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Nigel Nicolson, 87; Biographer of Bloomsbury Literary Figures

September 29, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Nigel Nicolson, author, publisher and biographer of the Bloomsbury literary group that included Virginia Woolf and his mother, Vita Sackville-West, has died. He was 87.

Nicolson died Thursday at his home in Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, of natural causes.

Nicolson's best-known work is "Portrait of a Marriage," published in 1973 and based on the half-century union of his famously eccentric parents, novelist and poet Sackville-West and journalist and diplomat Harold Nicolson.

The candid book, which detailed each parent's multiple homosexual affairs, was based on his mother's unpublished memoir, which he found locked in a Gladstone bag in a turret of the family castle after her death in 1962.

"Each," he wrote of his parents, "came to give the other full liberty without inquiry or reproach.... Their marriage succeeded because each found permanent and undiluted happiness only in the company of the other. If their marriage is seen as a harbor, their love affairs were ports of call. It was to the harbor that each returned; it was there that both were based."

In reviewing "Portrait," former Times book editor Robert Kirsch said Nicolson wrongly glossed over the pain caused to him and his brother Benedict by their parents' romantic escapades. Sackville-West most graphically described her elopement with novelist Violet Keppel Trefusis and affair with Woolf, which settled into friendship after Woolf modeled the title character of "Orlando" on her.

But Kirsch also wrote: "I cannot deny that 'Portrait of a Marriage' ... held me in fascination from first to last," and said the 80-page diary of Sackville-West contained in the book "is the stuff of which Henry James made novels."

Public television's "Masterpiece Theater" based a three-part miniseries on the book.

Nicolson also published "Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson" in 1992 and the three-volume "Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1930 to 1962," a collection of his father's diaries, in 1966 through 1968.

He considered Woolf an adopted aunt and advisor, and compiled her letters in six volumes from 1975 to 1980 and wrote the biography "Virginia Woolf" in 2000.

Among his other books are "Great Houses of Britain" in 1965 and 1978; a biography, "Mary Curzon," which won the Whitbread Award in 1977; "Napoleon: 1812" in 1985; "The World of Jane Austen" in 1991; his autobiography, "Long Life," in 1997; a biography of Fanny Burney in 2002; and "The Queen and Us" in 2003.

An avid traveler, he wrote "The Himalayas" in 1975 and with his son Adam wrote "Two Roads to Dodge City," an account of their separate travels across the United States, in 1986.

Born in London, Nicolson grew up there and at Sissinghurst, a run-down Elizabethan castle his parents acquired in 1930. His mother, known almost as well for her gardening as for her poetry and novels, restored the castle's extensive gardens, making them among the most famous in England. Although Nicolson gave Sissinghurst to Britain's National Trust in 1967, he continued to live there and manage the estate.

Educated at Eton and Balliol College of Oxford, Nicolson served in the Grenadier Guards in Tunisia and Italy during World War II. He later wrote the history "The Grenadier Guards in the War of 1939-1945," published in 1949, and a biography of his commander, "Alex: The Life of Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis" in 1973.

After the war, Nicolson and George Weidenfeld formed the publishing company Weidenfeld & Nicolson, which became famous for risking prosecution to publish Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" in 1959. Nicolson worked there until 1964 and remained on its board until 1992.

Nicolson was a Conservative member of Parliament from 1952 to 1959.

He was given the Order of the British Empire in 2000.

Married to the former Philippa Tennyson d'Eyncourt from 1953 until their divorce in 1970, he is survived by their son and two daughters.

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