Obituary: Anne Cumming

Felicity Anne Cumming, writer and public relations officer: born Walton-on-Thames 14 December 1917; married 1938 Henry Lyon Young (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1948), 1948 Richard Mason (marriage dissolved 1948); died London 27 August 1993.

AT THE age of eight on the beach at Juan-les-Pins, Anne Cumming heard her mother remarking, 'Look] Zelda Fitzgerald has had her hair bobbed just like mine]' For the rest of her life, Cumming retained the unerring knack of finding the epicentre of the latest trend, movement or cafe society.

Born Felicity Anne Cumming in 1917, the grand-daughter of Sir Grimble Groves, a brewery-owner and Conservative MP for Altrincham, she grew up in wealthy surroundings. Her grandfather's fortune freed her from any mundane preoccupations over domestic and financial considerations. Her childhood was spent in South Africa where her father bought a farm and when her parents divorced she was educated at Horsely Towers, a St Trinian's-like establishment in Kent, before attending finishing schools in Germany and Switzerland. In 1935 she was presented at court.

She met her first husband, Henry Lyon Young, while studying drama at Dartington School under Michael Chekhov, nephew of the playwright. All three left England for the United States where they intended setting up a company. This intention was frustrated by two things: Chekhov's death and the outbreak of war.

In 1948 she was divorced and married to the best-selling novelist Richard Mason, author of The World of Suzy Wong. Thereafter she was known as Felicity Mason, but wrote as Anne Cumming. But as this marriage broke down, she evoked comparisons with Lady Hester Stanhope by undertaking a series of daring journeys by bus and train across the Near and Middle East, always travelling alone. This fuelled her lifelong fascination for the exotic and the erotic, or as she called it 'The Other'. Eventually this dominated to such an extent that her life and her home were filled with outsiders, eccentrics and iconoclastsfrom all walks of life. She was a great catalyst and helpful conspirator in other people's affairs, be they social, sexual or professional.

During this period she spent much time in Tangier and Paris where she befriended the Beat Poets, the novelist William Burroughs (who became a lifelong friend), the writer and artist Brion Gysin (whom she considered her adoptive brother) and Paul and Jane Bowles. These varied experiences she wrote up in her erotic travelogue The Love Quest (1991).

In 1958, she went to live in Rome, taking over a flat and maid from a friend, the novelist Sybille Bedford. This was the time when the Italian film industry was coming into its own and Cumming, fluent in French and Italian, was in great demand as PR, dialogue coach and occasional actress.

For five years she lived with the set designer Beni Montressor but thereafter refused to involve herself deeply with anyone else, enjoying instead a series of casual affairs with younger men. This she was to write up, scandalously (it was 1977), in her first book, The Love Habit. Both her books are distinguished by an outrageous candour and her trenchant ironic wit, which was never unkind. She had a shining vivacity and tremendous social courage: at a dinner party, a male guest fainted when she described the details of an Italian friend's sex-change operation she had witnessed in Casablanca.

To meet socially, especially in her later years when with great elan she resuscitated her old hats from the Fifties, she appeared aristocratic and entirely conventional. It was her conversation and behaviour which was designed to shock. At tea in the Lanesborough Hotel, wearing a tweed jacket, cravat and trilby, she might remark: 'Today I'm wearing my lightly lesbian look.' Her dinner party guests arrived not knowing whether they would be dining with Italian princesses, such as her friend Daccia Maraini, literati such as Gore Vidal and Eugene Walter or April Ashley. At the end of her fifties Cumming had a facelift; not because she needed it, but because she told friends that she had had such a wonderful time in that decade that she wanted to live it all over again.

As she became older, her activities appeared more bizarre, though they were in fact no less shocking than those of her earlier life. In 1992, she appeared topless in the Sunday Sport under the title 'Stunnagran]' (On the strength of this she was offered a job as a topless dancer in Las Vegas.) Even this year, after suffering two bouts of pneumonia, she put her pearl necklace and drop-earrings to distinguished use by appearing naked on Channel 4 in the world's first nude chat show. Her opening gambit, 'I'm here to strike a blow for the OAPs,' got a rousing reception.

Even then she knew she was dying. She had been diagnosed HIV positive in 1986 in New York where she lived after leaving Rome. Ironically, for one whose personal life was an open book, she told no one of her illness, preferring to live life and not be perceived a victim. Within the last two years she went to Brazil, Uzbekistan, Oman, India and Russia.

She could have died discreetly as many old ladies of her age and class choose to do, in the private hospital of St John and St Elizabeth. She discharged herself after one day, declaring that she did not want to be surrounded by old fogies and asked to be transferred to the London Lighthouse, a place for which she had the highest praise. She was a fighter who died angry and emotional, retaining her power to provoke surprise and admiration to the end.

(Photograph omitted)

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