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05.21.10

Spilling My Family's Secrets

When Frances Osborne set out to write a biography, The Bolter, of her famously racy great-grandmother, she met resistance from her family—but now they’re glad she told the true story.

I was 13 years old when I discovered that I had a great-grandmother who had been an infamous seductress. In November 1982, the British Sunday Times published an extract from a new book, White Mischief, later made into the movie of the same name. This told the story of the 1941 Kenyan murder of the womanizing Earl of Erroll.

The extract began with his first wife, Lady Idina Sackville, a cousin of the writer Vita Sackville-West. Erroll was Idina’s third husband and, at 30, she was eight years older than his 22 when they married.

Family skeletons are usually locked in closets so that they do not continue to haunt their descendants, and my mother had long felt threatened by the wickedness of Idina’s ghost.

Idina was petite, always stylishly dressed, and often barefoot. Being able, despite not being conventionally beautiful, to “whistle a chap off a branch,” she had lovers “without number” and married and divorced five times in an age when few people divorced at all. She encouraged her guests to do the same. For those other expatriates in Kenya who drove the several hours up to Clouds, Idina’s farmhouse perched high in the hills, staying for dinner meant staying the night.

And it was after dinner that the “games” began. Idina played the role of high priestess in determining who would sleep with whom that night, regardless of whether they were married or not. She rolled dice, distributed room keys, and stretched out sheets for feathers to be blown across. My little sister wanted to read the extract. I was adamant that she was too young and took the newspaper to my parents for further authority. My mother went red. My father said, “you have to tell them.” And my mother spoke. “This woman,” she said, “was my grandmother.” Thirteen years old, I was hooked.

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The Bolter. By Frances Osborne. 368 pages. Vintage. $15.95. ()

I remained hooked. My mother remained reluctant. She showed me a black and white photograph of two small boys standing side by side, and looking lost. This, she said, is my father and his brother after Idina left them and their father behind and went to Kenya. I was shocked, repelled almost. How could this dazzling creature have done something so condemnable. But wickedness can be all the more intriguing. Even more so when I had two small children of my own and, as I kissed them goodnight, wondered how Idina could have done what she did. Was she really such a heartless mother? And so, a couple of years or so ago, I decided I wanted to write a book about Idina. It could be called The Bolter, after the Nancy Mitford character—for that is what Idina had done, “bolted” from her first husband and children. Could I have the diaries of her first husband, my great-grandfather, which sat in a tin box in my own father’s study deep in the English countryside? One at a time, my mother said—knowing that it would take weeks for me to retrieve each one. Idina, she continued, is not a role model. It is not good to be associated with her. She had a point. Family skeletons are usually locked in closets so that they do not continue to haunt their descendants, and my mother had long felt threatened by the wickedness of Idina’s ghost. Here was I, wanting to take Idina out of our family closet, dust her down, dress her up in those gorgeous clothes she was famous for wearing so well—and tell the world that this consummate sinner’s blood flowed through my veins. Nobody, I told my mother, is that wholly bad. Surely the stories of those games must be exaggerated, for a start. Let me find out. And I did.

What I discovered was both far worse and far better. Idina had indeed had a voracious sexual appetite. In the Scottish house she built with my great-grandfather she put in a secret staircase between her bedroom and the smoking room, so that lovers could say they were off to smoke a last cigarette, and slip up into her room. And, yes, those after-dinner games were for real. After the great joy of discovering the first cousins my mother never knew (they are the descendants of the murdered Erroll), I had the embarrassment of telling one that, yes, his grandparents were swingers.

There was more, much more. My great-grandfather’s diaries start in 1917, a terrible year to be a British soldier in—but they are lit up by the passion between him and Idina. They meet in the Paris Ritz, have friends walking around with lioncubs on leashes and, as Idina’s scrawls on the pages make clear, make wild love at night. But war is not good for relationships and on the pages that follow, new women feature in my great-grandfather’s life, and mentions of Idina wane. It became clear that by the time Idina left the marriage, the man she loved had long since emotionally abandoned her. But, still, to leave her children?? She had had little choice. In 1918 a woman couldn’t divorce her husband for infidelity, so to escape the marriage, Idina had to be the guilty party, and leave her children with her mother, and their immensely wealthy father.

She never stopped loving her sons, and it is arguably the agony of her love for them that in turn killed her after they both died in World War Two—almost a year apart to the day.

After The Bolter was first published in the U.K., a woman wrote to me from Canada. Her name is Ann McKay. She told me that Idina’s fifth husband had been her father, and that Idina had raised Ann and her brother, Tom, so tenderly that they stayed with her for a couple of years after the marriage had ended. Idina, she told me, not only doted on Ann and Tom but fluttered with high excitement at the mere prospect of a visit from my great-uncle, Gee, when he was posted to Kenya. She also became close to, and was then separated from, my grandfather, David. But that is another part of the story. Ann’s last memory of Idina was one afternoon in the late '40s, when Idina told her that her father, a pilot, was coming to take her for a short stay and that Ann should pack a small bag. Ann looked out of the plane as it took off from Idina’s lawn and could not understand why Idina was in floods of tears. It was only later Ann realized that Idina had known Ann was leaving not just for a few days, but for good.

When I finished, I sent my mother the manuscript, and waited for her reply. I was nervous because of some very personal details I had put in from her father’s diary. I watched my phone.

The text came late the night after she had received the pages. I clicked on it with trepidation. And there it was. “Thank you,” it read, “for giving me my life story.” I had opened the closet and Idina, dusted down, turned out not to be the monster my mother had feared. In raising Idina’s ghost I have laid her to rest.

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Frances Osborne was born in London and studied philosophy and modern languages at Oxford University. She is the author of Lilla’s Feast. Her articles have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Independent, the Daily Mail, and Vogue. She lives in London with her husband, a Member of Parliament, and their two children.