Only child of the poet Siegfried
Thursday 20 April 2006
George Thornycroft Sassoon, writer: born London 30 October 1936; married 1955 Stephanie Munro (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1961), 1961 Marguerite Dicks (marriage dissolved 1974), 1975 Susan Christian-Howard (one son and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1985), 1994 Alison Pulvertaft (née Smeall); died Sutton Veny, Wiltshire 8 March 2006.
Like so many children of famous parents, George Sassoon seemed almost a victim of associated celebrity. But with such a vexed soul as the poet Siegfried Sassoon for a father, George laboured under an unusual burden. He had to deal not only with the legacy of his father's brilliant poetry and prose - from his First World War protest verse to his well-known Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man - but also with his father's difficult emotional life. Sassoon senior was torn between his early homosexual experiences, and his later, unhappy adoption of heterosexuality, of which George Sassoon was perhaps the only positive result.
Until his marriage to Hester Gatty in 1933, Siegfried Sassoon's sexual relationships had been entirely devoted to men, culminating in his disastrous love for the androgynous aesthete Stephen Tennant. When the mercurial Tennant, tiring of Sassoon's uxoriousness, eventually dismissed his lover, Sassoon married Gatty - a friend of Edith Olivier, who described her as "exquisite . . . and very like Stephen". (T.E. Lawrence, his best man, thought her a "foolhardy creature"; while Edith Sitwell commented, "And I suppose the bridal pair will want to adopt S.T.")
The couple moved into Heytesbury House, a rambling, 52-room Georgian mansion in Wiltshire - worryingly close to Wilsford, Tennant's home. George, their only son, was born in 1936, and became, in turn, a pawn in the fight for affection. Hester was possessive, and was taunted by Tennant's visits to her husband (who, according to Stephen Spender, arrived one day by pony cart "in drag . . . and nearly ran over Mrs Sassoon, which he thought was very funny"). She in turn "fell for" Rex Whistler, so Joe Ackerley claimed, and would not leave him alone. The couple separated, and Hester moved a few miles away. Sassoon "can't bear the sight of her any longer", said Ackerley, "and treats her presence with no pretence of politeness".
With his parents living apart yet remaining married, life was hardly easy for their son. Sassoon retreated into Heytesbury's increasingly shambolic rooms, an ever-more distant father. "Well, he was 50 years older than me," George would say in later life:
After his war experiences, he retreated into a shell. He didn't want to talk about it. Most people couldn't get near him, but, when he met a fellow survivor, he'd talk for hours. He was basically lonely.
George recalled being "taken through" to see his father once a day; the rest of the time he was cared for by servants. At five, he was sent to boarding school. "There were staff problems at Heytesbury," he recalled,
and also the feeling that Hitler was going to come and kill us all because my father was a Jewish intellectual who, when not writing poetry, was slaughtering Germans.
Siegfried was a decidedly eccentric parent, arriving to visit his son at Oundle wearing a hat he had rescued from a scarecrow, smoking his pipe upside-down to keep the rain out. "The boys called him Seaweed," George recalled:
He was just my dad. I wasn't conscious of him having done anything terribly special. He warned me not to get involved in the literary circle. "Most of them are just shits," he said.
After Oundle, which he hated - "everything was either compulsory or forbidden" - George went up to King's College, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences. He married - at the early age of 17 - a local Wiltshire girl whom he had met at an agricultural show; the couple had a daughter:
My parents thought I should have gone for someone of slightly higher status. They kept introducing me to rather snooty girls, but I didn't think much of them.
George pursued a random series of careers. His mother's family had owned an estate on the Isle of Mull, where Hester still spent time in their remote Victorian villa, Lochbuie. Here George tried his hand at farming livestock, and at one point worked on the island's ferry; as well as acting as a travel courier. But with Siegfried's death in 1967 - 10 years after the poet's conversion to Roman Catholicism - his son assumed responsibility for his father's literary estate.
It was a difficult role to fulfil, partly because his father had appointed Rupert Hart-Davis as literary adviser to the estate. The two men disagreed on the way Siegfried should be remembered; George was reluctant to see the events that led to the break-up of his parents' marriage analysed in print. Hart-Davis published Sassoon's journals - but only up to 1925, the period when his emotional life became truly problematic in his relationship with Stephen Tennant. (Likewise, Hart-Davis advised me not to write a biography of Tennant, telling me my potential subject was "a monster of vanity, deception and cruelty".)
Yet George Sassoon - who admitted to being quite as unconventional a parent as his father - was certainly not rooted in the past. Fascinated by technology, he became an electronics engineer and radio man specialising in navigational devices. Later on, he became adept at "number factoring" on his computers, and corresponded on the internet with "number theoreticians" across the world. In 1978 he wrote, with Rodney Dale, The Manna Machine, about the technical aspects of the mystical Jewish Kabbala; and, in 1986, published The Radio Hacker's Code Book, a text on radiotelegraphy and the applications of microcomputer systems. To this he added other achievements: he was fluent in French, German, and Serbo-Croat, played the accordion, and flew a Tiger Moth.
Sassoon's was hardly an uneventful life; but later, he recalled another strange omen from his father, when he told his son that he would have a troubled time in his fifties. "It came out of nowhere," he said. "Then he carried on as if he'd never said it." Full of even more foreboding was the pronouncement of an Irish clairvoyant on Mull who told Sassoon and his third wife, Susie, "My God, it's doom. Everything you touch will turn to dust." "Everybody there remembers it," said Sassoon. "It was really very frightening."
Susie and George separated in 1982; their children, Isobel and Tom, went to live with their mother. Now, in an extraordinary turnaround, Sassoon met a figure from his past: Alison Pulvertaft, with whom he had had a romance when he was at Cambridge and she was a cook at New Hall. Their early affair had ended when George took her to stay with Hester at Lochbuie, as Alison would recall:
Another woman appeared on the scene whom he went on to marry. And I happened to meet someone in his house whom I later married.
"I made the mistake of introducing her to a medical student," said Sassoon, "and she ran off with him."
Now reunited with George 30 years later, Alison moved into Heytesbury, where their life was hardly grand. They lived in one corner of the empty mansion; Alison bought her clothes in warehouse sales, and Sassoon shopped in the supermarket for "sell-by-date reductions", as the London Evening Standard reported, describing George as looking like
a benign Denholm Elliott . . . Local friends supply them with salmon, oysters and lobster. A friend shoots roe-deer on George's land to provide venison for the freezer.
"I am glad we didn't get married first time round," Alison said:
We needed to have the rough edges knocked off. George is not the easiest person to live with - and nor am I.
Sassoon had been badly hit by the Lloyd's Names debacle, in which he lost £500,000. In 1994 he was forced to sell the family home - although Heytesbury's peace had already been disturbed in 1986, when a new bypass ran through its parkland, routing the A36 in front of the house and severing it from its original driveway and gate. Later that year he also sold many heirlooms - including his father's First World War kit and his hobnail boots, which fetched £650. The sale raised £340,000. "This should keep Lloyd's at bay for a bit," he said.
Two years later, in 1996, during for a pilot's medical check-up, Sassoon was discovered to be suffering from lymphoma. That same year, Isobel, now 21, and Tom, 18, were killed in an appalling car accident in their way home from a music festival. It seemed as though his father's gloomy predictions were being borne out.
The shadow of his father was never far away. George remained opposed to any official biography of Siegfried, although he was remarkable generous to other writers, myself included, allowing me to quote his father's works in my biography of Stephen Tennant, published in 1990 (it seemed surreal to me that his letter of permission came typed on computer paper printed in dot matrix, a far cry from his father's precise, elegant handwriting). Others found it frustrating, however, that Sassoon had auctioned off items from his father's collection of papers piecemeal, thus endangering the prospect of a comprehensive biography.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson's stalwart overcoming of these obstacles - persuading Sassoon to allow her to use unpublished material - resulted in her compendious and ground-breaking two-volume Siegfried Sassoon (1998-2003). But it was only in 1998 that Hart-Davis and George Sassoon agreed to appoint Max Egremont as authorised biographer (after the poet Jon Stallworthy finally gave up his long-announced, and long-delayed, intention to write the official biography). George gave Egremont exclusive access to those of his father's papers which he still owned - including Sassoon's original diaries, which were estimated at a million words in length.
Finally unveiled, their frank and often extraordinary detailing of his affair with Stephen Tennant still had the power to shock - not least in their detailed descriptions of their sex life. But on its publication in 2005, Egremont's Siegfried Sassoon: a life met critical acclaim, and was, in its way, a settling of accounts between George Sassoon and his father, neither of whom allowed convention to circumscribe their lives.
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