The Duff Cooper Diaries 1915-1951
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005.
Reviewed by Richard Davis
Duff Cooper was, according to his son and editor of his papers, "a first-rate witness of—and often a first-hand participant in—just about every significant political development that occurred between 1914 and his death forty years later" [ix]. Certainly he occupied key positions from which to observe, and partake in, the events described here: diplomat and then soldier during the first world war, MP, Secretary of State for War and First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Information, Churchill’s representative to the Free French and finally Ambassador in Paris.
Yet these diaries are far more than a simple record of the diplomatic and political crises he lived through. Perhaps their greatest interest lies in the insight they give into the rich private life of Duff Cooper and through this the (high) society that he was a part of. Duff Cooper, again in the words of his son, was not just a statesman and diplomat: he 'was a scholar, a wit and a poet... He never underestimated the importance of pleasure, and much of his diary... is concerned with this side of his life: the food he ate, the wine he drank and, not least… the women he loved' [xi-xii]. The reader is certainly given 'a remarkably frank record of his life—and in particular of his extremely mouvementé sex life" [ix]; Norwich’s recognition that his father was "a good deal more sybarite than saint"’ [xiii] is, to say the least, an understatement.
Indeed, these diaries are a heady mixture of high politics (both domestic and international), love affairs, sex and drugs, diplomacy and war—all spilling over into one another. They are also highly unusual in being quite prepared to open up the innermost secrets of the author, leaving the reader with an impression bordering on voyeurism. Just as Duff Cooper himself reads his future wife’s diary  it is almost as though the reader is reading something he shouldn’t.
The claim, however, that Duff Cooper was at heart an amiable, intelligent man about town with few people "immune to his intelligence and his charm" or a "romantic through and through" [xii] is somewhat harder to maintain. Duff Cooper may have had his faults, it is suggested (Norwich accepts that for some "he was a drinker, a gambler and a shameless pursuer of beautiful women" [x] although these are seen more as foibles than real defects), but and he was nonetheless a "good chap." Yet the impression left on reading this book is, to use the language of the time and of the author’s social class, that he was rather a cad. Today’s readers, who have become immunised to such revelations, will hardly be shocked to learn that such an eminent public figure could have been involved in sex, drugs, infidelity and gambling. It is doubtful, however, that there will be a great deal of sympathy felt for the author of these pages. Instead, the reader comes away with a feeling that here was a man marked more by vanity and snobbery than by any charm or human warmth.
The opening pages, indeed the first half of the almost 500 pages of text, are a never-ending list of the various pleasures, mostly of the flesh, that Duff Cooper enjoys: dining on ‘cold beef, lobster, plovers’ eggs and strawberries’ , getting drunk at an endless number of lunch, dinner and weekend parties. Duff Cooper himself admits as much, writing in 1933 that "I want to prevent this diary from becoming a mere record of luncheons and dinners—a fate which has overtaken all my diaries in the past" although he immediately goes on to admit that "Meals are the pegs, the landmarks in life and it is difficult to avoid recording them" . In fact this resolution, happily for the reader, was not kept. In later years we find Duff getting drunk at the Russian embassy in Paris, where the Russian ambassador’s secretary was so drunk he was sick on the floor and Duff had to take to his bed before finally being sick the following day.
As well as the pleasures of the table, love and sex are the other constant undercurrents to this account. His wife, the society beauty Diana Manners, comes through as the great love of his life although she is far from being the only subject of Duff Cooper’s affections. His diary is interspersed with his conquests. Some of these are recorded as merely "breach(es) of chastity" , others were clearly more serious affairs; some were conducted in secrecy while in others there is a brutal openness about it all. One evening sees Duff Cooper at a small party where "everybody... being rather amorous to one another quite promiscuously and nobody being jealous. Teddie and Hilda Moore (two actresses) were the most devoted couple and there was a boy whom they seemed to share" , all of this while Ivor Novello played the piano. All this is presented with the utmost honesty and he admits that "intrigue of this sort has a fatal fascination" . This may have led him to feeling "a monster of wickedness and cruelty"  but the urge to continue is clearly too strong. "My infidelities," he writes, "are entirely of the flesh. (The) Long habit of promiscuity asserts itself. I feel guilty of no faithlessness, only of filthiness" . Other feelings of guilt come from his gambling debts which are similarly omnipresent throughout his life. Pleasure and amusement are the leitmotifs here.
In his early years in particular, it is this private side of his life that dominates his diary. Indeed, his superiors at the Foreign Office remark on his repeated absences and overly active social life. Duff Cooper may have regarded such criticism as ill-placed but he admits that at times it was only when he was bored that he got up and went into work, "sauntering down to the Foreign Office" around 11 o’clock . Yet all of this pleasure-seeking is set against the background of the losses of the first world war which cut down so many of his contemporaries and friends, although, as he admits, he never allows this to stand in the way of a "wild night" on the town or his "‘infinite capacity... for enjoyment" . When he gets to the front, even war is conducted in the spirit of school-boyish adventure: an attack in which he took 19 Germans prisoner single-handedly is described as "beautiful and thrilling... I felt wild with excitement and glory and knew no fear" .
The war also brings out Duff’s disdain for those below him on the social ladder (which was 99% of the country). On entering the army, naturally as an officer in the Guards, he was shocked to learn that he had to share a room with other men, most of whom had risen through the ranks. His account for July 5, 1917 unashamedly expresses his sense of social superiority:
When he finds other accommodation, he notes "It is so much pleasanter to sleep with people who wash regularly and speak English" . This brief interlude seems to have been about as close as he ever came to the other world of the middle or working classes although he did establish a surprisingly close relationship with the very working-class Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. His cultural snobbery is, however, no less evident, bemoaning the fact that the very best wines he has chosen should have to be "wasted on uncultivated palates" .
The Duff Cooper Diaries are also of interest in the vignettes they give of some of the personalities he encounters. Indeed, the index and footnotes read like a Who’s Who or Debrett’s. Duff Cooper mixed, both personally and professionally, with kings, queens and princes (the King of Spain even tries to "put a hand up [Diana’s] dress" ) as well as leading politicians. British royalty is variously adulated and disparaged. The two Princesses (the present Queen and her sister) have, he notes, "good eyes, beautiful skins and wonderful teeth" although Margaret "is too small"  and he warns, presciently, that while she "is a most attractive girl… very sure of herself and full of humour. She might get into trouble before she’s finished" . His judgements of the future Edward VIII, whose charm he found "devastating and unfailing" , borders on the sycophantic. His views of Wallis Simpson were, however, somewhat less flattering: "a nice (and) sensible woman—but she is as hard as nails and she doesn’t love him" . Ten years later, he delighted in picking up some Paris gossip relating the promiscuity of her earlier life and expressed his sadness at how Edward VIII had given up his throne to live "with this harsh-voiced ageing woman who was never even very pretty" . Rather cruelly, he noted that Queen Elizabeth (wife to George VI) "ought not to have allowed herself to get so fat" .
Amongst the various politicians, British and foreign, that Duff Cooper rubs shoulders with, few escape unscathed. Perhaps it is precisely his vitriol which makes this such enjoyable reading at times. Lloyd George is "a common, ugly, uninteresting looking little man"  (although three years later the verdict had been transformed: "There is something very remarkable about him. He creates the impression of a great man and he does it without seeming theatrical and without seeming insincere" ); Asquith "an old lecher"  and "particularly unattractive" ; Keynes was "a dull dog"  and Attlee "a poor specimen" . Foreign dignitaries fare little better: Roosevelt was an "obstinate old man"  and Eisenhower he did "not find... either interesting or impressive" . De Gaulle was "a difficult character suffering from a fatal inferiority complex"  who "may go mad"  and whose "obstinacy, tactlessness, lack of political experience... will end by being his undoing" . Other portraits are simply vindictive and cruel. On one occasion he recorded Gaston Palewski as "looking more revolting than usual... de Gaulle may have selected him as being one of the few men uglier than himself" . A particularly savage attack is reserved for Lord Rothermere:
One of the rare approvals was for Winston Churchill. Although "a strange creature"  Duff Cooper openly expresses his admiration for his ideas. "Winston was splendidly reactionary," he wrote in 1920, "I was delighted with everything he said"  even Churchill’s view that Gandhi "ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back" . Duff Cooper’s own reactionary views were not far behind. While still at the Foreign Office, he argued that riots in Egypt only strengthened Britain’s hand there "by showing how little they (the Egyptians) are fit for complete independence and how incapable they are of keeping themselves in order without assistance" . In 1946, he advised against Libyan independence on the similar grounds that "if we allow the Arabs to regain complete control of that country it will relapse into the condition it was in during the 18th century. What reason have we to suppose that the character of the Arabs has changed in the last century?" .
His judgements of whole people and countries could be similarly severe. After visiting the torture chambers in liberated Paris he hoped "that the fullest publicity will be given to these horrors in order that the English and American people may never again make the mistake they have so often repeated of believing that the Germans are normal people and that the Nazis are any different from the ordinary Germans" . Four months later, after a visit to the Russian embassy, he similarly wrote "I never felt more strongly what barbarians the Russians are. They seemed utterly out of place in that beautiful 18th-century house, which they have done their best to make hideous. The food was foul" . Food and wine, as always, were something of an acid test, the Americans also being let down in Duff’s eyes by their lack of culinary know-how.
Duff Cooper’s social encounters go far beyond monarchs and ministers—he met Arthur Rubinstein, "a little creature called Walton who writes music" , he dined with the Cole Porters, had "supper with a man called Irving Berlin who writes music" , met "a young man called Astaire" . In Britain he dined with Bernard Shaw, noting "I don’t find (him) amusing" ; in north Africa he hosted a party for André Gide; in Paris he met Marlene Dietrich, François Mauriac, Francis Poulenc, Jean Cocteau, André Malraux, Benjamin Britten, Stephen Spender, T.S. Elliot ("not the great poet he is said to be" ) and Picasso whose lack of talent is also recorded. Arthur Koestler ("I had expected not to like him and didn’t" ), Augustus John, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Somerset Maugham, Evita Peron ("I was disappointed in her looks, but I liked her... We seemed to understand each other—perhaps because she’s a tart" , Alexander Korda, Isaiah Berlin, Rita Hayworth ("pretty hands but the nails were too long and dirty" [447-48]) and Cary Grant follow. We are also given more second-hand accounts such as the opinion that Rasputin’s "great charm... for women was that when he had them he never came and so could go on forever" or that "he had three large warts on his cock" .
If these entries are often amusing, sometimes scurrilous, tittle-tattle, Duff Cooper was also an eye-witness to many of the key events of his lifetime. His accounts of the General Strike (he advised his wife that she could not leave the country "till the massacres begin" ) and the abdication (where he was something of an emissary between the King and the Prime Minister) are fascinating. Yet it is in the entries for the 1930s onwards that the real political interest of these diaries lies. The story itself is well known, as is Duff Cooper’s opposition to the policy of appeasement. However, what is original here is the very personal insight he gives into the Cabinet discussions. While this may not change our interpretations of British policy at this vital juncture it does add to the overall picture. In particular, his portrayal of Neville Chamberlain’s psychological outlook from the Munich crisis up to the beginning of war is of great interest.
Duff’s record of his time in North Africa is of no less value. Again, this is not so much because he allows us to radically rethink the events he describes but comes through the small personal touches that he adds to the overall picture. The clashes between de Gaulle and Churchill are already famous but the intimate details he gives are fascinating as, for example, when "Clemmie" Churchill (Duff Cooper was on first name terms with her as with so many others) gave her husband "a candle curtain lecture... on the importance of not quarrelling with de Gaulle. He had grumbled at the time, but she thought it would bear fruit" . Duff was also a witness to series of meetings between de Gaulle and Churchill including that on the eve of the D-Day landings.
Despite his deep-rooted francophilia and his best efforts to ease the wheels of Franco-British relations, Duff’s account of his time at the Paris embassy shows just how difficult a task this can be. His admiration for, and yet frustration with, de Gaulle come through clearly. His description of de Gaulle’s extreme sensibility and the difficulties this posed for relations between the two countries is as good an example of the difficulties in Franco-British relations as can be found. Again these grave issues are complemented by a series of small personal impressions. "It is curious," Duff noted, that Churchill "likes making speeches in French. He admitted so to me afterwards. He knows so little that he doesn’t notice nor mind his own mistakes" . The meeting between Bidault and Blum, neither of whom understood English, and Attlee and Bevin, neither of whom understood French, with Duff having to translate Bevin’s many stories ("all more or less obscene" ) is another example. The four-power meeting where Bevin broke the ice by singing "Cockles and Mussels" (which goes down in Duff’s record as "all rather unseemly and rather amusing" ) is another example of the sort of history rarely related in the history books but which deserves to be told.
Above all, this book gives us a remarkable insight into a by-gone world—one of aristocratic government and diplomacy, high society and social divisions-that will not be regretted by many. Duff Cooper himself bemoaned the fact that his world, that of Edwardian privilege, was dying. The Duff Cooper Diaries may not paint a broad tableau of this but the series of cameos that he has left provides a wonderfully colourful portrayal of his world.