Profile

The romantic spirit of Lady Antonia

Rita Christopher December 31 1979
Profile

The romantic spirit of Lady Antonia

Rita Christopher December 31 1979

The romantic spirit of Lady Antonia

Profile

Rita Christopher

Lady Antonia Fraser's publishers have just paid the award-winning British biographer a great compli-

ment—the cover of her newly released biography of Charles II, Royal Charles, doesn’t bear her picture. And although that might seem an odd cause for rejoicing, Lady Antonia considers it something of a triumph. “I’m really quite pleased,” she smiles. The absence of a photograph certainly breaks precedent. On her best-selling biographies of Oliver Cromwell and Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Antonia’s face was featured almost as prominently as the titles of the volumes. And no wonder. With her wide blue eyes, blonde hair and classic English peaches-and-cream complexion and a beguiling smile, Fraser’s looks are usually reviewed before her books. “I was just on a television talk show, and the host asked if I minded being described as blonde and beautiful even at my age,” recalls the 47-year-old Fraser with a laugh. “Who would mind that? It’s much better to be described that way than to be described as a formerly sensuous beauty.”

Fraser’s books, to be sure, have also received abundant critical acclaim. When Mary Queen of Scots was published 11 years ago, it not only made a score of best-seller lists, but also held the distinction of knocking Philip Roth’s Portnoy's Complaint out of the No. 1 position on several of them. Royal Charles has been a British best seller since its publication in the United Kingdom several months ago, but Fraser remains circumspect about its prospects on this side of the Atlantic. “After all, he was our king, you know,” she explains.

Fraser claims she was drawn to Charles, who privately practised Roman Catholicism while professing formal membership in the Church of England, by her own religious background. Her father converted to Catholicism when she was 8, her mother when she was 13. “I don’t think my parents would have insisted that I become a Roman Catholic if I hadn’t wanted to,” she says, “but it certainly seemed the right thing to do under the circumstances.”

Religion aside, the most obvious influence of Lady Antonia’s family was literary. In Britain they are collectively known as “the literary Longfords.” Fraser’s father, Lord Longford, wrote the first biography of John F. Kennedy published in the United Kingdom. (Longford, however, is better known to the public for his exhaustive inquiries into pornography which earned him the nickname, “Lord Porn.”) Lady Antonia’s mother, Elizabeth Longford, has written notably successful biographies of Queen Victoria and Lord Wellington and has herself just published a new book, Pilgrimage of Passion: The Life of Wilfred Scawen Blunt. Sister Rachel Billington’s latest novel, A Woman's Age, will appear this spring. Another sister, Joan Kazantzis, is a poet. And brother Thomas Pakenham has just received excellent reviews for his new history, The Boer War. (Pakenham was the family surname before Lord Longford was elevated to the peerage.)

Although her family credentials were indeed impressive, Lady Antonia claims that genes were not the deciding factor in her resolve to become an author. “I don’t say it very often, but I began to write to help support our family. There’s no better inspiration than that.” Certainly not in Fraser’s case since she is the mother of six children. And she has reinvested some of her earnings in encouraging her children to continue the Longford tradition. Lady Antonia has paid anywhere from a penny to a pound a page for well-kept diaries and journals. “When I told my oldest son I’d pay a pound a page for a record of his trip to France, you should have seen the size of the notebook he produced,” she laughs. Fraser habitually writes in the morning and spends the afternoons with her children (once causing a scandal in London by revealing to an interviewer she held family conferences while in the bath). At night, she still finds time to be one of the most talkedabout women in London society. The satiric British magazine Private Eye has created a character strongly resembling the eye-catching author called Lady Magnesia Freelove. Despite her marriage to Conservative member of Parliament Sir Hugh Fraser, at the age of 23, Fraser’s name over the years has been linked with an amazingly eclectic group of admirers including author Norman Mailer, former King Constantine of Greece, Jacob Rothschild and Tory politician Lord Lambton, who quit Parliament after being photographed in bed with a call girl. “I’m very sad when people tell me they’ve never been in love,” says Fraser, “and when friends ring me to tell me they’re in love, I’m always very happy for them.”

Fraser set phones ringing herself five years ago when she left her husband for noted British playwright Harold Pinter, with whom she now shares her London townhouse. When the rumors of their affair first became public, Pinter’s wife, actress Vivien Merchant, complained to the press that Fraser had “cast a spell” on her husband. “How she can do it with six children to look after, I don’t know,” groused the humiliated actress. Merchant took some comfort in the broadsides she aimed at Lady Antonia. Noting Pinter had left home without so much as packing a suitcase, she observed, “All his clothes are here, but he won’t be needing a change of shoes. He can always wear Antonia’s. She has awfully big feet, you know.” Fraser’s husband obtained a divorce several years ago and has recently been squiring Jackie Kennedy Onassis around New York, but after publicly venting her spleen, Merchant never prosecuted her divorce suit. Today, an uncharacteristically circumspect Lady Antonia declines to talk about whether she and Pinter will eventually marry. “My relationship with Harold is completely private,” she says.

Even so, much of her private life is visible in her New York hotel suite. Small framed pictures of her children decorate most of the available table tops. “I just scoop up whatever handfuls of photos are about when I’m packing,” Fraser says. She has also brought another touch of home: a cat-shaped cosy appropriately named “Rowley,” a nickname of Charles IL “I can’t bear lukewarm coffee,” she says, running to plop the cosy over a coffeepot. That’s perfectly understandable. Lukewarm is hardly the kind of adjective anyone would ever apply to Lady Antonia Fraser.