Sunday, May 24, 2020

Beautiful and Beloved, by Roderic Owen and Tristan de Vere Cole

On twitter a few weeks ago, a friend mentioned that Tristan de Vere Cole, director of 1968 Doctor Who story The Wheel in Space, was not only the son of Mavis Mortimer Wheeler but also co-wrote a biography of her. I sought out the book.

Back in 2011 I was much struck by a sketch of Mavis in the National Museum of Wales by Augustus John - believed to be Tristan's father. At the time I saw the portrait, I was reading Michael Holroyd's exhaustive, 600-page biography of John, and followed that up with Mortimer Wheeler's autobiography Still Digging - though in that Wheeler makes no mention of his second wife at all - though it was over Mavis that John famously challenged Wheeler to a duel; Wheeler consented, suggesting they fight it out with field guns.

Things never got that far, the quarrel was settled, and John was best man to Wheeler when he married Mavis - a newsworthy event given that Mavis was sister-in-law to the Prime Minister (her late husband's sister was Mrs Neville Chamberlain):

Beautiful and Beloved certainly doesn't shy away from that mix of celebrity, sex and wild goings on. Much of the later part of the book details the events of 1954 when Mavis shot her lover, Lord Vivian. A range of sources are used to piece together the night of drinking that led up to the shooting, the shooting itself - as best it can be understood - and the subsequent trial. The authors are in no doubt of Mavis' innocence - yes, she shot Lord Vivian, but they're sure she didn't mean to hurt or kill him. Despite this, the four different versions of events given by Mavis that suggest she wasn't entirely honest about what happened. They seem surprised that she went to prison for it but I didn't think there was much reasonable doubt.

In fact, Mavis' different accounts of herself were nothing new. Born Mabel Winifred Mary Wright on 29 December 1908, Mavis kept reinventing herself, changing her name to Mavis and then Maris, with other names such as Faith and Xara along the way. She was also horrified that news reports of her trial gave her real age. That constant reinvention helped her escape her modest background - she was the daughter of a grocer's assistant, and worked as a scullery maid and waitress before she met and married society prankster Horace de Vere Cole. He was much older than her and had already lived quite a life: the book includes a photograph of a blacked-up Virginia Woolf alongside Horace as part of the notorious Dreadnought hoax in 1910 (when Mavis was aged just one). By the 1960s, Mavis has risen so high through the social ranks that she could accuse her daughter-in-law of being bourgeois - for not being classy enough.

The book shares details of Horace's other pranks, but doesn't tell us exactly which rude word he contrived to spell out in the audience of a theatre by buying tickets for a bald-headed men. That's not from prurience. For one thing, details are sparse for this particular legend: Wikipedia says it was either BOLLOCKS or SHIT but can't name the performance, either. For another, the book isn't shy of f-words and c-words when it quotes the endless, bad poetry Mavis inspired from her various lovers. Or there's this, about John in 1957:
"To Mavis he wrote about an exhibition of drawings he was thinking of having, drawings of what a convention of the day would have had him refer to , in print, as c--s; but such evasions were not for him. He warned her that he would shortly be calling on her to provide the crowning feature of the lot, and he sent love from himself and [his partner] Dodo for good measure.
He wasn't just being shocking, in the time-honoured, intimate manner. John was known to have made a number of studies of private parts. And since Mavis came so easily to hand he was bound to have used as a model, even after a lapse of so many years, the girl who'd won the competition at the old 'Eiffel Tower' [restaurant] for the finest concealed charms." (p. 257)
The book is strikingly candid, and includes one of the nude photographs she sent to John in the 1930s. In fact, she sent such photographs to at least one other of her lovers - and each time the photographs were returned with a horrified response. John wanted to know who had taken the pictures and how she'd got them developed, and the authors add a footnote about practicalities here:
"It wasn't until August 1972 that the Boots chain consented to develop and print snapshots showing full frontal nudity. 'The interpretation of what is obscene has changed in the minds of juries and public opinion,' stated their spokesman, quoted in the Daily Telegraph. 'A normal naked woman is not obscene." (p. 78n)
The obvious candidate for photographer is Bet, the "local and very Cornish woman" who looked after Doll Keiller's cottage at Woodstock St Hilary near Marazion in Cornwall, where Mavis stayed while pregnant with Tristan in December 1934. We know Bet was taken by Mavis on first sight:
"But rushed round to spread the news [of the arrival] to her neighbour, Mrs Allan. 'You wait 'til you see what's in my cottage,' she boasted. 'Six foot of beauty, that's what I've got.'
But even Bet was taken aback when Mrs de Vere Cole opened the door to her next morning, completely naked. 'Look here, Bet, you'll have to get used to this,' said Mavis. 'You'd better begin now.' Even in December, if she could remove her clothes, she would." (p. 72)
She's back in Cornwall with Bet in 1958, though Doll had died three years before:
"They took photographs. On returning to London she [Mavis] prevailed upon a manager to co-operate. She wrote to Bet, 'I told him that some were taken unawares, when I was getting out of my bikini. "Oh," says he, "I'll attend to the matter myself and will get them through by Saturday morning." So--Bet--what fun!" (p. 260)
For all the detail of the letter, the dates and the brazenness, for all the honesty of the book, I find myself wondering what her relationship was with Bet.

Yet given her vivacity, the image of Mavis that really struck is the one from the opening chapter: in the last year of her life, in 1970, venturing out each day into the streets around Sloane Square with her Yorkshire terrier in her shopping basket, to buy tins of cheap food and a half-bottle of either whisky or brandy (or, sometimes both). This daily intake procured, we follow her back to her home in Cadogan Estates, dirty and full of junk as well as a stack of valuable pictures by John, the plumbing not always working, a huge mirror by the bed. It's tragic but honest, and this version of herself is entirely her own creation.

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