Beautiful and Damned
Power, glamour, and the vagaries of transatlantic alliances.
Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Duff and Diana—the It Couple of the mid-20th century who would have had the scriptwriters at Masterpiece Theatre working nights and on weekends—were then ensconced at the British embassy in the war-ravaged city, and at the height of their glamour and fame. Duff’s great-great-grand-father was King William IV, whose two children by his wife the queen died in infancy, but whose 10 children by his mistress, the Irish actress called “Mrs. Jordan,” did not. The sixth of these, Duff’s great-grandmother, married the eighteenth Earl of Errol, and it was her granddaughter who became Duff’s mother, after his father, a society
Born in 1890, Duff went to Eton and Oxford, joined the Foreign Office in 1916 and the Grenadier Guards the year after, survived trench warfare and came home a hero, and resumed his career, becoming an intimate of Winston Churchill and a hero to the Churchill wing of the Tory party when he resigned his cabinet post in protest over the Munich agreement in 1938. In 1919 he had married Diana Manners, daughter of the Duchess of Rutland—though not of the Duke; her natural father was Henry Cust, a philandering man about Parliament—a free-spirited soul and ravishing beauty who supported him financially in his early political efforts by touring in a play, The Miracle, in Britain and the United States. Duff adored Diana, and was unfaithful to her from the very beginning—a state of affairs from which she first suffered, but came to tolerate, and then to abet, befriending many of her husband’s diversions and consoling them when the relationships came to their end.
“Duff and Diana enjoyed an unusual but functional relationship at the center of an extraordinary world of celebrities, writers, and intellectuals,” writes the younger Bill Patten. When her son once asked her how she endured Duff’s betrayals, she answered quite simply, “They all were the flowers. . . .I was the tree.” In time, Susan Mary became one of the flowers and a friend of Diana’s—so close that when Nancy Mitford wrote Don’t Tell Alfred, a satire loosely based on Diana, she wrote in Susan Mary as her abjectly devoted American friend.
As far as he knows, Bill Patten was conceived during a weekend at Ditchley, the country house owned by Sir Ronald Tree (second husband of Susan Mary’s girlhood friend, Marietta) in October 1947 while the elder Bill Patten was in a nursing home in London, two years after Diana had seated Susan Mary next to Duff at an embassy dinner, “an unusual honor for a twenty-seven year-old diplomat’s wife.” The consensus is that Susan Mary had been smitten by Duff—a hero, a writer, an intellect, and her beau ideal of a statesman—while he had been less so, calling her “sweet,” “charming,” and “most attractive,” but also maintaining that “it would be dishonest to pretend that I am madly in love.”
Throughout, Susan Mary and Duff went on adoring Diana, and all three remained devoted to the elder Bill Patten, she writing of Bill’s “unfailing kindness” and Duff of his reluctance to “cloud the happiness of what has seemed to me to be the perfect ménage.” To the younger Bill Patten, who said he would always think of the elder Bill as his father, the most unsettling part was the ongoing friendship, and the acquiescence of the elder Bill in it all.
At times, he blamed them for exploiting Bill’s weakness; at times, he blamed Bill for accepting it; at times, he respected Bill for his civilized attitude; at times, he wanted him to knock Duff Cooper out. “I feel a messy swell of emotions when I think about Bill’s response,” he confesses. “Sometimes I feel contempt, sometimes admiration. There is no clear or easy answer in my mind as to how Bill ‘should’ have reacted to my mother’s affair with Duff.”