The avalanche of memoirs from aristocrats on the other side of the water continues – the Duchess of Devonshire’s Wait for Me!, Lady Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go. . .now Viscount Norwich’s Trying to Please. Of the three, he is the only one you could safely invite to your next dinner party – and be guaranteed that he would be a charming mixer: witty, down-to-earth, open, without hauteur or attitude – a thoroughly good sort likely to stay and help clear things, if need be.
John Julius Cooper, 2d Viscount Norwich, was born in 1929 to a famous couple: his father, Duff Cooper, had distinguished himself in World War I then gone on to a career in politics and diplomacy; his mother, Lady Diana Manners, brought up as daughter to the 8th Duke of Rutland, was a much-celebrated beauty and actress. It was an unlikely, but successful, pairing: a penniless war hero and an aristocratic deb; in pre-paparazzi days, their wedding such a crush of onlookers that “a body of mounted policemen had to be detailed to control the crowds outside,” Norwich writes.
His early years centered on a nanny whom he adored, John Julius was educated at London day schools (the first, called “Miss Betty’s” sounds like a house of ill repute), then dispatched to another school in Canada for safety’s sake during World War II, then back to England for Eton, Navy service, and Oxford (where Isaiah Berlin was his tutor), then into the Foreign Office. He held posts in Belgrade, Beirut and Geneva before deciding the life just wasn’t for him. He resigned in 1964 and became a writer of bestselling books, establishing himself as the English-speaking world’s authority on Byzantium and Venice. Well-known for some thirty television documentaries on a wide range of subjects (The Fall of Constantinople, Napoleon’s Hundred Days, The Treasure Houses of Britain) and for his four-year stint as host of the hugely successful radio panel game My Word, Norwich, at the age of eighty, cuts a dashing figure and is a quickly-recognised man-about-town.
And so, after a couple of dozen books, Norwich published his autobiography, Trying to Please in Britain in 2008. Axios Press, based in Mount Jackson, VA, acquired the American rights and have recently issued a handsome edition here.
Norwich is a born storyteller with a narrative gift and very considerable charm. It may just be that his own beloved nanny told him what Nancy Mitford’s told her before pushing her into a room full of people: “Remember, you are the least important person in that room.” Norwich never makes himself the center of the story: other people figure larger in the landscape, whether his parents, his wife and children, or his friends. He is clearly someone whose friendship others value highly and he returns their loyalty and dedication.
As the son of parents near the centre of things and as a man who has made his own eminent way in the worlds of diplomacy, media and the arts, Norwich knows a good deal about twentieth-century arts and cultural life, particularly in Britain and Italy. It seems he’s been nearly everywhere and met everyone – Churchill, de Gaulle, Bill Paley, Stavros Niarchos, Laurence Olivier, and the usual suspects from the Royal Family, the Queen Mother and Her Majesty herself (but not Princess Margaret? What a shame!) His accounts of two visits to the Vatican – one with his mother to meet Pius XII, the other with the Duke of Norfolk to represent the Queen at the coronation of Paul VI – offer glimpses behind the scenes of Vatican protocol and British diplomatic pageantry.
The narrative of the audience with Pius XII details a formal, indeed theatrical, experience:
We were led through a whole series of splendid rooms, each of which seemed to be inhabited by people of a different century: from a nineteenth-century one full of elderly gentlemen in frock coats we would pass directly into what appeared to be the main reception room at Elsinore, with men looking exactly like Hamlet in black doublet and hose and clinking swords; then into a room full of Swiss Guards in their red, blue and yellow Michelangelo uniforms. All the time the tension seemed to mount: the whole process was theatrical in the extreme. . .we entered into the Holy Presence. . .we made our reverences. . .There followed a long silence. The conversation, we had been assured, would be in English, in which the Holy Father was naturally fluent; this proved, however, to be something of an exaggeration. My mother and I had to make the going, the Pope reacting favorably or unfavorably as required: the favorable reaction was “very fine, very fine,” the unfavorable “very difficult, very difficult.”
The audience with Paul VI reveals a different pontiff, to be sure:
The protocol was nowhere nearly as elaborate as it had been when my mother and I had our audience with Pius XII; still, it was impressive. In I went, made my carefully rehearsed reverences and received a blessing—accompanied, to my surprise, by a small leather case. The Pope explained. He had already given the Duke a commemorative medal bearing his portrait struck in gold; he wished me to have a silver one, but unfortunately the silver ones were not yet ready. Mine would be sent as soon as possible (it was) but meanwhile he would like me to have something to take with me now. “And so,” he said, “I give you this silver medal of my predecessor, Pope John. And believe me, that’s so much better.” I could see that he meant it, and felt the tears come into my eyes. They do so again as I write these words.
For all the people who figure in this memoir, and for all his self-effacing humor, Norwich makes the most lasting impression, especially when he writes of his family. What he treasures most – even beyond the magnificent decaying pile of his beloved Venice (the salvation and preservation of which he gives himself to with gusto and characteristic dedication) is that family – his wife, his children, his grandchildren. But maybe most of all his mother; he writes of her death with dignity and poignant affection:
You can’t imagine what it’s like,’ she said to me one day, ‘lying here staring at the same bit of wallpaper all day, with nothing to look forward to.’ The words haunted me; they still do. On June 17, 1986, I went to see her in the evening as usual and found her in moderately good spirits. At eight the next morning. . .she was dead. . .We buried her at Belvoir [family castle], next to my father. I walk or drive past her house almost every day—never without a pang.
John Julius Cooper, 2d Viscount Norwich, is an elegant grandee of taste and refinement, a man of no pretense and good cheer, someone who has lived a rare and good life and has the grace to acknowledge it without vengeance or reprisal. Trying to Please is splendid testimony to that life as well as good reading for a chilly autumn afternoon.