OBITUARY : Barbara Skelton

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Some women are different things to many men but Barbara Skelton seemed to be the same with them all. At first sight she was kittenish, amusingly troublesome, irresistibly attractive. Only later did it emerge what a challenging woman she was: selfish, sulky, socially unmanageable, agreeable only when she was in the mood - the victim of the incurable boredom which fostered her promiscuity and her notorious rudeness. She was perhaps the most celebrated femme fatale of that generation which took its first pleasures between air-raid and all-clear, and her early admirers included Peter Quennell, Feliks Topolski and Osbert Lancaster.

Indeed, although she cited Erich von Stroheim as representing her physical ideal, and although she extended her affections to a king and a policeman, reflecting the while that "sex is a great leveller", Skelton was happiest tormenting writers and artists. Alan Ross, editor of the London Magazine, Bob Silvers, founder of the New York Review of Books, the journalist John Raymond, the cinephile John Sutro and the painter Michael Wishart, were all at one stage ensnared. Kenneth Tynan told her, "Sex means smack and beautiful means bottom and always will"; and there was even a lesbian encounter one bored Paris afternoon, but "I just saw her as another man with breasts."

Yet, whatever their tastes and accomplishments, these suitors had to take her as they found her. She declined to accommodate and scorned well-bred dissimulation; her rudeness was a function of her honesty and it was this restless candour that imparted vitality and persuasiveness to her other career as a novelist and autobiographer.

Although she numbered Richard Brinsley Sheridan among her antecedents, her immediate family was unliterary. Her great-aunt Gerda survived the wreckage of the Titanic and, singing hymns as she was rowed to safety, was later commended for bravery. Her father was an army officer with an interest in cricket and actresses and her mother a gaiety girl who boasted eyes the blue of blue hydrangeas.

They met while she was appearing in The Merry Widow and Barbara was born in 1916. Family finances suffered with the Wall Street crash and the Skeltons moved around Kent and Berkshire before settling in London and producing another daughter, Brenda.

Barbara was a passionately recalcitrant child who ran at her mother with a carving knife, and following her expulsion from a convent school she enrolled early, and like some fictional adventuress, in the academy of life. She modelled in a dress shop, began an affair with a wealthy friend of her father's and had her first abortion. She was subsequently in India, where her relations with an officer led to his court martial.

Back in London she turned her beautiful shape to profit by modelling for Schiaparelli, and with the outbreak of war worked as a truck-driver and secretary. However, wartime drudgery was not for her and Donald Maclean sponsored her application to the cipher department of the Foreign Office. Posted to the embassy in Cairo, she beguiled King Farouk, who told her approvingly that she was "a real minx" and flogged her outside the palace with the cord of his dressing-gown. She said, "I would have preferred a splayed cane." In the later stages of the war, and once again in London, she lived with Peter Quennell, who christened her "Baby" and introduced her to their neighbour, Cyril Connolly, founder and editor of Horizon.

Connolly offered a compound of qualities as unusual as it proved attractive. He was corpulently unappealing, yet a great literary stylist, a one-man show of artistic vanities and unpatriotic aestheticism, a baby tireless in his manipulation of female admirers; and he became the love of her life. They were married in 1950 and spent five turbulent years in "Oak Coffin", the cottage she bought for pounds 400 in Kent. The scenes were terrible, yet none of their friends could confidently deny that the Connollys' harsh words did not conceal, or even perversely express, a strong bond of feeling.

With preparation for her first novel, A Young Girl's Touch (1956), she became involved with the publisher George Weidenfeld, whose hirsute body she later described to the world and whom she treated somewhat harshly: "There was hardly any pleasure in his company except for the instinctive animal desire to be with one's mate." When the Connollys divorced, Weidenfeld was cited as co-respondent and soon afterwards became Barbara's second husband, only again to seek divorce, with Connolly this time cited as the co-respondent.

This amorous carousel was the talk of the drawing-rooms of higher Bohemia, but Barbara's third marriage to the physicist Derek Jackson, millionaire son of the founder of the News of the World, went largely unremarked, despite her admission that it was "not for love that I married Professor Jackson". That union also foundered but alimony brought security and some measure of stability, and, apart from an interval in New York, Barbara divided most of the remainder of her life between properties in Paris and Provence.

Unable to have children, she adopted instead a menagerie of exotic pets and abandoned fiction in favour of memoirs. Tears Before Bedtime (1987) and Weep No More (1989) constitute an engaging literary achievement, not so much as chronicles of their time, but as comic and cruel self-portraits recounted in a random, devil-may-care tone appropriate to their insouciant heroine and her adventures. If she is unsparing of the famous friends and enemies she made, she is no more romantic about herself. And although her books are almost depressing, they are also very funny. Had she done nothing but render Cyril Connolly as a great comic archetype she would still deserve literary recognition.

In 1993, to some consternation, she returned to London and lived in a flat above the King's Road with two Siamese cats. I interviewed her for a book I was then writing and found her a strangely disturbing hostess who complained incessantly about money and resented London, whither she had returned to be near her friends, "although you may think I don't have many left here, either". There seemed to be a complicity between herself and her predatory pets, and, like familiars, they shared their mistress's eyes, which were not only the most beautiful I have ever seen, huge, lavender- hued and lozenge-shaped, but also seemed to be so penetrating as to reduce everything in their range to transluscency.

Her figure remained shapely, her bearing agile; decay, when it came, was sudden, with a brain tumour, and in her last days she was nursed by Cyril Connolly's daughter, Cressida.

Clive Fisher

Barbara Skelton, writer: born Maidenhead 26 June 1916; married 1950 Cyril Connolly (marriage dissolved 1956), 1956 George Weidenfeld (marriage dissolved 1961), 1966 Derek Jackson (marriage dissolved); died Pershore, Worcestershire 27 January 1996.

Comments