by William Dale
In February 1954, all five Dales, big and little, left the house we had rented in Garches, near Paris, for London by way of Boulogne and the Dover ferry. Our most immediate concern was becoming accustomed to driving on the left side of the road when we reached England on direct transfer. Somehow we did and our embassy administrative staff installed us in temporary quarters at 20 Chesham Place while we searched for a more permanent home.
We arrived in an England that had by no means recovered from the Second World War. Rationing was still in force and life in general still displayed a drab austerity that gradually receded during our two and a half-year tour. By this time the British governing and academic elites had realized that England’s glory days were over. Those concerned with money knew that the country would not be able to carry the burden of great power status very much longer. Those dealing with international affairs understood that the British Empire was becoming an anachronism and was bound to disintegrate. India was much on their minds. The leaders saw that the United States was replacing Britain as leader in the West. This led them to a policy of staying as close to this country as they could in all conscience on international issues, while avoiding too close an association with Western Europe’s efforts to coalesce. The British leaders conducted the descent from great power status with more dignity and grace than human nature usually grants.
My posting in London was fun, perhaps the most fun of any of my Foreign Service assignments. I became one of several first secretaries in the political section directed for most of my London stay by the sympathetic and intelligent Andy Foster. The twelve officers of the political section got along so well that I actually looked forward to staff meetings.
One of my assignments was to keep in close touch with the Conservative Party and report the views of its leaders on subjects of interest to this country and to make sure they knew the views of the United States, as well. I performed this task in close coordination with the Conservative Party Central Office presided over by Michael Fraser and Mrs. Henry Brooke. Elizabeth Sturgis-Jones provided detailed guidance by ensuring that I saw party leaders at play, including horse shows and cricket matches, as well as at work. She also made sure I was invited to party conferences.
On one such occasion, Elizabeth arranged for me to go to Manchester to observe one aspect of Conservative campaigning of which the party was particularly proud. First I obtained a room at the hotel directly across the street from the railway station. An influx of people due to the party meeting had already absorbed all the regular rooms the hotel had to offer but one—the bridal suite. Being a foreign diplomat, I obtained the coveted bridal suite even though I certainly didn’t have the usual qualifications. After depositing my bag in the splendiferous suite, I joined Elizabeth Sturgis-Jones for a grand tour of Manchester. She made a point of driving me through the poorer sections of town, which were endless rows of almost identical shabby row houses. Elizabeth, with a sweep of her arm, claimed triumphantly that the voters there almost all voted Conservative. When asked how this could be, she told me I’d learn at the rally that evening.
After an indifferent meal at the hotel, we went to the auditorium, already crowded with expectant voters. It was then that I learned the speaker would be Lady Astor, who had retired from the House of Commons about ten years earlier.
In case some younger readers do not recall much about Lady Astor, I should mention that she was one of the five Gibson Girls who became famous throughout the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century for their style, wealth, and beauty. After one short, unsuccessful marriage, in 1906 Nancy wedded John Jacob Astor, reputed to be one of the richest men in the world. She settled down to live an active life in England. As a wedding present, Astor’s father presented the newly married couple with a huge mansion in Buckinghamshire named Clivedon. The Astors entertained extensively and their friends soon became known as the “Clivedon Set,” the smartest and wealthiest elite in England. In 1919, Lady Astor won the seat in the House of Commons vacated by her husband when he was elevated to the House of Lords. Though born and brought up in the United States, she was the first woman to enter the British Parliament. As a legislator, she focused her tremendous energy on improving the lot of women and children. When she retired in 1945, the House of Commons lost one of its most useful, charming, and witty members.
Retirement, however, did not mean that the Lady ceased to be active in politics. When the Conservatives needed a speaker to bring out the voters, they could call upon her to oblige. Her personable, humorous speaking style was particularly effective in energizing voters in constituencies where the standard of living was low. Thus, the party prevailed upon her to be the main speaker in Manchester the night I was there.
She gave a rousing speech perfectly tailored to the working class audience. She made them feel she was really one of them. Afterwards, I met her briefly at a short drinks party organized to savor the impact of her words.
I met her again much more quickly than I had expected. When I approached my bridal suite at the hotel to spend the night, I had the impression someone else was already bumping around inside the two rooms. I unlocked the door and there was Lady Astor and her maid. I could just see my luggage stacked against the door, while Lady Astor’s infinitely more stylish bags occupied the middle of the room. She stared at me in apparent surprise and then asked quite haughtily what I was doing in her suite. I replied humbly that I was merely returning to the room that the hotel management had assigned me. We were at an impasse and could only stare wordlessly at one another. Finally, Lady Astor broke the silence by saying, “If you want London to know that you spent the night with Lady Astor, stick around. Otherwise, please ask the manager to find you other quarters.”
I believed I had no choice but to follow the second alternative. I picked up my bag with what little dignity I had left and departed for the front desk. I ended up in a small room near the top of the building designed for servants. I still wonder what would have happened, if I had taken the first choice offered me by Lady Astor.