Peter Townend

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The Independent Online

Kenneth Peter Townend, social editor and genealogist: born Leeds 26 April 1921; died London 16 July 2001.

For more than three decades, Peter Townend, social editor of The Tatler, regulated the ebbs and flows of debutante life. Indeed, but for him, the debs would long ago have ebbed entirely away.

His prodigious memory enabled him to place precisely, with dates of birth and marriage and details of issue, anyone he met whom he had first encountered in the pages of Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, or Burke's Landed Gentry, or the Almanach de Gotha.

Townend's age and his own antecedents were classified information. He occasionally alluded to mishaps in his family's fortunes which had prevented his going to Eton. The son of a farmer and later army riding instructor, he was educated at King's School, Pontefract. He served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and afterwards joined Burke's Peerage. He stayed at Burke's, becoming editor in 1960 and producing several editions of their works, until he was replaced by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd in 1972.

He had become social editor of The Tatler while still at Burke's. As a result he was at every party, and at all the other great social events. Self-appointed and unpaid, he then embarked on his moonlighting career of debutante regulation.

Every year he wrote – all his letters were handwritten in turquoise ink – to hundreds of mothers of girls about to be 18 suggesting that their daughters might like to come out. Each spring he convened lunches for these mothers at which they would exchange the names of their daughters and thus ensure a flow of invitations. He also kept a list, which he would provide to the mothers, of young men whom he thought suitable – Debs' Delights. For four months of the year, for so long as he remained on the list, a Deb's Delight could be assured of food and drink on every night of the week except Sunday. Townend himself survived largely on canapés in the evening, and on lunches with his List alumni.

Those on his List, and the debs, and their parents, often became devoted friends. He was completely straightforward, with very firm ethical standards, particularly in matters of etiquette, which he saw as an advanced form of ethics. He was often regarded by those who did not know him properly as a gossip columnist and a gossip, but in fact he was neither: he was very discreet. None the less, his lunch companions could take their leave with the impression that they had had a really good gossip. Townend achieved this effect because he recounted any story with relish, embellished by his own burlesque intonation and eloquent facial expressions, together with excellent mimicry.

Apart from social life and The Tatler, his other great interest was the theatre. He was an observant critic in all of these areas.

Townend was a demanding guest, unable to understand why arrangements which suited him might not suit everyone else. Not driving himself, he would submit to public transport (except London buses) with extreme reluctance, preferring to require from his hosts a comprehensive chauffeuring service and itinerary. He also found incomprehensible, and frequently took umbrage as a result, if any of his friends sought to change a plan. One friend rang him to say that as his grandmother had died he had to go home and would not be able to have a drink that evening. Townend responded plaintively, "Oh. Oh. What am I to do this evening?" When, some time later, the friend joked about this with Townend, Townend exclaimed, "Well, they don't bury people at night, do they?"

But he was also wonderfully kind. He had no malice. He was, in fact, a thoroughly good man, as well as an entertaining one, with a touching enjoyment of friendship. Even his most pungent criticisms of those who had slighted him had the air of pantomime.

One of these was Betty Kenward, who wrote "Jennifer's Diary", the social pages of Queen (later Harpers & Queen). Townend was baffled by her evident contempt. Although they saw each other all the time at the parties that they both covered, she made it plain that she regarded his position as infinitely inferior, and ignored his presence altogether. Asked whether Kenward had ever spoken to him, Townend would recall, with customary gusto, the occasion on which he had held a door open for her. "She swept by without a word," he concluded every time. Like the Hollywood feud between Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, it was an enmity worthy of dramatisation.

Peter Townend was sometimes the victim of mistaken identity. Taken to the Radcliffe Infirmary after becoming ill at the end of a party at the Gridiron Club in Oxford in the 1970s, he was mistaken by the nurses for Group Captain Peter Townsend, to whom he bore no resemblance.

More recently, two years ago, The Times recorded the death of another Peter Townend, whose funeral was to be held at Chelsea Old Church – very much Townend's own stamping ground. Before Townend heard of his namesake's death a deb rang on Friday morning and inquired rather hesitantly, "Are you all right?", apparently under the impression that the death notice might merely indicate that its subject was seriously unwell.

On the following day Townend attended a birthday party and was shocked to find on arrival that there was a line through his name on the list of guests. One dowager, spotting him across the marquee, exclaimed in a voice audible to Townend, "I've seen a ghost", and had to be led to a sofa. At the subsequent funeral, it was only when (Townend alleged) Christopher Gibbs began his address, "Peter Townend was known and loved by all of us here but of course he will be chiefly remembered for his detective stories", that two of the other Townend's friends began to look furtively around, and one of them made his excuses and left.

In recent years Townend's role at The Tatler was reduced, but his deb activities continued unchecked. His relations with some Tatler editors were strained, but he was very lucky with his last editor, Geordie Greig, with whom he got on extremely well. When Townend suffered a severe heart attack some months ago, in a restaurant near The Tatler, the ambulancemen asked him who his next of kin was. He pointed to Greig.

Greig visited Townend frequently in hospital, bringing a copy of the latest Tatler, upon which Townend commented with his usual brio, just a few hours before his death.

Richard Oldfield

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