Caroline Moorehead on the Exemplary Life of Lesley Blanch
Posted on Jul 29, 2010
One of the most unexpected sides to Blanch’s character was her dedication to work. Extremely versatile, turning her hand to design, painting, fiction, journalism and history, she never stopped working. Boston conjures up a pleasing scene of the two of them at work, Gary at one end of the house and Blanch at the other, barely meeting, each wrapped up in a cocoon of ruthless creativity. While she wrote, she listened to Bach, Bob Dylan, or reggae; but not Wagner, which she saved for serious listening.
Blanch was almost fifty when she finished her first book, The Wilder Shores of Love, an instant bestseller about four romantic runaway nineteenth-century women, anticipating what would become a stream of biographies of intrepid lady travellers. Though never as successful, other books followed, along with dozens of articles, often the result of journeys to the places she had dreamt about. Russia, the Middle East and India were the settings she loved. For all the blond curls and winning ways, she was a meticulous, tireless researcher, ferreting out facts in libraries and archives all over the world, tracking down her subjects and their descendants in inaccessible places. More serious and scholarly than she appeared to be, she was also more driven.
With her first book, Blanch had the incomparable good luck of finding Jock Murray as her editor, a man whose generosity of spirit and patience with his authors—among them the no less demanding and imperious Freya Stark and Iris Origo—became legendary. It says much for their relationship that she kept a pair of embroidered slippers at Murrays, to wear when she went in to correct her manuscripts.
He nursed her through her first five books, providing stability as she lurched from drama to drama, and felt understandably hurt when she took the next to another publisher, though they remained friends.
After her break-up from Gary, which, for all his waywardness and self-obsessive gloom, upset her greatly, she somewhat surprisingly went back to Hollywood to work with George Cukor on a film adaptation of Lady L, Gary’s novel whose heroine is based with unnerving exactness on Blanch herself. She was to be seen pedalling around the studio lot on a bright red bicycle, checking that the extras were wearing authentically French costumes. When she turned to her own autobiography, the interplay between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, became her way of reinventing a past and a world that she would have loved, much as one clings on to a pleasing dream long after waking, to enjoy the happiness it casts. In glorifying this first great love with the Traveller, she was able to so diminish Romain Gary that he became little more than a footnote in her life.
This is not an authorized biography, and Blanch’s literary executors refused Boston permission to quote from her letters. To Boston’s credit, she keeps speculation to a minimum, but the absence of letters is a serious drawback, for they would have added the very important dimension of Blanch’s own voice. On the very rare occasions when she is able to quote something—as with Blanch’s charming description of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, “tiny twins with large bottles of drink”—it makes the reader realize what is missing. Perhaps because of these absences, Boston devotes much space to Gary, whose reimaginings of himself reached epic proportions.
The gap left by the absent letters is all the more regrettable in that Boston’s biography is both entertaining and scrupulously researched and there will surely never be the need for another.
When Lesley Blanch was ninety, her house in Menton, on the Côte d’Azur, close to the border with Italy, burnt down. She escaped in her nightdress unharmed just as the roof caved in, but her entire lifelong collection of silks, carpets, icons, portraits and papers went up in the blaze. It was in keeping with her determined nature that she decided to rebuild the house, and was soon once again surrounded by silks and tapestries, many of them found in local junk shops and flea markets.
Blanch lived until just before her 104th birthday, charming interviewers with her sharp tongue and flights of imagination and taking care to give nothing away, and she survived long enough to see many of her books reprinted. The woman who emerges from Anne Boston’s book may indeed have been ruthless and a fantasist; but there was something endearing and even admirable about the stylishness and panache with which she concocted her life.
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