Travels With Their Aunts

Freeloading aesthetes and the women who kept them


Illustration by Michael Witte

"It is a notable fact that wealthy ladies past middle age very often find their firmest friends among homosexuals,” writes James Lord in his 1994 memoir, Six Exceptional Women,. He continues:

Heterosexual men have little time to spare—or should one say waste?—on older women, no matter how rich, unless there is a convincing likelihood of appropriating their money, whereas homosexuals enjoy the refinements of costly sociability and elegance for their own sake.

Lord—biographer of Alberto Giacometti and Dora Maar and bon ami de tout Paris circa 1960—is charmingly up-front about the fabulous holidays on the Riviera or the Greek islands that he wangled out of well-propertied, colorful old biddies like the freakily fabulous narcissist Marie-Laure de Noailles (40-bedroom proto-McMansion in Hyères) and the formidable Greek Errieta Perdikidi (Skyros villa: “plain and unassuming but possessed an air, an atmosphere, a character that asserted deliberation and taste”). The cross- generational friendships he describes are mutually parasitic: The loaded fag hags need an audience for their incredible stories, the young writer needs material, and everyone nurses a heart broken by a man who just isn’t that into them.

Tragedy shadows the pergolas. Of his boyfriend Christian Davillerd, with whom Lord first visits Skyros in 1959, Lord writes:

Aged then about thirty, he gave no indication whatever that he would later succumb to uncontrollable alcoholism, recover eventually, endeavor without success to become a monk, devote himself for a time to the care of handicapped children, then one night walk into the sea never to return.

Meanwhile, recalls Gore Vidal of the year 1948, in his rambling, name-hurling, but perversely engaging autobiography Palimpsest, “a pack of queens were on the move that summer in Europe.” Vidal was not one of the pack, mind you, being far too iconoclastic and snooty to randomly shack up with Truman’s and Tennessee’s patronesses. But he did his fair share of five-star freeloading: Who but Vidal could offer anecdotes about “the grubby pool at the Royal Lodge at Windsor, where Princess Margaret and I, in mid-pool, saved a number of bees from drowning, she exhorting them in a powerful Hanoverian voice to ‘go forth and make honey!’”?

Vidal is so gloriously high-and-mighty that he even condescends to time itself:

Now, at century’s end, I find it hard to believe that I once lived in a time when writers were world figures because of what they wrote, and that their ideas were known even to the vast perennial majority that never reads.

In the ’50s, the mother-hating, too-rich, and too-thin-skinned poet James Merrill was also flitting across Europe. “Comfort and privilege, ours from birth, had left us with a lightness of tone that worked like a charm in the right company,” Merrill writes in his memoir, A Different Person. The Poros hostess with the mostest, Mina Diamantopoulos, was a woman “in her early sixties, with dramatic Byzantine eyes, silvering hair in a bun, and a manner of perfected naturalness.” Mrs. Diamantopoulos also happened to be in love with Merrill’s former boyfriend Kimon Friar, a sad-eyed classicist with a scholarly subspeciality in Djuna Barnes, and would eventually marry him. “If Kimon of all people was taking a wife,” wails Merrill, “what hopes had I of resisting the undertow of generations?”

Some sponging can be a real drag. Invited in 1965 onto Cécile de Rothschild’s yacht, the Siëta (yet another Aegean tour), Cecil Beaton runs into his foul-tempered ex, Greta Garbo: “At dinner she remarks, ‘How beautiful this fruit looks, but it’s all rotten, not ripe, hard, uneatable.’”

Nor is leading a life of insouciant jet-setting as easy as it looks, Beaton in the Sixties reveals:

Yesterday there had been a commotion when [Garbo] said, “I can’t be that wrong. It must be Instant Coffee!” “No, it’s Maxwell House.” “It can’t be. Like the people of Missouri I want to see. Show me the tin.” An enormous new tin of Maxwell coffee was brought. No apology, just, “Well, it must be rather stale and has lost its strength.”

Beaton eventually fled the yacht and hightailed it over to the Brandolini palazzo in Venice, where

Philip Van Rensselaer provided comic relief with his frankness about being a gigolo to Barbara Hutton … “I couldn’t go on. It was too tiring. I had to take sleeping pills, and have champagne and eggs … so I think I’ll take a flat in Tangiers.”

Life’s a bitch, and then it isn’t.