accordions and gin

Moura Zakrevskaya, variously Countess Benckendorff and Baroness Budberg (1891 – 1974) was the daughter of an eccentric tsarist nobleman. He was so obsessed with the pyramids that he built a replica – which still stands today – on his Ukrainian estate.

Moura found here

“Her first husband (murdered while she was away in Russia) was a minor Estonian noble. She gained the title of ‘Baroness’ through her second husband. He was soon discarded but the title never was

She met British diplomat and spy, Bruce Lockhart, in Petrograd after travelling there alone to try to secure family property amid the turmoil. She later followed him to Moscow, where both were arrested by the authorities.

Bruce Lockhart found here

The legend maintains that Moura secured her own release from the Lubyanka by offering the commandant sexual favours. Whatever the truth of this, she brought food and books to Bruce Lockhart until he was exchanged for a Soviet agent held by the British. 

Lubyanka prison courtyard found here

In 1934 their relationship was further mythologised by a Hollywood film. “British Agent” was directed by Michael Curtiz, of Casablanca fame, and starred Leslie Howard as Bruce and Kay Francis as the enigmatic Moura.

Kay Francis found here

Bruce Lockhart’s departure left her alone and penniless in Moscow. She found work with Maxim Gorky and soon became his secretary and lover. Through Gorky, Moura came to know both Lenin and Stalin, and she remained part of his entourage until his death in 1934. 

image found here

Towards the end of this period she was spending increasing time in London, establishing herself as a fashionable hostess and a star of the Russian émigré community. The press began to mention her as a friend or “companion” of H. G. Wells.

H G Wells found here

This relationship worried the British authorities. In its early days espionage was closely connected with literature. W. Somerset Maugham had been sent to Russia in 1917 with the ambitious mission of keeping Russia in the war and preventing the Bolsheviks coming to power.

W Somerset Maugham found here

The Moscow Embassy had already warned that Moura was “a very dangerous woman“. Worse, she had once presented Stalin with an accordion. Her file recorded: “She drinks like a fish. She can drink an amazing quantity of gin without it showing any apparent slow-up in her mental processes.”

image found here

The ageing Wells offered in London what Gorky had offered in Moscow: security and an entrée to society. Moura’s own explanation was that the attraction was sexual – Wells’s skin, she said, smelled of honey – though she refused to marry him or even remain faithful.

watch a great honey badger video here

She was under surveillance by MI5 as a possible spy for over thirty years yet they never managed to find her guilty of anything.

Published in: on March 22, 2012 at 7:53 am  Comments (47)  
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gin and cabbages

Allen Williams adopted his uncle’s surname of Lane when he became involved in the family business of publishing. John Lane was one of the founders of Bodley Head publishing whose stable of high profile writers included Oscar Wilde though Oscar fell out of favour with the Lanes when he seduced one of their office boys.

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“He rose quickly in the business becoming managing editor in 1925 following the death of his uncle. After conflict with the board of directors who were wary of publishing James Joyce’s controversial book Ulysses, Lane left in 1936 to set up Penguin Books. The legend goes that on a train journey back from visiting Agatha Christie in 1934, Lane found himself on an Exeter station platform with nothing available worth reading. He conceived of paperback editions of literature of proven quality which would be cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine; the first was set up in Charing Cross Road and dubbed the “Penguincubator”.

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Lane soon became as much of a British institution as the BBC and was often referred to as a modern day Gutenberg. Early company meetings were held in a favourite Spanish restaurant with plenty of wine to accompany them. One visitor was shocked to discover an editorial meeting taking place on a rowboat, the staff dipping into gin as steadily as the oars did into the water.

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In 1937, Penguin moved its office to Middlesex; the property cost £2000 plus an additional £200 for the crop of cabbages that were growing there. The staff first had to pick their way through the cabbages which Lane then sold at markets.

In 1960, Lane once again became the champion of free speech when he decided to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The trial for obscenity was decided by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who, when asked how he would decide whether or not to prosecute, answered, “I’ll put my feet up on the desk and start reading. If I get an erection, we prosecute.

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Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 5:52 am  Comments (36)  
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two kippers and a bottle of gin

If I were a real nurse and if the Gimcrack were a real hospital, I would have liked Marion Wrottesley as a patient….

“At the age of seven Marion was shipped off to England, but her education at a girls’ school in the Cotswolds was swiftly terminated when an aunt heard another pupil say “Pardon”. She was transferred to the more exclusive Felixstowe Ladies’ College, where she learnt to dance and play the piano.

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Back in Shanghai in 1940, aged only 17, she married Sean Rainey, an Irishman then serving as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. This was partly a strategic move to get out of China: the Raineys duly moved to Bangalore. Here two children were born, and young Mrs Rainey served briefly as recruiting officer for the Black Watch while learning about “the sins of gin” and how to mix dry martinis.

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Such skills made her welcome when she arrived as a young divorced woman in austere post-war London and fell in with upper-class rebels such as the Labour minister’s daughter Lydia Noel-Burton, who always carried on her person two kippers and a bottle of gin.

Gin and Tonic Cupcakes

In 1949 Marion met an Old Harrovian, Dick Wrottesley, in the Bag of Nails nightclub. The heir to Lord Wrottesley reputedly locked her in the lavatory until she had agreed to marry him.

In spite of blissful summers at Wrottesley, near Wolverhampton, where the family had lived for 900 years, and the birth of their son Mark, the marriage broke down quickly. Dick Wrottesley had already told his wife: “I only married you for your tarty qualities.”

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In the early 1960s Marion returned penniless to “Swinging London” where, in 1964, her son Michael would open the fashionable outfitters Hung on You in Chelsea Green. At the reception following Michael Rainey’s marriage to Jane Ormsby-Gore, Marion was assured by the bride’s father, Lord Harlech, that his own family was “full of pisspots”. On learning that Brian Jones and Keith Richards were also present, she declared: “I must find myself a Rolling Stone.”

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During this era Marion also formed a close bond with her playboy stepson Richard Wrottesley, who first hit the headlines in 1966 when his Bentley was found upside down in the snow outside the Palace Hotel at St Moritz. At his regency-style flat in St James’s Street, young “Wrotters” introduced his stepmother to his less respectable friends, such as the East End gangsters Ronald and Reginald Kray.

Reggie Kray with Shirley Bassey

For the remainder of her life, Marion Wrottesley lived mainly in bedsitters in Chelsea, Kensington, Earl’s Court and further afield. Though a gifted story-teller she never gave in to pressure to write her memoirs. Instead she flourished on National Assistance (her card was crudely marked “Alcoholism”) and became a character in London pubs where she began the day with Fernet Branca or Carlsberg Special.

Published in: on August 14, 2010 at 8:52 am  Comments (42)  
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