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Obituary: Evangeline Bruce

  • Antony Beevor/Artemis Cooper
  • Friday 15 December 1995

Evangeline Bruce appeared to emerge straight from the pages of a roman-a-clef, alas never written. Intelligent, beautiful, mysterious, ethereal, she was impossibly perfect as an ambassadress, yet would often disappear from her own parties. Charmingly seductive and quietly amusing, she knew exactly what she wanted and achieved it. Famous as one of the best-dressed women in the world and the Georgetown hostess par excellence, she overcame the most terrible experience that could ever befall a mother, the virtual certainty that her daughter had been murdered. And at the end of her life, just before losing her sight, she completed a historical biography which enjoyed great success, both in the review columns and in the best-seller lists.

Evangeline Bell and her sister Virginia - the author Virginia Surtees - were the daughters of Edward Bell, an American career diplomat. When he was en poste in Peking, Evangeline's nanny used to take her for walks along the Great Wall of China. Her father died when she was still a child, but the peripatetic existence continued because her English mother, Etelka, married the British diplomat Sir James Dodds in 1927.

Evangeline already spoke perfect French when she went to Radcliffe in 1937, where she first got to know the historian Arthur Schlesinger. In 1942, she was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services to work in London. She was given the fearful responsibility of creating convincing aliases for agents parachuted into France, then making sure that there were no inconsistencies in their forged documents. This work brought her in touch with her future husband, David Bruce, whom General "Wild Bill" Donovan had appointed as head of the London headquarters.

Bruce, some 20 years older, was a handsome and distinguished Virginian of great charm, a natural part of the circle which the journalist Joseph Alsop later termed "the Wasp Ascendancy". He had drifted apart from his first wife, Ailsa Mellon, the sister of Paul Mellon, but managed to remain on good relations with her family and, when Andrew Mellon created the National Gallery in Washington, Bruce became the first president. Mellon had also helped Bruce resurrect his family fortunes, first with a wedding gift of one million dollars, which Bruce invested most successfully, then with business contacts, which led to directorships with blue chip companies.

David Bruce landed in Normandy with Donovan on D-Day plus one. And, as might be expected of a Princeton friend of Scott Fitzgerald, he "liberated" the Ritz Hotel at the end of August 1944 with Ernest Hemingway and his gang of highly irregular partisans. Evangeline did not join him until a few weeks later, when she was given a tour of Paris on the back of a US army motorbike.

The following year, she and David Bruce were married, and in 1947 she accompanied him back to Paris when he was appointed to oversee the Marshall Plan in France. The Bruces lived in a beautiful apartment which had belonged to the Princesse de Lamballe in the rue de Lille but, as their family grew, it became too small. Bruce returned one day, to announce that he had found a much larger place. Evangeline asked where it was. "On the avenue d'Iena," he replied. It was the residence of the United States ambassador, a post which he had been offered that day.

Bruce was a very popular ambassador with the French, mainly because he understood their sensitivities after the defeat of 1940 and the Occupation. Jean Monnet paid him the ultimate tribute when he described him as "a deeply civilised man" with "rare foresight and good faith" who "does not think of his country in terms of domination". But Bruce's popularity was also in a large part due to the success of Evangeline as ambassadress. Nearly 50 years later, French ministers from the period would immediately respond to the mention of her name with: "Ah, la charmante Madame Bruce!"

So great was her success in Paris that she had to reject scores of would- be lovers, but always with a tact and wit that the French admired and appreciated. Couturiers vied to dress her and every fashion magazine longed to photograph her. Dior even created a special range of maternity clothes for her. But Evangeline's greatest friends were by no means the richest. Intelligent and amusing characters, expecially the outrageous Marie-Louise Bousquet, were more to her taste. Her circle was also increased because her sister Virginia was then the wife of Ashley Clarke, the British Minister in Paris after the Liberation.

Bruce, from his position of unusual influence, greatly encouraged moves towards a European Community begun by Monnet and Robert Schuman. He became a close friend of Conrad Adenauer, and so it was a natural development when, in 1957, Bruce became US Ambassador in Bonn. Four years later, he was translated to London as Ambassador to the Court of St James, where he and Evangeline flourished. President John F. Kennedy loved Bruce's gossipy accounts of the Profumo scandal. In 1970, when Bruce's time came to an end, they took the most handsome set in Albany, which had belonged to Lord Melbourne.

That year saw a return to Paris for the Vietnam peace talks, and three years later, Bruce, although a long-standing Democrat, was chosen by President Nixon as the man to play "the China card" as ambassador in Peking. For Evangeline, this was a curious, and in some ways disappointing, return to her childhood, even though she did not waste a moment in studying Chinese art.

The next appointment, in 1974, as ambassador to Nato in Brussels, was the time of their greatest sadness. Their daughter, Alexandra, known as Sasha, married a Greek, Marios Michaelides. On 7 November 1975, Sasha was found shot in the head, lying under a tree at the Bruce family estate in Virginia. The house had been looted. She died two days later. Investigations could not establish for sure whether her death had been suicide or murder. Michaelides was later charged with murder and theft, but he escaped back to Greece and there avoided extradition to the United States.

The shock of Sasha's death was made infinitely worse by the media. The tone of the lurid and speculative coverage suggested that the press were interested primarily in destroying the image of the perfect couple. The episode caused lasting damage to both parents. David Bruce died two years later. Evangeline, determined to bring some good out of it, set up and funded a charity in Sasha's name to help troubled young people, a cause for which Sasha herself had worked at Radcliffe.

Evangeline Bruce might have been remembered by the world mainly for superficial characteristics: her tall, elegant figure, her inspired dress sense, her gentle, husky, seductive voice, her famous parties in Washington and London; yet she loathed being described as a society hostess, and accepted the term "saloniste" with resignation. Any grande dame mystery which she maintained was mainly a line of defence for someone who was still quite shy and had always needed a degree of privacy. She had not just a natural generosity, but also a talent for friendship. She used to take a house in Tuscany each summer with her old friend Marietta Tree to entertain mutual friends. After Marietta's death in 1991, Evangeline Bruce continued the tradition, with house-parties in Italy or France with friends such as Ludovic and Moira Kennedy, Lord and Lady Jenkins of Hillhead, Sir Nicholas and Lady Henderson, Lord and Lady Weidenfeld, Edna O'Brien, the Arthur Schlesingers. But this year the publication and success of her book Napoleon and Josephine: an improbable marriage prompted many who had not taken her seriously to revise their opinions.

Napoleon and Josephine grew out of an earlier book, never published. The manuscript was about the year 1795 - to her, "the most exciting year in history". All Paris was celebrating the end of the Terror, in a mood of excitement and licentiousness; while, in the new liberalised economy, huge fortunes were being made in speculations and army contracts. "The contracts could be for anything, from oats to cavalry sabres," she wrote, "and as like as not, carried off by a woman wearing flesh-coloured tights and diamonds on her toes." The degree of influence wielded by women at this time was astonishing; and Bruce, who had watched the exercise of power over the years from an ideal position, was fascinated by the subject. Her descriptions of the Parisian social and political scene - from Thermidor to Waterloo - are so sure, so vivid, one almost feels she had lived through it.

She had just finished the book when she woke up one morning having completely lost her sight. Whatever the turmoil caused by this cruel blow, she never complained except to say what a bore it was.

Antony Beevor
and Artemis Cooper