Death of a self-confessed heterosexual

SOMERSET Struben de Chair, 83, was buried on Thursday at his Essex home, in earth specially consecrated for the purpose. Two black horses, heads elegantly plumed above blow-dried manes, pulled his glass-sided hearse. In the short distance between hearse and grave, six strong men nearly buckled beneath the weight of the coffin of honey-oak. Somerset de Chair, as many have testified, was a big man - in more than one sense.

But, like the driver of his hearse, he was a figure from another, half-forgotten era: when the "Quality" cavorted with minimal risk of exposure in the press, and "Society" was an impervious elite; an era which, like Somerset de Chair himself, can be rec a lled only hazily, even by older citizens.

Mr de Chair said and did things that ought to have been memorable, yet, until his death during a winter break on Antigua, his name rang few bells for the British public. He certainly took unusual pains to be memorable, convinced since his youth that his place was high in the firmament.

"I really thought ... I should be Foreign Secretary, if not Prime Minister," was an early opinion of himself. With a later change of focus, he pronounced: "I gave up frequenting tarts ... before my third marriage [and] after they were swept off the streets ... I think the decline of the British Empire coincided with the removal of these healthy distractions from the heart of London's West End."

After his interment outside the private chapel of St Osyth Priory - a former 12th-century mon-astery, near Clacton, which had been his home, off and on, for years - a nephew said: "He was a man who could have gone to the top - a great man. He just lost it by being a bit naughty."

News of a bizarre and melancholy coincidence brought Somerset de Chair to the attention of contemporary Britain two weeks ago. On 5 January, his brother Graham de Chair, 89, a retired naval commander, died at his home in Norfolk. Within hours two furtherde Chairs had succumbed: Somerset himself during a holiday in Antigua, and Sarah de Chair, wife of Somerset's son, Rodney, who died in Scotland. Newspapers faced the unusual task of running obituaries of two brothers on the same day.

Graham's son Colin describes his father as "a tough old sea-dog", a Second World War hero who went on to do good works, such as organising boys' clubs in Hertfordshire and painting in watercolour. He will be cremated tomorrow in London. But Somerset was heroic in a different way entirely - "great fun to be with", his nephew Colin says.

Somerset de Chair (a version of a Huguenot name, de la Chaire) was said to be "stinking rich" and amorous. Some of his fortune had come from his maternal grandfather, HW Struben, who mined gold in South Africa, and some from his father, Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair, a friend of Lord Jellicoe and a former governor of New South Wales. Further wealth came with his marriages.

When his third marriage foundered, a fourth - to Juliet, former wife of the Marquess of Bristol and only daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam - brought into his home her £20m art collection and other riches.

But it was not wealth that made him seem so unusual for his time. It was the flaunting of his indiscretions, legion and reckless, which abruptly ended a parliamentary career of outstanding promise. "I love women - all women," he once said. He was not thefirst British gentleman to be equally at ease in the company of royals and prostitutes. But he may be unique in his desire to talk about it. When he wrote his autobiography, Morning Glory, published in 1988, he wanted to subtitle it The Indiscretions ofa Self-Confessed Heterosexual. The publishers said: "Oh dear, no", preferring Memoirs From The Edge.

In it, we discover a creature of astonishing precocity. At 10, he attacked his sister Elaine [now Barrington-Hudson] with an axe, then a hammer. His stylishness came from his parents, as he recalled when they drove over to Windsor Castle "in court dress"for dinner with George V, his father's former shipmate. His sense of adventure came from boyhood visits to South Africa and Australia and, from the age of three, "a most unusual sensation between my legs".

As an Oxford undergraduate, he published a book predicting the Second World War, and a second which predicted a Communist takeover of half of Europe. He was 22 when he married Thelma Arbuthnot in 1932 and 24 when he became Tory MP for South-West Norfolk .

He seemed destined for greater things, speaking wittily in the House, writing poetry, collecting art and antiques, having a brilliant war in the Middle East, raising two sons. But then that "most unusual sensation" let him down.

Twice-weekly visits to a brothel did not meet his needs. He had myriad affairs, one of them with Carmen Appleton, whom he married in 1950 after the scandalised Tories dumped him and the London Housewives Association bayed for his blood. His political career was over.

Carmen accommodated his needs, presenting him with the two sons, Rory and Carlo, who gave the readings at their father's funeral last week. For a birthday present, she also gave him a red-headed prostitute, Lucienne, recalled fondly in Morning Glory. "I always think of [Lucienne] as Petra - rose-red titties, half as old as mine," Mr de Chair wrote, before describing an encounter with Lucienne which was interrupted by Carmen, who then "worked off her own feelings" by horsewhipping him. "She certainly understood men," he reminisced long after Carmen ran off with the navigator of his yacht.

Such things may well have entered the minds of the 300 mourners who raised St Osyth parish church roof with "Oh dearly, dearly has he loved / and we must love him too."

Outside, villagers spoke of their respect for Mr de Chair. "He was a kind gentleman who gave us business," the butcher said. "Only last year he asked me in to have a drink with him," said a policeman outside the church. "I told him I wouldn't dream of d r inking his expensive whisky."

It had been Mr de Chair's habit to warm the mornings of his declining years with a gin and tonic in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He also was partial to a late-night tipple when whatever house he was occupying - St Osyth, or the even larger Bourne Park, near Canterbury, or his mansion in New York - fell silent. He is said to have hated pomposity, and wrote about his war exploits (among them, swimming across an Iraqi canal to capture a crashed Italian pilot) without bragging.

Somerset's obsession with "greatness" may be seen in his poetry ("Let me attempt with all my power / To hold the trivial in check ..."); in his acquisitions (an open-top Rolls-Royce in his youth, followed by Chilham Castle, Kent, and Necton Hall, Norfolk), and preoccupations (the authorised biography of Paul Getty).

Somerset de Chair seemed, at times, more like a Citizen Kane figure rather than an English gentleman whose family had entertained Princess Alice to tea. Publishing appealed to his considerable ego. Books with attention-seeking names flowed from him - TheTeetotalitarian State, and Friends, Romans and Concubines, for example.

He once said that any boy with blond hair and blue eyes (as he had) had a great start in life. He was, his daughter said at his funeral, "a showman to the end".

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