Why does a fabulously wealthy heiress marry an impecunious, if upper-crust, rampantly gay chancer who has more than a hint of the gold-digger about him? That is perhaps the central mystery that unfolds in David Pryce-Jones’s family memoir, Fault Lines. The heiress is David’s mother, Thérèse Fould-Springer, known by family and friends as Poppy; the chancer is David’s father, Alan Pryce-Jones, who later — through the 1950s — served as editor of the Times Literary Supplement.
Perhaps part of the explanation is that Poppy was only 18 when they married in 1934. The couple had been introduced and the marriage promoted by Poppy’s step-father, Frank Wooster, a man who was himself gay. Indeed, Wooster had seemingly been the lover of Poppy’s father, Baron Eugene Fould. When the Baron died in 1929 Poppy’s mother, Mitzi, in many ways the dominant character in the memoir, took her deceased husband’s constant companion as her second husband. Mitzi was of the opinion that homosexuals made the best husbands.
Alan had been introduced to the pleasures of male flesh at Eton by Cyril Connolly, the future editor of Horizon, then a few years above him at school. In the early 1930s, Alan already thought of himself as a writer, but primarily enjoyed a sybaritic life travelling around Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America, often with an older, richer, gay — or, in the parlance of the time, “musical” — companion, Bobby Pratt-Barlow. “Musical” or its corollary “artistic” is a euphemism which lives on in some circles: a friend of mine, an elderly lady of somewhat Edwardian demeanour who spent many years working at a smart Mayfair interior designer, still describes many of her former colleagues to me as “artistic”. She is not talking of their flair for furnishings.
Alan recounts in his diaries of the time his own dabblings with drugs: “A first experiment with morphine in Maddox Street . . . Of all, heroin seems to work best on me. By mixing it with opium, pernod, cocaine and pâté de foie gras, however, I made myself ill.” Clearly it was the foie gras which was the problem. As David notes, “To wear make-up and take drugs was to be free from the arduous discipline of being a writer.”
But Alan’s constant worry was financial. He wrote in his diary, “Money! Money! Money! Will no one give me £1,000 a year? Surely not much to ask?” When he encountered the Fould-Springers, he saw his chance. Although protesting that he would still want to marry Poppy if she only had £100 per year, in letters he quotes Mitzi as saying “I’m so stupidly rich.” More unpleasantly, he writes, “The Springers are, I’m sorry to say, Jews, and cousins of the Rothschilds, Goldsmids, Goldsmid-Rothschilds etc, but really very, very, very nice.”
The fact of their Jewishness was of course what changed everything for the Fould-Springers. This Austro-French family — which occupied grand houses, and the space between the grand-bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, in both countries — had their world destroyed by the Nazis and the Anschluss of 1938. Their Austrian properties were seized and their art looted. Alan and Poppy found their way to England, but young David — born in 1936 — was ensconced with various Rothschild relatives in France and then, in search of safety, roamed through Spain with his nanny, Jessie. At one point, rather bizarrely, David and Jessie re-entered Vichy France from neutral Spain. Eventually, in September 1941, David got to England and was reunited with his parents.
Throughout this time he did not know that he or his mother’s family were Jewish. He only discovered this at the girls’ prep school he unusually attended. There, David’s favourite teacher — the epitome of a blonde, blue-eyed Aryan — let it be known that she thought that Jews were responsible for the war and all the troubles of the world. When David passed this news on to his mother, Poppy finally confided in him that they were Jews.
David was with her for the last time when he was 16, in January 1953, on a skiing holiday in Seefeld in the Tyrol, then an isolated village, now a tacky package destination. Not long after returning to Eton, he learned that his beloved mother had cancer; she died that same month.
Six years later, aged 23, David married Clarissa, the daughter of Harold Caccia, then the British Ambassador to Washington. On the day of their wedding he learned that old Pratt-Barlow had died, leaving David $500,000 — roughly equivalent to $10 million today — with the income from it going to Alan during his lifetime. In the end, Alan had obtained the independent income he had always felt he deserved. The money was not left outright to him because Pratt-Barlow — however fond he was of his “musical” travelling companion — did not believe that Alan could be trusted not to blow it all.
Pratt-Barlow was clearly right in his estimate. Alan established himself in the United States and even with this income managed to run into financial difficulties — his house in Newport, Rhode Island, was to be foreclosed — and took to extreme measures; he found another wealthy woman to marry. She too died of cancer, within ten months. After this interlude Alan took his much younger chauffeur Larry Hudson as his lover. The younger man died of hepatitis; Alan survived until 2000.
Fault Lines gives a brilliant account of one man’s extremely tortuous relationship with his father, who comes across in the book as a world-class shit.
This is, however, only one aspect of the book. There is very much to enjoy in it, not least David Pryce-Jones’s brilliantly dry turns of phrase. When discussing his grandmother’s postwar financial affairs, he writes: “Mitzi had arranged the three foundation stones of fiscal freedom: British nationality, Italian domicile and Swiss bank accounts.”
He provides a wonderful account of a visit to Covent Garden as a guest of Sir Isaiah Berlin. At the time, David was receiving much flak for his book on Unity Mitford, in which he laid bare the full extent of her Nazism. He writes: “A guest once more in the royal box at the height of the Mitford clamour, I suggested that he intervene. You and your book have been shamefully treated, he said as we were taking our seats. Give the word, he went on, and I’ll lean out of this box to appeal on your behalf to all the good people down there. Which was his way of saying that he wouldn’t lift a finger.”