Lady Berlin: Golf champion who escaped the Nazis in her Bentley and formed a glittering couple with her husband, Sir Isaiah


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The Independent Online

With her vivacious smile and glittering eyes, Aline Berlin was a familiar and popular face at Oxford gatherings, almost always in the company of her husband, the philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM. She was a wonderful conversationalist in her own right, and also a good listener, which was as well, as Isaiah was capable of talking at a speed of several hundred words a minute.

Not all her Oxford friends were aware that Lady Berlin had been a champion golfer before the Second World War, in France and in England, and that she was also a principal shareholder and director of the Paris Ritz. Her father's cousin was a founder, and when the cousin's son – "Niki" de Gunzburg, the gay editor of several fashionable American magazines – decided to sell his shares, Aline's father bought them and left them to her.

She was born into haute juiverie in London in 1915, the youngest of four children of Baron Pierre de Gunzbourg; her mother was Yvonne Deutsch de la Meurthe, from a family that owned oil refineries across Europe and was important in the growth of aviation. Though the family lived in Paris they had moved to London early in the First World War, hoping to avoid artillery shelling by the Germans.

Her paternal great-grandfather, Evzel Gunzburg, a rabbi's son, made the family fortune, with banks in Russia, and his son, Horace, received a barony (rare for a Jew in the Russian Empire) from Louis II, the Grand Duke of Hesse, made hereditary by Tsar Alexander II in 1874. One of Baron Horace's philanthropic enterprises was the Jewish Encyclopaedia, , which Isaiah read during his Russian childhood. Horace and his family lived part of each year in Paris, and his heirs added the "o" following the "b" to their name, in the French style.

The family lost much wealth and their St Petersburg Palace during the October Revolution of 1917 and moved to Paris, where Aline was brought up at 54, avenue d'Iéna, next door to the duc de Mouchy. Wearing the Gunzbourg's dark green livery there were two cooks, the maître d'hôtel, footmen, valets, lady's maids, nurses and governesses, and the prams and cars were painted the same green colour.

Their country house was at Garches, on the edge of the St Cloud golf course, where Aline learned to play at aged seven, and also during holidays with her aunt, Valentine Esmond, at North Berwick in Scotland. By 1932 Aline was runner-up in the English girl's golf championship at Stoke Poges, and two years later, she won the French Ladies' Close Championship.

This was the day after her engagement to André Strauss, whose father was a banker and collector of Impressionist pictures. They married in 1934 at the synagogue in the rue de la Victoire, and moved into an apartment at the rue d'Iéna, where they had a son, Michel. Strauss bought the 17th century Château de Brécourt in Normandy, but died of cancer in 1939; when the Germans invaded in May 1940, Aline drove her Bentley coupé from there to Biarritz in a single day, but was unable to get exit visas for Spain.

She was in Cannes with her family when the Vichy regime published its first anti-Jewish proclamation in October, and they all decided to leave for America. She managed to get American visas for her and Michel, somehow wangled exit visas and got the train to Lisbon to depart for New York. Her parents followed her.

In 1942 she met Isaiah at a house party on Long Island; she mostly remembered that he talked too fast. The next year she met the nuclear physicist, Hans Halban, a student of Niels Bohr and one of the scientists who in 1940 spirited radium and nearly the whole Allied stock of heavy water out of France in their luggage. Halban was sent to Montreal and also worked on the Manhattan Project. They married in 1943 and had two sons. They moved to Oxford in 1946 and settled at Headington House; Isaiah was a regular visitor. In 1949 Isaiah and Aline were on the same ship sailing to New York, Isaiah to visit Harvard, and Aline to see her mother, now a widow.

They had many interests in common and in summer, 1952 Aline drove her now close friend Isaiah to Aix-en-Provence for the festival. The next year she often called on him at All Souls, where she was helping him with the French translation of his celebrated essay on the hedgehog and the fox. Their relationship deepened, Aline saying he made her laugh, and Isaiah writing to a friend that she "lives in a curiously detached way in Oxford, to which she does not belong in any sense and which she reacts to in a half sleepwalking fashion."

At Easter 1954 Aline wrote to him, breaking off relations, because Halban, overhearing a telephone conversation, had threatened to divorce her and take the children. In distress Isaiah took to his bed for two days; but then Halban decided it was imperative they all keep on good terms. Halban accepted the French government's offer to run a nuclear physics laboratory in Paris; Aline refused to go and they agreed a formal separation. Isaiah proposed a fortnight later in the Oxford botanical garden and Aline accepted, though her mother said: "Mais il est inépousable!" When she got her divorce from Halban, she married Isaiah at the Hampstead Synagogue on 7 February 1956.

Isaiah was knighted the next year, and until his death in 1997 they were Oxford's golden couple, seen at every musical event from the Holywell Music Room to Glyndebourne and Salzburg, and the life of every party, including a memorable one given by my wife and me in the 1970s, when Isaiah buttonholed the Bloomsbury writer David (Bunny) Garnett to apologise to him for a bad review he had given 20 or 30 years earlier to Bunny's mother, the Russian translator, Constance Garnett.

They built a house above Portofino on the Ligurian Coast, and I once had the intense pleasure of Aline's engaging company at dinner and breakfast in the car train from Nice. She encouraged Isaiah to become the founding President of Wolfson College (1966-75), and was sufficiently interested in its affairs to be made an Honorary Fellow. She remained stunningly elegant, active into her eighties, and got much enjoyment as a trustee of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust from the continuing publication of Isaiah's work and letters.

Aline Elisabeth Yvonne de Gunzbourg, golfer and wife of Sir Isaiah Berlin: born London 4 January 1915; married 1934 André Strauss (died 1939; one son), 1943 Hans Halban (divorced 1955; two sons), 1956 Isaiah Berlin (died 1997); died London 25 August 2014.