My ongoing obsession with Tom Mitford, the little-known brother of the famed Mitfords, has led me to James Lees-Milne. Mitford and Lees-Milne were great chums at Eton and Lees-Milne's tales of visiting the family's home, adds to their history. What he is most known for, though, is basically saving a great part of England's history and architecture with his work for the National Trust.
During his years there, he convinced many who owned these great homes but couldn't afford to keep them up, to donate them to the Landmark Trust so they wouldn't fall to ruin.
Ralph Jarvis, Randolph Spencer Churchill, Diana Mitford, Tom Mitford, Diana Spencer Churchill, and James Lees-Milne, 1927
Which lead me to read Another Self, the memoir of his early years. Looking to just find some more information on Tom Mitford, I have instead found a book and a new author I absolutely adore. On the same vein as Beverley Nichols, he writes as a close friend would, telling you the personal, witty stories that make it impossible not to admire him.
James Lees-Milne at Posillipo
One comical story regals his time when working as secretary for the future Prime Minister, Lord Lloyd. He took a holiday (paid by Lloyd) to Corsica where he spent weeks dashing about the island with a Corsican bandit named Dominique, who threatened death upon himself with a machete to the neck at a moment's notice. They spent nights travelling and days sleeping in caves all in the quest to find the corrupt Spada, Lord over all the bandits. After this tempestuous trip his return to reality was not a simple as one would think:
"On leaving Corsica I took a boat from Bastia to Spezia to stay with the Lloyds in an isolated villa which they had rented from Percy Lubbocks near Lerici. My disillusion with the ferocious Spada was not so absolute that I did not still identify myself with the Corsican bandits. I could think of little else, and my recent experiences were magnified into fears of dare-devilry that were scarcely justified. Moreover I arrived at the the Lloyds' respectable house-party dressed in my bandit outfit, that is to say in a 'costume de chasse en velours bleu.' Round my waist I wore a wide scarlet sash with tasselled fringe, and attached to it the sheathed knife which Dominque had pressed upon me at parting in return for money to buy himself the revolver...I quickly realized that I was making an ass of myself and conformed to the clothing expected of a private secretary in 1933 even on the Mediterranean."
Who of us hasn't been there?
My personal favorite was the night when he was 17 and dirt poor in London, but decided to splurge on a gift from his mother and go to the Opera. There he met, in the standing section, the seraphic Theo and the two quickly became fast friends. At the night's end after walking around London, the two parted and exchanged their contact information on pieces of paper. Elated he walks home and just before he turns in, checks the paper. "James Lees-Milne. 14 Onslow Gardens." He spent the rest of his life searching for that Theodore or Theophilus at the opera, in the cafe, but to no avail.
James Lees-Milne, in Lerici, working as Lloyd's secretary
There are so many more I'd love to share but fear I shall ruin your own personal discovery. In fact, I had a difficult time narrowing down the entries! Friends with so many we esteem (Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicholson, Rupert Hart-Davis, Robert Byron) he writes with such wit, even over the tragedy, of a man who has lived the world. Unfortunately Another Self
is out of print in the States, but it is still available here.
(Side Note: How amazing are these pictures? I found them in my frantic search at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Library...supposedly they are in possession 30 boxes of Lees-Milne's correspondences, records and photographs. If this interest intensifies I may have to make a pilgrimage!)
Editor's Note: Thanks to an anonymous comment for pointing out to me that Lees-Milne worked for NATIONAL Trust, not LANDMARK Trust. Such a silly mistake on my part. Apologies!