TRYING TO PLEASE
By John Julius Norwich
Axios Press, $20, 425 pages, illustrated
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
Some autobiographies manage to have just the right title, and this is one of them. It is not surprising that as the only
child of two titanic figures, born late in life after they had all but given up hope of ever having children, John Julius Cooper (Viscount Norwich is the title he inherited from his father) seems from his very cradle to have cultivated trying to please. Although it is clear from this very amiable account that Duff and Lady Diana Cooper were fond and affectionate parents, they undeniably were larger-than-life characters - at home as well as on the larger stages where they made their names.
A brilliant and principled statesman and parliamentarian, Duff Cooper not only served with distinction in a variety of senior posts in the British Cabinet but found time to serve bravely in World War I and write splendid books, including a much-admired biography of King David. Although he was a descendant of King George III through an illegitimate child of King William IV (like his cousin current British Prime Minister David Cameron) his aristocratic bona fides couldn't match those of his wife, the daughter of the Duke of Rutland.
But Lady Diana was no ordinary upper-class English rose: She was perhaps the first person from such a background to go on the stage, wowing audiences on both sides of the Atlantic in Max Reinhardt's blockbuster "The Miracle." So although Mr. Norwich has had an interesting career as a diplomat and author and led a complicated private life, all gracefully and appropriately reflected in these pages, it is the up-close-and-personal portraits of his celebrated parents - and the unique perspectives on the great and good (and not so good) he met through them - that are most compelling here.
How many other teenagers were taken to lunch with Winston Churchill and can recount having disappointed the wartime prime minister with his lukewarm response to the disruptions wrought at his school by the V1 and V2 Doodlebug flying bombs? But when the great man fumbled in his pocket and tipped him twice as much as any other adult had ever done, he felt that he had been forgiven. Although Mr. Norwich had heard his father's exasperated outbursts about constantly being caught in the middle between Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, he was flabbergasted by the French leader's exquisite courtesy to him:
"I still remember my astonishment as he rose to his feet - all six foot six of him - to shake my hand. It had never occurred to me that so distinguished a figure would get up to greet a sixteen-year-old boy; but he did, and I have never forgotten it."
The accident of his birth (by Caesarian section, thus the middle name Julius) - and, it must be added, the unusually inclusive attitude of his parents - have given Mr. Norwich many such priceless perspectives, reflected in his view of historical events, such as the abdication of Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor:
"My parents and I often saw the Windsors in Paris during the 1950s. Every time we did so I thanked heaven yet again for his abdication."
Mr. Norwich is much less interested than other observers in the unusual nature of his parents' marriage, which was full of love and genuine devotion but short on fidelity. As with so much about this remarkable couple, he takes all that for granted. But he bears witness to many admirable sides to their nature. We know from Diana Cooper's autobiography that Duff got out of the Duke of Westminster's car rather than listen to his anti-Semitic diatribes, and their son gives vivid testimony to the strength of her feelings on the subject.
Returning from his first day at school and parroting a fellow pupil's comment about another boy being a Jew, young Norwich found himself instantly the recipient of "a stinging slap across the face" from his mother: "And what's wrong with the Jews, pray? Never, EVER, let me hear you say that sort of thing again," he writes about this early but obviously memorable maternal lesson.
Mr. Norwich recently gave an interview to a British publication in which he averred modestly that, really, he was quite shallow. Although it is hardly a term that readers of his "History of Venice" or of his exhaustive three-volume "Byzantium" would apply to their author, it is, sadly, perhaps all too appropriate when it comes to "Trying to Please."
It isn't his fault that not only did his parents loom so large in real life, but that each wrote memorable memoirs of such splendor and vividness that they inevitably dwarf this one. The inevitable comparisons cannot be to his advantage, partly because of the quality of their prose and the depth of their self-examination.
His mother's three volumes, each with a title drawn from that greatest of English lyric poems, Wordsworth's monumental "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," radiated a passion that was key to the enchantment she cast on so many. His father's "Old Men Forget" (inaptly titled except for saying what it was not because he wasn't that old when he wrote it and appeared to have forgotten little) was not only beautifully written but generally regarded as one of the great British political autobiographies of the 20th century.
But on its own terms - and Mr. Norwich is clearly very much his own man, not just interesting for being Duff Cooper's son - "Trying to Please" is a success, for it is indeed attractive and winning - all in all a very pleasant read and, with its unusually modest price, a bargain to boot.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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