THE HOSTESS WITHOUT THE MOSTEST
Profile: Margot Walmsley, whose salon is modest, but London's most cerebral
SOME 20 years ago, a watcher in the shrubbery outside a Kensington terrace might have seen an intriguing sight. Every time a group of visitors arrived on the doorstep of one of the houses, a lighted window at the top would open, and a key wrapped rather inefficiently in a brown paper envelope would come hurtling down. Nothing especially unusual in that in London, perhaps, though it was always a dramatic sight. But it was the identity of the visitors that might have fascinated the watcher. Among those regularly rummaging about under the parked cars or scrabbling in the gutter to retrieve the key he might have seen V.S. Pritchett, Freddie Ayer and Vanessa Lawson, Peregrine Worsthorne, Denys Las- dun, Katharine Whitehorn.
Over some 40 years, Margot Walmsley, the occupant of that Kens- ington flat, has been hostess to an extraordinary number and variety of friends. Worsthorne has said, 'Antho- ny Powell caught the note of one social period just before the war per- fectly when he called his novel At Lady Molly's. If a contemporary nov- elist were to do the same for this period, the title would have to be, See You at Margot's Tonight.'
We get vivid glimpses of the salons '-- of two famous pre-war and wartime hostesses, Lady (Emerald) Cunard and Lady (Sybil) Colefax, in the letters that have been rolling out in recent years by Nancy Mitford, Anne Fleming, Diana Cooper and Evelyn Waugh. Both of those hostesses were very much loved, but none of their guests doubted that they were sought principally as social lions, or that their current degree of lionhood or lionesshood could be accurately measured by whether they were invited or not. 'I have to choose tonight between Emerald's oven and Sybil's frigidaire,' Waugh wrote in a letter to Cyril Connolly.
Nothing could have been more different from Margot's salon. At Margot's, all rela- tions other than those of friendship seem to dissolve in the warmth she spreads around her. Margot glides about incessant- ly, making sure that everyone is intro- duced to everyone, young and old, famous and unknown. An excess of zeal never troubles her when she is doing that, and one can find oneself led away and intro- duced to the same person three times in the evening, besides being introduced twice to one's wife. One develops a style for drifting delicately back, in due course, to the person one has been talking to.
As a girl, Margot lived in Maida Vale (`the respectable end', she says), and her parents were great entertainers. They went up to Carlisle, where she and her twin sis- ter seem to have lured half the young men of Edinburgh to take them out, then came back to London to live in Swiss Cottage. Margot's first literary friends were the novelist William Sansom and his wife Ruth, who lived opposite them in Buck- land Crescent. She joined the Daily Graph- ic just before the war and soon afterwards married another journalist, Geoff Walms- ley. But he died during the war, and her only son died when he was young. Perhaps that is why friends have played such a remarkable part in her life.
She moved on, and her salon grew out of the parties she gave when she became managing editor of Encounter in the 1950s and 1960s. In those early days, there were plenty of American intellectuals at them, and even in the 1990s you might still get a conversation with one of those old stal- warts such as Daniel Bell. That right-wing flavour has been detectable in her flat ever since, and on an average evening you might well meet the editor of the Daily Telegraph in animated conversation with the editor of The Spectator, while the editor of the Express hovers in the background.
But there are other flavours in her salon. On the wall of her flat is the original draw- ing by Henry Moore of the Encounter cover he painted for the 25th anniversary of the journal; there are also paintings by Nicholas de Stael and L.S. Lowry that Stephen Spender gave Margot out of grati- tude for all that she did for the journal when he was an editor of it.
The flat itself has a strange peripatetic history. As the owners of the terrace slowly refurbished the houses for more prosperous tenants, they have moved Margot up and down the terrace with great consideration, and she has been like a swallow nesting between different but adjacent beams in a barn roof from year to year. In her last two flats she has descended to the ground floor from the heights from which the keys came tumbling down, but the pictures, the pretty little shell- shaped chairs which she bought for 30 shillings at the end of the war and the well-laden drinks table have remained in exactly the same relative positions.
On Margot's 80th birthday three years ago, a vast concourse of her friends gave her a party in the Reform Club. Peregrine Worsthorne said in his speech on that occasion that the first venue planned for the party was the Beefsteak Club, then because so many people wanted to come it was moved to the Garrick Club and even that proved too small, so finally the library of the Reform was chosen. `And I do not doubt', Worsthorne added, 'that if we had waited much longer, nothing would have sufficed smaller than the Albert Hall.'
Margot fell down recently and broke her hip. In no time, the Charing Cross Hospital had mended it with a steel pin, and round her hospital bed the parties were starting up again, with the wine flowing and the conversation shaking the hospital walls. Recently, in a magnificent hat, she made her entry into social and literary life again at a party given by Nicholas Cranston to celebrate the posthumous publication of the last volume of the Life of Rousseau by his father, Maurice Cranston. None of her friends doubt that in a few weeks they will be back at one of her parties, with Margot saying, 'Darling, can I introduce you to dar- ling?' as she brings together two old Tory friends of 50 years' standing.