Doushka Williams

Centenarian survivor of Tsarist Russia

Doushka Williams lived quietly in Chelsea for 80 years. But, born in Tsarist Russia, the daughter of the military engineer General Dmitri Horvath, she had witnessed the Russian revolution and civil war in Manchuria and the Far East; and at the age of 18 she became the first wife of Cecil Lewis, the First World War air ace, writer and one of the founders of the BBC.

She was born Evdokya Dmitrievna Horvath in 1902 in St Petersburg, the second of six children of General Horvath and his wife Camilla Benois, and was always known as "Doushka". Dmitri Horvath was the great-great-grandson of Marshal Mikhail Kutusov, victor over Napoleon in 1812, and was connected to the Baltic aristocracy through his mother, Baroness Maria Pilar von Pilchau. Camilla Benois, a member of a distinguished family of artists, sculptors, architects and musicians, was herself a talented artist and sang and played the piano. Today the Benois Family Museum in St Petersburg contains the works of more than 60 family members.

Doushka described her father as "a lovely man" - unusually tall and shy, he was also rich, liberal and humane. In 1902 Tsar Nicholas II had appointed General Horvath, his distant cousin, to be General Manager of the Chinese Eastern Railway and consul general in Harbin, Manchuria. Harbin, originally a few villages on the Sungari River, soon became the "most liberal Russian city" under Horvath's rule. The railway zone was even termed "Happy Horvathia" by a visiting Grand Duke.

Each summer, the family travelled in General Horvath's private train to the Crimea, where he had bought six large estates, one for each of his children. Lights were always green for this train and, since there was only one track, there were few opportunities to pass and other trains often had to wait for hours or even days ("No wonder there was a revolution," Doushka said later). They enjoyed most of all visiting the estate called Kapcele, situated close to the Tsar's Palace near Yalta. Kapcele had two miles of blue sea and golden sandy beach and the wine produced by their Chinese servants was the Tsar's favourite. One of Doushka's diary entries read:

I do not like our childhood, although we have nothing to complain about because my Papa is not poor. But we are not able to do anything without publicity and everybody knowing. We are not free as my mother was in her childhood. She used to spend whole days in the forest, riding horses and even hunting fallow deer all through the summer. She had interesting adventures in her childhood, while ours is quiet and boring.

However, everything changed with the October Revolution of 1917 and civil war. "Poor Papochka is nervous," wrote Doushka. " He has lost much weight since the revolution started. He expects to be arrested any day, which is very unpleasant." As the last senior Tsarist official there, Horvath tried hard to maintain order in Manchuria and the Far East in the best interests of Russia, but failed. In 1920, the family fled to Peking and found refuge there in the vacant Austrian legation.

That autumn, Prince Nikolai Kudashev, the Russian ambassador and another Horvath cousin, invited a young British airman, Cecil Lewis, to visit and participate in singing parties with Camilla Horvath and her daughters. Lewis was tall and handsome and in 1916 had won a Military Cross for his "continuous bravery" during the First World War. He had come to China to teach members of the new Chinese air force how to fly.

On knocking on the door of the legation he was confronted by Doushka Horvath, whom Lewis described as "a lovely young girl . . . tall and slim in her summer dress and with masses of hair that hung down to her waist. . ." He felt "a thump in my chest . . . today I should have said that it was the sign of a heart attack. I suppose it was really."

He spoke to her in English and she answered very shyly in French, inviting him to join their party. The girls were delighted with "Zeezele" and, within a short time, completely charmed by this extraordinary family, Lewis proposed marriage to the 18-year-old Doushka under a flowering cherry tree, and was immediately accepted.

After their marriage in 1921, Cecil Lewis decided to return to England. The Horvaths were naturally unhappy to see their very shy young daughter move to the other side of the earth where she had no friends and hardly spoke the language. But there was little that could be done and, after all, England at least seemed safe from revolution. They all put their trust in Cecil.

At first, Doushka did not find England at all to her liking: the houses were very small and "after Russians, who have such a wide open Russian soul, English people are very closed and behave in a very strange way". Cecil Lewis began a new career, joining John Reith, together with a few others, in the launch of the BBC in 1922. Lewis was in charge of producing Children's Hour and took the role of "Uncle Caractacus".

Doushka gave birth to a son, Ivor, in 1923, and to a daughter, Celia, in 1924, and the Lewises moved to Chelsea, in south-west London. Cecil met many celebrities in the course of his efforts to enhance the quality and scope of the BBC's programmes, including George Bernard Shaw, who became his mentor. Shaw invited Cecil and Doushka to his regular luncheons, where she met T.E. Lawrence, Noël Coward, Paul Robeson, Sybil Thorndike, Gertrude Lawrence, H.G. Wells and others. Doushka was still very shy and hardly said a word. However, she was encouraged to sing, causing Shaw to declare that she was the best singer he had ever heard. Cecil was unimpressed, arguing that singers were two a penny and that it was unnecessary to develop her talent any further.

The marriage soon began to founder: Cecil Lewis was a compulsive philanderer. His account of his wartime experiences Sagittarius Rising was published in 1936 and, on the strength of its success, he moved to Hollywood, where he won an Oscar for the script of Pygmalion (1938). Doushka went back to Peking, hoping to be comforted by her mother. She stayed for almost three years, lacking money for a ticket home.

When she eventually returned to England, Cecil met her. She said ever afterwards: "I made the biggest mistake of my life - I should have thrown my arms around him and asked to begin again - but I was too proud!" They divorced in 1940 and Doushka married Cedric Williams. They had a daughter, Theresa, but this second marriage also ended in divorce.

During her later years, Doushka Williams lived in Chelsea, where she had a small circle of close friends with whom she conversed, with equal fluency, in Russian, French and English, as required. They gathered, together with other friends and relatives from all over the world, to celebrate her 100th birthday in 2002. Her Benois cousin, Sir Peter Ustinov, made a special effort to attend, flying from his home in Switzerland for the day, in what proved to be his last visit to England.

In 1996, Cecil Lewis published So Long Ago, So Far Away, a fulsome apology to Doushka, containing a touching description of their courtship and early life together. In spite of a life full of disappointments, Doushka Williams remained extraordinarily resilient, yet unassuming, gentle and charming, always with a "wide open Russian soul". She treasured memories of her family and life in Harbin, and especially of Lewis, for whom her regrets never faded.

When Cecil Lewis died at the age of 98 in 1997, his memorial service was held in St Clement Dane's Church in London and ended with the reading of one of his last verses, "Tomorrow":

I'll be seeing you, my love, I said,

Beyond the open window, by the door,

That's where you'll find me when you go to bed,

Head on the pillow, slippers on the floor.

And all the words in life I could not say

I'll say them now to bring you back again,

Fill out the silences of yesterday

With all our memories that still remain,

Now all is over, but it is not gone.

God's infinite museum of the past

Will safely hold what once we looked upon,

And keep those moments shining. That will last.

My hands held you, hold you still:

Be sure my love, they do. They always will.

"Do you think he meant me?" asked Doushka Williams, very quietly.

Ian Axford and Tamara Breus

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