"Darling Monster"

John Julius Norwich as a child, Diana Cooper Papers, DIAC 5/2/25.

Some time ago we had a very exciting addition to the papers of Lady Diana Cooper, the beautiful (and rather eccentric) socialite, writer, actress and political hostess, who enlivened the social scene (and wrote about it in highly entertaining detail in her letters and diaries) from her heyday in “The Coterie” before the First World War, until well beyond the death of her beloved husband, the diplomat Duff Cooper, in 1954.

Lady Diana’s archive was one of those which came to the Archives Centre in long drawn out stages, which does tend to make their arrangement a bit confusing. Initially a relatively small number of her letters arrived with Duff Cooper’s papers in the 1980s, and were catalogued with his. Then about 30 years later another 100 boxes of mixed Duff and Diana papers turned up, this time with a lot more Diana material included. Clearly she was an important figure in her own right, and deserved her own archive, but her earlier papers had been with Duff’s for a long time, and had been seen and used by many researchers, so we couldn’t move them without wrecking all their references. This is why Diana’s papers are now split between her own archive and that of her husband.

Anyway, two years ago yet more of her papers arrived, this time her correspondence with her son, the historian and travel writer John Julius Norwich. He had already published an edition of the letters (which is why this material arrived later than the rest of the archive), but the thing with edited letters and diaries is that they really are only the edited highlights. We have a lot of these in our holdings, and without exception there is much more material in the archive than ever makes it into the published version.

John Julius was evacuated to Canada early in the war, which means that we have long weekly letters to him from his mother in the archive, describing life in the Blitz, including Duff, then Minister of Information under Churchill, peacefully snoring (“like the proverbial log”) in their air-raid shelter, while the unfortunate Diana tried vainly to sleep, and her valiant attempts at producing their own food at their country house in Bognor. This involved keeping a cow, goats, pigs and hens, though a foray into bee-keeping, when mixed with wide-legged trousers, proved more of a hazard:

“I had a veil over my face and elastic bands round my wrists, but I forgot my trouser legs like open chimneys. I thought I felt lots of bees crawling up them and attributed the sensation to my imagination, well known for its activity where horror is concerned. I didn’t dare complain … so I carried on till I was stung on the thigh. I didn’t even mind that, but it made it clear that imagination was not all the trouble. So calmly and slowly, for one must do nothing spasmodic or hurried where bees are concerned, I took off my trousers and stood exposed in ridiculous pants, pink as flesh. Looking I found the trousers lined with bees. It was a C. Chaplin scene.” (DIAC 1/6/1/4, June 1941)

Later in the war, John Julius returned home, but Duff and Diana were soon on the move, first to Singapore in 1941, then to Algeria in 1943, when Duff was the British representative to the French Committee of National Liberation, so the letters between mother and son continue. Here we first see Churchill’s son Randolph, then serving on the General Staff in the Middle East (and always badly behaved in Diana’s letters), who came to recuperate after being injured in a plane crash in 1944, pinching Diana’s bed as soon as she was out of it, and worse still, keeping his boots on while he did it, and stubbing his cigarettes out on the sheets.

After the war, Duff became Ambassador to Paris, and here Diana really came into her own as a hostess. They loved France so much that after Duff’s term as ambassador ended, in 1948, they simply moved to Chantilly, near Paris, where Diana established something like a rival court for all her friends (one cannot help sympathising with their successors at the Embassy, Sir Oliver Harvey and his wife, whom Diana cordially loathed). Here we have an unending stream of gossipy accounts of lunches and dinners, featuring characters like the “withered” Duke of Windsor, Diana’s great friend Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, or the film star Danny Kaye: “He is not normal, hence his genius. He has a super-sensitive ear and that helps and a charming appearance and appreciation and a lot of simple daftness”. (May 1950, DIAC 1/6/1/16).

More seriously, here is Churchill in 1955 after his resignation: “Winston I hear … is very unhappy – cheated – quite unreconciled – it must be painful for him to see the fruits of even false Peace falling into the Jerk’ s [Anthony Eden’s] lap” (May 1955, DIAC 1/6/1/24), or Ann Fleming’s love affair with Hugh Gaitskell: “She’s got an albatross as potential P.M. – Leader of the Op[position] a man of ugliness, charm & weakness, one that idolises her to the point of dementia – it was a lot of fun, now if he fizzles out she’ll have to wear the pathetic carcase round her neck.” (Apr 1960, DIAC 1/6/1/31.)

The letters continue until the mid-1960s, and end on a highlight, proving that when it came to meeting the Kennedys, not long before JFK’s death, even Diana could be star-struck:

“At last he came and with my 2nd bourbon ½ drunk I could look bravely into his charming face & hear him say ‘nice to see you again’ (… he may have been right but I don’t remember ever having clapped eyes on him) … I said how good his sister Eunice had been toiling round the White House with us. … He knew that & said ‘did you like her?’… This was a very lucky break because I was able to say how much I’d admired her appearance – ‘really?’ – he seemed a little surprised – ‘yes really, she has, what was said of Byron, “a wild originality of countenance” (how often the phrase fits). He was absolutely delighted, made me repeat it & said – to show you how quick a know-all he is – ‘do you think too, she is mad, bad & dangerous to know?’. The good creature beamed so understandingly upon me – his face is so much younger, less puffy than photographs make him & the deforming TVs. … Dinner went as well & better than it was meant to – afterwards a group round Jackie who must have, like her husband, “total recall” because she’d read all my books, & remembered a lot of those remarkable works – so incidentally had the President – we talked about letter writing & she said that in her whole married life she had had 9 from Jack – I find Jackie much more beautiful than I expected and a 100 times more of a personality than I had been told.” (Feb 1963, DIAC 1/6/1/32)

—Katharine Thomson, Archivist, November 2017.


Catalogue to the Diana Cooper Papers