Ménage à Quatre
Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me
By Sofka Zinovieff (Jonathan Cape 436pp £25)
Gerald, Robert holding Victoria and Jennifer, by Cecil Beaton, 1943
In Red Princess, published in 2007, Sofka Zinovieff wrote critically and affectionately about her paternal grandmother, Princess Sofka Dolgorouky, a hard-drinking, promiscuous Russian aristocrat dedicated to communist causes. This book explores her maternal grandparents with equal candour and critical affection. At the centre of the story lies a gorgeous but not entirely beloved country house at Faringdon.
Zinovieff’s title – The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me – needs some explaining. ‘Me’ is obviously the author. Born in 1961, Zinovieff has published one novel and three fascinating personal memoirs, of which this is her latest and best. Her father, Peter Zinovieff, developed musical synthesisers in the 1970s that were used to create garish and unearthly sound effects for Pink Floyd and David Bowie. He also wrote the libretto to Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus. Sofka was brought up in Putney, married a Greek, has two daughters and spends most of her time in a smart suburb of Athens. Her grandmother here is Jennifer Fry, the only child of cocoa heir Sir Geoffrey Fry, a graceful, witty but ‘cruel and misogynistic’ homosexual who was made a baronet in 1929 for services as private secretary to Andrew Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin. Jennifer’s mother, Alathea (née Gardner), was a nervous type who took lovers and lay for long periods in dark rooms. She was the second of four crazy sisters, the youngest of whom married Evelyn Waugh after nine failed engagements and divorced him fourteen months later.
The ‘Lord Berners’ of Zinovieff’s title was, of course, the celebrated composer, novelist, painter and homosexual eccentric Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, fourteenth Baron Berners, friend of Nancy Mitford and Igor Stravinsky, who dyed the doves at his late-18th-century Oxfordshire villa a variety of unnatural colours, invited Penelope Betjeman and her horse to tea in his elegant drawing room and once crawled around his house on all fours with a lion skin rug on his back in order to avoid having to talk to his guests.
‘Mad Boy’ – Robert Heber-Percy – may, or may not, be Sofka Zinovieff’s grandfather. He was a fearless, athletic and untamable bisexual who lived from 1931 as Lord Berners’s companion, heir and soi-disant ‘estate manager’, achieving very little with his life other than a series of audacious and entertaining escapades: he rode in the Grand National; he peed from a first-storey window onto his headmaster at Stowe; he punched Cecil Beaton so hard on the nose that the photographer was forced to withdraw from public life and died in loneliness and pain a few years later.
The snobbish society into which Miss Fry, the author’s grandmother, was born in 1916 made her feel an outsider from the start. Her parents’ friends sneered at them for calling her ‘Jennifer’. She was an only child of a loveless marriage who, as a young woman, embraced a ‘campaign to escape the cold, critical environment of her parents’ by taking many lovers and adopting bohemian airs. In 1942 she became pregnant. The baby’s father may have been a married and unsuccessful actor called Ian Lubbock, a young aristocratic victim of the Second World War, Edward Fitzmaurice, or Mad Boy Heber-Percy – nobody seems quite clear even to this day and by the time her descendants were brave enough to ask her she was senile and could or would not remember who the father was. Whatever the truth, in early July 1943, aged twenty-seven, she suddenly married Mad Boy and settled into a curious foursome at Faringdon with him aged thirty-two, Lord Berners, who was sixty, and the new baby, Victoria (the author’s mother). Mad Boy locked Jennifer out of his bedroom and they were divorced within four years. Victoria, who is still alive, grew up with little affection for her putative father and always hated Faringdon.
After the death of Lord Berners in 1950, Mad Boy inherited the house and estate and immediately took in a new homosexual lover, known as ‘The Captain’. Evelyn Waugh wrote to Diana Cooper: ‘I went to dinner at Faringdon … the Mad Boy has installed a Mad Boy of his own. Has there ever been a property in history that has devolved from catamite to catamite for any length of time? It would be interesting to know.’ But Mad Boy’s Mad Boy did not last and so he changed his will, leaving everything to a nephew. In 1985, two years before his death, Heber-Perry made another unexpected move by marrying the youngest of the Lygon sisters, Dorothy ‘Coote’ Lygon, an old friend and lifetime spinster immortalised as Cordelia in Brideshead Revisited. With his dying breath he pulled another characteristically surprising stunt by changing his will and leaving everything not to his nephew, not to another catamite, not to his ‘daughter’ Victoria, but to one of his grandchildren: Sofka Zinovieff.
Zinovieff draws this beautiful house – her house – to the very centre of the story, where it stands with its ornamental lake, park, farmland and famous folly as a strange reminder of the fun, laughter, energy and dysfunctionality that has inhabited it over the last sixty years. Today it is let to American millionaires, some of whom complain of the lack of power showers, while others demand that the pigeons (still dyed in bright pastel colours) be made to gleam in metallic gold. This absorbing, candid, critical and loving tale of a truly unusual setup looks beyond the clear description of its four title characters to the actions and motivations of many highlighted cameos – a lusty gold-digger, Doris Castlerosse, an insane and dangerous housekeeper, Rosa Kroll, the lascivious Cyril Connolly, the impossible Coote and the mother who loses herself in Indian mysticism. Sofka Zinovieff brings the whole stage to life and there isn’t a character in The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me whom one wouldn’t dearly wish to meet.