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Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Inside LORD OF HOSTS: An Excerpt


A look between the covers of the new biography of Britain's most preposterous M.P.: Rich, American, and Gay.

Lord of Hosts: The Life of Sir Henry 'Chips' Channon
Richard Carreno
ISBN 978-1-257-02549-7
Publisher: WritersClearinghousePress
Paper 176 pp
Publication Date: April 2011
Details: LORDofHOSTSChipsChannon.webs.com
Contact: Writers.Clearinghouse@comcast.com 

Around noon on Wednesday, 25 November 1947, Chips rose from his bed in the 'Beidermeier' room with greater purpose than usual. Within hours, his grandest party would be staged at No. 5; staff readied to 'play up' the house.

Chips was thankful that he wasn't alone in seeing things through. Peter had been living off and on at No. 5, and had finally taken a room in a third-floor attic in a semi-permanent way. Ostensibly, Peter had joined the household to sort out Kelevdon Hall's war-neglected gardens. That was since April. But as time went on, Coats also became something of a major-domo. Or, No. 5's 'hostess.' From his experience as a war-time aide-de-camp, Chips' newest factotum knew something about household efficiency, and, with light humor, he never missed a beat.

During the worst of times, Chips considered a domestic staff numbering at least a dozen as the best operating team. Among them were footmen, butlers, and housekeepers, all of whom had downstairs and upstairs work assignments. No. 5's kitchen hummed below the Amalienburg dining-room; food was silently lifted to dinner guests by a dumb waiter. Nearby were a plate room, scullery, larder, and dry store.

The war years reduced staff to six, including the chief over-seer, Head Butler Lambert; his underling Bruno; and First Footman Harold. This number was obviously now well below that which Chips liked to have about. With gardeners and supply help, Chips in more tranquil times could deploy a small army, running up to the dozens.

Yet he fared better than most. Unlike many households that early on in the conflict lost key staff to the war effort, Chips was able to hold on to his Italian chef well into 1942. 'I am having domestic difficulties with my staff,' he moaned, 'as the Ministry of Labour wish to call up both my butler and the cook. I mustn't grumble, as I have had three years and three months of comfort, even luxury....'

Faced with austerity, Chips put on a brave face. Nevertheless, coupon rationing and shortages didn't quite seem to apply to him, and Chips spent as freely as ever. Delicacies were less than plentiful. Still, a typical menu at Scholss Chips, even as London tightened its belt, might include oysters, salmon, dressed crab and minced chicken, or blinis and platefuls of caviar, served with Swedish schnapps. In between, brandy and Champagne, Chips' favorite party drink at £3 a bottle, flowed.

True, grapes and peaches 'abounded' at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. 'Otherwise,' wrote Philip Ziegler, 'the shelves even at Fortnum's usually proved a glamorous delusion: sumptuous chocolates, but on ration; bright bottles or packets of sauces or chutneys, which availed little without the food they were supposed to garnish.' 'Luxury fruits' were 'virtually unobtainable,' or for most people, 'simply too expensive,' according to Hugh David. At Fortnum's, a 'tactful' notice also disheartened many of its well-heeled -- and increasingly, thirsty -- patrons. 'No whiskey, no rum, no gin.' (Nonetheless, Gordon's Gin maintained a mammoth sign over Piccadilly Circus throughout the war).

Post-war deprivation plagued virtually all classes of Londoners. Still, on this November day, Chips pulled out the stops for a 'grand and glittering' party to commemorate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Royal Navy Lieutenant Philip Mounbatten, the newly named Duke of Edinburgh. With remarkable prescience, Chips -- always a Page Six gossip -- had intuitively sensed, as early as in 1944, that the future Elizabeth II would marry Louis Mountbatten's nephew.

But Chips was also smarting. Old wounds between he and the Queen -- they had known each other socially in his post-Oxford years when she was still a Bowes-Lyon -- seemed to haunt him. Did the King and Queen still hold it against him that he, so long ago, had supported Wallis Simpson's claim to the King's brother?

Perhaps the slight was more recent. Chips had been asked to lend, maybe even let, No. 5 to Elizabeth and Philip for several months. He had declined. 'Too much of an upheaval.'

Of one thing Chips was certain. That rapscallion, Sir David Bowes-Lyon, the Queen's favorite brother, was behind the scenes fanning flames of friction.

Whatever caused his disfavor, the end result was the same: Chips hadn't been invited to any of the numerous rounds of royal celebrations in the run-up to Lilibet's wedding -- not to such large, sparkling soirées as the 'Evening Party' at Buckingham Palace, nor to smaller, more intimate gatherings as the 'Afternoon Party' at St. James's Palace. Nor was he 'commanded' to the wedding itself on 20 November; instead, shunted to the Parliamentary enclosure at Westminster Abbey, the wedding site.

Chips did attend a 17 November a gift-viewing reception at St. James's, hosted by the King and Queen. But the event's exclusivity was problematic; roughly 2,499 other guests also showed up. Chips's gift was a silver box. He called the bibelot a 'faux Fabergé.' A newspaper reference called it an out-and-out 'imitation.'

Despite some misgivings, Chips was determined to recognize the newlyweds in full party mode -- even if the 'guests of honour' would somehow not be present. The white-tie celebration would be fabulous, a tribute to No. 5 style. This, in contrast to Princess Elizabeth's actual nuptials. Given current economic belt-tightening, that ceremony had been billed as an 'Austerity Wedding;' formal dress, optional.

Peter saw to it that yellow chrysanthemums, which he himself had nurtured in Kelvedon's gardens, 'lit up' No. 5. He tended to the staff. Spit-and-polished brass buttons gleamed on their scarlet-and-gold colored liveries.

Peter was best in handling these preparations.

Chips' rapport with staff was never close. No wonder. 'These damned, inefficient all too numerous servants never fill my ink-stand,' he'd bellyache. 'Chips was quite mean about paying servants,' an acquaintance of Chips from Westminster told me. On one occasion, Chips was especially vexed, bleating about the cost of one particular houseman. 'He takes as much from the cellar as I pay him.'

At Lady Emerald Cunard's house at 7 Grosvenor Square, her first footman, Robert A. Perkins, thought that Chips had little 'time for servants, and he showed it.' 'I didn't like Sir Henry Channon,' Perkins, years later, told The Times.

At work, Chips could put on another face. 'He was a nice chap,' a former office worker, responsible for Chips' constituency mail, told me. 'He was always very grateful.' She, in turn, was grateful for his largess when she witnessed Chips' 1951 will. He tipped her £2/10.

Staff responsibilities for the 25 November 'wedding party' excluded organizing the drinks cabinet. This was Chips' favorite hosting activity, and he commandeered it for himself. As usual, Chips would experiment with cocktail concoctions laced with the amphetamine Benzedrine. '[W]hich I find always makes a party go,' Chips, the party-planner, observed cheerfully.

By 8:30, guests began arriving. Rather than an A-list of English Royalties, Chips had to settle for the Crowned Heads of Europe. Even this 'B-list,' not surprisingly, had its impressive side. A bevy of queens and Queens. Through thick and thin, Alan Clark had explained when we spoke, Chips had always prevailed as 'a social magnet for the governing class.'

Chips had hoped for a strong poker hand, three Queens. He wound up with two, Victoria Eugénie of Spain and Helen of Romania -- both still in London following their attendance at the wedding, five days before. Queen Frederika of the Hellenes -- 'Queen Freddie,' to Chips -- had sent her regrets.

Chips was on best behavior. He greeted Victoria Eugénie on the doorstep. Five minutes later Helen and her sister, the Duchess of Aosta, drove up in a black cab. The Romanian Queen was 'quietly elegant,' in a black dress with an ermine jacket. Noël Coward, one of the first to arrive, was already milling about, wearing cufflinks he claimed, in a cheeky quip, as being the 'Coward emeralds.' (Coward later learned that the gems, which he had snapped up in Singapore, weren't so special after all; they were flawed and 'cheap.')

Fueled by booze and Benzedrine, the soirée soon buzzed. 'Red [-coated] servants salaaming and the English curtseying and bowing,' Hugo Vickers recalled. '[E]veryone was in gala dress -- white ties and the women dripping with jewels,' Chips gushed. He singled out the plump Queen Victoria Eugénie, a 'strapping Coburg,' in his view, for special attention. The jolly, straight-forward Queen just glowed. All in all, Chips said, 'I never saw a lovelier sight.'

Dinner, as was the custom, was served by candlelight; its illumination glowed brilliant against the mirrored walls of the Amalienburg dining-room. Guests surrounded a mammoth French baroque table, laden with silver serving pieces. They ate from supper plates of 18th-century Meissen porcelain.

For other dining pieces, Chips had selected the 'very grand' gold-plate he had bought thirteen years before in New York from Mrs. Rockefeller McCormick, a Society doyenne he knew from Chicago. Grand, indeed. The gold-plate service, stamped with the Borghese arms with the French Imperial Crown, had originally been a gift from Napoleon I to his sister Pauline upon her wedding to Prince Borghese of Rome.

The gold-plate twinkled in the candlelight.

After dinner, the guests moved upstairs, where, over brandy, the two Queens entertained 'rival' courts. Chips was in charge of introductions. Around midnight, Queen Helen descended to the ground floor morning room, and soon after Chips arranged for her driver to collect her and the Duchess of Aosta. 'I have always loved this pair of Greek swans,' Chips chirped.

Queen Victoria Eugénie stayed on, 'ensconced' on a sofa between Peter Coats and Sachevererell 'Sachie' Sitwill, who had arrived after dinner. At 4 o'clock the next morning, the last guests departed.

'London rings with tales of my party,' Chips swooned. 'A great, great success.... Three Queens -- it would have been like a hand in poker. But a pair is not bad.... But I am haunted by Queen Helen's remark to me, "When I am back behind the Iron Curtain, I shall wonder whether this is all a dream."'

Somerset Maugham was among the last to leave. The fête, he concluded, was Chips' finest hour. 'This is the apogée of your career,' Maugham whispered into Channon's ear.

In those chilly, early morning hours of 26 November, after a hard night's work, Chips ruminated over Willy Maugham's remark. 'In a way it was,' he thought, tinged with melancholy. He may not be Lord Westover of Kelvedon, at least, not yet. But still -- blasphemy, be damned! -- 'I am the Lord of Hosts.'