Breaking Down the Charm of Philip Sassoon

A review of Charmed Life, the Phenomenal World of Philip Sassoon (HarperCollins, 2016) by Damian Collins

In 1913, political satirist Max Beerbohm depicted a slender, aquiline figure posed cross-legged and lotus-like on the front bench of the British Houses of Parliament. Alongside him are two plump and bellowing Conservative MPs. The caricature was called “Philip Sassoon in Strange Company” and its point could not have been clearer – here was an “exotic” man comically out of kilter with the red-faced barons of the Home Counties sat beside him.

“Sir Philip Sassoon in Strange Company” from “A Survey by Max Beerbohm” – Heinemann (1921)

English-born and French-schooled Philip was scion to two of the great nineteenth-century Jewish dynasties: the European Rothschilds and the Sassoons of Baghdad, Persia and Bombay. As an ambiguous aesthete, political host with the most, roaring twenties bon viveur, public servant and sportsman, Philip does not disappoint as an eccentric product of the Jewish “haute bourgeoisie.”

By the time of Philip’s birth in fin de siècle Paris, the now inter-married Rothschilds and Sassoons had set their sights on high society and politics, both benefiting from and extending the rights granted to Jews by the Enlightenment. The position was such that Philip’s father, Edward, could become MP for the Hythe constituency in South Kent. After his father died prematurely, Philip was able to win the constituency back at just twenty-three, through a combination of family clout (i.e. party donations) and hard-fought campaigning.

Damian Collins, now MP for this same constituency, charts Philip Sassoon’s life and seeks to reinstate his subject’s place at the heart of inter-war politics. He follows Philip’s trajectory from “Baby of the House,” to Parliamentary Private Secretary for David Lloyd George, and finally a career peak as Under-Secretary for Air until 1937. Philip’s commitment, in the latter role, to building up air defences, gives him a place in laying the foreground for victory in the Battle of Britain.

Serious, if not frontline, political office was combined with a love for high living. Philip used an idiosyncratic style of entertainment to cultivate friendships with the people of the day: from the Duke of Windsor to Kenneth Clark, Winston Churchill to George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin to Noel Coward (the list is endless). Guests to his modern version of an “18th Century” home, Trent Park, might be bamboozled by Gainsboroughs, Flemish tapestries, Chinese lacquer work, Persian carpets, white coated footmen, flamingos, and peacocks; in the background, contemporary artist, Rex Whistler painted murals as the party went on. It is with good cause that Philip found his way into Evelyn Waugh’s fantasy visions of pre-war decadence in Brideshead Revisited.

Collins thinks Philip’s gift was to understand the aesthetics of occasion, the pageantry of politics, bringing the right people for the job somewhere that they wanted to be. His homes – the eccentric Port Lympne, Trent House and the palatial 145 Park Lane – became settings for global peace talks, state entertainment and even routine fixtures in daily political life: as Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden would take lunchtime breaks there to play tennis. Sassoon’s hospitality set the scene for key decisions of the inter-war period, from attempts to ease French demands on German reparations to Irish Home Rule. It was a base for Churchill to launch his case for re-armament (not always superficial, Philip stuck with him through his lows).

Charmed Life is a well-documented account of Sassoon’s social world and contribution to the politics of the inter-war period. However, we are left with just a faint impression of what lies beneath an impenetrably sophisticated exterior. It is here that the reader’s interest must surely lie in a person described by Noel Coward upon his premature death in 1937 as a “phenomena that would never recur.” The task is not made easy by the fact that Philip did not keep much in the way of correspondence. However, in bringing to life the mores of the time with more candour, the author might have found the material to delve further. Perhaps as a serving politician, he prefers to stick to the “charmed life” refrain.

Collins deals well with what material there is on Sassoon’s sexuality, repressed or lived secretly in keeping with the taboos of his day. There are echoes of friendships lost through zeal (a new favourite in the Trent Park guest book abruptly cut), of close bonds at Oxford, passing remarks about a life forced to the shadows, and Philip’s keen understanding, developed from his time at Eton, that “you could think and love what you liked; only in external matters, in clothes or in deportment, need you to do as others did.”

Could more have been made of English anti-Semitism? We are told that Sassoon appealed to a fast set rather than stalwart conservatives and that Virginia Woolf thought him to be an “underbred Whitechapel Jew.” Perhaps there was something in his “exoticness,” of his links to the “orient” and days of empire, even a theatricality of appearance and demeanour, that made him palatable to English sensibilities and allowed him to transgress social constraints right through to the innermost establishment rung.

We hear little of his rapport with Anglo-Jewry or his sense of Jewishness. Life at public school could be made difficult for Jews but Collins makes little of Philip’s abiding insecurity, which must have accompanied his adolescence forged as a gilded outsider. This was after all a time when his cousin and zoologist, Charles de Rothschild, would recall, “if I ever have a son he will be instructed in boxing and jujitsu before he enters school, as Jew hunts such as I experienced are a very one-sided amusement.”

Perhaps it is in Sassoon’s dialogue with these things that he starts to become easier to understand and less of an elusive figure – as possessing a sensibility generated by such total comprehension of an “elite,” yet with an unrelenting sense of being an outsider: a troubled and enigmatic character who sought consolation in a certain refinement of culture and living.

In truth, though always in the background to power and at a very important time, Philip was never in the hot seat – so why is he worth reading about? There is the allure of a lost world of decadence and glamour; but the real relevance of Philip lies in the man himself. His story is an archetypically Jewish trial of assimilation – albeit on grandiose scale – and it is universal for precisely this reason. It calls upon those things which are familiar to many of us: the quest for status, achievement, and the yearning to belong.