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Thursday, February 18, 2010

6. Redeeming Features: A Memoir by Nicholas Haslam

I was so sad when I finished this book I shed a tear. Not because the book is sad – although it has its moments – but because I will miss it so much.

It was also a tear of frustration, as I hadn’t actually realised I was at the end, until I turned the page to read on and found myself looking at the index.

The last sentence of the text appears at the very bottom of a right-hand page, so you don’t even realise you are at the end of a chapter, let alone the conclusion of 323 pages of rapture. Most frustrating.

So why is this book so hard to leave behind? Take one copy of Diana Vreeland’s V. Stir in Lee Radziwill’s Happy Times, Dominic Dunne’s The Way We Lived Then and Rupert Everett’s Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. Add several handfuls of Cecil Beaton’s diaries, sprinkle over a little Chips Channon and finally whisk it all up into high peaks with a large helping of fairy dust.

What an extraordinary seventy years Nicky Haslam has led and how very beautifully he tells us about it. This book could have been one long dreary brag about all the fabulous people he calls very dear friends, their fabulous lives and their fabulous homes, but his elegant and atmospheric writing makes it something much more (and the on dit is that he really did write it himself).

Of course he does also shamelessly collect scalps. Cole Porter, the Duchess of Windsor, Andy Warhol, Noel Coward, Bette Davis, Debo Devonshire, Mick Jagger, Cary Grant, Liberace, Paris Hilton…. That’s about the number – and variety - which appear on each page. I’m not kidding.

So it’s endearing when he persuades an LA friend’s housekeeper to get her sister to introduce him to Elvis, whom she works for. The result is a bizarre encounter in a trailer, which the King pretty much sleeps through.

I liked Haslam enormously for sharing this rather humiliating anecdote, because unlike most legendary people Mr Haslam meets – his dazzling social career starting while he was still at Eton – Presley did not immediately become a lifelong friend.

His success rate is so mindboggling, Haslam’s dazzling charm must be visible from space. And this was all kicking off long before he became Nicky Haslam the human luxury brand, who every arriviste desperately wants to add to their quick dial list as a symbol of being properly in with the in crowd. (Bryan Ferry is a very good friend, of course.)

We are at I Tatti - where his father hung out with the Berensons in his youth - by page 21, and as a barely-hatched young man he became instant new best friends with Bunny Roger, Cecil Beaton and Lady Diana Cooper when he met them.

And not just as cocktail party cheek-kissers, mind. Meaningful relationships which continued to the ends of all their lives, despite the enormous age differences. There are wonderful pictures of Beaton at Haslam’s Arizona ranch in the 1970s (all the photos are great, actually).

But what I found so interesting is that the friend who introduced him to those three deities was a man-about-town called Simon Fleet, whom Haslam had met entirely by chance one day on a London street. (And who later turned up at Haslam’s house one morning with Greta Garbo in tow….)

Meeting Fleet, while he was still at school, is just one of many such extraordinary chance encounters in this life. Another was being picked up on the street in New York – when Haslam was on his first visit there, aged 14 – and finding himself a couple of days later having lunch with Tallulah Bankhead. As you do.

He was beautiful, of course (he does tell you that quite often), which makes such events more likely, but still there is a magical element to his life that makes engrossing reading. There is also much more to it than a passagiata through his address book (which must have as many volumes as the Concise Oxford English….).

It’s a social history of the entire 20th century cultural elite, and reaching back much further – to Queen Victoria and Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (a distant rel) - by association. You could do the most amazing flow chart connecting them all up, but you would need a very large piece of paper.

It’s also a touching sentimental journey of a gay man keeping step with the beat of liberation. Although in that respect I found it very odd that AIDS isn’t mentioned at all, particularly as he lived in New York in the first glory days of gay pride. It may be to do with the aversion to physical sex he is mentions in the earliest pages of the book.

There was only one section in the entire Hermès-orange bound volume that grated on me. Near the end he talks of various current friends – notably the Bamfords, who lent him their Barbados mansion (formerly property of the Tree family, as in Marietta, as in Penelope…) to write in – whom he has met as clients for his decorating business, with a slightly toadying tone.

But that was the only wrong note in a marvellously vivid rendering of an extraordinary life, from a little boy stuck in bed for three years with polio, to ranging the world on an Triple A List magic carpet.

PS Although I have only met him once and briefly (I’m sure he would like me to mention it was at Rachel Johnson’s party and Kathy Lette introduced us…), Nicky Haslam was the inspiration for the character Uncle Percy in my novel Mad About the Boy.

I based Uncle Percy’s mid-life style change to black-haired rocker entirely, and with the greatest respect, on Mr Haslam’s own makeover.

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 7
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 6
Recommend to niece: 5
Recommend to gay best friend: 10
Recommend to boy pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 4
Read on public transport: 9


  1. Can't wait to read it! It sounds fascinating. Emma

  2. sounds like a fab addition to my collection.

  3. Oh *sigh*, another book to add to my over-flowing pile. Sounds fascinating. Can someone please let me know when we have squeezed a few more hours into each day so that I can get more reading done.

  4. I have this book on order. Happy Times by Lee and Dom's The Way we Lived then are on my bedside table because i find them incredibly soothing and comorting in times of stress. Plus I love the black and white photos. Sad Dom's gone but at least we still have Lee. Have you read all of Anabelle Goldsmith's memoirs? You prolly know Jemima. Love your Blog it is Blogtastic x

  5. Dear FF
    Thank you so much for your lovely comments.

    I did buy Annabel G's memoir and found the prose off putting. Mr Haslam's book is so beautifully written.

    I've seen Lee a few times at the shows, she's like a tiny doll. Fabulous.


  6. Well I think I will propose it as a book club possible.... sounds fascinating.. And so pleased to hear that you based Uncle Percy on Nicky Haslam ... I have to admit I did have him in my mind when I read the book!