People & Places

A Base in Paris

From her base in Paris, Lesley Blanch continued to write and travel. She saw old friends – Nancy Mitford, Violet Trefusis, Rebecca West and the Windsors: “Wallis was a very nice person and I don’t mind what anyone said, he was highly intelligent.”

Blanch was commissioned to write for American Vogue by Diana Vreeland and also did features for The Sunday Times. She relished travelling to Afghanistan, the Arab Emirates and Egypt with Eve Arnold to write the accompanying text for the series Behind the Veil and Womanhood. It later became a film for the BBC and NBC.

When not travelling she would divide her time between Roquebrune in the South of France and her rooftop apartment in Avenue Mozart. “I knew Camus, but not very well. I spoke French rather badly. I am not an intellectual in their way. I loved Malraux – he was a really romantic figure.”

Now East, Now West

In 1963, Lesley Blanch worked in Hollywood for the great director George Cukor at M.G.M., on the film of Romain Gary’s novel Lady L for which she was the inspiration. Then in 1964, she crossed Siberia at last on the legendary Trans-Siberian Express. She roamed across Outer Mongolia, Egypt, Iran, Samarkand, Afghanistan, and returned to the Sahara which had inspired The Wilder Shores of Love.

A Determined Romantic

Blanch would say: “I like to travel alone, to just go, the excitement of not knowing where you will doss down for the night or what might happen next. I have never felt frightened anywhere, however dicey the situation. I feel among friends, as I do in Russia; even with wild Muslim tribesmen in the Balkans. I was never raped, and I was very rapeable then!

She wished she could travel again as she increasingly became housebound: “I long, I long to go to the Sahara; I would love to go back to Oman; I yearn for Afghanistan, and ache for Central Asia – Kashgar, Turkoman, and Chinese Turkestan which is to me the most interesting still.

Lesley Blanch was in the tradition of the romantic English woman traveller who falls in love with the East and goes off, enduring all sorts of living conditions and experiences.

Contrary to general belief, her inspiration was never Lady Hester Stanhope – she did not consider herself to be remotely similar: “Hester Stanhope had a romantic life, but she was not really a romantic in herself. A formidable lady, she came from an aristocratic family, and ended up in a castello in Lebanon draped in Arabic robes and smoking a narghile, receiving the distinguished personalities who came up the mountainside to call. She was a picturesque rather than a romantic figure.”

Lesley Blanch, Upper Egypt, 1971 © Estate of Lesley Blanch

The Arabist

Blanch had profound respect for those great travellers, Wilfred Thesiger and Freya Stark. She did not consider herself to be in the same league, but simply as someone who “likes to reach different horizons, to break away from the present and look at the past in far distances.” Freya Stark was a friend: “We shared the same publisher and would meet there and elsewhere. She was always extremely nice and encouraging to me as a beginner.”

Blanch shared an interest in the world of Islam with the distinguished soldier and diplomat, Gerald de Gaury, who gave her a special insight into certain closed worlds: “He spoke beautiful Arabic, and could talk Arabic lore. Living among, and as one of, the royal household in Arabia, he knew a great deal and could tell you marvellous legends. His books are a brilliant reading of the Middle East that is vanishing as we watch – he was an historian manqué.

Lesley Blanch with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan © Estate of Lesley Blanch

Roquebrune and Menton

Drawn to the Islamic world, Lesley Blanch never intended to settle permanently in the South of France. However, in the early 1970s, she moved from the old stone donkey stable (which she and Romain Gary had converted) in the provençal village of Roquebrune, to a larger house submerged in lush Mediterranean greenery in Garavan on the French-Italian frontier.

In each of her homes she always surrounded herself with the magic of the East. “I have never made any plans about what to do with my life. But I have always been open to what has come along, and I have always plunged.”

She used to say: “One is not given sight for long enough to appreciate the beauty given to us by nature – we do not realize what is given to us for free.”

She celebrated her 100th birthday in June 2004. “You have to have a certain courage to be old. As Bette Davis said, ‘old age is not for sissies’, but I still enjoy a lot of things.”