The housekeeper at the grand Mayfair mansion was at her wit’s ends, as she complained when the lady of the house finally bustled in from shopping. Five gentlemen admirers were waiting on her.’Mr Gray is in the drawing room, Mr Sandford is in the library, Mr Phillips is in the boudoir, Senor Portago in the [...]

Sunday Times 2

My Mummy the maneater

How the wild promiscuity of Edwina Mountbatten took a heartbreaking toll on her children
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The housekeeper at the grand Mayfair mansion was at her wit’s ends, as she complained when the lady of the house finally bustled in from shopping. Five gentlemen admirers were waiting on her.’Mr Gray is in the drawing room, Mr Sandford is in the library, Mr Phillips is in the boudoir, Senor Portago in the anteroom?.?.?.?and I simply don’t know what to do with Mr Molyneux!’

Scandalous: Edwina Mountbatten was one of the magnetic personalities of high society in Thirties London

To complicate matters further, the lady in such amorous demand should not have been entertaining the advances of any of them. She was a married woman – and not just any wife but one with a husband who was among the most eminent in the land, a relative and confidant of the King, no less, and a navy captain to boot.

This was the mad social and sexual whirl around the slim, elegant and scandalous Edwina Mountbatten, one of the magnetic personalities of high society in Thirties London. She rubbed shoulders with royalty, danced the Charleston with Fred Astaire and let young men not only fall at her feet but into her bed as well.

On the surface, Edwina and her husband, Lord Louis Mountbatten, were the glitziest couple of their day – rich, high-born, debonair, de luxe. Beneath, the reality were separate beds, separate lives and a flurry of flings that set tongues wagging.

If the housekeeper was confused about all the shenanigans, how must it have felt being one of Edwina’s two daughters, growing up with a procession of ‘uncles’ and a father who chose, appropriately Nelson-like for the naval officer he was, to turn a blind eye to what was going on?

By her own account – revealed in a fascinating, newly published memoir – the young Pamela Mountbatten saw nothing untoward at first in her mother’s string of male friends.

But in time, the ‘eccentricity’ of her family life would inevitably be a source of bewilderment and sadness.

Yet, three-quarters of a century on, the 83-year-old Pamela writes lovingly and forgivingly of a mother who partied, frolicked and fornicated with abandon – and often left her children for some wild venture.
The excuse for such cavalier behaviour was that she was lonely. ‘My father’s naval duties often took him away, so she became increasingly reliant on admirers for entertainment.’

But that modus cannot have been easy for the children of their unconventional union.Edwina – a wealthy heiress who had married the impecunious Mountbatten when just 21 – was a force of nature certainly, but a moody and impetuous one. She demanded attention and sulked if she did not get it.

Not surprisingly, she was utterly devoid of parenting skills. Just a month after her first child, Patricia, was born, she was off partying in the South of France, leaving the baby at home.

‘It seemed she couldn’t stop herself indulging in this hedonistic way of life, the endless adventure and travel that so thrilled her,’ comments Pamela, loyally avoiding other descriptions that might spring to mind – such as ‘selfish’ and ‘spoilt’. Not that Edwina was totally self-absorbed. She seemed to have oceans of love – for her ‘ginks’, her hospital work, the refugees she championed in later life, and the entire population of the Indian sub-continent when her husband became the last Viceroy of the old Raj.

Besotted: Edwina and India's PM Pandit Nehru share a joke as her husband,stands by

But those closer to home often got only fleeting attention.’As a young child, I rarely saw my mother,’ Pamela recalls wistfully. Brought up by nannies, at night, ‘I would start to buzz with excitement at the thought that one of my parents would come and visit me before I went off to sleep.

‘If my mother were in the country she would come and say goodnight. I would listen for the tinkling of her bracelet and after she had leant down and kissed me, I would lie awake and savour her scent for as long as it lingered in my bedroom.’

All her parents’ social gadding-about came to a halt when war broke out in 1939. Mountbatten and Bunny Philliips had serious and all-consuming duties to perform for King and Country.

Edwina at last had something real to do. She put on a uniform and cap – albeit set at a jaunty, come-on angle – and threw herself, body and soul, into work with the St John Ambulance Brigade. Pamela recalls her father looking at his wayward wife with a new sense of pride that she had at last found her purpose in life. Pamela felt the same when she saw her mother in action.

When her father was made Viceroy the family were moved to India. Her mother fell madly in love with the country, and also with one of its new leaders, Pandit Nehru, India’s first prime minister after independence.
From the start, there was a profound connection between them. But Pamela saw more. ‘A peace came over her mother,’ she recalls. ‘She was easy to get along with; a sense of well-being emanated from her.

Mountbatten saw this too and let his wife get on with this new phase of her life. For him, Edwina’s new interest was a relief. It got her off his back.In later years, Pamela would pore over Nehru’s letters to her mother, ‘and I came to realise how deeply he and my mother loved each other.’

But it was a spiritual and intellectual relationship, not a sexual one. Pamela is convinced of that. ‘Neither had time to indulge in a physical affair, and anyway the very public nature of their lives meant they were rarely alone.’

What was remarkable in all this – as seen through Pamela’s eyes – was her father’s dignity and forbearance, as it had been through all the ups and downs of his marriage to Edwina. He remained loyal to the end.
In 1960, aged 58, she died of a stroke on a tour of the Far East for a charity. She had requested to be buried at sea.

As the coffin slipped below the water off the south coast of England, Pamela recalls ‘my father standing with tears streaming down his face. It was the only time I had ever seen him weep. He then kissed his wreath before throwing it into the sea.’

It was the last act of a strange marriage but one which, in its own way, had worked. He had defied the gossip, kept up appearances and kept his family intact, however unconventional the method.

He had managed to find a practical solution to the ‘tricky problem’ of his wife’s wanderlust. Whatever else she had to put up with, their daughter remains deeply grateful for that.

Daily Mail, London




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