The Cliveden Set were a 1930s, upper class group of prominent individuals politically influential in pre-World War II Britain, who were in the circle of Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor. The name comes from Cliveden, the stately home in Buckinghamshire, which was then Astor's country residence.
The "Cliveden Set" tag was coined by Claud Cockburn in his journalism for the Communist newspaper The Week. It has long been widely accepted that this aristocratic Germanophile social network was in favour of friendly relations with Nazi Germany and helped create the policy of appeasement. John L. Spivak, writing in 1939, devotes a chapter to the Set. Norman Rose's 2000 account of the group proposes that, when gathered at Cliveden, it functioned more like a think-tank than a cabal. Ironically, according to Carroll Quigley, the Cliveden Set had been strongly anti-German before and during World War I. After the end of the war, the discovery of the Nazis' Black Book showed that the group's members were all to be arrested as soon as Britain was invaded; Lady Astor remarked, "It is the complete answer to the terrible lie that the so-called 'Cliveden Set' was pro-Fascist."
The actual beliefs and influence of the Cliveden Set are matters of some dispute, and in the late 20th century some historians of the period came to consider the Cliveden Set allegations to be exaggerated. For instance, Christopher Sykes, in a sympathetic 1972 biography of Nancy Astor, argues that the entire story about the Cliveden Set was an ideologically motivated fabrication by Claud Cockburn that came to be generally accepted by a public looking for scapegoats for British pre-war appeasement of Adolf Hitler. There are also academic arguments that while Cockburn's account may have not have been entirely accurate, his main allegations cannot be easily dismissed
In November 1937, Claud Cockburn, editor of The Week, wrote and published a damning report on what he saw as the pro-German activities of Waldorf Astor, his wife, the politician Vicountess Nancy Astor and their circle of friends. He alleged that the group, who where often hosted by the Astors at their country residence, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, were using their close political connections and media power (Waldorf owned The Observer) to influence the British Government into a policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany. Cockburn's article, accusing the Astors and their circle, was published just as the tide of public feeling was turning against appeasement, consequently, the story was picked up and embellished by newspapers all over the world, with the phrase 'The Cliveden Set' coined by another British publication. There remains, however, no evidence that the group acted in any way to actively distort British foreign policy, although some did hold pro-appeasement values, and Cockburn's theories are generally disregarded today.
The Cliveden Set
Cockburn wrote a great deal in The Week about what became known as the Cliveden Set. The leaders of this group, Nancy Astor and her husband, Waldorf Astor, held regular weekend parties at their home Cliveden, a large estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames. Those who attended included Philip Henry Kerr (11th Marquess of Lothian), Edward Wood (1st Earl of Halifax), Geoffrey Dawson, Samuel Hoare, Lionel Curtis, Nevile Henderson, Robert Brand and Edward Algernon Fitzroy. Most members of the group were supporters of a close relationship with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. The group included several influential people. Astor owned The Observer, Dawson was editor of The Times, Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax was a minister of the government who would later become foreign secretary and Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons.
In 1935 a Colonel Valentine Vivian, the head of counter-espionage at MI6, wrote to Captain Guy Liddell at MI5 saying he had sent MI6's man in Berlin to talk to Norman Ebbutt, who had worked with him at The Times in the 1920s. The agent reported the conversation: "Ebbutt has the highest opinion of Claud Cockburn's honesty and admires him for feeding on the crust of an idealist when he could obtain a fat appointment by being untrue to himself... Ebbutt says The Week has a large circulation among businessmen in the City. He gets his copy regularly. He very much regrets that Claud Cockburn has now completely fallen to the mad idea that all Imperialists dream of nothing but the destruction of Russia."
Norman Rose, the author of The Cliveden Set (2000) has pointed out: "Lothian, Dawson, Brand, Curtis and the Astors - formed a close-knit band, on intimate terms with each other for most of their adult life. Here indeed was a consortium of like-minded people, actively engaged in public life, close to the inner circles of power, intimate with Cabinet ministers, and who met periodically at Cliveden or at 4 St James Square (or occasionally at other venues). Nor can there be any doubt that, broadly speaking, they supported - with one notable exception - the government's attempts to reach an agreement with Hitler's Germany, or that their opinions, propagated with vigour, were condemned by many as embarrassingly pro-German."
On 17th June, 1936, Claud Cockburn, produced an article called "The Best People's Front" in his anti-fascist newsletter, The Week. He argued that a group that he called the Astor network, were having a strong influence over the foreign policies of the British government. He pointed out that members of this group controlled The Times and The Observer and had attained an "extraordinary position of concentrated power" and had become "one of the most important supports of German influence". Over the next year he continually reported on what was said at weekends at Cliveden.
Claud Cockburn later admitted in his autobiography, I Claud (1967) that most of his information came from Vladimir Poliakoff, the diplomatic correspondent of The Times. As his editor, Geoffrey Dawson, was a member of the Cliveden Set, and would obviously not allow it to be published in his own newspaper, he gave it to Cockburn instead. Cockburn also revealed that Poliakoff received much of his information from "anti-Nazi factions in the British and French Foreign Offices... and were thus first-rate, and the stories that came from them had that particular zip and zing which you get from official sources only when a savage intra-mural departmental fight is going on." He also admitted that Winston Churchill and his supporters were also providing him with "inside information".
On a visit to the United States Anthony Eden was amazed when he discovered the impact on public opinion of articles on the Cliveden Set in The Week was having in the country. A horrified Eden reported to Stanly Baldwin that "Nancy Astor and her Cliveden Set has done much damage, and 90 per cent of the US is firmly persuaded that you (Baldwin) and I are the only Tories who are not fascists in disguise."
28th March 1994
Intrigue and scandal behind the charm of Cliveden
THE Merchant-Ivory film The Remains of the Day is set partly in the
thirties in a country house which plays host to supporters of German
appeasement and whose setting bears a striking resemblance to Cliveden,
the Astors' country seat in Berkshire.
Cliveden (it rhymes with ''lived in'') has had a chequered history.
More than 30 years ago John Profumo met Christine Keeler there and began
the Tory sex scandal by with all others are judged.
Between the wars Nancy Astor gathered an exotic mix of English
aristocracy, politicians and celebrities. The Cliveden Set attracted,
among others, the German ambassador Von Ribbentrop, Lothian Lothian,
Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd George, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling and
Lawrence of Arabia. Chaplin wrote in his autobiography: ''Lady Astor
would have made a wonderful actress.''
According to the writer Angela Lambert, the young people invited to
Cliveden were ''usually the most vivacious and intelligent of their age
group''. Some 30 household servants pampered the regular weekend guests
who would take out boats on the river, or play tennis.
In her entry for December 13, 1937, diarist Beatrice Webb wrote about
''the Cliveden Coterie'' describing members as ''die-hard pro-German''.
The New York Times said that the Cliveden Set was ''widely regarded as
the most influential of Germany's sympathisers''. According to David
Sinclair, in his book Dynasty: The Astors and their Time, the Set was
innocent of the charge of ''conniving in the rise of the Nazi's Reich.''
In the House of Commons, however, Nancy was once referred to as ''the
honourable member for Berlin''.
Nancy wrote to the papers denying that any sinister group met at
Cliveden ''in the interests of fascism or anything else'' although she
did admit to entertaining people of many religious and political creeds.
When Labour MP Tom Driberg made mention of the Set he was promptly
invited to lunch by Nancy Astor to be dissuaded of such a Set's
''There is no doubt that a Cliveden Set did exist in the sense that
the phrase represents a set of assumptions and presumptions to which the
Astors and their friends were amongst the most important subscribers,''
writes David Sinclair. According to Bernard Shaw's biographer, Michael
Holroyd, Nancy ''created a fantasy kingdom [at Cliveden] that
surrendered to reality only under extreme pressure''.
Nancy finally abandoned her stance on appeasement but she never saw
eye-to-eye with Winston Churchill. She once told him: ''If I was married
to you I would put poison in your coffee.'' Churchill's immortal reply
was: ''Nancy, if I was married to you I'd drink it!''
Nancy was a celebrated eccentric, a teetotaller, she converted to
Christian Science and visited the USSR in 1931. She was greatly
enamoured of the company of George Bernard Shaw who called Nancy ''a
volcano''. The daughter of a wealthy American family (her sister was
immortalised in popular cartoons as The Gibson Girl), Nancy married the
millionaire Waldorf Astor in 1906. In 1919 she became Britain's first
woman MP to take her seat.
THE Astors traced their name back to John Jacob Astor who once owned
almost all of Manhattan. The family moved on from property and
publishing to hotels. New Yorks' Waldorf Astoria was opened in 1893.
Among its innovations were breakfast in bed and the Waldorf Salad.
Nancy feared and hated war but she could do nothing to stop the Second
World War. After the war the Cliveden Set transmogrified. Bill Astor,
Nancy's son, loved to entertain at Cliveden although it was then owned
by the National Trust. His wife Bronwen was Balmain's principal model.
The hospitable Bill Astor had guests staying most weekends for house
Minister for War John Profumo was one such guest who met a naked
19-year-old model, Christine Keeler, at Cliveden's walled swimming pool
one hot June in 1961. It was a fateful meeting that was to put Profumo
and Keeler's names in the history books. The link came through Stephen
Ward, a society osteopath, who had a weekend cottage in the grounds.
Ward introduced Lord Astor and his friends to a variety of pretty girls.
In court Mandy Rice-Davies mentioned Lord Astor by name and when she
was asked if she knew that Astor had told the police that her
allegations about him were untrue she famously replied: ''He would,
wouldn't he!'' After the trial of Stephen Ward, Bill Astor was
criticised for not coming forward to defend his friend.
Nancy lived to see the family named dragged through the dirt. Bill
Astor's reputation was severely damaged in the scandal although he was
cleared of any wrongdoing. The sordid case took its toll and he died in
1966 of a heart attack. He was 58. His wife said that the Profumo Affair
“I am the kind of woman I would run from”: The Life of Nancy Astor
As a new biography makes clear, Nancy Astor was someone you'd want to read about. By Emma Garman
02.03.13 4:45 AM ET
One day in the halcyon era just before WWI, fate smiled on a “lady tramp” in the Buckinghamshire countryside. A young mother named Nancy Astor happened to be passing and, paying no heed to the indigent woman’s demurrals, took her home to the Astors’ imposing estate, Cliveden, where she was happily ensconced in a cottage for the rest of her life.
It’s a striking example of Lady Astor’s deeply felt, if haphazardly exercised, noblesse oblige. Against a backdrop of spectacular wealth and privilege—her Virginian father, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, made a fortune on the railroads, and at the age of 26 she married Waldorf Astor, the England-transplanted scion of the richest family in America—the petite, passionate Southerner was driven by a mania to do her Christian duty, as she saw it. Combined with an addiction to the spotlight and a level of self-confidence that would make today’s celebutantes blush, this do-good desire assured her place in history when, in 1919, she became the first woman to take a seat in the British Parliament, as a Conservative representing Plymouth. She was 40 years old.
As Adrian Fort conveys in his engaging new biography, Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor, Nancy was ideally positioned to break into the historically all-male bastion. The Plymouth seat was previously held by her husband, Waldorf, but, to his eternal chagrin, he inherited a peerage on his father William’s death. As Viscount Astor II, he had no choice but to forego his place in the House of Commons, and so the Tory leadership was persuaded to let Nancy run instead.
Nancy’s lifestyle to date had prepared her well. One of the country’s most prolific society hostesses, since marrying Waldorf she had presided over a ceaseless stream of lavish parties, where political luminaries, diplomats, and royalty socialized with writers, artists, and actors—not simply for fun, Nancy would claim, but always “for special and particular purposes,” such as introducing influential Americans and Englishmen for transatlantic benefit. Suffice it to say that after verbal sparring with the likes of Churchill, as well as making public speeches on her husband’s behalf, the campaign trail held no fear. She whipped up crowds, deflected hecklers with her trademark sass (“Would I like to live on £2 a week? No, but would you work as hard as me if you had what I had?”), and cannily targeted the newly enfranchised female electorate. “I think that women had better put a woman in the House of Commons,” she told them. “Much as I love you, Gentlemen, you have made a terrible muddle of the world without us.”
Yet, as Nancy’s constituents and the wider public soon discovered, this beacon of progress was no permissive free-thinker: she was puritanical, dogmatic, and at times downright hypocritical. Grimly opposed to the nation’s favorite pastime of drinking, she made her maiden speech to Parliament on the immorality of the brewing trade, and declared her hope that Britain would join America in Prohibition. Her horror of drunkenness was rooted in a childhood marred by the alcoholic excesses of her father and brothers, and confirmed when her first husband, Robert Shaw II—the handsome son of a prominent Boston Brahmin family whom she married when she was just 18—turned out to be a heavy drinker. They were divorced after five years, a fact that didn’t deter Nancy from voting against relaxing the divorce laws in 1920.
This short first marriage produced one child, a boy named Bobbie whose very existence was seen as something of a miracle. According to Fort, before her wedding night Nancy had not “comprehended the facts of life,” and following a “brief, unproductive tumult” had extracted herself from the marriage bed and fled home to her parents in a state of shock. They persuaded her to give it another try, but Nancy’s report of waking up to see Bob brandishing a chloroform sponge, evidently determined to assert his conjugal rights, aptly illustrates why their relationship was doomed.
Nancy’s bedroom activity with Waldorf, a fellow teetotaler, was more successful, at least judging by its fecundity. The couple had five children: William (“Bill,” destined to be embroiled in the Profumo scandal in the ’60s), Phyllis (“Wissie”), David, Michael, and John Jacob VII (“Jakie”). Of course, Nancy’s hectic schedule of work, entertaining, and travel was unimpeded by child-rearing responsibilities, which were delegated to the woman she called “the backbone of my home,” the redoubtable Nanny Gibbons. Within this customarily upper-class arrangement, Nancy regarded her children with enormous affection, although they were not spared her acerbic wit. During a Commons debate on birth control, she said, “One of my sons told me recently that I had not taken enough interest in him before he was seven. My reply was that if I had known as much as I do now, I should not have had him at all.”
Waldorf, who suffered periodically from poor health, also sometimes felt sidelined by his wife’s political commitments, which far exceeded her official legislative duties. The linchpin of the “Cliveden Set,” as her powerful circle came to be known, she continued to host elaborate and agenda-led gatherings, such as when trade union leaders and employers were invited for a weekend at Cliveden following the Great Strike of 1926. Waldorf supported Nancy’s causes and was himself very much involved in politics, yet looked forward to enjoying more exclusive attention from her in their old age. “When I married Nancy,” he said in 1944, the year she would retire from Parliament, “I hitched my wagon to a star … In 1919 when she got into the House I found I had hitched my wagon to a sort of V2 rocket.”
Still, their marriage was consistently stable, albeit founded on mutual respect and emotional affinity rather than sexual passion. Nancy never stopped finding sex repellent, which conveniently fit with her Christian conviction that lust was a mortal sin. “Conceived without pleasure, born without pain” was how she referred to procreation, and when her sons were older, she inquired—much to their amusement—why they would bother cheating on their “perfectly good” wives. “It’s not as if it’s so wonderful: sex is just like going to the lavatory.”
Interestingly, Nancy came to accept the bisexuality of her favorite son, her firstborn, Bobbie, perhaps, Fort implies, because she was less threatened by his same-sex relationships than those with women. His lover Frank, she would remark, was “the prettiest of all my children’s girlfriends, the rest of them are overpainted hussies.” Bobbie suffered greatly for his attraction to men: forced to leave the army after being caught in a liaison, he was later arrested for a homosexual act and sent to prison in 1931. A noteworthy detail not mentioned by Fort, who dispenses with Bobbie’s experiences rather cursorily, was that David Astor, Bobbie’s younger half-brother and the longtime editor of The Observer, would become a generous donor to the Homosexual Law Reform Society, whose efforts led to the 1967 decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales.
In the end, it was Bobbie’s tragic plight that finished Nancy off. In 1964 he attempted suicide, and she was taken to his bedside. Though her daughter, Wissie, claimed that he’d had a stroke, the sight of poor Bobbie lying unconscious, attached to wires and tubes, was too much. The following weekend Nancy herself suffered a stroke, and died a few weeks later, at the age of 85.
Her legacy is a complex one. Thanks to the inclusion of guests like Hitler’s “ambassador-at-large,” Joachim von Ribbentrop, at her legendary parties, not to mention her support of appeasement in the 1930s—she believed that Nazism would solve the “problems” of communism and the Jews—Lady Astor and her Cliveden Set will forever be associated with a certain strain of aristocratic fascism. Yet as Fort’s biography authoritatively establishes, no single label can be applied to this fearless, misguided, almost unfathomably dynamic whirlwind of a person who, for all her faults, didn’t entirely lack self-awareness: “My vigor, vitality, and cheek repel me,” was one of her famous aphorisms. “I am the kind of woman I would run from.”