Anne Clarissa Eden, Dowager Countess of Avon (née Spencer-Churchill; 28 June 1920) is the widow of Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon (1897–1977), who was British Prime Minister from 1955 to 1957. She married Eden in 1952, becoming Lady Eden in 1954 when he was made a Knight of the Garter, and then becoming Countess of Avon in 1961 on her husband's elevation to the peerage. She is also the niece of the prime minister Winston Churchill. Her memoir, sub-titled From Churchill to Eden, was published in 2007 under the name of Clarissa Eden.
She was born in 1920, the daughter of Major Jack Spencer-Churchill (1880–1947), the younger brother of Winston Churchill, by his marriage to Lady Gwendoline ("Goonie") Bertie (1885–1941), a daughter of the 7th Earl of Abingdon, who had been married in 1908. She is thus a niece of Winston Churchill, who was Prime Minister during the Second World War, and a granddaughter of Lord Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1886–87, and his wife the American society beauty Jennie Jerome. Her paternal great-grandfather was the 7th Duke of Marlborough and her maternal great-great-grandfather, the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, half-brother of the 2nd Marquess, who, as Viscount Castlereagh was Foreign Secretary during the Congress of Vienna of 1815 that followed the Napoleonic Wars.
Jack Churchill, born in 1880, became an army officer and served with distinction in the Boer War, after which he returned to civilian life, having been found a position as a stockbroker by the financier Sir Ernest Cassel. At the time this was considered an unsuitable career for a gentleman, and in 1907 his proposed marriage to the "vivacious" Lady Gwendoline had to be postponed because her mother thought him too poor. Though self-effacing and inoffensive, a good deal of unfounded rumour attached to him as a young man (as it did to much of the Churchill clan, although in some cases for better reason): among other things, it was suggested that his natural father was the fifth Earl of Roden (or, less plausibly, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Britain, Count Karl Kinsky) and that he had murdered Lord Percy, heir to the Duke of Northumberland, who had died in mysterious circumstances in 1909 and was whispered to have been the lover of Clementine Hozier, whom Winston Churchill married in 1908. It appears also that Winston had proposed marriage to Lady Gwendoline, who had turned him down in favour of his brother. In the 1920s, the mere fact that his brother was a stockbroker caused some awkwardness when Winston was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Jack Churchill fought again in the First World War and was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur.
Clarissa Spencer-Churchill's elder brothers were Johnnie (1909–1992), an artist, and Henry Winston (known as Peregrine) (1913–2002).
|Clarissa Spencer-Churchill, Lady Eden (Countess of Avon 1961)||Father: |
John Strange Spencer-Churchill DSO TD
|Paternal Grandfather: |
Rt. Hon. Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill
|Paternal Great-grandfather: |
John Winston Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough
|Paternal Great-grandmother: |
Lady Frances Vane-Tempest-Stewart
|Paternal Grandmother: |
Jeanette ("Jennie") Jerome
|Paternal Great-grandfather: |
|Paternal Great-grandmother: |
Lady Gwendoline Bertie ("Goonie") (married John Churchill 1908)
|Maternal Grandfather: |
Montagu Bertie, 7th Earl of Abingdon
|Maternal Great-grandfather: |
Montagu Bertie, 6th Earl of Abingdon
|Maternal Great-grandmother: |
|Maternal Grandmother: |
Gwendoline Mary Dormer
|Maternal Great-grandfather: |
Lt.-Gen. the Hon. James Charlemagne Dormer
|Maternal Great-grandmother: |
Ella Francis Catherine Alison
Clarissa Spencer-Churchill was born at her parents' house in the Cromwell Road, Kensington, London. She was educated at Kensington Preparatory School and then at Downham School, Hatfield Heath, a "fashionable boarding school ... orientated to horses", which she disliked and left early without any formal qualifications. Seventy years later she said she had also felt the need to get away from home – "I just wanted to get out from under the whole thing of being loved too much".
Paris, Tuscany and London (1937-9)
In 1937 Clarissa studied art in Paris. Her mother had asked the British Ambassador, Sir George Clerk, to keep a watchful eye on her, an unintended consequence of this being that she was taken under the wing of an Embassy press secretary who, with his wife, introduced her to a round of café society parties. Among the friends she made in Paris were the monocled Fitzroy Maclean, a future politician and adventurer who was then third secretary at the embassy, and the writer Marthe Bibesco. Together with two female contemporaries, she made a visit to the Folies Bergère, an unusual destination for sixteen-year-old girls, where the singer Josephine Baker, clad only in a circlet of bananas, became the first naked female body she had ever seen.
In the summer of 1937 Clarissa accompanied Julian Asquith (grandson of the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith) and his mother, Katherine, on a tour, mainly by third class rail, across the Apennines in the Tuscany region of Italy. Among other artistic treasures, she saw for the first time the fifteenth century frescos by Piero della Francesca at Arezzo, one of which, "The Queen of Sheba Adoring the Holy Wood" (c.1452), she nominated in 2010 as her favourite painting: "in an age of violence he went on painting clearly and calmly".
When Clarissa returned to London she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art. Around this time she displayed her individualism by acquiring a specially tailored trouser suit along the lines of those associated with the actress Marlene Dietrich after the latter's appearance in the film, Morocco (1930). 1938 was the future Lady Avon's "coming out" year and she was regarded as "one of the more notable débutantes" in a "vintage year for beautiful girls", but, having mixed with older and more sophisticated people in Paris, she seems to have disdained the circuit – since described by Anne de Courcy as "more or less naive seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds suddenly flung into a round of gaities" – and was never presented at Court. Another débutante of 1938, Deborah Mitford, later Duchess of Devonshire, recalled Clarissa Spencer-Churchill as exhibiting "more than a whiff of Garbo in a dress by Maggy Rouff of Paris".
Among those with whom Clarissa danced at that year's Liberal Ball was the future double agent Donald Maclean, who complained that she was too smart to be "a proper Liberal girl like the Bonham-Carters or the Asquiths". She also knew Guy Burgess, who fled to Russia in 1951 when he and Maclean were about to be unmasked as traitors. A 2015 biography of Burgess, a homosexual, contained claims that, encouraged by his Soviet "handlers", he had contemplated marriage to Clarissa. However, the latter, then aged 95, denied that they had been close. She described Burgess as "courteous, amusing, nice and good company", but said that he had been "standoffish" towards her and did not wish any friendship to develop.
In 1939 Clarissa spent another four months in Paris and in August of that year travelled to Romania as guest of the novelist Elizabeth Bibesco and her husband Antoine (Elizabeth's mother, Margot Asquith, having been left distraught at the conclusion of her daughter's visit to her in London earlier in the year). Clarissa only just managed to return to England – on one of the last flights out of Bucharest – before the start of the Second World War.
Second World War: Oxford and the Foreign Office
In 1940, encouraged by economist Roy Harrod, Clarissa went to Oxford to study philosophy, although not as an undergraduate because of her lack of qualifications. While there she became associated with, among other leading academics, Isaiah Berlin and Maurice Bowra. Lady Antonia Fraser, whose father, later Lord Longford, was a Fellow of Christ Church, has described her as "the don's delight". For a short while she was tutored by A. J. Ayer, a future Wykeham Professor of Logic known for his libidinous lifestyle, although his womanising was not apparently extended to her.
When Clarissa moved back to London, she decoded ciphers in the Communications Department of the Foreign Office, where her future husband was the Secretary of State from 1940 to 1945. One of her colleagues was Anthony Nutting, who in 1956 resigned from Eden's government because of his opposition to the Suez operation. For a time the future Lady Avon lived in a roof-top room at the Dorchester Hotel, which she obtained at a cut-price rate because of its vulnerability to bombing (although the building was a modern, steel-framed structure with extensive underground accommodation that was considered relatively safe during air raids).
After the war Clarissa Spencer-Churchill worked at London Films for the producer Sir Alexander Korda, who she thought made "terrible mistakes without really knowing what has happened", and as a reviewer for the fashion magazine Vogue. She met the actor Orson Welles, who became a dining companion, on the set of the film The Third Man (1949), and escorted actress Paulette Goddard, who played Mrs Cheverley in Korda's production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (1947), on a "rather wild trip" to Brussels. During the latter excursion Goddard expressed a wish to attend a pornographic show, but, although Korda's representatives made arrangements for this, she shied away when she and Clarissa, having climbed "a flight of shabby stairs", were greeted by two men in black suits.
Clarissa Spencer-Churchill also worked for the short-lived monthly magazine Contact, established by George (later Lord) Weidenfeld and edited by Philip Toynbee. Weidenfeld was keen to expand into book publishing and Contact, which appeared with a hard cover, offered a means of circumventing post-war paper quotas. Among those Clarissa persuaded to contribute to the magazine was the cookery writer Elizabeth David, whose recipes were to become very influential in the 1950s. Through Weidenfeld she also became a close friend of Marcus Sieff, later Chairman of the retailer Marks and Spencer.
As a result of this eclectic early career, she widened her circle of friends and contacts beyond those in society and politics with whom she already had close connections. As one of Anthony Eden's biographers put it, she was "equally at home in the worlds of Hatfield and Fitzrovia", while a reviewer of her memoir wrote that "few lives can have touched so many social worlds, or graced them so elegantly". Even so, Lady Avon did not impress everyone: after the future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met her at a Conservative Party ball in 1954, she wrote dismissively to her sister, "Mrs Anthony Eden received us. Really she is a most colourless personality".
Glimpses of Clarissa Spencer-Churchill's life as a single woman, for example, in diaries and other reminiscences, are quite extensive. Although she had indicated to the former Labour Member of Parliament Woodrow Wyatt that no memoir of her own would appear until after her death, a volume, edited by Cate Haste (Lady Bragg), was nevertheless published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 2007, and Phoenix brought out a paperback edition in 2008. In 2004 Haste had collaborated with Cherie Booth, wife of the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, to produce a biographical chapter about Lady Avon as part of a wider study of Prime Ministerial spouses. Clarissa Avon noted that after meeting Haste she realised that the latter's "enthusiasm and professionalism could make it happen".
A photograph on the dust jacket of her memoir, depicting a young, pensive Clarissa Spencer-Churchill, cigarette in hand, conveyed an alluring and slightly Bohemian image. The book was generally well received by critics and even generated an engaging "spoof" in the satirical magazine Private Eye ("In the early 1950s I married Anthony Eden, a politician of above average height, with a prominent moustache ..."). Historian Andrew Roberts described it as "the last great British autobiography of the pre-war and wartime era", while art critic John McEwen remarked on its "witty and elegant restraint".
Friends and acquaintances
Having lost both parents by her mid twenties, Clarissa Spencer-Churchill was comparatively independent for a young woman of her time. In later years she remarked to Woodrow Wyatt on "how much more restricted" girls were when she was young, while conceding that she herself had had her first affair at seventeen with a "man who was quite well-known and … still alive [in 1986]". She had many devoted admirers, an early "ardent suitor" being Sir Colville Barclay, briefly a diplomat and later a painter, who was stepson of Lord Vansittart, former permanent head of the Foreign Office.
Lady Avon was quoted by Wyatt as having told him that she had resisted the amorous advances of Duff Cooper, wartime Information Minister and British Ambassador in Paris 1944–47, who, thirty years her senior, had also been a friend of her mother: "I was the only woman who he never got more than a peck on the cheek from". She informed Cooper in 1947, following a weekend in the country with Anthony Eden, at which the only other guest was the French Ambassador to Britain, that Eden "never stops trying to make love to her". When Cooper was raised to the peerage (eventually choosing the title Viscount Norwich), he sought Clarissa's views as to a title – "Think, child, think ... Have you any suggestions? (not funny ones)" – and she was the recipient of the last letter that he wrote (from White's club) shortly before his death at sea on New Year's Day, 1954.
Among the future Clarissa Avon's many other friends, a number of whom were some years older than she, were the novelists Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, and Nancy Mitford (whose sister Deborah wrote of an encounter with Lady Avon some twenty years after they had been débutantes together that she "found her rather alarming"), painter Lucian Freud, and choreographer Frederick Ashton. When she was still in her teens James Pope-Hennessy modelled on her the character of Perdita in London Fabric (1939) and dedicated the book "To Clarissa". Gerald, Lord Berners used her as the basis of a character in his novel Far From the Madding War (1941), while photographer Cecil Beaton, 16 years her senior, treated her as a special confidante and introduced her to the reclusive Swedish actress Greta Garbo. The journalist and author Sofka Zinovieff has claimed that, after her grandmother, Jennifer Fry (of the Fry's chocolate family), separated in 1944 from her grandfather, Robert Heber-Percy, who was Lord Berners' closest friend, Clarissa and Cecil Beaton amused themselves by riffling through underclothes and love letters that Jennifer had left in a drawer at Berners' country home, Faringdon House, in Oxfordshire. A few years' later, while working at Contact, Clarissa became friends with the writer and journalist Alan Ross, who subsequently married Jennifer Fry.
Lady Avon thought the writer and horticulturalist Vita Sackville-West (whose husband, the politician and diplomat Harold Nicolson was a friend of her mother) "an interesting romantic figure", but felt "dunched" by her "remote and rather superior" manner. Visiting her at Sissinghurst some years later, she "thought the less of her" for troubling to provide, evidently in a hurry, table napkins that were still damp. Like Clarissa herself, many of her acquaintances frequented the bookshop Heywood Hill, next to the hairdresser Trumper's in Mayfair's Curzon Street, which, during the war was managed by Nancy Mitford and became a regular meeting place: according to Mitford's sister, Diana, Lady Mosley, "its ground floor room didn't just look like a private club, it very nearly was one".
Clarissa was a long-standing friend of Ann Fleming, wife of novelist Ian Fleming and lover of Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963, who had previously been married to Viscount Rothermere. In 1952, she and composer and playwright Noël Coward became godparents to the Flemings' son Caspar, who died of a drug overdose in 1975. In later years, as a widow, she was evidently close to the influential solicitor Lord Goodman. Another long-standing social acquaintance was Labour Minister Roy (later Lord) Jenkins, also a friend of Ann Fleming. Jenkins's official biographer chose, as an example of the broadly-based groups Jenkins would entertain at his home at East Hendred, a small party assembled there in March 1994 – Lady Avon, together with the architectural historian James Lees-Milne, Jenkins' publisher Roland Philipps and their wives.
Relationship with Anthony Eden
Clarissa Spencer-Churchill first met her future husband at Cranborne, Dorset (home of the future 5th Marquess of Salisbury) in 1936, when she was sixteen. He was already famous for his elegant attire and Homburg hat, and she was struck by Eden's unusual pinstriped tweed trousers.
There was some further contact during the war, by virtue of the circles in which she and Eden both moved and through her uncle Winston, who became Prime Minister in May 1940. As an illustration of her occasional proximity to the centre of power, between meetings of the War Cabinet on 30 May 1940, when the Dunkirk evacuation was at its height, Clarissa was present when Churchill lunched with her parents and the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Lady Avon has described this occasion as "a nightmare, with news of people's deaths coming in ...". After her mother's death in 1941, she stayed at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country home in Buckinghamshire.
R .A. Butler, then Minister of Education, recalled a dinner party in Eden's flat above the Foreign Office, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Attempting to defuse an argument between Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook about their respective motivation during the Abdication crisis of 1936, Clarissa Spencer-Churchill, just turned twenty-one, proclaimed with patent improbability that she had three favourites, King Edward VIII, King Leopold III of Belgium and the aviator Charles Lindbergh. (All three men, for various reasons, would not have appealed much to Churchill at that point in the war.)
Marriage to Eden
A more defined relationship with Eden, who was a married man 23 years older than Clarissa, developed gradually after they had sat next to each other at a dinner party in about 1947. Eden had been monopolised for much of the meal by a woman on his other side and afterwards, in an undertone, invited Clarissa out to dinner. In 1950 Eden was divorced from his first wife, Beatrice, née Beckett (1905–57). Although she was a Roman Catholic and her church was opposed to divorce, Clarissa Spencer-Churchill married Eden, who had become Foreign Secretary again in 1951, in a civil ceremony at Caxton Hall, London on 14 August 1952. This event drew large crowds, on a level with those earlier in the year for the wedding of film stars Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding, prompting Harold Macmillan, Minister of Housing, to note that "it's extraordinary how much 'glamour' he [Eden] still has and how popular he is". The wedding reception was held at 10, Downing Street, the official residence of the prime minister, who at the time was Clarissa's uncle, Winston Churchill.
Attitudes to the marriage
Eden remains the only British Prime Minister to have been divorced (although he was one of nine to have been married twice). There was criticism of the marriage in the Church Times – "Mr. Eden's action this week shows how far the climate of public opinion in this matter has changed for the worse" – and from some others in the Anglican church, including the Archbishop of Sydney, who drew parallels with Edward VIII's having given up the throne to marry an American divorcée. Harold Macmillan, among others, thought such comparisons unfair: "Miss Churchill cannot be compared with Mrs Simpson, who had had two husbands" However, the marriage drew also the opprobrium of Evelyn Waugh, a convert to Roman Catholicism after divorce from his first wife, who professed to have been in love with Clarissa Spencer-Churchill himself and who, a few years earlier, had repeatedly berated the poet John Betjeman for his Anglo-Catholic beliefs. Waugh enquired of Clarissa Eden, "Did you never think that you were contributing to the loneliness of Calvary by your desertion [of the faith]?".
On the eve on the wedding, John Colville, a long-time private secretary of Winston Churchill, who in his younger days had been part of the same social "set" as Churchill's niece, recorded in his diary that Clarissa, who was staying at Churchill's home at Chartwell, Kent, was "very beautiful, but ... still strange and bewildering". He added that Churchill "feels avuncular to his orphaned niece, gave her a cheque for £500 and told me that he thought she had a most unusual personality". According to Lady Avon herself, Churchill's wife Clementine thought her "too independent and totally unsuitable", while the marriage is said to have exacerbated the antagonism towards Eden of the Churchills' often wayward son Randolph, who, having initially defended his cousin to Evelyn Waugh, gave her "two years to knock him [Eden] into shape". His subsequent attacks on Eden in the press culminated in a scathing biography, The Rise and Fall of Sir Anthony Eden (1959).
The issues relating to the Edens' marriage resurfaced in 1955, when Eden was prime minister. In that year Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen, announced that "mindful of the Church's teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble", she had decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, a divorcé. Although recently available evidence suggests that the Eden government was prepared to be reasonably accommodating towards such a marriage and that Margaret would have needed only to renounce her right of succession to the throne, Townsend reflected in the 1970s that
Eden could not fail to sympathise with the Princess, all the more so that while his own second marriage had incurred no penalty, either for him or his wife, he had to warn the Princess that my second marriage – to her – would [mean] she would have to renounce her royal rights, functions and income.
Historian Hugh Thomas noted that, though "non-political", Lady Avon was interested in foreign affairs, having written a Berlin diary for the literary magazine Horizon. The first five years of her marriage were dominated by Eden's political career and by the effects of a botched operation on his gall bladder in 1953, which caused lasting problems. Eden's private secretary, Evelyn Shuckburgh, recalled Lady Eden's role in ensuring that the complaint that led to the operation had been diagnosed properly: "When Eden acquired a loving wife, Sir [Horace] Evans was called in ..." Before then Eden had travelled with a tin box containing medicaments that ranged from aspirins to morphia injections.
Lady Avon maintained many of her wider acquaintances. For example, Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo visited 10 Downing Street at her invitation in October 1956. They drank vodka and ice and Beaton recorded Lady Avon's observation that her husband was kept awake by the sound of motor scooters, which were growing in popularity among young people in the 1950s. Lady Avon is said to have murmured, "he can't keep away", as Eden, in Beaton's words, "gangled in like a colt" and proclaimed to Garbo, who had a cigarette holder between her teeth, that he had always wanted to meet her.
The Edens' marriage, which lasted until his death on 14 January 1977, was, by all accounts, an extremely happy one, though Lady Avon miscarried in 1954 and there were no children. Her stepson, Nicholas, Eden's surviving son from his first marriage, who succeeded him as 2nd Earl of Avon, was a Minister in Margaret Thatcher's Government in the 1980s, but died of AIDS in 1985. At this point the earldom became extinct.
Churchill had told Lady Avon, following her honeymoon in 1952, that he wanted to give up the premiership. However, it was not until 6 April 1955 that Eden succeeded him as Prime Minister, shortly afterward winning a general election in which the Conservative Party polled the largest percentage of the popular vote recorded by a party between 1945 and the present day. Colville noted that, at a dinner, attended by the Queen, to mark Churchill's retirement, the Duchess of Westminster had put her foot through Lady Avon's train, causing the monarch's consort, The Duke of Edinburgh, to remark, "that's torn it, in more than one sense".
Eden's premiership lasted less than two years. For much of this period Eden was the subject of hostility from elements of the Conservative press, notably the Daily Telegraph, the wife of whose chairman, Lady Pamela Berry (an ambitious and sometimes spiteful society hostess, described by the biographer of her father, Lord Birkenhead, as "the politician manquée of the second generation"), was said by some to have had a "blood row" (Macmillan's phrase) with Lady Avon. The latter's attempts to make up this puzzling rift were apparently shunned.
Chatelaine at Downing Street and Chequers
As hostess at 10 Downing Street, Lady Avon oversaw the organisation of official receptions. She brought in new caterers, causing US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to lose a bet with a fellow dinner guest that he knew "exactly what every course is going to be". Because the Edens' tenure was so short, Lady Avon's plans to return the fabric and furniture of the house to the styles of the 1730s, when it was built, were never realised.
Lady Avon was not very fond of Chequers, though she did take a keen interest in the garden and grounds, introducing old fashioned roses and increasing the range of fruit trees. However, her successor, Lady Dorothy Macmillan, so keen a horticulturalist that she sometimes gardened at night, removed yellow and white flowers planted by Lady Avon and replaced them with roses of "normal colour". One episode at Chequers attracted considerable publicity. In January 1956 Lady Avon politely requested the occupant of a farm worker's cottage on the estate to hang her washing where it could not be seen by visitors. Although it seems that the washing may have been hung across a lime walk, beyond the boundary of the cottage garden itself, the story was taken up by the Daily Mirror as an alleged example of Lady Avon's high-handedness. Coming shortly after attacks in the press on Eden's leadership, the timing was unfortunate.
In April 1956 Lady Avon hosted a dinner at Chequers for the visiting Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin. Khrushchev noted that Lady Avon's (sober) behaviour contradicted briefing from the Soviet Embassy in London that she shared some of Winston Churchill's "traits in the matter of drinking". Over dinner (when, according to his hostess, he ate nothing despite his reputation for eating and drinking greedily), he responded rather bluntly to her question about the range of Soviet missiles that "they could easily reach your island and quite a bit farther". The following morning Khrushchev mistook Lady Avon's room for Bulganin's but, having provoked a cry after almost walking in on her, beat a hasty retreat and did not identify himself. He confided later in Bulganin with whom he "had a good laugh over the incident".
The Suez Crisis
As the Suez Crisis reached its climax in 1956, the Labour Party opposed Anglo-French attacks on Egypt. On 1 November Lady Avon found herself sitting next to Dora Gaitskell, wife of the Labour leader, in the gallery of the House of Commons, whose sitting was suspended, due to uproar, for the first time since 1924. "Can you stand it?" she asked, to which, according to one version, the seasoned Mrs Gaitskell replied, "the boys must have their fun". (An alternative version is that Mrs Gaitskell responded, "What I can't stand is the mounted police charging the crowds outside".) Three days later Lady Avon attended, out of curiosity, an anti-Government "Law not War" demonstration in Trafalgar Square, but thought it politic to withdraw when she was recognised with friendly cheers.
"The Suez Canal flowing through my drawing room"
In the humiliating aftermath of Suez in 1956, Lady Avon's most famous public remark to a group of Conservative woman that, "in the past few weeks I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room", was widely reported. Lady Avon has since described this observation as "silly, really idiotic", though it remains probably the most quoted utterance of the whole crisis. One example of its durability was a journalist's observation some 54 years later, with reference to the Iraq War of 2003, that "if, as Clarissa Eden remarked, the Suez Canal ran through her drawing room, Iraq and the decisions that flowed from it still haunt [the] Labour [Party] and stir up antipathies and discomforts". Another instance was in 2013 when options for airport expansion around London were being debated. Journalist Rachel Johnson, sister of London's mayor Boris Johnson, recalled Lady Avon's remark and added, "But for those of us in West London, any further expansion to Heathrow and the airport really will be in our back yards". More directly, The Times newspaper cited Lady Avon's words in 2011 in connection with a call by the outgoing Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus (later Lord) O'Donnell for Prime Ministerial spouses to receive greater support from public funds: "In a constitutional monarchy, the consort of the prime minister is not an official role ... Yet, as the Countess of Avon so vividly pointed out, it can be impossible to keep public scrutiny at bay altogether". In Lady Avon's view, both she and her husband "were quite naive about how the press works. Neither of us should have been, but we were."
In his memoirs Eden recalled that, on several occasions during the Suez crisis, he found time to sit in his wife's drawing room, whose décor he described as green. There he was able to enjoy two sanguines by André Derain and a bronze of a girl in her bath by Degas that Alexander Korda had given the Edens as a wedding present.
Power behind the throne?
During this period there were some who thought they detected undue influence by Lady Avon over her husband. For example, Lady Jebb, wife of the British Ambassador in Paris, alluded in her diary to Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and referred to "Clarissa's war". (It should be borne in mind, however, that her husband, Sir Gladwyn, a "figure of some grandeur, if not hauteur", was furious at his exclusion from an Anglo-French summit in Paris two weeks before the Suez invasion.) In December 1956 Walter Monckton, a member of Eden's Government who opposed the Suez invasion, apparently told a Labour Member of Parliament, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, that Lady Avon was a powerful force in politics, with great influence on her husband, and that "now she knows he [Monckton] opposed Anthony she won't have anything to do with him". Monckton claimed, among other things, that, during a rail strike in 1955, Eden, by then Prime Minister, had, at his wife's urging, taken a tougher public stance in relation to the railwaymen than that advised by Monckton, as Minister of Labour, and senior civil servants (although there is evidence that Churchill had also privately advocated to Eden the need for a strong line).
In private correspondence just after Suez, the Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper derided Lady Avon's remark about the Suez Canal flowing through her drawing room and declared not only that the "vain and foolish" Eden was "wholly managed" by her, but that she herself would listen only to Cecil Beaton, whom he described (with reference to the Svengali of the last Russian Czarina Alexandra) as her "Rasputin".
Less dramatically, there were suggestions that Eden’s touchiness and over-sensitivity to criticism, characteristics frequently remarked upon by colleagues, were exacerbated by Lady Avon (described by historian Barry Turner, without explanation, as "equally touchy"). One of Eden's private secretaries claimed that "she had a habit of stirring up Anthony when he didn't need it". However, Eden's biographer D. R. Thorpe concluded that such imputations arose from a misreading of the Edens' relationship, noting also that, during Suez, the only two people in whom Eden could confide without inhibition were his wife and the Queen. Indeed, as historian Ben Pimlott put it, "if Lady Eden came to believe that the Suez Canal flowed through her drawing room, the Queen must have felt pretty damp as well" David Dutton, another (not notably sympathetic) biographer of Eden, noted that "some observers believed that Clarissa was excessively protective and tended to exacerbate Eden's natural volatility" but also remarked on her devoted companionship and that "during the dark days of the Suez Crisis, [she] was at his side, supportive throughout".
Eden himself paid tribute to his wife's adaptation of their domestic arrangements to meet the "unsteady requirements" of this period, noting that his digestion took less kindly to them. There is some evidence also that, when he was Foreign Secretary, Lady Avon had influenced (or, at any rate endorsed) his patterns of work. A later Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, has observed that, though he worked hard, Eden did not keep office hours and often spent mornings working in bed. For example, on 29 December 1952, Eden wrote: "Raining and cold. Clarissa says that this is the right way to run the F[oreign].O[ffice]. Lie in bed, direct office by telephone and read Delacroix".
Some of Lady Avon's friends may have concealed their true views about Suez. For example, Isaiah Berlin assured "dearest Clarissa" that Eden had acted with "great moral splendour", describing his stance as "very brave", "very patriotic" and "absolutely just", while opining to another acquaintance that his policy had been "childish folly". Lady Avon herself recalled that, though she sought to "bolster up" her husband and scanned the newspapers for anything that she thought he ought to know, she did not feel she "knew enough about what was going on to try and interfere in any way". Even so, her knowledge of the inner workings of Government was such that she was able to record in her diary the precise stance, at a critical point of the Suez operation, of every member of the Cabinet:
[E]ach was asked in turn what they felt about going on. Selwyn [Lloyd], Alec Home, Harold [Macmillan], Alan [Lennox-Boyd], Anthony Head, Peter [Thorneycroft], [Sir David] Eccles, Duncan [Sandys], James Stuart, Gwilym [Lloyd George], and [Lord] Hailsham were for going on. [Lord] Kilmuir, [Derrick] Heathcoat Amory, [Iain] Macloed, Bobbety [Lord Salisbury], Patrick Buchan-Hepburn were for doing whatever Anthony wanted and Lord Selkirk was unintelligible.
The aftermath of Suez
The damage caused by the Suez Crisis to the Prime Minister's already frail health persuaded the Edens to seek a month's rest cure at "Goldeneye", Ian Fleming's "plain, low roofed" bungalow on the north coast of Jamaica. Lady Avon's concern for her husband's health appears to have been decisive in the choice of destination, but it was regarded by many, including Macmillan and the Government's Chief Whip, Edward Heath, as politically unwise. In addition, although Goldeneye had a private beach and a large living room with glassless louvre windows that enabled "the moist tropical air [to] blow through", Ian Fleming's close friend, the journalist Denis Hamilton, who visited Goldeneye around that time, recalled a "shack-like house" which Fleming "went around pretending [was] ... a great palace ... a miniature Ritz". Its bedrooms have been described as "insignificant and small" Ann Fleming warned Lady Avon about some of its primitive aspects and suggested that Torquay, a seaside resort in the south west of England, and a sun-lamp might have been preferable. However, Lady Avon has insisted that "Berkshire [i.e. Chequers] or somewhere instead" would not have been suitable: "I thought if we didn't go to Jamaica, he was going to drop down dead, literally".
Installed in Jamaica after a good deal of secrecy and close liaison between Downing Street and Ian Fleming's secretary, Una Trueblood, the Edens were temporary neighbours of Noël Coward who thought Goldeneye "perfectly ghastly" and presented them – "poor dears" – with a basket of caviare, pâté de foie gras and champagne. Coward also sent Frank Cooper's marmalade and Huntley and Palmer's biscuits, which, according to Lady Avon, "was not what we had been looking forward to". As was sometimes the case when Fleming let Goldeneye, he asked his neighbour (and lover) Blanche Blackwell, a member of the influential Lindo family, to ensure that the Edens were properly looked after. The publicity that this sojourn attracted is credited by some with boosting Fleming's literary career, including sales of his early novels about James Bond, the first of which, Casino Royale, he had written at Goldeneye in 1952. Lady Avon later recalled her "astonishment" (and Ann Fleming's "rueful embarrassment") at the success of the Bond books, which continued after From Russia with Love entered the best-seller lists in 1957.
The Edens flew back to England just before Christmas 1956. A young witness of their departure from Kingston airport recalled Lady Eden looking "glacial" and her husband, pale. Lady Avon noted that, on their return, "everyone [was] looking at us with thoughtful eyes". Early in January 1957, the Edens stayed with the Queen at Sandringham, where Sir Anthony informed her of his intention to resign as Prime Minister. Eden tendered his resignation formally at Buckingham Palace on 9 January. When Harold Macmillan was appointed as his successor in preference to R. A. Butler, Lady Avon wrote to Butler (whom two years earlier she had described in her diary as "curiously unnatural") that she thought politics "a beastly profession ... and how greatly I admire your dignity and good humour". (In 1952 she had told Duff Cooper that she thought modern politics something of a "farce".)
Macmillan's biographer Alistair Horne noted that, of the various animosities that arose before and during Macmilan's premiership, it was the "loyal wives", among whom he counted Lady Avon and Lady Butler, who "tended most to keep [them] alive". Although there is evidence of a long-standing and lasting rift between Eden and Macmillan, Eden himself maintained "a friendly (if not conspicuously warm) relationship" with his successor, often being used as a "sounding board" by Macmillan who occasionally lunched with the Edens at their home. Lady Avon, on the other hand, was said to have been consistently vitriolic about Macmillan and recalled to one of Eden's biographers that Churchill had found him too "viewy". There is some evidence that, following Suez, Macmillan had briefed sections of the press that he himself intended to retire, whereas his true intention had been to displace Eden as Prime Minister, and, as late as 2007, Lady Avon criticised his behaviour as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the crisis, claiming that he had been "too hasty" in using an American threat to withhold a loan from the International Monetary Fund as "an excuse to back down" from military action and had wept "crocodile tears" at Eden's resignation.
Shortly after Eden's resignation, he and Lady Avon sailed to New Zealand for a further break. Their cabin steward, on what she described as "the hellship Rangitata", was the future Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Half a century later Prescott recalled that, while kneeling down to clean the ship's brass, he had occasion to admire a pair of legs that turned out to be Lady Eden's – "You naturally look, don't you" – whereupon Sir Anthony tapped him on the head. When they arrived in New Zealand, which was among the few countries publicly to have supported the Suez operation, the Edens received a rapturous "red carpet" reception.
Eden's retirement and death
Eden had been told by doctors that his life might be in danger if he remained in office. In the event he was to live for another twenty years. The Edens' home was at Alvediston, Wiltshire, where he died on 14 January 1977 and is buried. The last entry in Eden's diary, dated 11 September 1976, had read; "exquisite small vase of crimson glory buds & mignonette from beloved C[larissa]".
When Eden was taken mortally ill with liver cancer, he and Lady Avon had just spent their final Christmas together at Hobe Sound, Florida as guests of former New York Governor Averell Harriman, elder statesman of the Democratic Party, and his English-born wife Pamela. (Mrs Harriman was Lady Avon's exact contemporary, a débutante of 1938 who had also taken a room at the Dorchester during the Second World War. She had previously been married to Lady Avon's cousin Randolph Churchill and in the 1990s was President Bill Clinton's Ambassador to Paris, where she died in 1997.) The Edens were flown back to Britain in a Royal Air Force VC-10 that was diverted to Miami after Prime Minister James Callaghan had been alerted to the situation by Pamela Harriman's son, Winston.
After her husband's death, Lady Avon received many tributes to her devoted care in the later stages of his life. She moved to an apartment in London in the 1980s. She invited firstly Robert Rhodes James and later D. R. Thorpe to write official biographies of her husband, Winston Churchill's biographer, Martin Gilbert, having previously declined an invitation. Published in 1986 and 2003 respectively, both offered a broadly sympathetic view of Eden's career and were generally well received by critics. Between them they did much to help restore Eden's reputation, which had taken such a battering during the final months of his premiership. In 2003 a research study by a Harvard clinician of Eden's medical condition and surgery during the 1950s was published in the USA with an acknowledgement of Lady Avon's interest and co-operation.
Lady Avon remained in touch with many influential friends. For example, in the lead-up to the Falklands War of 1982, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, confided during a Cabinet meeting that the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had spoken to Lady Avon of the risk of a "socialist" regime being established in Argentina. Lady Avon also attended various state occasions, as well as gatherings of former Prime Ministers and their families. In 1972 (while her husband was still alive) she described to Cecil Beaton the Duchess of Windsor's "very strange" and nervous demeanour – "Is this my seat?" "Is this my prayer book?" "What do I do now?" – at the funeral of her husband, the former King Edward VIII, while thirty years later Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell noted that, at a dinner at 10 Downing Street in 2002 to mark Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee, attended by five Prime Ministers and several relatives of deceased Prime Ministers:
Prince Philip was deep in conversation with T[ony] B[lair], the Countess of Avon, Macmillan's and Douglas-Home's families, and there was lots of reminiscing about life in Number 10.
In 1994, 17 years after her husband's death, Lady Avon unveiled a bust of Eden at the Foreign Office. In 2013 she attended a memorial service for Sir Guy Millard (1917–2013), one of Eden's long-serving private secretaries and probably his last surviving close associate, having been with him and Churchill at wartime meetings with Roosevelt and Stalin and in Downing Street during the Suez Crisis.
Lady Avon's longevity
Lady Avon was the youngest wife of an incumbent Prime Minister in the twentieth century. She was only 36 when her husband resigned and widowed at 56. She has outlived four later Prime Ministerial spouses (but is four years younger than Lady Wilson of Rievaulx, widow of Harold Wilson, the only spouse to have become a centenarian) and seen the administrations of 11 subsequent Prime Ministers. By contrast, Lady Dorothy Macmillan was 57 when her husband succeeded Eden and 63 when he resigned, dying just three years later, her husband outliving her by 20 years. As such Lady Avon has enjoyed unusual longevity for a Prime Ministerial spouse, contributing, for example, to a television documentary by Cherie Blair in 2005 about Prime Ministers' wives and to a three-part series the following year marking the fiftieth anniversary of Suez. In the latter, she recalled, among other things, Eden's disillusion with the lack of American support for British policy in 1956. The critic A. A. Gill was among those who praised Lady Avon's erudite performance in the Blair documentary ("bright as a button"), while sensing that she appeared not entirely to approve of Mrs Blair.
Lady Avon was 87 when her memoir appeared in 2007. A journalist who interviewed her and her editor, Cate Haste, observed that Lady Avon "seems slight and wan, as if painted in watercolour rather than oil", but described her as "vigorous and knowing" in conversation. In April 2008 she and Haste appeared at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, the literature for this event observing that, although Lady Avon was perhaps best known for her lament about the Suez Canal flowing through her drawing room, "she was far more than a drawing-room consort".
Lady Avon was played by Jennifer Daniel in Ian Curteis' 1979 drama for BBC television, Suez 1956. In 2012 she was portrayed by Abigail Cruttenden in Hugh Whitemore's play about the Suez crisis, A Marvellous Year for Plums, that opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre. In the first episode of the BBC's The Hour (2011), also set in 1956, a television producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) was complimented by one of Eden's press officers for a feature about "Lady Eden at home".
|Preceded by |
Dame Clementine Churchill
|Spouse of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom |
|Succeeded by |