REDEEMING FEATURES: A MEMOIR
By Nicholas Haslam
Knopf, $30, 338 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
This is one of those books that comes to us across the Atlantic trailing clouds of glory in the form of over-the-top blurbs. Two otherwise sensible critics who should know better are unwise enough to use the term Proustian and one of them even goes on to say it is a masterpiece — after acknowledging that it is an overused word. In the end, puffs like this are counterproductive, because readers opening this book in search of a Proustian masterpiece are inevitably going to be disappointed. Although it is true that those who knew Proust personally were astonished to the point of disbelief that someone as seemingly trivial and shallow could in fact produce the true literary masterpiece that came from his pen.
To his credit, British interior designer Nicholas Haslam, renowned on both sides of the Atlantic for his work, makes no extravagant claims as a litterateur and is content to tell his story of life among the rich, famous and beautiful with charm and always con brio. Rather than producing a latter-day "Remembrance of Things Past," he provides huge gobs of gossipy Proustian raw material, served up undigested and untransmogrified into anything but what it is.
Taken for what it actually is, though, and in the right spirit, "Redeeming Features" can be enormous fun for readers, as Mr. Haslam whisks them through his 70 years among a group of, it must be admitted, uncommonly interesting people. His background is privileged: he grew up in a splendid English country house and went to that most prestigious of schools, Eton, where he embarked on a life of what would later become known as networking. His mother, a member of a distinguished English aristocratic family, a granddaughter of an earl and a god-daughter of Queen Victoria, provided all manner of connections, as did his diplomat father, an associate of John Maynard Keynes and a cousin of Jorge Luis Borges.
But the fascinating thing about Mr. Haslam is precisely this combination of the expected and surprising. It's not surprising that Diana Princess of Wales is a cousin, but Borges? And actress Jane Asher? Then, it turns out that before marrying his father and producing three sons of whom Nicholas is the youngest, his mother, the impeccably aristocratic Diana aka Diamond Ponsonby had taken herself off to America, plunged into the circle surrounding Fanny Brice and married a Jewish doctor in New York. Thus, when Mr. Haslam becomes a New Yorker, he finds himself with an American half-sister, Ann Loeb, married to the heir to the Brillo pad fortune. Not your everyday pack of English aristocratic connections.
So when, on his first visit to New York with his mother when in his mid-teens and still at Eton, his good looks get him swept up by an admirer into the world of Tallulah Bankhead, it turns out she had known his mother: "Remember her? Dahling of course I do. With Fanny Brice, dahling. Diamond something. Beautiful English girl with the deep voice." If Tallulah thought his mother had a deep voice, what must it have sounded like? Basso profundo? But it's not actually his mother's connections that launch him on his life of socializing, unless you count her genes. He does that all on his own, partly because he seems — by his own account but also by the undoubted receptivity of others — to have been very attractive to both sexes.
In "Redeeming Features," Mr. Haslam shares decade after decade of vignettes about all manner of celebrities, starting with the great figures he worked for in the fashion world like the legendary Diana Vreeland. Then its dinners a deux with an aging and stricken Cole Porter, a touching account of his legendary charm when it can manage to triumph over terrible pain from a leg injury.
Lunch with a vivacious Queen Mother Elizabeth at her Scottish castle vies with a portrait of her older daughter the queen joyously celebrating at a family party the night of Charles' wedding to Diana. He has closer connections still to Princess Margaret. And encountering her on the day that the Duchess of Windsor had died — just the kind of happenstance that is a feature of his life — the Princess drops the revealing remark about the woman who had stolen her uncle King Edward VIII: "It wasn't her we hated, it was him."
There's an indelible and fond portrait of the Duchess herself, in her element at lunch at The Colony in New York and at a soiree shortly thereafter. He also purveys an example of her wit, less well known than some and of particular piquancy to him. Hearing her husband correct a visitor (none other than Gen. Charles de Gaulle) referring to his niece by her childhood name of Princess Margaret Rose by saying that she has dropped the Rose, "the duchess's usual drawl became a whiplash. 'She's dropped the Rose and picked up the pansy.'"
Sometimes his stories do have a nasty sting to them, but often they are simply uniquely revealing. Visiting the burial site of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at Frogmore in the grounds of Windsor Castle in the company of his enduringly close friend, Lady Diana Cooper, who had known them well, he reports what is really a very interesting and informed judgment:
"It was touch-and-go for a long time. A lot of people wanted his plan to work, but she never let you feel she thought about it at all. … In many ways she was good for him. She made him read papers, meet ministers, keep appointments, which he dreaded. Even used to force him to make regular visits to Queen Mary, which he dreaded even more. It's always seemed odd to me that she, in every way so levelheaded, couldn't make him see the impossibility of it, in the end."
Nicholas Haslam may have been dedicatedly frivolous, but his book nonetheless contains some really valuable bits of the raw material of history. Considering the company he kept, how could it not?
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.