Telling Tales: The Fabulous Lives of Anita Leslie By Penny Perrick
For shame. A mere ten months after being
sacked from taking Denis O’Brien’s shilling at The Sunday Independent for book reviews, I am now back in
saddle with a book review in today’s Sunday Times, thus taking Rupert Murdoch’s
shilling. I’m still waiting for The Guardian to come knocking.
Telling Tales: The Fabulous
Lives of Anita Leslie
By Penny Perrick
(Lilliput Press, €20 p/b)
The Anglo-Irish Leslie clan
are nowadays best known as the purveyors of stately pile Castle Leslie, which
entered the wider public consciousness when the wedding of Paul McCartney and
Heather Mills took place there in 2002. But the Co. Monaghan estate, Glaslough,
has been in the family since 1665.
Anita Leslie (1914-1985) was the eldest
child, and only daughter, of Shane Leslie and his American wife, Marjorie Ide.
That made her the elder sister of perhaps more well-known figures Jack
(1916-2016), Ireland’s most famous octogenarian dance music aficionado, and
Desmond (1921-2001), variously Spitfire pilot, electronic music pioneer,
novelist, UFO enthusiast and grand-scale womaniser.
Jonathan Swift, a regular visitor, wrote: Here
I am in Castle Leslie/With rows of books upon the shelves/Written by
the Leslies/All about themselves, and in this respect Anita followed
the family tradition, as a prolific producer of anodyne but not terribly
well-researched biographies of her famous relatives, among whom numbered
cousins Winston Churchill and sculptress Clare Sheridan. However, her subjects
also included Rodin, Francis Chichester and Madame Tussaud, and she authored several
volumes of autobiography.
Penny Perrick, a former fashion editor for Vogue and columnist for The Sun and The Times, does much to generate sympathy for her privileged and somewhat
ditzy subject, who, according to her publisher, ‘never quite got the hang of
spelling and punctuation’. The Leslie children - and, as a girl, Anita in
particular - were woefully neglected by their parents. Shane, an Irish
nationalist and Catholic convert (which did nothing to curb his philandering)
seems to have had little interest in having children. Anita wrote: ‘I think we
realised fairly early that our own father did not exactly dislike us – he would
merely have preferred us not to have been born.’ Similarly, Marjorie ‘regarded
schools as useful establishments, like kennels, where you could plonk your
children when you wanted to travel…and where you could remove them when you
thought that their company might be amusing for awhile.’ The worst of these
‘kennels’ was the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton: books other than
school books were prohibited, and Anita had to hide a copy of Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield up a chimney.
There followed a stint at a finishing school
in Paris, the horrors of the debutante season, and attempts at acting. But
Anita, although tall and attractive, acknowledged: ‘An odd streak in me
remained resentful of any attempt to cultivate the art of alluring the opposite
sex.’ She subsequently wrote to Shane that she never wanted to marry, ‘although
I might make quite an intelligent mistress – I don’t mind sacrificing my body
but not my freedom.’ Eventually, in 1937, she made a disastrous first marriage
to a penniless Russian aristocrat émigré, Paul Rodzianko – the only explanation
for which seems to be that it was done to get back at Marjorie.
World War 2 was when Anita came into her own,
and could be said to be the only time in her life when she knew what to do with
herself, or made herself useful to others. Initially, she enlisted in the
Mechanised Transport Corps and trained as an ambulance driver to get away from
Paul - ‘Only I could invent this way of running away from a husband.’ Although
pursued by Paul, who finally granted her a divorce in 1948, she served in
Egypt, Syria (where she edited a troops’ newspaper), Italy and France, and
became the only woman to win both the Desert Star and the Croix de Guerre.
The war brought several affairs, which became
quite messy, and at one point she declared that she wanted to marry two men:
Australian Colonel Philip Parbury, who later jilted her, and Colonel Peter
Wilson, who fathered her first child, Tarka. In 1949 she married Commander Bill
King, with whom she raised Tarka and their own daughter, Leonie, although
Wilson continued to live near Oranmore Castle in Galway, which Marjorie had
bought for Anita after the war.
Much of her later life was preoccupied with
the vicissitudes of maintaining the two draughty, leaky, dilapidated castles,
and a flat in London, as well as the horses and hunting associated with the Ascendancy
classes. She also became the classic ‘mother-in-law from hell’ for Tarka’s wife
Jane, micro managing her children’s lives. Indeed, Anita was not without her
dark side, and Perrick does not shy away from recounting her virulent pre-war
anti-semitism. She regarded Jews, along with intellectuals and the professional
classes, as ‘clever’ – not a compliment to someone who insisted that everything
should be ‘delightful and amusing’.
In some ways, the book’s style can mirror
that of its subject: it contains no index or footnotes, and will therefore be
of little use as an academic biography. However, it is a readable account of a
life that, if not exactly well lived, was rarely boring, and a time when, as
they say, one half didn’t know how the other half lived.