Duff Cooper was a brave, farseeing British statesman and hedonist of the ’30s and ’40s, a man of taste and literary skill, a great womanizer and a very good diarist. He has now been dead for exactly 50 years, and his son, Viscount Norwich, the Byzantine expert and writer, has published his diaries from the year 1915 until the end of 1951. I first heard of Cooper when I read his definitive biography of Talleyrand, a book still in print and which made the French statesman come alive—no small feat if one takes into account the mask of exaggerated manners he had perfected. (Talleyrand, like Cooper, chased the fairer sex nonstop in the middle of wars and political crises, topping it off by seducing three generations of the duchesses of Dino.)
Duff Cooper became a household name in England in 1919, when he married the greatest beauty of her time, Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, who was courted and admired by everyone but who chose to marry the penniless civil servant and inveterate philanderer. Diana, however, was the daughter of the duchess of Rutland but not of the duke. Her real father was another great swordsman, Harry Cust, yet the duke loved his illegitimate daughter even more than his other children. Noblesse oblige, I suppose. I had the opportunity to meet Lady Diana back in 1986, but by then her great beauty, as well as her brain, was gone, and I do believe she mistook me for … Talleyrand.
Joie de vivre is the hallmark of the Cooper diaries. Duff loved life and enjoyed it to the full at a time when life could really be enjoyed. The drinking and partying were heroic. Having survived the slaughter of the Great War, the boys were out for a good time. As were the girls. Cooper served with distinction in the First World War, having volunteered the moment he passed his physical, then entered Parliament in 1924 as a Conservative and went on to become First Lord of the Admiralty, a post from which he resigned in 1938 in protest against the Munich agreement. He returned to the cabinet in 1940 and later was appointed ambassador to Paris, where he remained until the end of 1947. The Paris parts of the diaries are my favorites, probably as I knew some of the people mentioned. Gaston Palewski, lover of Nancy Mitford and close adviser to de Gaulle, arrogant and a charming womanizer, had me and my first wife to lunch at the Elysee back in 1967—he had eyes for my sweet 20-year-old—and Cooper describes him perfectly 35 years before. Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, collector, novelist, poet, and patron of the arts and artists, had a “disgraceful” war because of her penchant for good-looking young German officers. I was invited to her “salon” whilst in my twenties and she in her seventies. It was one of the few times I’ve backed off in my life.
Plus ça change, as they say. The bittersweet parts are those during the first war when news arrives daily of friends, schoolmates, and relatives killed after volunteering for duty. All upper-class men went off as quickly as they could be measured for a uniform, and the same applied for the other side. Here are a few: “Monday April 26, 1915. Rupert Brooke has died of sunstroke at Lemnos. Terribly sad. I knew him well. A very good poet and a very beautiful man.” “July 11, 1916. Dined at 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister and Mrs Asquith, Lords Curzon and Kitchener. Kitchener said he could take Baghdad but couldn’t hold it. Curzon said, Don’t take it unless you can hold it. Curzon is right.” “September 18, 1916. Prime Minister’s eldest son killed in action. It is the worst shock I have ever had. I wish I were with Diana to comfort her. Poor Mrs Asquith …” “September 27, 1916. Mark Tennant and his cousin Bimbo have both been killed. One grows callous …” (This incident is not in the diaries, but when Mark Tennant arrived fresh to the front, a muddy sergeant looked at him, smiled ruefully and said, “We’re going over the wire in five minutes, sir, you better write to your mother because you’re most likely not coming back.” Tennant did write a short letter. “Dearest Mama. The noise … and the people! Your loving son, Mark.” He died immediately while leading the charge.) “August 10, 1918. Brassey is an attractive boy of whom I am quite fond and who is fond of me. He is fresh from Eton [Cooper’s school] and fresh in every way … Brassey is killed in action later that day …”
And on it goes. While reading the diaries I also read a Bob Herbert column decrying the present bloodshed in Iraq as a reckless, indefensible war that has been avoided like the plague by the children of the privileged classes. Think about that and weep.