Obituary: Lesley Cunliffe

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The Independent Online
Lesley Cunliffe, who was born with every virtue and talent a good fairy could bestow, has died, aged 51, with her potential apparently unfulfilled. While she did not have the child or produce the body of work her admirers awaited with mounting frustration (procrastination was her greatest enemy), she left a more subtle legacy - in the remarkable number of friends and acolytes to whom her encouragement and direction was pivotal in their own successes. Like Sir John Betjeman, she had the gift of seeing the divine in the ordinary. Her variation of this gift was in her ability to communicate to others her vision of the divine in themselves.

She was born Lesley Hume in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her mother, Patricia Spooner, had careers in fashion, public relations and real estate and her father, Robert Hume, was an air force officer who then worked on building projects around the country.

She was educated at various Roman Catholic schools in America, and spent time in Alaska and in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, before returning to New York, where she worked in television as assistant to Gabe Pressman of NBC News. In 1971 she married Marcus Cunliffe, the English-born author of The Literature of the United States (1954), who was 23 years her senior and then Professor of American Studies at Sussex University.

With him she wrote the presidential biographies for Burke's Presidential Families of the USA (1975), voted Reference Book of the Year by the US Library Journal.

In 1979, the year she separated from Marcus Cunliffe, she began her English journalistic career as a tea lady on Weekend magazine. She was swiftly head-hunted by Ann Barr to Harper's & Queen, where she became a sub-editor before Barr introduced her to the writer Craig Brown, having an inkling that the two would do well to collaborate on articles. The collaboration bore fruit in book form - The Dirty Bits (1981) and The Book of Royal Lists (1983). Cunliffe went on to do A Child's Passport to Paris (1985) before taking up various editorial positions - Beauty Editor of Tatler (1985-89), Beauty Editor of American Vogue (1989), Contributing Editor of English Vogue (1990-96) - and becoming a freelance contributor to numerous publications including the Times Literary Supplement, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and Evening Standard.

Her work for Vogue was characterised by her huge bank of knowledge - she was entirely self-educated and spent hours of every day engrossed in everything from medical encyclopaedias to histories of the police force to the interviews of Studs Terkel and Tony Parker, with whom she had much in common, being easily as sympathetic and extractive an interviewer.

At Vogue she would be called upon at the drop of a hat to write a profile of Norman Parkinson or the Sitwells, as she was probably the only person in the building who had all the knowledge necessary at her disposal. It was better, in truth, to get her to write with an urgent deadline, as procrastination tended to make her make a misery of anything with a long deadline. Her style sparkled with intelligence, knowledge and wit.

Her physical impact was always dramatic. She was 30 when I first met her in 1975 but jaws were still dropping open in the little coastal town of Cadaques in Spain where she had gone to recuperate from TB. Lesley Cunliffe viewed her looks, correctly, as a genetic fait accompli rather than an achievement and as therefore unworthy of praise. She was completely "unlooks-ist" about others. I remember congratulating her on her appearance, to which she replied matter-of-factly, "Oh Mary, thank you darling, but there was a time before I got TB when I could be certain that I would always be the best- looking person, male or female, in any room. Now I've lost it I'm beginning to realise how convenient it was . . ."

I didn't know her before she managed to get TB from a Sherpa guide in Kathmandu, but it was a disease which suited Cunliffe because there was nothing she liked more than being ordered to rest on medical advice. It was heaven for her to be excused grown-up responsibilities, to stay in bed with books, being nursed and having a stream of fans come to her bed in the sanatorium with presents.

When she was given the diagnosis of inoperable stomach cancer in the early 1996, she told me, with typical childlike charm, that she wanted to die in her flat in Bloomsbury so "we can play hospitals".

Lesley Cunliffe was five foot ten and slim. She had a ravenous appetite throughout her life and an enviable ability to consume huge numbers of calories without their making the slightest impact on her elegant frame. Others might have a cheese sandwich for lunch but one could always depend on finding Cunliffe tucking into something like minute steak with new potatoes and salad and red wine. The reliable presence of good food and wine, wardrobes full of beautiful clothes and huge white bath towels on her radiators were all elements in the creation of the joie de vivre which always surrounded her.

Suffolk was her favourite county and in London she preferred the Georgian rooms of Bloomsbury. Once she lived in a converted Georgian billiard hall positioned oddly in the back garden of a house in Rugby Street.

She always induced happiness in her visitors. Her eclectic style combined utter elegance with an eye for the witty. She owned one of the earliest plastic tomatoes from a hamburger joint, which was supposed to be filled with ketchup. She filled it with washing-up liquid. It was so hideous it was funny.

In her decorative taste, simple classic elegance would be offset by the quirkiest of paintings and objects - among her junk-shop finds was a naive painting which, authenticated by Eardley Knollys, turned out to be of Marcel Duchamp playing chess with Bunuel, painted by his wife.

She owned a clockwork dinosaur which spat fire and, when she lived with Craig Brown, the pair, whose childlike natures exactly complemented one another's, were always buying things like indoor fireworks. I remember going shopping with them once around 1981 and as we walked through the centre of Lewes in Sussex, Brown suddenly propelled Cunliffe to a shop window . . . "Look, Lesley! Toys!"

She also possessed a tapestry cushion showing a husky in Alaska that anyone else would have overlooked. She was proud of her ability to spot not just things but people "who no one else would have thought of", as she would drawl in her characteristic American baritone. Among the rollcall of male admirers were the poet Ted Hughes, the writer Hugh Massingberd, the journalist Stan Gebler Davies and the cartoonist Michael Heath.

One reason why Lesley Cunliffe was loved not just for her life-enhancing, witty company and the aesthetic pleasures of being with her or on her premises, was that she excelled at flattery. One always felt really good when with her and came naturally to associate her with happiness. Yet, though the skill of flattery is much less used in this country than in America, she was never fulsome, nor insincere. She would find a genuine quality to praise and people who genuinely did have talent - who were too lazy, lacking in connections or opportunities to express it. Then she would insist that doors were opened for them, would steer them through and they would succeed - buoyed by their belief in Cunliffe's belief in them.

Following her bout of TB she never felt that well. Symptoms, sometimes psychosomatic, often came over her and the fatiguing pace of her life could make her want to close down and go to bed, despite her social arrangements. "I can't take any more stimulation," she would groan from a Georgian daybed surrounded by dozens of lilies sent by men in love with her. Often there would be a female devotee present whose purpose, as the writer Andrew Barrow accurately described my own in the early 1980s, was to be a "lady in waiting".

Once Cunliffe felt she couldn't face dinner. It was 8.30 and the people she was supposed to be meeting would be already sitting down at their table in the restaurant. How could she let them know since it was Langan's Brasserie, there would be hundreds of diners present and she did not know in what name their table had been booked.

She rang and exercised her charm. "You'll easily be able to pick them out," she said. "They'll be the fattest and ugliest in the restaurant." Within minutes a waitress had identified them and brought them to the telephone. As I say, she was not at all looks-ist.

There was chain-smoking, far too much coffee every day which made her jittery, a frustrating inclination to read Patrick Walker's horoscopes in the Evening Standard and then obey what she imagined to be his dictates . . . All these factors combined to thwart her full potential, though what she did write was always stimulating, acute and memorable. Her versatility as a journalist was striking - whether writing a political study of Alaska where she had lived, serious interviews with leading feminists of the day, beauty writing for Tatler, fashion writing for Vogue or ferreting out unusual and amusing details for her Book of Royal Lists.

She was religious (a Catholic) and her superstitious nature would have rejoiced in the fact that she died on Good Friday and at the moment when the comet Hale-Bopp, was midway between its closest alignment to the sun and the earth before skeetering off into space for the next four and a half thousand years.

When, on her deathbed, Lesley Cunliffe expressed regret for her lack of achievement one of her friends, Ann Carey, said: "But you've made the greatest achievement of all. You've been loved for yourself alone."

Mary Killen

Lesley Hume, journalist and writer: born Springfield, Massachusetts 21 May 1945; married 1971 Marcus Cunliffe (died 1990; marriage dissolved 1980); died Adderbury, Oxfordshire 28 March 1997.