Craziest Country House Party of the 20th Century
By CHRISTOPHER MASON
While thumbing through one of Cecil Beaton's unpublished scrapbooks two years ago—enjoying a peek at a friend's rarefied collection—I stumbled on a blurry black-and-white photograph of a tousle-haired youth. Beneath it Beaton had scribbled a caption: "Horrid Madboy."
It was a thrilling discovery, as it offered a unique glimpse of the destructive animus between Beaton, the venerable photographer, and Robert Heber-Percy, the sly young man in the picture. Known for the spontaneous antics that earned him the nickname "Mad Boy," Robert relished the shock value of riding naked on horseback at Faringdon House, the idyllic Oxfordshire estate of his three-decades-older lover, Lord Berners, an elegant, monocle--wearing novelist, painter, and composer who wrote music for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and was admired by Stravinsky.
I sensed that Beaton's photo would intrigue my friend Sofka Zinovieff, with whom I had shared a house at Cambridge University. In 1987, while studying in Greece for her Ph.D., Sofka inherited Faringdon from her famously capricious grandfather, the Mad Boy, and she currently lives there with her handsome Greek husband, Vassilis Papadimitriou.
Now the astonishing story behind this unlikely bequest is the subject of her riveting new book, The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me. How, you might ask, did the robustly gay Robert produce a granddaughter? I'll explain in a moment.
In the 1930s, when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Berners and the Mad Boy created an aesthete's paradise at Faringdon. Visitors were greeted by a flurry of doves in rainbow hues of pink, orange, blue, green, and mauve; the birds were colored thrice a year using harmless vegetable dyes sent from Paris by Stravinsky's mistress. Nancy Mitford, who fictionalized Faringdon as Merlinford in The Pursuit of Love, describes the thrill of encountering "a flock of multi-colored pigeons tumbling about like a cloud of confetti in the sky."
Berners and his impetuous swain knew everyone and entertained lavishly. The visitors book reads like a compendium of the cultural elite of the 1930s: Salvador Dalí, Gertrude Stein, Stravinsky, Margot Fonteyn, Noël Coward, Evelyn Waugh, H.G. Wells, and Elsa Schiaparelli. Adding to the madcap atmosphere, two Dalmatians darted around wearing diamond necklaces.
Berners, a lover of practical jokes, trained a parrot to walk beneath a bowler hat, so startled guests would blink, imagining that the hat was moving by itself. His lordship also wore fright masks, gleefully terrorizing passersby while riding in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, which contained a clavichord so he could entertain himself and compose while motoring through the English countryside.
Guests were treated to famously delicious food, and they marveled that culinary excellence prevailed even during strict wartime rationing. Mitford recounted that Cyril Connolly, the literary critic, quipped, "When every sort of luxury has been forever banned in England, Lord Berners will somehow manage to maintain a secret melon house."
Amid all this gaiety, friends were flabbergasted when Robert announced his marriage to Jennifer Fry, a frolicsome heiress to a chocolate fortune, who shocked even jaded observers by moving into Faringdon House with her new hubby and his older, male lover. In the book Sofka acknowledges that her fast-living, good-looking grandparents were "sexual buccaneers" during the 1930s, when bed-hopping was wildly fashionable among the privileged country house weekend set. (Both of her maternal grandparents preferred men but dabbled on occasion with women.)
The outré ménage-à-trois at Faringdon inspired frenzied gossip in polite society, which escalated to a fever pitch when the new Mrs. Heber-Percy gave birth to a baby girl, Victoria, (Sofka's mother), thrusting Lord Berners into the improbable role of beneficent grandfather.
The marriage began to founder when Robert ceased paying any sexual attention to his bride, locking himself in his bedroom. Furious, Jennifer decamped for London, baby in tow, leaving behind a fish-shaped handbag, which remains on a drawing room chair, exactly where she left it.
Before Jennifer's departure, Beaton captured the quixotic assembly in a classically inspired black-and-white portrait that shows Robert standing in a heroic pose in the drawing room, holding the newborn child, flanked by his elderly male lover and beautiful bride (who would claim, years later, while in the grips of senility, that the Mad Boy was not the baby's father, though she couldn't remember who was). Nothing about this charming image seems to hint at the rancor that followed.
In 1972, Robert was enraged when Beaton published a volume of his diaries in which he intimated that the Mad Boy had failed to be attentive to Berners during his terminal illness. Embittered by this suggestion, and by the public humiliation, when he ran into Beaton at an elegant party in London two years later, he punched the 70-year-old photographer on the chin with what Beaton described as "a maniacal fury." Beaton fell, banging his head, and later suffered a debilitating stroke. When the venerable royal photographer died six years later, many of Beaton's friends believed he had been killed by the Mad Boy.