Priscilla Bibesco

Goddaughter of Proust and granddaughter of Asquith who was lampooned by Simon Raven
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The Independent Online

Priscilla Bibesco was Marcel Proust's goddaughter. Her father, Prince Antoine Bibesco, was one of the writer's dearest friends - a model for Saint-Loup. She was born in 1920, two years before the death at 51 of Proust, who said, "It is in this little girl that all that we know now continues."

Priscilla Helen Alexandra Bibesco: born London 5 June 1920; married 1944 Mikhail Padev (marriage dissolved 1946), 1958 Simon Hodgson (died 1992); died Paris 13 October 2004.

Priscilla Bibesco was Marcel Proust's goddaughter. Her father, Prince Antoine Bibesco, was one of the writer's dearest friends - a model for Saint-Loup. She was born in 1920, two years before the death at 51 of Proust, who said, "It is in this little girl that all that we know now continues."

But Priscilla was to grow up fiercely independent and she never mentioned the Proust connection. The reason was that she disliked her father. Antoine, a good-looking Romanian aristocrat, who was to become Minister at Washington, was also rather heartless. Priscilla never forgave him for reading out her private diaries to a group of diners in his Paris house.

She was to be closer to her mother, Elizabeth, who was the daughter of the prime minister Henry Asquith and his second wife, Margot Tennant. But that was not an easy relationship either. Extremely intelligent, Elizabeth was an addictive drinker, and Priscilla had to face being brought out as a debutante by a mother who, taking Priscilla to dances, would fall down drunk at her feet.

Rebecca West recalled knowing Priscilla's mother in Bucharest before the Second World War when the Bibescos still held large properties there. "You know, I think Elizabeth was immensely gifted," said West:

I think she knew what was happening in Eastern Europe. I remember she used to sit in this café, and just face the wall. And it wasn't coffee she was drinking.

Elizabeth was to publish several books of short stories and novels, but, as a lifelong friend of Priscilla's said, "Antoine made her write. He liked making people perform." Priscilla used this talent she had inherited all too rarely, her life being taken up by other adventures.

When war broke out in 1939, Priscilla was in Romania. Leaving her mother behind and determined to escape the pro-German country, Priscilla hitch-hiked her way through Europe to Lebanon. The writer Anita Leslie, in her 1983 volume of memoirs A Story Half Told, recalls:

Priscilla was 23 when she arrived in Beirut and various Secret Service departments immediately sought to employ her. I was ordered to give her a cover job on the Eastern Times. This I did, cunningly thinking up a column called "Events of the Week". Any intelligent girl could write it out in half an hour. The trouble with Priscilla was that not only was she intelligent but also exceedingly attractive. Apart from supplying information to her office and gigglingly writing out the weekly column with me she also collected a string of admirers. And these consisted of rather important colonels of fighting regiments. When they went off to the Western Desert she was prone to disappear also and the Secret Service became rather cross.

On the boat back to England at the end of the war, Priscilla met Mikhail (or Michael) Padev, a dark-haired Bulgarian whom she married. Romanians, it is known, do not get on with Bulgarians and Antoine Bibesco remarked sarcastically, "He's the most charming Bulgarian." Padev worked for the BBC but the marriage did not last. "I think I did love him for a while," Priscilla later said. But saddest for Priscilla was the death of her mother in Romania at the age of 48. She had so looked forward to seeing her again and then, three months later, in July 1945, her grandmother Margot died, broken by the death of Elizabeth. In spite of all this, Priscilla remained a private person, and not one openly to display grief.

Antoine Bibesco - whom the playwright Enid Bagnold was famously in love with - died in 1951. From her father, Priscilla inherited an 18th-century house in Paris of eye-catching beauty. Forty-five Quai Bourbon stood like the prow of a ship - facing the rear of Notre Dame - at one end of the Ile St Louis. Priscilla made the magnificent first-floor apartment her home, letting off the various other apartments, except one which her cousin Princess Marthe Bibesco had for her life. " J'aime le double luxe," Marthe said when one of her books became a best-seller and she moved into the Paris Ritz whilst still keeping Quai Bourbon.

Priscilla was generous to her relations although in the post-war years the Romanian properties had been confiscated. She fell on relatively hard times but continued a series of romantic liaisons. Even her close friends did not know exactly who the people were - apart from Arthur Koestler, which became widely known amongst her circle. Then, in 1958, Priscilla married a fair-haired Englishman 11 years younger than herself - fair hair being Priscilla's preference.

Simon Hodgson was the son of a company director who lived in Derbyshire. However, Hodgson was a myth-maker and told himself that he came from a long line of distinguished ancestors which included Byron's sister. He was unreliable with money and Priscilla had to endure a year when Hodgson was given a prison sentence for obtaining credit as an undischarged bankrupt. They were friendly with the writer Simon Raven until he lampooned them in his 1964 novel The Rich Pay Late, as the Con and the Contessa.

Priscilla showed immense courage and dignity in sticking by her wayward husband and put up with his inventions even when they involved her own family, like, "Proust tore out the last page of A la Recherche and handed it to Antoine." There were occasions, though, when she was driven to utter, "Oh, shut up, Simon."

Later, Hodgson became more stable and both lived in the apartment on Quai Bourbon. Priscilla's Paris friends included Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana. Repartee was Priscilla's forte, as over lunch when Diana, indulging her loves of Hitler and his entourage, said, "Goebbels had the most beautiful blue eyes", to which Priscilla responded, "Such a pity, then, he had to murder all those children."

In spite of their different ages, it was Priscilla who became the widow, Hodgson dying 12 years before her of cancer. Throughout her life she never used her title of Princess and never dropped a connection. Few knew that her godparents were Marcel Proust and Queen Alexandra. Only in recent years did she write an article (in Revue des Deux Mondes) on her outspoken grandmother Margot Asquith.

Towards the end, Priscilla had strokes and became absent-minded. She lost money through carelessness - drawing out large sums of cash and walking home with her handbag open. The pity is that she never got round to writing her memoirs, which she keenly wanted to do in her last years: whether she would have revealed as much as her godfather did of his friends, we shall never know.

Simon Blow



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