That Alfred Duff Cooper had very small feet strikes me as one of the most emblematic facts about him, but I’m hard pressed to say just how. Certainly it’s tempting to quip, in view of his prodigious adulteries, that this helps explain why he was rarely on them, spending as much time in the sack as the grandes horizontales of his beloved Paris. One might also remark that Cooper nevertheless left big shoes to fill: His too-early death robbed the diplomatic world of an ornament, and the wide circle of his friends and mistresses (to say nothing of his adoring wife) of a magnetic personality. But there’s something more nuanced to be said about those feet. They accurately point to a dandiacal quality, and yet Cooper was far from mincing or effete: This was a man brave enough to win, almost in record time, the Distinguished Service Order in World War I; to lock horns with some of the most domineering figures of his period; and even to put the moves—successfully—on Vita Sackville-West. On his dainty toes Cooper pirouetted through life, across a stage not of unblemished parquet but cratered by two world wars, warped by political wrangling, and mined with the romantic complications of countless affairs. Best of all, he was half-drunk half the time.

Born in 1890, Cooper first gained fame in 1919 as the lucky chap who’d managed to bag, despite his modest pedigree and shallow pockets, the prize bachelorette of the period, Lady Diana Manners, celebrated for the radiance both of her beauty and her wit; she was, in a sense, the Lady Di of her day, though infinitely cleverer. The wedding made front-page news, and Diana soon caught the eye of Max Reinhardt, who cast her as the Madonna in his play The Miracle, which he took on a successful tour of America and elsewhere. Diana’s earnings allowed Duff to live in high style—a friend tweaked him for letting her “barter her youth and beauty in a vain effort to gather sufficient money to satisfy your tastes in old wine and books and enable you to cut a fine enough figure to seduce her friends”—yet also to quit the Foreign Office, write a highly regarded biography of Talleyrand, and move into politics.

Her investment paid off handsomely. After serving as MP for Oldham, Cooper became Secretary of State for War and then First Lord of the Admiralty. From this last job he resigned in protest against Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler—“In so far as the Munich crisis can be said to have had a hero,” ventures his biographer John Charmley, “Duff deserves the title”—only to return to the Cabinet when Churchill appointed him Minister of Information. (A close friend of Winnie, Cooper paralleled him in more than his fondness for drink and gambling: Both got their start in Oldham and served as First Lord of the Admiralty.) He was sent to Algiers as the British representative to the French Committee for National Liberation, and then, only weeks after the Nazis vacated it, to Paris as Ambassador. During his three years there, he labored mightily, as he had in Algiers, to bring about an Anglo-French alliance, which he saw as the cornerstone of Western European solidarity. Flush with success, he retired with Diana to their country house at Chantilly, where he wrote several more books before abruptly dying (at sea) in 1954. “The obituaries treat Cooper as a mixture of Fox, Metternich, Rochester, and the Iron Duke,” noted Evelyn Waugh—no fan of his—with sour envy.

In short, Cooper enjoyed a full, glittering, libidinous life in the thick of things, and during the critical years of the last century. This makes him just the sort of person whose diary one would want to read. Until now, however, one could catch no more than glimpses of it—quotations appear in Cooper’s autobiography and a few other places. As Cooper’s son, the eminent historian John Julius Norwich, explains in his superb introduction, Cooper left his diary to his nephew, the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis, who was so shocked by his uncle’s extramarital activities that he planned to destroy all record of them. (Such prudishness seems surprising in Hart-Davis, given that he conducted a long affair with an employee and described it frankly in his famous letters to George Lyttleton.) Thankfully, Hart-Davis was dissuaded, and the diary passed to Norwich, though why he held off so long on publication remains unclear; presumably he had to wait for certain mistresses (and their husbands) to go to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no libel suits can be launched.

At any rate, we finally have the complete diary, and it does not disappoint.[1] When John Colville’s Fringes of Power appeared in 1985, his publisher suggested that it was “probably the last important diary of the period to be available for publication.” Now it seems Cooper’s may indeed be the last. Admittedly, it boasts somewhat less in the way of choice gossip, thrilling malice, exquisite literary polish, and piercing self-insight than that of Cooper’s rough contemporary (and friend) Henry “Chips” Channon, or that of James Lees-Milne, often called the greatest of modern English diarists. But then Cooper also had less interest in posterity. “What the diary writer’s true motive is remains mysterious,” he mused in 1949, “but I believe it is very like the sportsman’s motive in keeping a game book, the desire to record and to remember past happiness.” While that explanation would hardly do for most diarists, who lean more toward remembrance of past misery (and often grudges), it serves well for Cooper, who had both a rare gift for happiness and an uncommon number of birds—some with extravagant plumage—to set down in his game book.

Yet the earliest years covered here tested even Cooper’s zestful optimism, if not his skirt-chasing skills. Opening as it does in 1915, the diary is riddled, for its first hundred pages, with dismayed entries noting the sudden, violent deaths of his closest friends. Though he’d long wanted to join up, Cooper was only released from the Foreign Office for military service in 1918, and the first three-odd years of the war saw him mostly in London. Along with Diana, whom he’d met in 1913, he belonged to a smart set that, despite its high mortality rate, resolutely went on partying the whole way through; as Diana observed in her autobiography, “The young were dancing a tarantella frenziedly to combat any pause that would let death conquer their morale.”

And so this part of the diary (which Norwich has neatly split into thirds) gives off a flavor quite unlike the rest—madcap, haunted, slightly surreal. After putting the FO and, say, the latest Romanian crisis behind him for the day, Cooper carouses with friends known by Wodehousian monikers like Bongy and Bimbo and winds up the evening with variegated amusements: “After dinner we read aloud from the Bible. Then K. and Diana went to bed, and we went to their room and all had an injection of morphia… . We lay on the bed and said poetry in turn until about 3 o’clock.” It all sounds perfectly halcyon. But then the scythe comes slashing through again, and yet another Eton or Oxford friend is blown to bits, and the remainder of Cooper’s “small diminished society” is convulsed by grief—until, that is, they shake if off and begin afresh. The strange mix of mournfulness and defiant hedonism is perhaps best captured in this partial entry from 1917: “I dined alone at the Junior Carlton. I drank the best champagne—Pommery 1906—because I felt that Edward would have wished it and would have done so had I been killed the first.”

The second part, which covers the years 1920–1939, provides the most peeks into Cooper’s “extremely mouvementé sex life,” as Norwich terms it. “Long habit of promiscuity asserts itself,” Cooper remarked to himself, and the habit led to farcical country house scenes such as the following, in which a certain Poppy is furtively plucked: “I went to her room that night at two o’clock—a very long, dangerous and difficult journey in the dark over loud creaking boards and round a dozen corners. In bed she was divine …” This part of the diary also features numerous Roaring Twenties celebrity cameos—Cole Porter, Tallulah Bankhead, and Will Rogers are among those who flit through its pages—and the most elaborate New Year’s resolution known to me:

With regard to drink I have decided to adopt a system based on the division of days with five categories—as follows. A = No drink until dinner, then only one sort B = Either only one sort at luncheon or dinner or nothing until dinner then more sorts than one C = More sorts both at luncheon and dinner but nothing between D = No restrictions but no excess E = Excess

(A few months later, Cooper laments that “April has been a bad month for good resolutions—only 7 A days and 9 D days.”)

At one point in 1933, Cooper frets about his diary degenerating into “a mere record of luncheons and dinners.” But as the shadows begin, from that year forward, ominously to lengthen, his entries more often deal with momentous matters. The longest one here—a sort of intercalated narrative, really—concerns the Abdication Crisis, in which Cooper, as a friend of Edward VIII, was caught up. He recalls asking the king “if he had considered what sort of life his would be. I had always thought that the life of an ex-monarch was the most miserable a man could lead”—a prediction that proved, of course, all too accurate. (Cooper himself did not emerge from the debacle unscathed: Having been, in the summer of 1936, on a yachting cruise with the king and Mrs. Simpson, he was “suspected … of having been aware of what he intended to do and of having encouraged him to do it.”) And when, two years later, the Munich fiasco loomed, he spotted Chamberlain’s self-delusion and fatal submissiveness as quickly as he had the king’s:

The Prime Minister told us the story of his visit to Berchtesgaden. Looking back upon what he said, the curious thing [is] that he recounted his experiences with some satisfaction. Although he said that … Hitler struck him as ‘the commonest looking little dog’ he had ever seen … nevertheless he was obviously pleased at the reports he had subsequently received of the good impression that he had made. He told us with obvious satisfaction how Hitler … felt that he—Chamberlain—was ‘a man’. But the bare facts of the interview were frightful.

A week later Cooper wrote, “I believe that Hitler has cast a spell over Neville”—not the sort of occult hypothesis to which he was usually given, but as plausible as any.

After putting his diary aside in 1939, Cooper resumed it on being sent to Algiers in 1944, and stuck with it through 1951. Not surprisingly, this last part is the most politically focused of the three, for Cooper played a crucial role first in preparing the way for a smooth transition to power in post-Vichy France, then in nudging that nation away from the Soviet bearhug and toward the gentler Western embrace. Neither endeavor did de Gaulle make easy. The arrogance, obstinacy, ingratitude, and boorishness of “Charlie Wormwood” (as Diana dubbed him) are no revelation, but surely few, at least among les anglo-saxons, had to suffer them as often or as unjustly as Cooper. The following entry, from October 1944, is typical:

It was an extremely frigid and dreary party—worse even than [de Gaulle’s] entertainments usually are. He made no reference when I arrived to the fact that his Government had been recognized by the three great powers that afternoon, and when I said I hoped he was glad it was finished, he shrugged his shoulders and said it would never finish.

Nor did Churchill, who loathed the general, in this instance behave much better. As Diana put it, “De Gaulle and Winston were playing battledore with Duff as the shuttlecock.” Nothing is more admirable about Cooper than the way he patiently allowed himself to be swatted back and forth by the two pigheaded leaders. The man was far from a doormat—“Duff’s veiners,” or blowups, were in fact legendary—and he must have longed to crack their skulls together, but he kept his temper for the sake of Anglo-French rapprochement.

Despite its more public character, the last part of the diary has plenty of personal asides, some of them delightfully acidic and amusing. There is, for instance, this snapshot of Churchill (with whom Cooper remained fast friends) at play in Biarritz:

Winston’s method of bathing is to wallow like a walrus in shallow water, floating about and abandoning himself to the waves. A number of the inhabitants watched with evident amazement this extraordinary spectacle.

And this about Eva Perón:

I [went] to a reception given by the Argentine Ambassador for Señora Peròn [sic]. I was disappointed in her looks, but I liked her although she neither spoke nor understood anything but Spanish. We seemed to understand each other—perhaps because she’s a tart.

And this about the former Edward VIII, now every bit as dismally idle as Cooper had foretold:

The Duke of Windsor came to see me this morning at his own request. I thought he wanted to consult me about something—but not at all. He sat here for nearly an hour chattering about one thing and another. I expect the truth is that he is so désoeuvré that Wallis, to get him out of the house, said ‘why don’t you go round and see Duff one morning and have an interesting talk about politics?’

And finally there are, of course, mistress mishaps. This very slight one involves Louise de Vilmorin, a French writer with whom Cooper had the longest affair of his life:

It was a delightful evening. Loulou was looking really beautiful and I’m afraid I hardly talked to anyone else. I’m afraid also that people thought it odd that my chauffeur know so well the way to her house, which isn’t very easy to find.

“What is more dull than a discreet diary?” Chips Channon asked himself in his own. “One might just as well have a discreet soul.” Where Old Men Forget, Cooper’s autobiography, was (as it were) the soul of discretion, his diary is, if never vulgar or explicit, gloriously frank about his vices. These make for good, piquant reading, and in a sense it is easy to overemphasize them—ultimately his drinking and philandering are less interesting than his career. Yet it is also a mistake, I think, to treat his sybaritism flippantly. Cooper pursued his pleasures not with the sloppiness of, say, a James Boswell (bless his heart), but with care, respect, and a kind of epicurean intelligence—he took them seriously. Consider alcohol. In Old Men Forget, Cooper writes, “Wine has been a firm friend and a wise counsellor. Often … wine has shown me matters in their true perspective, and has, as though by the touch of a magic wand, reduced great disasters to small inconveniences. Wine has lit up for me the pages of literature, and revealed in life romance lurking in the commonplace.” He goes on to express his pride at being the dedicatee of Belloc’s “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine,” and to add that “beer and spirits … belong to a different class from that of wine but are not upon that account to be less loved and honoured.”

In his affairs, too, Cooper was every bit as thoughtful as he was ruttish. Diana, secure in his deepest affections, countenanced most of the affairs, and on the few occasions when one got messy or caused her distress he felt awful. Her own apparent lack of interest in cheating is reflected in a snippet from Duff’s diary: “Tom [i.e., Oswald] Mosley made a declaration of love to Diana. She told him not to be silly.” (One smiles to think of the fascist leader thus rebuffed.) His liaisons, however, were far from purely sexual. To the contrary, many were passionately romantic, for Cooper was a sentimentalist who banged out corny (if well-turned) sonnets by the bushel. Yet somehow he managed to avoid both undermining his marriage, which remained exceptionally close till the end, and leaving broken hearts or homes in his wake. How did he do it? In part, through tact and light stepping—those tiny feet again—but mostly, it would seem, by virtue of the fact that he was one of those rare men who genuinely adore and understand women. (His easy success with the opposite sex, both in bed and out, may help explain the hostility of Waugh and certain other men.)

To pretend that Cooper was a truly major figure would be not only foolish but, paradoxically, an insult to his best qualities. What makes him so attractive, in part, is his reluctance to engage in the kind of ruthless, alpha-male striving that gets one to the top. He seems to have known the exact nature and scope of his talents, and to have made the most of them; he was not intent on Olympian glory as a writer or statesman, merely on a high standard of prose and of service, which were well within his reach. In the balance of his temperament, however, he was indeed remarkable. How telling that he toiled for Anglo-French concord, given that he represented a perfect fusion of the two national strains, of coolheaded reasonableness and practicality on the one hand and insouciant, wine-warmed savoir vivre on the other. With his ability to juggle work and play, marriage and infidelity, ostrichlike de Gaulle and pinnipedian Churchill, all on his diminutive feet, he was a master as much of life’s three-ring circus as of its hunt. His game book is proof of it.

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  1. The Duff Cooper Diaries, edited and introduced by John Julius Norwich; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 512 pages, £20. Go back to the text.