May 19, 2013
Caroline Moorehead on the Exemplary Life of Lesley Blanch
Posted on Jul 29, 2010
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
When, towards the end of the 1960s, Lesley Blanch came to write her autobiography, Journey into the Mind’s Eye, she wove it around the story of a first great love, a man she named only as the Traveller. A Tartar from the great steppes, with slanting eyes and amber skin, infinitely exotic in his fur-lined greatcoat and soft leather boots, the Traveller came to her nursery and told her tales of hump-backed horses, stuffed sturgeon and Mongol warriors.
He sent her gifts from the bazaars he visited on his travels and called her by Russian nicknames until she found herself living in a fabled parallel dream world. When she was seventeen, he took her on an overnight train to Dijon and they pretended that it was the Trans-Siberian Railway. She learnt to love him “properly”, and believed herself engaged. But on her twenty-first birthday, along with a prayer mat and an icon, came a farewell letter; she never saw him again.
Did the Traveller exist? Almost certainly not, at least not in the form in which she cast him. There was no charming nursery or aristocratic parentage, as Anne Boston discovered when she embarked on her biography of Blanch [“Lesley Branch: Inner Landscapes, Wilder Shores”], but a semi-detached in Chiswick and two grandfathers who were both skilled tradesmen. But the mythical Traveller, conveniently coming at a moment when all things Russian were in vogue, gave her a delight in samovars and patterned kilims, in tapestries and rooms full of low tables and brightly coloured silks and in the notion of travel, to remote and extraordinary lands. Blanch once described Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry, one of the heroines of The Wilder Shores of Love, as “character plus opportunity equals future”. The words might be Blanch’s own epitaph.
Born in 1904, Blanch was sent to St Paul’s Girls School [in London], where her teachers complained that she lacked team spirit, though she showed some talent for art. She left at sixteen, prodigiously well read and very pretty, with curly fair hair and a will of iron. What she called her “run-away game” allowed her to escape in her mind to tented nomad encampments and the mountains of the Caucasus, which she called the “landscapes of my heart”. A brief stint at the Slade [School of Fine Arts] taught her to draw, illustrate and decorate, and she began to earn her living designing book jackets and posters. She was so pretty that she was always surrounded by men, but they were never exotic enough and they bored her. She liked to dress up, usually à l’orientale, and she made friends with the Sitwells, Harold Acton and Peter Quennell. Unhappiness was not something she was prepared to dwell on: an illegitimate daughter seems to have been put up for adoption and forgotten.
Blanch made a first marriage, at twentyfive, to an advertising agent called Robert Wimberley, but soon realized her mistake. Among the affairs that followed was one with the theatre impresario Komisarjevsky—memorably nicknamed “come-and-seduce-me” by Edith Evans—who was satisfactorily oriental but not a man to commit himself. In the summer of 1935, needing to make money, Blanch wrote a first article for Harper’s Bazaar on the tyranny of beige. She had an easy, natural style, an unusual imagination and considerable energy; and she was happy to write about everything from bad English food to a new ballet by Diaghilev. Before long she was features editor on Vogue. When war came, Blanch and the photographer Lee Miller travelled about in search of patriotic subjects.
In 1944, when London became the capital of the Free French, she met another version of her Traveller. Romain Gary was Lithuanian, an airman with a Croix de Guerre who had a long face like a Russian icon and who had written a novel (Éducation européenne). Her friends referred to him as “Lesley’s frog”. Gary was ten years younger, and as steeped in his own mythologies as she was in hers. For a while, their marriage survived on mutual infidelities. When Gary joined the French diplomatic service and was posted to Bulgaria, Blanch went with him, as she did later to New York and Hollywood, where he became a sort of French ambassador to the stars. But Gary was limitlessly selfish, capricious and philandering, with a taste for young girls, and the marriage foundered when he found literary fame with Les Racines du ciel (1956; The Roots of Heaven) and went off with the gamine Jean Seberg.
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