British Politician, Poet, Author
Born 1911 Died 1995
Somerset de Chair was the Member of Parliament for Norfolk South West from 1935 to 1945 and again for Paddington South between 1950 and 1951, who also wrote a number of now largely forgotten novels, one play, three collections of poetry, as well as a number of works of autobiography and was once called the "greatest lover of the Thirties".
Early life and origins
Born on the 22nd August 1911, Somerset Struben de Chair was the son of Dudley de Chair and his wife and Enid, the daughter of Hendrik Willem Struben. On his father's side he was a descendant of the Jean Francoise de la Chaire who was created a marquis by Henry IV in 1400. The de la Chaires were however Huguenots and one branch of the family fled to England in the 1640s, and thereby avoided the fate of the remainder, who largely met their end at the guillotine during the French Revolution. The line of English de Chairs was later established by one John de Chair, who became chaplain to George III and married Julia, daughter of William Wentworth of Bretton Park in Yorkshire, who was reputedly the richest man in the country at the time. The Strubens on the other hand, were of Dutch origin but had similarly settled in Britain, although his maternal grandfather, Hendrik Willem or Harry Struben had gone to South Africa for the sake of his health, where together with his brother Fred he discovered gold at the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal and thus helped give birth to the South African gold industry.
Somerset's father joined the Royal Navy, where he made the acquaintance of the future George V whilst he was a naval cadet and subsequently became an admiral and was in command of the Northern Blockade on Germany during World War I. Whilst his father was away serving in the navy, from the age of three Somerset attended a boarding school run by a Lady Molteno at various locations, however since his father subsequently became the Governor of New South Wales after the war, he spent the years from 1923 to 1930 attending the King's School at Parramatta in New South Wales. He subsequently returned to Britain to attend Balliol College, Oxford, although on the way back from Australia he travelled in Europe where he had an audience with Benito Mussolini and was also arrested as a spy in France.
Inspired by his European travels, he wrote The Impending Storm (1930) in which predicted a coming world war, although the publication of this volume, together with his attempts to establish an Oxford branch of the United Empire Party, made him the object of some satire and jealousy amongst his fellow undergraduates. Indeed the book was not that successful in Britain, although it was very well received in Hungary where he became something of a celebrity and led to the commissioning of a bronze bust by Deszio Lamyi which was put on display at the Hungarian Parliament Museum. He nevertheless persevered in this prophetic vein and wrote a Divided Europe (1931) in which he predicted that the Communists would take over half of Europe, followed by an allegorical political drama entitled Peter Public (1932).
Political and military career
After graduating from Balliol he studied for the examinations for the Diplomatic Service, although without much confidence that he would actually pass them. In any event, it appeared that Somerset had set his heart on a political career, and having considered applying for the vacancy that had arisen at Guildford; he was later selected as the Conservative candidate for Norfolk South West in 1935. It might have helped in this regard that the chairman of the local Conservative association was Carlo Fountaine, a former vice-admiral who had served under his father. Somerset was duly returned to the House of Commons at the General Election of 1935 at the tender age of twenty-four, although he wasn't quite the Baby of the House, as that accolade was held by Malcolm MacMillan the member for the Western Isles who was a year younger.
Somerset delivered his maiden speech on his plan for a National Labour Reserve to be employed on conservation work, and although he supported Neville Chamberlain over Munich, he was later one of the Conservative rebels who voted against the Government at the crucial Norway Debate in May 1940 which brought Winston Churchill into office. That turned out to be his last political act for some time, as in 1938 he had already joined the Supplementary Reserve of the Royal Horse Guards. Having been commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant he sailed from Liverpool bound for Palestine in October 1940, and later served as the Intelligence Officer to the Advance Strike Force or Kingcol which charged across the Syrian desert from Palestine to Iraq and captured Baghdad on the 30th May 1941, and with the 4th Cavalry Brigade which charged back again from Baghdad and captured Palmyra in Syria. It was during the latter engagement that he was wounded and invalided home.
After recovering from his wounds, he was discharged from active service in 1942 and became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Oliver Lyttelton, who was the Minister of Production, where he remained until 1944; whilst he also took the opportunity to write a series of memoirs based on his wartime experiences. Unfortunately his political career was then put on hold when he lost his seat by fifty-three votes in the General Election of the 5th July 1945. He later had designs on the undeniably safe seat of Ashford in Kent, where he lost out to William Deedes, and in the meantime became active in the United Nations Association, where he was a member of their national executive and chairman of the National Appeal Committee between 1947 and 1950, whilst he was also the chairman of the Kent Association of Boys' Clubs in 1945-1948, and a governor of Wye Agricultural College in 1946-1948.
He eventually found a safe berth at Paddington South, following the retirement of the incumbent Ernest Augustus Taylor and was comfortably elected at the General Election of February 1950 with a majority of 6,823. It was shortly afterwards that he announced that he was divorcing his first wife, and marrying another woman with whom he had been conducting an extra-marital affair for a number of years. This was too much for the London Housewives Association and he was asked to resign by his constituency association. He was therefore forced to stand down at the General Election of October 1951, and his political career came to an abrupt end just at the point that the Conservatives found themselves back in power and Somerset might have expected political office.
The Indiscretions of a Self-Confessed Heterosexual
Although his interest in the opposite sex was awakened at an early age - at the age of three he was given piggy-backs by a girl named Una and recalled "feeling .. a most unusual sensation between my legs", whilst at the age of six he was "found playing, rather too imtimately" in a linen cupboard - it wasn't until shortly before his 19th Birthday that he lost his virginity. This event took place at the Barbizon Plaza in New York, where he engaged the services of a "professional hooker". Unfortunately the professional hooker, for whatever reason, failed to excite his ardour sufficiently to enable him complete the deed, but he was however more succesful on the following day with the "middle-aged Norwegian maid" who was cleaning his room. He was actually in the United States in the company of the actress Pearl Appleton, otherwise known as Phyllis Elgar who had a part in The First Mrs. Fraser then playing on Broadway, although whether or not he consummated that particular relationship is unclear.
Nevertheless on his return to Oxford in the autumn, Somerset was eager to expand his experience and it became his habit to visit London at least two nights a week with his friend Henry Blyth where they would each select one of the street prostitutes who frequented the area around Bond Street. He was subsequently to complain of Rab Butler's efforts from 1951 onwards to 'clean up the streets' and suggested that it was no coincidence that this coincided with the decline of the British Empire. He later gave up on "visiting tarts" in 1958 partly as a result of these measures and partly because he claimed that were too many amateurs coming into the profession.
He met his first wife Thelma Arbuthnot at a garden party, being apparently much taken by her resemblance to Norma Shearer. Thelma's father, Harold Denison Arbuthnot was a partner in the stockbrokers W.I. Carr & Sons, whilst her mother was a Lambert of Lambert & Butler fame. He married Thelma in 1932 and she bore him two sons named Rodney Somerset and Peter Dudley Somerset, although the latter shot himself in 1954. Of course Somerset wasn't faithful to his wife given his continued patronage of the ladies of Bond Street, and neither was he averse to taking advantage of other opportunities that came his way. His first dalliance was with an "exotic nymphomaniac" named Vivienne Wooley-Hart, who informed him that he was "not the sort of man who could survive on one woman", and which might have proved fateful to his marriage had his Aunt Beatrix not intervened. He subsequently conducted an affair with Louscha Slevinsky, the wife of a local official, whilst he was stationed in Palestine, and began a more serious affair with Carmen Appleton in 1947, which eventually led to the final breakdown of his first marriage in 1950.
His second wife Carmen gave him two further sons in Rory and Somerset Carlo; the latter being the Somerset de Chair who stood as a candidate for the Referendum Party at Suffolk South in 1997. Carmen seems to have been a little more 'understanding' of her husband's proclivities and once brought him the services of one Parisian professional as his birthday present one year, as well as accompanying him on one of his visits to his favourite red-headed prostitute named Lucienne in London. It was on that occasion that Carmen nevertheless took exception to Lucienne's invitation to join the party and so took advantage of an available horsewhip to chastise her husband who claimed to be "too preoccupied with Lucienne to protest".
Carmen eventually ran off with the navigator of his yacht and the marriage was dissolved in 1958, allowing Somerset to marry his third wife, a Mrs Margaret Patricia Manlove (née Field-Hart) who bore him a daughter. That marriage was dissolved in 1974, and in the same year and at the age of sixty-three that he married his fourth wife, Juliet, the only daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, and the former wife of the Marquess of Bristol. Juliet bore him another daughter named Helena de Chair, later a journalist and currently married to Jacob Rees-Mogg the Conservative PPC for the constituency of North East Somerset.
The author and collector
At the time that he entered politics Somerset de Chair believed that he would one day make Foreign Secretary, or even Prime Minister. Indeed, having had what was described as "a brilliant war in the Middle East" and with at least a decade's experience in the House of Commons, he might well have expected to have received office in Churchill's first post-war administration and gone out to greater things. His life was always something of an anti-climax after his departure from the House of Commons in 1951, but he nevertheless devoted the remainder of his life to his writing and his other passion of collecting art and antiques.
He had a particular fascination for the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, and his debut novel Enter Napoleon published in 1934 took the life of the French dictator as its subject, whilst he also edited and translated a number of Napoloen's own writings culminating with Napoleon on Napoleon in 1991. He also edited his father's memoirs The Sea is Strong (1961) as well as those of his friend J. Paul Getty, Getty on Getty: A Man in a Billion (1989), and produced a string of autobiographical works under such titles as Buried Pleasure, Morning Glory, and Die? I Thought I’d Laugh.
He was said to be "stinking rich" and many assumed that his money came from his father and maternal grand-father, although in truth the Struben fortune was rather dissipated amongst a large number of grand-children. Some of his money did come from his father, and some came from his writing, however the foundation of his fortune was the purchase of the island of Gigha off the west coast of Scotland. He bought it from his sister when she was short of money during the war, and then sold it to John Horlick (of Horlicks fame) after the war for a large profit. With the proceeds he bought Chilham Castle in Kent, which he then sold for double what he paid for it, and "the arithmetical progression continued for a while" as he brought a succession of historic houses until he ended up in possession of St Osyth's Priory, near Colchester in Essex in 1958.
Somerset also had the good fortune to marry rich women. His first wife Thelma had her share of the Lambert money, whilst his fourth and final wife Juliet Wentworth-Stanley (who was also an extremely distant cousin) was an heiress to a considerable fortune and had her own £20 million art collection. In any event, they were all sufficiently wealthy to limit the damage caused by his three successive divorces. Somerset eventually died during a holiday in Antigua on the 5th January 1995. Strangely enough, this was the very same day that his elder brother Graham de Chair, a retired naval commander, also died at his home Norfolk, and was also the very same day that his daughter-in-law Sarah, the wife of his eldest son, Rodney, died in Scotland.
Much of his collection of antique furniture and paintings together with a Faberge box were sold off at auction in 1999 following his death, but one item in particular was retained. Whilst he was in Jerusalem during World War II, Somerset spotted a bust in an antiques shop opposite the King David Hotel, which he purchased and had shipped back to Britain via the Rockefeller Museum where a full-size plaster cast of the bust was taken. Now known as the Beth Shan Bust, this was a monumental Roman marble double herm, carved from marmo lunense with the opposing heads of Bacchus and Ariadne, and dated to circa 300 BC. It was put up for auction at Bonhams on the 1st May 2008 when it was expected to fetch between £60,000 and £90,000, but sold for £240,000.
Fiction: Enter Napoleon (1934), Red Tie in the Morning (1936), The Teetotalitarian State (1947), The Dome of the Rock (1948), The Story of a Lifetime (1954), Bring Back the Gods (1962), Friends, Romans, Concubines (1973), The Star of the Wind (1974), Legend of the Yellow River (1979.
Non-fiction: The Impending Storm (1930), Divided Europe (1931), The Golden Carpet (1943), The Silver Crescent (1943), A Mind on the March (1945),
Edited and translated: The First Crusade (1945), Napoleon's Memoirs (1945), Napoleon's Supper at Beaucaire (1945), Julius Caesar's Commentaries (1951), Napoleon on Napoleon (1991),
Edited: The Sea is Strong (1961), Getty on Getty (1989)
Autobiography: Buried Pleasure (1985), Morning Glory (1988), Die? I Thought I’d Laugh (1993),
Drama: Peter Public (1932),
Poetry collections: The Millennium (1949), Collected Verse (1970), Sounds of Summer (1992)
- Somerset de Chair, Morning Glory: Memoirs from the Edge of History, (Merlin Books, 1988)
- Death of a self-confessed heterosexual, The Independent, Jan 15, 1996
- ‘de CHAIR, Somerset Struben’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2007; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007
- The Beth Shan Bust