Archetypal Bright Young Thing
Saturday 04 March 2006
Zita Mary Jungman: born 13 September 1903; married 1929 Arthur James (died 1981; marriage dissolved 1932); died Leixlip, Co Kildare 18 February 2006.
Zita Jungman was an integral player in the between-the-wars party whose participants were known, generically, as the Bright Young People. With her curly blonde bob and movie-starlet looks - and a wealthy father-in-law by the name of Richard Guinness - she was a vivid archetype of the playful Twenties.
Yet, like a character out of a novel by Evelyn Waugh (a writer himself obsessively in love with her younger sister, Teresa "Baby" Jungman), Zita lurched from the Cecil Beaton-photographed fripperies of the 1920s into the present danger of the 1940s when, as an ambulance driver in France, she was very nearly captured by the Nazis.
Zita, born in 1903, and Teresa, born in 1908, were the daughters of Nico Jungman, an impoverished Dutch artist, and his wife, Beatrice. But their circumstances changed drastically when their parents divorced in 1918 and their mother then married Richard Guinness. Suddenly rich, the two young women, emerging as debutantes into the heady post-First World War world, relished the freedom that being young, beautiful, and rich in London had to offer.
Together with Eleanor Smith, daughter of the Earl of Birkenhead, and Elizabeth Ponsonby, daughter of the future Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, they started the fashion for treasure hunts and masquerades that defined high society in the 1920s. In her book Cocktails and Laughter (1983), Loelia, Duchess of Westminster recalls Zita as "a master of unusual ideas", persuading the Hovis factory to bake clues into loaves like Chinese fortune cookies. She even got Lord Beaverbrook to print a special edition of the Evening Standard, complete with mocked-up headlines and more clues.
"We were all so over-excited," Zita said later. "We were all talking about ourselves always" - adding that her diaries of the time were filled with references to everyone "screaming with joy". Incarnate in the deluxe gloss and sleek reflection of Beaton's photographs, the sisters entertained on a lavish scale - funded by Guinness money - at their stepfather's house at 19 Great Cumberland Place, where they were at the heart of a newly liberated set which mixed middle-class newcomers such as Cecil Beaton with aristocratic aesthetes such as Stephen Tennant.
Indeed, it was at the Tennants' Wiltshire manor, Wilsford, that Zita and "Baby" Jungman indulged in their young host's mania for dressing-up. Edith Olivier, the Wiltshire writer with an older eye on the proceedings, recorded events; at the same time, noting Zita's own slight distance from the evening's partying as the guests waited - and waited - for their host to appear:
Baby Jungman in silver trousers and tunic. Zita wouldn't dress (tho' terrified at not having) . . . At 9.30 Osbert and Sachie [Sitwell], Siegfried Sassoon [Tennant's lover] and Willie [William] Walton led the fainting guests to the hall . . . Stephen at last came in a white Russian suit with silver train and a bandeau round his head.
Then they all played hide and seek in the dark. The next morning, "Zita & Baby very fleet & agile", Beaton composed a human sandwich of Stephen's glamorous guests, piling them one on top of the other and covering them with a leopardskin rug.
On a subsequent and even more extravagant weekend, Tennant had Zita and Baby, and the rest of his guests, don specially made 18th-century costumes and parade on the bridge over the river that ran through the estate, provoking one of the most extraordinary, and perhaps decadent, images of inter-war high society. On his arrival at Wilsford - finding the proceedings being filmed by a tall young footman in dark glasses - Lytton Strachey declared them all "strange creatures - with just a few feathers where brains should be".
Bright Young antics got quite extreme. At another house party, the notorious Brian Howard launched a characteristic practical joke. "The other night I with Eleanor Smith burgled the Jungmans in the middle of the night" - climbing in their window and stealing one of the girls' pearl necklaces - "and they aren't quite sure whether it was, or wasn't burglars even now!" crowed Howard.
Sensing a more serious spirit, Olivier became a close friend of Zita's, a confidante while Waugh and others pursued her sister Baby. (On his death, Waugh's prayerbook was found to contain a pressed orchid labelled "19 January 1930" - the night he met Baby.) Zita, for her part, was romantically pursued by Sacheverell Sitwell, but was said to favour his brother Osbert (who was anyhow homosexual). He remained inured to her charms, however, and Zita wrote mournfully in her diary that he was much more interested in Christabel Aberconway: "the two are to be found lolling in each other's arms spiritually if not entirely physically at any hour".
None the less, she found her own match in the shape of Arthur James, a grandson of the Duke of Wellington, whom she married in 1929. "She did as I asked," wrote Olivier,
and walked up the aisle alone, with a very long train, an exquisite dress, very deep yellowish white, a Russian crown of orange blossom . . . Two tiny bridesmaids after another long gap.
The marriage did not last, however, and in 1932 Arthur James remarried. Zita never did.
Zita Jungman's great consolation was her Roman Catholicism - and her sense of duty and caritas was put to the test during the Second World War. In 1939, she began driving an ambulance in London, and, in April 1940, joined a Canadian Polish ambulance unit in France. She dined with Edith Olivier on the eve of her departure. "We talked much of religion and she is less bigotted [sic]," concluded Olivier. "I am sure that this war must draw all us Christians together." In the blackout, they left the Etoile restaurant, walking through a darkened city. "The houses shut out the sky," Olivier wrote.
Months later, Jungman experienced the most frightening episode of her life. As the German invasion of France began, her unit was trapped in a remote corner of Brittany. Despite her warning her superiors of the imminent danger, it was only at the last moment that she and her fellow drivers were given the order to retreat - only then to find half the population of Brittany trying to cross the Loire. Desperate, they made plans to tear off their uniforms and, in mufti, pose as Americans should they be captured. They reached La Rochelle - only to find that the last Royal Navy ship had left. But, by luck, they were found by two British officers sent to rescue people left behind.
The experience marked Jungman indelibly. Back in England, she met Olivier:
She couldn't tell all . . . but I see the result is to make her suspect 5th Column everywhere. She has no confidence even in England. Thinks the Foreign Office is full of Quislings! . . . Wants the 6,000 Poles who have landed to go to Ireland. Says they are the only people who will never give in to the Germans . . . Her line is that of Elijah, "And I only am left."
Even two years later, she was still talking "in a Defeatist way which always surprises me as she works more than anyone for the War", wrote Olivier:
She has been like this ever since France and I think the shock of seeing a whole nation give in, was too much for her.
Zita Jungman's life thereafter was a quiet one of retirement, living with her sister in Ireland. When I wrote a piece for The Independent on Sunday to coincide with the release of Stephen Fry's 2003 film Bright Young Things (in researching for which, Fry had spoken to both Jungmans), the newspaper received a letter from Desmond Guinness, reminding it, and me, that Zita Jungman had achieved rather more in her life than party-going; and, as Edith Olivier noted, her friend "never moved with the herd".
Nevertheless, it will be the image of Zita, and her sister, perched in full rococo costume on a wooden bridge over the Avon, that will remain as an evocative emblem of a strangely innocent age.
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