From The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Stravinsky (who was a supporter) wanted to find a substitute for ‘God Save the Tsar!’ to play at his performances and to offer to the Bolsheviks. Though far from being politicised, let alone anybody’s idea of a revolutionary, it was Gerald who worked through the night with Stravinsky to help orchestrate the ‘Song of the Volga Boatrnen’.“ It was never used by the Soviets, but the exiled Russian composer went on playing it as a national anthem at his concerts.
Since the outbreak of the war, Stravinsky had been based with his family in Switzerland and in 1916 Gerald went to visit him there in the hope of musical advice. The thirty-four-year-old Russian was willing to act as a musical mentor to the thirty-three-year-old Englishman, and their correspondence illustrates their increasing familiarity, opening with, ‘Dear Friend’, ‘Dear Friend Tyrwhitt’, and Gerald signing off as ‘Your devoted Gerald Tyrwhitt’. Gerald’s penchant for pranks and jokes was already in evidence when he sent Stravinsky one of his characteristically doctored postcards a painting of Brahms that was adjusted so he was surrounded by naked women and clouds. The caption reads: ‘Why all of these nude women? I was always assured that Brahms was chaste.’
Jean Cocteau, like Gerald, was a man of varied talents who was in danger of being seen as a dandified dilettante. The apparent simplicity and succinctness of their work did not always endear them to cultural heavyweights. Gerald liked his compositions (and other people’s) to be entertaining, even escapist; nothing too long or too serious was permitted. As he wrote in his novel Far From the Madding War, ‘The English have a tendency to judge art by size and weight.’ In his work, he always aimed for brevity, and frequently levity not to mention parody. According to his future friend and collaborator, the composer Constant Lambert, Gerald ‘was the first to introduce into music the Max Beerbohm type of sophisticated satire, a mordant wit combined with classicism of style’.
Gerald's composition ‘L’Uomo dai bafli’ (“The Man with the Moustache’) was performed by Casella at a marionette show in the Teatro dei Piccoli in Rome perfect for Gerald's love of playfulness. A somewhat provocative part of the puppet ballet was the ‘Trois petites marches funébres’, consisting of three marches for a statesman, a canary, and an aunt leaving an inheritance. The humorous, even subversive approach to death was daring. This was an era when lengthy mourning periods and swathes of black crepe were still the rule, and though the canary’s march is genuinely sorrowful, the other two are obstinately cheerful. But Gerald had long seen the potential in gallows humour. As a child, he was said to have written a funeral dirge for his mother, who had been amused enough to ask him to perform it as a party piece. Mixing the pathos of the small bird’s demise with the pomp of the politician’s was typical of Gerald’s naughty wit, and while the statesman could be seen as representing his father’s formality and officialdom, the canary reflects both his and his mother’s love of birds.
Both Gerald and the Mad Boy bore the legacy of their Shropshire gentry backgrounds; they could both dress impeccably and liked a well-run house and good manners. It would be easy to assume that the Mad Boy was the one who brought an anarchic streak to their cohabitation, but actually it was sometimes Robert who introduced the county conventionality that bored Gerald. After all, it was Gerald who had a lifelong fascination with masks and fancy dress and who wrote modern music and cultivated artistic, avant-garde friends. While Robert loved fine clothes and would often mismatch his colours to produce a clownish, dandy effect, he was not intrigued by the grotesque and the peculiar like Gerald. Once, when Robert was entertaining some dull hunting friends in the drawing room, Gerald made himself scarce so he would not have to talk to them. Then, realising he needed a book from the shelves, he pulled a large hearth-rug over himself and, as if disguised as a strange animal, crawled into the room, proceeded to the bookcase, reached up a hand to take the required volume and crawled out again. One can only imagine the guests’ conversations after they had departed. When Robert later asked Gerald why he had done it, he responded, "I didn't want to draw attention to myself".
The drawing room was divided into two parts with the larger section papered white and filled with gilded French and ltalian furniture. The other, smaller end was olive green, ‘providing a perfect background for a riot of tropical birds, some alive and hopping about, some stuffed in cases, some pressed, like flowers in a screen, some modelled in china, one jumping with a song out off a gold box, and hundreds between the green morocco covers of Mr Gould’. There could never be enough birds for Gerald, and he introduced flamingos, storks and other gaudy feathered creatures that strutted around the gardens and into the house. Guests were amused to find that ‘odd, large-beaked birds wandered through the Georgian silver on the Chippendale dining-table, peeked in one’s plate or left squarking horribly on some guest’s head’. Plumed birds-of-paradise brought flashes of unfamiliar colours to the subdued palette of the English countryside as they patrolled the house or sat, preserved in fixed poses, beneath glass domes. One of Gerald’s favourite pets was a flashy green member of the Paradisaeidae family who he named John Knox, honouring the sixteenth-century Scottish Protestant in a way that would have appalled him. Gerald claimed that once, when he was laid up in bed with lumbago, he entertained himself by teaching the bird to turn somersaults. When the pet died, Gerald placed a notice in The Times personal column: ‘Died of jealousy, aged fifteen, John Knox, emerald bird-of-paradise belonging to Lord Berners. His guests are asked to wear half-mourning.’
It was an inspired day when Gerald decided to help nature along in the decoration department. According to Robert, Gerald read about dyeing doves in a Chinese book.
Earlier in 1934, Gerald had written ‘A Fascist March’ for the piano; apparently Diana thought he might come up with something nice for the Blackshirts to march to. The first eight bars were published in the Daily Express and nothing more is known of it. It is hard to imagine that Gerald could have done this with an entirely straight face, as his music nearly always contained jokes, parody and a lightness that is inimical to the tenets of Fascism. But what with Mussolini’s boys strutting about all over Rome (where Gerald wrote the piece) and Mosley being flavour of the year in England, perhaps he really did do his little bit. After all, plenty of political thinkers took Mosley seriously at the start. What does appear to have been a joke was Gerald’s claim to have had lunch with Hitler, though the evidence is highly contradictory. It is true is that Gerald and Robert were in Munich in the late summer of 1935, where they spent most days with Diana and Unity, whose growing obsession with the Fuhrer was most amusing to Gerald. William Crack said he drove Gerald to a restaurant where Hitler was dining, and Robert (whose version is probably less reliable) claimed that Gerald dined with Hitler and that he was invited for coffee. According to the Mad Boy, the English lord and the German dictator discussed composition. Hitler mentioned ‘his own composer’ (never identified) who was not in favour, and said: ‘I thought of sending him up in an aeroplane,’ presumably with the implication that he would not be coming back.
Nancy Mitford satirised their movement in her 1935 novel Wigs on the Green. Unity (who was over six foot tall) is portrayed as ‘England’s largest heiress’, Eugenia Malmains. Mosley is the Captain, who must be obeyed in all things. The innocent, passionate Eugenia stands on a washtub on a village green, calling ‘in thrilling tones . . . “Britons, awake! Arise! Oh, British lion! . . . [the] Union Jack Movement is a youth movement . . . We are tired of the old.” Eugenia has a dog called the Reichshund, after Bismarck’s dog, and a horse named Vivian Jackson. Diana was outraged, Mosley furious and Nancy was banned from their house for years.
Gerald himself joked that while the tea parties of Sibyl Colefax were ‘a party of lunatics presided over by an efficient, trained hospital nurse’, those of Emerald Cunard were ‘a party of lunatics presided over by a lunatic’.‘ Of course, there were those who claimed that Gerald himself offered more to this type of gathering than he took. Osbert Sitwell wrote, ‘In the years between the wars, Berners did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing rooms, as well as through the lightest, he moved, dedicated to their conversion, a sort of missionary of the arts, bringing a touch of unwanted fun into many a dreary life fun perhaps all the more funny for its being unwanted." Gerald was the perfect guest for these ladies ~ accomplished, titled and witty. His increasingly notorious eccentricity only added a dash of welcome spice to the mix.
Certain commentators claimed there was no comparing the two grandes dames. While Lady Cunard’s witty intelligence sparked off truly interesting conversations, her rival, Lady Colefax (the ‘Coal Box’), was merely fixated with collecting famous names and didn’t know what to do with them when she got them. Harold Nicolson wrote of her formidable energy: ‘While London still slept round her, she would have written and addressed some sixty postcards and the telephone
would start shrilling before the postman dared.
About ten years older than Gerald, Emerald Cunard had started off life in America as Maud Burke. After marrying into the Cunard shipping family, she changed her name to the more sparkling Emerald, and managed through intelligence, charm and ambition to create an immensely successful salon at her home in Grosvenor Square. Her great talent was to mix writers, musicians and painters with politicians, soldiers and members of the British and European aristocracy. Smalk built, with birdy eyes and a small mouth, she had many lovers, including the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and the writer George Moore, both of whose work she promoted and inspired. Harold Nicolson caustically described her in later years as ‘looking like a third-dynasty mummy painted pink by amateurs’, and many said she neglected her skinny, kohl-eyed daughter Nancy, who made a name for herself as a provocative anti-racist and Civil rights activist, taking up with a Harlem- based jazz musician.
Though the Ladies Cunard and Colefax were always pleased to catch the biggest social fish, the Coal Box was an easier target for teasing. Sibyl Colefax was an interior decorator, founding Colefax and Fowler and adopting the traditional Georgian country house as her style. ‘Dark, sharp-featured, beady-eyed’, she was an inveterate snob: ‘Like a bunch of glossy red cherries on a hard straw hat,’ said Virginia Woolf. She had less money and panache than her American rival, and she was a notorious social climber, who would go to great lengths to ‘acquire’ the famous and the rich. But as Beverley Nichols admitted, ‘a woman who is neither nobly born, nor very rich, nor very beautiful, does not create a brilliant salon unless she has herself some brilliant qualities.’
Gerald quipped that when Sybil Colefax visited him in Rome and was given the room next to him, he got no sleep as ‘she never stopped climbing all night’.” In a thank-you letter following a 1945 weekend at Faringdon, the playwright Terence Rattigan continued the theme, imagining Sibyl’s social activities continuing beyond death, something, he joked, he himself could soon be responsible for if her hand turned gangrenous from a cut she had sustained when he helped her through a barbed-wire fence on a walk.* ‘By the way,’ he asked Gerald, ‘who do you think will be at her first dinner party in Paradise? Would she begin with Shakespeare, Disraeli, Mrs Siddens and a member of The Divine Family, or start lower down and work her way up?‘
Easy to caricature, the Coal Box provided inspiration for various pieces by Waugh etc.