Thursday, 12 December 2013

A wish to be applauded on sight

Just hearing the marvellous Philip Hoare eulogising about the subject of Stephen Tennant at Polari on Monday was enough to get my juices flowing for a suitable tribute.

Who better to provide an overview of the "Brightest of the Bright Young Things" than that modern-day master of all things eccentric Mr John Waters? Here are some extracts from his review of Mr Hoare's biography of Stephen, Serious Pleasures, first published in the New York Times in 1991:
In 1910, when Stephen Tennant was four years old, he ran through the gardens of his family's Wiltshire estate, Wilsford Manor, and was literally stopped in his tracks when he came face to face with the beauty of the "blossom of a pansy." Thirty years later, so precious and high-strung that he sometimes took to his bed for months at a time, he was coaxed outside by a friend for a ride in the car on the condition that his eyes be bandaged, since passing scenery might make him too "giddy." Aubrey Beardsley, Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch - believe me, Stephen Tennant made them all seem butch.

According to Philip Hoare, the author of "Serious Pleasures," the witty and amazing life story of this great sissy, Cecil Beaton was one of the first to encourage Tennant's eccentric vocation of doing nothing in life - but doing it with great originality and flamboyance. Completely protected by class, Stephen Tennant couldn't care less what people thought of his finger waves, his Charles James leopard pajamas, his makeup ("I want to have bee-stung lips like Mae Murray") or his dyed hair dusted with gold. Who would dare criticize this "aristocratic privilege," this self-described "fatal gift of beauty"? As The London Daily Express in 1928 so succinctly summed up Tennant's attitude toward life, "you...feel that condescension, indeed, can go no further."

Although many who knew Tennant later in life maintained that they "could hardly believe the physical act possible for him," the one real love affair of his adult life was with Siegfried Sassoon, the masculine, renowned pacifist poet old enough to be his father. Sassoon brought to their relationship "his fame, his talent, his position," while Tennant's only daily activities were "dressing-up" and reading about himself in the gossip columns. Looking at the photos of the two lovers in Mr. Hoare's book, Tennant posing languidly (vogueing, really), way-too-thin and way-too-rich, as Sassoon looks on proudly, even the most radical Act-Up militant might mutter a private "Oh, brother!" But the author makes us see that Tennant's extreme elegance was close to sexual terrorism, as it flabbergasted society on both sides of the Atlantic for half a century.

"Cherish me and introduce me to the glories of New York," Tennant telephoned a startled friend, David Herbert, as he crossed the Atlantic on the Berengaria. Herbert met Tennant at the boat and was embarrassed to see him walking down the gangway "'Marcelled' and painted...delicately holding a spray of cattleya orchids."

"Pin 'em on!"
shouted a tough customs officer in homophobic disgust.

"Oh, have you got a pin?" exclaimed Tennant in complete disregard for the reaction of others. "You kind, kind creature."

After World War II, Tennant became, in the words of Osbert Sitwell, "the last professional beauty." From then on, it was time to hit the sack big time. Sleeping Beauty forever. He had inspired enough fiction (Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Cedric Hampton in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate), met enough celebrities (everyone from Tallulah and Garbo to Cocteau and Jean Genet) and traveled the globe with Barbara Hutton and other rich dames for long enough; it was society's turn to come visit him.

"Reeking of perfume," "covered with foundation," with ribbons hanging from his dyed comb-over hairdo, he rested "non-stop" for the next 17 years in "decorative reclusion." Unconcerned about his grossly overweight figure ("But I'm beautiful," he would reason, "and the more of me there is the better I like it!"), he lay in bed surrounded by his jewellery, drawings and Elvis Presley postcards while, as Mr. Hoare puts it, his "decorative fantasies were running amok" (the pink and gold statues in the overgrown garden, the fishnets and seashells everywhere, the tiny uncaged pet lizards, the bursting pipes and rotting carpets, the mice still in the traps). Happily re-creating the "perfervid environment" of his youth, Tennant calmly painted the tops of his legs with pancake makeup and proudly showed his "suntan" to astonished visitors like Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. David Bailey, Christopher Isherwood, David Hockney, even Kenneth Anger all made pilgrimages and, though they may have laughed good-naturedly afterward, none laughed as hard as Tennant himself, who, after all, was in on the joke from the beginning. "To call Stephen affected," the artist Michael Wishart recalled, "would be like calling an acrobat a show-off, or a golden pheasant vulgar."

In his later years, as the antiques dealers circled outside his estate like vultures, waiting for the end, Tennant would sometimes stop traffic in nearby country towns by going shopping wearing tight pink shorts or a tablecloth as a skirt. His family had given up on him long before, exhibiting only "bemused resignation," a wonderful English trait sorely missing in America today. V. S. Naipaul may have described Tennant best when he noticed "the shyness that wasn't so much a wish not to be seen as a wish to be applauded on sight."

Philip Hoare has given his subject the ultimate final bravo in this meticulously researched and respectful biography, which manages to be both scholarly and hilarious at the same time. If only Stephen Tennant, always his own best audience, could have read Serious Pleasures before peacefully passing away (in bed, of course) in his 81st year. He probably would have fainted.
Stephen Tennant was an inspiration to us all...

Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant by Philip Hoare.


  1. Applause ! He gets a standing ovation from me.
    fab post.


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