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Ex Libris

January 19, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER | Hillier is associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Lady Antonia Fraser was in Los Angeles for most of November, accompanying her husband, playwright Harold Pinter, who was making a return to acting in his own play, "Old Times." Fraser had fish of her own to fry--promoting no fewer than three books published in America this year. One is "Cool Repentance" (Norton: $3.95), the fourth in her series of mystery novels with Jemima Shore as sleuth. The same firm will soon be issuing "Oxford Blood," about what Fraser calls "the golden kids" (rich ones who break up restaurants for fun) in "a post-'Brideshead' situation" at Oxford. The third is "The Weaker Vessel" (Vintage: $9.95), a racy yet historically stringent study of women in 17th-Century England, which comes garlanded with plaudits from American critics.

When we met, Fraser was about to leave for England to organize a party for the 80th birthday of her father, the Earl of Longford, on Dec. 5. That must have been a gathering of literati to beat all. The Pakenhams (Pakenham is the family name of the Earls of Longford) are, with the extraordinary ramifications of their marriages, the most prolific literary dynasty in the world. Only the Wedgwood-Darwin-Huxley-Trevelyan nexus, which includes Charles Darwin and Aldous Huxley, beats them in cumulative distinction.

The family's newly octogenarian patriarch, Lord Longford, has written books on Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, on humility and on himself. He was a Labor Party cabinet minister, and he is a fervent crusader against pornography. (The satirical magazine "Private Eye" calls him "Lord Porn," and the British public regards him affectionately as a sort of "Wisest Fool in Christendom.")

Lord Longford (Frank Pakenham) succeeded his elder brother Edward as 7th earl in 1961. Edward, the fattest man in Ireland, was chairman of the Gate Theatre in Dublin. His play "The Melians" was the first that the young Orson Welles saw when he came to Dublin in 1931. Edward's wife Christine Longford wrote sophisticated cocktail novels such as "Making Conversation" and "Mr. Jiggins of Jigginstown."

Of Edward's and Frank's sisters, Lady Pansy married the painter Henry Lamb, who caricatured Lytton Strachey in his stick-insect portrait of him, as Strachey had caricatured Florence Nightingale and Cardinal Manning in his "Eminent Victorians." Lady Violet married novelist Anthony Powell, the Proust de nos jours , and is herself an accomplished biographer and autobiographer. Lady Mary, perhaps the most gifted of all, wrote "Brought Up and Brought Out" (1938), a hilarious account of what it was like to be a debutante in the early 1930s, and more recently has written "Jack and the Doctor" on the personal life of poet John Donne.

Then we come to the present Lord Longford's own family. His wife, Elizabeth Longford, another famous beauty, is best known for her biographies of Queen Victoria and the first Duke of Wellington (who, incidentally, married a Pakenham).

Antonia Fraser is the Longfords' eldest child. Next comes Thomas Pakenham, who has written acclaimed histories of the Irish rebellion of 1798 and the Boer War--interviewing, for the latter book, many grizzled survivors of that conflict.

His sister Judith, who also refuses to use her courtesy title and is a leading feminist, is a poet of distinction. Another of Antonia's sisters, Lady Rachel, who married film director Kevin Billington ("Interlude," "The Light at the Edge of the World") has a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty that rivals Antonia's blond, peaches-and-cream variety. She is a best-selling novelist. Antonia is transparently disguised in her 1974 novel "Beautiful."

The youngest of Lord Longford's daughters, Lady Catherine, whose beauty promised to rival that of the others, was tragically killed in a car crash in 1969. A prize for women journalists was founded in her name.

And now the pen is being passed to a new generation. Fraser's daughter Rebecca illustrated two children's books by her mother at age 12, and is writing a book on the Brontes for Secker & Warburg. Another daughter, Flora, has just brought out "Maud," an imaginary diary of a turn-of-the-century lady, and is writing a book on Nelson's Lady Hamilton. A third daughter, Natasha, is book agent at the Triad Agency in Los Angeles.

The monk Gregor Mendel did not need to prove his genetic theory by experiments with beans in the monastery garden at Brunn: It is amply proved by the Pakenham dynasty.

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