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PostPosted: Thu Mar 20, 2008 6:50 pm 
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From The Sunday Times
March 16, 2008
Gianni Versace's Lake Como home bought by Arkady Novikov, the "blini baron of Moscow"

Sources close to the transaction have named him as Arkady Novikov, a multi-millionaire restaurateur known as the "blini baron of Moscow"

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Gianni Versace

By Helen Davies

Since Gianni Versace, the flamboyant Italian fashion designer, was gunned down on the steps of his Miami mansion in 1997, Villa Fontanelle, his beautiful weekend home on the shores of Lake Como, has sat virtually lifeless.

The yellow 19th-century palazzina was for 20 years his favourite house, and the scene of glamorous weekend parties attended by guests such as Princess Diana, Elton John, Sting and Madonna. Over the past 10 years, however, while Versace's family and the fashion world mourned his loss, the elegant four-storey property near the village of Moltrasio has been left largely uninhabited (bar the odd celebrity visit: Jennifer Lopez spent her honeymoon there with husband number two, Cris Judd, in 2001).

Now Villa Fontanelle's scores of wooden shutters are set to be flung open to the spring sunshine once again. The house is being bought for £26m by a Russian businessman in a private deal. Sources close to the transaction have named him as Arkady Novikov, a multi-millionaire restaurateur known as the "blini baron of Moscow". They have revealed he is paying at least £3m more than the asking price set by the Versace company last summer to ensure the house doesn"t go on the open market.

The bid will also make sure nobody else gets to view the fabled ornate interiors or wander on the grand terraces and manicured gardens created by one of the world"s boldest style-makers. Neither Novikov, 46, nor Aylesford, a top-end Chelsea estate agency involved with marketing the villa, would comment on the sale.

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Arkady Novikov

Versace, the creator of that dress — the two slinky strips of black fabric, held together with safety pins, that catapulted Liz Hurley into the limelight in 1994 — owned several grand homes, including properties in Milan and New York. But it was on the tranquil Lake Como estate, 30 miles from Milan, that the Calabrian-born designer would seek refuge from work with his long-term lover, the former model Antonio D"Amico, and members of his family, including his beloved niece Allegra, now 21, to whom he left half of his fortune.

Versace said of Fontanelle: "The house in Moltrasio is a Proust house, whereas the ones in Milano and Miami are more Batman... It is the house that really belongs to me, reflecting a mirror image of all that I am, for better or worse."

The property was built in the first half of the 19th century by Lord Charles Currie, an eccentric visiting Englishman who fell in love with Lake Como. Failing to find a villa for sale, he decided to create his own, right on the water's edge. By 1977, when it was bought by Versace, it was in a state of abandonment, and the designer set about restoring it to its former neoclassical glory. The work, completed in December 1980, included landscaping the three acres of ornamental gardens, which now have a tennis court, water frontage and a private mooring.

Versace was as hands-on — and outrageous — with the renovation and decoration of the villa as he was with the gold lamé suits that established his reputation in the 1970s. He chose every item himself, from furniture and paintings to table linen and dinnerware, creating a mini palace that was a personal shrine. Midnight blue and gold, the signature colour scheme of the Versace fashion house, featured throughout, along with the Medusa-head logo and hundreds upon hundreds of neoclassical objets d'art.

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Gianni Versace and Antonio D'Amico

The villa also became a homage to the male form. Many of the rooms have magnificent full-size marble nudes of Greek gods, set on plinths. The dining room is said to be decorated with large plasterwork medallions and lit by a Russian crystal chandelier that originally hung in a palace in St Petersburg.

Preoccupations with the grandiose and the imperial continue elsewhere: the enormous main bedroom, with an empire bed, has blue satin armchairs and more statues of Greek deities. Bathrooms, themed in blue and gold, feature red marble detailing and are adorned with medallions of Roman emperors, marble busts and classically inspired artwork and urns. One source close to the sale adds of the property: "It is a magnificent house, very elegant, very rare and one of the prettiest houses I've ever seen."

So, minimalist it is not. Another who viewed the property prior to the sale says of it: "There is a lot of bizarre furnishing one knows the family enjoys, but which may not be to everyone"s taste — especially the two enormous stone men in the main bedroom."

Like Versace, Fontanelle's soon-to-be owner is, in his own way, a radical. Novikov, who recently bought a villa on Sardinia"s Costa Smeralda — next door to Roman Abramovich's girlfriend, Daria Zhukova — is credited with transforming the restaurant scene in the Russian capital. He has introduced sushi, caribou and nachos with deep-fried onion blossom to the menus of a culinary empire that includes 47 restaurants and a chain of cafes. He starred in the Russian version of the reality-television show The Apprentice.

Trained as a chef in Soviet days, Novikov applied for job at McDonald's when it opened its first branch in Moscow in 1990, but his boasts about the number of different cuisines he could cook failed to impress the Americans. Undaunted, two years later he borrowed $50,000 from a friend and set up Sirena, which became Moscow's finest fish restaurant, with a dining room in the style of a wooden galleon and an aquarium beneath a glass floor. Such exuberant style perfectly fitted the brash taste of the novi Russki, the class of new Russians who made fortunes during the collapse of communism. Another early restaurant was The White Sun of the Desert, which featured belly dancers, live cockfights and overflowing buffets of Uzbek delicacies.

The kitsch bling of his restaurants does not appear to match his sartorial tastes. The shaven-headed Novikov favours the clean-cut look — white T-shirts, dark suits and blazers — with his flair evident only in his business ventures. He says on his company"s website: "I grew up late, reading fairy tales until I was 15." And: "I am often asked whether I'm going to expand my company. I always tell myself, "Enough. Stop." But I can't stop!"

Whether or not Fontanelle's over-the-top decor will appeal to Novikov is anybody's guess, but it looks as if he will be undertaking his own decorative schemes. Some furnishings from the villa were auctioned in 2005, and sources close to the sale say that Sotheby's Milan is lined up to sell off other contents later this year. The company has declined to comment. Whatever happens to the interior, however, Fontanelle will never lose the glamour of its past and its dolce vita party spirit — albeit mixed in with a fairy tale that ended in tragedy.

Roy Strong, the garden designer and former director of the V&A who was entrusted with landscaping the park for Versace, has fond memories of a key chapter in the villa's recreation — and of its owner. "My wife and I stayed there every year for more than 10 years," he recalls. "I went one year, and Gianni didn't seem interested in the garden, but I made some sketches. The next year, he took us to our bedroom, threw open the shutters and said, "Here's your garden." And there it was. There were statues, fountains; the trees were very old, and their branches just trailed into the river.

"He was a genius in a way. We were good friends, but it was a private friendship. To me, he ranked among the shyest people I've met. We would just read and go for walks. He had wonderful collections, and it was a wonderful house. It really is the end of an era."

Source: The Sunday Times UK.

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PostPosted: Fri May 23, 2008 4:45 pm 
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The original Indiana Jones: Otto Rahn and the temple of doom

22 May 2008

As Indiana Jones returns to our screens, John Preston looks at the Nazi archaeologist who inspired Spielberg's hero, and finds a story more bizarre than anything the director could have dreamt of

Very little is certain in the short life of Otto Rahn. But one of the few things one can with any confidence say about him is that he looked nothing like Harrison Ford. Yet Rahn, small and weasel-faced, with a hesitant, toothy smile and hair like a neatly contoured oil slick, undoubtedly served as inspiration for Ford's most famous role, Indiana Jones.

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On joining the SS: 'A man has to eat. What was I supposed to do? Turn Himmler down?'

Like Jones, Rahn was an archaeologist, like him he fell foul of the Nazis and like him he was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail - the cup reputedly used to catch Christ's blood when he was crucified. But whereas Jones rode the Grail-train to box-office glory, Rahn's obsession ended up costing him his life.

However, Rahn is such a strange figure, and his story so bizarre, that simply seeing him as the unlikely progenitor of Indiana Jones is to do him a disservice. Here was a man who entered into a terrible Faustian pact: he was given every resource imaginable to realise his dream. There was just one catch: in return, he had to find something that - if it ever existed - had not been seen for almost 2,000 years.

What we can say for sure is that Rahn was born in 1904 and at an early age became fascinated with the Holy Grail. At university he was inspired by the example of another German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. Largely as a result of immersing himself in the Iliad, Schliemann had found what he believed to be the ruins of Troy on the western coast of Turkey.

Rahn decided that he was going to go one better: he would use the 13th-century epic Parsifal as his guide to finding the Holy Grail. Why did he think Parsifal would lead him to his goal? This is a tricky one - and, as with anything to do with the Holy Grail, one should never underestimate the power of wishful thinking.

But Rahn was also a serious scholar and the more he pored over Parsifal, the more he became convinced that the Cathars, the medieval Christian sect, held the secret to the Grail's whereabouts. In 1244, shortly before the Cathars were massacred by a Catholic crusade, three Cathar knights had apparently slipped over the wall of Montsegur Castle in the Languedoc area of France. With them, hidden in a hessian bag, was a cup reputed to be the Holy Grail.

Rahn arrived at Montsegur in the summer of 1931. He didn't find the Grail, but he did find a complex of caves nearby that the Cathars had used as a kind of subterranean cathedral. If he'd been of a less optimistic bent, he might have shrugged his narrow shoulders and gone home. Rahn, however, wasn't the going-home type. Certain he was on the right track, he wrote a book called Crusade Against the Grail in which he described his quest.

It was at this point that Rahn met his Mephistopheles. One day in 1933 he received a mysterious telegram offering him 1,000 reichsmarks a month to write the sequel to Crusade Against the Grail. The telegram was unsigned, but he was instructed to go to an address in Berlin - 7 Prinz Albrechtstrasse.

When he arrived, he was understandably surprised to be greeted by the grinning figure of Heinrich Himmler, the head of Hitler's SS. Not only had Himmler read Crusade Against the Grail; he'd virtually committed the thing to memory. For the first time in his life Rahn met someone even more obsessed with finding the Grail than he was. Indeed, so confident was Himmler of finding the Grail that he'd already prepared a castle - Wewelsburg in Westphalia - for its arrival. In the basement, surrounded by busts of prominent Nazis, was an empty plinth where the Grail would go.

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All Rahn had to do was find it. He seems to have been blithely unaware of what he was letting himself in for. Initially, Rahn saw no reason to join the SS, but when it was intimated to him that Himmler would be pleased if he did, he duly signed up. A few weeks later a friend ran into him wearing the black uniform of an SS Sturmbannführer and asked him what on earth he was doing.

'A man has to eat,' Rahn replied sheepishly. 'What was I supposed to do? Turn Himmler down?'

Rahn now had the full backing of the SS. But he also had no excuse not to come up with the goods. He wrote another book, with the none too catchy title of Lucifer's Court: A Heretic's Journey in Search of the Light Bringers, which detailed his further efforts to find the Grail.

Perhaps it's too much to expect a professional Grail-hunter to have a fancy prose style. Even so, his books read as if he were encased in heavy armour while he was writing them. 'Look, I will tell you a secret,' he wrote in Lucifer's Court. 'The time has come for the groom to crown his bride; guess where the crown lies. Towards midnight, because the light is clear in the darkness.'

There was more in a similar vein - a lot more. To the untrained ear, this has a note of desperate flannel about it. However, Himmler loved the book and ordered 5,000 copies to be bound in the finest leather and distributed to the Nazi elite. By now it must have dawned on Rahn that he was swimming with some extremely nasty sharks. It must also have dawned on him that he was trapped - especially when he read the proofs of Lucifer's Court and found that one blatantly anti-Semitic passage had been inserted by someone else.

According to Jeremy Morgan, whose uncle, Herman Kirchmeir, was a friend of Rahn's, the two men shared an interest in Parsifal and the Grail. 'They used to go climbing together, exploring caves and so forth. I used to hear about him as a child. The feeling in my family was that Rahn was an honourable man who had got himself into this terrible bind. He wasn't anti-Semitic, but he'd taken the SS's money because he needed funding for his archaeological projects. Then, having done so, he couldn't get out.'

What gives Rahn's dilemma peculiar piquancy is that there's evidence to suggest that he was Jewish himself - although it's not clear if he was aware of it. He was also gay. Bravely, if naively, Rahn began to move in anti-Nazi circles. Nigel Graddon, author of a new biography of Rahn, Otto Rahn and the Quest for the Holy Grail: the Amazing Life of the Real Indiana Jones, believes that Himmler's disenchantment with Rahn was a result of his failure to find the Grail.

'Basically, he came back empty-handed,' he says. 'That was his biggest offence. It's true that Rahn did voice anti-Nazi sentiments, but he was always pretty discreet about it. What would have been far more of a problem to Himmler was that Rahn was openly homosexual. In the early days, Himmler had been prepared to turn a blind eye to it. But as time went on, his tolerance wore thin.'

In 1937, Rahn was punished for a drunken homosexual scrape by being assigned to a three-month tour of duty as a guard at Dachau concentration camp. What he saw there appalled him. Clearly in a state of anguish he wrote to a friend, 'I have much sorrow in my country… impossible for a tolerant, liberal man like me to live in a nation that my native country has become.'

He also wrote to Himmler resigning from the SS. This, too, was as naive as it was brave - the SS being the sort of organisation you only resigned from feet-first. Although Himmler accepted Rahn's resignation, he had no intention of letting him escape. What happened next is unclear. There are stories that Rahn was threatened with having his homosexuality exposed, also that he had links with British Intelligence.

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Told that SS hitmen were out to get him, Rahn was apparently offered the option of committing suicide. One evening in March 1939, he climbed up a snow-covered slope in the Tyrol mountains and lay down to die. He is believed to have swallowed poison, although no cause of death was ever given. The following day Rahn's body was found, frozen solid. He was 34.

'I always understood that he had chosen his favourite spot to die in,' says Morgan. 'He was lying down looking up at the mountains, rather as if this might lead his soul to some Arthurian heaven.'

And there the story might have ended - except that Hollywood has conferred a strange kind of immortality on Otto Rahn. But it's not only Hollywood; on the internet, his memory continues to be bathed in a richly speculative glow, fanned by ever more outlandish theories about his fate.

Predictably, there are stories that Rahn was murdered, or that he didn't die at all in the Tyrol - this was just a clever bluff to fool the Nazis. Instead, he apparently survived, changed his first name to Rudolf and went on to become the German ambassador in Italy. Graddon believes that, 'There is too much fog swirling around his headstone. We simply don't know what happened to him, and as a result all kinds of rumours have sprung up.'

As for the Grail, that too lives on, with claimants and contenders continuing to turn up in the most unlikely places. The most recent sighting was in 2004 when it was supposed to have been found in the late Lord Lichfield's back-garden in Staffordshire. As the estate manager said at the time, 'The Grail is like Everest: you climb it because it's there.' Or not there, of course.

Source: Telegraph UK.

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 02, 2008 12:07 pm 
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Thank you, Victor. I would never have known it. Not that I care much for these type of movies and I think Harrison Ford entirely too old for such a venture, hurts me only by thinking of it, but alas Hollywood is all about playing it safe and this is going to make their investment pay off many times.

Anyway, Ford is not a fag and hence of no consequence to me. But yesterday someone I admire and respect has passed away and I don't want to be some harbinger of death poster but it seems only fit to include him in this topic.

:sad:


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 02, 2008 12:09 pm 
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French designer Yves Saint Laurent is dead: foundation
June 1, 2008

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Legendary Designer Yves Saint Laurent Dies at 71

Yves Saint Laurent, one the top French designers of the 20th century, died Sunday evening in Paris, a source in the fashion icon's foundation said.

"Yves Saint Laurent died Sunday at 11:10 pm," the source in the Pierre-Berge-Saint Laurent Foundation told AFP.

The reclusive French maestro, who had retired from haute couture in 2002 after four decades at the top of his trade, had been ill for some time.

During his farewell appearance seven years ago, Saint Laurent had told reporters he had "always given the highest importance of all to respect for this craft, which is not exactly an art, but which needs an artist to exist."

One of a handful of designers who dominated 20th century fashion -- on a par with Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret -- Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent was born in the coastal town of Oran, Algeria, on August 1, 1936, at a time when the North African country was still considered part of France.

A shy, lonely, child, he became fascinated by clothes, and already had a solid portfolio of sketches when he first arrived in Paris in 1953, aged 17.

Vogue editor Michel de Brunoff, who was to become a key supporter, was quickly won over, and published them.

The following year Saint Laurent won three of the four categories in a design competition in Paris -- the fourth went to his contemporary Karl Lagerfeld, now at Chanel.

Discerning the young man's potential, de Brunoff advised Christian Dior to hire him and he rapidly emerged as heir apparent to the great couturier, taking over the house when Dior died suddenly three years later.

Saint Laurent would say of his mentor: "Dior fascinated me. I couldn't speak in front of him. He taught me the basis of my art. Whatever was to happen next, I never forgot the years spent at his side."

However in 1960, like many Frenchmen of his age, Saint Laurent was called up to fight in his native Algeria, where an independence war was under way.

Less than three weeks later he won an exemption on health grounds, but when he returned to Paris it was to learn that Dior had already found a replacement for him, in the person of Marc Bohan.

With his close associate and lover Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent resolved to strike out on his own, with Berge taking care of the business side.

Saint Laurent's success lay in the harmony he achieved between body and garment -- what he called "the total silence of clothing."

He was also in the right place at the right time. Having learned his trade at the house of Dior, he founded his own couture house at the start of the 1960s, at a time when the world was changing and there was a new appetite for originality.

Saint Laurent rode his luck through the rise of the youth market and pop culture fuelled by the economic boom of the 1960s, when women suddenly had more economic freedom.

His name and the familiar YSL logo became synonymous with all the latest trends, highlighted by the creation of the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear label and perfume, as well as astute licensing deals for accessories and perfumes.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he set the pace for fashion around the world, opening up the Japanese market and subsequently expanding to South Korea and Taiwan.

Among his many fans in his native France was the actress Catherine Deneuve, who was always to be seen at his shows.

Berge, speaking Sunday on France's LCI television, called Saint Laurent a fashion revolutionary.

"He knew perfectly well that he had revolutionised haute couture, the important place he occupied in the second half of the 20th century," he said.

But Saint Laurent's career was not without controversy. In 1971 a collection modelled on the styles of World War II Paris was slammed by some American critics, and his launch in the mid 1970s of a perfume called "Opium" brought accusations that he was condoning drug use.

For fellow-designer Christian Lacroix, the reason for Saint Laurent's success was his astonishing versatility. There had, Lacroix said, been other great designers but none with the same range.

"Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Dior all did extraordinary things. But they worked within a particular style," he explained. "Yves Saint Laurent is much more versatile, like a combination of all of them. I sometimes think he's got the form of Chanel with the opulence of Dior and the wit of Schiaparelli."

In his later years the depression that had haunted him all his life became more oppressive, and at his farewell bash in 2002 Saint Laurent admitted to having recourse to "those false friends which are tranquillisers and narcotics."

Quotable quotes from Yves Saint Laurent:

"You have to regard every fashion with humour, to be above it, believe in it enough to give the impression of living it but not too much, so that you keep your freedom."

"The elegance of a line depends above all on the purity and refinement of its construction."

"Black is my refuge, it is a line on a blank sheet of paper."

"The silhouette counts more than anything. It should never be overloaded."

"I found my style through women. That's where its strength and vitality comes from, because I draw on the body of a woman."

"A woman who has not found her style, who does not feel at ease in her clothes, who does not live in harmony with them, is a sick woman."

"To be beautiful, all a woman needs is a black pullover and a black skirt and to be arm in arm with a man she loves."

"Is elegance not totally forgetting what one is wearing?"

Source: AFP via Breitbart.


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PostPosted: Sat Sep 19, 2009 6:47 pm 
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The National Trust bed-hopper who persuaded aristocrats he slept with - women AND men - to leave their homes to the nation

By Matthew Wilson
14th September 2009

Even back in the Thirties, anyone watching the scene might have guessed they were witnessing the end of an era.

Shortly after lunch, the grand doors of Longleat, one of Wiltshire's most celebrated stately homes, were thrown open and two rows of liveried footmen hurried out to line up on either side of the steps leading down to the drive. After a short pause, two figures duly emerged, blinking in the sudden sunlight. One, resplendent in his frock coat, was the old Lord Bath, one of the most courteous aristocrats of his day. The other was a handsome young man, politely pouring praise on the glories of the house and quietly pretending that this was the sort of thing that happened every day.

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'The man who saved England': James Lees-Milne in the cottage garden of his Badminton, Avon home

There would have been an awkward moment as Lord Bath waited for his guest's transport to be brought round to the front. But it already had; the rusty bicycle being held gingerly by a footman at the bottom of the steps was his guest's transport. The man from the National Trust was leaving in the same way he'd arrived - on his bike.

What James Lees-Milne, the young man on that bicycle, would always remember, however, was pausing after he had pedalled some considerable way down the long straight drive and turning for a last admiring look at the house. There, still, was Lord Bath, flanked by his two rows of footmen, waiting at the top of the steps, impeccably observing the old-world tradition of remaining in view until one's guest was out of sight.

It didn't matter that the meeting had been unsuccessful, that Lord Bath would not be donating Longleat to the Trust. That was the pattern of things, as Lees-Milne soon realised; at some grand houses he never made it past the front door, at others he was welcomed with open arms by families desperate to relieve themselves of the financial burden.

Lees-Milne - Jim to his friends and destined to become one of the most celebrated diarists of his day - had embarked on the work that more than half a century later would cause him to be described as 'the man who saved England'. What the 28-year- old Oxford graduate was engaged in was saving England's stately homes - and one or two in Wales, too.

It was his pioneering work to persuade their aristocratic owners to donate their houses to the National Trust that helped turn it into the hugely successful institution that it is today, with more than 300 houses and 3.5 million members.

But back in the Thirties the Trust - already 40 years old but with barely 5,000 members - owned almost no grand country houses at all. That situation would slowly change, as Jim criss-crossed the country, searching for houses of sufficient architectural merit to justify the Trust acquiring them, and to begin the often tortuous process of persuading their aristocratic owners to part with them, often after centuries of family ownership.

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You win some, you lose some: Jim Lees-Milne was unsuccessful in securing Longleat House in Wiltshire for the National Trust

But Jim, as charming and tactful as he was good-looking, was both persuasive and patient. One by one, some of the most important stately homes in Britain passed into the Trust's ownership, a process that accelerated significantly during World War II, as more and more owners realised the old order of things had gone for ever. Jim, who was invalided out of the Irish Guards in 1941 after being caught in a bomb blast and developing a rare form of epilepsy, returned to the National Trust and found himself busier than ever, his work bringing him into daily contact with the rich tapestry that was England's often highly eccentric aristocracy.

Some owners received him in bed in their nightcaps, others took him to the estate pub; one particularly blimpish owner even proudly took him up to the tower to show him how he peppered the nearby lake with rifle-shots in winter to stop the locals skating on the ice. Jim took it all in his increasingly practised stride. His success seemed hardly surprising. Born to a landed Worcestershire family and educated at Eton and Oxford at a time when both establishments were shamelessly elitist, Jim - as he flirted with elderly duchesses and politely deferred to curmudgeonly dukes - was, to outward appearances, simply mixing with his own sort of people.

But all was not as it seemed. Jim's father, George, had derived his fortune mainly from a Lancashire cotton mill and he had bought the house, Wickhamford Manor, where Jim was brought up, only two years before his son was born. At a time when to be so closely associated with 'trade' could have spelt social death, it's not surprising that Jim kept fairly quiet about his background, simply describing his family as 'lower upper class'.

However, as Michael Bloch's fascinating new biography reveals, Jim had another secret, known to his circle of immensely well-connected friends - many of whom seem to have stumbled out of the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel - but not to the outside world.

He was bisexual and, indeed, as a young man was rather keener on going to bed with men than with women.

At school and university, he had a steady succession of male lovers. At Eton, his great affair was with Tom Mitford, brother of the later famous Mitford sisters; at Oxford, his lovers included the future Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd, and an up-and- coming young actor called John Gielgud, who would treat him to meals at the Spread Eagle tavern in Thame.

One of his greatest romantic interests was the fellow conservationist Rick Stewart-Jones. But unlike many of his homosexual friends, Jim also enjoyed both the company and the physical charms of women. Having lost his virginity at the age of 17 to a voluptuous, recently divorced cousin, Jim - a hopeless romantic - would fall sporadically in love with women for the rest of his life.

An early object of his affections, which were welcome but not wholly reciprocated, was Diana Mitford, to whom he was attracted not only because she was the most beautiful of the Mitford girls, but because she reminded him of his Eton flame, Tom.

Shortly after coming down from Oxford in 1931 and finding himself with little idea of what to do next, Jim worked as a political campaigner for Sir Oswald Mosley, who had founded his New Party in 1930 (he would not embrace fascism until 1932) and was now fighting the General Election.

Mosley, whose aunt had married Jim's uncle, had not yet met his future wife Diana Mitford, with whom Jim had recently been in love. Mosley lost in Stoke-on-Trent, but not before Jim had met another New Party candidate, someone who was to become one of the most influential figures in his life - Harold Nicolson, ex-diplomat and man of letters who combined marriage to Vita Sackville-West - the poet, author and celebrated creator of the garden at Sissinghurst in Kent - with a penchant for the company of intelligent, always handsome young men.

What the world knows now, of course, but was then known only to a select few, was that the Nicolson-Sackville-West marriage was highly unusual. While devoted to each other and having produced two sons, they were both basically homosexual and allowed each other complete freedom to pursue their respective sexual interests.

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At Oxford, James Lees-Milne's lovers included the up-and-coming young actor John Gielgud (left) and in 1934 he was introduced to James Joyce (right) in Paris

Within two years, Nicolson was pursuing his interest in Jim with enthusiasm. He frequently invited him to dinner in London and, in 1934, whisked him off to Paris (while Vita was in Italy conducting an affair with Harold's sister, Gwen St Subyn).

It was in the French capital that he introduced the impressionable 25-year-old, with his youthful passion for famous writers, to James Joyce, author of the acclaimed but controversial novel Ulysses. In his subsequent and discreetly worded letter to Jim, Nicolson, 22 years his senior, encouraged the younger man to have no regrets about what had passed between them on that trip. It was, he wrote, quite possible to derive both affection and tenderness from contacts that others might find objectionable. Jim and Harold were to remain close friends for the rest of the older man's life.

Jim would live with him at his London flat in Kings Bench Walk, and seek his urgent advice when he fell in love with - and for a time became engaged to - Lady Anne Gathorne-Hardy (Nicolson advised that the basis of a successful marriage was intelligence and esteem, not physical lust).

And it was Harold's influence, after a tip-off from Vita, that secured Jim the job at the National Trust. Jim may not have been entirely surprised by the Nicolsons' unusual arrangements. His own mother and father both had flings and longstanding affairs during their nevertheless enduring marriage. His beautiful and flirtatious mother, upon whom Jim had doted as a child, ended World War I far closer to Jim's dashing, polo-playing godfather then she was to her own husband. Not surprisingly George Lees-Milne, a man whose main passions were hunting, shooting and fishing, and who disapproved so strongly of his son's 'cissiness' that he denied him financial assistance, sought consolation elsewhere.

Given the example set by his parents and the Nicolsons, Jim may have had something similar in mind when, in 1951, at the age of 43, and to the surprise of his friends, he decided to get married himself. What he couldn't have known, however, was how miserable what ensued would make him.

The object of his heterosexual affections was Alvilde Chaplin, a wealthy heiress who was still married to her first husband when Jim met her. There is no doubt he was genuinely smitten - Alvilde was intelligent, sharp and an accomplished hostess and organiser. Perhaps too equine to be described as pretty, Jim would later describe her beauty as 'proud, guarded, even shrouded'. But, as others had already discovered, she could also be aloof, impatient, dictatorial, argumentative and possessive.

Even her unusual Christian name should have been a warning. Her father, General Sir Tom Bridges, was, as well as being a successful soldier and diplomat, a notorious philanderer. While serving with military intelligence in Scandinavia, he had conducted an affair with a Norwegian ballerina of that name. When his pregnant wife, Janet, discovered the affair, it is said she insisted on giving the child the name of his mistress as a permanent reminder to her husband of his adultery.

Alvilde confessed to Jim that, as a girl, she had herself succumbed to her father's sexual advances. Small wonder - especially after her first husband turned out to be another serial seducer of young women - that she preferred the company of sexually ambiguous men such as Jim.

But, like Vita Sackville-West, Alvilde also enjoyed the company of women; indeed in Paris in 1937, tormented by her husband's infidelities, she began a long lesbian affair with the city's great musical hostess, Princess Winnie de Polignac. The Princess was 72 at the time, Alvilde just 27.

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Early object of affection: Diana Mitford (centre) pictured with her sisters Unity and Nancy

Jim, who had met Alvilde with the Princess shortly before the latter's death in 1943, would have been aware of this when, six years later, he started seeing Alvilde regularly in London. (She was now a rich woman, having inherited a slice of the Princess's enormous fortune.)

Jim had a habit of falling in love with people who reminded him of others he had known in the past and in Alvilde's case, it seems that her determined personality reminded him of Kathleen Kennet, the sculptor and widow of the polar explorer Captain Scott, with whom Jim had forged a deep friendship as a young man that had bordered on the erotic. Jim's romance with Alvilde proceeded at some pace; a succession of dinners and trips to the theatre and cinema was eventually followed by a holiday in Italy, which not only saw Jim having to borrow money to get there, but was taken with Alvilde's zoologist husband, Anthony, in full attendance. Anthony was quite relaxed about the relationship, as throughout his marriage he enthusiastically pursued women on his own account.

Jim had fallen in love with Alvilde, writing in his diary. 'My mind a turmoil. A fire has been lit.' It was, he said, the first time his love for a woman had been fully reciprocated. Alvilde divorced her husband and, on November 19, 1951, she married Jim at Chelsea Register Office, despite his concerns about her argumentative and possessive nature. There were four witnesses, including Harold and Vita and James Pope Hennessy, the exotically handsome and quick-witted young man who had taken Jim's place in Harold's life. Two more couples joined the party for lunch, and Jim must have taken quiet reassurance for the matrimonial life ahead that of the five men present, including the three husbands, all were homosexual; three of them being his own ex-lovers.

It may also not have escaped Jim's notice that of the women present, at least two had experience of lesbian relationships: Vita, obviously, and Alvilde.

Married life did not work out quite as Jim had presumably planned, although for the first few years the couple were happy, helped by the fact that for part of the year they lived apart - Alvilde in tax exile in the south of France, while Jim returned to London to work part-time for the National Trust and to resume his bachelor lifestyle. These periods of separation worked as a safety valve.

It's not clear when the unhappy aspects of his marriage began to outweigh the happy ones, but certainly by 1958, Jim felt trapped in a union he considered a mistake. Alvilde had declined to have further sexual relations with him. For a still highly physical man, this must have been a terrible blow and Jim compensated with a series of transient homosexual affairs. Why had she gone off sex with her husband? There was one possible, if extraordinary explanation: Alvilde had abandoned herself to a passionate lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West, whose husband had, of course, been Jim's lover 20 years previously.

Alvilde said nothing to Jim about the affair until it was almost over, and nor did Vita mention it to Harold. But Jim certainly knew about it, given that letters arrived for Alvilde from Vita 'almost daily for several years'. Those letters - now archived in New York Public Library - make it clear that by 1955 the two women were much in love, although Vita was racked with guilt for the potential hurt it would do Jim, who had been her friend for almost as long as he had been Harold's.

Alvilde's growing and genuine passion for gardening gave her the pretext for visits to Sissinghurst, and Vita's letters to her lover began to be spiced with love-verses. Vita, however, whose past loves included socialite Violet Trefusis and novelist Virginia Woolf, was as famous for her lesbian passions fading as she was for starting them in the first place, and in 1957 she wrote to Alvilde bringing their affair to a close. There could be no more 'LL' - lesbian love. Alvilde was consumed with grief.

In the circumstances, Jim could be forgiven for thinking that his own romantic adventures would now be tolerated by Alvilde, but he couldn't have been more wrong. With Vita out of her life, Alvilde turned her famous possessiveness on her husband. So when, in October 1958, shortly after his 50th birthday, Jim fell desperately in love, a marital crisis loomed. The object of his considerable affections was a handsome 27-year-old who, ironically, was introduced to him by Harold Nicolson. Harold hoped Jim would be able to help the young man, who had an extensive knowledge of both architecture and sculpture, to get a job at the National Trust, just as Harold had helped Jim more than 20 years earlier.

Jim and his protege were immediately attracted to each other, with Jim no doubt seeing a reflection of his own youth in the younger man. Almost overnight, his mid-life melancholia turned to euphoria. However, when Alvilde learned of Jim's love for his new friend, she hit the roof.

After her suspicions had been confirmed by steaming open a few letters (a habit that was to stay with her for the rest of her life), she confronted Jim. Believing her own affair with Vita had set a precedent, Jim confessed freely. It was a dreadful mistake. Alvilde was consumed with jealousy. Terrible scenes ensued, and many of their friends regarded the marriage as doomed. Although relations between Jim and Alvilde were never quite the same again, and she remained both suspicious and jealous of his male friends, the marriage endured. What saved it was their discovery of a house they both adored in the Cotswolds, where they went to live in 1961.

Alderley Grange, a Jacobean house with Georgian additions, was of sufficient architectural interest to satisfy Jim, while its large garden enabled Alvilde to indulge her passion for gardening, which had been encouraged by Vita (and which would later result in a new career designing gardens for such celebrities as Mick Jagger). It was, to all intents and purposes, their Sissinghurst and would keep them busy for years. They would live there - increasingly happier as they got older - for the next 14 years.

The man who saved England, the man who had bicycled his way up so many an aristocratic drive, had been saved by his own little corner of English country life.

• James Lees-Milne: The Life, by Michael Bloch is published by John Murray at £25. To order at £22.50 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.

Read more: Daily Mail UK.

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Orléans, Philippe, Duke of (1640-1701)
by Michael D. Sibalis

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A portrait of Philippe, Duke of Orléans by Jean-Baptiste Santerre.

Known as "Monsieur," Philippe, Duke of Orléans was the second son of Louis XIII and the younger brother of Louis XIV.

Born on September 21, 1640, he was Duke of Anjou until 1660 and Duke of Orléans thereafter. Living in the shadow of his brother, the "Sun King," Philippe played no political role in his country's history and is remembered today chiefly for his homosexuality.

In Nancy Barker's words, "Not only did his sexual preference develop into a cardinal aspect of his character, but ... in great measure it defined his reputation for posterity."

Yet Philippe undoubtedly had many princely qualities. The Duke of Saint-Simon described him as possessing a "natural grandeur" and "an affability and an integrity that drew [people] to him." He was highly cultured, patronized the opera, and assembled a remarkable art collection.

Philippe showed real military ability when given a command during the Dutch War (1672-1679), but his victory over William of Orange at Cassel (April 11, 1679) aroused his brother's jealousy, and he never saw action again. Louis XIV never forgot that Louis XIII's younger brother (the previous Duke of Orléans) had been a leader of the opposition to royal policies; he made sure that his own brother was in no position to play the same role.

Philippe's effeminacy -- in contrast to the king's flaunted virility -- helped to discredit him. The Duke of Saint-Simon has left a portrait of Philippe at fifty as "a small, pot-bellied man, mounted on stilts (so high were the heels of his shoes), always adorned like a woman, covered with rings, bracelets and jewels everywhere, with a long wig ... and ribbons wherever he could put them, reeking of every kind of perfume."

According to the abbé de Choisy, a transvestite cleric who knew Philippe well, the Duke "would very much have liked also to be able to wear women's clothing, but he dared not, because of his dignity (princes are imprisoned by their grandeur)."

Thanks to the immense wealth of his brother, Philippe was able to create a libertine court at his chateau at Saint-Cloud that functioned as a kind of shadow court to Versailles. Although he had many lovers, the chevalier of Lorraine exerted the greatest and longest-lasting influence over him.

Despite his marked preference for the company of handsome male favorites and lovers, Philippe did his dynastic duty and was twice married, first to Henriette Stuart of England (1644-1670) from 1661 to 1670, then to Elisabeth-Charlotte, known as the Princess Palatine (1652-1722), from 1671.

His first wife was almost continuously pregnant, while his second marriage produced three children. Three daughters and one son lived to adulthood and married; all the Catholic dynasties of Europe count Philippe of Orléans among their ancestors.

Although he was in fact a doting father, the Princess Palatine complained in her letters that "Monsieur is a debauchee and his only occupation is ... to recommend his favourites and to obtain from His Majesty [the king] all sorts of pensions and favours for them. As for his children, he doesn't even think of them."

Philippe died on June 9, 1701 at St. Cloud, with the king at his bedside.

With the specific case of the Duke of Orléans in mind, Robert Oresko suggests that historians use memoirs and notarial records to reconstitute networks of sex and friendship among homosexuals belonging to national elites in order better to understand the distribution of patronage and preferment in the royal courts of early modern Europe.

The tragedy of the Duke of Orléans was not his homosexuality and effeminacy (as homophobic historians have repeatedly claimed), but rather that there was no place for him in Louis XIV's political system, a state of affairs that condemned him to a life of insignificance and futility.

Source: GLBTQ.

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Lorrain, Jean (Paul Duval) (1855-1906)
by Michael D. Sibalis

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Jean Lorrain (Paul Duval)

Jean Lorrain was a French poet, novelist, and journalist of the "decadent movement" during the Belle Époque (1890-1914), almost as renowned for his homosexuality and depravity as for his literary achievements.

Lorrain was born Paul Duval, only child of a ship-owner in the port of Fécamp in Normandy, on August 9, 1855. He was a nervous and sickly boy, suffocated by a doting mother. In order to toughen him, his parents sent him to boarding schools in the Parisian suburbs of Vanves and Arcueil (1864-1872), where he felt (as he wrote in 1871) "all alone, all alone, far from my home and family, without a friend." His homosexual tendencies first appeared at fifteen or sixteen, when he developed a strong crush on a fellow student.

Lorrain returned to Fécamp in 1872, but resisted his father's pressure to embark on a business career. He fulfilled his military obligations in 1875-1876, then began law studies in Paris in 1878, only to abandon them in 1880 in order to dedicate himself to literature.

At his father's insistence, he adopted a pseudonym: Jean Lorrain. He published his first volume of poetry in 1882 at his own expense and thereafter turned out a steady stream of poems, short stories, and novels. He published about forty volumes during his lifetime; another dozen appeared posthumously.

Lorrain's work often evokes a seamy urban underworld of sodomy, lesbianism, drug-addiction, and crime. His best novels appeared in his final years. Monsieur de Bougrelon (1897), Monsieur de Phocas (1901), and Le Vice Errant (1902) center on men mired in decadence, vice, and (implicitly) homosexuality; La Maison Philibert (1904) gives a picture of life in a provincial brothel and a panoramic tour of Parisian prostitution and criminality.

Most of Lorrain's income derived from journalism. Beginning in the mid-1880s, he wrote regular columns for a series of mass-circulation newspapers, most notably Le Courrier français, L'Événement, and L'Écho de Paris. He chronicled Parisian life of the day--the literary, theatrical, and artistic worlds, as well as French society, both high and low--using his savage wit to attack and ridicule many of the era's leading figures. In the process, he made countless enemies.

Edmond de Goncourt wondered in 1895, "What's Lorrain's dominant trait? Is it spite or a complete lack of tact?" (Most people thought it the former.)

But as Sarah Bernhardt once wrote Lorrain, "inside the abominably depraved being that you are, there beats the heart of a great artist, a genuinely sensitive and tender heart."

Lorrain, always lucid about his own contradictory nature, based one of the characters in his novel Très Russe (1886) on himself: "At one and the same time naive and skeptical, biased and generous, cruel as a woman, gentle as a child, changeable in his affections, tenacious in his hatreds, good, irascible, impressionable, haughty and informal . . . : such was Mauriat."

Lorrain's greatest love was his mother. He wrote to her (when he was thirty-one!): "My dear and beloved mama, my only passion, I truly love only you. . . . If one day Death separate us, . . . and one of us survive the other, at least we will have . . . the consolation of having adored each other." After his father died in 1886, Lorrain took charge of Madame Duval, who came to live with him until his own death (she outlived him by twenty years).

As a young man, Lorrain had strong feelings for one or two women who rejected him, but his most recent biographer's claim that he was a bisexual who turned to exclusive homosexuality only "out of disappointed love" is psychologically unconvincing. Whatever the case, by the early 1880s Lorrain was leading an openly homosexual life, apparently limited to one-night stands with "rough trade."

He wrote to a friend in the 1890s: "I have a great fondness for hoodlums, fairground wrestlers, butcher-boys and assorted pimps, both ordinary and extraordinary, who, along with some absolutely exquisite women and some men of talent, such as yourself, are the only company that I keep in Paris."

Lorrain detested those upper-class homosexuals who concealed their sexual tendencies. In contrast, he provocatively flaunted his own. For example, one evening he shocked fellow diners in a fashionable restaurant by declaiming the following verse: "This night I have lain between two stevedores / Who have relieved me of all my ardors."

He was, in biographer Philippe Jullian's words, "truly, at the fin de siècle, Sodom's ambassador to Paris." The abbé Mugnier summed up Lorrain's reputation this way in his private journal in 1897: "a sodomist, a sadist, fiendish, [someone] who takes pleasure in perverting [others]."

Lorrain was also addicted to ether, which he began taking to calm his nerves but which undermined his health. It is said that when his grave was opened in 1986, the body still reeked of ether.

Lorrain never much liked Paris and the aversion grew as he aged. In his early years, he divided his time between Fécamp and the capital; in his later years, he traveled extensively in the French provinces and abroad. "Ah! How nice it is to be far from Paris," he wrote from Toulon in December 1899, and exactly one year later he and his mother settled in Nice.

It was in Paris, however, that he died on June 30, 1906, his fifty-year-old body worn out by a life of drugs and debauchery.

Source: GLBTQ.

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 14, 2010 3:22 pm 
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Opera sheds new light on Tchaikovsky's gay lifestyle

Tchaikovsky is thought of as a gloomy fatalist, but a rarely staged humorous opera and a book about his gay lifestyle will make us think again

By Jessica Duchen
12 November 2010

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Peter Tchaikovsky, the subject of a new biography that casts fresh light on his life

An opera by Tchaikovsky? It must be about Fate, with a capital F. Duels in the frosty dawn, blood on the snow. A fragile, innocent heroine, doomed love, incipient madness. Tchaikovsky: the ultimate gloomy Russian bastard. You can hear it in his music, can't you?

So run the tired old clichés. But a new Christmas treat is promising to reveal a side of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky that we've more or less ignored until now — perhaps partly because it doesn't fit that ingrained yet one-sided view. The Royal Opera is staging The Tsarina's Slippers, a fairytale opera that has never before been heard at Covent Garden. The story is by Gogol: it tells of a blacksmith who rides on the Devil's back to St Petersburg to seek a pair of leather slippers worn by the Tsarina with which to woo the girl he loves. Tchaikovsky himself considered the music almost perfect. Francesca Zambello's production promises fantasy, ballet, glitter and a bevy of leading Russian opera stars. No wonder it is nearly sold out. Where has The Tsarina's Slippers been all our lives?

The appreciation of Tchaikovsky in the West has been hampered by a variety of factors, including an obvious language barrier and the Iron Curtain itself. Two thorny issues dominate our consideration of him, overshadowing all else: first, his homosexuality; then his death from cholera, thought to have been an elaborately coerced and concealed suicide. These have been dressed up in a range of books and films that each add another layer to the mystery, often reinforcing the notion of the tortured, self-tormenting genius.

Now, though, a breath of fresh air is sweeping through a re-evaluation of Tchaikovsky. A new biography by Roland John Wiley was published this autumn and ecstatically reviewed in these pages by Michael Church; it claims that some of those mysteries are no more than myths. For instance, Wiley points out that Tchaikovsky was openly gay all his life, to the point that he feminised the names of the young men he consorted with, and indeed his own — signing a letter to his brother (who was also gay) "Petrolina". The imperial court, the book implies, appears to have taken such matters rather in its stride.

That's not to say that Tchaikovsky did not suffer to some extent over his sexuality and unfulfilled passions, such as his love for his own teenaged nephew. "Cursed buggermania forms an impassable gulf between me and most people," he wrote to his brother, in a formerly unquoted letter cited by Wiley. "It imparts to my character an estrangement, fear of people, shyness, immoderate bashfulness, mistrust, in a word, a thousand traits from which I am getting ever more unsociable. Imagine that often, and for hours at a time, I think about a monastery or something of the kind."

He attempted to "cure" himself in 1877 by marrying a young student, Antonina Milyukova, who had declared her love to him by letter, reminding him of Tatiana, the heroine of his opera Eugene Onegin. It was a disaster: he fled in a state of near breakdown nine weeks later.

Visiting Paris the year before, he had heard Bizet's opera Carmen, which made an indelible impression on him — notably its fate motif, a concept he adopted in his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies to blazing effect. Did he feel himself bound by fate to a terrible, inevitable end, like Carmen? That is suggested all too strongly in his sixth and last symphony, the Pathétique, which ends in an evocation of despair unequalled anywhere in the classical repertoire.

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The Bolshoi Ballet prepare for Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake'

No wonder the notion of Tchaikovsky as a fun-loving creator of comedies is somewhat alien to us. Ken Russell's movie The Music Lovers beamed the tale of the psychologically tortured, fatalistic homosexual loud and clear to a whole new audience. Wiley is probably the first of his many biographers to admit that we may never know the truth about his death. The myths have become self-perpetuating; anything that doesn't quite fit the image is excised from our musical experience.

Why else do orchestras programme the fate-laden Symphonies No. 4 and 5 and the devastating No. 6 to the exclusion of his first three? There's the exquisitely beautiful No. 1, "Winter Dreams", full of characteristically Russian melody and soulfulness; the second, the "Little Russian", concise and high-spirited; and the lavish, balletic No. 3, nicknamed the "Polish" for its magnificent final Polonaise. His orchestral suites are hardly ever performed — but the Suite No. 3, a symphony in all but name, is a masterpiece from start to finish, closing with an extended and often very entertaining set of character variations.

Nor is The Tsarina's Slippers the only Tchaikovsky opera neglected in the West. When do we ever hear The Voyevoda? The Oprichnik? The Maid of Orleans? Then there's Mazeppa, and The Sorceress. Usually we hear only a tiny fraction of Tchaikovsky's operatic repertoire: namely Eugene Onegin (lost love plus duelling at dawn) and The Queen of Spades (fate, madness and suicide). And there is not necessarily a good reason for neglecting the others. Last season the London Philharmonic gave a concert performance of Iolanta, a one-act gem about a blind girl who falls in love after being hidden from the world and is subsequently cured. It's full of tenderness, gentleness and Tchaikovsky's unfailing melodic invention. It shows one quality that not all Romantic music is meant to have: a sense of true human empathy.

We can't fully understand Tchaikovsky if we know only one side of him. For instance, much has been made of the inspiration he found in the fatalistic Carmen, but it has been little remarked that the sunny, good-natured main theme of his Violin Concerto's first movement bears an extraordinary resemblance to a melody in the final scene of Bizet's opera, where it appears in a minor key and a very different context (an imminent murder). Supposing — just supposing — that what Tchaikovsky loved in Carmen was not only its fatalism, but also its sheer melodic mellifluousness?

The one area in which Tchaikovsky's genius for otherworldly magic has been fully acknowledged is his ballet music. But it is Swan Lake, the first of the "big three", that is surely the most famous: it is suitably doom-laden. The Sleeping Beauty is nevertheless more subtle and original than its predecessor, and indeed more inspired; here good triumphs over evil and everyone lives happily ever after. And the score of The Nutcracker is the most sophisticated of all, its enchantments effected through Tchaikovsky's virtuoso manipulation of harmony, orchestration and astonishing melodic bending and stretching. Yet recent productions — Matthew Bourne's, for instance — have increasingly reinterpreted the story according to the music's undercurrents that suggest introversion, unfulfilled longing and loss.

Those qualities were a vital part of Tchaikovsky's creativity and of his sexual and emotional life. But while we concentrate on those, it's at the expense of too much else: his light touch, his warmth, his humour and above all that fantastical imagination that wove the magic core of fairy-tales out of sound and made it real. Perhaps Wiley's book and The Tsarina's Slippers can together help to reveal the unseen Tchaikovsky in all his glory, at last.

Source: The Independent UK.

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 08, 2013 8:58 am 
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Germans gay about sexy Shakespeare sonnets
24 November 2012

To be sexy or not to be sexy? That will be the main question this weekend, as the German Shakespeare Society convenes to explore the immortal bard's racy homoerotic sonnets.

The two-day conference in Weimar will focus on erotic and sexual allusions – chiefly directed to another man – in William Shakespeare's sonnets, said Tobias Döring, president of the German Shakespeare Society.

More than a hundred literary enthusiasts and experts will use the collection of 154 sonnets by the English poet and playwright – many of which have been interpreted as declarations of adoration for a male lover – as starting point for discussion on modern sexuality and sexual orientation.

According to Döring, the explicit homosexual content of Shakespeare's sonnets – first printed in English in 1609 – meant that they were at first ignored by literary critics, and when finally acknowledged in the 18th century, widely viewed with disdain. Yet after the first printed translation of the works appeared in German in 1826, the sonnets came to play and important role in 19th century gay literature, and are now among the texts most frequently translated from English into German.

The German Shakespeare Society, which boasts 2,000 members and meets twice a year, was founded 1864 to mark the bard's 300th birthday, with the aim of promoting and maintaining Shakespeare's works in the German language. This weekend's meeting will include a seminar with German Shakespeare translators and a musical jazz rendering of the bard's sonnets.

Döring said the society's next meeting in the spring will explore Shakespeare's treatment of finance and money in the context of the current financial and economic crisis.

Source: The Local Germany.

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Shakespeare's sonnets by Don Paterson

Shakespeare's sonnets are synonymous with courtly romance, but in fact many are about something quite different. Some are intense expressions of gay desire, others testaments to misogyny. Wary of academic criticism, Don Paterson tries to get back to what the poet was actually saying

by Don Paterson
Saturday 16 October 2010

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Detail of a painting of Shakespeare, claimed in 2009 to be the only authentic image made during his life, dating from about 1610 – but since questioned. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The problem with reading Shakespeare's sonnets is the sonnets themselves, by which I mean their reputation. Much in the same way as it's almost impossible to see the Mona Lisa as anything but a parody of itself, or hear Satie's Trois Gymnopedies without the feeling that someone's trying to sell you something – a bar of chocolate perhaps – it's initially hard to get close to the sonnets, locked as they are in the carapace of their own proverbialism. "A Shakespeare sonnet" is almost as much a synonym for "love poem" as "Mona Lisa" is for "beautiful woman". When something becomes proverbial, it almost disappears; and worse, we're allowed to think we know it when we really don't.

The sonnets are close to being one such cultural cipher. If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have been breezily confident that I knew a fair number of them reasonably well, and had a few by heart. Then there was the literary dinner party. A hideously exposed bluff prompted me to re-examine my avowed familiarity. (Lesson: only bluff at parties where you can immediately walk to another, darker, part of the room – so you're not obliged to remain in your seat, blushing through the cheese course.)

At least I wasn't alone. Twain's definition of the classic, "something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read" is well known, but I might also add, less memorably, that a classic is a book you can safely avoid reading, because no one else will admit they haven't either.

I took a straw poll. Everyone said they loved the sonnets, all right; but they all named the same 10 poems. And some of those were pretty bad. The deadly boring Sonnet 12 came up a lot: "When I do count the clock that tells the time, And see the brave day sunk in hideous night", as did, inevitably, Sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red, than her lips red: / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head . . . " The latter is a none-too-clever piece of misogynist junk, a litany of barely-disguised disgust masquerading as poem in praise of "real" earthly womanhood; the problem is that after enumerating her apparently infinite faults, Shakespeare almost fails to remember to pay the poor woman any kind of compliment at all. Its reputation seems to have been made by the fact that someone decided it would be fun to teach to schoolchildren.

Others, such as the devastatingly insightful Sonnet 118: "Like as, to make our appetite more keen, / With eager compounds we our palate urge . . ." and the mad Hindu asceticism of Sonnet 146: "And Death once dead, there's no more dying then . . ." barely rated a mention.

Even more distressingly, more than one perfectly well-read individual remarked: "Many of them are addressed to a man, I believe," as if the information had only recently come to light through ingenious advances in 21st-century cryptography.

So I started to make a list of questions: were the 10 poems that everyone quoted the best 10? Do the sonnets contain what we believe them to contain? Are they still useful to us? Do these poems still move us, speak to us, enlighten us? Is their reputation as a lovers' handbook deserved, or have they simply hitched a ride on the back of the plays?

First, a word about the sonnets themselves. They consist of 154 poems first published in 1609 as Shake-speares Sonnets. Never before imprinted. They can be neatly divided into three main groups. The first is a run of 17 poems, which all embroider the same theme; with two or three exceptions, they are so dull it's a wonder anyone ever reads any further. These are the so-called "procreation sonnets", in which Shakespeare urges an unnamed young man to marry and reproduce, so his beauty will survive. I agree with William Boyd (who scripted a marvellous piece of free speculation for the BBC called A Waste of Shame) that they read a lot like a commission, and could well have been paid for by the Young Man's mother, perturbed by his Lack of Interest in the Opposite Sex.

The second is a sequence of 108 poems addressed, apparently, to the same Young Man. In gut-wrenching, febrile, tormented detail, they chart the whole narrative of a love affair. Then we have a strange 12-line poem, whose "absent couplet" seems to invoke the absent couple, and symbolise the end of the affair. Then we have 28 poems addressed to a mistress, the so-called "Dark Lady" (the number 28 might echo the menses, which would fit with the poems' barely disguised obsession with the uncleanliness of women's bodies), and then a bizarre pair of poems to close with.

It's still controversial as to whether the original Quarto edition was authorised by Shakespeare, but I fall very strongly into the "there's absolutely no way he didn't authorise them" camp. The sequence has been ordered in a meticulously careful, sensitive and playful way that can only indicate the author's hand. (My reasoning is simple: publishers care, and editors care, but none of them care that much.) The sonnets seem to have been composed between 1582 and their date of publication, 1609 – between Shakespeare's 18th and 45th birthdays. I know: this is a useless piece of information. However the 1582 date refers to an isolated piece of juvenilia. Sonnet 145 is a sonnet so bad that only the likely youth of its author can be offered up as an excuse, while the so-called "dating sonnets" seem to imply that the larger part of the project was likely over some time before 1609. Sonnet 107, for one, seems heavily nailed to James I's coronation. Most folk still argue that the poems were written in a six- or seven-year span in the mid-1590s. Indeed, Francis Meres refers to them in 1598: "The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugar'd sonnets among his private friends . . . ", but I'm suspicious of the claim that they were all composed in this period.

What we do know is that the sonnets were part of an extraordinary fashion for sonnet-cycles in the 1590s. These were wildly competitive affairs. The bar had been set high by Sir Philip Sidney with the 108 sonnets of Astrophil and Stella, which had been in private circulation from the early 1580s. A poet would be judged on more than the length of his sequence, of course, but size still counted for a lot, and padding was rife.

After the "boring procreation sonnets", things look up at Sonnet 18, with the wonderful "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" In this poem, the subject shifts seamlessly and movingly from: "You're lovely, and must breed so that the world is never denied your beauty," to "You're lovely! And to hell with breeding – the power of my own verse will keep your beauty immortal." Shakespeare is now openly in love with the young man, and the next 108 sonnets are given over to an account of their affair's progress, although the jury's out as to whether it's always the same man being addressed. I still have no settled opinion on the matter, but the poems do seem to have a clear dramatic narrative.

However, the question: "was Shakespeare gay?" strikes me as so daft as to be barely worth answering. Of course he was. Arguably he was bisexual, of sorts, but his heart was never on his straight side. Now is not the time to rehearse them all, but the arguments against his homosexuality are complex and sophistical, and often take convenient and homophobic advantage of the sonnets' built-in interpretative slippage – which Shakespeare himself would have needed for what we would now call "plausible deniability", should anyone have felt inclined to cry sodomy.

The argument in favour is simple. First, falling in love with other men is often a good indication of homosexuality; and second, as much as I love some of my male friends, I'm never going to write 126 poems for them, even the dead ones. Third, read the poems, then tell me these are "pure expressions of love for a male friend" and keep a straight face. This is a crazy, all-consuming, feverish and sweaty love; love, in all its uncut, full-strength intensity; an adolescent love. The reader's thrill lies in hearing this adolescent love articulated by a hyper-literate thirty-something. Usually these kids can't speak. The effect is extraordinary: they are not poems that are much use when we're actually in love, I'd suggest; but when we read them, they are so visceral in their invocation of that mad, obsessive, sleepless place that we can again feel, as CK Williams said, "the old heart stamping in its stall".

But do these poems still speak to us of love in the same way? An honest answer to: "What are these poems to us now?" soon becomes: "What are these poems to me now?" since I can't speak for anyone else. In the end, putting together a guide to the sonnets, I decided I'd write it in the form of a diary. That's to say I read the sonnets as you would any other book, fitting them round my work routine and domestic obligations. So rather than lock myself in the library for six months, I wrote my commentaries on the poems while awake, bored, half-asleep, full of cold, drunk, exhausted, serene, smart, befuddled and stupid. I wrote on the train, in bed, in the bath and in my lunch-break; I wrote them while I was fed up marking papers, or stuck on Bioshock on the Playstation, while I was watching the bairns, Family Guy or the view out of the window.

The idea was to find a way of giving the sonnets more of a direct and personal reading than they usually receive. This requires making a firm distinction between two kinds of reading. Most literary criticism, whether academic or journalistic, is ideally geared up for "secondary reading" – by which I mean all that stuff that requires us to generate some kind of secondary text – a commentary, an exegesis, a review and so on. By contrast, a primary reading doesn't have to articulate its findings. It engages with the poem directly, as a piece of trustworthy human discourse – which doesn't sound too revolutionary, but the truth is that many readers don't feel like that about poetry any more, and often start with: "But what does it all mean?" on the assumption that "that's how you read poetry".

But that isn't the kind of the first reading most poems hoped they were going to get. The poem has much more direct designs on us. Its plan was to make us weep or change our opinion of something forever. The sonnets are no different, but currently give the appearance of being approachable only via a scholarly commentary. As, in one sense, they are: the truth is that unless you have the OED by heart, or are channelling Sir Philip Sidney, you're likely to miss half the poem.

At least half of Shakespeare's allusions are unfamiliar, and many senses, puns and proverbial usages have been completely lost. (For example: knowing that "he praises who wishes to sell" was proverbial, or that "hell" was Elizabethan slang for "vagina" really can make the difference between getting a poem all right and getting it all wrong.) We need a native guide, and it's then that we turn gratefully – as I did, again and again – to the critics Katherine Duncan-Jones, Colin Burrow, John Kerrigan and the divine vivisectionist himself, Stephen Booth. But what sometimes gets lost in their brilliant textual analyses is the poem itself.

Direct readings are a bit different. They give us three things, I think: what the poem is saying; what the poem is saying about us; and what the poem is saying about the author. We can usually get all this without generating a secondary text, through the simple act of rereading – rereading being what is most distinct about the act of reading poetry, and the reason poetry books are so thin. We don't read poems as machines reading the productions of other machines; we naturally posit a vulnerable and fallible human hand behind them. Indeed we do this as instinctively as we meet the eyes of a stranger when they walk into the room; not to do so strikes me as perverse, and denies a sound human instinct. Why should we approach the sonnets any differently?

Many people's "close reading" model was largely inherited from the New Criticism, which railed against the so-called "intentional and affective fallacies" (basically – what the author intended by the poem, and how you personally respond to it; why these are "fallacies" is lost on me), and proposed that the poem had to be read on its own terms, and in its own context, alone. We can still feel as if the author's state of mind and our own feelings about the poem are somehow beyond the critical pale. But I just don't see why. Sure: all such talk is speculative and subjective. But worthless? Surely not.

I also wanted to try to bring a bit of sanity to the discussion of how Shakespeare wrote these crazy poems in the first place. The main motivation here was reading Helen Vendler's brilliant and infuriating The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. As a critic, Vendler has led me through the thickets like a bemused and grateful child for years now, but I've had growing misgivings over her critical method, and her Shakespeare book was where I finally lost it. (Twice I found myself on my hands and knees, taping the book back together after it had bounced off the wall.)

I wanted to say something to counteract the perception of Shakespeare's compositional method as a kind of lyric soduku, and put in a word for the kind of glorious, messy procedure I'm quite certain it was, whatever the crystalline and symmetrical beauty of the final results. Like most poets, Shakespeare uses the poem as way of working out what he's thinking, not as a means of reporting that thought. Often he'll start with nothing more than a hangover, a fever and a bad night spent being tormented by the spectre of his absent lover. Then he'll use the sonnet as a way of making sense of it all – a way, first, to extract a logic from pain, and then a comfort from that logic, however warped it might be. Form, in other words, allows him to draw some assuagement from the very source of the agony itself.

So I decided to try to honour this sense of free play by taking as different an approach as the individual poem might itself prompt. Sonnet 109, for example, is a patently disingenuous excuse offered for Shakespeare's negligence of his lover, and I made a parallel translation from bullshit into English.

Other commentaries look at Elizabethan numerology, or whatever mad little aspect of Shakespeare's ars poetica caught my eye. The black mass of Sonnet 129: "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action . . ." ends in a discussion of the neuroscience of poet-coital tristesse.

Others in the Dark Lady sequence speculate as to where Shakespeare's disgust of women's bodies might have originated. My not-very-original theory is that he was forced to construe his homosexual love as wholly pure, meaning simply that his lust ended up channelled toward the sex he wasn't actually attracted to.

It's here we see the horrible symmetry of the sexual logic of sonnets, a kind of little chiasmus with a half-twist: with the Young Man he's in the grip of a pure love, but stalked by the presence of lust; with the Dark Lady he's in the grip of a pure lust, but stalked by the absence of love.

Elsewhere, I got stuck into the kind of "idiot's work" that WH Auden tried to warn us off: that of trying to establish the identity of the sonnets' dramatis personae. The trouble is that it's impossible to read the sonnets without speculating on identities. We're often simply invited to by Shakespeare's shameless hook-baiting, his cryptic clues placed there only to pique our interest. As to whether the Young Man was Henry Wriothesley or William Herbert, I have nothing to contribute but even more confusion than there was before. The Dark Lady is, I think, utterly unknowable – not least because Shakespeare uses her as more of a cipher, a focal point for his self-hating-fuelled misogyny.

I do think of this as the most oddly impressive aspect of the sonnets. The Dark Lady poems are mostly horrible, and those that aren't are bad. Yet the plays abound with depictions of strong women – women of real agency, wisdom, power and character. Shakespeare seems to have regarded his own perspective as being as unreliable as anyone else's, and less suppressed his own ego than "vanished" it, clearing the way for an apparently infinite capacity for human empathy. There is no one – saint, monster, sage or fool – that he couldn't ventriloquise; but to do so he had to remove himself wholly from the picture. This strikes me as a psychological miracle.

One of my more original (or most likely wrong) contributions to all this idiotic speculation came through a bit of amateur sleuth-work in Sonnet 86, the most famous of the "rival poet" sonnets. Here, Shakespeare accuses another poet of ruining his own work: "Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write / Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?" No. It's not this guy's skill that bothers him; it's the fact that his beloved's lovely face was filling up his lines. There's a universal law that states that poets can't share muses; there's also another one that says they often have to. Too many poets, too few muses. For Shakespeare, the prospect of hot-musing was deeply repugnant.

However, in the middle of this poem, we find strange lines that many commentators pass over in silence: "No, neither he, nor his compeers by night / Giving him aid, my verse astonished. / He, nor that affable familiar ghost / Which nightly gulls him with intelligence, / As victors of my silence cannot boast . . . " Who is that affable familiar ghost? Well, the rival poet is often assumed to be George Chapman, of "Chapman's Homer" fame. I feel this must be right. There's far too much corroborating evidence in the poem, which I won't go into here, but Chapman had dedicated poems to Wriothesley, still our best contender for the Young Man's identity, and was known to have boasted that the ghost of Homer himself had helped him with his translation of The Iliad. However, what will have stuck in Shakespeare's craw even more was that Chapman finished off Christopher Marlowe's poem "Hero and Leander" – doubtless boasting again of Marlowe's own supernatural aid.

This must have driven him crazy. Kit Marlowe and Shakespeare were friends, literary rivals, drinking buddies, likely collaborators; and as identically matched, world-beating talents and almost exact coevals, the two will have identified deeply with each another. "Familiar" is the key word here. (Affable is just a heartbreaking touch.) Not only was Marlowe a ghost – one meaning of the word familiar – he was also "familiar" in the senses of close, often-encountered, recently-dead and "on a family footing". He's even present in the very consonants of the word. Marlowe, we think, worked as a secret agent or "intelligencer" in the proto-secret service that Francis Walsingham set up for Elizabeth I, and in all likelihood conducted espionage abroad. Surely this would have come out over a pint of ale or six? Nothing, surely, would have delighted Shakespeare more than the thought of the ghost of Marlowe gulling the proud Chapman with false intelligence, and it will have offered him some comfort in his fight for the muse of Wriothesley. And there I rest my shaky and conveniently mutually supportive case.

But how has the little sonnet managed to honour Shakespeare's huge boast of the immortality of his own verse? I've long been convinced that if you could somehow snap your fingers and destroy every sonnet on the planet, and wipe every sonnet from every human mind, it would reappear in almost exactly the same form by teatime tomorrow.

Here is not the place to elaborate, but suffice to say that the square of the sonnet exists for reasons which are almost all direct consequences of natural law, physiological and neurological imperatives, and the grain and structure of the language itself. Or to put it another way: if human poetic speech is breath and language is soapy water, sonnets are just the bubbles you get. Sonnets express a characteristic shape of human thought, and are, after a bit of practice, very easy to write. Badly. (No one ever blew into language and got a sestina or a villanelle – one reason I hate the damn things, two or three by Elizabeth Bishop and Auden apart. Carol Ann Duffy once wrote an absolutely perfect squib called "Fuckinelle", with the repeated lines "The poet has tried to write villanelle; / He's very pleased. The audience can tell . . . " after which the form should have been officially banned.)

Shakespeare modernised the form of the sonnet, and transformed it from a stylised, courtly love shtick to a fluent and flexible form that could turn itself to any subject. This isn't to diminish the contribution of his forebears and contemporaries; but what distinguished Shakespeare from someone like, say, Sir John Davies, was the maturity of his means. None of this was accomplished by flailing "innovation", and this, I think, is the real poetic miracle of the sonnets.

His strategy was twofold. First, he realised that human love was the one theme capacious enough to encompass every other – these are also poems about death, sex, politics, sin, time and space – and he needn't stray from its centre. Second, he did this with a minimum of experiment, writing the form into transparency, until it became as effortless as breathing. In other words, he converted the rules of the sonnet to motor skills. The form was then freed from its own expectations, and able to engage with any idea or theme where it might identify the motif of its little golden square. But without Shakespeare's genius to show the way, I doubt it would ever have found itself so liberated.

Source: Guardian UK.

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Society seductress who slept with both her bridesmaids
By Adam Nicolson
4 May 2013

A hundred years ago this year, on October 1, 1913, my grandparents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, were married.

It was quite a to-do, at Knole in Kent, the great house where Vita had been brought up and where the Sackvilles had been in residence since the early 17th century.

Six hundred wedding presents were laid out on tables in the Great Hall. Only 26 people could fit in the little private chapel but hundreds, including four duchesses, came to the party afterwards. Vita wore a golden wedding dress. She had two bridesmaids, one of whom she was having an affair with at the time. The other, her new husband's sister, she would have a long affair with 15 years later.

It was not to be a conventional marriage. Both Vita and Harold had many love affairs with other people during it, hers almost always with women, his invariably with men. Yet, despite this near constant infidelity — or perhaps because of it — their marriage was undoubtedly one of the deepest possible love for each other.

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Defying convention: Vita Sackville-West, centre, with husband Harold Nicolson and lover Rosamund Grosvenor

When they were engaged, early in 1912, each of them knew they were homosexual, but neither told the other. Homosexual acts were illegal at the time, but their marriage was not an act of concealment or conventionality. They had quite simply fallen in love with each other. Harold was 25, the son of a diplomat who had been Ambassador in St Petersburg, and who had joined the diplomatic service himself. He had first met Vita at a small dinner party in London 18 months before. 'He arrived late,' she remembered, 'very young and alive and charming, and the first remark I ever heard him make was “what fun!” when he was asked by his hostess to act the host. 'Everything was fun for a man of his energy, vitality and buoyancy. I liked his irrepressible brown curls, his laughing eyes, his charming smile.'

The buoyant delight in life spread on in his attitude to sex. His affairs with men, as his biographer (and one-time lover) James Lees-Milne wrote, were 'conducted on a high-spirited, physical and casual level' and were quickly forgotten. Handsome, intelligent, cultivated young men were one of the delights of life, to be enjoyed, as so many other aspects of life were to be enjoyed. Philandering with men was always to be a 'jolly vice'. As soon as anyone started to take it too seriously — let alone to boast about it — the affair should come to an end.

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Unconventional: Vita and Harold at home in Kent in 1960

And sex should never be what he called 'squalid'. He was a snob and he once told another of his lovers, the literary critic Raymond Mortimer, that 'the idea of a gentleman of birth and education sleeping with a guardsman is repugnant to me'. 'Lust is a fine thing, a noble thing,' he wrote. 'It should not be allowed to get down at heel.' Lust, in fact, was to him a symptom of our basic life force. Suppress lust and you would suppress the well-springs of vitality and creativity. 'One's mind will sag,' he told Mortimer. 'And if interest goes, brain goes.'

Four years after he married Vita, by which time she had already given birth to two sons, my uncle Ben and my father Nigel, Harold was forced to admit to Vita that he had been having sex with other men. At a house party at the great estate of Knebworth in Hertfordshire in October 1917, he had contracted a venereal infection and the doctor said he must tell his wife about it. Her reaction was to go away for a short time to stay with a friend in Oxford, but within a few days she had forgiven him and was back home, reading to him the draft of the novel she was writing.

For Vita, the whole question of her sexuality was far more difficult. Harold thought of his life as centrally engaged with his work at the Foreign Office, his own writing of biographies and novels, and later his job as a Member of Parliament and junior minister in Churchill's wartime coalition. To him, sex was a diversion on the side, not very different from skiing. Yet to Vita, what she was sexually was all-important to her idea of herself as a person.

Earlier this year, Harvey James, a book conservator working in the Long Library at Sissinghurst — the house in Kent where Harold and Vita went to live in 1930 — came across a small manuscript poem, in French, written by Vita in 1918. It hasn't seen the light of day until it was published this week, 95 years later. The poem contrasts two ways of loving someone: as a friend, strolling together in the daytime through flowery fields, in easy companionship, arm in arm; or later, surrounded by 'the heavy scents of intoxicating night', when she searches on what is now her mistress's lip for 'a madder caress', 'tearing its secrets from your yielding flesh'. The poem throws a sudden sharp light on Vita's nature and her own idea of herself.

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Seductress: Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West at their home in Sissinghurst Castle, Kent in 1932

She knew she was in many ways a deeply conventional member of the English ruling class, attached to land, tradition, the English landscape, the grandeur of her own background as one of the Sackvilles of Knole; but at the same time she thought of herself as 'a Bedouin in corduroy', impatient with tedious social convention, passionate and in need of a more vivid life than an ordinary married existence might provide.

What was she? Mother or adventurer? Seducer or nurturer? A sweet, gentle and kind person — as she could certainly be — or the ruthless user of other people's bodies and hearts?

'This is the life for me,' she had written to Harold during their engagement, while he was plodding away at his work in the Foreign Office and she was off in Andalusia with Rosamund Grosvenor, her first girlfriend. Vita's own grandmother had been a Spanish gipsy from Malaga and Andalusia became a fantasy zone for Vita in which her ruthless self could find fulfilment: 'gipsies, dancing, disreputable artists, bullfights. Oh Harold I can't paint to you the state of mind I am in now. I feel can never go back to that humdrum existence.' By which of course she meant her engagement to him — the rather nice, polite, kind, clever, funny and friendly Englishman waiting for her in London. Rosamund Grosvenor, one of the bridesmaids at the wedding, was soon got rid of.

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Author: 'She knew she was in many ways a deeply conventional member of the English ruling class'

But her place was taken in Vita's heart by the far more threatening presence of Violet Keppel, the daughter of the King's mistress Alice Keppel (the current Duchess of Cornwall's great-grandmother), and someone with a far more sophisticated armoury with which to attack and manipulate Vita's heart. It was to Violet that Vita wrote that divided poem in 1918. This love affair became the great crisis of the marriage. Violet, who married a handsome officer and war hero, Denys Trefusis, in 1919, threw down a challenge to Vita to be true to the more ferocious version of herself.

Harold might think of himself as 'a sunny harbour' but, as Violet knew, Vita hated nothing more than to be referred to as 'Mrs Nicolson'. Harold might be having affairs with French couturiers or aristocrats or enjoying a crush on the composer Ivor Novello, but Vita wanted grand passion. 'I wish I were more violent and less affectionate,' Harold wrote to his wife, but it was not enough. Vita began to dress as a man, calling herself 'Julian', and walking the streets of London and Paris as a wounded soldier arm in arm with her lover, Violet. 'You could do anything with me,' Violet wrote to her, 'or rather Julian could. I love Julian overwhelmingly, devastatingly, possessively, incoherently, insatiably, passionately, despairingly — also coquettishly, flirtatiously and frivolously.'

Violet, and for long periods Vita, too, wanted them to run away together, to escape the humdrum Harold and home. For his part, Harold wrote to Vita: 'I wish Violet was dead. She has poisoned one of the most sunny things that ever happened.'

Only in 1920 did the heat finally go out of the women's affair, after reaching a hysterical climax in a hotel in Amiens in Northern France where the women had fled, and to which the abandoned husbands had rushed in a hired aeroplane (high glamour for 1920) to get them back. Never again was the marriage threatened, and Violet sank from view. 'I think the secret of a successful marriage,' Harold said a little complacently, 'is the capacity to treat disasters as if they were incidents and not to magnify incidents into disasters.'

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'The secret of a successful marriage is the capacity to treat disasters as if they were incidents'

That was scarcely going to set the pulse racing, but Vita managed to integrate her double existence as a deeply loving wife — no marriage can have more written avowals of love surviving in its archive — and as a woman with an inveterate appetite for new love affairs: with her sister-in-law Gwen St Levan, by then the mother of five children; with the poet Dotty Wellesley; with Hilda Matheson, who was in charge of arranging talks on the BBC; with the dazzlingly beautiful Mary Campbell, to whom at the height of that affair she wrote erotic sonnets all night; and others less well known, but whose often sad letters of abandonment and regret remained in Vita's files.

Her appetite for love was real, and her cruelty to those she had rejected just as real. In the mid-1920s, she fell in love with and was slightly overawed by the novelist Virginia Woolf, with whom she became romantically involved. Their affair was undoubtedly passionate, but not overwhelmingly physical.

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Lovers: Vita and Rosamund arriving in court

Vita was amazed by Woolf's brilliance. Woolf half-admired, half-teased her in return: 'She shines in the grocer's shop in Sevenoaks with a candle-lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung.' Virginia told a friend rather disobligingly that Vita wrote with 'a pen of brass', 15 pages a day, too many. 'Why she writes is a puzzle to me. If I were she, I should merely stride, with 11 Elk hounds behind me, through my ancestral woods.'

After the war, as Harold and Vita perfected the garden at Sissinghurst, the pace of life slowed, although Vita even in her 60s could still amaze and seduce otherwise entirely heterosexual married women in the county, perhaps because she seemed, as Virginia Woolf's husband Leonard described her, 'an animal at the height of its powers, a beautiful flower in full bloom'. And it seems to be true that Harold and Vita loved each other more deeply with every passing year.

Here on my desk I have a letter written from her to him on Wednesday November 23, 1960. It is her own coda to this story. She was already ill with cancer when she wrote it and would die 18 months later. 'Isn't life odd?' she asked him. 'There once was a time when Violet and I were so madly in love, and I hurt you dreadfully, and now how dead that is. Passion completely spent. And the true love that has survived is mine for you and yours for me. 'Oh what a very unexpected letter to write to you suddenly. You won't like it, because you never like to face facts. 'Anyhow, I love you, much more than I loved you on October 1, 1913, and that is something more than most people can say after 45 years of marriage.'

The newly-discovered poem and many other documents, photographs and drawings are part of a new exhibition at Sissinghurst Castle, Cranbrook, Kent TN17 2AB, open every day.

Source: Daily Mail UK.

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