Happily, the mendacity and cynicism of this city’s agenda-setting, style-monitoring smart set still manage to awe even those who believe they are impervious to shock and outrage. This ability to surprise, to concoct intellectual dishonesties of breathtaking proportions on a regular basis, is welcome indeed, as it confirms the suspicions of some and helps soften the calluses of others who believe they have seen it all.
The current issue of Vanity Fair contains a book excerpt that chronicles the amazing, astonishing and, of course, affluent life of a Virginia-born woman named Nancy Langhorne. Young Miss Langhorne moved to England and became Lady Astor, wife of a Lord, a certified member of Britain’s aristocracy and a member of the House of Commons. (That a Condé Nast magazine would be interested in a deceased member of Parliament for Plymouth will, of course, come as a surprise.)
In the fashion that one expects from the peddlers of celebrity pornography, Lady Astor is presented as containing all the virtues that makes one an admirable character: She was beautiful, she was rich, and she lived in England. Despite those characteristics, she was not without achievement. She was the first woman to serve in the House of Commons.
We learn that Lady Astor worked for all sorts of righteous causes, like an eight-hour workday, a concept that no doubt was unfamiliar to many of her class, if not to the lady herself. (Perhaps she thought the working classes labored only six hours a day.) And she threw magnificent little parties at her wonderful, opulent, unbelievably grand estate, Cliveden, that were attended by lords and ladies whose wealth and breeding made them worthy of any glossy writer’s worship.
Here’s what’s missing from Vanity Fair ‘s glowing excerpt: Lady Astor was an egregious apologist for one Adolf Hitler in the 1930’s, and her well-described estate was a gathering place for Britain’s appeasers, a group that no doubt would have found a way, like Quisling, to work with the new order had Operation Sea Lion been carried out in 1940. Chroniclers more dutiful than the hollow men and women who gather high above Times Square every day have a shorthand phrase to describe the amoral sophisticates with whom Lady Astor kept company in the 1930’s: They are known to history, if not to British expatriates in New York, as the Cliveden Set. The phrase is not used affectionately, although it is entirely possible that nobody in the Condé Nast building knows that or, worse, may think of it as a charming description, filled with old-fashioned, English-ruling-class glamour and leadership.
Lady Astor was among the upper-class English twits who, in a letter to British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, cheered on Hitler’s march into the Rhineland in 1936. As quoted in the second volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, Lady Astor and her friends told Baldwin that they “‘wholeheartedly’ endorsed the Führer ‘s act.” The Cliveden set entertained Nazi apologist Charles Lindbergh in 1938 at a party during which Lady Astor argued with those-including her husband-who insisted that Britain would have to go to war if Germany threatened Czechoslovakia. And when Churchill rose to condemn the Munich Pact in 1938, Lady Astor continually interrupted the speech with cries of: “Rude! Rude!” The Condé Nasties of the world no doubt would cite the latter anecdote as evidence that Lady Astor certainly had manners and would tolerate no unseemly breaches of decorum.
Some months ago, Vanity Fair excerpted a book whose author concluded that Pope Pius XII was a Nazi enabler, if not a downright collaborator. (There was much made of the fact that the book’s author is a Roman Catholic. Only Taki, writing in the New York Press , noted that the author also is English, which suggests a more complex story.) Popes, of course, do not have glamorous dinner parties, although their digs tend to put to shame even the most rapacious modern industrialist. But they just don’t dress very well, they are utterly devoid of style, and they tend to be so-well, you know-Catholic. Pius XII could therefore be slandered as nothing less than “Hitler’s Pope”-a title that no doubt inspired many knowing chuckles in Times Square. But none dare refer to the stylish Nancy Astor as “Hitler’s Lady.”
The Condé Nast revision of world history casts as heroes men and women with style and grace-preferably English or Anglophilic-whose world views and actions are not nearly as important as their glamorous biographies. And so, in addition to this latest dreadful installment, Vanity Fair some time ago celebrated the wonderful Windsors, whose pro-Nazi sentiments counted for little when compared to their fine taste in clothing.
This is a pernicious business, and we have nihilist, washed-up English journalists and their sycophantic employers and imitators in New York to blame for it.