Zinovieff, Sofka. “The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother, and Me: An Aristocratic Family, a High-Society Scandal, and an Extraordinary Legacy”, Harper, 2015.
A Scandalous Ménage à Trois
Here is a memoir about the decadent world of England’s upper classes. We meet the author’s grandparents who “lived and loved with abandon.” Robert Heber-Percy was a dashing young man who would rather have a drink than open a book. He became involved with Jennifer Fry, a gorgeous socialite famous for her style and charm. However, by the time Robert met and married Jennifer, he had already been involved with Gerald, Lord Berners for over ten years. Gerald was a bit heavy, odd and a good deal older than Robert but he was
a composer, writer and aesthete—a creative aristocrat who felt comfortable while in the company of the era’s best and brightest minds. He also owned one of Britain’s loveliest stately homes, Faringdon House, in Oxfordshire, which under his stewardship was regarded as a symbol of sybaritic beauty. Robert and Gerald were not what anyone would call a likely couple especially because they lived openly as gay men at a time that homosexuality was illegal in Britain. made an unlikely couple, especially because they lived together at Faringdon House when homosexuality was illegal. In 1942, a pregnant Jennifer moved into Faringdon in 1942, creating a interesting and formidable ménage à trois.
Sofka Zinovieff examines the mysteries of her grandparents and the third man in their marriage. That man, Gerald, was complex and talented and heir to a legendary house with walls that were lined with priceless art and whose gardens was romantically filled with doves. He entertained everyone from Igor Stravinsky to Gertrude Stein. The book looks at what brought Robert and Jennifer together under his roof, and why Jennifer stayed and married Robert.
Zinovieff brings together the complicated reality behind the scandals of revelry and sexuality. The story that we get here is defined by keen insight, deep affection and marvelous wit and it captures the decadence and indulgence of the age as it explores the many ways in which we have the capacity to love.
Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Lord Berners, was the quintessential English eccentric throughout his life and his reputation has increased since his death. He loved art and music and displayed a considerable talent for both. His home was famed for its comfort, fine cuisine, and hospitality that was enjoyed by a who’s who of social and literary stars. He was known for his humor and practical jokes but he was also often depressed and had mood swings that sometimes lasted for long periods.
Berners’s emotional life was strange and mysterious. He never married and had had several long “friendships” with younger men. The most lasting of these was with Robert Heber-Percy who was the youngest son of a noble family. Robert was handsome but he had no direction and was extremely reckless. He is “The Mad Boy” of the title and he met Lord Berners in 1930. Despite a nearly 30-year age gap, they became close friends and companions. Robert moved into Faringdon House and remained there for the rest of his life acting as Berners’ companion, estate manager, and probable lover (because homosexuality was illegal in England then, both men were understandably reticent about that aspect of their relationship.) Even when Robert married the beautiful young socialite Jennifer Fry this curious arrangement continued, with Jennifer living and giving birth to a daughter at Faringdon House.
Sofka Zinovieff, the author, is the granddaughter of Robert and Jennifer, and this book is partly a biography of Lord Berners and her grandparents as well as a chronicle of the glamorous parade of writers, musicians, artists, and socialites who came to Faringdon House during its heyday. It is also, in part, the story of her own life as the literal heiress (Faringdon House is now hers) of these colorful people. This is a fascinating yet sad story because so many of the talented and creative people that we meet here struggled with depressions, personal tragedies and addictions and they went from lover to lover and we rarely happy.
Physically this is a gorgeous book. It is printed on glossy pages that are filled with photographs and illustrations. It is beautifully bound and even has a ribbon bookmark.
Sofka Zinovieff writes with authority, facts and humor, and illustrates it with family photos that enhance your reading pleasure. She was 25 and working on her doctoral thesis in Greece when Robert Heber-Percy (the former lover of Lord Berners and the “mad boy” of Zinovieff’s title) informed his granddaughter that he planned to alter his will. Six months later, in October 1987, Heber-Percy died and an apprehensive she inherited Faringdon. She told a friend that getting the house was like finding a very rich and eligible husband who had been picked out by someone else. We sense her affection for a man she never knew as she related the scandals and the devastation that went on in the characters’ lives. This a wonderful read and great fun as well.