24 June 2017

A stately home, sex, class & power: the Profumo Affair

The Cliveden House land in the Chiltern Hills Bucks was owned by Geoffrey de Clyve­den in 1237. By 1300 it had passed to his son William who owned mills along the tree-less chalk escarp­ment high above the Thames. By 1569 a lodge existed on the site along with many acres of land.

It was on this very high, expos­ed site that George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628–1687) chose to build the first Clive­den house. The Duke of Buckingham pulled down the ear­l­ier buildings and chose Captain William Winde as his architect. Winde designed a four-storey house above an arcaded terrace.

Although the Duke's intention was to use Cliveden as a hunting lodge, he later housed his mistress Anna, Countess of Shrewsbury there. In the Duke's eastern garden, flints have been laid in the lawn as a rap­ier dated 1668, to commemorate the duel between the Duke and his mistress' husband Lord Shrewsbury. Lord Shrews­bury died of his wounds, as told by Samuel Pepys in his diary.

John Evelyn, another diarist, visited the Duke at Cliveden in 1679 and recorded the following impression in his diary: "I went to Clifden of the Duke of Buckingham. On the terrace is a circular view of the utmost verge of the Horizon which with the serpen­tining of the Thames, is admir­able and surprising. The cloisters, gardens and avenue through the wood august and stately.”

Cliveden House, 2013

There were other significant renovations done to the house after the original 1666 version. But the most important was that designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1851, to replace the house destroyed by a terr­ible fire in 1795. Barry was a perfect choice; he had won the com­mission to design the new Palace of Westminster, way back in 1836.

The present Cliveden House is a blend of the English and Italian Palladian styles. The Victorian three-storey mansion sits on a 120m long, 6m high arcaded terrace/viewing platform which remains from the mid-C17t house. The house facade is covered in Roman cement, with terracotta balusters, capitals, keystones and finials. The roof of the man­sion is for strolling, and there is a circular view, above the tree-line, that includ­es Windsor Castle.

Whereas Charles Barry's original interior showed off a square entr­an­ce hall, a morning room and a separate stairwell, Lord Astor want­ed a more impressive entrance to Cliveden. He chose to have all three rooms enlarged into one, very large Great Hall. His aim was to make the interior as much like an Italian palazzo as possible. Most English of all is the library, panelled in gorgeous cedar wood.

Cliveden House, Great Hall

In 1984–86 the exterior of the mansion was overhauled and a new lead roof installed by the National Trust, while interior repairs were carried out by Cliveden Hotel. In 2013 further restoration work on the main house was carried out including the windows and doors.


I knew all about Cliveden’s architecture and decorative arts from both lec­tures and a tour. But I had forgotten about the Cliveden Set. After their marriage, American expats Nancy (nee Langhorne) and 2nd Vis­count Wal­dorf Astor married in 1906 and moved in­to Cliveden, a wedding gift from Astor's father. Nancy Astor became a prominent hostess at Clive­den House for a social elite; she att­racted a group of upper class and very in­fl­uential people in post-WW1.

Nancy Astor was the first female MP in Brit­ain, Waldorf Astor owned The Observer, Geof­frey Dawson was edit­or of The Times, Samuel Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Edward Wood Lord Halifax was a government minister and Edward Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons. Alas Nancy Astor was anti-black, anti-Semitic and, as the 1930s went on, increasingly pro-German. So were her most of her powerful colleagues in the Cliveden Set.

Profumo and Keeler

And I had forgotten that the Profumo Affair, an event that rocked all British countries in 1961, had started at Cliveden. There was a summer party at the Cliveden estate of 3rd Viscount William Astor in 1961; this was the very same weekend that Stephen Ward, Astor’s resid­ential osteopath, had a party. Lord Astor’s friends were mainly aristoc­ratic eg the Conservative politician and British Secretary of State for War John Profumo (1915–2006). Ward’s friends were less than aristo­cratic, including the sexy dancer Christine Keeler and her lover, the Russian military attaché Yevgeny Ivanov.

To cool down from the summer heat, Lord Astor walked his guests to over to the family pool where Profumo caught a sight of Christine Keeler swimming naked. It was love at first sight! Through Ward’s connections, the very married Profumo began an affair with Keeler, and rumours of their involvement soon began to spread. In March 1963 Profumo lied about the affair to Parliament, stating that he had never had sexual relations with that woman, with Miss Keeler. A short time later Profumo resigned, admitting with deep remorse that he had deceived the House of Commons.

The real tragedy was not that extra-marital sex took place at Clive­den House, nor that the British Secretary of State for War was forc­ed to admit that he had deceived Mrs Profumo. The real tragedy for the Conservatives was that the scandal led to the eventual downfall of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government. The op­p­os­ition Lab­our Party soon defeated the Conservatives in a national elec­tion.

The personal results were strangely unequal. Profumo began a career in charity and was honoured by the queen in 1975 for his work. He never spoke about politics in public again. Step­hen Ward was con­victed on two counts of living off immoral ear­nings, took an over-dose of sleeping pills and died three days later. After Christ­ine Keeler’s release from prison in 1964 and two brief marriages, the ex-showgirl largely lived alone.

It was never proven that Yevgeny Ivanov had attempted to entrap Pro­fumo or to use Keeler as an agent. And Profumo’s relationship with Ms Keeler was never proven to lead to a breach of British national sec­urity in Russia. Ivanov was recalled to Moscow in Dec 1962 and although his naval career continued back in the Soviet Union, he was assigned to a distant fleet well away from the centres of power.

20 June 2017

Les Darcy - Australia's greatest sporting hero or vilified WW1 shirker?

James Les Darcy (1895-1917) was born near Maitland in NSW, one of ten children of a struggling Irish Catholic family. Leaving primary school in 1907, Les worked then was apprenticed at 15 to a local black­smith. As his father was at times unemployed, and his elder brother was partly crippled, Les had to help his very large family.

Darcy made his first money in the boxing ring at 14. In 1912-13 he won several fights at Newcastle and Maitland. In Nov 1913 he lost to the Australian welterweight champion Robert Whitelaw, but his performance did att­ract­ the attention of the Sydney promoters. In July 1914 he appeared for the first time at the Sydney Stadium, against the Amer­ican Fritz Holl­and. Darcy was already a local hero — his supporters came from Maitland in two special trains. When Holland won on points there was a riot. But the experts need not have worried since Darcy had impressed the sports promoter Snowy Baker. He became the stadium's leading draw-card.

WW1 did not slow him down. In Jan 1915 Darcy fought the American Jeff Smith in a world welter­weight championship. He lost sensationally, but this only enhanced his fame. That defeat was his last: by Sept 1916 he had won 22 consecutive fights! He was now comparatively well off — each contest was netting him c£300, and he was also being paid for exhibitions and for acting in a film.

Teenage success story, Les Darcy
Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales

The political atmosphere was radically altered by the Easter Week Rising in Dublin and the Australian prime minister’s commitment to conscription. Passports were being refused to men of military age. Darcy began to come under pressure to enlist, but his ambivalence to war was aggravated by his Irish-Catholic background.

He wanted 4-5 fights in the USA to make his family financially secure, and then he would go to Canada or England to enlist. He sailed clandestinely from Newcastle in Oct 1916, the day before the national conscript­ion referendum. The patriotic press denounced him as a shirker.

In New York a major fight was arranged, but it was banned by New York Gov­ern­or Whitman, because of the manner in which Darcy had left Aust­ral­ia. The decision was disastrous for Darcy: American promoters began to lose interest in him, so he gave some vaudeville exhib­itions instead. After a bout he had arranged in Louisiana was also banned, Darcy took out US citizenship and vol­unteered for the American army. Yet another fight was arranged in Memphis Tennessee, and Darcy's call-up was deferred so that he could train.

In late April 1917 Darcy collapsed. He was admitted to hospital with septicaemia and endocarditis; his tonsils were removed but he developed pneumonia and died, aged 21; his fiancée by his side. His body was brought back to Australia and, after immense funeral processions in San Francisco and Sydney, was buried in the East Maitland cemetery.

Darcy had all the makings of a folk hero. His remarkable ring record, losing only 4 professional fights and never being knocked out, was associated with his extraordinary physique: a muscular body apparently impervious to the heaviest blows and a reach greater than his height (170 cm) suggested. He neither smoked nor drank, he spent most of his income on his family and he attended Mass most mornings.

His decision to leave Australia secretly, in breach of the War Prec­aut­ions Act, provided the controversy and the enemies, without which no hero-figure is complete: his lonely death gave him an aura of martyrdom. So powerful a legend did he become that fifty years after his death, flags flew at half-mast.. and a memorial at his birth­place was unveiled by a former Governor-General.


Three separate issues seemed to me to have worked against Darcy enlist­ing. Firstly he was seen as having been maligned due to his Irish-Catholic working-class heritage. Secondly he said he tried to enlist but he was under-age and his mother refused her consent. Thirdly he was one of 10 children of an Irish Catholic share-farming family, so family money would always be desperately needed. Only winning boxing championships would guarantee that income.

Was Darcy eluding conscription in Australia? No! A conscription referendum provoked furious debate, and when people voted in Oct 1916, the proposal was narrowly defeated. In 1917 the Prime Minister called for yet another conscription referendum. This cam­paign was just as heated as the first, with the most prom­in­ent anti-conscription activist being the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Mannix. In Dec 1917 the nation again voted No.

Only by fighting in the USA, Darcy believed, could he further his career and finally guarantee his family’s financial future. Even though the press vilified him as a coward and deserter! But let us be clear - when he secretly stowed away to the USA on an oil tanker, the SS Cushing, there was NO conscription in Australia. Darcy may well have been leaving his homeland without a passport, but he was hardly in breach of critical wartime regulat­ions.

It was said that Americans were also caught up in war fever in 1916. Definitely it was the American State Governor who banned him from boxing! Definitely the American promoters abandoned him and American boxing fans sent him white feathers! This does not make sense at all. The USA was neutral in WW1 (until April 1917) and did not have conscription for its own citizens. What did Americans care if a Maitland lad did or did not enlist in the Australian army?

It must have been effective. Darcy volunteered for the US Army to avoid further criticism.

Darcy's grave
Maitland Cemetery
Photo credit: Maitland City Council

When Darcy died, he lay in state in a Sydney chapel. Seen as having been targeted by the Establishment due to his Irish-Catholic heritage, the funeral became an occasion for massive anti-conscription protest. Some 700,000 citizens followed his funeral procession from Sydney to Maitland (165 ks). A monument over Darcy’s grave in Maitland Cemet­ery was erected in his memory later that year. Darcy was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993 and was one of the first inducted into the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003.

My question remains. How did Darcy go so quickly from a heroic boxing success (in 1914-15) to a vilified coward and shirker (1916), a secret escapee to the USA (Oct 1916) and new citizen of that country (April 1917), and finally death and national sporting hero status back in Australia (April 1917)?

17 June 2017

Stairway to heaven - Dante-inspired architecture in Buenos Aires

In my Gap Year programme abroad in 1966, there were 13 English speakers and 110 Spanish speakers, so I had to learn enough Spanish to survive. And quickly! The reward would be that eventually I could travel around South America and would be shown the joys of Argentina, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay. The trip didn’t happen, but I have always been alert to South American history and architecture ever since.

Italian immigrant and cotton businessman Luis Barolo (1869-1922) arrived in Argentina in 1890. Believing that Europe had begun drift­ing towards a collapse, Luis Barolo wanted to build in the New World. So he commis­sion­ed the It­al­­ian architect Mario Palanti (1885–1978) to design a fabulous build­ing in Buenos Aires. Palanti had been educated in Milan and moved to Buenos Aires in 1909. Together Barolo and Palanti would pro­vide a place to house the bones of the jewel of European culture, Dante Alighieri. If that failed, they would have at least created a safe hav­en for the poet’s soul. The building would be called Palacio Barolo, based on the C14th epic poem Divine Comedy.

Palacio Barolo
Avenida de Mayo
Buenos Aires

In 1918 construction began and by the time it was completed four years later, Palacio Barolo was the tallest building in South Amer­ica. It quickly became a landmark building, located in Avenida de Mayo in Monserrat, Buenos Aires, only two blocks away from Plaza del Congreso.

Luis Barolo and Mario Palanti’s shared admiration for Dante could be seen throughout the entire structure of the building and in every refer­ence. The enormous height of 100 ms corresponded to the 100 cantos of Dante’s work. The height of the building wa 100 ms because there were 100 songs in Dante’s work.

In the central space, the gorgeous ground floor marble lobby had nine access vaults that represented the nine steps of initiation and the nine infernal hierarchies (Hell): for Dante, this was the start­ing point for the eventual ar­rival in Paradise. And each of the six trans­verse vaults, as well as the two lateral ones, contained inscriptions in Latin.

The building’s 22 floors reflected the number of stanzas in the Divine Comedy, and like the text, the building was divided into three sections: Hell, Purgat­ory and Paradise. As people moved from the bottom to the top, they thus climbed out of Hell and on until Heaven.

The entire Palace was a commercial enterprise, so Barolo requested hidden lifts, to move from its offices to the basement. Thus he avoided con­tact with the tenants who occupied most of the floors. When the building ended in 1923, it was blessed on 7th July by the apostolic nuncio Monsignor Giovanni Beda Cardinali.

part of Palacio Barolo's lobby

one of the original lifts

In some ways, the building was very modern; Palacio Barolo for example was the first major building in Argentina to have been made entirely from reinforced concrete. Yet the building’s ornate façade set it dramatically apart from the more austere architecture that was common then, evoking the expres­sionist architecture of Spain’s Gaudí.

A working lighthouse was placed on the build­ing’s roof, symbolising the nine angelic choirs to be found in paradise. Over the lighthouse was the Southern Cross constellation, aligned with the actual constellation on July 9th, Argentine Independence Day.

The palace may have been a symbol of the City architecturally, but it began to fill with legends about boxing, early death and stolen sculpture. In 1923, there was a historic boxing match between the Argentinian Luis Angel Firpo and the American Jack Dempsey for the World Heavyweight Title held at Madison Square Garden in New York. If the light at the top of Barolo Palace turned white, it meant that the nasty American was the winner, while a green light would represented the triumph of the godly Argentinian. Firpo took Dempsey out of the ring and the top light did turn green, but after only 19 seconds, the rival came back up and knocked Firpo out. The light quickly turned to white and millions of Argentinians felt betrayed by God, the Catholic church and the entire sporting world.

Barolo himself never lived to see the finished building that bears his name: he died suspiciously in 1922 at age 52. Was it a suicide, a poisoning or a heart attack. Perhaps Barolo committed suicide not only because the building was not finished, but because the sculp­ture that represented Dante climbing to the sky made by Palanti disappeared. After all, people asked, why did Palanti return to Italy to create the sculpture when he could have done it locally?

Later, the missing sculpture was found in the hands of a collector in Mar del Plata, who refused to sell it. Eventually the sculpture was mutilated and disappeared altogether. Was it Barolo’s relationship with The Divine Comedy and the mystery of the sculpture that caused his early death in 1922?

Palacio Barolo's lighthouse
It represented Empyrean Heaven, the highest heaven, for Dante

Dante’s bones remain interred in Ravenna in Italy, but the building he inspired is still impressive. Declared a national historic monument in 1997, Palacio Barolo was once South Amer­ica’s tallest building. It is not the tallest now, but the Palacio still towers above Argentina’s capital city. It is a unique example of a collab­oration between literature and architecture; medieval poetry re-created in concrete and marble.

Organised daytime tours are offered on weekdays every hour from 4-7pm in both Spanish and English. Evening tours start at 8pm, and included a visit to the lighthouse and wine. Towards the end of the tour, visitors can take photos from the dizzying heights of Par­adise. Not me! I don’t do dizzying heights!

In the Uruguayan city of Montevideo, there is a building in Plaza Independencia that is very similar to Barolo, called Palacio Salvo. Also designed by Mario Palanti, the idea was to reflect the the mouth of the Rio de la Plata as a welcome to foreign visitors arriving by boat from the Atlantic.