Picture if you will what I must have been like in the fall of 1970. I had come across The Pond from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was enrolled as a student at Harvard, and as soon as I arrived in Oxford, I was swept up into the happiest of situations.
Literally minutes after I hit Oxford, I knew at once like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. My dear friend William Powers Ingoldsby picked me up at the train station, scrutinized me carefully, then he flung out his instructions like a general barking orders. “Your hair must get cut! Your clothes are suburban American and absolutely unacceptable! You need black tie for a party I’m taking you to tonight.”
The race was on. Could money and just a little time succeed in taking away the paltry East Coast veneer and turn me into an English gentleman? What a challenge! Oh yes, and one more thing. He handed me a copy of “Brideshead Revisited” (1945) by Evelyn Waugh. In this book, a classic, Lord Sebastian Flyte tootles around Oxford in an ultra chic sport coupe accompanied by his teddy bear Aloysius, for all the world to see, lounging in the back seat of the car… giving appropriate levels of greeting to his particular friends, snubbing the rest.
Ingoldsby looked at me upon arrival and demanded “Where is your teddy bear?” I was abashed. Having been somewhat spruced up, I was taken to the residence of Mrs. Margaret Macmillan. As a distant cousin, she took it upon herself to tutor me in the why’s and wherefore’s of a system designed to be esoteric and eccentric. Yes, designed to trip up all those who could not maneuver all the arcane boundaries and conditions.
Upon arrival at Mrs. Macmillan’s residence, we found a summer collation was awaiting. A few minutes thereafter, I had a vision which has remained with me always. Her name was Lady Harriet Bligh, daughter of the Right Honourable Earl of Darnley, in the 3rd creation.
She was lovely, absolutely lovely and I adored her on sight, not just for how she looked, but how she talked. All good aristocrats specialize in creating language that hoi polloi can never master. She swung into the dining room like a perfume touched breeze, expecting to be noticed, expecting to be loved, and I loved her on sight.
Lady Harriet, however, did not have eyes only for me. “I’ve just come back from Rome,” she trilled. “I lived with three gay boys in an apartment on the Spanish Steps. It was such fun… the parties never stopped.” I was now smitten, sure that I would never see anything more beautiful in face or words than she was.
Mrs. Macmillan pulled me up sharp. I was not there to pick up aristos. I was there at her behest, so that she could teach me about The Family.
Thus my hostess began moving quickly to her insights into my distant cousin Harold Macmillan (1894-1986). He was the head of the family Macmillan and had fulfilled an exalted destiny. He had served over and over again in top government offices, including Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and more, moving steadily up the ladder towards 10 Downing Street.
Finally, in 1957, he became Prime Minister, serving until 1963 when medical problems intervened. It is stated that he had a prostate problem, which may or may not have been benign. In any event, he stepped down when he did not need to do so. Upon his retirement, he became the Earl of Stockton… the last British Prime Minister to receive a hereditary peerage.
His achievements were laudable and universal. For instance, on February 3rd, 1960 before the South African parliament in Cape Town, he gave what became known as the “Winds of Change” speech. In it, he told the world that the winds of change were blowing over Africa with such turbulence that the British Empire was destined, and quickly too, to melt away, as the independence of Ghana had already shown in 1957. And that, as a result, the great colonial enterprises of France, Portugal, and Belgium would soon be gone.
It was one of the most important speeches ever given to humankind. For Harold Macmillan was saying most of all that this great transfer of power involving millions of people could be done without massacres, massive dislocations, or rancor; that it could be done, and honorably for all concerned.
Mrs. Macmillan touched on the high points of Cousin Harold’s achievements, but what she particularly expatiated on in a whisper with a touch of malice was the scandalous menage of Macmillan’s wife, Lady Dorothy Cavendish (1900-1966), Robert Boothby (1900-1986, later Baron), and himself, the cuckold.
Nothing shows us more clearly the difference between England and America than how this top level affair was handled for utmost discretion, minimal public notice, and embarassment.
Lady Dorothy Cavendish came from the richest family of the English aristocracy. Her father was the 9th Duke of Devonshire. The noble house had started on its way through the astute manipulations of Bess of Hardwick, one of the shrewdest women in history. Bess often married, always game for another matrimonial knot, so long as the lands that accompany the deal were broad, fertile, and rich.
Over the course of centuries, the Cavendishes gobbled all. Their touch was infallible. The grandeur of their possessions, breathtaking. The Cavendishes had everything, and thought they always would have. Like many women in such positions, her actions were more like a man’s than a woman’s, and when she wanted something, she got it.
What she wanted during this period of her life was the amorous embraces and caddish behavior of Robert Boothby. He might have been Prime Minister himself. However, he preferred Lady Dorothy’s adulterous clutches, but not to the extent of eschewing a string of macho men. Of these, the principal was Ronald Kray, a gangster who (allegedly) supplied Boothby with young men and arranged orgies in Cedra Court, receiving personal favours from Boothby in return. What a muddle.
So let us be sure we understand the players and their complicated relationship to each other… a description like this certainly helps. First, there was Cousin Harold, of the internationally known publishing house Macmillan, the family business. Then, the almost fantastic jump for this descendant of impoverished Scottish crofters to the perfumed sheets and ostentation of Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the only daughter of the 9th Duke.
Thence to her indiscriminate paramour Robert Boothby, who was called “the Palladium”, because “he was twice nightly.” He was gifted with prodigious energy, and no discretion whatsoever. He brought into the picture Ronald Kray, gangster and the good friend who happily took time from his illegal endeavors to assemble a daisy chain of young males whose high spirits always made Boothby happy. In return, Kray received personal favors from Boothby.
Error or destiny
Mrs. Macmillan, British lady, would not, I know, have pulled back so much of the veil. Her task was to see what kind of Macmillan I was, not to dig deep in the cesspit of aging lovers and their startling concupiscence. Was I to be a member in good standing of the Macmillan clan, or just a young man who passed on the horizon en route to another destiny altogether?
That’s when I had to make a life changing decision. You see, I was in those dim distant days English to the very core, quaffing her culture, her manners, her mores, every aspect of her affairs, glorious or tawdry. And in this euphoria, I ran for the most important office in the Student Representative Council in St. Andrews, Scotland, where I resided for a year in 1968. That post was representing The Faculty of Arts, the largest part of the University.
My victory was astonishing and overwhelming, and immediately opened the discussion about whether I should become a British subject. I knew I could gain election to the House of Commons. And being an American, I knew I should become a national figure in record time. What should I do?
The pressure only increased when I was elected to the Scottish Conservative Party Conference, another feather in my cap. It is hard for me today from this distance from the event to know just how I felt. But I know this: I might so easily have become a Member of Parliament, even a peer of the realm. Heady thoughts, indeed.
Of course, I went back to America where in short order I graduated from Harvard University with a history degree, well aware that I might have made my own history. Sadly, I never met Harold Macmillan, which would have been so easy to do. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment… but there was some residual shyness which I must acknowledge, though I do not like the notion at all.
However, Cousin Harold entered my life yet again in a very interesting way. After he became Prime Minister in 1957, he appointed Margaret Thatcher to her first ministerial portfolio as the Parliamentary Undersecretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. It launched her on her startling world career.
When Britain went to war against Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982, she called upon her mentor, Harold Macmillan, to advise her on how to make war. He did. She did. The victory made her.
That I think was the reason why, when I was invited to the unveiling of her official statue for the House of Commons and told her Harold Macmillan was my cousin, she drew herself up to her full height of 5’5″, straight and unyielding as a ramrod, only to say “He gave me my first ministry,” a pronouncement followed by a kiss… and may I say, it was not a kiss of symbolism or politeness, but a true kiss, immediately followed by her pulling my head to her shoulder.
The hundreds of people at the London Guild Hall could not believe their eyes, for the Iron Lady’s kiss she gave was not the kiss of peace, but a true and authentic one. I owed it to Harold Macmillan.
All of this came back to me today when I placed my newest Macmillan object. It is a thank-you note from Harold Macmillan and the now Lady Dorothy Macmillan, dated April 21, 1920, their wedding day.
The frame I selected for this marvelous piece was purchased at Shreve, Crump, & Low in Boston. The piece is autographed by two famous people committing to a marriage that was impossible for either to keep, and which was only maintained because of the acute discretion and care of the British political and newspaper establishment. It’s a beautiful little piece, don’t you think, a gem?
I was lucky to find this double autographed memento of two people connected through the vicissitudes of DNA to me, the guardian of this dazzling, lustrous objet d’art. It all came alive for me today, when I looked at this splendid piece and thought how completely unpredictable destiny and deoxyribonucleic acid can be.
The music I have chosen for this piece is “Bye Bye Love” (1957), written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and performed by the Everly Brothers. Its lyrics are telling no matter your social standing.
“Bye bye love
Bye bye happiness, hello loneliness
I think I’m-a gonna cry-y
Bye bye love, bye bye sweet caress, hello emptiness”
About the author
Harvard educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is well known internationally for his trenchant and lyric articles, now over 1,000 in print, along with 61 books. He brings you inside the story and makes often dull events come alive with color and significance. Be sure to sign up for his list so that you can receive regular information and special offers. You can do so by going to www.drjeffreylant.com.