From The Wall Street Journal:
Haven’t we all wished for an aunt like Ferdinand Mount’s Aunt Betty? A stylish, darting little woman nicknamed Munca, she loved having her nephew spend childhood summers at her Sussex house (complete with chauffeur, nanny, cook, maid) and, in later years, ferried him up to London in her Rolls-Royce to meet theater friends at the Café de Paris. One memorable encounter in 1957, for example, was with the aging trouper Sophie Tucker. “This is my nephew,” Aunt Betty proudly declared of the mortified teenager. “He’s going to be a writer.” To which Tucker responded, “That’s swell . . . I’ve always had a lot of time for the guy with the pencil.”
A family photograph from the previous year says it all: Betty; her husband, Greig; their daughter, Georgie; and Ferdinand’s sister, Francie, smiling—and the young writer standing just apart unmistakably “glum and ungrateful.” For Betty was, in many ways, just too much. Whether plumping up the cushions in her chic drawing room, deadheading her rosebushes or igniting a drinks party, she seemed always to attack and overwhelm.
Just how much more there was to this armor-clad butterfly is revealed—incrementally and irresistibly—in “Kiss Myself Goodbye: The Many Lives of Aunt Munca,” a family history so deftly excavated and winningly conjured that it restores our faith in a literary species too often given to flabbiness and self-absorption. “It is a personal memoir that turned into a quest while I wasn’t looking,” Mr. Mount explains of his decade-long exhumation of a past riddled with as many deceptions and double-crosses as any espionage novel. “In this book, nobody’s recollections are reliable,” he cautions. And isn’t that putting it mildly.
All begins, as it must, with a birth. “Betty just went off to Cornwall and came back with a baby,” Ferdinand’s mother announces of her sister-in-law. Arriving in 1941, Georgie was Betty and Grieg’s golden girl and their only child until, sometime in 1950, “an adopted baby sister suddenly arrives, out of the blue, like a food parcel during the war.” Georgie and her Mount cousins adore chubby little Celeste. Then one day, she’s gone. “We just borrowed her to help her parents out,” Betty explains, and that’s that.
The mystery of the borrowed baby nags at Mr. Mount, as do other, seemingly related conundrums of Betty’s life: her ruthless sabotaging of Georgie’s marriage plans, the serial romances of her past, her hazy connection to her jaunty brother Buster, her real age—her real name(s), for heaven’s sake. “I had tugged the thread,” he writes of his growing curiosity, “and I could not resist following it to the end.”
Immersing himself in birth and marriage archives along with newspaper reports of divorce and bigamy cases, among other tidbits, Mr. Mount uncovers a camouflaged trail that begins in the industrial north of England, about as far from the Café de Paris as you can get. “She was the daughter of John William Macduff of Sheffield, a scrap metal merchant,” Mr. Mount learns of Betty’s sister, Doris, who “told the truth when she filled in a form.” Betty, on the other hand, always pretended that Doris was an unrelated “honorary aunt,” even though the two women lived near each other in opulent Berkshire where Betty “in her Rolls might bump into Doris in her Bentley any day of the week.” For both sisters had married well, if a little too often in Betty’s case.
Her marital record, however, was surpassed by Buster’s, whose “blitzkrieg approach to wooing” resulted in seven marriages, six divorces and numerous dalliances. The busy fellow also acquired three birth certificates, whereas Betty appeared to have none. When Mr. Mount finds that document he realizes that his aunt had reinvented herself as tirelessly and thoroughly as any secret agent. Which she was, in a way, being a scandal-shadowed child of poverty who had to cover her tracks and lie consistently in order to infiltrate the alien territory of the British upper class. In one of Betty’s maneuvers, for example, a real husband is “erased and replaced by the shadowy and dead Mr. Baring”—the name Baring, of British banking fame, having the required cachet.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)
Betty reminded PG of one of his clients in the quite distant past, a woman who had her own unique style of divorcing (“dumping” might be a better term) a series of husbands.
PG didn’t mind that this client neglected to pay a legal bill on occasion because she provided him with so many great stories for use during gatherings with his brothers and sisters in the legal profession during conferences sponsored by various bar associations.
For those who had the good sense not to attend law school, the best parts of meeting together with fellow attorneys under the pretext of continuing legal education is swapping client stories (which do not involve any identifying details, just character types that real attorneys encounter during their practice lives) during lunches and dinners associated with those educational affairs.