Stuart Preston

'New York Times' art critic better known for his wartime London society life as 'the Sergeant'

Stuart Duncan Preston, writer and art critic: born 1915; died Paris 9 February 2005.

Stuart Preston was for many years the art critic of The New York Times, his urbane reporting of exhibitions keeping him at the centre of the New York art world for 25 years, and assuring him the friendship of figures such as Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler, the photographer George Platt Lynes and the actress Ruth Ford.

But he is best remembered as a legendary figure who trailed through London society in the Second World War, and was known as "the Sergeant", or even "the Sarge". He was indeed serving in the US Army at the time, attached to Headquarters, but his good looks (which included earlobes that trailed lazily into the cheek), his huge eyes and round head and his bassoon-deep voice propelled him into the heart of society.

Emerald Cunard was excited to have him on her list, announcing, "I'm expecting the Sergeant after dinner, isn't that delightful?" and worrying when he did not appear: "I wonder where the Sergeant is? He promised faithfully to come if he could." She was devoted to Preston, though she complained that he never said anything memorable, to which Harold Acton replied that he did not have to - he was a character from a Henry James novel. As the Paris-based author James Lord put it:

There is some truth in this, but Stuart's story would have turned out to be of the Master's more melancholy . . . those few brilliant, exhilarating years of social glory . . . laid up a heavy burden of nostalgia for the decades to come.

When Sybil Colefax reported the news that the Sergeant was ill and confined to bed in St George's Hospital, there were cries of lamentation amongst her guests. London's beau monde hastened to his bedside. King George VI is said to have exclaimed: "Every day I meet brigadiers and generals. Why can't I meet this sergeant that everyone is talking about?"

Stuart Duncan Preston Jnr was the elder son of Stuart Duncan Preston, a Harvard graduate of 1906, and his wife Madeleine O'Brien. His parents were rich and well connected and he was educated at Yale (in the class of '37). Evelyn Waugh characterised his father in 1949 as "Spats, noisy, I thought a little tipsy".

By 1938 the young Preston had gravitated to London as a friend of Harold Nicolson's. That summer Nicolson introduced his protégé to James Lees-Milne, saying: "The next time we see Stuart over here, he will be in uniform." And so he was. Preston arrived in London in December 1942, settling on a straw mattress in a billet in North Audley Street. He was taken up by Nancy Mitford and the Duff Coopers, finding Diana "wondrous, incredibly flippant, brilliant and witty". Weekends at Panshanger, lunches at the Connaught or Brooks's, and an evening at Argyll House with Sybil Colefax caused him great excitement. Lees-Milne noted that he was "attentive to the old and throws off anecdotes and literary quotations like pearls before swine". According to James Pope-Hennessy, he wore a "permanent smile of appreciation".

The famous illness began in February 1943 and lasted five weeks. Preston went down with jaundice ("grey" now, rather than "saffron") and was admitted to St George's Hospital, where he was blissfully happy in the heart of London, able to see Apsley House from his bed. Stephen Spender came twice a day, partly to discuss his "poetic perplexities" with a willing listener, Harold Nicolson would come from his office to hold his hand, "Chips" Channon popped in, the Marquess of Queensberry recited Shakespeare sonnets at the bedside, Logan Pearsall Smith (soon besotted), Raymond Mortimer and Eddy Sackville-West were there, and Lady Cunard arrived while the men in the ward were washing. As Lees-Milne described it:

The whole of London congregates round the Sergeant's bed. Like Louis XIV he holds levées. Instead of meeting now in Heywood Hill's shop, the intelligentsia and society congregate in public ward no 3 of St George's Hospital.

Some became more than just attracted to him. Alan Lennox-Boyd, then a Parliamentary Secretary, tried to kiss him at Chips Channon's house in Belgrave Square, where he was staying, but Rex Whistler walked in on them. Preston was indignant and refused to treat the situation as a laughing matter. Lennox-Boyd almost had a nervous breakdown as a result.

In April 1943 Preston departed on a commando course, for which he was ill fitted, and a year later he sailed for the Continent, leaving behind him a reputation that would haunt him all his life. "He is a feather on the stream of life," concluded Lees-Milne:

Feathers can be decorative but they are easily blown about. But he is a very clever feather all the same.

From his perch in London society, it was only a matter of time before he was drawn upon for a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel. Alas, from there, he found himself further immortalised in the diaries of Waugh's diaries, and worst of all, in his opinion, those of James Lees-Milne, the first volume of which was published in 1975. Far from turning this to his advantage, he felt himself mocked, and in his later years no one called him "Sergeant" in his presence without redress.

After the war, he returned to New York and set himself up in a smart apartment on East 71st Street (he later moved later to a grander one on East 72nd Street). By 1950, Waugh was writing to Nancy Mitford: "Sergeant Preston is as bald as an egg and very watery-eyed. I suspect he drinks." In 1961 he caricatured him as Lieutenant Padfield ("the Loot") in Unconditional Surrender:

The Loot knew them all. He was in every picture gallery, every bookshop, every club, every hotel. He was also in every inaccessible castle in Scotland, at the sick bed of every veteran artist and politician, in the dressing-room of every leading actress and in every university common-room, and he expressed his thanks to his hosts and hostesses not with the products of the PX stores but with the publications of Sylvia Beach and sketches by Fuseli.

This produced a characteristically loyal rebuke from Mitford: "But you are horrid about the good old Serge & I'm afraid he'll mind."

Preston consistently denied that he was the ghost of Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan's memoirs, The Glitter and the Gold, published in 1953, but, whatever the precise arrangements, he had an editorial hand in that book, for which he is acknowledged in the preface. Consuelo wrote of her woes as the reluctant wife of the ninth Duke of Marlborough. The book was a best-seller, and, even if it was biased sharply against the Duke, it gave a valuable portrait of Edwardian society at the end of the 19th century. At times Preston was forced to remonstrate with Madame Balsan, questioning whether she had really told the Tsar of Russia that the people were starving and might revolt. "I was there. You werr'unt," she replied, and the story was not deleted.

As an art critic, he leaves less of an impression. He wrote extensively about artists such as Jackson Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning, but did not make a marked difference to their careers. He was the author of various art monographs. In 1945, he wrote an introduction to Titian's Europa in the Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts and, in 1953, a study of El Greco. In 1966 came Farewell to the Old House, a history of the Metropolitan Opera House between 1883 and 1966. In 1972 appeared his Edouard Vuillard, and in 1975 he wrote the commentary for Simbari, a lavishly produced celebration of the work of the contemporary Italian artist Nicola Simbari. These volumes comprise his published works. In 1958 his portrait was painted by Andy Warhol.

Preston adored France. "I read Proust as a child, and I began a lifelong love affair with France," he said. Yet he lived in New York until 1976. When he did move, Harold Acton commented: "What did Henry James say? All good Americans go to Paris to die?" Certainly his life thereafter did not match his heyday, but he did himself a disservice by bemoaning the lack of the once fashionable invitations, to the point that fewer came.

There was no one kinder to a researcher. Casually, he would mention: "Look in Jean Giraudoux . . . You will find a description . . . I beg you to consult Lord Bertie's memoirs . . . Louise de Vilmorin! You can apply all the adjectives to her - brilliant, beautiful, mischievous, cruel, they all fit." He was invariably right and his clues never failed to lead to pots of biographical gold.

Occasionally he was resurrected in the cause of research. In 1982, at the age of 90, Lady Diana Cooper invited him to lunch in the garden of Warwick Avenue, when her granddaughter Artemis was researching the letters between herself and Duff. Preston was in his element, basking at the feet of his heroine, pocket histories of long-forgotten figures tripping off his tongue. As he left, he proffered a Diana book for inscription. Innocent of mischief, she began to write: "To my dear old Sarge". The other guests waited in horror for the reaction.

In Paris he entertained at the Travellers' Club, and was solicitous to Diana Mosley, a much-loved friend and virtual neighbour, until her death in 2003. He made occasional forays to London. The former Adonis had become a dishevelled figure occasionally to be seen, at the 100th birthday party for Frances Partridge or attending memorial services, dressed in an old overcoat with velvet collar. He was not well enough to witness himself depicted on stage in Hugh Massingberd's production of the Lees-Milne diaries, Ancestral Voices.

I have a curious, lasting memory of him - when he arrived at his own request at my wedding in France. My best man and ushers observed a shadow pass across the door, obscuring the sunlight that streamed into our lunchtime estaminet. The bassoon voice enquired in American French: "Est-ce qu'il y a la possibilité de quelque chose à boire?"

Hugo Vickers

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