Living with Live Wires

I sometimes wish I’d grown up in a more interesting family, the kind with ancestors shot at dawn for their roles in the insurgency, or lost at sea while circumnavigating in a dinghy, or killed and eaten by natives while exploring in Papua. I’d settle for an uncle who drove out to a cornfield and shot himself in the head, twice. All I have are a couple of first cousins who married. Not even my mother was scandalized.

Ferdinand Mount (above) is more fortunate. His maternal grandfather was the 5th Earl of Longford, an Irish peer and soldier who rounded up a company of hunting buddies and headed for South Africa, the Boer War. The Earl was wounded, sent home, and returned for another tour, arriving too late for further action. He did, however, find all he could handle as a brigadier-general on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Great War. His brigade was ordered to advance unprotected across a dry salt lake, never mind the shrapnel fire. He was making good progress when killed. His last words: “Don’t bother ducking, the men don’t like it and it doesn’t do any good.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Earl’s descendants chose relatively sedate lives. Three of his four beautiful daughters were writers, including the critic Lady Violet Pakenham, who married Anthony Powell (Ferdinand’s “Uncle Tony”), one of the handful of greatest British novelists of the last century; Lady Mary Clive, who apart from writing the debutante novel Brought Up and Brought Out and a biography of John Donne was the woman who nicknamed Lord Beaverbrook “the Goblin King”; and Lady Pansy Lamb, novelist, biographer of King Charles I, wife of the artist Henry Lamb (who painted the portrait of Ferdinand in the photo above). The fourth was Lady Julia Pakenham, mother of Ferdinand, and for a time the face of Pond’s Cold Cream.

Mount’s paternal line also has its moments. His other grandfather, Sir William Arthur Mount, a British Conservative politician and member of parliament, died while riding with the hounds across a meadow in Berkshire. His baronetcy fell to his oldest son, who would be the grandfather of Prime Minister David Cameron (Ferdinand’s “Cousin Dave”). The younger son, Robert Francis Mount, married the face of Pond’s Cold Cream, and was distinguished, like his wife, for not doing much of anything. They were the parents of Ferdinand, who inherited the baronetcy from his uncle.

Our Ferdy, then, is properly styled Sir William Robert Ferdinand Mount, 3rd Baronet. He was part of the in-crowd from conception. “What an interesting and varied life I seem to have led in the womb,” he writes in Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes, “going to a bazaar with Unity Mitford, out on the razzle with Dylan Thomas and Philip Toynbee, possibly Burgess and Maclean, too.”

Born in 1939, Ferdy attended Eton College on a scholarship where he was taught literature by John Le Carré and art by Wilfrid Blunt, brother of future double agent Anthony Blunt. He watched classmate Prince Michael of Kent jumped up and down on his dormitory bed for ten minutes every day, naked.

Moving on to Oxford, Ferdy’s contemporaries were Auberon Waugh and future BBC star David Dimbleby. He’s got stories about lunch with writer and scholar Harold Acton, boating with the fascist Oswald Mosely, tea with the soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon, and weekends with newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere.

The Mounts having more pedigree than money, Ferdy worked in journalism after college, writing editorials for the Daily Sketch, “a tabloid for housemaids in an age when nobody except its proprietor could afford to employ housemaids.” He drifted into political circles as a researcher at Conservative Party headquarters and wound up running Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in the early eighties. He published a couple of dozen books, edited the Times Literary Supplement, and matriculated as chairman of the Friends of the British Library.

Notwithstanding Ferdy’s wide acquaintance and worthy accomplishments, one can’t help noticing that the family has lost some of the brio his grandfathers displayed, although Aunt Munca did her best to pick up the slack.

For most of his eighty years, Ferdy didn’t know the whole of his aunt’s story. He appreciated her as an engaging, high-spirited millionairess who called herself after the mouse in a Beatrix Potter story, and doted upon him. She lived in great houses in the Home Counties and regularly commuted to London in the Rolls for a drink at “the pub,” as she and her husband (Unca) called Claridges, the most luxurious hotel in London.

She lied a lot. Her stated age defied mathematics. No one really believed she’d grown up in the Philippines, or that she rode her pony into the dining room of her home there. There was always something off about her claims to have a brother young enough to be her son, to have adopted one of her daughters, and not to have adopted another.

Late in life, Ferdy decides to get at Munca’s true story and his investigative work is the spine of Kiss Myself Goodbye: The Many Lives of Aunt Munca (Bloomsbury).

I can’t reveal too much of what he found without spoiling the story but it won’t hurt to mention that no one in my family has gone to jail for bigamy, let alone committed the act three times.

We’ve yet to have someone who married seven times, signing the register with a new occupation on each occasion: man of independent means, race car driver, electrical engineer, professional dancer, and so on.

We haven’t had a lady’s maid who married the widowed man of the house and changed her family’s fortunes for generations.

Nor have we had someone climb, in one lifetime (or any number of lifetimes), from abject poverty in Sheffield, a steel town described by Orwell as the ugliest place on earth, to playing landlord to Andrew and Fergie.

The first and greatest pleasure of Kiss Myself Goodbye is the reasonably clear picture Ferdy pieces together of Munca’s astounding life.

A secondary delight is the book’s transparent account of the author’s pursuit of facts and his efforts to make sense of them. We are let in on the chase, and Ferdy has accomplished some first-rate historical research, combing random clippings in Country Life, old family gossip, and reams of public birth, death, marital, and court records for clues to his aunt’s machinations—clues she was often at pains to cover up.

While Ferdy frequently expresses exasperation at the impossibility of making sense of Munca's life, he never quits digging and his doggedness is amply rewarded. Without admitting enjoyment of his researches, he manages to communicate the immense satisfaction that comes with placing each individual piece of the puzzle, watching the picture take shape, and finally seeing it complete.

The full view is unsettling. It may make you feel better, at the end of the book, about your boring family. While Mount finds much to admire in his aunt, he doesn’t shrink from the human costs of her lies, her sociopathic social-climbing, and reckless approach to familial relations. Less drama would have brought less damage.