The older man! He’s always attracted me. But not the “Sugar Daddy” type. The genuine article.
Gone With the Wind, in addition to the things people criticize it for being (all deserved except the absurd marital rape accusation), is at heart a romance. Scarlett O’Hara is in love with an older man–Ashley Wilkes. But she is really in love with Rhett Butler. She kids herself all along until she looses Rhett that it is really the lovely, dreamy, blonde-haired, cultured Ashley that she loves. Ashley knows the truth but has moments of weakness. Rhett knows the truth but gets his gut full. Sad, because Scarlett was made for Rhett and Rhett, who grew up exactly the same way and in the same generation as Ashley, was made for Scarlett. Gone With the Wind, absolutely provided my gateway to the older man and probably proved the Victorians right–reading romances ruins girls for what is really available. I’d rather have Rhett!
New to me in 2021 was the work of Shirley Hazzard. Aldred Leith and Helen Driscoll meet innocently but come to fall in love when in occupied Japan. I loved this book. You can read my review here: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard.
In a fictionalized version of a real affair, an over-the-hill Hemingway write of an over-the-hill Colonel enjoying a last fling with a lovely young woman in Italy. I loved this one, too, though I can see why many people do not. My review: Across the River and into the Trees.
New to me in 2021, this lovely Victorian tale captures the true heart of romance and of a woman’s beauty being her character. How could Lord Walderhurst think of marrying and begetting a late-in-life heir with anyone but the very moral, very generous Miss Emily Fox-Seton? Unthinkable. She was made to comfort a loving husband and to proudly wear the ermine and velvet. The Making of a Marchioness(my review is linked).
A good woman wants to be taken care of; a good man wants the job. That’s the story in essence. A Virtuous Woman was oh so good–and so believable.
Other than GWTW, I hold Cary Grant responsible as well for my older man fixation. That, and the afternoon movie on whichever channel it was in the 1970s on which my Mom, my brother and I sat out the Central Indiana summer heat watching classics like:
Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles (later the Earl of Harewood) –Ignore the stupid storyline in the Downton Abbey movie. They were not forced to marry, the had many interests in common, and were quite happy!
Name a British Edwardian of high rank and I probably am interested in them. Margot Asquith, wife of the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, and step-mother to Violet (Asquith) Bonham-Carter, the overthrown love of Winston Churchill and future Grandmother of actress Helena Bonham-Carter. Add in Anne de Courcy, as author and you have a must-read for me. Sadly, it languished on my shelf. Looking for an audio for this past week’s commute, I found it on Hoopla through my library.
Margot Tennant met Herbert Asquith at a dinner party (Cue Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary in season one asking “How many times must I marry the man I sit next to at dinner?” and mother, Cora replying, “As many times as it takes.”) He was widowed, with young children. She was free-spirit with a group of friends who came to be known as “The Souls.” He, by comparison, was a rube, but a powerful one. She waffled about marrying him, partly due to his daughter, Violet, who since her mother’s death had had her bed in her father’s room and was his main confidant in spite of being young enough to require a nanny’s care. Her other hesitations were two former loves–both “Souls.” Eventually the married and like, another much younger Prime Minister’s wife who also sat next to her future husband at a dinner party (Clarissa Churchill Eden) she began doing the wifely behind-the-scenes work of a politicians career: sucking up, entertaining, letter writing, spinning, and schmoozing. In spite of her reservations, she came to adore her husband. Sadly, daughter Violet almost never left them alone.
Free-spirited to the core, Margot even insisted on calling her husband by his middle name, “Henry,” since she did not like “Herbert.” His first wife had based their lives in the family home, outside the world of society (“She lives in Hampstead and has no clothes” was how Margot explained HH’s former life), Once properly introduced into real London society, HH took off–and in many ways, left Margot behind. Thanks again to daughter Violet, he went on to fall in love with her bestie, Venetia Stanley, a move that nearly destroyed Margot. In spite of this, and in spite of spending about as much time alone with their own children as Charles and Diana spent together before marriage, the couple had their times of happiness. Margot thrived on politics and loved being involved in the gamesmanship of it. They also had great sadness of another kind: Like another later aristocrat of much renown (Debo Mitford aka Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire) Margot had a horrible time losing 3 out of her 5 children. It was the life-threatening effects of another pregnancy and the doctor’s order of “no more [fun]” that spurred HH to “pounce” on Venetia. (Today HH would be looked at the way the Left looks at Trump with women}.
I came to all but loathe HH, but I could also see why Margot adored him. The power, the position, the charm, the deepness with which he fell in love, his sense of romance–used for good or bad they were all attractive points. I also felt sorry for Margot and the legions of other women whose life depending on an empty side of the bed at night. Women, as was told in the book, were seen as fraught and emotionally unbalanced. Well, ya think? [Fun at night] is an important part of physical and mental health. How pathetic that though both were needed to cause a life-threatening pregnancy, only the one spouse was expected to remain celibate? Margot, who could go a bit overboard in things, realized, big-heartedly, that HH being under such stress in 10 Downing needed that blessed release. As she was also under a mountain of stress, I’m sure it would have helped her outlook too! In her diary, quoted in the book, she remembers “what fun” they had had in bed together. How she kept from killing step-daughter Violet, I’ll never understand. I’m afraid HH and I would have had a very “fraught and unbalanced” come to Jesus meeting over that little minx very soon after marriage–if not before! Boundaries much, H?
Violet and HH at the wedding of his daughter Violet to Edwin “Bongie” Bonham-Carter. The bride and groom would eventually be the grandparents of actress Helena Bonham Carter. Bride Violet has her arm around pageboy Randolph Churchill, son of Winston and Clementine. Photo credit.
Anne de Courcy is one of my favorite social historians. She nails it every time. I also have Margot’s diaries and so plan to skim them a little this weekend for added insight and fun of another kind.
4.0 Stars [or should that be 4 red dispatch boxes??]
Lady Kitty and Michael Lewis share a kiss after their wedding.
When I started this blog, I planned for this to be a recurring topic–whether cross generational romance in real life or in film or fiction. But, I got sidetracked a bit too often to still call it a “feature” or “recurring topic.” Happily. Lady Kitty Spencer’s dazzling wedding has brought it back to the fore on my blog–at least for today. Lady Kitty, cousin to Prince William and his brother, married a man 32 years her senior–he is older than her father, Earl Spencer, brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
Both Lady Kitty and her new husband, Michael Lewis, claim South Africa as home. Obviously, Lady Kitty. 30, is an English aristocrat, but she spent most of her childhood in South Africa with her mother, brother and two sisters. Lord Spencer made trips to South Africa to be with his children and they flew to the UK to be with him as well. Her education from elementary school through university was all in South Africa. She later studied art and art history in Florence. In fact her brother, Lord Althorp, is the first Spencer heir to not attend Eton in …well….one heck of a long time. He, too stayed in South Africa through secondary school.
Michael Lewis, 62, is a businessman dubbed a “fashion tycoon” as he owns numerous popular UK and South African fashion labels. He is beyond loaded–£80 loaded plus a nice, large swath of property in pricey London. Michael is said to have proposed with a £ 300,000 rose cut diamond ring. The couple married last weekend at Villa Aldo Brandini in Frascati, Italy, with Michael’s grown children in attendance, but sans Earl Spencer to give away the bride. Instead Kitty was escorted to the altar by her brother Louis, Viscount Althorp, and Samuel Aitken, her half-brother from her mother’s second marriage. None of her royal cousins are thought to have attended.
Photo: German Larkin
How amazing is this gown by Dolce & Gabbana? Bespoke, hand-painted gown! Lady Kitty is the face of Dolce & Gabbana and is one of the most elegant young woman around today. I loved all FIVE of her wedding day gowns, but do not want trouble over copyright, so I’m only showing this one. Gorgeous! A gown for a lady in every sense of that word. Kitty’s actual wedding gown, the dress worn for the vows exchanged at Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, channeled her mother’s gown worn when she wed the then Viscount Althorp. Prince William’s little brother was a page boy in that wedding. All five gowns showed off the exquisite style of Dolce & Gabbana and just how absolutely right Lady Kitty is for their creations.
This is Kitty’s honeymoon time and I wish her and Michael a lasting love match.
I was born in “Chicagoland” and shopping to my family meant going to Marshall Field. All of my dollhouse purchases and our Matchbox car purchases came from the toy department. My father, grandfather and uncle’s suits, white shirts, and ties all came from the men’s department. My mother, aunt, and grandmother once all innocently purchased the same dress in the ladies’ department! (And three more different women you could not find in one family). Best of all, Marshall Field’s was where Santa came. Happily, in 2003, my cousin and I took her two younger daughters (who were being VERY, VERY good sports at their age) and my two children to see the decorations and to talk to Santa just before the State Street store and the rest of the chain became….ugh…Macy’s.
On the night of the Great Chicago Fire [remember–Mrs. O’Leary’s cow??] Delia Spencer [another gaggle of famous Spencer girls!] meets the love of her life, 40-year-old, married, Marshall Field, later to become synonymous with the great department store bearing his name (among other things). As changes happen in Chicago, and “Marsh” becomes even more powerful, Delia is there for him. Married herself to another Chicago society man, Del, Arthur (her husband), and Marsh lead a life together always complicated by the overbearing Nannie, aka Mrs. Marshall Field.
I don’t usually post unmarried couples as great cross-generational romances, but this one was just shy of Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife in the attic, so I let Marsh and Dell have their day. I loved them but didn’t always like them. God doesn’t send a lady someone else’s husband, after all. Not while that other lady is still alive.
The book itself was well-paced, the writing very good. Marsh and Del were fairly well fleshed-out. The author did get too heavy on the newspaper or couturier catalog description of rooms or clothing though. In fact, that got to be a drag in places.
I didn’t find either Marsh or Delia to be that likable, except when they were alone together. Delia did lovingly care for her own husband at one point which redeemed her some. While I found Nannie to be beyond unlikeable, she also had reason to be!
Marshall was Marshall–a man completely obsessed with his work, his legacy, his own world. Power is a quite an attraction for many women. Marsh, unless the author skipped this part, did not openly play the field. I suppose that redeemed him some, too.
You can read more about the real Delia Spencer Caton here in
Aside from the flaws mentioned above, and a few silly mistakes like calling Marhsall’s children “teenagers” before the word was coined, and pontificating conversation such as “he’s changing the face of State Street,” I still found this to be a good read although I acutally listened to the audiobook.
This book was published in 2014, right when the drama Mr. Selfridge was all over PBS. Harry Selfridge got his start with who? Marshall Field, of course!
One interesting, unexpected relationship
Marshall’s daughter, Ethel, was mother to British socialite Ronnie Tree (from her first marriage) and was the wife of World War I’s Admiral David Beatty by whom she had two more sons. Marsh regarded Beatty as “a sailor.” He was 30 years her senior.
Ethel Field source, Lady Beatty, her husband Admiral Lord Beatty, source, and their eldest son, David, later Lord Beatty source.
I was a Civil War freak first, then became attracted to Older Man–Younger Woman romances. If you are reading this between the lines, it is screaming Scarlett and Rhett! Yes, I was a Gone With the Wind Addict in Middle School. Much later I learned that none other than that former U.S. Senator and Secretary of War, turned traitor aka, Jefferson Davis, was himself the husband to a much younger bride. So, when I read of this novel’s publication I knew I’d devour it. And I did.
The Novel’s Story
The book is told in that conventional way of a “present day” [in this case, very early 20th Century] story and a remembered time. In this case, Varina Howell Davis is meeting with a man whom she had mothered for a few years during the Civil War when he was an abused child and she his rescuer.
Varina remembers her life as the daughter of a man who couldn’t hold on to money, of her arrival into the odd household of Jeff Davis’ older brother and then her life as Mrs. Jefferson Davis in all of it’s interesting forms.
I was entranced by Frazier’s writing–this was my introduction to his work so I absolutely wrapped myself in his prose. It is so beautifully written. I was listening to the audio so the pages and pages of quotes I wanted to take down didn’t get written down, which is sad.
Here is the one I managed to write down in parking lot:
“Since then, South and North have been busy constructing new memories, new histories, fictions fighting to become facts…”
And one I committed to memory:
“…a genius at inflicting love….”
Beautiful, evocative, memorable writing like this tells the entire story.
As I have read–devoured, really, Mary Chestnut’s Diary, I was very familiar with the war-time life of Varina Davis. Mary Chestnut and Varina were dear friends. I thought Frazier got these parts so right. I have read one biography (see below) of Varina as well. Frazier embodied her the way I had constructed her in my mind. Intellectual, but caring. Independent, but but not stand-offish. Her voice in this book was fully authentic to my ears.
I liked that Frazier gave Mary, the First Lady of the Confederacy, the same sorts of struggles all women faced–feeding the children, keeping her marriage going, on stupidity of the war. She has to cope with situations that are far too trying for anyone. She also must deal with the almost total absence of her husband due to the war. With a large family of young children, this was very difficult. Opiates, so destructive today, are not new–women were often prescribed them for hysteria or melancholia. Varina having them in wine was a truthful reaction to the stress of a life she could not control. This was breathtakingly honest.
I also liked (no spoilers) the end of Jefferson Davis’ life–when the ugly head of jealousy reared itself in Varina’s very independent heart. That was wonderul. As she said, elsewhere in the book, no one knows the real truth of a marriage but the two people in it. This beautifully illustrated that sentiment.
I was also struck again that a nation founded by “traitors” did not then execute the next generation of “traitors.” It occurred to me again, that this is the heart of America. Davis was imprisoned, but as is pointed out in the book, why hang him and have him become a rival martyr to Lincoln?
Trivia: Did you know that the first (childless) Mrs. Jefferson Davis was the daughter of President Zachary Taylor? True!
I loved the book, but there were two things that troubled me just a little. Two tiny things. I understand there have always been cynics, always been people who loathed organized religion or who went to church just to keep up appearances, but I found some of the comments made by characters in the book to be very 21st century in their stridency. I also felt that characters sometimes lapsed into well written prose rather than authentic speach. A few monologues or dialogues that were just a bit too well rehearsed for real life.
Her is an excellent biography of Varina (as well as of Mary Todd Lincoln)
CSA: Confederate States of America A Novel by Howard Means, only got 2 stars from me, but it was still an interesting idea. It is set in a modern day Confederacy–everything is truly “separate but equal” for the both white and black.
All of my books-to-be feature cross-generational love matches. The older man, younger woman relationship that is not just a “trophy wife.” Here in the Library of Life I also post about such couples both in film or fiction and in real life. I try to stick to “only” marriages, but occasionally make an exception for an unusually successful second marriage.
Over the weekend, one such couple married in a fabulous ceremony with royalty and other aristocrats attending. Lady Charlotte Wellesley, Daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Wellington married her beau, Alejandro Santo Domingo in Spain. Alejandro is 39, though he looks years younger, to his bride’s mere 25 years. This, to me, is the stuff of fairy tales. It’s not like she married him for his money–her father has plenty. She is a modern woman with an Oxford degree and a career working with famed photographer Mario Testino so she could earn her own as well. For me, the best part is this couple even looks in love!
The 25-year old noble wore an elegant, off-the-shoulder wedding gown designed by Emilia Wickstead. Her cathedral-length veil hardly concealed her ear-to-ear smile as she prepared to marry the man of her dreams.
This is no ordinary family Alejandro is marrying into. Her Great-many-times grandfather won the battle of Waterloo and gave supposedly gave the British the phrase “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” The Iron Duke he is still called. Wellington College, another Eton-ish school, was founded as a monument to him.
Lady Charlotte’s line of descent from the British Royal Family: Queen Victoria, her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II and his son Crown Prince Wilhelm. She is related to both the Queen and Prince Philip (not due to their marriage) due to her descent from Victoria.
But, wait there’s more! Charlotte’s mother, Princess Antonia of Prussia (to give the Duchess her title at birth) is a direct descendant of Queen Victoria’s daughter Vicky (the Princess Royal) thru Vicky’s son, Kaiser Wilhelm II [Yes, THAT Kaiser Bill]. So had World War I not gotten in the way, she’d be number 386, or something around there, in the succession to the British Throne.
Her siblings are among the four or five Wellesleys who were/are Royal Godchildren, too. Like Princess Diana’s family, the ties to the Windsors are very strong–genetic even. Charlotte’s sister, Lady Mary, is a Goddaughter of the late Princess Diana and her brother Lord Frederick is a godson of Prince Charles. Old news, of course, but back very early in the day, Prince Charles dated Charlotte’s aunt who famously said she didn’t need to marry him–she already had a title.
This is no ordinary family Charlotte is marrying into, either though. Not only is her new husband a billionaire (he works in finance–what else would a good Hotchkiss/Harvard grad do?), but his niece could eventually have been the Princess Consort of Monaco had her husband, Andrea Casiraghi, inherited the throne. Too bad his uncle, Prince Albert II, had kids at the last minute.
But back to the wedding. The ceremony was held in an ancient church on her father’s Spanish Estate–a gift of the Spanish nation to the Iron Duke. Her father gave about $4,000 to help with the restoration of the church in thanks.
Now for the fun part. According to the Daily Mail, the estate is where Charles and Diana hid out after his relationship with Camilla became public. It gets better. Who was at the wedding? See below…. yep! Camilla! Aristocrats just aren’t the same as you and me.
This weekend was just one of the bashes to celebrate this wedding. The previously had an over-the-top, three-day event with the groom’s side in Colombia. Alejandro lives in New York, but his parents have their home in Colombia. The country’s president attended the wedding this weekend. No word on any New York celebration.
I wish them well.
Want to see more of the wedding? Here are links to a few articles with nice photos, including candid ones posted on Instagram at #charlejandro –including pictures of the lovely, watercolored invitations and the adorable child attendants.
Note on photos: I would like to give proper credit for all.
Yes, I’ll forgive you if, on first glance, you thought this was the bride on the arm of her father. I did too–until I investigated. You all know by now that I love a true older man, younger woman romance. To be honest, I couldn’t find much on this couple to enable me to know if this was an arranged marriage or just a selection of the best of the suitable spousal possibilities! Two Catholic royals in need of a spouse, but expected to marry other royals would have had slim pickings in the aftermath of World War I. In fact, this couple had to post-pone their nuptials due to the groom losing his throne!
Rupprecht was a prince of the Wittelsbach family of the Kingdom of Bavaria. Quite a mouthful to say all of that! In the days before German unification, Bavaria and other small German states had their own royals. It was all very feudal. Queen Victoria’s daughter, Victoria, married the heir to the Prussian throne–Prussia’s royalty are mostly who an American would know. Kaiser Wilhelm ring any bells? That was his throne–Prussia. There were all sorts of others. Some were Catholic, some protestant. All needed to marry other royals with the same religion. Bavaria, largely Catholic, would look to various Italian kingdoms (no, “Italy” wasn’t quite the Italy is is today, either).
Now that you understand all of that, let’s get back to old Rupprect. His first wife, apparently the love of his younger self’s life, died very young–there had been a mere nine years between these two. But the life of a General in a World War is lonely–lonelier still upon receiving a Field Marshal’s baton, so Rupprecht looked around for a suitable second wife. The tiny kingdom of Luxembourg had a bevy of Catholic princesses that caught his eye. He settled on Antnoia–“Toni”–who was 3o years his junior.
When their engagement was announced it caused trouble for Toni’s sister, the already-troubled ruler of the tiny kingdom, Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaide. She eventually abdicated. Rupprecht had troubles of his own soon after the engagement as well. After World War I there was a very unsettled period in much of Europe. For example, the Russian Tzar was killed and a civil war broke out in Russia, too. Germany also had problems. Bavaria became a republic. Rupprecht was now a prince in name only.
After he’d negotiated a deal to keep much of his property and income, Rupprecht and Toni were back “on.” (Now word if anyone played around thinking they were on a break… I’m guessing not. Losing thrones can be stressful.) Rupprecht and his young bride, Toni, finally married in April of 1921.
With Toni spending the next 13 years giving birth to 6 children I assume the marriage at least started out as a happy one. But that happiness in her childbearing years was snuffed out by her husband’s very noble intentions. Rupprecht, a Field Marshal of the old school, stood up to Hitler and opposed the Nazis. The couple had to go into exile. Finally, in 1944 while Toni and the children were in Hungary, they were rounded up and arrested by the Nazis. Rupprecht was in Italy at the time and escaped capture. Tonia and her children were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Later they were moved to Dachau–fortunately the month they arrived was the same month the camp was liberated.
After the war the couple lived in Switzerland. Toni, who had been ill when captured, never enjoyed good health again. They died only months apart–Toni first, then Rupprecht.
Cary Grant always portrayed the smooth, handsome charmer, often as the older man wooing a beautiful younger woman. Finally he must have liked the role so much that he fell for a much younger woman and married her–before it became a Hollywood cliche to take a trophy wife.
Diane/Dyan Cannon [her name was changed accidentally and she kept it] was a 20-something acting in a TV show when Cary Grant spotted her. He patiently worked to get her to go out with him, then set about “wooing” her as one of the characters he’d played would have done. Almost 60 then, with a dignified touch of silver at his temples, Cary Grant was just beginning to think he was too old to play opposite younger women. He feared that the public might find it, in today’s term, a bit “pervy.” But dating? That was another matter. He didn’t bat an eye at Dyan bring a girl friend along, didn’t press in an ungentlemanly way for you-know-what. He was classy. He played by the old-fashioned rules until Dyan was well ready for more. He won–Dyan fell in love with him, hook, line and sinker. She even went to the altar expecting his first and only child.
But marriage changes things for some people. Cary had a scarred emotional past–a mother locked away as insane whom he was told had died; a father who was distant; three previous wives. Dyan thought the romance was set to continue. She’d live happily ever after with the world’s Prince Charming. But this was the 60s. Cary had discovered LSD and thought it a profoundly life enhancing drug. He demanded that Dyan try it. Her maiden voyage–her first LSD trip–should have been her last and she knew it. That “trip,” in which she willed herself to ignore all sorts of warning signals, was the beginning of the end.
Happily the couple had a daughter, Jennifer. For Cary, becoming a Dad for the first time after age 60 was a welcome shock. But a bit of paranoia kicked in. Dyan came home with the baby to discover her beloved dog had been given away and that Cary had given his dog away as well. He never told her where they were sent. And then there was the criticism of Dyan over just about everything. Nothing worked anymore. Cary even said Dyan needed a breakdown–it might “help.”
As I read Dyan’s book I was struck by a few important things:
Her parents consented to the marriage. Admittedly she was of age and earning her own way. But at least to their daughter they never questioned if this was a good idea.
Dyan, like an 20-something, was incredibly naive. But ridiculously naive for an actress working in Hollywood–the Hollywood whose Crown Price she was marrying, and marrying as his FOURTH wife.
Like many young women, Dyan seems to have cut herself off from many of her friends when she became serious with Cary. Probably the age difference WAS awkward in many situations. And, being in love makes many of us think “he’s all I need.” But she lost a valuable sounding board or “mirror” by letting go of friends.
Like many of us, myself included, she ignored numerous warning signs because CARY GRANT!!! Heck, who wouldn’t, am I right? But she mistook the perception of “Cary Grant” for the reality of Archie Leach aka Cary Grant, a many old enough to be her grandfather, from a different country and raised in a different class in a different era. A man so much more experienced that she never stood a chance.
This week, Cary Grant Week, and last week’s Valentine’s posts have been about fantasy. As children we learn to distinguish real from fictional, reality from fantasy. Sadly, for many young women this happens with men very late in the game–usually too late in the game. Dyan Cannon was one such girl.
I didn’t come away from this book feeling sorry for Dyan though–I’ve walked in her shoes. Oh, not with a Cary Grant, but close enough. I just thought she should have answered that clue phone that was ringing off the hook when Cary wouldn’t pin down their relationship in any stated terms. Or when he insisted she take a second, obviously unsafe and totally unwanted LSD trip. But, like so many of us, she pretended she couldn’t her the phone because, well, CARY GRANT!!
As for Cary, I felt only pity. Pity because he seems to have come to believe the movie magazine stories about himself. He seemed, like an alcoholic, to believe he could control LSD and “quit any time” if you will. He clearly saw that he was too old to be the leading man in movies, and rightly perceived the public’s reaction to him in such roles, but he went out and chased the skirt of a very young and naive woman.
I was glad, though, that Dyan wrote that he loved his daughter and cared for her. I see that Jennifer wrote her own book, but I have not read it.
Interestingly, Cary married for a fifth time, to a British woman, Barbara Harris, 47 years his junior. She would become his widow.
Dear Cary–a sad and predictable tale of vanity, awe and disillusion. Or what happens when we make men Gods.
This is not a political or religious blog. But, this couple stood for TRUTH. Today, I will break my rule slightly and post this story of love in times of grave danger.
During the Nazi years, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was internationally known theologian. He was of an aristocratic background, extremely well educated, well traveled and very well informed on world events.
As the Nazi’s took hold of all aspects of German life, Dietrich saw the maniacal hatred of Hitler and his followers and knew it was incompatible with Christian belief and Christian life. He became a founder and activist in what was called the Confessing Church–a subversive, but true and faithful church that rejected Nazi control. He also taught in its underground seminary.
In June 1942, Bonhoeffer visited an old friend who innocently introduced him to her granddaughter, Maria. For Dietrich, while “love” at first sight would be an exaggeration, he had after all known her as a confirmation student. But it was the first time he’d been shaken out of his academic and theological mind enough to see a beautiful, intelligent young woman he could come to love.
Sadly, the course of this possible new love was a harbinger of what was to come. The same Granny blabbed her suspicion of Dietrich being in love with Maria to the family. This, predictably, caused unease. For one thing, he was twice her age. For another, they didn’t even know each other in any meaningful, mature way. Before they could change this, Maria’s Grandmother exposed this secret. Bonhoeffer was angry that his mere suspicions that he could fall in love with Maria had been so clearly read by the Grandmother. For her part, Maria, still thought of him only as a family friend and dutiful pastor. But, over the course of sorting out the emotional mess of made by her Grandmother, Maria decided she certainly could–and did, love Dietrich and very soon they were engaged.
The things that undoubtedly helped this engagement were the facts that Dietrich was a friend of the family, that they knew his character was beyond reproach and that Maria’s father and brother had just died. Now, before you wonder, Dietrich stayed completely away from Maria and wrote to her only very pastoral letters in the immediate aftermath of each death. He did not take advantage of her grief in an untoward way. But as the couple expressed more of their thoughts to each other, his suspicions were confirmed and he knew he was truly in love with her. Then suddenly they were engaged. Just like that. It was a different time and different society than ours today. Such a relationship must lead to marriage.
Their engagement was agreed to and plans moved forward for their wedding and future home together. But, as Bonhoeffer’s biographer would write “It was an engagement like few in the world” (Metaxis, p. 421).
At about the same time, Bonhoeffer’s niece, Renate, was to become engaged to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge. Two cross-generational romances in one family. A newer biography of Bonhoeffer has suggested that the two men were more than mere friends. Did they have feelings for each other beyond simple friendship and professional association? Who knows. That’s the truthful answer.
We can read into their letters anything we like, but I do not subscribe to the school of thought today that says everyone who is close, even affectionate, to a same-sex friend must be sexually attracted to them or romantically in love with them. These men knew each other in a time and place in which men associated with men and associated with women only in mixed company. Best friends were always the same sex. I am content with that until someone dredges up something that proves another type relationship existed.
Three months later Bonhoeffer was in prison.
You see, in addition to being a theologian Dietrich also worked as a double-agent in the Nazi bureaucracy. He knew the participants of the Valkyrie plot well. Maria’s family knew this, too.
I’ve sat in prison and correctional institution visiting rooms in this country and I can tell you, keeping a relationship going on any level–even just acquaintances–is difficult. Enduring it with a loved one is painful beyond belief. That a couple so newly engaged and knowing each other so little could keep the flame burning for each other is a testament to both love and faith. They both realized there was more to this than physical love. That is one of the ways that Maria astonishes me. Yes, she was fluttering around like any happy bride-to-be getting her trousseau together, planning a first home, getting to know her fiance’s preferences, even his mundane daily likes and dislikes, but she also managed to find a depth of maturity and faith that few women Bonhoeffer’s own age could have found.
“If I talk too much about myself you must realize that you are always included in me….”
Dietrich to Maria July 30, 1943
Those words, written in utter sincerity, make my knees weak. That any could dismiss this as anything but true love need only go back to that one letter and to that one line.
“Perhaps it’s a good thing that my happiness at having you becomes perceptible only by degrees, otherwise I couldn’t endure it.”
Maria to Dietrich October 12, 1943
Yet, remember, the woman who wrote that last line was only 19 years old. Her faith, both in God, and in her fiance helped her struggle Dietrich’s imprisonment. While they were able to communicate with regularity and to see each other some this communication and contact always involved a censor or a guard nearby. The delays and lack of privacy in communication, the lack of private, physical contact–of just being in the same room together–did from time-to-time take its toll on the couple. Dietrich, older and with more maturity and more mature faith, struggled to keep their eyes on what God had in mind for them:
“For both of us, I believe, happiness lies elsewhere, in a more remote place that not only passes many people’s understanding but will continue to do so. At bottom, we both seek tasks to perform. Each of us has hitherto sought them separately, but from now on they’ll be common tasks in which we shall fully grow together—if God grants us the requisite time.”
(p. 86, Dietrich to Maria 9/20/43)
Maria was comforted by these words and others from her fiance, but her youth shines beautifully thru in this line–a line that also shows her incredible maturity for her age:
“…when you kissed me, I knew I’d found you again—found you more completely than I’d ever possessed you before.”
(p. 55, 7/30/43 M to D).
When I read that last quote, so exquisite in its imagery, I find it hard to do the math and come up with 19–with a vapid, texting 19 of today at least. But Maria was made of sterner stuff, was well-educated and had been brought up to be a proper wife–not a giggling girlfriend.
In my lifetime there are two groups who could be compared to this couple: POW/MIA spouses and the Iran Hostages and their spouses. Yet those aren’t quite right–for Bonhoeffer and his Maria WERE occasionally allowed to see each other, even to touch and share a kiss. Though their letters were read and sometimes held up in the mail, they communicated with enough regularity to allow their relationship to grow and deepen. Perhaps soldiers in Vietnam might be a better comparison–they sometimes received R & R in locations where wives were welcome. Regardless of the appropriate comparison, their situation was not normal.
Even at 19, Maria was able to understand that depression and despair could easily overtake Dietrich. She knew this was a vital and cerebral man and that prison would likely foster only the worst feelings. She was courageous in the face of this–even making a point of telling him not to let it take hold. That’s very bold to me. She takes time to comfort him as well, both with words of tender love and with descriptions of a beautiful Spring day or of meetings with family–all of which served to sustain him.
If ever there was a man who deserved the love of a good and steadfast woman–a true “helpmeet”–to my mind that man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. During the Third Reich the Church was forced (or, sadly, jumped at the chance) to do the bidding of the Nazis. The shame of this still taints the Church, much as the Ku Klux Klan still taints the protestant church in much of the American Midwest and South still today. Most protestants today know that Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer took believers underground and kept the true church alive during the Nazi regime. But few know that when he died in prison he was lovingly engaged to a woman named Maria Von Wedemeyer, early 18 years his junior, or that her loved and encouragement helped to sustain him.
I believe anyone who claims to be a Christian today should read Eric Metaxas superb biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Or, if that book is simply too daunting (and it should not be–it is incredibly readable) then read the chapter on Bonhoeffer in Metaxas’ more general, multiple biography, Seven Men.
Though out-of-print and expensive to purchase second hand, the book Love Letters from Cell 92 contains all the existing letters of Dietrich and Maria. I sincerely hope this book will achieve re-publication. It is too important a record of triumph over adversity and of the testament of love and fidelity to be lost.
This post was originally posted on my old blog on May, 15, 2013.
Update: Clarissa, Lady Avon, died in November, 2021, aged 101. Her obituary.
Clarissa Churchill Eden, is a hard woman to put into words. Part Katherine Hepburn, part spoiled brat, Clarissa has intrigued me for years. And, I admit, I still don’t have a true read of her. She famously disdained the rites of passage of her class by refusing to be presented at court in spite of being the Great-Granddaughter of the Duke of Marlborough. She hung out with a cerebral crowd that included Cecil Beaton. When she decided to finally marry she chose as her husband not only a man old enough be her father, but one in horribly bad health and on the brink of serving as Prime Minster at a time when the nation was approaching one of it’s top national crisis of the 20th Century. To say she liked attention would be an understatement. Yet, she also seemed shy. A enigma.
At the start, in my opinion, she was about as full of her self as only a 20-something can be. Life would gradually give her just the tiniest taste of humility though. And, let’s face it, in England, all her life there was a gal 6 years younger who is still dominating the world stage, so maybe it took more for women to get noticed–even a Churchill. Maybe she was just another boring, “I’m better than you” pseudo-intellectual who wore trousers and smoked in public and hung out with men and women we know today (and likely she knew then) were homosexuals. Maybe she was stuck surrounded by boring, “I’m better than you” pseudo-intellectuals who were a little too safe in taxis and she was desperately banging on the bars of her upper-class prison of a life? Maybe she envied her cousin Sarah (Winston’s daughter) and wanted a life on the stage. Maybe she thought she should have been Katherine Hepburn. No, I didn’t think so. She was stuck up as a young woman.
Or, more likely she was insecure. It would be hard not to be insecure in that family. Clarissa was a Churchill, but she was not a “Winston” Churchill. Her father was the great man’s little known younger brother Jack–a successful businessman in the city. Clarissa herself was born well after her brothers in a home shared by Jack’s family and Winston’s at a point when Winston’s over-the-top-lifestyle left him in reduced circumstances. By her mid twenties Clarissa was an orphan.
Her autobiography, which I found boring, is truly tough sledding. She was literate–VERY literate , and intelligent– VERY intelligent, but does not communicate well thru the written word. True, most of the book consists of snippets from diary entries, but there are very erudite diarists out there and she, sadly, is not among them. Like another celebrated younger woman who married an older man (Princess Diana) Clarissa left school with no qualifications, but in an era when that was pretty much expected of young women of her class and very much a badge of honor among the notoriously un-bookish aristocracy. Her mother, for example, had no idea what “matriculation” meant with regard to education and was unconcerned that her daughter’s boarding school stressed “horses.” (As I said, this was a different generation and her mother’s views were almost identical to that of a young mother known as the Duchess of York, who didn’t even believe her daughters she be forced to even go to an actual school.) But here she differs wildly from that norm–her friends were, almost to a one, either intellectuals or highly creative individuals.
As for Anthony Eden, at first glance he is a conventional man of his class–Eton, Oxford, officer in WWI, but he, too, differed a bit from that norm. He had a passion for art and was fluent in, among other languages, Persian. The word consistently used to describe him as a young man was “sensitive.” An understatement. He made a conventional first marriage that fizzled and faltered and finally collapsed. He lost brothers in the First World War and his beloved oldest son, Simon, in the Second World War–a death he characterized as the worst pain of his life. He was a shining star of the Conservative party for many years, but for all of them his light was all but blocked by the eclipse that was Winston Churchill. His years as Churchill’s heir were nearly as long as those of Prince Charles to Queen Elizabeth.
So, while Clarissa Churchill skulked around Vogue, the workroom of Cecil Beaton and the drawing rooms of the upper class intelligentsia leading a Katherine Hepburn-ish, trousered, existence and Anthony steered the ship of foreign affairs and weekended with the Mountbattens and Noel Coward, both were missing something in their lives. Each Other. They “met,” in terms of romantic interest at least, at a dinner party. Eden shyly asked her to have dinner with him and she accepted. And who wouldn’t? A woman would have had to be deaf, blind, dumb AND stupid to turn down one of history’s great crushes. Eden, so suave and so well dressed that he had a hat named after him, was one the best catches in England.Anthony and Clarissa married in a civil ceremony and had their reception, appropriately enough, at 10 Downing with Uncle Winston and Aunt Clementine.
Tigress or Trophy Wife? Protector or Pandora?
When Winston Churchill finally had dinner at 10 Downing with the Queen and Prince Philip and agreed to retire, Anthony was left holding the bag and living in a 10 Downing with, as his young wife famously put it, “the Suez canal flowing thru [the] drawing room.” As a warm-up to the canal, Britain’s first divorced Prime Minister was saddled with the Princess Margaret wanting to marry her late father’s divorced equerry–a mess that would have killed many a lesser man on its own. But Suez, and not the Princess, was the last straw.
The canal and the bickering over it brought down one of the longest running careers in foreign relations.Here is where the Eden fans begin to disagree over Clarissa and her influence. While first wives can be a huge influence, second, younger, beautiful wives (trophy wives in today’s icky parlance) can be Machiavellian. Some unkind souls view Clarissa as an usurper, a devious power behind, if not a throne, than a Prime Minister. Suez was such a phenomenal mess that the leader of the British Military of the time, Eden’s old buddy, Lord Mountbatten, tried unsuccessfully to resign and came perilously close to treason in his opposition to Eden’s plans.
Never mind that the whole thing was a disaster it must be that Anthony was besotted with his wife–right? Sure, why not! How much stuff was Eleanor Roosevelt blamed for? Hilary Clinton? Denis Thatcher? Clarissa though, saw the whole thing through a different lens–the lens of Anthony’s deteriorating health. She was from the earliest days of her marriage, to use a well-known Downton Abbey quote, “an old man’s drudge.”
Eden, though not yet sixty had the health of a corpse and very nearly died from a botched gal bladder operation. It was left to Clarissa to try to keep his job, restore his health, and maintain their marriage. All with the world’s press watching, of course! Did I mention she was only 36 at this time? Her take on things, with the hindsight of many years as a widow, sounds like this:
“My concern throughout was to support Anthony, and I felt that I could only help by bolstering him up without trying to lessen his load or demand that he rested.” (P. 235)”By now we had been living in a a perpetual state of tension for over three months…Yet when Anthony came up each evening he always seemed calm in voice and manner…I didn’t feel I knew enough to interfere in any way. I listened sympathetically, and was interested in the details and behavior of his colleagues. I always assumed Anthony was right because he has so much more experience in foreign affairs.” (p. 254-255)”[Doctor came and said] Anthony’s heart and blood pressure were fine but his nervous system was burnt out…finally decided on a month’s holiday.” (p.256)
A wife young enough to give him children (she miscarried) was asked to deal with the fallout from a totally necessary rest during a world crisis! Could I have done that at 36? I doubt it. After all, when Churchill suffered a heart attack during the war, it was kept a secret even from his wife. His stroke, left his son-in-law, the future Lord Soames, running the country in secret. But, the Edens were forced to take a holiday, so doctors said, to save Anthony’s life, Suez or no Suez. So she’s taking care of an uber-high maintenance, older husband, whose job necessitates him trotting blithely across the world stage in full glare of the press! And we thought Jackie Kennedy originated this role? Ok, Jackie did get the trophy children that Clarissa lacked. Can you then blame Clarissa for being glad when Anthony threw in the political towel?
“I was pleased to leave politics, and that we could have a marriage without all the tensions, plottings and shenanigans of political life.” (p267).
Their “retirement” life featured annual trips to Paris for, among other things, book and art buying,retreats to warmer climates in the winter (including to Colin Tenant’s bizarre island empire, Mustique), life in an idyllic, aesthetically pleasing country home where Anthony toiled away writing his less-than-memorable memoirs while looking debonair in sweaters with silk cravats tucked in at the neck.
While Clarissa’s memoirs give only the briefest glimpse in words of her marriage, I think the photos tell another story. First there are countless pictures around of Eden gazing lovingly at his wife. And, in her book, Clarissa published not one, but two photos of Eden in swim trunks, another of him lounging and looking too adorable for words at their home and countless others of him as his suave ever-elegant political self. Possibly most telling of all (or possibly a totally tongue-in-cheek joke on her readers) a very elderly Clarissa is shown on the back jacket of the book in a tweed jacket and silk scarf in clear emulation of her late husband’s sartorial style. Not of today’s “tell all” generation, I think the pictures Clarissa chose for the book speak louder than words.
While I still find it hard to warm up to her, and I’m sure many of his colleagues were right to worry about her “hold” over her husband (these were men who, after all, had lost a King to such a woman), I have to come down on the side of Tigress Protector. It was her tenacity that solved his medical crisis, her tenacity that protected his legacy and her tenacity that kept him in the public eye long enough to see the polish put back on his tarnished image. I also wonder–did Jackie Kennedy look at her and see a role model?
All quotes are from Clarissa Eden: A Memoir From Churchill to Eden edited by Cate Haste.