Reviewed by Liz Dexter
First of all, because this is the question everyone will ask: yes, Philip Sassoon was a distant cousin of the First World War poet, Siegfried – their grandfathers were half-brothers. Philip Sassoon (1888-1939) was a man who was born into a huge inheritance and used it to create amazing houses in Kent, North London and central London, where he hosted parties, events, private dinners, weekends and retreats for many of the great and the good in literature and, especially, politics and royalty. Although he’s little-known today, he was instrumental in providing the locations and comforts for many important meetings in politics between the world wars.
Damian Collins, MP for the same constituency that Sassoon held almost uncontested (literally, sometimes) for three and a half decades, only came across his predecessor when he visited the estate of Port Lympne, which Sassoon created from nothing and fitted out lavishly. He posits that Sassoon always felt something of an outsider due to his ‘oriental’ and Jewish heritage, and there’s an implicit suggestion that this is the reason that this the first biography of the man to emerge. However, there may be other reasons for this.
Collins is the first to admit that documented information on anything but Sassoon’s most public life is lacking. He wasn’t able to discover Sassoon’s sexuality, and wasn’t able to find that he shared his life with any long-term partner, although there were travels with friends and he was close to his sister and her children through his life. What he is left with is letters to his confidants and records in other people’s books and diaries of the lavish parties and country house weekends that he hosted. This means that Collins has to fill in the background of the book with details of the sweep of history rather than information on Sassoon’s intimate life. Fortunately, having studied Modern History at Oxford, Collins is up to this task.
The book is well referenced and footnotes give details on anything that needs to be known immediately. This opens up the book to the ‘expert’ and new reader, as if you have a good working knowledge of inter-war history and personalities, you will know what the League of Nations was and who Sacheverell Sitwell was related to, but anyone coming from a different angle may need these quick reminders. There’s a good index but no bibliography to pull the references together.
Philip Sassoon’s involvement in political and royal life in the 1920s and 1930s was unprecedented, and Noel Coward was already saying his like would never be seen again. But it was also marked by death and destruction, with his parents and two grandparents dying within a couple of years pre-war, many of his contemporaries being killed in the First World War while he held a staff job with Haig, and other friends such as T.E. Lawrence dying in accidents: ‘The tragedy of lives cut sown in their prime never seemed far from the world of Philip Sassoon’. Perhaps it was this that made him noticeably clingy, right from gifting school friends with expensive baubles to being a bit over the top with political and royal visitors. It’s also interesting and telling that he left no record of personal feelings when he went on aeroplane tours and visited the lands of his forebears. He also distanced himself from Siegfried, perhaps because the poet was openly critical of those with staff jobs during the war.
As regards his networks and parties, he went from hosting Lloyd George during a nervous collapse to regular visits from the Royal Family, ‘Cabinet luncheons’ at his Park Lane address after Cabinet meetings of government, and hosting discussions on German rearmament, peace-building in Ireland and other major affairs at his estate in Port Lympne, where he was able to offer luxurious surroundings and/or the loan of smaller private houses around the estate. It’s particularly notable that he both entertained the prime ministers of Britain and France when they were discussing the enforcement of the Versailles Treaty and its dismemberment in 1938. His last big act was to plan and run a huge event where the French President Lebrun addressed both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, a ground-breaking and fitting last flourish. However, amongst all the pomp and interior decorators, he also appeared to care for his constituency, even going so far as to build some model housing estates for people in the area.
It was a shame that the author didn’t have access to as much private information as public. This makes the book of necessity more of an outward portrait and history of the times. But what times, and what a prominent member of society and political circles, which must have been a joy to write about, and it’s written about well.
Liz Dexter reads a lot about mid-20th century figures and likes to see mentions of Sitwells and Edens pop up. She blogs about books at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.
Damian Collins, Charmed Life: The Phenomenal World of Philip Sassoon (Harper Collins, 2016) 978-0008127602, 400pp., hardback.
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