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The Countess of Avon at 100 Clarissa Churchill Makes a Century

By HUGO VICKERS

The Countess of Avon (Clarissa Eden, née Churchill) reached the great age of 100 on 28 June, a remarkable milestone. Due to continuing pandemic lockdown, no great party was possible, only a small lunch in her apartment arranged by her niece. A birthday card was sent by Her Majesty The Queen, and flowers were sent by the International Churchill Society. The niece of Sir Winston Churchill is the oldest ever member of the family.

Even the Forces Sweetheart, Dame Vera Lynn, who died on 18 June aged 103, did not go back as far into twentieth century history as Clarissa. As the well-connected niece of Winston, as a beautiful young girl, fiercely intelligent and well-read, she fascinated many of the great figures of the age including Evelyn Waugh, Lord Berners, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Nicolas Nabokov, Edith Sitwell, and Orson Welles. In the late 1940s Greta Garbo was intrigued by her. In 1952 she was prised from her high Bohemian world into the very centre of British politics when she married Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary and between 1955 and 1957 Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street. When he resigned due to ill health, she cared for him for twenty years. Only following his death in 1977 did she resume her earlier life of exhibitions, opera, theatre and travel.

Lady Avon is a Churchill, in name if not by temperament, the daughter of Winston’s brother, Jack, a stockbroker (in fact a partner of my own grandfather at Vickers, da Costa). Well educated, though largely self-educated by good reading, she studied philosophy in Oxford, was tutored by such luminaries as Isaiah Berlin, A. J. Ayer and Lord David Cecil. Later she worked for Alexander Korda and George Weidenfeld in the worlds of film and publishing.

As a young girl Clarissa was reserved and somewhat aloof—as she still is today. She could remain silent for hours at a time, taking the line: “I only spoke when I had something to say.” In war-bombed London, James Pope-Hennessy described her as looking “with her freshness and her swinging golden hair, like a Hans Andersen princess in a dungeon. It was hard to know what she was thinking. There is about her a withdrawn aloofness that just misses being haughty and widely misses being absurd. It is an unmodern quality, and I find it arresting…she demands, I think, a French background, the pillared elegance of the Second Empire, or the lofty saloons of Versailles to frame her to perfection.”  Lord Berners used her as a heroine in a novel: “She looked like a nymph in one of the less licentious pictures of Fragonard.” She was much admired, but she did not marry.

All this changed when, at the age of thirty-two, Clarissa became the wife of Anthony Eden. This gave her the chance to write in her memoirs—dismissively as is her style—of the great political figures of her day. She described Khruschev as “frightening, pale and bullet-headed, like a Russian peasant”; Bulganin was, “‘like a professor, full of chit-chat”; and Molotov “jaundiced and bourgeois, with his pince-nez.” She was disappointed by President Eisenhower: “charmless! I had imagined someone live and dapper, with strength and repose, but he was heavy, hearty and bland”; but she liked his wife, Mamie, “perfectly natural, she had no side whatever.”

Her time in Downing Street was encapsulated in her famous comment, “In the past few weeks I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room.” This was said in a rare political speech at Gateshead on 20 November 1956, but picked up and widely reported. Latterly she conceded that “drawing room” was perhaps unfortunate.

In her memoirs, she was annoyingly restrained about Harold Macmillan, who succeeded Eden as Prime Minister: “Harold Macmillan played no personal role in my life, either before or during the Suez Crisis, though inevitably I formed an assessment of his character from the wings.” When Macmillan visited Lord Avon in retirement in Wiltshire, she would meet him at Salisbury Station and drive him to Alvediston “in as much silence as possible.”

Her main loves are art and opera, she loved to travel and, though not one for discomfort, she would endure any amount of it to find an obscure chapel in Serbia. In later life she took up sub-aqua swimming, happily enjoying life in deep waters. Though she read serious classics, she took an unexpected enjoyment in soap operas like Dallas, greatly entertained by the antics of J. R. Ewing and Cliff Barnes with their huge Stetson hats, talking about their “Daddies.”

What I particularly like about her is what I call her “positive negativity.” It is sometimes possible to work out what she is thinking without her saying it. There was a sequence on television when she was taken round Ten Downing Street to see it as decorated in the days of the Blairs. Her quizzical inspection and her bemused silence as she observed the “latest improvements” spoke volumes.

I have been lucky to know Clarissa for forty years, getting to know her in Wiltshire when at work on the biography of her friend and neighbour, Cecil Beaton. A great many people bore her, but I think she takes a wry enjoyment from that. I remember her one evening in Patmos (1983) after a dinner, when she said, “I think we have exhausted the social possibilities of this evening, don’t you?”—a more elegant way of saying it was time to go.

For some years she has been aware that her memory was not all it once was. Like many of her age, she has good days and bad. But she can still give wonderfully sharp responses. Last year Jennie Churchill introduced me to Catherine Katz, a contributor to Finest Hour, in the hope that she could interview Clarissa for her forthcoming book Daughters of Yalta about Sarah Churchill, Kathleen Harriman, and Anna Roosevelt. I had to tell Catherine that it was too late as Clarissa had reached a point when she really did not remember—though on a good day she could surprise you. There was no harm in their meeting, however, so along we went.

Catherine began by asking: “What was it like living in Ten Downing Street?”

“Did I?” Clarissa replied—one of those days then, not a good start.

Catherine persevered. Presently she asked Clarissa: “You must have known Averill Harriman?”

Clarissa lay back in bed: “I always thought he was the most frightful bore!” One of the heros of Catherine’s book bit the dust.

There is so much more to be said, but in the meantime I salute the oldest ever Churchill in the family.

Hugo Vickers’ most recent book is The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon—Duchess of Marlborough (Hodder and Stoughton, 2020).

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