Clarissa Eden obituary | Conservatives

Clarissa Eden, the Countess of Avon, who has died at the age of 101, is remembered for her comment, as Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s wife during the Suez crisis in 1956, that she “sometimes felt the Suez Canal flow through my living room”. It only partially reflected the spirit of a stylish, intellectual woman who was almost inadvertently at the center of Britain’s political life in the mid-1950s.

Although she was descended from the Churchill dynasty, politics hardly affected her early life. The third child and only daughter of Winston Churchill’s younger brother, John Spencer-Churchill, a stockbroker, and Lady Gwendoline Bertie, daughter of the 7th Earl of Abingdon, Clarissa Churchill, born in London, were more attracted to the liberal and intellectual milieu . her cultured mother, a famous beauty, than to politics.

About her uncle Winston, she recalled attending lunches in the 1930s in his country house, Chartwell, where, at the peak of his career, he “endlessly told us there would be a war and we would all be gassed. “.

An impeccable education, not uncommon among girls in her class, ended when, as a 16-year-old, she was sent to Paris with two friends and a chaperone to be “finished.” She intended to paint, but was preoccupied with the glitter of Parisian society and would arrive at parties in a green Rolls-Royce owned by Hugo Baring of the banking family. It was not until she went to Oxford in 1940 to study philosophy that she discovered a direction for her life.

Although she was not a bachelor, she studied seriously and found Oxford’s intellectual life “a revelation, terribly exciting”. Wise, beautiful and original, she was taken up by the elite, became a “dons’ delight” and mixed with the pillars of academia – Maurice Bowra, David Cecil and Isaiah Berlin – and in the artistic world, including the composer, novelist and painter Gerald Berners, photographer Cecil Beaton, painter Lucian Freud and authors Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh and Elizabeth Bowen.

Clarissa and Anthony Eden on their 1952 wedding anniversary in the garden of No. 10 with their uncle and aunt Winston and Clementine Churchill. Photo: ANL / Rex / Shutterstock

She spent the rest of World War II decoding telegrams in the basement of the State Department while living on top of the Dorchester Hotel in cheap rooms (most people avoided the upper floors due to the bombing); and she worked for a British information newspaper aimed at the Russian allies.

With no intention of pursuing a career, but without a private income, at the end of the war she got a job reviewing theater, music and art in Vogue’s Spotlight column, where she became friends with theater director Peter Brook and then as a publicist with film producer Alexander Cord.

On the set of The Third Man, which Korda co-produced, she met Orson Welles, who became a dinner buddy and was one of the few actors she liked, even though the withdrawn and complex Greta Garbo became her close friend. She went on to become an editor at George Weidenfeld’s newly established publishing house.

She had first met Anthony Eden, then respected as one of the most accomplished diplomats of the time, when she was a schoolgirl, but it was not until 1946, when Eden was in opposition and in the dying stages of her first marriage, with Beatrice Beckett (the were divorced in 1950) that they met again, for a dinner party. They were just friends for years; Clarissa nurtured no thoughts of a closer connection “because he was a politician, to begin with”.

It came as a complete surprise to all her friends when, in August 1952, with only two days’ notice, they announced their plans to marry. The combination of Secretary of State Eden’s glamor and Clarissa’s elegance, youth, and family connections ensured that the marriage and reception at 10 Downing Street, hosted by Winston and Clemmie Churchill, made international headlines.

Anthony and Clarissa Eden in 1962.
Anthony and Clarissa Eden in 1962. Photo: Anthony Wallace / ANL / Rex / Shutterstock

With no experience as a politician’s wife, Clarissa was thrown into the world of diplomacy and entertaining world leaders, which she handled with style. But just nine months into the marriage, Eden contracted an illness that required three surgeries to save his life. For the rest of their marriage, during his successive illness, Clarissa devoted herself to his care.

Her experience as Secretary of State’s wife was good training for Eden’s long-awaited exaltation at Churchill’s retirement to the post in April 1955 – a move welcomed by the Conservative Party. Eden, the heir apparent for a decade and deputy since 1951, became more and more annoyed by Churchill’s refusal to leave. Clarissa got used to living at 10 Downing Street, even though she was shocked by the pace of life at the top. “I’ve never seen a job like this in my life before – work from dawn to two in the morning – and I just felt like this is so awful, this life, that I have to tailor my life to his,” she said.

Although it meant sacrificing time with her friends, she gained joy and interest by being the focal point of the country’s political life. Among global figures, she counted as friends the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who “always made terribly funny jokes” and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India – “a handsome man” with “great spirituality”.

Clarissa, however, had little taste for political intrigue. During the Suez Crisis, which erupted in July 1956 after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, her role was to “strengthen” Eden in the No. 10 feverish atmosphere as he moved toward a resolution. about using force against Nasser – a policy that divided parliament, families and friends. Although Clarissa never wavered, she was curious enough to walk (unnoticed) up Whitehall from No. 10 to even observe the massive anti-war demonstration in Trafalgar Square.

Clarissa Eden at her home in London in 2010. Photo: Suki Dhanda / The Observer

The crisis would tarnish Eden’s reputation and end his political career. Illness forced him to retire a few months later, in January 1957. In 1961, he was raised to be the Earl of Avon. For Clarissa, it was an opportunity for them to build a life together and enjoy their mutual appreciation of art and culture and the company of old friends. Although abroad most of the year, Clarissa read and cultivated a magnificent garden in the peaceful village of Alvediston, Wiltshire.

When Eden died in 1977, Clarissa was 56. She rediscovered her intellectual friends from “before Anthony”, as she put it, became an intrepid traveler to undiscovered places, began diving and re-entered London’s social life. As the guardian of the flame, she fiercely defended the reputation of Eden, believing that history should judge him in the longer perspective of his career as a capable statesman over four crucial decades of the 20th century, rather than solely through Suez’s prism.

I got to know Clarissa in her later years, when her typically straightforward philosophy, with so many friends dying, was “to make new ones”. She asked me to edit her 2007 memoir From Churchill to Eden. She still radiated extraordinary beauty and elegance.

Her gift for friendship was inspiring; she was witty, always curious, impatient with convention and deception, and she had an intellectual honesty, a finely tuned sense of culture, a completely original view of people, and a conversational style had now almost disappeared. She enlightened every company she reached.

Anne Clarissa Eden, Countess of Avon, born June 28, 1920; died 15 November 2021

Cate Haste died in April 2021

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