Requiem for Mignon - 4

According to Diana Mosley Lord Berners thought Lilian Nelson was "the best cook he ever had.

This is saying something, as Lord Berners was well known for the high quality of his catering. He divided his time between Faringdon House near Oxford, London and Rome. He had a cook in each house.  Faringdon welcomed many famous guests who commented on its comfort and fine food.

As well as entertaining international cultural figures like Stravinsky and Salvador Dali there were regular visits from Berners' own social circle, including the Clarks. William Crack was Berners' driver for many years. In an interview about Berners' staff he states simply "Mrs Nelson" was the cook in London. The Nelsons were listed as residents at Halkin Street between 1937 and 1939. Lilian, Diana Mosley records in her autobiography, was Cook and Housekeeper. This is a doubly responsible position and shows that the fastidious Berners, who had very high standards of a surprisingly traditional kind for such an artist, had complete trust in her. It is possible that Lilian worked there before 1937 and only took up residence when she was able to leave Mignon and leave her succession of flats in Hamlet Gardens. Berners' previous permanent housekeeper, Lydia Lyndon died (if she is the Lydia Lyndon on the death records for St George Hanover Square) in 1932.

That same year Berners dismissed his butler Herbert Marshall. Diana Mosley, according to her biographer Anne de Courcy, believed that Mrs Nelson had ended her employment because of her "unsatisfactory" husband but this is probably a confusion with Marshall who both drank and was light-fingered. Lilian and William were certainly at Halkin Street at the beginning of the war when Berners decided to leave London and to close the house down.  Losing both Lydia Lyndon and Marshall in 1932 opened the way for Lilian and William. Berners might have been aware of her reputation before she worked for him.   There were fewer famous guests at Halkin Street but in 1937, when Mrs Nelson is first listed, visitors would have included people involved in Berners successful ballet "A Wedding Bouquet", including Gertrude Stein, who wrote the play on which it was based, the choreographer Frederick Ashton and the conductor Constant Lambert. Constant Lambert, musical director of Sadlers Wells and conductor of Berners three last ballets, described Halkin Street in the late thirties: 

"In the hall busts of generals and statesmen were notably improved by the addition of pantomime masks representing negroes and cats. Half-way up the stairs was a large cage housing a rare and exquisite tropical bird. In the drawing room the piano was littered with an extraordinary heterogenous collection of objects ranging from a fish in copper dating from the renaissance to a beer mug representing the Duke of Windsor which played the National Anthem when lifted. But on the piano desk itself might easily be the latest work of Stravinsky with a dedication by the composer and after tearing ones eyes away from the more facetious objects on the mantelpiece one would be enhanced by an exceptionally fine early Corot, flanked by a Sisley and a Matisse."

Some years earlier Berners had amused his mother by putting his bowler hat over his pet bird and setting bird-animated hat walking across the floor.     Berners may not have known anything of Lilian's background, though, if she came from the world of the theatre he would surely have enjoyed talking to her. Though his early music was considered avant garde his ballet music largely inhabits a colourful and fantastic world inspired by nostalgic memories of Victorian and Edwardian theatre. Though Berners is usually seen as an avant-garde figure his autobiographies show him to be someone whose emotional and creative roots were in the late nineteenth century. He enjoyed the turn of the century operettas and the theatrical world that Lilian would have known. Most of Berners circle were much younger people who had been too young for the First World War. Berners, who was born in 1883, must have been a contemporary of Lilian and they must have had a lot in common. The question of her daughters origin may never have been mentioned to Berners.

Though Berners had a reputation as a practical joker and gossip, sometimes a malicious one, this behaviour was kept within a small circle, apart from occasional very public jokes that seemed to be part of a campaign of self-promotion, sometimes connected with his musical and literary work. His close friends, particularly Diana Mosley and John Betjeman, were very eager to emphasise his loyalty and sincerity. John Betjeman wrote to Diana Mosley to emphasise what a wonderful friend he could be and how scornful of all pretensions and how loyal in trouble, effortlessly loyal it seemed. Diana Mosley, originally Diana Mitford, was one of Berners closest friends, far more than her sister, Nancy, who based the character of Lord Merlin in "Love in a Cold Climate on Berners. Merlin, though not an accurate portrait, is by far the most sensitive and trustworthy character in the novel. Diana stayed at Halkin Street and remembered chats with Mrs Nelson when she brought up her breakfast. From his own writings he comes across as a very serious and sensitive person with a surprisingly deep, almost mystical, love of nature. 

He took music very seriously indeed and during this period the influential composition teacher Nadia Boulanger used the house for lessons for younger composers.   Berners had an unusally close relationship with Lilian. In more conventional households the man of the house would rarely have any contact with a cook at all, but as a bachelor, and as a gourmet, Berners was directly involved with the kitchen. He delighted in Lilian as "the best cook he ever had and it must have been his pleasure in her skills and, I suspect, in her as a person, that led him to arrange an article in the Daily Express of Tuesday July 30th 1937 for us, a very dramatic piece of documentary evidence.

 In "Food fit for a Lord Berners introduces Mrs Nelson.

"He thinks that a cook who is hardly ever spoken to becomes a bored cook. And a bored cook soon becomes a bad cook."

There is a photograph of Mrs Nelson with pots of jam. It is impossible to guess her age from the poor quality photograph. She is fairly matronly in her white house coat. She has a wide smile of white teeth, a straight nose and short hair. The article says that

"Mrs Nelson has been to America. She spoke of the American (and Yorkshire) custom of eating cheese with apple tart."

She gives a recipe for a cheese topped apple tart.

" 'Apple tart without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze' quoted Mrs Nelson. This, thought I, may be a matter which might well be decided by a practical demonstration. But Lord Berners was in the kitchen. So Mrs Nelson and I just shook hands."

She also gives a recipe for "Johnny Cake", an American breakfast dish made with corn meal. This seems a very humble food for Belgravia. As "Mrs Harman" Lilian had had very strong links with Americans. "Johnny Cake" might have been a staple breakfast food at the US embassy. The article states "Mrs Nelson has been to America. As I have explained earlier I do not think that she can have travelled to America in the 1920s. The two examples of American food, the "Johnny Cake" and apple pie with cheese suggest more humble circles than the ambassadorial staff and the glamorous Constance Rivington Russell. It is far more likely that Lilian is recalling a much earlier period in her life.

 In April 1937 Gertrude Stein was been in England for the rehearsals and premiere of Berners' ballet "A Wedding Bouquet." This proved his most successful work and has continued to be in the Royal Ballet repertoire. Though it generally humorous and features a chorus singing Steins impressionist words, the setting, a French country wedding in the late 19th century, would have brought back memories of a world that Berners later described in his autobiographical book published many years later as "The Chateau of Resenlieu.

Berners youthful days in idyllic French landscapes inspired his most romantic writing in both music and prose. It might have been a world that Lilian also knew if she had been in France in this period. The French operetta and music hall world influenced the ballet that Berners wrote after this, "Cupid and Psyche. Gertrude Stein stayed at Faringdon during her visit for "A Wedding Bouquet" but she would have met Lilian when the creators and their friends converged on Halkin Street after the premiere on 27th April 1937.

She described the event:

 "and then gradually it was ending and we went out and on to the stage and there where I never had been with everything in front all dark and we bowing and all of them coming and going and bowing, and then again not only bowing but coming again and then again as if it was everything, it was all over and we went back to sit down. I guess it was a great success."

Berners wrote to Stein a few days later:

"Mrs Nelson has discovered how to make the Macon gateau.  I will send Alice the recipe when I get back to London."

Gateau Maconnaise is a cake with meringue. 

The Alice referred to was Getrude Steins companion Alice B Toklas who herself published a famous, or notorious, cook book. In an interview with Gavin Bryars, an edited version of which was published in Peter Dickinsons book about Berners, Lady Harrod referred to "a frightfully grand cook like Mrs Nelson." This may refer to her "grand manner" more than the style of cooking.

Cooks could be a class of their own, and adopt a superior attitude. William Nelson is a more mysterious figure than Lilian. Whether or not he was actually married to Lilian he was certainly with her in the 1940s when both of them vanish from sight. He does make a few appearances in the sources including a one very significant one at the start of the war. Cecil Beaton was staying at Halkin Street in September 1939. According to his biography by Hugo Vickers' "Lord Berners deaf butler, Nelson, suddenly shouted 'the war has started' as Cecil was about to step into his bath."   WARTIME Almost miraculously it seems a letter from Lilian survives in the Lord Clark archive at the Tate Gallery. This is another vivid and revealing piece of evidence. It reveals a lot for such a brief document. There is no date on the letter but the archive files it with letters of 1941/2.

43 Hamlet Gds

April 27th

To Sir Kenneth Clark

Dear Sir

I hope I am not troubling you too  much asking you if you would kindly sign the enclosed papers & photos of my daughter as she has got a chance of work for ensa as soon as she gets these papers signed. She has been home since Coventry. I hope & trust you are feeling better. I am going to work for Lady Clark in 6 weeks time when Nelson's leg comes out of plaster. She has been so very kind to me. God Bless & protect her.

very respectfully yours

Lilian Nelson

The handwriting is very strong and suggests a forceful character. She used a dip pen as can be seen from the changes from a vigorous start with a full nib to its gradual drying followed by another vigorous dip of the pen. The simple evidence of the signature is valuable. At this point Lilian signs herself very forcefully "Lilian Nelson." This is how she sees herself or wishes to present herself. Most importantly this letter confirms Clark's story of the ENSA application.

The reference to enclosed papers & photos confirms Clark's evidence that he was being asked to witness a passport application.  He would have to sign the form and the photographs and state that he knew the applicant. Frustratingly, though there is evidence that Mignon did go abroad with ENSA, most passport applications for the war years are missing including what would have been an extraordinarily interesting piece of evidence.

This letter also provides a suggestion of the relationship between Lilian and her daughter. Very significantly the letter reveals that from Lilian’s point of view her daughter is "home”. This is particularly interesting considering that there are suggestions that Mignon's friends and colleagues, both before and after this time, seem not to be aware that she had a mother, even believing her to be an orphan. This is puzzling but the reasons for it might be something more than a straightforward deception.
There are several possible explanations. Mignon might have invented a story for herself to separate herself from her mother, perhaps when her mother remarried, or began to live with, William Nelson. It is possible, though, that Mignon was living with her mother at the time she was dancing with the Tiller Girls. The idea that she was an orphan seems to have continued after the date of this letter – when her mother was going out of her way to support her and when mother and daughter were sharing confidences with Kenneth Clark. In 1941/2 Hamlet Gardens is Mignon’s home. Could it be that she would rather have told people that she was an orphan than say that she was illegitimate? At that time the stigma of illegitimacy was very powerful and people did avoid the truth. Another possibility is that Mignon was telling the truth when she spoke of being an orphan and adopted by a doctor. What would have happened, before the First World War, to the daughter of an unmarried woman in Lilian’s position? If Lilian was working at the time a daughter could have to be adopted, unofficially, or placed in an orphanage, which would have looked after illegitimate children as well as actual orphans. Mignon’s story of being adopted by a doctor seems to conflict with the evidence, but it is possible. An orphanage might have taken her as soon as she was born and at an early age she could have been taken into a private home, perhaps the home of a sympathetic doctor and his wife. A cook living in private houses would not be able to have a child with her, but one working for an agency with a home of her own would be able to take her back and look after her. Could Lilian have kept in touch with Mignon and taken her into her own care when she signed up with Mrs Hunt’s agency, perhaps in 1925? At the same time Mignon would have started her training at the Tiller school. This would make perfect sense if the later birth date were correct and she was 13. This does seem to be the explanation that would make sense of the evidence. The scenario would also be a possible explanation of Mignon’s mental state. She might well have avoided any mention of her mother to avoid difficult explanations, whether or not she knew who her father was. What alternatives are there? Was Lilian married and Mignon her legitimate daughter? Was her first husband killed in the war and the story of the orphanage and adoption true, but for a different reason? This seems a reasonable option. Against this is the lack of any marriage or birth certificates to support it. Was Mignon not Lilian’s daughter at all but adopted by Lilian? This is, surely, discountable given Lilian’s unpredictable and possibly unstable career. On the whole the first scenario, though the most dramatic, does seem the most plausible.   Here, though, in 1941/2, mother and daughter are together. "Home” is yet another address in the smart Hamlet Gardens.

After a few years resident at Lord Berners' house in Halkin Street Lilian has taken on another flat as a base for her family. She would have needed this is she had returned to working on short and unpredictable engagements. Unfortunately there are no electoral rolls for the war years to show how long she lived at this address. During the war, Sir Kenneth Clark was Director of the National Gallery, responsible for the protection of its treasures and also for the famous series of National Gallery concerts, his wife Elizabeth lived at Upton House, Tetbury. Clark kept a flat in London until it was bombed. Clark may have known both mother and daughter in London, but the letter reveals that Lilian is actually employed by Lady Clark and that she will be returning to work for her "when Nelsons leg comes out of plaster."

This is a very old fashioned way of referring to her husband. It could be a way of avoiding referring to him directly as "my husband but it is also the way he would be known as a butler. The letter does imply that "Nelson" is living in Hammersmith and not working for Lady Clark. Clark's son, Alan Clark, told Ismene Brown in a phone conversation in 1993 that he had met Mrs Nelson while on holiday from Eton.  He could not remember where, but as he referred to the family entertaining with a large staff this would have been Upton House.

He believed Mrs Nelson had been working for the family for about eight months when he met her. He did not remember meeting the daughter.  He did comment that to him, though apparently not to his father who was aware of signs of past glamour, Mrs Nelson was "a trout. The letter implies that at the time of writing Lilian has already been working for the Clark's and is going to continue working for them. This suggests that she could have begun her employment by the Clarks soon after the closure of Lord Berners' house in late 1939.

The Clarks kept Upton House until the end of the war when the family were reunited in Hampstead.   The letter does not explain how any conversation about Mignon's real father might have arisen. It seems likely that Clark knew, or at least knew of, "Nelson". If Mignon had indeed given her name on the application as "Elgar the question would obviously have come up but this is impossible to prove. If Clark knew Nelson he may have been aware that Lilian had only married him, or become his partner, in more recent years and so the subject might have been raised. At that time passports needed nothing more than the signature of a respectable guarantor. It was not necessary to show any further proof of identity, Mignon would not have had to give her parents details on the form. Lilian is writing from Hammersmith to Clark presumably at his London address. She was presumably expecting him to return the forms and photos to her by post. If this is the case it has to be presumed that Clark already knew Mignon. In theory Clark would have to have known the applicant for a period to able to act as guarantor. Clark's comment that Mignon "said and her mother confirmed that her father was Elgar implies that the three of them did meet and discuss things around this time.
Clark would have known Lilian when he visited his wife in Tetbury but did he meet Mignon there or in London?

The letter is undated, though filed in the archive in correspondence from 1941/2. Lilian's comment that her daughter "has been home since Coventry" inevitably suggests the Coventry bombings of November 14th 1940.

If this is the case the letter would be dated April 27th 1941. If she had been referring to a show, for example, one would have expected Lilian to have been much more specific unless she had been writing to a very intimate acquaintance who knew exactly what her daughter had been doing. "Coventry on its own would surely have meant that terrible night of destruction. If the letter was written a year later Lilian would have been referring to the first of a series of spectacular pantomimes at the Coventry Hippodrome in which Mignon played a significant part. Exactly when Mignon moved to the Midlands and how she found new work after the dramatic end of her career in the Tiller Girls, is a mystery.

She may have moved there when Lilian and William became residents at Halkin Street. Perhaps coincidentally 1937 was the year that the new art deco Coventry Hippodrome opened. This was the biggest theatre in the West Midlands and became the home for some of the most spectacular pantomimes in the country, written by produced the impresario Emil Littler.

These seasonal events took the whole year to produce and Littler set up a pantomime factory in Birmingham to plan, rehearse and build sets as well as a separate business to produce costumes. There were more modest shows at the Hippodrome in its first few years but "Cinderella, Emile Littler's "First All-Comedy Coventry Pantomime", opened on January 13th 1942.

I spoke to Gay Harris who began her dancing and teaching career as a "juve at the age of 12 at Christmas 1942. She remembers Mignon well, but has always remembered her as "Aunty Mickie". This is how she was known by the young girls she looked after at Betty Foxs School of Dance in Birmingham in the last year of her life. It was only after our first conversation that Gay realised that when she first met "Aunty Mickie as "head girl of "Millie Jacksons Adorables" in the 1942/3 pantomime she had signed her autograph, in elaborately ornamented script as Mignon Harman. "Cinderella" starred Peggy Wilding as Cinderella and Phyllis Hunter as Dandini with Ted Ray as Buttons.

The Pantomime was "written, devised and presented by Emile Littler". It also featured: "The 24 Adorables trained by Millie Jackson, Emile Littler’s 32 Bright Eyes Trained by Betty Fox and "Ponies supplied by Barnaby Parsons." Millie Jackson ran a School of Dance in Bloomsbury. She trained, and presumably choreographed, many troupes of dancers for shows all over Britain. These were largely made up of local dancers hired for the show and went by many names. There were "Eight Glamour Girls" in Dundee in 1940 and "Rhythm Rockets" in Bristol in 1941.

The "Adorables" appeared in the Coventry pantomimes throughout the 1940s and there were also troupes under this name performing through the summer of 1942 in Exeter, Plymouth, Bristol and Derby. As Millie Jackson tended to use new names for new troupes it is possible that this was the same troupe and that Mignon toured with them. It is unlikely that Millie would have used local dancers on a summer tour, with all the extra work of training new people, and she is likely to have kept Mignon as her trusted "head girl."  

As "head girl" she would have been responsible for all the practical aspects of looking after the other dancers. Gay Harris underlined her name in her autograph book to show that she was the lead dancer. The Emile Littler shows were major events and demanded the highest standards. Mignon's career has to be seen as a successful one. She had been in the most highly regarded troupe of Tiller Girls and now, fifteen years later, she was in a top quality show. Her last season as "head girl" was in Babes in the Wood which opened on December 11th 1944. The following year she was no longer able to dance.

Betty Fox began teaching dance in 1932 at the age of 13, originally at her family home at 294 Tiverton Road Selly Oak. When her mother, May, died her father, Edward, bought a larger house at what was then 50 Bristol Road which could be used as a home for the dance school. Betty had worked in London as a young dancer herself and had formed a working relationship with Emile Littler which proved vital to the success of her School of Dance. Littler set up a base for the production of his pantomimes in Birmingham and Betty was closely involved in his shows both in the Midlands and in London. In 1938, when she was only 19, Betty supplied "60 Bright Eyes for his London production of Cinderella. They would have worked very closely together in the year-round production process of the shows Mignon become a friend and colleague of Betty early in the war, though it is unclear when they first met. There may have been a connection in London, perhaps through Emile Littler who also worked with Phyl Blakeston, Mignon's "head girl" in their Tiller Girl days.

Phyl was rumoured to have been Littler’s mistress. Littler was married to Cora Goffin who starred as principal boy in some of his productions but he seems to have taken an interest in other dancers. During the war he may have had more than a professional connection with Betty. He was said to pick her up in his Rolls as she walked to her wartime factory work. She was embarrassed to be wearing slacks and a headscarf. There was a story that he had given her, or offered her, a smart car. There is something very puzzling about the relationships of Littler, Betty, Phyl Blakeston and Mignon.

Mignon lived with Betty and her father from early in the war. There are no electoral rolls between 1939 and 1944 but she can be found on the 1945 roll with her name bizarrely mistranscribed as "Nighon Harman". She would probably have been upset by this misspelling. She had wrongly appeared as "Harmon in the Jack Buchanan show programme. In the case of both Mignon and her mother their names are strangely unstable, either because they deliberately chose to use different alternatives at different times or because of these accidental errors.
Though the exact story of Betty and Mignon is impossible to fathom it appears that they were closely involved with the pantomimes and other shows throughout the war, with Betty as choreographer and organiser for the juveniles and Mignon as "head girl2 of the adult dancers. In spite of her troubled days in the first half of the thirties Mignon had continued to have a successful career and she had found a new home and friendship with Betty Fox.   

In 1943 Lilian spent a short time working for another high profile family. This may have been a temporary arrangement while her employment by Lady Clark continued.

In the early years of the Second World War Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley, who, as Diana Mitford, had been a close friend of Lord Berners and known Lilian Nelson at Halkin Street, were imprisoned as threats to national security.  They were held, with other married couples, in the Preventive Detention Block at Holloway Prison, not as conventional prisoners. A fellow prisoner, after their release in November 1943, said "We've never had such laughs since Lady Mosley left." With Oswald Mosley very ill the family, including their sons and a nanny, moved into temporary accommodation at a dilapidated pub, the Shaven Crown at Shipton-under-Wychwood. Life was difficult, with, as for everyone, a severe shortage of food.  Diana had to do the cooking.

The press was full of stories about the notorious couple. This had the unexpected effect of inspiring a number of letters offering help. The most significant letter was from Lilian Nelson.

She wrote: "Dear Madam, I would come to you if you were at the North Pole"

Diana invited Lilian, and her husband (or supposed husband), to come to the Shaven Crown. This would have been at the very end of 1943 or the start of 1944. When Lilian wrote she may still have been working for Lady Clark at Upton House at the opposite side of the Cotswolds. Though Diana Mosley referred to Mr Nelson being "unsatisfactory to Lord Berners  this does not seem to have put her off inviting the couple to work for her. Lord Berners was a visitor at The Shaven Crown and may have met Lilian again. Diana said that "he was a trifle put out to find they had acquired the best cook he had ever had."

Diana told her biographer Anne de Courcy that, on her first day, Mrs Nelson used their entire fortnights butter ration on a "superb apple tart. When Diana complained Lilian replied: "People like you can always get more."

This may seem like an unrealistic attitude in 1943, but perhaps there had not been shortages at the Clarks in Tetbury, and Lord Berners, at Faringdon at least, was able to supplement rations with produce from his home farm. Anne de Courcy writes that the Nelsons did not settle in after this episode but stayed long enough to help the Mosleys move in to their next home, Crux Easton, near Newbury. By April 1944 Diana was contacting one of her previous cooks. She had spent a time looking after the cooking for herself. Lord Berners had visited and, helping Lady Mosley, had seriously burned his hands taking a lobster thermidor out of the oven. This is the last glimpse of Lilian Nelson.

After a few years of being very visible she fades from sight completely. She may have returned to the Clarks at Upton House until the end of the war when Clark left the National Gallery and the family settled in Hampstead. Did she retire? What could she live on? There is a possibility that she died not long after this. She need not have been more than 60 years old, but could it be that she died before Mignon and that her daughter really was without any living relatives when she died only a year after the end of the war? The tragic alternative would be when Mignon died she was believed to have been an orphan and no-one was able to tell her mother.
  Go to part 5