I knew Kenneth Rose (1924–2014) reasonably well. We had friends in common and were colleagues in the sense that we both contributed to the Daily or the Sunday Telegraph. Kenneth’s “Albany” column for the Sunday Telegraph took its name from the exclusive building in Piccadilly where from the eighteenth century onwards members of parliament and famous men of letters have had chambers. To judge from his column, Kenneth spent his days in the company of those whom he could admire for their political and cultural successes, or simply for their rank. Conversation with confidential sources of information, as he puts it, provided the raw material of his column, and evidently he also kept an ongoing journal in which he wrote up everything he had heard. In a preface, D. R. Thorpe writes that Who’s In, Who’s Out is merely a selection from six million words stored in three hundred fifty boxes in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Intending to set the context, Thorpe has also felt the need to introduce each passing year of the journal with a page or two of his own.
Snobbery is pretty harmless, as much an entertainment as a vice. One side of me is quite prepared to believe that Kenneth was a snob, a complete snob, and nothing but a snob. He never mentions anyone lacking social significance, and his books praise obviously praiseworthy public figures such as Lord Curzon, King George V, and members of the Cecil family. Victor, the third Lord Rothschild, was a man just as distinguished as intimidating. Kenneth’s biography of him is a labor of love.
The journal opens in June 1944 and immediately poses questions about Kenneth’s personality. A German flying bomb had hit the Guards Chapel in Wellington Barracks, killing and injuring hundreds in the congregation, many of them senior officers. “I was asked to lead a company of guardsmen in rescue and clearing work,” Kenneth wrote in a letter to his parents, also included among the diary entries. In the first place, how had he been recruited and then commissioned into the Welsh Guards? And then why was someone so junior and so unphysical asked to undertake such heavy and responsibility-laden work? Without explaining how it came about, he obtained a temporary post-war job teaching at Eton. Almost becoming an honorary Etonian, he made lifelong friends with some on the College’s permanent staff such as the aristocratic Giles St Aubyn and Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Hartley, a couple of legendary wealth remembered for spoiling the boys in their house. Although still a nonentity in November 1945, Kenneth was able to state that “Anthony Eden got me tickets for a seat under the Gallery” to attend a debate in the House of Commons. Just one year later: “Found myself in a corner next to Harold Macmillan the politician. He told me all about the new Conservative Party.” A few short years later still, and it’s lunch at Coppins with Marina, Duchess of Kent, and her children (one of whom is “Prince Eddie” to Kenneth), and dinner at the Beefsteak with Lord Carrington (not yet Foreign Secretary), and “Much talk” with Harold Nicolson (keeper of a journal that perhaps served as a model for Rose). Page after page, the identifying footnotes read like a supplement to the Dictionary of National Biography.
At an audience with Archbishop Makarios, President of Cyprus, Kenneth suggests that Princess Alexandra might visit as a representative of the British royal family. In Washington, Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General, “seems in no hurry to bring our agreeable talk to an end. I ask him one or two questions about his use of leisure.” Deposed by a military coup, King Constantine of Greece wonders whether to write to thank Prime Minister Harold Wilson for some agreeable remarks until Kenneth advises, “I say it can do no harm and might do good.” In Madrid, Juan Carlos, not yet King of Spain, asks Kenneth to call at the Zarzuela Palace and then proves outspoken about his relations to his countryman General Franco. At Buckingham Palace, the Queen Mother “greets me as if I were the one person she had been longing to see.” Edward Heath has gone down in history as a busted flush, but in a supreme moment at a cocktail party he pays his due to Kenneth: “The Prime Minister asks my opinion.”
Another side of me has the very different belief that the social climbing and name-dropping is not what it might seem, but is instead evidence of insecurity. “Never apologize, never explain” is the operative stratagem for someone anxious to be taken at face value. Judging from the internal evidence of his journal, Kenneth had no private life at all, presumably for fear that anyone who held his hand might get to know the hidden Kenneth and betray him. Undoubtedly intelligent, undoubtedly affable, Kenneth was at pains to please and did it well. As far as can be seen, he neither gave nor took offense. The Suez Crisis in 1956 was a rare moment when he allowed himself to express his own emotion. Arriving at parliament, Prime Minister Anthony Eden, the creator of the crisis but also its victim, spots that Kenneth is already there, assumes him to be a supporter, and waves and smiles. “This makes me feel rather ill,” Kenneth noted, though not ill enough to affect his good relationship with Eden. Sir Oswald Mosley was a Fascist and anti-Semite till the end of his life, yet Kenneth is willing to have lunch with him and finds him “as charming in manner and as moderate in his views as when I saw him a few weeks ago in Paris. He is obviously determined to live down the charge of anti-Semitism.” Mosley very well knew what he was doing, and plainly Kenneth was participating of his own free will in a masquerade.
“Kenneth never asserted his Jewishness,” D. J. Thorpe lets drop in his editorial preface, adding that “there were some close friends who did not know he was Jewish.” Kenneth’s parents, Jacob and Ada Rosenwige, changed their name to Jack and Ada Rose. In common with Jews in their lifetime, the Roses were trying to discover how to fit in with those among whom they lived. Theoretically, Communism and Zionism were alternate promises of equality, but these movements were for the masses, not for those determined to depend upon themselves. On the two occasions when Kenneth visited Israel, he put himself in the hands of the British embassy—more a tourist than a journalist. The interview he had with David Ben-Gurion was hardly more than a formality. For Kenneth, an ordered life lay in joining familiar institutions, and if this made him something of a caricature, at least he was safe.
On July 26, 1959, Kenneth Rose recorded in his journal that James Pope-Hennessy (1916–74) came to dine so that they could discuss the royal biographies each was writing. James had telephoned “to ask if he can bring his new friend, a New Zealand ballet dancer.” Kenneth notes: “Also very indiscreet about his private life, which I had long suspected. I do hope he does not one day fall into serious trouble.”
Royal biography, by definition, is a very special form of promotional literature. Sir Owen Morshead, the Keeper of the Royal Archives and therefore the provider and censor of relevant documentation, had invited Pope-Hennessy to write the biography of Queen Mary, the wife of King George V. It was an inspired choice. James was a stylish writer whose approval of Queen Mary would be convincing because it was so unlikely. His father was a general from the First World War, his mother a bluestocking whose biographies and essays earned her the title of Dame. I knew Sir John Pope-Hennessy, the art historian, museum director, and James’s forbidding elder brother. In the intellectual climate of the period, someone from such a background was virtually certain to temper admiration with envy, damning royalty with faint praise. James held “the sane view that the royal family are not like human beings at all,” going on to have a laugh, “They all eat enormously.” Or again, he thought it was possible to get on plain terms with royal persons as a species, “like an ornithologist making friends with some rare wild duck.” In 1939, at the age of twenty-three, he had accepted a post as secretary to Sir Hubert Young, the Governor of Trinidad. Only days after his arrival there, he couldn’t contain his sense of superiority, writing to a friend in London:
The British Empire, as I now see it, is one of the most aesthetically criminal and ghastly things evolved since the world began. Return the colonies to Germany; let the Nazis rule the world; at least they might avoid reproducing this unthinkable, unspeakable atmosphere of bungalows . . . trim gardens and illiteracy.
At one point he shared a flat with Guy Burgess, who was already betraying Foreign Office documents to the Soviet Union—James was not a traitor but similarly a loose cannon in character. For whatever reason, Hugo Vickers, the otherwise thorough editor of TheQuest for Queen Mary—a reissue and expansion of Pope-Hennessy’s 1959 biography—does not mention Pope-Hennessy’s Burgess connection.
Queen Mary was the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Teck, German aristocrats but in no position to contribute anything much to the British Crown. A dynastic marriage had been arranged for her and the Duke of Clarence, the elder son of the then–Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), and therefore next in line to be king. The death of the Duke of Clarence in 1892 at the age of twenty-eight gave rise to lurid rumors that he had been murdered on account of his supposed homosexuality. The crisis shook the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign. After a suitable period of mourning, Mary was shunted on to Clarence’s younger brother, now due to become King George V. The arrangement was always suspect. Their eldest son was the Duke of Windsor, whose marriage to Mrs. Simpson and enforced abdication gave rise to another serious threat to the monarchy.
Pope-Hennessy sought out and interviewed whoever had known Queen Mary and could tell him what the unfortunate lady had thought about the strange way she had been summarily dispatched to two brothers in turn. He then wrote up what he had heard from these elderly courtiers and survivors, some of it untrustworthy, most of it trivial. An effort of imagination and memory is required to keep in mind who exactly are Alice, Countess of Athlone; Duke Philipp of Württemberg; Princess Arthur of Connaught; Prince and Princess Dietrich von Wied; and about a dozen more of the same, and why exactly they come into the picture.
On January 25, 1974 Kenneth Rose noted in his journal that his earlier fears for Pope-Hennessy had come true. “Read the awful news that James Pope-Hennessy has been found murdered in his London flat . . . . I suspect there may be some appalling homosexual involvement behind the crime.” Published in 1981, A Lonely Business is a selection of Pope-Hennessy’s letters, diaries, and these interviews, altogether a memorial that weighs heavily on The Quest for Queen Mary. Traveling in Asia, he groans to one of his correspondents, “Everybody seems to have read Queen Mary, makes me wish I hadn’t written it.” Seemingly he was choosing to be remembered for his private life with Heinz, Pedrito, Naval Ratings, a black-leather hustler in San Francisco, Rudolf who treated him as if he were “the whole population of Sodom and Gomorrah,” and the ex-paratrooper with whom he lived and of whom he commented, “Fights are so good for him, and such fun to hear about.” In the case of James Pope-Hennessy, the instinct for self-preservation was absent, while in the case of Kenneth Rose it was over-developed. And these opposites, come to think of it, are in mortal play at this moment, when the British are having to decide how much of their identity they wish to preserve.
1Who’s In, Who’s Out: The Journals of Kenneth Rose: Volume One, 1944–1979, edited by D. R. Thorpe; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 640 pages, $28.99.
2The Quest for Queen Mary, by James Pope-Hennessy, edited by Hugo Vickers; Hodder & Stoughton, 336 pages, $32.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 8, on page 68
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