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On Monday, November 15, 2021, Winston Churchill’s niece, Clarissa Eden, the Countess of Avon, died at the age of 101.

The Times published an obituary. What a fascinating life she led.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

A life well lived

Anne Clarissa Spencer-Churchill was born in London on June 28, 1920. She was the daughter of Jack Spencer-Churchill, Winston Churchill’s younger brother, and grand-daughter of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Randolph Churchill. Her mother was Lady Gwendoline (“Goonie”) Bertie, a daughter of the 7th Earl of Abingdon. According to The Times, the Earl’s family thought that Lady Gwendoline married beneath herself, because Jack, even though he was a Major from the Great War, earned his living as a stockbroker, something that true gentlemen did not do in that era.

Perhaps they were not wrong. Money was tight, so much so that Jack’s family lived with Winston’s in South Kensington, overlooking the Natural History Museum.

Childhood holidays were spent at Blenheim itself and later at Churchill’s home, Chartwell in Kent. They also included visits to Normandy where family friend Consuelo Vanderbilt, formerly Duchess of Marlborough, lived.

Clarissa had two older brothers. Despite her mother’s devoted attention to her, she grew up to be independently minded. She left a fashionable Essex boarding school, Downham, because she felt she did not fit in with the other girls.

At the age of 16, her family sent her to Paris to study art. This was the beginning of her adulthood and sent the tone for her life over the next several years:

There she was taken up by the younger members of the embassy staff, including Fitzroy Maclean. At 17, she had her first love affair, visited nightclubs run by White Russians and saw Josephine Baker dance clad only in a circlet of bananas. It was no surprise that when she returned to London she found her contemporaries to be lacking in sophistication. In imitation of Marlene Dietrich, she had a man’s suit made. Deborah Mitford, her fellow debutante, recalled the blue-eyed Clarissa as having “a whiff of Garbo” about her.

By the time the Second World War broke out, Clarissa had moved from London to Oxford, attracting the attention of men:

There she unofficially attended philosophy lectures and persuaded AJ Ayer to give her tutorials. “She was a don’s delight,” Lady Antonia Fraser recalled. Her circle included Lord David Cecil and Isaiah Berlin, who told her how as a small boy in Russia he had buried his mother’s pearls in the snow to save them from the Bolsheviks.

She inspired a fictional character called Emmeline:

The composer and writer Lord Berners, a noted wit — a notice at the top of a folly on his estate read: “Members of the public commit suicide here at their own risk” — left a portrait of her as the heroine of his novel Far From the Madding War.

Emmeline, who has “hair reminiscent of a cornfield at daybreak”, looks like “a nymph in one of the less licentious paintings of Fragonard”. She is not the sort of girl to whom one makes improper suggestions without encouragement. Reflecting on their acquaintance at the time, and on his more humble origins, the historian Raymond Carr noted: “I got no encouragement.”

The Times has a photo of her as a young woman, stately looking with fine, yet angular, features, so characteristic of the British upper class.

Clarissa’s life as a young adult, The Times says, resembled that of Anthony Powell’s series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. I’ve read all of them and recommend them to anyone interested in British society. What held true then still holds true today.

Anthony Powell became one of her friends along with many others in the arts. There were also two spies, who came to be infamous:

Other names of the era who flow through her memoir include Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton, Greta Garbo, Orson Welles, Peter Brook, Lucian Freud, John Pope-Hennessy, Emerald Cunard, Nancy Mitford, Moura Budberg, the Marchesa Casati and Donald Maclean, the spy, who danced with her.

She worked with Guy Burgess at the Ministry of Information after a spell decoding messages at the Foreign Office.

Working for the Government during the war was not without its glamour:

Clarissa was at the time living on the top floor of the Dorchester hotel in central London, which had cheap rates during the Blitz; in the next room was Churchill’s daughter-in-law, Pamela. When she later got a flat, she shared it briefly with the writer Elizabeth Bowen after she had been bombed out of hers. And when she made parts for submarines, she found herself on the production line next to Lillie Langtry’s daughter.

After the war ended, Clarissa went to work for film maker Alexander Korda, who made the iconic movie The Third Man:

Clarissa Churchill worked as a writer for Vogue and in the publicity department of Korda Films, then producing The Third Man. Subsequently, she joined a magazine owned by George Weidenfeld, Contact, persuading Elizabeth David, then little known, to contribute recipes to it.

Her life changed forever when she met Conservative politician Anthony Eden, remembered for the Suez Crisis of 1956.

During the war, he was the Secretary of State for the Foreign Office from 1940 to 1945. The two did not meet until after the war, however.

Eden’s first marriage had collapsed. He was single when they made each other’s acquaintance:

Despite their close relations to Churchill, the pair had not met properly until soon after the war. Eden was living as a bachelor, his first wife, Beatrice, finally having left their troubled marriage after the death in 1945 in Burma of their elder son, an RAF pilot.

They had a common interest — art:

“Like many Englishmen, he hadn’t known intimacy,” Clarissa observed of the Eton-educated Eden, whose mother had been beautiful but selfish. They brought happiness to each other, sharing a love of art and, arguably, a political outlook. “I’m not really a Conservative,” he told her, “I’m an old-fashioned Liberal.” A more certain influence was that “he offered me a taste of another side of life”, far removed from the more bohemian circles in which she moved.

Eden was 23 years older than his girlfriend. Some of Clarissa’s admirers disapproved of the relationship, especially when it resulted in marriage:

Indeed, their engagement in 1952 had astonished their two very different sets of friends

… betraying their lack of worldliness, both were surprised by the excitement that their wedding generated. The crowds who gathered outside the register office at Caxton Hall in Westminster were almost as large as those for Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage there a few months earlier. The reaction of others, however, was less friendly.

Evelyn Waugh, who had been in love with Clarissa, wrote her an intemperate letter (after lunch at White’s) about the state of her soul — she had been raised a Roman Catholic. Duff Cooper, another disappointed admirer of hers, confided to his diary his view that Anthony Eden had no friends and his only interest was in becoming the Tories’ leader.

Clarissa’s cousin Randolph Churchill, who in the press had repeatedly attacked Eden, his father’s political heir, said at the wedding reception that he would give her two years to “knock him into shape” before recommencing his criticisms. He kept his word.

Eden’s health was poor. Shortly after he and Clarissa married, he had a serious problem with his gall bladder, which took some time to resolve. He nearly died:

Stomach pains that he had had for some time were, at Clarissa’s prompting, found to require an operation in 1953 on his gall bladder. When this was botched, it necessitated two more, the last in America and with Eden close to death.

A bad health experience so soon after marriage drives some couples apart. Not so with the Edens, who became ever closer. Clarissa’s infertility was the next blow. Yet again, their love grew for each other to the extent that Clarissa stopped seeing many of the friends she made as a young adult during this period:

He recovered but the experience of nursing him, Clarissa recalled, “bound us together in a situation of emotional dependence”. It perhaps promoted a siege mentality in both of them, and it was a further sadness that Clarissa was unable to have children after a miscarriage in 1954. She admitted that she had never had women friends with whom she exchanged confidences. After her marriage, she lost touch with her other friends, dismissed by her husband as “café society”.

The couple spent their spare time alone with each other. By now, Eden’s star was in the ascendant; he was a popular Foreign Secretary. He was irked that his rival, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, did not stand aside to allow him to lead the Conservative Party and enter No. 10:

Clarissa emphasised her disinclination to cultivate strategic friendships by retreating alone with her husband as often as possible to her cottage, Rose Bower, near Salisbury. These were halcyon days for Anthony Eden as foreign secretary. His diplomacy saved Europe’s fledgling defence pact and brought peace to Indo-China, and in 1954 he was made a Garter knight. Yet he became increasingly irked by Churchill’s disinclination to step aside for him — a dozen times a date was set and then revoked — with Clarissa feeling bound to side with her husband against her uncle. The couple were not mollified by the gift of Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire as an official residence, arriving to find its late owner’s much-used hairbrushes still on their dressing table.

A general election took place in 1955. Anthony Eden finally became Prime Minister. The Edens were Britain’s most sought-after couple outside of the Queen and Prince Philip:

When in May 1955 she walked into Downing Street with her husband Anthony, the newly elected prime minister, the wind could not have stood fairer for them. After the young Queen and Prince Philip, they were the most glamorous and powerful couple in the land.

Lady Eden was only 34, her youth and good looks a refreshing contrast to the exhaustion exuded by the previous premier, her octogenarian uncle Sir Winston Churchill. Sir Anthony Eden was 23 years older than his wife yet still handsome, a natural performer in the new age of television, and genuinely popular. Foreign secretary during the war years and since 1950, he had just become the first leader of a government in a century to increase its majority.

The UK does not have a position of ‘first lady’. That said, some wives of prime ministers do undertake improvements in No. 10 Downing Street. Mrs Eden was one of them, although her first goal of refurbishment was thwarted by the shortage of government funds post-war. She settled on the catering instead:

After moving in, she planned a refurbishment that would have restored much of the original interior, but this fell victim to cutbacks. She had more success with the bland official catering. At one dinner she heard John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, bet a fellow guest that he could predict exactly what each course would be. That he had to pay out showed the potential strengths of the team that she and Eden made.

Anthony Eden had one immediate drawback, which was his relationship with the press. Churchill knew how to feed reporters stories. His successor did not.

This might have influenced press coverage of the Suez crisis in 1956, which ended his premiership:

This lack of support in the press may not have influenced Anthony Eden’s thinking when in July 1956 President Nasser of Egypt abruptly nationalised the Suez Canal, hitherto owned by Britain and France. But it meant there was less sympathy when, come November, Eden’s response misfired. After a secret agreement with France, British troops were sent to regain control of the canal on the pretext of halting fighting between Egypt and the other conspirator, Israel. Yet Eden was forced to withdraw humiliated when the Americans, describing Britain’s actions as colonial, threatened to impose oil sanctions and began to sell sterling.

Eden’s policy had sharply divided public opinion and Lady Eden was curious enough to attend a rally in Trafalgar Square against the invasion, although she walked away after being recognised. She herself placed much of the blame on Harold Macmillan, then foreign secretary. He had told Eden that President Eisenhower would not demur at an attempt to oust Nasser, and she thought that he had then exaggerated the gravity of the measures announced by Washington.

It was Macmillan who gained the prime ministership when in December 1956 Eden’s health gave way under the strain.

After leaving Downing Street, the Edens travelled to Jamaica and New Zealand for his health purposes:

He tried first to remedy it with a stay of three weeks at Goldeneye, Ian Fleming’s house in Jamaica, Fleming’s wife, Ann, being a friend of Lady Eden’s. When the break failed to improve matters, and with support for him failing in the cabinet and the Conservative Party, he resigned on January 10. He and Lady Eden then sailed for New Zealand. Over the horizon with them disappeared Britain’s remaining pretensions to be a world power, and the tradition of reposing trust in the ruling class; among the Edens’ stewards aboard the Rangitata was a young trades union activist named [future Labour MP] John Prescott.

Upon their return to England, the Edens settled in Wiltshire. Clarissa devoted herself to gardening. Her husband bred pedigree Hereford cattle.

In 1961, the former Prime Minister became the 1st Earl of Avon. His wife became Countess of Avon, or Lady Avon.

The Earl died in 1977 and his surviving son from his first marriage, Nicholas Eden, who was working in Margaret Thatcher’s government at the time, became the 2nd Earl of Avon. Nicholas died of AIDS in 1985 and, as there was no heir, the title of Earl of Avon died with him.

After her husband’s death, Lady Avon divided her time between Oxfordshire and London. She was careful to preserve her husband’s memory and guarded about guests referring to the Suez Crisis:

All the while she continued to guard her husband’s memory with what her acquaintances regarded as characteristic vigour and her friends as her essential integrity.

At one lunch party when a guest referred in embarrassed and halting tones to “the events of 1956”, she said firmly: “We call it Suez at this end of the table.”

On November 16, Conservative History posted photos of Lady Avon and one of Greta Garbo. Lady Avon had captioned each one (click on the image to see them in full):

Final interview

In 2018, when Lady Avon was 98, she gave her final interview to Spear’s, a financial investment magazine.

The magazine’s then-editor Alec Marsh met with the Countess in her Bryanston Square home in Marylebone, central London:

Three tall windows overlook the square, and the sage-green walls of what she calls a ‘salon’ are coated with beautiful artworks, including one painting by the French cubist Marie Laurencin that catches my eye. ‘It’s a painting that my husband liked,’ Lady Avon explains. ‘He had a very good eye. He was always buying paintings.’ Was that something he had in common with Churchill? ‘My uncle didn’t have a good eye,’ she chuckles genially. ‘He did painting; they were quite nice. But he wasn’t an aesthete, but my husband certainly was.’

That year, Churchill was the most popular Briton. A film of his life as Prime Minister during the Second World War, Darkest Hour, was playing in the cinemas:

Like millions of others, she has seen Darkest Hour and was enthralled by it – including Gary Oldman’s portrayal of her uncle. Would Churchill, I ask, be surprised by the public adoration being heaped upon him today, more than seven decades after the moment of his greatest triumph? ‘I don’t think so,’ she says shrewdly, ‘because by the end of his life he was very great, wasn’t he? It would be very difficult not to realise that he would be remembered.’ Would he be pleased about it? ‘Yes he would, of course.’ She smiles. ‘Naturally.’

Alec Marsh asked what her impressions of her uncle were. Before he became Prime Minister during the war, he had largely failed at several points in his career:

We all think we know something of her uncle, but how does she describe him? ‘That’s very tricky,’ she starts, ‘because I always knew him as a great man who hadn’t been appreciated. Most of my [early] life he was a failure. He was out of a job, out of work and not right in anything he believed in. He was in exile, so to speak. Going to Chartwell [the Churchills’ home in Kent] before the war was going to a place in exile – a place where people were not doing anything. It was all rather frustrating and sad.’

She described her frequent visits to see her uncle when he was PM and she was working in the Foreign Office decoding documents:

‘There was always a crisis, a tension, but one knew that that’s what he lived on; the fuel that got him going. Which it did with any good politician,’ she adds, noting that the same was true for her husband. Did Churchill wear the pressure with equanimity? ‘Oh yes. Of course,’ she insists, as though nothing else would be possible. ‘Certainly.’ How did he cope? ‘I don’t know. But he had always done it.’ Did he drink too much? ‘No, not more than most men,’ she fires back.

I ask about her wartime visits to Chartwell: ‘I didn’t particularly like it, but it was interesting always because Winston was so interesting,’ she recalls. ‘One always wanted to know what he was thinking and doing.’ Whatever the house itself lacked in aesthetic quality (‘Have you ever seen it?’ she asks), its host more than made up for its architectural shortcomings. ‘It was just him,’ Avon states emphatically. ‘One went and there was him and nothing else. They had the lunch or whatever it was, and he would talk and one would listen; that was the important part.

‘But he was not interested in what anybody else had to say,’ Avon recalls, laughing fondly. That said, she insists that he was ‘very polite’. ‘If somebody famous was at lunch he would listen to them, but on the whole he didn’t pay any attention to anybody.’

Was he entertaining company, I ask; funny? ‘He was certainly witty…’ And somewhat terrifying at times? ‘Not in the least, no. But,’ she breaks into laughter, ‘I could see he was terrifying, but not to me, no.’ Avon also recalls that he was ‘very conscious about things like nieces and nephews’.

Marsh asked what her abiding memories of her uncle were:

All these years on, how does she remember him? ‘He was exceptional, certainly,’ she punctuates this with a frank chuckle. ‘I think I realised he was very great in spite of the fact that everyone kept telling one that he was.’ She raises her eyebrows. ‘I did realise that he was exceptional. You couldn’t not.’ The greatest prime minister of the twentieth century? ‘Who was greater?’ she answers.

Then he ventured into present-day issues:

What does she think Winston would make of modern Britain? Lady Avon looks over towards the tall windows momentarily. ‘Not much,’ she chirps. ‘I don’t know. He was very, very old-fashioned in his approach to life.’ That comment sits a moment; the quiet of the square seeps into the salon.

Where would Churchill be on Brexit, I ask? ‘I think he would probably not [be] very much for staying in Europe,’ she announces after some consideration. ‘But he was a good politician,’ she adds, ‘so I don’t know what he would have said.’ Which is rather a good answer when you think about it.

Then questions turned towards her late husband and the Suez Crisis:

I wonder how he saw it all; was he proud of his career?

‘I suppose so,’ she replies doubtfully. ‘Absolutely.’ Does she think people have the wrong sense of Suez – that it was a mistake? There’s a long pause. ‘A mistake because it took place at all?’ she asks. ‘I don’t know,’ she states at last. (At the time she famously said that she ‘felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room’.) I wonder if memories of this crisis have fallen prey to time, as she explains: ‘I’m not good at politics, I’m afraid.’ I’m still not sure as the silence of Bryanston Square returns.

How would Eden have liked to be remembered? ‘You mean as a success or failure?’ she responds. ‘Certainly [he] was a success at the beginning,’ she says, referring to his three spells as foreign secretary – covering ten years between 1935 and 1955 – before the disappointing period of highest office. ‘At the end, I suppose not. I never thought about it,’ she adds absently. She reaches forward to the plate and nudges a biscuit towards me. ‘Have that one,’ she says.

While being photographed for the article, she asked Marsh about his tie. So many British ties represent private club membership and other associations:

‘What does your tie represent?’ asks Lady Avon, looking over. It’s decorative, I say. ‘That’s disappointing. Right,’ she chirps, addressing Greg. ‘Where am I looking?’

May Lady Avon rest in peace.

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