Sunday, 10 July 2011

Lesley Blanch ...the last of her kind ...

Lesley Blanch, MBE, FRSL (born June 6, 1904, London – died May 7, 2007, Garavan, near Menton, France was an English writer, fashion editor and writer of history.
A scholarly romantic, Blanch attended St. Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith. She would spend the greater part of her long life travelling about those remote regions her books record so vividly. Her lifelong passion was for Russia and the Middle East. She was, in the words of the historian Philip Mansel, “not a school, a trend, or a fashion, but a true original.”
Blanch studied painting at the Slade and went on to do private commissions, portraits and book jackets for T. S. Eliot at Faber amongst others. She soon turned to journalism, and was features editor of British Vogue from 1937-44. She covered various aspects of Britain at war for the Ministry of Information, and documented the lives of women in the forces with her friend the photographer Lee Miller. She married Robert Alan Wimberley Bicknell in 1930 and they were divorced in 1941, although the marriage had long since ceased. She claimed, according to an interview in The Sunday Times in August 2006, that she had married Bicknell in order to obtain a house in Richmond, near the Thames in London.
In 1945, she married the French novelist-diplomat Romain Kacew, aka Romain Gary. Life in the French diplomatic service took them to the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa, Mexico and the USA. In the USA they associated with Hollywood stars such as Gary Cooper, Aldous Huxley, George Cukor, David Selznick, Sophia Loren and Laurence Olivier.
Gary left her for American actress Jean Seberg and they divorced in 1962. Blanch continued to travel from her Paris base, and saw old friends Nancy Mitford, Violet Trefusis, Rebecca West and the Windsors. She was a close friend of Gerald de Gaury, who gave her insights into middle eastern customs and culture.
The best known of her 12 books is The Wilder Shores of Love, about four women who "followed the beckoning Eastern star.” It pioneered a new kind of group biography focusing on "women escaping the boredom of convention," and the title added a phrase to the English language. Blanch's love of Russia, instilled in her as a child by a friend of her parents whom she simply called The Traveller, is recounted in Journey into the Mind's Eye, Fragments of an Autobiography which is part travel book, part love story. Lesley Blanch considered her best book to be The Sabres Of Paradise (the biography of Imam Shamyl and history of Imperialist Russian rule in early 19th century Georgia and the Caucasus).

The Sunday Times August 20, 2006

Reverie on the Riviera
Karen Robinson learns why influential travel writer Lesley Blanch, who is still working at 102, lives at the eastern end of the French RivieraWhen she was still just a teenager, Lesley Blanch was seduced by her Russian lover in the hilltop graveyard at Menton in the south of France. If she’d been minded at the time to gaze eastward and admire the view, she would have been able to pick out the site of her current home, on a hillside on the edge of town, close to the Italian border.
But that was more than 80 years ago, and Blanch had other things on her mind. The mysterious Russian was inspiring fervent dreams of forays into farthest-flung Siberia, travels she later made and wrote about in Journey into the Mind’s Eye. Her own unquenchable passion for romance — “some like a domestic pattern, but I happen to like a romantic one,” she has said of her life — inspired her first bestseller, published in 1954. The Wilder Shores of Love tells the stories of four 19th-century women who turned their backs on European convention to embrace “glowing horizons of emotion and daring” in the Middle East.

The writer and traveller, now 102, has always filled her homes with treasures from her travels, incidentally becoming a pioneer of the bohemian, ethnic style of dress and interior decor. Photographs from the 1960s and 1970s show Blanch already of pensionable age but still a luminous beauty in elegant kaftans, dramatic turbans and exotic jewellery. She appears draped languorously over divans swagged with rare rugs from the Caucasus and the Middle East, surrounded by Russian icons, samovars and Persian paintings, artfully mixed with local antiques, Staffordshire pottery, her own needlepoint cushions — and books, everywhere.

Something of her famous style and allure is still evident in the dashing angle of the black beaded bandanna over silvery hair, the sparkling blue eyes and the deft reapplication of scarlet lipstick as she sits at her desk, charming the photographer by explaining how she chose her house in the Garavan area of Menton 35 years ago.

“I came out of the station and looked up and saw a little house on a hill and rather liked it. All the area here was empty. I could go into Nice and see my friends and come back on the midnight train. I was the only person to get out here. There were tramps sleeping under the station and I got to know them quite well. They never bothered me.”

And she liked the idea of being bang on the Italian border. “You should always live on a border — you can get over it and get away,” she says. “You never know how long you can live in a country.”

This was not her first home in the area. When she was married to Romain Gary, the distinguished French novelist and diplomat, who left her in 1962 for the actress Jean Seberg (both later killed themselves), they bought a “donkey yard with a little tower” in the nearby village of Roquebrune. Apart from a photographer and his boyfriend, who had “westernised” a convent, they were the only people restoring a property. Literary pilgrims will find a plaque on the wall commemorating their time there.

“They’ve got the wrong dates, but never mind. Inside, it was very simple: white walls. I had wonderful carpets. Romain used to say, ‘I think I married a carpet seller’. And I’d pick up anything in a junk store — in those days, people didn’t have much interest in junking. Now it’s chic.”

But one disastrous night in 1994, the spoils of almost a century of “junking” in Russia, Europe and the Arab world were destroyed by a fire at her home.

“I woke up and found the whole of this” — a sweeping hand indicates her sitting room — “was atorch. The cats had been clever enough to get out. They were in the garden waiting for me in the morning and ran up me as though I was a tree.

“There was nothing here but ashes. The insurance came and said it was cheaper to have it rebuilt. It’s on the same lines as before, but with new cardboard timber.”

Yet with some of her things from Roquebrune, which was rented out at the time, and a little help from her friends, she has created a characteristic Blanch interior once more.

“There is a 400-year-old olive tree in the garden. I was up there and stumbled across a charred fragment of Hamadan carpet. I dried it out, cleaned it up and framed it.”

Beneath the desk — where she is working on her autobiography — there is a rug “woven for me by a village in the interior of Turkey. It’s a prayer carpet, going the right way towards Mecca.” Among the carpets on the walls hangs a strange little patchwork rug, “probably from Pakistan”, lent to her by Julian Barnes, the novelist. An Arab prayer in gold calligraphy hangs above a door, and covering a large window is a Moorish-style trellis, known as a moucharabie. “The gardener made it. I had a lovely old one from Tunis, in cedar,” she says. She calls it the Nancy Mitford memorial window, after her friend, the writer.

The bookshelves — “made by the local carpenter, very badly” — are full. She is currently reading about 19th-century Afghanistan.There’s a samovar and an icon to remind her of her beloved Russia. The Staffordshire pottery dogs that once gazed over her London nursery and have accompanied her “in the suitcase, wrapped in my lingerie” on all her life’s journeys, sit atop an old kitchen cupboard painted a deep sea-green.

Even a couple of her needlepoint cushions have been salvaged. “I did them in the evenings, listening to people talking.” These depict scenes from her time in Egypt — infinitely more stylish than snapshots.

“There’s nothing particularly ugly; quite a lot of beautiful bits,” she decides. “This is a house that junk made, like all my houses” — a somewhat understated appraisal of the overall effect.

The pretty resort has always had its share of interesting expats. William Webb Ellis, the schoolboy credited with inventing the game of rugby, ministered to his fellow Brits as vicar of Menton and died there in 1872. Ten years later Queen Victoria enjoyed a stay, while 20th-century Mentonians included the writer Katherine Mansfield — Blanch gleefully tells a story about how nasty she was to the French. There is also a plaque to a longtime resident who was a close associate of Lenin’s (Blanch’s lover had complained that the place was full of “the wrong kind of Russian”).

Though just down the coast from the loadsamoney principality of Monaco, property is cheap — for the Riviera. Small apartments in the old town or in Garavan start at about £75,000 for a studio. The Himalaya House, with its hillside garden and views out to sea, was built in 1888 by the British Resident in Nepal for his retirement. Immaculately restored, it is for sale for £3.5m.

Top of the range villas in Cap Martin and Roquebrune, with views over Monte Carlo, can cost £10m-plus — but that is about half what you could pay along the coast in Cap Ferrat.

They can also be let for as much as £20,000 a week in the six weeks or so of the summer season; a factor for British buyers, many of whom, says Jessica Dellepiane of European Villas International, look for rental potential.

Blanch, though, is a year-round resident. She says: “I do hope to stay here till I go. It’s been very cosy and nice down here, all tucked away.”

Yet it is her wartime London home that she recalls with the most emotion.

“If I could have my life again, I’d have my house by the river in Richmond.” She says she only married her first husband to get the house, and still regrets leaving. “When I’d given up the lease I was mad with grief. I used to go back with the keys and sleep in the empty house.”

Passion for the most unexpected places: that is pure Lesley Blanch.

From The Times
May 10, 2007

Lesley Blanch
Writer and traveller whose lyrical books blurred the boundaries between history, imagination and autobiography
Although it told the stories of four real 19th-century women, The Wilder Shores of Love, Lesley Blanch’s first book, clearly expressed a vision of what the author wanted her life to be. Isabel Burton, Jane Digby, Aimée Dubucq de Rivery and Isabelle Eberhardt “each found, in the East, glowing horizons of emotion and daring which were for them, now vanishing from the West”.
As she did with herself, Blanch presented the book’s lyrically romanticised heroines as mysterious, semi-mythical figures who “found some, if not all, of their fulfilment, as women, along wilder Eastern shores”. One of them was a noblewoman who fled to the Syrian desert with a Beduin chieftain, and another dressed as a man to explore the Sahara. The book immediately became a bestseller, creating an influen-tial genre of female adventure biography.
Lesley Blanch was born in London in 1904 into a family that was cultured, unorthodox and impecunious. Her father “did nothing”, she said, but he took her to museums and galleries as well as providing her with the books of Dickens, which she devoured.
But her most vivid memories were the visits of “the Traveller”, a mysterious Russian, who enthused the young Lesley with stories of Siberia and the steppes. “He would spin a mar-vellous web of countries, cities, people and things, conjuring for me a world of shimmering images.” Who he was – whether he really existed – she never revealed, but this passion for Russia and things Russian never left her: the “love of my heart, the fulfilment of the senses and the kingdom of the mind all met here”, she later wrote.
When she was 17 she went to Paris for the first time, and later told of escaping from her governess and losing her virginity to the Traveller in a train to Dijon. She pretended it was the Trans-Siberian Railway.
After leaving Paris she went to Italy to study. On returning to London she was sent to the Slade School of Fine Arts and supported herself by designing book jackets. But her youthful passion for Russia soon crystal-lised into an adult obsession. In 1931 she was one of very few tourists to visit the USSR of Stalin, but she was far less interested in politics than in the haunts of 19th-century poets.
In 1937, rather to her surprise, she was made features editor of Vogue after impressing an editor with an article decrying the bland fashions of the day. Her writing career there began with a wide-ra-nging column on culture. She wrote about everything but fashion and anything vaguely connected with Russia.
Her first marriage was dissolved in 1939; she claimed to have entered into a second just to get her hands on a house in Richmond. Towards the end of the war she met Romain Gary, the elegant Russian-born French novelist, who subsequently won the Prix Gon-court. He was then a Free French airman, but she found in him “the eternal Slav I craved”. They married in 1945.
After the war he joined the French Diplomatic Service; they travelled widely in Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. They lived initially in Bulgaria, where she explored happily among the wild mountain villages and developed a lifelong passion for Bulgarian music, while her husband wrote.
She did not feel that her own writing was adversely affected by her marriage to Gary – even though he was largely uninterested in her work – but she did find the diplomatic life and its endless meals somewhat irksome.
While they were posted in Hollywood, Gary met the actress, Jean Seberg, for whom he was to leave Blanch. After the divorce in 1962, Blanch based herself in Paris but continued to travel, working in Hollywood for the director George Cukor.
It was only when her marriage to Gary broke up that she fulfilled her childhood dream of going on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but instead of the romantic journey she had envisaged with the Traveller, she found herself with a woman from Intourist. As the Traveller had told her: “Granting our wishes is one of Fate’s saddest jokes.”
After The Wilder Shores of Love, her books included The Sabres of Paradise (1960) about Shamyl, a messianic Muslim holy warrior who fought off the armies of the Tsar in the 19th-century Caucasus. She often rated this as her favourite work.
The Nine Tiger Manwas published in 1965 and was followed in 1968 by Journey into the Mind’s Eye, a fantastical account of her early life. It told of her infatuation with Russia, her adventures with the Traveller and her fruitless agonised searchings for him after his disappearance. If reality and imagination seemed blurred, it was because Blanch was not too concerned with the distinction. The story and the emotion were all.
In 1971 she travelled across the Middle East with the photographer Eve Arnold, writing a series on the lives of Muslim women for The Sunday Times. She then wrote Pavilions of the Heart (1974) and a biography, Farah-Shabanou of Iran (1978) which she was slightly ashamed to admit was paid for by the Iranian Royal Family.
Her sentimental side – she had a habit of referring to herself as “Darling Self” – was combined with a mild ferocious-ness; she could also be coquettish and was full of charm, exuberance and vitality.
After Gary left her she had various passionate liaisons, which appealed to her romantic nature, but she never had another long-term relationship; she learnt to deal with this enforced solitude by becoming enamoured with cats and by being an excellent correspondent to her friends. She rarely visited England but appreciated visitors who brought her pork pies or kippers.
In 1983 her biography, Pierre Loti: Portrait of an Escapist, was published and, in 1989, From Wilder Shores, subtitled The Tables of my Travels, a book about the food she had eaten around the world. Romain, un Regard Particulier, a well-re-ceived tribute to Gary, was published in French in 1998.
She and Gary had bought an apartment in the South of France near Menton, and she remained at Garavan, seven minutes by train from the Italian border, in a house surrounded by greenery for the rest of her life.
In 1994 the house burnt to the ground and she lost all her possessions; only a few charred fragment carpets remained of the mementoes of her travels and her vast library. But she was determined to rebuild: “At the age of 90 I had to start again.”
Lesley Blanch, writer and traveller, was born on June 6, 1904. She died on May 6, 2007, aged 102

Lesley Blanch interview

Issue 65 | 65 august-september 2004 in Wanderlust

The indefatigable Lesley Blanch has just celebrated her 100th birthday. She has spent the vast majority of the past century travelling the world, from being one of the few who ventured across the USSR in the early 1930s to hanging out with cowboys in the Wild West. Her famed book The Wilder Shores of Love (recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicolson) delves into the lives of four 19th-century gentlewomen who travelled to the Middle East and North Africa in search of adventure. Jim Blackburn caught up with her in the south of France.

In Journey Into The Mind’s Eye you write, ‘ours was not a conventional or practical household’. In what way was it unconventional?

Our home didn’t seem like other people’s homes. My family read all the time, I was always being taken to museums, and we really didn’t mix with other people. I didn’t even go to school until I was ten. My mother would show me pictures of Venice, and tell me the most unlikely and wonderful stories about, for instance, the women on the rooftops in Caravaggio’s paintings. That’s what initially inspired me to travel.

In Journey... you describe your infatuation with all things Russian, especially Siberia. When you finally arrived in Russia, were you suitably impressed?

Very impressed, so impressed that it made me cry. Mind you, most people cried at the thought of the people in Siberia then, just after the Revolution. But it wasn’t the Siberia that I knew from reading the Russian classics. Ultimately, I wanted to see where the Dekabristi (Decembrists) had lived, an ambition which intrigued many people in Moscow and Leningrad, the only places in Russia anyone really travelled to in those days.

What inspired you to write The Wilder Shores Of Love?

Seeing young Englishwomen spoiling their lives tapping away at typewriters, and then watching them trudge home over Waterloo Bridge. I wondered how different their lives would have been if they’d managed to get away, like Isabelle Eberhardt or Isabel Burton.

Given that you have always appeared to be drawn to the East, how did it feel to find yourself living in Beverly Hills, USA?

I loved it. It was all very amusing. Because I’d once been a film critic, I loved the cinema, and I think people were so pleased that the wife of a French diplomat should be so deeply interested in the movies. And I met some marvellous people; John Wayne would say to me, “We’re shooting out in Death Valley tomorrow. Wanna come?” And so I’d go and talk to the cowboys. And the late James Mason became a great friend; I’m godmother to his son, Morgan. Frankly, I don’t like America in general, but I loved Hollywood and New York.

You lived in Bulgaria just after the Second World War. What was that like?

I adored it. It was a very dodgy time, just after the war, and because Bulgaria had gone along with Hitler, there were three armies of occupation – the British, Americans and Russians. The other diplomatic wives didn’t do much apart from play bridge, but I travelled around a lot. I got an old shuba (a sheep-lined coat) which smelt rather strongly, and I would go out and visit churches and mosques, and mix with the tribes and the lovely, wild gypsies. It was a wonderful mixture of religion and people. Mind you, I always travelled alone. I can’t stand travelling with other people. If you’ve got someone with you, particularly an admirer, you never get out of bed!

Given that you liked to travel ‘heavy’, what did you always pack?

Yes, I needed a lot of creature-comforts with me. I always used to pack a couple of little head-pillows, and a very large piece of material, usually bearing a print, that I could hang around my bed, or, if I was sleeping on the floor, put up two sticks and make a tent. I also used to take a very small silver teapot, because I can’t stand teabags – they look like slugs!

What’s your favourite souvenir or artefact from your travels?

Well, I lost most of my life when my house burned down when I was 90. I was always very keen on not wearing my own clothes, so I had quite a collection of Arab and Turkish garments, as well as all my books and writings. But it’s all gone now.

Looking back over your life, is there anywhere you haven’t been that you’d still like to go, and why?

I’m awfully sorry that I never went to Zanzibar; I would have liked to buy some of their furniture.

Finally, you’ve never revealed just who was The Traveller, the mysterious Russian in Journey into the Mind’s Eye.

You wouldn’t be able to pronounce his name if I told you, and it’s nice to keep the secret.

Time travellerBorn in London in 1904, she was entranced as a child by a mysterious Russian, later her lover, who instilled a love of the exotic. She became features editor of Vogue, then married the writer Romain Gary who took her to Bulgaria and the US, where she wrote a cult book which pioneered a new approach to history writing. Now 101, she is writing a new volume of memoirs
Joe Boyd
The Guardian, Saturday 9 July 2005
Time traveller ... Lesley Blanch

First published half a century ago, when its author turned 50, The Wilder Shores of Love has been in print ever since. If you recognise the title but have never read it, and happen to be male, you may have mistaken it for a bodice-ripper best left to the female reader. On the contrary, it is a non-fiction study of four 19th-century women whose lives led them inexorably eastwards, a pioneering work of historical research that has inspired readers - and writers - of both sexes. If you have read it and assumed author Lesley Blanch to be dead, you should know she is alive, alert and has just celebrated her 101st birthday.

There is something of a cult around Blanch. And cult members understand that her most famous title is only the starting point: Under A Lilac-Bleeding Star (1963), Nine-Tiger Man (1965), Pavilions of the Heart (1974), an extended introduction to Harriette Wilson's Memoirs: The Memoirs of the Reigning Courtesan of Regency London (1985), two hard-to-find but treasured cookbooks and the recently re-published The Sabres of Paradise (1960), Journey into the Mind's Eye (1968) and Pierre Loti (1983) all await the reader. Philip Mansel, author of Constantinople (1995) and other works of historical scholarship, calls her "not a school, a trend, or a fashion, but a true original".

Blanch lives in the unlikely Côte d'Azur town of Menton. "Unlikely" because, based on her memoir Journey into the Mind's Eye, or a reading of one of her dust jackets, you might expect to find her in as remote a haven as those that feature in her books. In fact, she lives simply on a hill above the Mediterranean surrounded by greenery, with cats and a helper in a flat downstairs.

She is an only child, born on June 6 1904 in London. Her father "did nothing. Nothing. He was very clever, a fascinating talker if he wished to talk. My mother was in love with him for ever, I think. He was an expert on furniture, particularly oak, early oak. He would find it for people, or buy it for himself or he'd buy sometimes for museums. He'd make a sort of living now and again. He lingered through his own money, then lingered through my mother's."

Having idle, unorthodox parents opened doors. "Brought up on Dickens. Used to go out on Dickens days, round Cripplegate, the Monument and all that. London was alive with Dickens then. Talking Dickens all the time." Pollock's Toy Shop was a favourite haunt; she made herself a toy theatre, saved up to buy more sets and characters, then painted them in. (As features editor at Vogue from 1937-44, she included Pollock's in a story about unusual shops of 1930s London.)

The delights of an Edwardian child's London paled, however, beside the world opened up for her by a periodic visitor to the household, the mysterious Traveller. This never-named character, a part-Russian, part-Central-Asian friend of her parents (and possibly a former lover of her mother's) brought magic lantern slides of troikas in the snow and told tales of "Tarbagan Bator, the marmot hero of Mongol legend". He brought gifts to the nursery: "a chunk of malachite, or a Kazakh fox-skin cap (which smelt rather rank) and once a 'bunchuk', or standard, decorated with the dangling horse-tails of a Mongol chieftain". Journey Into The Mind's Eye describes how the Traveller enraptured her, how she became obsessed with the Trans-Siberian railroad, how he promised to take her on it one day and how that dream came to dominate her life.

The Traveller also took her back in time. He told of the Decembrists, aristocratic Russians who entered Paris in triumph after Waterloo. Ten years later they shattered the leaden calm of absolutist Russia with demands for reform and democracy. Tsar Nicholas crushed the revolt, and in so doing began the cruel century-and-a-half procession of internal exiles to the remotest regions of Russia's wild east. The church offered to facilitate annulments for the plotters' wives, but they chose to follow their husbands and suffered privation and exile with their men. These women and their journeys became Blanch's girlhood touchstone, leaving her out of step with the concerns of contemporaries and the agenda of schoolmistresses: "Oddly lacking in team spirit"; "moody and secretive" read the reports.

Blanch began reading Russian intellectual and diarist Alexander Herzen; to this day, she is never parted from a volume of his memoirs. Other favourites included Carlyle: "His treatment of the French revolution was extraordinary. The pace made you breathless."

The Traveller's silence during the war ended in 1921 with his reappearance at the Gare du Nord to meet 17-year-old Blanch, arriving in Paris for an educational break with a French governess. The two adults vied for control of the teenager's agenda: churches and royal monuments from one; Russian tea-shops, Cossack battalions camping in railway yards and a private recital by Rachmaninov from the other. Easter brought the dénouement. The Catholic governess refused to enter an Orthodox church, so Traveller and ingénue attended the midnight service unchaperoned. "Seeing the way the men spoke to him, and the manner in which the women looked at him, I now became aware of him as a stranger - as a man. It was most disturbing." A serenade by gypsy musicians at an after-hours restaurant, a kiss in the street and a tracks-covering note left at the hotel preceded Blanch's eager "ruin" in a Dijon-bound sleeping car as dawn came up over the French countryside.

After she had spent a year at convent school in Italy, Blanch and the Traveller convinced her parents to approve a "family" holiday in Corsica and the south of France "chaperoned" by the Traveller's Montenegran aunt and his two 20-something sons by different Silk Road mothers. This two-month idyll during which the boys referred to Blanch as "Mamasha" was, although she didn't know it, to be her last sight of the man who shaped her life. Back in London, she drove friends to distraction by constantly putting Slavic music on the gramophone and dragging them to Russian restaurants. Visits to Paris were spent in fruitless trawls through the expatriate community for word of him.

"My mother sent me to the Slade [art school], but expected me back at six for supper - ridiculous of course. But I didn't like any men at the Slade. One knocked me back on a sofa once, and that was as far as it got. I had a friend with a brother in the Navy and our mothers thought it would be such a lovely thing if Paul and I hit it off. He came occasionally and took me out in a punt." Englishmen "never raised a spark. A nice man, a nice home and then probably a baby: the whole idea - my hair would stand on end!" If the man, the home and the baby had been in a lean-to on the Steppes, of course, that might have been another matter.

Her avoidance of a conventional life in London led her on quixotic voyages geo-graphically and emotionally. In 1931 she became one of the rare tourists to Stalin's Soviet Union. Dragged around monuments to Soviet progress, she perplexed her guides with questions about the homes of 19th-century writers, all the while glancing over her shoulder and around corners for that beloved Asiatic face. She managed a brief chat with Shostakovich after a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Mariinksy theatre, but failed to secure permission for travel beyond Moscow and Leningrad. And on one of her many visits to Paris she ran into the Traveller's son Kamran and began a tortured on-and-off affair with him. His father, he said, had disappeared back to Siberia.

London in the 30s found her illustrating book jackets and supporting her now impecunious parents. "Lurching and strap-hanging on the Underground's rush hour, [Herzen] kept me company. Hampstead became the Sparrow Hills looking down on Moscow where [he] is vowing to avenge the Decembrists." In response to the bland fashions of the day she wrote a piece for Harper's: "Anti-Beige - A plea for the Scarlet Woman". An editor at Vogue saw it and hired her. Soon after, "they called me into the office, shoved an armchair under me and said 'that's your secretary, that's your desk: you're the new features editor'". She remained in the job until 1944.

From that chair she began to write in earnest. Her regular column covered "culture", which Vogue readers may have been startled to discover now included all-in wrestling, the Soviet film The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, Yiddish theatre and vaudeville comedian Sid Field. Anything remotely connected to Russia was inserted dead-pan into the lists of forthcoming events. One of her early assignments was to write a celebration of British Vogue's first 21 years for its 1937 "coming-of-age issue". Her tone fits the giddy mood of the period as she romps through the changes in fashion and the ephemera of high society. But tongue lodges firmly in cheek for this observation, quoting a 1916 article, about early editions during the first world war: "deafened by air-raids, [Vogue]'s attitude of detachment seems both remarkable and masterly ... 'one of the most cataclysmic effects of the war is the breakdown of the rule of always knowing beforehand whom one is to meet and of avoiding restaurants where one's men friends might be found with ladies of another world than our own'."

In 1941, with Britain two years into another war, she wrote an essay honouring the magazine's quarter-century. Her second portrait of Vogue's early years reads rather differently: "Disarmament brought disillusion, unemployment, war debts, peace-profiteers. Shell-shocked wrecks. War-widows struggling to bring up their children. The new poor starting brave but doomed ventures. Bewilderment, incompetence. A country which had won the war but was to lose the peace." The same year saw her review a play by Virginia Cowles: "The author appears at times to be a self-appointed press agent for our oligarchic system -well, there are others who feel its continuance needs some explaining."

With the onset of war, Vogue came under the control of the Ministry of Information; the world needed to know that Britain was still cultured and elegant even as the bombs rained down. With her friend Lee Miller along as photographer, Blanch visited military bases to document the lives of women in the forces - and characteristically pointed out the well-trodden paths to trysting spots near the most secret installations.

She is matter-of-fact about her own life in the blitz. "We used to go to fearfully gay parties. All those boys in the Air Force, when they weren't up there doing the attacking, they didn't care for it at all! We'd all got used to it. There'd be a fearful crash and we'd say 'oh I think that's further down the road'. Three flats were bombed from under me. That is to say, the bombing was so bad, wherever I was at night I had to stay. In the morning when I went back to get myself washed up, the place wasn't there. Every day was possibly your last. You'd ring up and say 'can I bring my mattress and sleep in your cellar tonight?' 'Yes, do'. And sometimes you'd bring a stranger with you, a handsome man in a strange uniform. Nothing was ever said. It was a free-for-all for me and my kind. A lot of women were loyally waiting for their man to come back, but I didn't have any particular tie-up."

None, that is, until she spotted a striking face across the room one evening wearing a Free French airman's uniform. Normally, she wasn't any keener on Frenchmen than she was on the English, but he turned out, naturally, to be a Russian named Romain Kacew, later changed to Romain Gary. They were married at the end of the war and he joined De Gaulle's diplomatic corps.

Today, a friend of Blanch's suggests two gifts that assure a visitor a warm welcome. One is a particular brand of pork pie - she lusts after English food despite decades in more gastronomically advanced cultures. The other is Bulgarian music. Her affection for the wild strains of the gaida (bagpipe), the dance rhythms of the horo and the piercing sound of the "open-throat" Bulgarian voice stems from the years immediately following the war when she and Gary were with the French legation in Sofia. While he spent every available hour working on his novel ("He was always going to be a great writer. His mother had decided that"), she would board a train for the Balkan mountains or the Thracian plain. She spent days wandering the countryside, sharing meals with villagers and listening to the local music. She was never happier, she says, than in Bulgaria.

Her fellow diplomatic wives contented themselves with bridge and gin. Once, however, three American ladies were intrigued enough to join her, supplying a limousine and chauffeur for the expedition. "The road got danker and darker and they were very unhappy. The inn was better than some places I had stayed but - cauchemar [nightmare]! An iron bed in the middle of the room and some mad boy whose feet were back to front coming in to keep the stove going in the middle of the night. When they went downstairs in the morning in dressing gowns with feathers there was a bullock being cut up and skinned in the kitchen."

In 1952, Gary secured a plum posting to the UN in New York, where Blanch finished Wilder Shores. Her husband, however, never showed the slightest interest. "I'd say 'I've got the most lovely episode here, I must read it to you', and he'd say, 'I can't listen now'."

They moved to Los Angeles in 1956 when Gary became France's ambassador to the film industry. The Sabres of Paradise was written in the Hollywood Hills, Blanch rising at dawn to work after a glamorous party, then driving down to a greasy spoon in the San Fernando Valley for a "cowboy breakfast". They knew Europeans there like Auden, Isherwood, Piatigorsky, Stravinksy and Huxley as well as a film crowd centred around George Cukor. British writer and veteran Hollywood observer Gavin Lambert remembers the star-studded dinners they gave. At one, he was seated opposite Jean Seberg, whom he found intriguing: "Very intelligent, very talented, very pretty, and very ambitious." Gary eyed her all evening, and after the guests departed, quizzed Lambert at length. Blanch, he recalls "watched them knowingly as she sat with needle and thread, working on one of her tapestries. She always responded calmly to Romain's infatuations, and he always returned to her. This time, it was different." When Gary flew to Paris to be with Seberg, Blanch stayed on, working for Cukor as a "special adviser" on Heller in Pink Tights (1960) with Sophia Loren.

Her divorce lawyer advised her to return to France to prove she was "ready to go back to live with Romain, which was the last thing either of us wanted". She sometimes regrets not opting for a Hollywood life, but her mother was now ill and alone and California was too far from London. "I don't know if [Gary] was a great writer - his style is quite untidy - but he's a great story-teller. He was a fascinating talker and a very handsome man. It didn't matter if he didn't stay with me, but he made a great mistake getting involved with someone who couldn't talk about books. He got tied up with Jean Seberg and a terrible muddle." Seberg committed suicide in 1979; Gary shot himself a year later.

Blanch, meanwhile, "got a very nice flat. And my life boomed along in Paris, I could do my journalism and I was writing books." She travelled constantly, to Cairo, Tehran, Samarkand and the Caucasus or to the house she had built out of a derelict stable in the Provençal village of Roquebrune. She finally took her seat on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1965 with only a female Intourist guide for company.

Were there any great loves after Gary? "No. No. Adventures, yes. One or two rather binding adventures in Egypt, without any beginning or end. Oh, I've had lots of adventures. I always travel alone. I used to travel with another, but absolutely hopeless, never got going until lunchtime!" On a research trip to the Algerian desert, "the French army were there and I went with one of them to a fort and out of the sand rose the most marvellous creature - a Tuareg. And that was it. I realised I was never going to be able to look at anybody in the west."

Blanch may not be the archetypal feminist heroine, but many women have found The Wilder Shores of Love inspiring. Rosie Boycott recalls reading it while she was working towards the launch of Spare Rib in the early 70s. "A very inspirational book, very liberating." Blanch sees her four subjects - Isabel Burton (who married the explorer Richard), Jane Digby (a well-born Englishwoman who ended up in the Syrian desert with a Bedouin chieftain), Aimée Dubucq (a French schoolgirl captured and sent to the Sultan's harem in Istanbul) and Isabelle Eberhardt (a Swiss linguist who dressed like a man to travel the Sahara) - as "hearing the whirring machinery coming closer. The early 19th century was the last time women could escape. There was going to be women's employment. And most women would have liked to have romantic episodes but not many of them could. They were strangled by their romantic beliefs." In writing about Digby, she could be describing herself: "She never had to fight for equality: it came to her naturally. She was uninhibited. She rode through life jumping all her fences, social and moral. If she was not equal to man, it was only because men loved less, tired quicker."

The story of Dubucq was told to her by a stranger on the boat from Marseille as she travelled to join Gary in Sofia after the war. As they made their way slowly around the eastern end of the Mediterranean, he recounted the tale of the creole cousin of Empress Josephine who may have been the mother of the reforming Sultan Mahmoud II. In the 19th century, Ottoman envoys accepted that Mahmoud's Sultan Valide (the equivalent of the Queen Mother) had been a French captive and they presented her portrait to Napoleon III for that reason.

While some historians have expressed reservations about that chapter of Wilder Shores, Lambert, who wrote a screenplay based on Dubucq's story, insists it is true. "I did further research at the British Library and found a book about the priest who heard her death-bed confession. I even visited Aimée's tombstone in Istanbul. I looked very hard for evidence to contradict the story, but found only support for it. We had Canadian finance and Fellini's art director, but the money fell through. Costume pictures had gone out of fashion. Deborah Kerr wanted to play the lead in a film about Jane Digby but that never happened either. A great shame. I think Lesley is overdue to be recognised as the great historian she is."

After Wilder Shores came the Caucasus. She had long been fascinated by the Murid wars that kept the Tsar's armies tied down for decades and inspired - and in the first case, killed - writers such as Lermontov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dumas. Russia's nemesis was Shamyl, the messianic leader of the Sufi Holy Warriors who stymied the Russian army for over a quarter-century. "An old gentleman called M Samuelian, God rest his soul, had the Oriental Bookshop up near the Luxembourg and I used to spend the whole day pulling out books and putting them back again. I was getting quite steamed up about Sabres and wanted to find out more about Shamyl. He said: 'I had a book once by Mme Drancy, the French governess who was taken prisoner, but I doubt they've even got a copy in the Bibliothèque National.' I was looking where the bookshelves were three deep, reached behind and put my hand straight on that book!" This obscure account by the abducted French governess sold almost no copies when it was published in the 1860s. Through Blanch, it opens up for us the world of a 19th-century jihadi, his relationships with his wives, the food he ate, the prayers he said, his view of the world.

Before turning in the manuscript, Blanch made one last attempt to locate Shamyl's relatives who were known to have gone to Istanbul. She narrowed down the possible neighbourhoods, got in a taxi and found herself in front of an old house with a striking woman standing outside. It was Shamyl's grand-niece, whose attic held trunks full of letters and photographs.

Historian Lawrence Kelly, biographer of Lermontov and expert on the region, thinks "it is on Sabres, with its unforgettable picture of the Imam Shamyl, that her reputation rests most firmly". In his review of the latest edition, he writes that "Blanch's digressions deepen the impact of the story, guiding us through the complexities of the Murid Sufi faith, explaining the topographical background to the campaign and examining the role of the Cossacks ... without which the struggle between Shamyl and the Russians would be incomprehensible."

Neal Ascherson, who wrote about the area in his acclaimed Black Sea, remembers being particularly impressed with Wilder Shores, which he found "more sober and coherent" than Sabres. While the latter is "full of terrific stories", Wilder Shores "was a ground-breaking case study of how four women confronted dramatic changes in their lives" and "explored the concept of orientalism from a fresh perspective".

Blanch works on another volume of memoirs when she can. She has been demoralised by a shattered knee, a row with neighbouring developers and a fire that destroyed much of her archive. She is cross that writer Anne Boston has embarked on an unauthorised biography and anxious to get on with her own account. The knee is better now but it is still difficult for her to find the time and energy to write. When she does, she must have music - classical, Bulgarian, or Bob Dylan. Music has always been essential: when she was mobile, she would travel to Baalbeck for the Ring.

Logistics now madden her, the constant interruptions for minutiae: "You're not allowed to live your last years peacefully. You've got to spend them getting a nice polite death ready. Cremated? Yes. No fuss? Yes. Cheapest possible coffin? Yes, it's only going to be burned. Well, really! Flowers? Small bouquet."

She is happy that Wilder Shores continues to be successful - she can certainly use the money - but proudest of Sabres. In Paris, she was a friend of Nancy Mitford's, but never an admirer of her literary style. "'And then the Dauphin screamed with laughter and she got hold of his waistcoat and ran away.' I can't bear history written like that. I wasn't as austere as I might have been, but I don't like history treacled up. There was one woman at John Murray who kept saying 'you do rather go on, don't you? Couldn't you leave that out?' 'No, it's important. A tiny detail, but a telling one.'"

The moving last chapter in Journey into the Mind's Eye finds her learning the truth about the Traveller from a Serbian bomb-maker on a bench by a house in Irkutsk once occupied by Decembrists. A rereading of that book reveals another essential detail: the final stop on that summer holiday idyll was the sleepy Côte d'Azur town where, in a hilltop graveyard, she and the Traveller made love amid the flowers and the tombs of Russian emigrés. Their last night together - more than 80 years ago - was in Menton.

Life at a glance

Lesley Blanch

Born: June 6 1904, London.

Education: 1922-24 Slade School of Art.

Married: 1944-1961 Romain Gary (divorced).

Employment: 1937-1944 features editor British Vogue.

Publications: 1954 The Wilder Shores of Love; 1955 The Game of Hearts: Letters of Harriette Wilson (edited and introduction by LB); 1955 Around The World in 80 Dishes (cookbook); 1960 The Sabres of Paradise; 1963 Under A Lilac-Bleeding Star; 1965 The Nine Tiger Man; 1968 Journey Into The Mind's Eye (Fragments of an Autobiography); 1974 Pavilions of the Heart; 1983 Pierre Loti; 1989 From Wilder Shores (cookbook).

Lesley Blanch

Writer and traveller

Tuesday, 8 May 2007 The Independent Obituaries

Lesley Blanch, writer: born London 6 June 1904; Features Editor, Vogue 1937-44; FRSL 1969; MBE 2001; twice married, second 1945 Romain Gary (died 1980; marriage dissolved 1962); died Menton, France 6 May 2007.

Lesley Blanch was already a well-known traveller and journalist when her first book, The Wilder Shores of Love, was published in 1954. It was immediately acclaimed as a classic and became a worldwide bestseller. It told of four 19th-century European women who left the industrialised West for the Middle East in search of adventure and romance. Blanch considered herself "the last of that breed" and was never happier than when living in a tent with tribesmen in Afghanistan or Persia.

Her second book, The Sabres of Paradise (1960), was the biography of Imam Shamyl, the leader of Caucasian tribes who fought the Russian armies between 1834 and 1859. Both Lermontov and Tolstoy took part in the campaigns she describes with an accuracy reminiscent of the account of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace. General Charles de Gaulle is said to have admired it greatly. It was her own favourite, and she once asked me if I had read it: "Ah, you haven't lived!" she exclaimed when I confessed I had not, and sent me a copy.

In 1963 she published Under a Lilac Bleeding Star, a selection of her travel pieces; and in 1974 Pavilions of the Heart, about houses and rooms where great romantic lovers had lived: George Sand and Chopin, Liszt and the Comtesse d'Agoult (Cosima Wagner's mother), and others. These two " light books" were followed by a biography of Pierre Loti (Pierre Loti: portrait of an escapist, 1982), which revived an interest in the neglected French romantic author and adventurer. A keen cook, she produced two cookery books: Round the World in 80 Dishes (1956) and From Wilder Shores: the tables of my travels (1989).

Blanch was reticent about her private life: a letter from her publisher, Jock Murray, in 1954 requesting some information about her age and early life remained unanswered. A brief marriage in youth was a taboo subject - no one ever discovered who her first husband was. Yet, she wrote an autobiographical romance in 1968, Journey into the Mind's Eye: fragments of autobiography, revealing as much about her life as she wished and no more.

She was born in 1904 in London, into an upper-middle-class family. Her father was a "gentleman scholar" and expert in a variety of subjects ranging from Chinese porcelain to old oak furniture, who " never did anything", but took Lesley to art galleries and museums, which kindled her love of art. Her mother was "extremely artistic and elegant" and "made everything she touched lovely". Lesley was educated at St Paul's Girls' School and the Slade, and worked as a graphic artist for a short while before becoming a journalist, and later Features Editor of Vogue - "something you never live down".

She recounts how she was visited in her nursery by a mysterious Russian she calls "The Traveller", who appeared periodically laden with presents - Fabergé eggs, Russian icons, exotic antiques. Later, he became her lover, seducing her in the Trans-Siberian Express. One day, he disappeared and was never heard of again. Was he a spy? Purged in Stalin's Gulag? She only hinted at such possibilities in her book. Many believed that the Traveller was a figment of Blanch's romantic imagination, that she had invented him to explain her life-long passionate involvement with Russia and Russian literature.

During the Second World War, she met the Russian-born French writer and diplomat Romain Gary, twice winner of the Prix Goncourt, who had joined de Gaulle in London and fought in the Battle of Britain, and they married in 1945. Romain Gary's diplomatic assignments took them to different parts of the world, about which Lesley Blanch wrote for various magazines. The marriage was dissolved in 1962 when Gary met and later married the American film star Jean Seberg.

In the last 30 years of her life, Lesley Blanch lived in Garavan, a tiny village in the south of France, near the Italian frontier. She described her house as a "peasant dwelling in a bamboo grove", but in fact it was a beautiful small house on the hills overlooking the Mediterranean. Inside it was filled with exotic mementoes of her travels - Persian carpets, Turkish ceramics, Russian icons, Afghani textiles. Outside was her exquisite garden. An excellent gardener, she had created a distinctive enclosed garden, with figs and citrus trees, jacarandas and mimosas, and a host of lesser plants, many of which she had brought back from her travels - a green bower screened by tall cypresses and bamboos. "Annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade," she quoted Andrew Marvell as her inspiration. In a letter to me, Jessica Mitford recalled visiting Blanch in her Paris apartment in the Fifties, where she had created a ravishing miniature garden of exotic plants and flowers on her little balcony, while all around her neighbours had managed just a few geraniums.

In 1994 her house was burnt down in a fire. It happened in the middle of the night and engulfed the whole building in flames within minutes, "like a huge torch," she said. She escaped with her beloved cats, but everything else was destroyed. She was disconsolate about the loss of her library - bookshelves covered every wall in the house, including her kitchen and bathroom. It contained priceless books, many first editions or signed by authors and previous owners, notably about Russia and the Orient. Her garden was singed, but revived itself and regained its former glory. "The worst aspect of the disaster is the bureaucracy," she complained. " Without a passport and an identity card one does not exist in France!"

With age and loss of old friends, she came to England less and less often, but she had friends and admirers who visited her in France, and she was much loved by her neighbours and the people of Garavan who referred to her as Mme Gary, or just "the English lady".

Over the years, many full-length biographies of Lesley Blanch's four heroines in The Wilder Shores of Love have been published. In particular Jane Digby (Lady Ellenborough), who ended up marrying a sheikh and living with him in the desert, and Isabelle Eberhardt, who lived in the Sahara dressed as a man and died young, have inspired films and plays and documentaries. But Lesley Blanch's short, imaginative and highly poetic account of their lives and personalities remains unsurpassed.

Shusha Guppy

Lesley Blanch was one of the last living links to White Russian Paris, Free French London and many other vanished worlds, writes Philip Mansel. Her conversation and interests defied conventional frontiers of time, space, nationality and fashion. I visited and telephoned her many times, drawn by the warmth of her personality as well as her colourful, cosmopolitan past. Always with an angle and turn of phrase of her own, she could talk equally vividly of film stars, race hate or the Mitfords: "Nancy was very well-connected ­ and very good at making use of it. They certainly made capital out of their lives . . . Nancy spoke French perfectly, but with a terribly cultivated English accent . . . I spoke French my own way."

When she spoke of her once-adored husband Romain Gary, her voice fell like a guillotine: "The only time Romain was happy was when he was fucking somebody." The office which he made her find for him in Hollywood she called "Romain's fuck-box". "Yes, it is true he paid for my trips to the Caucasus ­ but I [voice sharpening] never had a dress allowance like other wives . . . I'm not jealous at all, I never was jealous, but I did get a little peeved sometimes."

Her account of their marriage, Romain: un regard particulier (1998), is a masterpiece which deserves publication in English. It will appeal to lovers of the complex ballet of love and hate between French and English. Animal attraction battled with implacable selfishness: "infidelities, absences, complications, complicity and comprehension". When The Wilder Shores of Love was a world-wide best-seller, he had a nervous breakdown.

Lesley's toughness and self-reliance (her mother had often urged her " just get up and get on with it") helped her survive three marriages; her parents' impoverishment; the Blitz; many years in fashion journalism; a fire which destroyed many of her beloved dresses, pictures and books; and the final horror of publication of a biography of Romain Gary which included a full, and in her view inaccurate, description of their divorce.

Travel had been a consolation. Her open mind and wide reading helped her to appreciate both New York and the Caucasus, Menton and Hollywood. The Muslim world was as great a passion as Russia. She knew Afghanistan before the Taliban, Iran before the Mullahs, Egypt before its actresses started wearing turbans to demonstrate their piety, and had many adventures there. "I was never raped and I was very rapeable then," she told me. On the contrary, she liked a certain harshness, in men as well as landscape. Her boldness could surprise other women. Her younger days, when she sometimes spilled soup on a dress to oblige her escort to buy her a new one, she described as "polite prostitution".

Her courage in her illnesses impressed all who witnessed it. Often in pain, feeling "rugged, very rugged", as she told me, she longed to go. She had lived long enough to see her books acquire new readers after they were republished in English, and translated into French by Guillaume Villeneuve; and had lived, perhaps many times, what she called "the moment we seek, our own absolute moment in time".

As she said: "It is no good being old, you have to bow out at eighty."

When the writer Lesley Blanch died in 2007, just a month short of her 103rd birthday, the dwindling ranks of the world’s literary grandes dames lost a formidable ornament.

Something about the intellectual climate of the early 20th century proved especially favourable to the flourishing of these figures of fable. Many of them are half-forgotten now, for their writing tends to date badly: it was their personalities, their capacity for self-invention, intrigue and, sometimes, invective, that made them so enthralling in their time. The shades of Violet Trefusis, Louise de Vilmorin and their like haunt the indexes of the biographies of more substantial literary figures, creatures of fantasy, glamour and, quite often, ridicule.

Blanch outlived the lot of them, and by surviving so long contrived to stage-manage her own myth until almost no one was left to contradict it. Her unofficial biographer, the journalist Anne Boston, notes ruefully that her “biographobic” subject recoiled from authorising anyone else to write an account of her life. “She wanted to be left to the portrait that was more true than real, which no one could do better than herself.” “My account,” Boston adds, “is more real than true, in the manner of conventional biography.”

This all sounds rather brisk and sensible, but admirers of Blanch’s particular mystique – a steely survival instinct artfully veiled in a colourful nimbus of idiosyncratic fantasy – need not fear a debunking exercise. Boston’s affectionate and admiring biography supplies some of the detail about which her subject was notably vague, but leaves the Blanch legend largely intact.

Blanch is best remembered now for The Wilder Shores of Love, a vivid account of a quartet of female travellers, and for her unreliable but seductive essay in autobiography, Journey Into the Mind’s Eye. Her habit of self-invention seems to have begun early. She was born in Chiswick, the only child of Walter and Mabel Blanch. Both her parents had artistic tastes and Lesley grew up in an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry that her education at St Paul’s did little to foster. The school archive records bleakly that “her nature was too set to acquire team spirit, and she was not a success”.

Blanch left St Paul’s at 16, studied briefly at the Slade and at 25 married an advertising agent, Robert Bicknell, a union to which she devoted a single sentence in her autobiography. Her real passion was a hectic Slavophilia inspired, according to her own account, by a mysterious friend of her parents, known only as The Traveller. This shadowy figure captivated the schoolgirl with his Muscovite origins, Tartar blood, exotic gifts and even more outlandish stories. At 17 he seduced her. Then he vanished, leaving behind a predisposition in Blanch for romantic attachments to very unreliable men of Eastern European origins.

Though a popular girl, it was not until she was 40 that Blanch met the real love of her life, Romain Gari de Kacew, better known as the novelist, diplomat and Second World War pilot Romain Gary. He was 10 years younger than she, and quite as much of a fabulist. “Theirs was a meeting of two opportunists,” Boston writes. Together they embarked on a life of joint self-invention and literary endeavour which lasted for 15 years, until Gary fell in love with the 21-year-old film star Jean Seberg.

The trouble with writing the life of a fabulist is that in the end it becomes impossible to disentangle the life from the art. Boston’s attempted distinction between the “true” and the “real” swiftly becomes impossible in the face of her subject’s ruthless reordering of those two elusive abstracts. More confusingly, the solid achievement of Blanch’s career – her writing – is not what she is now best remembered for.

Boston approaches with the utmost tact the fact that her subject was not excessively preoccupied with scholarship or rigorous pursuit of fact: “Her writing was far more effective when building atmosphere,” as she puts it.

And “atmosphere”, rather than a solid body of work, will perhaps prove to be Blanch’s most enduring achievement. She may have been a second-rank writer, but she was a first-class character.
Lesley Blanch: Inner Landscapes, Wilder Shores by Anne Boston: review
in Telegraph
By Jane Shilling
20 Feb 2010

Lesley Blanch's dashingly personal blend of romantic evocation, sharp observation and sheer gusto has echoes of Colette one minute, Lady Mary Whortley Montagu the next ... What I have always admired about Lesley Blanch is the deft way she reconciles femme de tête and femme d'intérieure, independent mind and adventurous person, with a notable talent for making homes beguilingly pretty and social gatherings festive and fun
Lesley Blanch has invented herself and her own world, as exotic as any world she has known. She says, “You must change life a bit. If you are going to sit down and accept a pattern for life, that’s all right — some like a domestic pattern, but I happen to like a romantic one.”
In 1994 a fire destroyed her home — “I escaped in my nightdress just before the front wall fell in.”
Shusha Guppy had interviewed her a few years previously for Looking Back, A Panoramic View of a Literary Age by the Grandes Dames of European Letters (1992). She writes: "Lesley Blanch’s house is filled with mementos of her travels and adventures: Russian icons, samovars, Qajar paintings and rugs from Persia and Turkey, exotica from India. Divans and the scent of incense and jasmine further enhance the exotic and relaxing atmosphere …"
Guppy continues, "She works at a desk strewn with books, papers and clippings in the living room. All the other rooms, including her own, are also lined with bookshelves. She is visited by a stream of friends and admirers, but her much loved constant companions are her cats. An ardent gardener, Lesley Blanch has created a very personal enclosed garden, with fig and citrus trees, jacarandas and mimosas, as well as lesser shrubs and bushes. It is a green bower screened by tall cypresses and bamboos: ‘Annihilating all that’s made to a green thought in a green shade,’ Blanch quotes Andrew Marvell."
Lesley Blanch still mourns the loss in the fire of all her treasures and memorabilia collected over a lifetime of travel — an 18th century Staffordshire rabbit, the first possession she ever bought; a portrait of Empress Elizabeth of Russia; a collection of Russian silver snuff boxes; antique rugs of all kinds from Bessarabian to kilims; a court painting of Fath Ali Shah’s Persian ministers; a teak rocking elephant from India, once a child’s toy; a cupboard the front four panels of which she painted herself to represent the wooden or gilded domes and crosses of the churches of Moscow, Kazan, Kiev and Leningrad, their differing architecture spanning the vast surface of the Orthodox religion; her surviving oriental book collection left to New College Oxford, along with most of her archive…
Lesley Blanch has always lived amidst a harmonious assembly of esoteric objects from distant corners of the earth. She likes to mix everything up and loathes anything en suite — for example she might use a Caucasian rug as a wall hanging, drape a fur rug over a bed, or use an old toile de jouy curtain framed as a picture, a work of art.
Blanch is a pioneer of what is now referred to as ‘ethnic style’. She is admired by her friends for her decorative flair, and is emulated by her fans. Her advice when it comes to domesticity and decoration is to “surround yourself with the things you love and your house will make you happy … I never decorate, I just make sure that I’m going to be comfortable and let the effect come with the living. You must have comfort first, everything else follows naturally.”
She feels rooted when she has her own things with her, and considers that “things have life” — a belief expressed by The Traveller in her memoir Journey Into The Mind’s Eye. “Eighteen years of being a diplomat’s wife taught me to carry my precious everything with me, on my back like a snail … I made eleven bases with Romain, which I always had to do very quickly.”
Also known for her hospitality, Lesley Blanch has a special talent for blending the exotic with the intimate, thereby creating a unique and very personal atmosphere.
Although her writing desk is in the living-room, she could work anywhere — just by dropping cushions on a favourite carpet she would make that her work-nest for the day. She likes to write to music: “I must have classical, Bach and Wagner, and also Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, or reggae. I love the folk or traditional music of Bulgaria; the Middle East, Persia, Asia, or elsewhere I have travelled. And that would include New York's marvellous jazz clubs.”
She concludes, “My rooms are gestures of defiance against every rule of the pundit decorators. Now East, now West, my rooms reflect the globe. Cultures, races, climates, colours and epochs mix in harmony here, as do bargains and chintz..."
"I find my things very good company: they are not capricious, or boring, or demanding. They do not have to be entertained, or dined and wined like so much of the human species. By which you will judge me a hardened misanthrope. Quite so. I defend my privacy fiercely.”

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