Wedding of the year.
By Lucia Adams
Born at the dawn of the new century, at exactly the right time, the Mountbattens would become the most charismatic, renowned couple on the globe. In the1922 ”wedding of the year” Edwina the “most beautiful woman in the country” and “the richest heiress in the world” named for her godfather the future King Edward VII friend of her grandfather Ernest Cassel married the dashing impecunious Louis (Dickie) Mountbatten great grandson and last godchild of Queen Victoria, son of a German prince who had changed his name in 1917 from Battenberg.
Flamboyant semi-royals their outrageous lifestyle inspired Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Coward’s Hands Across the Sea. Sociable and gregarious they charmed everyone who was anyone from the highest Anglo American society of Vanderbilts and Diana Cooper to Hollywood “royalty” Charlie Chaplin (who made a movie with them) Douglas Fairbacks, Ivor Novello, Sophie Tucker.
Edwina at the time of her marriage.
You cannot discuss Edwina without Dickie in whose shadow she impatiently stood always resenting her secondary role and his unsurpassable fame and reputation — Admiral of the Fleet, Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia, Viceroy of India, commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet and NATO Commander Allied Forces Mediterranean, First Sea Lord.
A victim of gender norms of her time, relegated to role of handmaiden she ostentatiously rebelled. embracing post war hedonism, the wildest of the wild, eschewing the role of wife/housekeeper and mother. Right after her first daughter Patricia was born she bolted to the Riviera with a paramour, never again to pay the slightest heed to faithfulness and maternity. Once, forgetting the name of the hotel in Budapest where she’d dropped her children and nannies during the Abyssinian crisis, they had to be rescued. Dickie was the far more solicitous parent.
The young couple in their twenties.
A friend said, ”For Edwina, there was always something missing. She didn’t know what it was or where it was but she was determined to find it.” Fearing boredom more than oblivion she became another entre deux guerre Rich Adventuress foregoing record setting aviation and car racing, for constant traveling, Guatemala, Honduras, Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad, Vladivostok, Tehran, the archeological digs at Persepolis, treks over the Andes to Machu Picchu down to the Chilean side, studying Mayan civilization in the Yucatan. For Edwina only the height of the heights or the lowest of the low would suffice…never never the dreaded middle as in middle classes, either a Majarah’s palace or a Berber tent, exceptional , extreme, the best or the worst.
The Mountbatten marriage was a bit like that of Vita Sackville and Harold Nicolson’s, more an affectionate lifelong friendship than a conventional union. She purportedly had over eighteen lovers, (Pamela Hicks her younger daughter called her a “maneater”). A popular tabloid The People, reported she and Paul Robeson were “caught in compromising circumstances”; she was linked to Leslie Hutchinson, the best-known Black entertainer of the time, outdoing the Cunards for scandalous liaisons. The love of her life was handsome Lt. Col. Bunny Phillips a Coldstream Guard and with Dickie’s longtime girlfriend Yola Letellier wife of the Mayor of Deauville they traveled as a cozy menage a quatre.
Viceroy and Vicereine.
Edwina loved to shock, to epater both the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, calling herself a Socialist and often being a vocal anti monarchist, ( she was once banned from Buckingham Palace.) Chips Cannon wrote, “Politically Edwina talked tripe and pretended to be to be against all monarchy, she who is cousin to every monarch on earth. According to her they must all be abolished. How easy it seems for a semi-royal millionairess, who has exhausted all the pleasures of money and position, to turn almost Communist.” Dickie was Leftish too, loving the louche demi monde, his closest friend Peter Murphy a gay Communist.
They were friends of the Prince of Wales though critical of his renouncing duty and tradition, and not attending that wedding of the year though invited. Edwina, even thinner than Wallis, the extravagant uninhibited aristocrat was compared to the conservative, economical American divorcee whose mother ran a boarding house in Baltimore thought to be rather “like a character in a play, costume fitted, lines learned.” At those few parties not cancelled during the abdication all the women wore black but Edwina Mountbatten wore green.
Compared to “a bluebottle that is driven nearly frantic in a room and suddenly finds the open window” when World War II dawned Edwina underwent a transformation. She embraced a life of purpose, working tirelessly to raise funds and work for charities, for which she was awarded Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, Dame Grand Cross of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, the American Red Cross Medal.
At the beginning of the war she sent her daughters to New York fearing the target of her Jewish ancestry while she moved into Kensington Palace with her mother- in- law Princess Victoria remaining there during the Blitz. She was appointed Superintendent-in-Chief of the pukkah charity St John Ambulance Brigade inspecting first aid posts, air raid shelters, tube stations, convalescent homes and residential nurseries, compiling a register of volunteers for relief and reconstruction work. She traveled to twenty-eight states in America to thank those who aided the British war effort. making speeches about the British hospitals and voluntary societies.
superintendent of the St. John Ambulance Brigade.
With the Liberation she inspected Allied and French hospitals working with the Brigade and the Red Cross then did the same in northern Europe and ’Italy. In 1945 in Southeast Asia she diligently worked with Dickie for the repatriation of prisoners of war and after Hiroshima in “Operation Zipper,” she helped in the effort to rescue hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. She intrepidly flew over 33,000 miles and inspected camps in Rangoon, Bangkok, Sumatra, and Singapore.
In her most historic role Vicereine of India she flourished. When Earl Mountbatten of Burma was Viceroy during the final months of the British Raj he was charged with negotiating the transfer of power from Britain. He relied on Edwina’s help to accelerate the partition widely opposed in India; she appealed to the wives, daughters, and sisters of Indian leaders who were initially highly anti-British and suspicious of them. She also helped in the relief effort for the decimated population, supervising evacuations, inspecting hospitals, influencing crucial decisions through her lover and dearest friend Nehru. This greatly alarmed Gandhi who was however quickly silenced.
With prisoners of war in Burma.
She continued to lead a peripatetic and exhausting life of charitable service in the 1950s though some old friends like Noel Coward were irritated by her hurtful snobbery and “overwhelming pomposity”. She died at 60 in Borneo while exhaustively working for the Brigade, buried at sea off Portsmouth from the HMS Wakeful. Nehru had the Indian Navy frigate INS Trishul escort the Wakeful and cast a wreath. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother observed, “Dear Edwina, she always liked to make a splash.”
The Mountbattens with Charles and Anne,
Like her father, in yet another primogeniture drama, her husband desperately wanted a male heir (to start a dynasty) but with daughters, he became a father figure to his nephew Philip who renounced his Greek and Danish titles and adopted the surname Windsor-Mountbatten. Dickie arranged his first meeting with Princess Elizabeth in 1939 and set in motion their future engagement and marriage. Their son Charles was close to the Mountbattens especially Dickie who was murdered by the IRA in 1976.