‘The Mistress of Mayfair’ reviewed

❉ The first biography of socialite and sexual libertine Doris Delevingne, great aunt of Cara.

Lyndsy Spence, who has recently published a biography of the actress Margaret Lockwood, has now drawn together the life of another independent and strong minded woman who did not want to follow a conventional path but chose a somewhat different route to achieve it. Doris Delevingne did not believe in living within her means and had no wish to become a tradesman’s wife.

Delevingne was not the first woman to discover that sleeping with rich and powerful men was a good way of earning an agreeable living. She was not a prostitute, more of a “courtesan… a little bit more than a tramp.” It was an easier and quicker method than exploiting a talent or waiting for an inheritance to emerge, which were two other ways a woman could fund an independent lifestyle in the chokingly rigid British system, and Delevingne had neither talent nor great expectations. It was her friendship with an actress and her wealthy lover when she was trying out the clothes trade which introduced her to the dazzling world of the Mayfair elite.

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Doris on the voyage home from the Orient. Among her friends are Geoffrey and William Rootes, Paulette Goddard, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau and Mrs Hubert Parker

She became a social climber by climbing in and out of fashionable’s beds, conducting brief or lengthy affairs. She would soon became bored, cash in her cheques (she changed her name slightly to make it easier to spell) and move onto the next conquest. With her strong personality and sense of humour, not to mention sex appeal, she became a popular and controversial, figure. Public scandals were usually avoided and kept from the general public. Gossip columnists could imply yet it is the diarist who can record in glorious detail, which is where Delevingne inhabits, and Spence has pulled together from many sources to bring her to life as best she can.

Although a ploy to get what she wanted, Delevingne did enjoy sex, although she did once confess that not every lover was automatically a good and pleasant experience. She was apparently very good at it. “Cleopatra’s grip” was apparently a speciality which she once employed to good effect on a man she was trying to ‘cure’ of his homosexuality. What this could employ has greatly exercised the imagination of this reviewer. She is supposed to have conducted a gay affair herself with a rich (naturally) American and used her wealth to renovate a building in Venice just before the second word war. Outside of bed, her waspish sharp sense of humour and personality fascinated writers such as Noel Coward who used her stormy marriage in his play ‘Private Lives’.

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Doris and Noel Coward on their way to Venice.

Yet for all her relaxed and honest attitudes towards sex and relationships, she was no trail-blazer, fighting a path for the modern Suffragette, a political activist wanting to improve the lot of humankind. The closest she came to politics was an affair with a later Conservative MP, (who got soundly thrashed by her husband) and the family of Oswald Mosley before and during his fascist phase. Politics did not interest her. Winston Churchill was delighted to hear that there were rumours that he had had an affair with Doris and did nothing to deny them, but he was less keen when his son, the extremely unpleasant Randolph, became involved.

There were casualties along the Delevingne way. She had little to do with her family, even moulding a fake ancestry to create something more suitable for one who would eventually marry a Viscount. Now he emerges from the book as one who suffered the most and whether he deserved it depends on your outlook for he knew precisely what he was letting himself in for and was no angel himself. Once asked what was his handicap on a golf course, he replied “drink and debauchery.”

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Doris and Paulette Goddard at a Christmas party in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Viscount Castlerosse – or Valentine Brown – was the surviving son and heir to the Killarney estate in Ireland. This was a Catholic family, and his mother very Victorian and catholic in taste. He was terrified of how his mother would react to his marrying down the social ladder. Her reaction was simple. She never wanted to meet this girl, especially if she chose not to convert. By the time he enters Delevingne’s story, he is lame in one arm owing to a bullet wound which he received while swatting away a wasp. Fat, balding, and miserably ensconced in London when he would rather be in Paris, he was considered a failure, earning a living as a journalist for the press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who was something of a father figure, certainly a confessor, and listened and advised on the various problems the first few weeks of marriage threw up.

Their marriage was not a love-match. For Delevingne, it was simply a permanent position, a title and a source of money. Castlerosse quickly realised he had made a mistake yet he had been fascinated by the way she ‘snapped her fingers at the morals of the day.’ She could be cruel and their stormy fights would turn physical with both sporting injuries. He was heavily in debt and together with her excesses, and soon they both needed rescuing to the eye-watering tune of £100,000. They separated quite quickly and tried to begin divorce proceedings, despite enormous pressure from friends and family not to. They eventually did formalise a divorce although they could never quite shake each other out of their minds.

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This engaging and well-researched book follows Delevingne’s path round the world, her numerous affairs and charts her slow decline as world events reduced her to an isolated position with nothing to show for her life. Back home in London she was considered a deserter for having spent the early war in America. Castlerosse wasn’t much better, hiding in Ireland with his second wife.

There is no attempt by Spence to create a moral story out of Delevingne’s hedonistic approach to life, and your own reaction to her colourful life and surroundings will depend on your own outlook. Really it is the story of someone determined to live life the way she wanted. She was not a con artist looking for marks neither a prostitute nor was she wanting to leave her mark in history. She was just Doris Delevingne. Although Cleopatra Grip would have been a better name.


❉ ‘The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne’ by Lyndsy Spence will be published by The History Press on 7 November, RRP £20.00

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