NOEL COWARD described his friend Jeffery Amherst as 'gay and a trifle strained', with 'a certain quality of secrecy . . . as though he knew many things too closely.' The fifth (and last) Earl Amherst was a slight, dapper figure, whose ebullience was all the more expressive in a terse-lipped and somewhat cynical face. He was a sometime soldier, journalist, and airline pilot, the variety of his life perhaps owing something to his love of theatre - he admitted to being 'stagestruck from the age of 10'.
When Coward met him, in 1920, Amherst was about to renounce his commission in the Coldstream Guards, having served in the First World War, winning an MC. They met at a party of Ivor Novello's, and became close friends; Coward was attracted by this blond-haired, aristocratic officer, whose slight sense of mystery contributed to his charms. Soon after, in June 1921, they journeyed together to New York, each in search of new work. Amherst found his in journalism, working on the city desk of the New York Morning World, where he made friends with its drama critic, Alexander Woollcott. Amherst recalled Sunday morning parties at Sutton Place, when Woollcott played host to the literary and theatrical elite of Manhattan 'in his bright green pyjamas with all the fly-buttons undone, marshalling the guests as a ringmaster'.
One theatrical friend was Tallulah Bankhead, or 'Bellulah Blockhead', as Amherst knew her. 'What a bore she was] She could have been a great star, but she could give a wonderful performance on Monday and a disgraceful performance on Tuesday. You never knew what the hell she would do.' He noted her behaviour back at home. 'She took a cottage at Datchet, next to Eton. Eventually one of the authorities came to her and said, 'We don't at all mind you taking some of the senior boys over for a smoke or a drink or a little sex on a Sunday afternoon. That doesn't upset me. What does upset me is you giving them cocaine before chapel.' ' Life in the United States in the Twenties was colourful, to say the least.
Late in 1929, Coward informed Amherst that he was 'getting egg-bound, mentally that is', and suggested he join him on an extended tour of the Far East. Throughout early 1930, the two friends travelled from Japan, through northern China (on a freezing train, wrapped in furs and fuelled with vodka, repelling carriage invaders with Sophie Tucker on the portable gramophone) to Hong Kong, where Coward got flu and promptly wrote Private Lives in bed.
In Singapore it was Amherst's turn to be ill, and Coward amused himself playing in a repertory production of Journey's End. The Governor's wife, something of a puritan, attacked the play: 'None of our soldiers ever drank in the 1914 war, she insisted. She knew all about it as her father, a general, had told her.' Coward coolly turned to the Earl Amherst MC, and asked if he could confirm this. 'Never drew a sober breath,' answered the latter gloomily.
Back in England, Amherst decided to train as a commercial pilot. While awaiting his licence, he and Coward set off on another adventure, this time to South America, where their travels included incarceration on a river-boat for not being properly dressed for dinner, a chance meeting with Sidney Bernstein in the Andes, and herds of vicunas by Lake Titicaca, whose 'long slim necks and slightly supercilious air' reminded Amherst of a former Duchess of Marlborough.
In the late Thirties, the friends drifted apart somewhat, and Amherst concentrated on his aviation career. In 1940, he rejoined the Coldstream Guards and served in Egypt, where he got on well with the Minister of State, Richard Casey, and his wife, Maie, who was a keen amateur pilot 'and a delightfully forthright person'. He recalled one lunch with Cecil Beaton when Maie 'rather surprised us all by turning to Mr Beaton and blandly enquiring if he developed all his own photographs'. Another would-be pilot was Gladys Calthrop, Coward's set designer and also a close friend of Amherst (who leased part of his house in Cadogan Place to Calthrop). She flew 'very well', recalled Amherst, 'when she remembered where she was going'.
He once flew with her to Germany, and met Hitler at the Reichskanzleramt in Berlin. 'The double doors opened and in flounced Hitler, dressed in a short black coat and striped trousers, for all the world as if he had come to measure one for a new suit. But when he came to harangue us in his hysterical German it seemed he became 10 foot high. It was very frightening.' After the war, Amherst resumed his career in civil aviation, distinguishing himself as external affairs director of BEA, and contributing much to the company's post-war development, retiring, reluctantly, in 1966.
When I met him, Lord Amherst still lived in his small but immaculately furnished house in Cadogan Place, in central London, surrounded by surprisingly contemporary books - a Bruce Weber volume lay on the coffee table - and still, in his nineties, very much part of the modern world. He was then contemplating making use of his seat in the Lords to speak against the Government's anti- homosexual 'Clause 28', an indication of his admirably liberal views.
Clear-eyed and knowing, yet still giving off the same air of impenetrability which Coward had noted some 70 years previously, Amherst none the less contrived to be helpful. Advising me on an imminent research trip to New York, he spoke of the city as he knew it in the Twenties, 'wildly exciting to look at . . . I loved it when I first went. It wasn't dangerous, it wasn't expensive. You didn't need an awful lot of money to have an awful lot of fun. Now it's a very different city.' The world had changed, and the last Earl Amherst's travels were over.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content