It’s funny how things turn out, sometimes. Among the many people I interviewed for the Oldie perhaps the most tantalizing was Barbara Skelton. Now mostly forgotten, whose books are only available now as one-off ‘print to order’ copies at exorbitant prices, she once stormed an exotic route through the café society of the 1940s and 1950s.
Barbara Skelton by Lucian Freud
The daughter of a down-at-heel soldier and a Gaiety Girl, she modelled in Paris for Schiaparelli in the late Thirties. During the war she had worked in Cairo, having affairs with the actor Anthony Steel and King Farouk. Back in London after the war, she joined the literary-bohemian world, where her lovers included Feliks Topolski, Peter Quennell, Kenneth Tynan, Alan Ross and even a policeman who came to her door to investigate a reported burglary. Evelyn Waugh gossiped about her, Anthony Powell put her in his novels and Lord Weidenfeld, briefly, married her.
She was a writer, a bohemian, a femme fatale – and a wonderful interviewee: Except, she told Daniel Farson, for his Evening Standard column, that when I went to interview her for the Oldie in Paris I had ‘displeased her by arriving in my Rolls-Royce without inviting her out for dinner or a drink’.
My umbrage at this remark was given an airing in the Standard’s ‘Londoner’s Diary’ a few days later: ‘I turned up in a beaten-up old car belonging to one of my staff in Paris,’ says Attallah . . . ‘I found her very charming but she didn’t give the impression that she wanted any hospitality. And to cap it all, Richard Ingrams didn’t print the interview in the Oldie because there was too much sex.’
But I had the last laugh. I reprinted the entire piece in my collection of interviews, Of a Certain Age, and amongst the many reviews which highlighted Skelton’s interview, perhaps Ulick O’Connor, writing for the Irish Sunday Independent caught its flavour best. He thought I had found in Barbara Skelton a ‘truly marvellous subject’ who spoke ‘without inhibition on her fascination with the opposite sex’.
Why Cyril Connolly, who resembled an ulcerated gorilla, should have turned her on, God knows, but he did. ‘I was very pretty, and funny and lively, and Cyril was what I wanted for a husband.’ She went at Connolly like a vacuum cleaner out of control, with the result that the poor man, determined to succeed as a writer, ran out of gas, feeling that ‘sex was sapping his mental energy’. This understandably disappointed Barbara and led her to fall in love with Lord Weidenfeld just because ‘I was seeking sex for satisfaction again’.