Lesley Blanch was born in London in 1904. At heart a nomad, she spent the greater part of her life travelling about those remote areas her books record so vividly. She used to say: "I have always had a strong appetite for life and for loving."
Her father, Walter, was cultivated and idle, and spent his time in museums and galleries, while her mother, Martha, longed to travel, but never did. "I was brought up to read a great deal. My parents were always broke, but had beautiful old things, and I used to make up stories about them. My father used to recite a poem to me that I specially loved, I'll Sing Thee Songs of Araby and Tales of Far Kashmir."
Lesley Blanch, age three
© The Estate of Lesley Blanch
"My mother would read The Koran for breakfast in bed which she found very stimulating. My father would read Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year because he said the descriptions were so ghastly it made daily life seem so much more agreeable. I would be in my room getting ready for school and reading Carlyle's History of the French Revolution; I had a thing about tumbrils and all that. It was not exactly a conventional household. Of course school [St Paul's] was a letdown."
From her early childhood, a mysterious family friend whom Blanch only ever called 'The Traveller' occasionally blew into her nursery, muffled in heavy furs and bearing gifts of Fabergé eggs and icons. Full of the fairytales of Russia, "He looked like Nureyev with slanting eyes." When he swept out of her life, he left her in the grips of a lifelong obsession.
Blanch describes her search for her great love, and the Russia he had planted within her, in her autobiography, Journey into the Mind's Eye. Later, she was among the very few who adventured across Stalin's Soviet Union, tracing history and literature rather than politics — "I went to Moscow and Leningrad because of my interest in Pushkin."
Costume sketch by Lesley Blanch for Macbeth
Dir. Komisarjevsky, Stratford, 1933.
© The Estate of Lesley Blanch
Blanch studied painting at the Slade School of Art where Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler were among her contemporaries. Her subsequent work as a scenic and costume designer with Russian emigré director, Theodore Komisarjevsky, culminated with eight of her designs representing England in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Theatre Art International Exhibition in 1934.
The Diaghilev of the theatre world, Komisarjevsky was fluent in a number of European languages and had encyclopaedic knowledge. A restless seeker and an ambitious idealist, he spoke of the “true beauty of art.” He worked in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs Elysees from 1923 to 1924 and from 1925 to 1926 at Barnes Theatre where he directed Chekhov’s Ivanov, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard; Andreyev’s Katerina; and Gogol’s The Government Inspector in which Charles Laughton made his professional debut with Claude Rains. John Gielgud, one of Komisarjevsky’s students, said of him, “His influence has been considerable and his contribution to the English theatre and its artists leaves us greatly in his debt.” His controversial productions of Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon in the early 1930s caused an uproar.
Blanch's portfolio circa 1923-35 came to light in January 2014. It contains seventy theatre designs, book illustrations, caricature-portraits, sketches for wall panels, and whimsical animal line drawings.
There are scenic and costume designs for three of Komisarjevsky’s productions, along with designs for a ‘French Farce’ and the ballets Rouge et Noir, Baroque and Daphnis et Chloé. The names of dancers with de Basil and Blum’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo are written on a couple of sketches.
There are also designs for Ashley Dukes and his wife, Polish-born ‘Mim’ Rambert, who worked briefly with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before moving to London in 1914. The Mercury Theatre, (home of the Ballet Club, later the Ballet Rambert), in Notting Hill was like a European alternative to the Bloomsbury group.
1942 London. Lesley Blanch by Cecil Beaton
© Condé Nast Publications Inc
Blanch also designed book jackets for T.S. Eliot at Faber, "A very grave, quiet, polite man," and she edited and wrote an introduction to a book of illustrated verse by John Dryden.
She developed “a new kind of caricature-portrait” based on her interview with the sitter. (Later, she would send sent caricature-portraits of herself and her husband Romain Gary on their travels, or of ‘Darling Self’, as Christmas cards to friends.)
She did a brief stint as a copywriter in an advertising office and designed a poster for London Transport in 1933, however she soon turned to journalism, “It turned out that I express myself better in writing. And I had to earn my living, you know. I have always had to earn my living.” Articles like her profile of Pushkin for Time and Tide, and 'Anti-Beige, A plea for the Scarlet Woman' for Harper's Bazaar were remarked.
In 1935 Blanch joined British Vogue’s features department. From 1937-44 she was features editor, "Writing on everything but fashion — theatre, films, books, people". She covered various aspects of Britain at war for the Ministry of Information, and documented the lives of women in the forces with her friend the photographer Lee Miller.
She worked also as a film critic for a year. "When I lived in London during the Blitz, three flats were shattered from under me — by the end of it I wanted a change."
1957 Hollywood. Christmas card by Lesley Blanch
© The Estate of Lesley Blanch
Then she met Romain Kacew (later changed to Romain Gary), a Russian-born French navigator with the Lorraine Squadron of General de Gaulle's Free French Forces. The couple married in April 1945 and left to live in Bulgaria where Gary was sent en poste — Blanch was never to return to England other than as a visitor. Gary spent every available hour working on his novel. Lesley would say, "He was always going to be a great writer. His mother had decided that."
On the Road
Life in the French Diplomatic Service took them from the Balkans to Paris, Berne, New York and Los Angeles. From these home bases they extended their travels further — to Turkey, North Africa, Mexico, Central America ... When not travelling or socializing, the couple would sit snug in dressing gowns, writing their books in long-hand as neither one had learned to type. "We understood each other perfectly about work and had the same sense of humour, and we both loved animals, all kinds. He used to say, 'Lesley doesn't mind my infidelities, she is very eighteenth-century'."
1960s. Blanch and Gary on their terrace in Hollywood
© The Estate of Lesley Blanch
The Wilder Shores of Love
Lesley Blanch's first, bestselling book, The Wilder Shores of Love, was published in 1954. She writes, "There are two sorts of romantic: those who love, and those who love the adventure of loving".
When asked by interviewer, Jim Blackburn, what inspired her to write the book, she answered: "Seeing young Englishwomen spoiling their lives tapping away at typewriters, and then watching them trudge home over Waterloo Bridge. I wondered how different their lives would have been if they’d managed to get away."
She would remark with pleasure, "When I wrote The Wilder Shores of Love, over fifty years ago now, my title coined a phrase which I still hear people use, or sometimes see in the press — 'the wilder shores of Westminster' in a piece on stormy politics, or 'the wilder shores of romanticism' on a new fashion."
Romain Gary's last posting was as French consul general in Hollywood. In 1956 he won the most prestigious literary award in France, the Prix Goncourt, for his novel The Roots of Heaven. It was during this time that Lesley Blanch wrote what she considered to be her best book, The Sabres Of Paradise, which was published in 1960.
As bestselling authors, the couple were invited everywhere. "We both loved it. And we knew everybody: Aldous and Maria Huxley, Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera, George Cukor, who became a great friend, Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer — everyone interesting. James Mason, Sopia Loren, David Selznick ... Grand Hollywood parties? Oh no, there was never enough money for us to do that. But we had a Russian cook, and it was sometimes very amusing to give a dinner for, oh, Cecil Beaton and Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov and Leslie Caron —- who was one of the few intriguing women there at that time."
When the ambitious, young actress Jean Seberg came with her husband to one of the Gary's star-studded suppers, it marked the beginning of the end of two marriages. In 1963, Romain Gary and Lesley Blanch divorced.
1960 Hollywood. Christmas dinner with Aldous Huxley and his
scientist brother, Julian © The Estate of Lesley Blanch
Lesley Blanch: "This photograph was taken a few months before Aldous' house burned to the ground and all his papers lost. No fire trucks could reach him in time as the hill roads were blocked with sightseers enjoying the specatacle".