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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable