Monday, August 29, 2022. A quiet, late Summer weekend in New York with lots of sunshine and temps in the mid- to high-70s, peaking about 80. Heading into the end of Summer and looking forward to what is the beginning of a New Year for many, especially the students.
With the datebook quiet, I had time for pleasure reading, and in this case, some more of the 1,000 page tome of the Diaries of Henry “Chips” Channon, American from Chicago who adopted England as his home and life, and even became a peer and member of Parliament. A look into the real life of the British upperclasses during the times of the Second World War. Channon’s eye for detail of the day to day life among the upper sets right to the top of the Royal Family authentically captures the life and times with a unique eye (and memory for detail), including some excerpts that define a way life now long gone.
Channon, or Chips as everyone knew him, was an American, born in 1897, who grew up in Chicago, son of an heir to a Great Lakes shipping company. His parents started taking him to Europe when he was a child. By his late teens he was an expatriate, and would remain so. In London where he married Lady Honor Guinness, he became a member of House of Commons and led the life of a social gadfly extraordinaire, who had connections to many doors. His attitude is so British that there’s no reason to think he didn’t seem entirely British, including the accent — although I don’t know about that detail.
He was a gregarious fellow who loved society (better yet, royalty) and knowing all the right people. And in his case it was at the end time of the British Empire, and the “right people” were the names that are now of history. He had a great eye for detail and an intelligence to write about it visually.
It’s very high gossip, the stuff of history. The Diaries are obviously edited, abridged. Begun in 1918, they run through the late 1950s when Channon died (this book contains entries from 1934), there were 30 volumes containing more than three million words. The characters who run through it are at the center of the corridors of power and politics.
When they were first published in the 1960s, they drew brutal criticism from all of those Brits who knew him and couldn’t stand him, or hated him. Besides his political access and exposure, his wide circle included many aristocrats, tycoons, and other characters of sacred prominence, many of whom were written about without favor in the man’s private diaries. Secrets exposed, stories told, puzzles completed.
Despite his uber-Britishness including the accent, Channon’s was a distinctly American personality with all the gumption and chutzpah of a Midwest entrepreneur – intense, indefatigable, creative and impassioned. No Brit could have pushed himself on their society with such accomplished finesse. Yes, he was hated, but he was loved, or rather, adored too. He was the kind of guy who comes off much of the time as entirely superficial, and yet, the diaries are a feast for historians and writers of novels and thought about the world we live in.
The Diaries, shunned and ridiculed at the outset by the cognoscenti – in London where they would be of greatest interest – are now considered to be perhaps the best Diaries of that era (first half of the 20th century) in British, and therefore world, history.
One of them, AJP Taylor, the distinguished British historian of the 19th and 20th century regarded them as so inconsequential at the time of publication that he never bothered to open the book. That was his review. Years later, on a rainy afternoon, just as it was with me on Saturday, he happened to pick up the book, started to read, and found himself so riveted that he finished it (450 pages) in one sitting.
To read him isn’t necessarily to love him, but that’s allowed because the voice is so clear and so honest, despite potential objection to his opinions (and he was almost entirely on the wrong side of history with his political leanings and projections), you accept him on his terms and for who he is. An American who achieved one of his greatest dreams: a knighthood, a self-confessed social climbing snob, quite bright and very literate, wealthy and narcissistic, what is most compelling are his descriptions of the scenes and the circumstances and his very high level of gossip — later history’s mosaic — to which nothing in print today could hold a candle. His world was a very literate, well-fixed and politically powerful society (pre World War II) and impassioned as he was as a gadfly, he was often at its center and took note … in these Diaries …
Samples: Chips Channon’s Diaries.
13 December, 1943. A Proustian incident. In a Bond Street jewelers, I saw an extraordinary marionette of a woman — or was it a man? It wore grey flannel trousers, a wide leather belt, masculine overcoat, and a man’s brown felt hat, and had a really frightening appearance; but the hair was golden dyed and long: what is wrongly known as platinum; the mouth was a scarlet scar. Bundi (Chips’ dog) began to growl, and as I secretly examined this terrifying apparition, I recognized Gladys Marlborough, (second wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough) once the world’s most beautiful woman … the toast of Paris, the love of Proust, the belle amie of Anatole France.
I hadn’t seen her since my wedding, but there seemed no reason to cut her, and I went up to her, and smiled, and put out my hand which she took shrinkingly and then, breaking into French (as she always did), said, “Est ce que je vous connais, Monsieur?” “Yes,” I said, “I am Chips.”
She looked at me, stared vacantly with those famous turquoise eyes that once drove men insane with desire, and muttered: “Je n’ai jamais entendu ce nom la,” she flung down a ruby clip she was examining, and bolted from the shop … and I remembered how we had been allies for twenty years or more; how she used to telephone to me every morning; how I used to give her sugar in the last war when she was still dazzlingly beautiful; and how we used to lunch with Proust; and of the story that D’Annunzio fainted when she saw her, such was her beauty; then of the Blenheim days … Le temps qui coule … What an adventure.
12 August, 1936, Berlin. I cannot put the French Directoire and the Consulate from my mind, and am always seeing a parallel, no doubt a faulty one, between Nazi leaders and society and those French days of the 1790s. Will the parallel become more complete? Shall we live to see an Emperor too? I should not be surprised, but it will never be Hitler. He might, however, accept the Cromwellian title of Life Protector. It is known that he is not altogether deaf to the ambitions and rights of the deposed Hohenzollerns …
13 August, Berlin. The Goering Party. I don’t know how to describe this dazzling crowded function. We drove to the Ministerium in the centre of Berlin, and found its great gardens lit up and 700 or 800 guests gaping at the display and the splendor. Goering, wreathed in smiles and orders and decorations received us gaily, his wife at his side. When he spied Honor (Chip’s wife) he was especially genial; a table was reserved for us, with the Brusnwick clan, Ernest August in a green uniform, and the daughter Princess Frederika (later Queen of Greece and mother of King Constantine), typically royal of another age with a marabou boa, and the Hamilton boys.
Towards the end of dinner a corps de ballet danced in the moonlight: it was the loveliest coup-d’oeil imaginable and there were murmurs of delighted surprise from all the guests who agreed that Goering had indeed eclipsed Ribbentrop, which indeed we had been told had been his ambition.
The end of the garden was in darkness, and suddenly, with no warning, it was aflood-lit and a procession of white horses, donkeys, and peasants, appeared from nowhere, and we were led into an especially built Luna Park. It was fantastic, roundabouts, cafes with beer and champagne, peasants dancing and “schuh-plattling” vast women carrying bretzels and beer, a ship, a beerhouse, crowds of gay, laughing people, animals, a mixture of Luna Park and White Horse Inn. Old Heidelberg and the Trianon … (Max) Reinhardt couldn’t have done it better … “There has never been anything like this since the days of Louis Quatorze,” someone remarked, “Not since Nero,” I retorted, but actually it was more like the Fetes of Claudius, but with the cruelty left out …
Frau Goering asked if we would like to see the house, and eagerly we followed her indoors into the vast Ministerium where the Goerings live in theatrical magnificence. The rooms are all large and nearly empty, unimpressive except for their size; alone Goering’s private study is interesting with his writing table and its collection of telephones and many outsize photographs. Everything on the table is like Goering himself, too large, ostentatious and yet rather disarming …
Two large portraits also hang in this room, those of his wives, and there are flowers before his first wife’s picture, as at a shrine. He adored her, and has built her a fantastic tomb on his country estate. There is something un-Christian about Goering, a strong pagan streak, a touch of the arena, though perhaps, like many who are libidinous-minded like myself, he actually does very little. People say that he can be very hard and ruthless, as are all Nazis when occasion demands, but outwardly he seems all vanity and childish love of display.
And one last. The ghee of society.
25th November 1947 Belgrave Square. My own big dinner, and as usual the house “played up” and looked very grand and glittering. Lit up and full of yellow chrysanthemums from Kelvedon (his country house in Essex). I laced the cocktails with Benzedrine, (my itals) which I find always makes parties go. (No kidding …) Noël Coward arrived first, wearing what he called the “Coward emeralds,” and everyone was in gala dress—white ties and the women dripping with jewels. I never saw a lovelier sight. The Queen of Spain arrived punctually and I was on the doorstep to meet her. Five minutes later the Queen of Rumania drove up with her sister in a taxi.
After dinner we grouped ourselves about upstairs and the two Queens held rival courts, and I led up the men to talk to them in turn. It was after midnight that Queen Helen [of Rumania]—quietly elegant in black with an ermine jacket—rose … I then ordered Her Majesty’s car and she left with the Duchess of Aosta, her sister and devoted shadow. Meanwhile the Queen of Spain had settled down to enjoy herself and I found her ensconced on a sofa between Peter Coats and Sacheverell Sitwell …
The party went on. It was four before they all left. A great, great success—as he left, Willy Maugham whispered to me “This is the apogee of your career.” In a way it was, and I am sorry that Queen Freddie [of Greece] and the Duchess of Kent could not come too (they are on a secret visit to the affronted German relations, to tell them about the Wedding [of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip five days previously]). Three Queens it would have been like a hand at poker. But a pair is not bad.