During her long retirement from Hollywood, Greta Garbo was, as many of her fans know, very keen on tennis. With the young David Pryce-Jones, she chose to play the game topless, “so flat-chested,” he tells us, “that she looked more masculine than ever.” This is somewhat unfair to Garbo, whose cold, chiaroscuro beauty—it is impossible to imagine her in color—I have always admired. But it is also typical of this charming, gay (in both senses of the word), and very funny memoir.
Pryce-Jones, a senior editor at National Review, was born in Vienna in 1936 to Therese “Poppy” and Alan Pryce-Jones, a homosexual bon vivant whose father had served in the Welsh Guards. There was a precedent for this unlikely marriage. Her mother, Mitzi, married Eugène Fold, the very gay scion of a banking dynasty, in full knowledge of his proclivities and they managed to have four children before his early death. (Insisting that “Homosexuals make the best husbands,” she was soon married again, to Eugène’s lover, an English toff named Frank Wooster—who, Wodehouse fans will like to note, was a golfing chum of the Master.)
Alan, initiated into what Maurice Bowra called the “Homintern” by Cyril Connolly while at Eton and praised as a genius by his mother from the earliest age, was a singularly unpleasant figure and, in his dissolute way, a fascinating one: an aesthete who wrote mediocre novels and travel books, indifferent as a husband and father, and very snobbish. Passages like this are typical of his letters and diaries, which are quoted throughout: “The Springers [his wife-to-be’s family] are, I’m sorry to say, Jews, and cousins of the Rothschilds, Goldsmids, Goldsmid-Rothschilds etc, but really very, very, very nice.”
For all his pretensions, to say nothing of his career at The Spectator, where he, like his son, had a stint as literary editor, and The Times Literary Supplement, Alan was something of a philistine. We see him, for instance, playing “Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story for T.S. Eliot and hoping to flatter the author of Prufrock by suggesting that Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics were the sort of thing he might easily have written. (Eliot replied that he was sorry Alan thought so little of his work.)
Most of the action here, such as it is, takes before Pryce-Jones is six years old. Alan was blasé about events in Europe, and when war began his son had to be spirited out of Paris in the middle of the night by his nanny, finally arriving in England in 1941 by way of Spain, Morocco, and an improbable year-long interlude back in what was by then Vichy France. From there Pryce-Jones went to a prep school, where his attractive young teacher informed him that Jews had been the main cause of the war and many other evils, and, following in his father’s footsteps, to Eton, where he was the object of anti-Semitic taunts.
There is a good deal of score settling in these pages, much of it delicious. No one familiar with the works of A.J.P. Taylor, Pryce-Jones’s tutor at Magdalene College, Oxford, will be surprised to learn that he enjoyed being fêted by Sir Oswald Mosley, whom he once called the greatest political thinker of his age. During a tutorial we see a college servant arrive with Taylor’s earnings—in cash—from Lord Beaverbrook, to whose newspapers he was a tireless and well-remunerated contributor. “This is what it’s all about,” he tells his pupil.
The later portions of the book are haunted by a sense of loss. The world of pre-World War I assimilated French Jewishness is wonderfully captured here in descriptions, vignettes, and jokes, especially in the treatment of Royaumont, the French estate of Pryce-Jones’s maternal grandparents, whose “name alone,” he writes, “has almost an enchanted power to bring back the past as though everything was still as it once had been.” (Not many of us can open the fifth volume of Proust’s letters and find the author of À la recherche du temps perdu warning our grandfather that his marriage will be a great trial.)
Pryce-Jones’s memory is not perfect. Duckworth was indeed an excellent publisher in the first half of the 20th century, but Evelyn Waugh was not on its “list”: the firm commissioned his life of Rossetti and released his first three travel books, none of which he was especially fond of—but all his novels were published by Chapman and Hall. (It is odd, too, to mention Virginia Woolf in connection with the publisher, which brought out her early novels, without noting that its founder, her stepbrother Gerald, molested her.)
These are quibbles, however. This is a delightful old-fashioned family memoir, one that, in these leveling, spartan times, is unlikely to find a large audience. It does not need one.