Pursuer Become The Pursued
Nancy Mitford glorified romantic love in her books but had rotten luck with men.
One Paris evening in 1946, the English writer Nancy Mitford went for a walk to see the Louvre lit up by night. She caught sight of her lover, Gaston Palewski, hand in hand with another woman. She wrote to her sister Diana that what she couldn't bear was that he had looked so happy. It was "so dreadful to prefer the loved one to be unhappy. . . . Oh the horror of love."
Mitford was famous for her teasing, acerbic wit and the best-selling novels she wrote about her eccentric upper-class family: Of her six siblings, two were Nazi sympathizers close to Hitler and one a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. The "Mitford Industry," as it has been called, has spawned an endless number of documentaries, films, television series, memoirs and biographies, even a musical on the Mitford girls (which one of them dubbed "La Triviata").
Nancy Mitford glorified romantic love in her books but had rotten luck with men. The three she fell for didn't return her feelings. Her first fiancé, Hamish St Clair Erskine, was "gay as gay" and dumped her in 1932 with a brisk telephone call after an engagement that had lasted five years. She married Peter Rodd on the rebound. "Prod" proved a feckless drunk, happy to live off her money. Her greatest love, Palewski, was chronically unfaithful and "operated," in the words of British historian Lisa Hilton, "on a principle of maximum returns, making passes at practically every woman he met."
They met in London in 1942, at the height of World War II. Mitford was 38 and had been miserably married for eight years. Palewski was Charles de Gaulle's right-hand man and a colonel in the Free French army. She described their first meeting in her novel "The Pursuit of Love," which was published in 1945 and dedicated to Palewski. The minute the heroine laid eyes on this "short, stocky, very dark" Frenchman (called Fabrice de Sauveterre in the book), the physical attraction was overwhelming and "made her quite giddy. It terrified her. She could see that Fabrice was perfectly certain of the outcome, so was she perfectly certain, and that was what frightened her." That coup de foudre marked the beginning of a relationship that lasted 29 years and is the subject of Ms. Hilton's provocative history, "The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London."
Palewski, born in Paris in 1901 to Polish-Jewish parents, was an unlikely Casanova. He had "acne-pitted skin," according to Ms. Hilton, a face like an unpeeled potato, receding hair and "halitosis that could stop traffic." But he was charming, amusing, a shrewd politician and a brilliant conversationalist. Women adored him, perhaps because he so thoroughly adored them—especially if they had an aristocratic pedigree. "The craters on his face seemed to be the imprint of the coronets embroidered on the pillows where he had slept," commented one of his contemporaries.
Mitford's friends and biographers have portrayed her as the pathetic victim of a hopeless passion for Palewski, for whom the affair was little more than a wartime romance. But was Mitford's life with him really a wasted one of humiliation and denial? Ms. Hilton doesn't believe so. Mitford, she contends, was never under any illusions. Palewski was merely behaving like a typical Frenchman of that day, and the two of them cared for each other deeply. "Nancy and Gaston were two middle-aged, not particularly attractive people," she writes. "He was a selfish, career-obsessed philanderer; she was febrile, needy and given to 'shrieking,' yet the discipline, tenderness and gentillesse of their relationship exposes the limits of many modern sexual mores."
When it came to adultery—a word that used to bring forth shrieks from the Mitford girls when it was read in texts from the Bible at church—they shared the French view that it was nothing to fuss about. Two women with whom Mitford was close, her sister Diana (married to Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists) and the beautiful Diana Cooper (married to Duff Cooper, the British ambassador to Paris), had superlatively happy marriages even though the husbands were epic philanderers. Had Palewski only married Mitford, notes Ms. Hilton, no one would have pitied her in the slightest. But he had always told her he couldn't marry her because she was Protestant and divorced.
Ms. Hilton brings the era very much to life: the politics of postwar Paris, the Dior wardrobes, the glittering social events. There are some small errors (the Nation a right-wing magazine?) and the occasional awkward phrase (Oswald Mosley "sexual Marmite"?), but the book is smart and entertaining. There is no question that Palewski's presence in Mitford's life enhanced her writing, giving it an emotional depth it didn't have before. She gave him moral support throughout his tumultuous career as one of the most influential politicians in France, one of the founders of the Gaullist Party and vice president of the National Assembly. From 1957 to 1962 he was de Gaulle's ambassador to Italy, where he was nicknamed l'Embrassadeur ("the embracer"), because of his tireless pursuit of the pretty ladies in Rome. Later he served as a government minister. Despite his flaws, and his fathering a son with one of his many lovers, he proved to be a lifelong friend to Mitford—though, if she hadn't trained herself to hide her unhappiness behind a veneer of jokes and high spirits, he probably wouldn't have stayed around at all.
The love between the couple, in Ms. Hilton's depiction, was "proud, bruised, but enduring." Yet in 1969, Palewski did the thing that Mitford had been dreading for nearly three decades. He married someone else. The woman, Violette de Pourtalés, was rich and titled and owned a magnificent château outside Paris, Le Marais. She was, moreover, Protestant and divorced.
Mitford was shattered. Nevertheless, Palewski remained her great passion and remained her friend. He was at her bedside when she died of Hodgkin's disease in 1973. Of course, Palewski did love Mitford. It was just that he loved châteaux and duchesses more.
Ms. Hodgson is the author of "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food."
A version of this article appeared December 31, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Pursuer Become The Pursued.