Daughter of Empire
My father could trace his roots back to the ninth century. Through forty-one generations, he was able to recount the lives of our ancestors—royalists, rebels, and saints. He never tired of telling me that it was extremely rare for a family to be able to cite two canonized antecedents. “The first,” he would say proudly, “goes way back to the thirteenth century. St. Elisabeth of Hungary was a gracious princess who secretly gave alms to the poor. Her husband didn’t approve of this and, one morning, ordered her to remove the cover of her basket. And”—I loved the ending of this story—“her forbidden bread had miraculously turned into roses.
“The other was your great-aunt Ella, Grand Duchess Serge of Russia, who, following her husband’s assassination, became a nun and worked tirelessly among the poor and sick of Moscow. In 1918, when she, the chief nun, three young princes, a grand duke, and a lady-in-waiting were thrown down a mine shaft by the Bolsheviks—along with a few hand grenades for good measure—witnesses heard her clear sweet voice singing ‘Hail Gentle Light’ and other hymns of fortitude to her fellow victims. Before she died, she tore up her nun’s veil to provide bandages for the princes’ wounds.”
Now known as St. Elisabeth of Romanova, my great-aunt
is one of twelve modern saints preserved in sculpture above the West Door of Westminster Abbey. It was hard to keep track of my father’s long line of relatives, but as he loved lists and charts and stories, he was always ready to bring them to life. For many generations his ancestors had been rulers of the Grand Duchy of Hesse in Germany, a landlocked territory far from the coast. It was his father, Prince Louis Alexander of Battenberg, who changed all that and altered the course of the family’s path. In 1868, at the tender age of fourteen, beset by dreams of a seafaring life, he surprised everyone by announcing that he was leaving home to set sail. In fact he was so determined to become part of the “greatest navy in the world” that he took British citizenship, eventually rising to the top job of First Sea Lord and Admiral of the Fleet. He didn’t cut off his ties with Europe completely, though, falling in love with his cousin Princess Victoria of Hesse, a sparky, independent-minded granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who was related to most of the royal courts in Europe. In those days it wasn’t always an advantage to have family members scattered across Europe, and during the First World War his mother found herself on opposite sides to her brother and sister. Luckily, my father always said, while patriotism was intense, it never undermined strong family affections.
My grandparents married in 1884 and lived variously in England, Germany, and Malta. My father, also Prince Louis of Battenberg but known as “Dickie,” was born in 1900, the youngest of four children. The aging Queen Victoria held him at his christening and he wriggled so much that he got her full square in the face with a fist and a foot, knocking off her spectacles. He always told me that at only a few weeks old, he couldn’t possibly have known he was to be “seen and not heard” while in the queen’s arms.
My father was blessed with enlightened parents. His mother in particular thought that children should not only be seen and very much heard but that they should also be exposed to new ideas and the classics. She kept meticulous records of the books she read and was always keen to try new experiences. Passionate about cartography, she worked for many years on a detailed geological map of Malta, participated in archaeological digs, and rather daringly, scooping up my father to provide the required extra weight, flew in a zeppelin airship and a very early model of a biplane, even though, as she said, “it was not made to carry passengers and we perched securely on a little stool holding on to the flier’s back.” Coming from a line of progressive thinkers, she taught my father herself until he was ten years old, gifting him an education that was thorough and polymathic. She taught him to be open-minded, methodical, and thorough, and above all encouraged him to enjoy learning, to inquire. Later, when I got to know my grandmother, I could see how entirely free of prejudice she was, how interested she was in all that was around her, and just how much of an influence she had had on my father’s refreshing way of viewing the world. She was to be an inspiring force in my life.
A month before his tenth birthday my father was sent to Lockers Park prep school in Hertfordshire, and two years later he entered the Royal Naval College at Osborne. As war became inevitable, at the beginning of 1914, his German-born father was forced to retire from the Admiralty as first sea lord because of the anti-German hysteria at large in the country, scurrilous newspaper headlines whipping people up into a frenzy of hatred. My grandfather resigned, even though the navy was solidly behind him, and this episode had a profound effect on my father, who vowed to succeed to the
position of his wronged father. Then, during the war, when King George V decreed that the royal family should anglicize their name, choosing Windsor, my grandfather changed his from Battenberg to Mountbatten. The king created him the Marquess of Milford Haven, having offered him the title of duke, but, practical to the last and looking around him at the grandeur of the English nobility, he calculated that as his savings had been decimated in the German economic downturn, he simply didn’t have the wealth that would be expected of him with that rank: an English duke had to maintain a grand style of life. My father also ceased to be the younger Prince Louis of Battenberg and received the courtesy title of Lord Louis Mountbatten.
During the First World War, my father joined Lord Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion as a midshipman, and later he was appointed first lieutenant of a small ship, HMS P31, and for a time, aged only eighteen, he found himself in command of a crew of sixty. Through Princess Mary my father contrived that King George V should come on board during the Peace Pageant on the Thames. He saluted smartly as the monarch came aboard. “Hello, Dickie,” said the king jovially, “how’s Chicken Bella?” The fact that his sovereign remembered the stupid doll he had had as a two-year-old mortified the nineteen-year-old second in command and exposed him to remorseless teasing.
The Admiralty now sent the “war babies” who had been unable to complete their education to Cambridge University, and my father went with both Prince Albert and Prince Henry. They all led a wildly social life, falling in and out of love between studying. Tall, with the good looks of a Hollywood film star, my father was very much in demand. He was also in demand from the royal household, accompanying the Prince
of Wales—the future King Edward VIII—as his personal aide-de-camp, on tours including Australia and, later, India and Japan.
Grace Kelly once confided that she had always kept a photograph of my father before she met Prince Rainier. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, a fiercely rich American society hostess, nicknamed “the Kingfisher” for her relentless cultivation of European royalty, singled my father out as the perfect suitor for her only daughter. When she invited him to a tea party on her yacht off Cowes, my father was immediately smitten, falling helplessly in love at first sight. Only it wasn’t quite as Mrs. Vanderbilt had intended, for on board that afternoon was a gathering of young ladies, including Edwina Ashley, an effortlessly glamorous heiress, who had recently learned to stand with her hips pushed slightly forward, the very image of beau monde chic. With one hand on her slender hip, the charms of her gold bracelet glinting off the other in the sun, my father was at once dazzled and delighted. Although they had met a couple of times previously, they began to court in earnest, and when my father went to India with the prince, Edwina followed him, staying at the Viceregal Lodge. It became obvious to all that they were very much in love, so much so that the Prince of Wales lent them his sitting room so that my father could propose.
On 18 July 1922, they were married in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, tucked in the shadow of Westminster Abbey on Parliament Square. It was the most talked-about society wedding of the year, and when my mother walked out on the arm of her dashing husband, beneath a naval arch of swords, they were congratulated by a host of royals, including King George V, Queen Mary, and the Queen Mother, Alexandra. At the sumptuous reception, the Prince of Wales gave the best
man’s speech, following which my parents enjoyed a rather protracted honeymoon, traveling to France, Spain, Germany, and the States, where they stayed with Hollywood’s royalty, the king and queen of silent movies, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They even made a short silent home movie with Charlie Chaplin entitled Nice and Easy, in which Charlie played a rogue trying to steal the pearls of the heroine (my mother), who is rescued by her lover (my father). My mother’s performance showed suitable girlish alarm, my father’s acting was dreadful, and of course Charlie stole the show. Happily exhausted, they returned to Manhattan for the last days of their adventure, where they stayed as guests of the very game Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who bore no grudges.
Marriage, my father’s love, and a sense of her own destiny—this is just what my mother needed. Since her “coming out” she had been living with her grandfather, Sir Ernest Cassell, in his London home, Brook House, stoically hosting his large parties of elderly grandees and financiers, but his death in the year before her marriage had left my mother feeling empty, memories of her lonely childhood flooding back to her. Raised by a series of nannies and housekeepers in Broadlands, a large Palladian mansion near Romsey in Hampshire, Edwina and her younger sister, Mary, were mostly kept apart from their parents. Her mother, Maudie, suffered from consumption and, as her condition deteriorated, she spent more and more time away, particularly in Egypt. Their father, Wilfred, a Conservative MP, was rarely at home either, busy attending to his political duties. My mother’s early letters show how anxious she was to see her “darling mother” again. Having been misled by a well-intentioned suggestion from their governess, my mother believed that the reason for
their separation was that she was going to be a sister again, and she wrote to her mother at least twice expressing her and Mary’s desire to have a little brother. After a while the penny dropped and she tried to keep the desperation out of her letters, going out of her way to keep her tone upbeat. When Maudie finally returned to Broadlands, it was thought too upsetting for the children to witness their mother’s failing health, so they were sent away to a cousin. And even though my mother wrote several times with growing urgency and despair, pleading to see her mother again, she was never allowed to, and Maudie died in February 1911. My mother and Mary did not attend the funeral.
My mother was brave, hiding her emotions well, containing her sister, who became very difficult, throwing tantrums and creating scenes. It seemed that she was the only one who could calm Mary down, and forever after, she felt responsible for her younger sister’s safety and well-being. A subdued period of existence followed, during which time the girls learned to pour their bruised feelings into caring for a menagerie of domestic pets—puppies, ponies, rabbits, kittens, and a goat. For a brief while, their lives were cheered and enriched by the arrival of Laura Deveira, a loving young governess to whom the sisters became deeply attached, but just as they began to settle down and come out of their protective shells, their father presented them with a new stepmother and the world came crashing down again.
Molly Forbes-Sempill replaced their beloved Miss Deveira with a governess of her choice and sent the girls to bed every evening by half past six so they were “out of the way,” a phrase that deeply upset my mother. My mother and aunt were forbidden to pick a single flower from the garden from the moment she moved in, and Broadlands became a sterile
and difficult place in which to live. Eventually my mother went to school near Eastbourne—another lonely place for her—where the pupils took it in turns “hooking up Miss Potts,” a humiliating task involving wrestling with endless hooks and buttons in order to help the headmistress secure her dress each morning. Things improved little more when, aged eighteen, my mother was sent to a domestic science training college. It was while here that she vowed never to go back and live at Broadlands while her stepmother was alive. On leaving she went to live in London with her grandfather, Sir Ernest.
Life changed for the better when she met my father. They had both been recently touched by death—my father distraught at the loss of his father, my mother by the unexpected death of her grandfather—and initially they sought solace in each other. As time passed, however, and finally freed from her past, rich from her inheritance (which included Brook House), and happily in love, my mother found life opening up for her. This was the beginning of the “roaring twenties,” a time of exuberance and great optimism: jazz, dance, and liberating new styles. My mother was fashionably slender—she referred to herself as a “straight actress” with vital statistics of twenty-six all the way down—and she took full advantage of the freedom afforded to women now that bustles and corsets were obstructions of the past. She soon cut her hair short à la mode and kept it immaculately coiffed. As hemlines rose and shoes became more prominent, my mother had hers handmade in Paris, a pair in every color. This was the extravagant time in my parents’ lives—they had a cinema screen installed in Brook House and hosted regular parties at which princes, even kings and queens, could rub shoulders with the likes of Noël Coward, Cole Porter, and George
Gershwin. By playing it at her parties, my mother made “The Man I Love” an overnight hit in England after Gershwin told her how upset he was that it had flopped in the United States. She danced the Charleston with Fred Astaire, and the rumors that Queen Mary didn’t approve of this kind of behavior made the dancing all the more delicious.
If they weren’t entertaining at home, my parents went out to clubs, and it was only when they arrived that the party really got started. Once they had danced into the early hours, they would return to Brook House, music ringing in their ears, and collapse into bed. As was the fashion in those days, they kept separate bedrooms—my father’s decorated to look like a ship’s cabin, a porthole in the wall with an ingenious “view” of Malta built behind. He had designed the light switch himself so that when turned down it emitted a low hum, like that of a ship’s engine, and this helped him get to sleep. The walls were pale green and the carpet black, the bed was covered in a thick orange cotton quilt handwoven in Malta—this much I know because it would be the same wherever we lived thereafter. My mother slept next door between pink satin sheets with a swan’s-down quilt covered in pink ostrich feathers so that it appeared to float.
During the first months of their marriage, while my father was waiting for the completion of the ship to which he had been assigned, he and my mother continued to enjoy a busy social life, playing golf, lunching with friends, partying in the evenings. On the weekends, they would escape to Adsdean, a rented house, not far from Portsmouth, where they would entertain friends, take walks in the country, and show off their rather exotic collection of animals, which over time came to include a lion cub, two wallabies, a bush baby, and a coatimundi, a kind of anteater named Shnozzle. Being
rich and lavish in their hospitality in both town and country meant that they depended on a large body of staff, the majority of whom traveled up and down between London and Sussex in the staff bus.
They were certainly kept busy, seeing to the needs of the various guests, some of whom visited as often as my parents. Peter Murphy was a particular favorite, bringing laughter and fun into any room he entered. Peter ran a left-wing bookshop and once gave my mother a book on raising children that she never picked up but which my father devoured and tried to follow to the best of his abilities. Peter’s jacket and trouser pockets were always stuffed with newspaper and periodical cuttings that he would dish out to relevant recipients as if they were sweets. He was a brilliant thinker, engaging my parents and their various guests in pithy debates; he spoke several languages fluently, was famed for his hilarious mimicry, and could play any tune on the piano by ear.
Another regular visitor was Paula Long. She was a great beauty, painted by Augustus John and much photographed by Cecil Beaton. In the 1920s she wore white face powder and any “deb’s delight” worth his salt wanted to be seen to have white powder on his jacket shoulder, a sign that he had danced with her. Her married life was turbulent and she had an assortment of husbands: the Marquis de Casa Maury, a racing driver and founder of the Curzon Cinema, with whom she led a very social life; Bill Allen, a keen backpacker with whom she trekked across Europe; and Boy Long, a tea planter in Kenya, where she lived in the world of the “Happy Valley” set. Later, when my mother became serious and put these days behind her, Paula was the only friend she kept from this wild period of her life.
As time went on, my father’s naval duties often took him
away from my mother. She was bored alone—her childhood demons coming to haunt her—and so became increasingly reliant on her loyal “ginks” or admirers for entertainment. She began to collect young men in a way that raised many eyebrows. Now that she had control over her life, this kind of chase became exciting. Of course, the ramifications were messy and complex—when my father first heard that my mother had taken a lover, he was devastated, but eventually, using their reserves of deep mutual affection, my parents managed to negotiate a way through this crisis and found a modus vivendi. On a lighter note, my mother’s social life presented the staff with its own problems. Brook House was large, but even it could not provide enough rooms to ensure that no young man was aware of the others. When my mother returned from shopping one day she was met with “Mr. Larry Gray is in the drawing room, Mr. Sandford is in the library, Mr. Ted Philips is in the boudoir, Señor Portago in the anteroom, and I don’t know what to do with Mr. Molyneux.” It was my father’s complete lack of jealousy and total desire for my mother’s happiness that made their marriage work.
My mother longed to see the world. From an early age, possibly symptomatic of a repressed desire to flee her childhood, she had slept with a pocket atlas by her bed. So when my father’s job afforded her the opportunity to travel, she caught the bug. From then on, she was often away for long periods and for a while was not in England for more than a few weeks at a time. Even in 1924, when my sister, Patricia, was born, she partied in the South of France, leaving her baby daughter at home at just a month old. It seemed that she couldn’t stop herself indulging in this hedonistic way of life, the endless adventure and travel that so thrilled her.
Fortunately my father was devoted to his new baby daughter from the moment she was born, a bond that was to last his lifetime and one that would extend to include me.
My birth caused a good deal of trouble. When my father’s tour of naval duty in Malta came to an end, my parents and two naval friends set off for five days in Morocco. My mother, normally so sprightly, was pregnant with me, although it hardly showed. When my father had asked his C in C for some time off he had been told, “Pull the other one, Dickie! Don’t try that old sailor’s excuse with me; I only danced with your wife last night!”
From Morocco, they crossed to Gibraltar so my father could return to his ship, HMS Revenge, for combined maneuvers of the Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets. Never one to miss out, my mother had made plans for the time he was away: the chauffeur had driven her beloved Hispano-Suiza H6 from England and, roaring out of town, in the front seat, in neat cloche hat, dark glasses, flawlessly rouged lips, and bright red nails, she felt on top of the world. As they climbed the mountains towards Málaga, however, the twists and turns left my mother feeling sick and exhausted, as did the train journeys onward through to Madrid and Barcelona. Finally making her weary way to the polo club to meet up with my father, who had come to join her and play in a tournament, she was all but finished off. After the match my parents went straight to their suite at the Ritz. In the early hours of Friday, 19 April 1929, my mother awoke with severe contractions. I was on my way.
Despite my father’s best efforts, the hotel could only find an ear, nose, and throat specialist to help them. In desperation my father telephoned his cousin Queen Ena, in Madrid. She was away, but King Alfonso answered. “We’re having a
baby,” exclaimed my father. The king, a great womanizer, got the wrong end of the stick and replied, “Oh, my dear Dickie, I won’t tell anyone.” “Tell everyone!” implored my father. “It’s my wife. Edwina’s having the baby.” “Leave everything to me,” said the king, and rang off. Within half an hour the Royal Guard had the hotel surrounded. In the meantime a doctor had been found and dispatched to the local hospital to secure the necessary equipment and an English nurse, who appeared “like an angel” and administered chloroform to deaden the pain my mother was experiencing. Downstairs, the doctor had returned from the hospital with an ominously large bag, but he rushed with such steely determination towards the entrance of the hotel that he was promptly arrested by the Royal Guards.
My mother was by now hemorrhaging, so was unaware of the events that began to unfold beyond the hotel walls with the slapstick absurdity of one of my father’s favorite Buster Keaton movies. As the commotion in and around the hotel reached fever pitch, in Nice my parents’ great friend Peter Murphy had been roused at dawn by my father’s anguished phone call. He grabbed his driver and set off immediately. They drove nonstop for twenty-four hours, Peter telling endless stories to keep his driver awake, something that eventually began to tax even his brilliant skills as a raconteur, not to mention his driver’s ability to remain attentive for so long.
In the early hours of the morning Peter and his driver finally entered Barcelona at such speed that they crashed, yards from the hotel, into a tram. Panting and bleeding, Peter hotfooted it up the stairs of the Ritz and burst into the room, shaken but triumphant. As heads turned away from my mother, someone shouted at him to “get off the carpet.”
Then all eyes turned back to me. I had arrived safely and
was wrapped in a beautifully embroidered layette that had been brought in by some local nuns. I lay in a crib made from a little dog basket: a solitary, happy presence, blissfully unaware of the noise and tumult of the family life into which I had just been delivered.