Beverley Baxter

THIS IS THE strange story of a man who was christened Duff Cooper and in his sixties became Viscount Norwich. It’s about a man whose career had entered its tranquil twilight when suddenly he died, and the repercussions of his death shook the country, resurrected old feuds and brought political controversy upon the nation.

Perhaps it was in recognition of all this that at the memorial service in St. Margaret’s the organist played The British Grenadier. That piece was never intended for the organ but we shall let that pass. After all the dead man had been a Guardsman and the organist undoubtedly had that in mind.

Now if this were a film instead of a magazine article we would begin with a flashback. It is just before World War I. A beautiful young woman is at Ascot and every grey-toppered man divides his eyes between her and the horses. She is Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, and young men come from all directions to court her. It is the pre-cosmetic era when a beauty is a beauty in her own right, but Lady Diana has personality and wit as well as loveliness. There are innumerable rumors about her imminent engagement but they remain rumors.

Now let us switch to the Foreign Office. We see a young fellow just turned twenty-five, reading documents and making notes. He is not good-looking, his features are pugnacious rather than aristocratic, but his eyes have an arresting quality.

The clerk was Duff Cooper whose father, Sir Alfred Cooper, had been a famous surgeon and a man of fine character. One day the surgeon, then unmarried, was working at a hospital when he noticed that a volunteer nurse, who was assisting him, seemed very tired.

"You must rest,” he said to her.

"I can get on all right.”

The next day he asked after her. And not long afterward they were married. Her name was Lady Agnes Duff, sister of the Duke of Fife who was related by marriage to King George V. I apologize for the multiplication of titles and trust that they will not unduly offend the delicate democratic nostrils of some of my readers.

In the best sense of the phrase Duff Cooper was a love child. His parents were so devoted to each other that they did not seem to need any other companionship.

As a mere toddler Duff was sent

away to a prep school, then to Eton and finally to Oxford. It cannot be said that he cluttered up his home very much but it is part of the ruggedness of the well-to-do life in England that a boy’s home is something he only visits from time to time.

And now as the 1914 war breaks out Duff is a Foreign Office clerk kicking his heels against the chair while his friends go out to do battle in France. Young Cooper applies for indefinite leave so that he can join the army but the Foreign Office refuses. In fact the Government has virtually conscripted the whole civil service and they are not their own masters.

So there began the slaughter of what was called the flower of Britain’s youth. There was no conscription for the armed forces until 1916. So the sluggards, the profiteers and the timorous stayed at home while the brave of heart went to mutilation and to death. Britain lost a generation of her future leaders, and she has never made good the loss.

Duff Cooper worked day and night and avoided his friends. By nature he was argumentative, dictatorial and combative. He loved a scrap for the fun of it and he longed to be in the battle raging across the Channel.

It was not until 1917 that the Foreign Office let him go. He was given a commission as a second lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards and nearly broke the training sergeants’ hearts. He just looked all wrong and his cap was never at the right angle. In their own language the drill sergeants were repeating Wellington’s words after inspecting some reinforcement arrivals, “I don’t know what effect they’ll have on the enemy but by heaven they terrify me.”

France . . . the trenches . . . the disastrous break-through on the Fifth Army front . . . Passchendaele . . . the French collapse . . . The Guards were in it up to their necks. Then in the list of awards in 1918 there appeared a one-line item that 2nd Lt. A. D. Cooper, Grenadier Guards, had been awarded the DSC) for conspicuous bravery in the field.

Just consider that for a moment. Through no fault of his own he had arrived late in France. It is a tradition that no medals are given to Guardsmen except for outstanding bravery, yet Cooper—a junior second lieutenant

was awarded the DSO which is an honor normally reserved for officers above the rank of captain. The probability is that Duff Cooper would have been given the Victoria Cross in any other regiment.

The war is over. Lady Diana Manners puts away her VAD uniform but she is almost a stranger in the strident, jazzed, epileptic postwar world. The young men who were her court iers sleep in the graveyards of France.

She and Duff Cooper were friends but not more than friends during the war. To the astonishment of the social world their engagement was announced and the marriage took place in 1919. Neither of them was well off financially and most people were certain that she had only married him because there was no one else.

This was not—and is not—the opinion of Duff Cooper’s men friends. He could be bitter and even dour in conversation but he could also be the; gayest of companions even though his wit was merciless. Obviously he would now enter politics and perhaps earn some extra money with his pen.

In the meantime his wife suddenly burst into the headlines because the great Reinhardt had chosen her to play the lead in a spectacular production of The Miracle. »She was a complete amateur— as far as any woman can be an amateur about acting—but she scored a great success.

In 1924 Duff Cooper became MP for Oldham in the north country, one of five seats which have rejected Winston Churchill in their time. I was not in parliament then but, as editor of the Daily Express, I watched the political scene closely and never felt that Duff Cooper would go very far. He lacked suavity and, although witty, he was short of humor. However, he was given junior office where he did no harm.

When Stanley Baldwin led the Conservatives in the election of 1929 Duff Cooper was among the long list of Tory casualties. It was not long afterward that we, on the Express, had good reason to take notice of him. Lord Beaverbrook had organized a powerful pro - Empire anti - Baldwin campaign and we had inflicted some grievous wounds upon Baldwin and the Conservative Party. Baldwin had led the Conservatives to disaster in the 1929 general election and for the first time in English history a socialist prime minister was at No. 10 Downing Street. The tide was running heavily against Baldwin.

Suddenly a by-election was announced for the St. George’s Division of Westminster, a part of London then basically aristocratic in its centre but suburban on the perimeter. It was a safe Tory seat but Beaverbrook

announced that he would run an “Empire Free Trade” candidate against the Conservative.

The officially adopted Tory candidate was a formidable figure, Lt.-Col. John Moore-Brabazon, who had been a Tory minister and had the dist inction of holding the first flying certificate ever issued to a British subject.

As both sides got ready for the fight Baldwin exploded a bombshell. He announced that he would make the St. George’s election a matter of confidence in his leadership of the Tory Party. If his candidate, Moore-Brabazon, was defeated Baldwin would resign the Tory leadership.

Then came a bigger bombshell. Moore-Brabazon announced that he would not fight as a Baldwin candidate. He was a loyal Tory but he did not believe that Baldwin was the right leader. I phoned the news to Lord Beaverbrook and his shout of “Glory Hallelujah!” nearly split my eardrums.

1 had known Moore-Brabazon and arranged to see him. On the authority of Beaverbrook I invited him to be the “Empire Crusade” candidate. But he would not do it. In desperation I argued that if you leave your own army and cross no man’s land you must join the opposing forces. I got nowhere.

But at Winchester Duff Cooper, who had gone down to defeat in the general election slaughter, offered his services as the Baldwin standard bearer and arrived in London to do battle. Beaverbrook had meant ime secured Sir Ernest Better, an elderly scientist who had done much to develop the internal combustion engine. Unhappily there was not much combustion in his political speeches.

Munich Made Him Sick

By contrast Duff Cooper fought a noisy and effective campaign. He denounced Beaverbrook, newspapers, Empire hypocrisy and anything else he could think of. When the votes were counted he had saved »St. George’s and Stanley Baldwin for the Conservative Party; although three years ago he denounced Baldwin in a book of memoirs —but we are all wise in retrospect.

Now let us leap forward to 19.35 when Stanley Baldwin led the Tory dominated National Government to a tremendous electoral victory. Among the flotsam that came safely to shore was the writer of this London Letter - but that is merely in passing. When Baldwin formed his administration he gave Duff Cooper his first senior post. The ex-Foreign Office clerk and ex-Guardsman was now Secretary of State for War. Two years later he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and (to his eternal credit) when the Munich crisis rose to its climax he mobilized the fleet without asking anybody’s permission.

When Chamberlain came back from Munich and the threat of immediate war had been averted there was a long-drawn-out parliamentary debate. Men who had wept tears of joy when the invitation to Munich had arrived in London now denounced Chamberlain without mercy. Duff Cooper resigned from the Government and in a long speech declared that the terms of the Munich surrender stuck in his throat. He was absolutely sincere but like every critic of Chamberlain he did not say what he would have done had he been in Chamberlain’s place.

Sept. 3, 1939. War! All personal feuds are set aside. I n the new administration Duff Cooper is the first Minister of Information ever to be appointed in a British Government. He had to create a department from nothing and undoubtedly some of his ideas were sound. However, he was dropped to make room for Brendan Bracken in 1941. For the rest of the war Cooper worked in liaison with the Free French leaders and when Paris was liberated he left parliament and became the British Ambassador to France.

But his story does not end with occupation of our embassy in Paris. Duff Cooper had published a brilliant biography of Talleyrand in 1932 and had-^bllowed it up with a penetrating study of Field Marshal Haig as well as a remarkable book to prove that Shakespeare had been a sergeant in the Elizabethan army.

So we come to the closing days of 1953. Duff Cooper, now Viscount Norwich, decorated and honored by the French, has retired from the diplomatic service and launches his autobiography, Old Men Forget. It is caustic, witty, frank and beautifully tender when dealing with his wife.

Everybody in London acclaims him and old feuds are forgotten. Then he sets sail with his wife in a small ship bound for Jamaica where they were to spend a holiday in the sun as the guests of Lord Brownlow. The ship had been twenty-four hours at sea when the news was flashed that Lord Norwich had died on board of a heart attack.

It hit London like a bomb. At once the newspapers sprang to their task of assessing the character and achievements of this extraordinary man. The Times, still the most important newspaper in Britain, was pretty rough. According to that eminent newspaper the career of Duff Cooper was spoiled by “a streak of dilettantism which made him good at many things but not first rate at anything . . . He was not a great success in the House of Commons.”

Next day Brendan Bracken lashed out in the Financial Times which has no connection with the Daily. In scornful terms Bracken denounced The Times as a newspaper with a disgraceful record of pandering to Ribbentrop and advising Britain to • be friends with Hitler. Point by point Bracken took issue with The Times and declared that Duff Cooper was the embodiment of excellence in everything and that The Tiroes was a contemptible rag.

But also in the Evening Standard the Munich row had broken out. Viscount Hailsham, who was a brilliant Tory MP before his father’s death changed him from Quintin Hogg to the peerage, wrote a violent article to prove that Duff Cooper was wrong about Munich and that Chamberlain was right.

'That, of course, was putting a match to powder. The controversy spread through Fleet Street with furious accusations and counter-accusations. I could hardly be expected to keep entirely out of it and wrote a proChamberlain letter which resulted in a withering reply from my old friend Robert Boothby, MP, who wrote that my loyalty consisted of sticking to my guns which did not happen to exist at Munich.

In every West End club the personality of Duff Cooper was the subject of furious controversy. Then came his funeral preceded by the memorial service at St. Margaret’s where, as I mentioned before, the organist played The British Grenadier and Sir Robert Boothby publicly extolled the great qualities of the dead man.

Two days later the widow announced that she would not use the title of Viscoyntess Norwich but would revert to the title she used after her marriage

Lady Diana Cooper.

I hope that you will agree with my opening—that this is a strange story. BoJ, London is really an overgrown village and in the centre of the village there is endless gossip.