Issue 88, Summer 1983
Lady Diana Cooper was born in 1892, daughter of the 7th Duke of Rutland. Her mother, Violet Lindsay, was a Pre-Raphaelite artist and beauty, and the granddaughter of the 24th Earl of Crawford. Her pale, iridescent beauty —“the texture of Chinese silk” (Winston Churchill), her acute intelligence and iconoclastic wit, her innocent sense of fun, frank enjoyment of privilege and total lack of snobbery, made her “The Idol of the Golden Generation” before the First World War—a generation in which aristocracy and Bohemia met and mingled, and in which she became one of the most remarkable and famous women of her time. She was loved by some of its greatest men: Prime Minister Asquith, the great bass Chaliapin, the newspaper magnate Lord Beaver brook, and many others. Considered a suitable bride for the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII and after his abdication the Duke of Windsor), instead she fell in love and married Duff Cooper, a junior diplomat without a private income. In the Twenties, partly to improve their finances and partly because she “could never say no, ” she starred in two silent movies (the first British Technicolor films) and later enthralled America and Europe in Reinhardt’s The Miracle. Then she gave up her career to become a “full-time wife” when her husband left the Foreign Office for a career in politics and literature. After several ministerial posts, including Minister of Information in Churchill’s War Cabinet, Duff Cooper became British Ambassador in Algiers, and later in Paris at the end of the War.
Throughout her life, Lady Diana Cooper was befriended and admired by many of the famous writers and literary figures of her time: Evelyn Waugh immortalized her in Scoop, as Mrs. Stitch; D.H. Lawrence portrayed her in Aaron’s Rod as Lady Artemis Hooper; she was Arnold Bennett’s Lady Queenie Paulle in The Pretty Ladies; while her friend the playwright and novelist Enid Bagnold gave a touching and accurate picture of her old age in The Loved and the Envied.
Her own three-volume autobiography was published in the Sixties and became a best seller, revealing a writer of considerable talent and originality. With her son Viscount Norwich (author John Julius Norwich), she has founded the Duff Cooper Literary Prize which this year was awarded to Richard Ellmann for his revised biography of James Joyce.
Lady Diana Cooper lives in a large house in Little Venice, London. It is full of the mementos of her long and exceptional life. She still looks beautiful despite her extreme frailty; deep blue eyes and porcelain skin still shine with a radiance that age has not impaired. Her bedroom overlooks a quiet garden; at home she spends most of her day there, sit- ting up in a large, lace-draped bed, surrounded by books and periodicals, and usually in company with her tiny Chihuahua called “Doggie, ” which she takes everywhere with her—even to the Royal Opera House where dogs are strictly forbidden: she hides him in her sleeve until she gets to her box. A stream, of friends and relatives visit her in her bedroom, and it was there that the following interview about some of the literary personalities in her past took place.
When did your connection with the literary world begin?
I was born into it. My mother was a “Soul.” Ah, you don’t know about the “Souls”? They were a group of friends, people like Lord Curzon, no less, Lord Balfour, no less, and a few Pre-Raphaelites. It didn’t mean much then, but it did later, because they all became great. So when I came out at eighteen I was called by the newspapers “the Soulful daughter of a Soul.” The funny thing was that my mother didn’t like being called a “Soul”: she was too individual and didn’t want to be part of a group, but I thought she ought to he proud of it. Then at a party one of my young men told me that I wasn’t my father’s daughter but Harry Cust’s. He said everybody knew it. All I could say was: Oh really? It didn’t seem to matter—I was devoted to my father and I liked Harry Cust too. Well he was a “Soul,” very literary, and very handsome. He had a magazine called The Pall Mall Gazette where he published all the famous writers —Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, and so on. My mother was very literary too: She liked all these advanced poets — Browning and Meredith; and I was named after Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways. Now Meredith is an awfully complicated poet, but because of this Diana complex I had to learn his famous Modern Love, which is something like fifty sixteen-line poems, by heart. In those days you learnt everything by heart—so different from today when children don’t even learn nursery rhymes. And you don’t write letters either, because of the telephone; we used to write letters all the time and there were five or six deliveries a day. I wrote to my father when he went off shooting.