Invisible Ink: No 220 - Nancy Spain


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The Independent Culture

There was a time when Nancy Spain seemed to be everywhere. She was a journalist, broadcaster and television presenter, a genuine populist who wrote columns for the red tops when they still commissioned bright writing instead of pursuing celebrity gossip. Spain was a Woman’s Hour regular, and appeared as a panellist on What’s My Line and Juke Box Jury.

She might have had the vox populi but she certainly wasn’t working class; born in Newcastle in 1917, her father, a lieutenant-colonel, was also a writer and her aunt was Isabella Beeton, of cookery book fame. Nancy was transformed at Roedean into the perfect jolly-hockey-sticks pupil, playing professional hockey and lacrosse, and developing the cut-glass speaking voice that became her trademark. Soon after she became a sports journalist and a diver, and grew friendly with Nöel Coward and Marlene Dietrich. She lived openly with another woman although, typically, her life was messier and more complicated, as she ran an extended household with the rally driver Sheila van Damm, her partner’s son and her own son, allegedly fathered by the husband of Margery Allingham.

“She’s gay, she’s provocative, she’s going places,” trumpeted The News Of The World when they announced that she was joining them as a columnist. She was also sexily butch, yet we somehow believed she was going to marry fellow television presenter Gilbert Harding

Her writing style was unusual – chatty, scatty, sporty, and shot through with a mix of common sense and laugh-out-loud moments, she brought the Daily Express into disrepute after being sued twice by Evelyn Waugh. She wrote about her aunt, Mrs Beeton, about tennis and cookery and herself in a memoir entitled Why I’m Not A Millionaire, but she also wrote a series of very camp detective novels set at a girls school, Radcliffe Hall, based on Roedean, although the title clearly alludes to Radclyffe Hall.

As a keen sportswoman it was inevitable that she’d produce murder mysteries with such titles as Death Before Wicket and Death Goes On Skis. She also penned Cinderella Goes To The Morgue and Out, Damned Tot, which say a lot about her wicked sense of humour. She was turned down for membership in the Detection Club because her books were too funny.

Her death was, as her life, rather unique; she died when her plane crashed into a cabbage field near Aintree racecourse while heading there to commentate on the 1964 Grand National.