Socialite Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon (1897-1958) was a Chicago-born, Anglophile Conservative MP most famed for his caustic diaries kept daily between 1918 and his death. As he said of his lifetime of sharp observations, ‘what is more dull than a discreet diary? One might as well have a discreet soul’. Henry Channon could eviscerate even his closest friends and family as this observation about his father demonstrates: ‘he was a dull, charming, uneducated, unexciting, unhappy, untidy little man … a cipher really. But I always liked him, and he doted on me’.
Channon was privately educated and, in 1917, was made an honorary attaché to the American Embassy in Paris. In 1920 he went up to Christ Church college, Oxford, where he befriended Prince Paul of Yugoslavia; a man he described as ‘the person I have loved most’. It was at Oxford that he was given the nickname ‘Chips’. Independently wealthy and unabashed about displaying his exquisite taste for beautiful objects and people, Channon drifted to London where he shared a flat in Westminster with Prince Paul. He wrote modestly successful novels such as Paradise City (1931) and the history The Ludwigs of Bavaria (1933) about the Prussian Wittelsbach dynasty.
Though a flamboyant bisexual, Channon married Lady Honor Guinness in 1933 and became a naturalised citizen of Great Britain. It was through her family that Channon inherited his place in the House of Commons that had been occupied by both his father and his mother-in-law Lord and Lady Iveagh. Channon’s only son, Paul, was named after his amour Prince Paul who served as Regent for his nephew King Peter II from 1934.
In 1935 Channon and Lady Honor acquired a house suitable for their social aspirations. As recorded in his diary, Channon wrote ‘we have decided to buy No 5 Belgrave Square. It is not too grand and is dirt cheap compared with all the other houses we have seen. It has a distinguished air and we will make it gay and comfortable’. Channon’s ‘not too grand’ verdict was rather disingenuous considering his neighbours were Prince George, Duke of Kent, and Princess Marina. Prince George, another rumoured lover of Chips Channon’s, was the fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary.
Channon commissioned ‘greatest decorator in the world’ Stéphane Boudin to create a magical Dining Room based on the blue and silver rococo Mirror Room in the Amalienburg Pavilion in the grounds of Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace. Rex Whistler painted the chimneypiece in the Music Room. Firmly tongue-in-cheek, author Harold Nicolson described the Channons’ town house thus: ‘Oh my God! How rich and powerful Lord Channon has become! The house is all Regency upstairs with very carefully draped curtains and Madame Recamier sofas. The Dining Room (is) baroque and rococo and what-ho and oh-no and all that’. Noël Coward dismissed Channon’s taste as ‘very fine indeed and rather agony’.
Henry Channon was not merely a waspish wit. His insights into the frailties of the human condition extended to self-examination. Of his political career he astutely said ‘I do not really think the House of Commons is my cup of tea. I am too much of an individualist, and also, too self-centred and set in my ways’. Apart from serving as Rab Butler’s private secretary, he never achieved higher office and failed in his bid for a peerage. His pen self-portrait is ruthless in its analysis of the flaws in his character.
‘Sometimes I think I have an unusual character – able but trivial; I have flair, intuition, great good taste but only second-rate ambition: I am far too susceptible to flattery; I hate and am uninterested in all the things most men like such as sports, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war, and the weather; but I am riveted by lust, furniture, glamour and society and jewels. I am an excellent organiser and have a will of iron; I can only be appealed to through my vanity. Occasionally I must have solitude: my soul craves for it. All thought is done in solitude; only then am I partly happy’.
One of Channon’s most powerful allies was the American-born socialite and salon hostess Lady Emerald Cunard who brought him into the orbit of the dashing Prince of Wales. Both the Prince of Wales and Lady Cunard were pro-appeasement with the Nazi regime in Germany. Indeed it was rumoured that Lady Cunard was not a little smitten by German ambassador to the Court of St. James’s Joachim von Ribbentrop.
No 5 Belgrave Square became a court for the king-in-waiting and his twice-married American mistress Wallis Simpson. According to Channon’s diary, Mrs Simpson was ‘a jolly, plain, intelligent, quiet, unpretentious and unprepossessing little woman but, as I wrote to Paul of Yugoslavia today, she has already the air of a personage who walks into a room as though she almost expects to be curtsied to. She has complete power over the Prince of Wales’. When King George V died in 1936 and the Prince of Wales became King Edward VIII, the Channon set saw a social changing-of-the-guard. Instead the king abdicated for the love of Mrs Simpson without being crowned and Channon, Lady Cunard et al were branded social pariahs.
Chips Channon’s fortunes did not improve when, in 1938, he told his diary ‘an unbelievable day in which two things occurred: Hitler took Vienna and I fell in love with the Prime Minister (Neville Chamberlin)’. By 1940 Britain declared war on Germany, Chamberlin resigned and Channon’s political enemy, Winston Churchill, became Prime Minister. Channon retreated into the arms of a new love, the landscape designer Peter Coats (nicknamed Petticoats) who would remain with him for the rest of his life. The marriage to Lady Honor was dissolved in 1945. Channon took-up his social duties after the war and, rather infamously, served cocktails spiked with Benzedrine to the Queens of Spain and Romania ‘to make a party go’.
With an undistinguished political career and only modest success as a published author, Channon might have only been remembered as a party boy but for his explosive diaries. He decreed that the diaries could not be published in unexpurgated form until fifty years after his death. The embargo prompted the British Museum to reject the papers as a bequest and they were returned to his son Paul. In 1967, an edited collection of Channon’s diaries was published. The controlled explosion shocked his erstwhile friends such as author Nancy Mitford who said ‘you can’t think how bile and spiteful and silly it is. One always thought Chips was rather a dear, but he was black inside’. As Channon himself said, ‘as I re-read my diary, I am frequently horrified by the scandalous tone it has’. The embargo will be lifted in 2018.