Skip to comments.Lesley Blanch — obituary (There’ll always be an England)
Posted on 05/13/2007 8:17:58 AM PDT by dighton
Lesley Blanch, who died on Monday aged 102, was the author of The Wilder Shores of Love, an enduringly popular account of the romantic fulfilment that four 19th-century European women found in Arabia; but her most romanticised creation was Lesley Blanch herself.
Like the writer Pierre Loti, another of her subjects with whom she identified, Lesley Blanch preferred fantasy to truth and rarely distinguished between the two. She was an escapist; life was simply more entertaining as a product of the imagination. She revelled in the air of deliberate mystery around her, which was thickened by her remarkable account of her early life, Journey Into The Minds Eye (1968).
It was, she wrote, not altogether autobiography, nor altogether travel or history either. You will just have to invent a new category. Some sceptical critics filed it under the existing one of fiction, but it was evidence of a sharp, mischievous mind that was determined to be extraordinary and prized a good story above all else.
Lesley Blanch was born at Chiswick, west London, on June 6 1904. She was, she recalled, a highly precocious child raised in the company of adults by unconventional parents.
Her father, she was later to claim, dabbled in the fine arts but essentially did nothing. My mother used to read the Koran for breakfast in bed which she found very stimulating. My father would read William [sic] Defoes Journal of the Plague Years because he said the descriptions were so ghastly it made daily life seem so much more agreeable. I would be in my room getting ready for school and reading Carlyles History of the French Revolution.
A regular presence in the house was a Russian Tartar, an admirer of her mothers and a secret agent who was known only as The Traveller. Beguiled with presents of Mongol chieftains horsetail standards and talk of Tamerlaines jade drinking cup, the young Lesley soon acquired a love of travel and a romantic view of foreign peoples.
Someone whose favoured reading was On Sledge and Horseback to the Outcast Siberian Lepers was unlikely to be happy at St Pauls School, where she was judged to be lacking in team spirit.
More to her taste were trips to Paris with The Traveller, a man 25 years her senior. Having given her governess the slip, at the age of 17 she willingly succumbed to his gallantry on the Paris-Dijon rapide.
Lesley studied painting at the Slade, and later took commissions for portraits and designed book jackets for TS Eliot at Faber.
Despite a heady spell in Corsica with The Traveller, his two sons, a tarot-reading Montenegrin aunt and a giant sheepdog called Hondof (the Baskervilles), their proposed engagement came to nothing. Her beau was last heard of wounded in Odessa at the end of the war, pleading to be sent to her in London.
An early marriage outside the charmed Slavic circle was soon dissolved, and she then began to work for Vogue. From 1937 to 1944 she was a dynamic and imaginative features editor at a time when the bulk of the magazine was devoted to feature articles because clothing shortages made fashion coverage redundant. She also survived being bombed out of three flats.
Elegant and devastatingly pretty, Lesley Blanch candidly admitted that she never lacked for lovers. Yet she had a low opinion of men. Theyre awfully babyish and vain, she maintained, a lot of dead weight half the time.
One brief wartime romance was with The Travellers own son. Then, in 1945, she married Romain Kacew, a Russian exile flying with the Free French Air Force; he later become well-known as the author and diplomat Romain Gary.
En poste with Gary in Bulgaria, she encountered Islam for the first time. Captivated by its overtones of exoticism, she was prompted to write of the allure it held for four other women: the adventuress Isabelle Eberhardt; Isabel, wife of the Orientalist Richard Burton; Aimée de Rivery, cousin to the Empress Josephine and pride of the Seraglio; and Jane Digby, who wound up in the Syrian desert with a Bedouin chieftain.
Vivid and intoxicating though her prose was, it was tempered with the irony of experience and solid research. The Wilder Shores of Love has not been out of print since its publication in 1954. Her other books travelled similarly lush paths. The Sabres of Paradise (1960) dealt with Shamyl, the William Wallace of the Caucasus; some of his descendants pressed her hard for her hand in marriage.
Under A Lilac Bleeding Star (1963) took its title from a Balkan term for a compulsive wanderer, and one of her journeys was to a Tunisian harem where prospective brides were fattened on semolina and kept in the dark to bleach their skin.
Other realms of the senses were visited in Pavilions of the Heart (1974), a celebration of the boudoir, and in two cookery books, Round The World In Eighty Dishes (1956) and The Tables Of My Travels (1989).
After 15 difficult and intense years of marriage, she and Gary were posted in Los Angeles when he left her for the actress Jean Seberg, partly because Blanch did not want children. Their marriage was dissolved in 1962. Gary was prone to depression and later committed suicide (as did Seberg).
Blanch travelled extensively, principally across Islam from Oman to Uzbekistan. In 1971 she and the photographer Eve Arnold explored the changing role of Muslim women in a lengthy series of Sunday Times articles entitled Behind the Veil. Lesley Blanch travelled in her customary style, her wardrobe for Afghanistan containing shoes for every contingency from snow to a royal birthday celebration (to which she wore gold slippers).
Having lived with Gary in Switzerland and America, Lesley Blanch finally settled in France. For a time she lived in Paris, entertaining friends who included Nancy Mitford, Rebecca West (a pawky sense of humour) and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Later she moved to the Riviera, to a small house at Garavan, Menton, originally attracted by the Arab-sounding name of her street. She was much piqued when the local authority renamed the avenue after Katherine Mansfield, whom she detested.
She devoted herself to her garden and her cats, whose kidneys benefited from a strict diet of Evian water. In 1994 a fire devastated the house, destroying her lifes collection of what she termed useless objects, among them icons and Russian silver snuff-boxes, and a valuable library she had intended to bequeath to New College, Oxford. With characteristic endurance of spirit, she had the house rebuilt on exactly the same spot.
Despite referring to herself as Darling Self (letters to her bookseller came to Darling Bookshop), she was neither arch nor sentimental. I dont want to be depicted as this nice, kind Little Old Lady, she would tell interviewers. Im not nice and kind. Im selfish.
She was both highly-strung and self-possessed, with a cool, direct gaze; and behind the cultivated air of mystery she was capable of being genuinely surprising. She liked nothing better than to write to reggae music, waiting for nightfall when hashish smugglers might slip over the Italian border and knock on her door; if they were handsome they could be sure of a hot dinner. She loved Bulgarian music and Bob Dylan, and pursued a simple existence: I despise all I see of progress, except anaesthetics.
Lesley Blanch was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; she was appointed MBE in 2001. In 2004 the French government appointed her an Officier de lOrdre des Arts et des Lettres.
Only a few days ago she was asked if she would agree to appear in a documentary being made about her old friend, Cecil Beaton. She replied that she was too old, but added: A year ago, at 101, I would have done it.
Fascinating! This is one of those obituaries that remind me of the Tom Lehrer quote about obituaries - “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”
Any good biographies of her, I wonder? Someone who could sort out the truth from the self-invention?
I’m reminded of that recent book on Claire Booth Luce “A Rage for Fame.” As an example, the author discovered a tragic teenage seduction followed by a ghastly abortion that almost certainly screwed up her relations with men for the rest of her life.
“She was much piqued when the local authority renamed the avenue after Katherine Mansfield, whom she detested.”
LOL! That would indeed be most irritating.
May this lady RIP, she seems to have lived an exciting life.
Website with photos:
What a character! An incurable romantic. She could have been the inspiration for Kathleen Turner’s Joan Wilder (The Wilder Shores of Love, get it?) in Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile, who wrote herself into her adventures. Blanch’s husband was no mean writer either...Gary’s Lady L and Ski Bum are good reads.
Lacking in team spirit, eh? Tsk, tsk.
Very interesting! I’d never heard of this lady until now (may she rest in peace) but will be looking in the library for her books.
But she was a good writer and well worth the read. It gives a glimpse into the isolated , deprived lives of British women who had (and fortunately still have) a very active fantasy life they are more willing to share these days.
A life that could only be English, wherever transplanted, and a fine example of obituary art.
Charming . . . although she must have been difficult.