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On the outside looking in

Siegfried Sassoon The Making of a War Poet, A Biography, 1886-1918 Jean Moorcroft Wilson Routledge: 600 pp., $35 * Siegfried Sassoon The Journey From the Trenches, A Biography, 1918-1967 Jean Moorcroft Wilson Routledge: 526 pp., $45 * Sassoon The Worlds of Philip and Sybil Peter Stansky Yale University Press: 296 pp., $35 * Elusive Rothschild The Life of Victor, Third Baron Kenneth Rose Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 338 pp., $35

April 18, 2004|Benita Eisler | Benita Eisler is the author of biographies of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Lord Byron and Frederic Chopin.

After 1918, Sassoon's poems regressed to pre-war bucolics, while their author inveighed against modernism and all its works. He found a popular prose vehicle for nostalgia in the form of lightly fictionalized autobiography -- "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man," followed by the less sentimental "Memoirs of an Infantry Officer." The rest of his long life continued a steady retreat into the past. He died in 1967 at 80, a forgotten near-recluse in his crumbling country place.

Philip SASSOON and his sister Sybil, Siegfried's cousins, appear as the ultimate Establishment insiders to the poet as outsider. True to the tradition of dynastic mergers, their father had married a French Rothschild. As Philip was left three-quarters of their parents' estate, his wealth was staggering; still, Sybil's smaller inheritance landed her a grand title. She married a peer with the Trollopian name of Lord Rocksavage, later Marquess of Cholmondeley. In the elegantly produced "Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil," Peter Stansky, chronicler of upper bohemian Bloomsbury, offers an expert tour through these glossier lives: the great houses, spiffy clothes, celebrity-crammed parties, butlers, Bugattis and Riviera villas, all celebrated in portraits and interiors by their friend John Singer Sargent, illustrations from Country Life and campy snapshots. The reviewer's favorite: a photograph of Sybil and Philip seated cross-legged atop a pair of matching plinths on the grounds of Port Lympne, the country house overlooking the English Channel that Philip built in Kent.

Eton- and Oxford-educated, rich and well connected, Philip Sassoon reasonably planned a career in politics. To his great disappointment, after decades of loyal service as First Underling, he was never rewarded with higher office. He spent the war years as private secretary to Gen. Douglas Haig, one of the most reviled commanders in modern history, known as the "Butcher of the Somme." (It's clear why Philip was in no hurry to meet cousin Siegfried.) As under-secretary of State for Air, his brief was to create social cachet for a branch of the service hitherto confined to policing a newly created Iraq from the skies. To this end, he gave recruitment talks to the boys at leading public schools and played host at an annual summer camp at Port Lympne, where airmen and their families could mingle with dukes. On leaving, the servicemen's children were each handed 5 pounds by the butler.

In his role as political host there and at his two other houses, Philip was more successful. He entertained party leaders, foreign heads of state, entire international conferences and secret meetings. His hospitality was so taken for granted that prime ministers Lloyd George and Bonar Law thought nothing of inviting their own guests. Stansky reports that Philip, far from resenting these liberties, "thrived on being used"; thus his puzzlement as to why Sassoon never achieved higher rank is hard to understand. As official host, Philip accepted a part that historically was backstage, not front office -- a part traditionally played by women, political hostesses furthering their husbands' careers. That he was dismissed as a lightweight should come as no surprise. Parties were his real vocation. The decorating and redecorating of his houses should be seen as the creation of stage sets for an endless extravaganza of weekend house parties, vast official receptions and bohemian jollifications mixing the rich and the artistic. Stansky invites us to ponder other reasons for Sassoon's thwarted ambition: Rumors of homosexuality? Philip's discretion was such that not even his biographer has unearthed evidence of any intimate relationships. If suspicions of this kind were an obstacle to advancement, moreover, probably neither political party could have formed a cabinet. Anti-Semitism, never far below the surface in English life, is more plausible. One of Philip's weekend guests at Port Lympne, Virginia Woolf, described her host as "an underbred Whitechapel Jew." A related explanation seems likelier. Until very recently, all outsiders aspiring to leadership positions (Jews, people of color, women) have had to be more: more intelligent, talented, qualified -- in a word, exceptional. By every measure except wealth, Philip Sassoon must be counted as exceptionally average. Sybil got the brains in the family. Leaving the role of host to her brother, she helped found the WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service), oversaw a model restoration of Houghton, the great 18th century house inherited by her husband, and proved a vital force in the support of music and struggling musicians.

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