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28 Jan 2022
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Mad boys, Englishmen and my very eccentric family: One woman tells the story of her flamboyant grandfather

By Sofka Zinovieff
2 November 2014

Sofka Zinovieff today

Sofka Zinovieff tells the story of the scandalous ménage á trois between her grandfather Robert 'Mad Boy' Heber-Percy, his wife – and his lover Lord Berners

I was 17 when my mother took me to stay with her father for the first time. I had only met him previously as a small child (though I didn't remember it), and once when I was 14, for tea. I was aware that my mother's relationship with him was not good, that he lived somewhere wonderful in Oxfordshire and that he was gay.

It was the summer of 1979 when we drove through the gates off Faringdon Market Place, along the drive, and crunched to a halt on the gravel in front of my grandfather's home. Four-square and grey, the building was as playfully gracious as a Georgian doll's house. And as if choreographed, a flock of doves, dyed jubilant rainbow shades of blue, green, orange and pink, fluttered up and swooped around the roof.

Robert Heber-Percy was standing on the porch with a boxer dog at his side. In his late 60s, he wore an elegant dark suit and was holding a drink and lit cigarette in one hand. I didn't know at this point that his nickname had been the Mad Boy, but you could tell he was mischievous. We were welcomed into the house, offered champagne in pewter tankards and shown into a drawing room furnished in another era: ornate gilt mirrors, Aubusson rugs, a painted day bed, a grand piano and glass domes filled with stuffed birds.

Five tall windows offered a glorious view of parkland, a lake with a stone bridge and on across the Thames valley to the Cotswolds.

An unusual ménage: Cecil Beaton's portrait of Lord Berners, Sofka's grandfather Robert, Sofka's mother Victoria as a baby and Sofka's grandmother Jennifer

'Do you see that handbag?' Robert asked me. A white wicker fish with a bamboo handle lay on the seat of a gilded rococo chair. 'It belonged to Jennifer, your grandmother. She forgot it when she left in 1944 and it's been there ever since.' This was my introduction to the intriguing, complex – and often scandalous – history of my mother's family.

Faringdon had been the home of the eccentric composer, writer and painter Lord Berners. The 48-year-old baron had fallen in love with 20-year-old Robert in 1931, and together, they had created an aesthete's paradise at Faringdon, where delectable food was served to many of the great minds, beauties and wits of the day.

The place was awash with Mitfords, Sitwells and visitors as diverse as Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, H G Wells, Frederick Ashton and Evelyn Waugh. Nancy Mitford immortalised Faringdon as Merlinford (with its coloured doves) in her 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love. The place was awash with visitors as diverse as Stravinsky and Dali.

Gerald Berners and the Mad Boy had been an unlikely couple. Berners was a sensitive intellectual and artist who had been born in Victorian times. He wore a monocle and spats, though he also loved masks and disguises and had a taste for the peculiar and the playful. He was at home in both embassies and society salons, not to mention the theatre and ballet; he had written music for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and was appreciated by Stravinsky.

The Mad Boy was a wildly physical, unscholarly hothead who was known to gallop about on horseback naked. The addition to this couple of Jennifer Fry, whom Robert suddenly decided to marry in 1942, astounded their friends. One of high society's belles de nuit, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Fry (of the Fry's chocolate family, an adviser to prime minister Stanley Baldwin) and his wife Alathea, Jennifer was known for her style and charm. David Niven said he'd never seen a better pair of legs in Hollywood and I'd heard that once, when Jennifer's knicker elastic snapped as she was leaving the Ritz, she had simply stepped out of the underwear and left the silken scrap on the pavement.

Gerald painting Moti the horse, held by Sir John Betjeman's wife Penelope

A painting of Faringdon by Gerald

A photograph by Cecil Beaton – a regular visitor to Faringdon – taken in 1943, the year after the Mad Boy and Jennifer got married, shows them in the drawing room. Jennifer is moodily glamorous, her dark styled hair and painted lips reminiscent of Ava Gardner. Robert is gazing past the photographer, casually handsome in sweater and gumboots, as if he's just come in from the stables. In his arms is a lace-clad baby: Victoria, my mother. Over in the shadows, Lord Berners can be seen reading on the daybed, a stout, grandfatherly figure in skullcap, suit and slippers.

I had grown up close to my adored grandmother Jennifer, staying with her in Sussex for weekends and visiting her London home. But she preferred not to speak to anyone about her short marriage to Robert or her time at Faringdon.

Jennifer and Robert at their Claridge's wedding reception in 1942

A 20-year-old Sofka on the croquet lawn with Robert in the mid-1980s

She did sometimes say that Gerald had been very 'kind'. So although I was dazzled by the strange and sparkling world of my long-lost grandfather, I had few clues to solve the mystery of what had happened all those decades earlier, the strange ménage á trois at Faringdon during the war.

All I knew was that Jennifer had left with her baby within a couple of years of moving in, had remarried (to the poet and editor of The London Magazine Alan Ross) and had a son, Jonathan. Victoria visited Faringdon during her childhood, but although Robert arranged parties, picnics and horses for her, she never felt at home. After 1950, when Gerald Berners died, the Mad Boy inherited his whole estate and apparently dedicated himself to preserving and improving this beautiful and eccentric place.

That first weekend at Faringdon was unforgettable. Exquisite meals were prepared by the Austrian housekeeper Rosa (who, it was rumoured, celebrated Hitler's birthday), who also brought me breakfast in bed – a vast Magnolia grandiflora scenting the whole room from the tray. Robert took us around the gardens and to swim in the pool built at the top of a flight of steps. Later we climbed up the Folly – a looming brick tower on a nearby hill that Robert said Gerald had erected for his 21st birthday present.

Guests were often amazed to find that their gay host had a granddaughter Afterwards, I wondered what Robert had made of me. Dressed in scruffy vintage dresses and plimsolls, I was from a very different background. My mother hadn't wanted to have much to do with Faringdon while we were growing up and never wanted to take her children there. She was not impressed with Robert's famous or glamorous friends, whom she had encountered during school holiday visits, and she associated the place with snobbery, camp bad behaviour and a lack of love and affection. She was pleased to get away from this environment, and at the age of 17 she married my father Peter Zinovieff – ten years her senior and known at Oxford (where he had just finished a DPhil in geology) as the 'mad Russian'. (His parents had been born in St Petersburg and escaped to England from the Russian revolution.)

By the 1970s they were living in a house by the river in Putney that shook when tube trains went past. My two younger brothers and I ran around barefoot and didn't get many haircuts. My mother wore long Indian skirts and listened to Leonard Cohen while my father ran an electronic music studio in the basement, visited by experimental composers and fashionable pop groups. All my childhood holidays were spent on a remote Hebridean island in a house without electricity or a telephone. After my parents divorced when I was 11, I lived with my father and was known for being 'naughty' at school.

Victoria's christening, with, from left, Robert, Jennifer holding Victoria, David Niven's wife Primula, Sir Michael Duff, Gerald, and Winston Churchill's niece Clarissa

Jennifer and Victoria at Jennifer's parents' home in Oare, Kent

But it is clear that the ageing Mad Boy took a liking to me. Over the next few years, he invited me and my then boyfriend Jeremy Newick for the occasional weekend – where other guests were often amazed to find that their ostensibly gay host had a granddaughter. He took me to a ball once, and gave me a bottle of Joy – the marvellous scent created in the 1930s. ('We used to sprinkle it in our gumboots,' he chuckled.)

Eight years later, when I was 25 and living in Greece, doing research for a PhD in social anthropology, Robert summoned me to lunch during a trip back to England and announced that he wanted to leave me Faringdon in his will. He didn't consult my mother, nor did he explain his decision to his nephew, Alan Heber-Percy, who had long been the heir apparent. Stunned and bewildered, I hoped Robert would live a long time so that I would not have to deal with this bizarre development, but within six months he was dead, aged 75.

Returning from Greece, I was welcomed to 'my new home' by Rosa the housekeeper who, between wiping away her tears, began instructing me in how to fill her late master's shoes. I was made to sit at his seat in the dining room and ring the bell between courses. There was Alan, the disinherited nephew, a model of civility despite the awkward situation (and fortunately a successful businessman: he and his wife lived on a large estate, so at least I didn't have to worry that he was homeless).

From bottom: couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, Gerald, writer H G Wells's mistress Baroness Budberg, H G Wells, Robert, and journalist and politician Tom Driberg at Faringdon

And there was my mother, who had been left nothing – pale and shocked, and worried that her daughter was now going to be sucked into the world that she had rejected. During the subsequent five years, I completed my thesis at Cambridge, but also spent time with friends at Faringdon. We would drink our coffee in the morning sun, sitting on the porch steps – where Gerald and the Mad Boy had sat with Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas – and I would try to make sense of the Mad Boy's last crazy idea that had turned my life upside down.

It was in 1995, eight years after Robert died, that the story took another bizarre twist. I had returned to live at Faringdon with my husband Vassilis Papadimitriou, a Greek whom I'd met in Moscow. We had two young daughters, Anna and Lara (born in 1992 and 1995). Jennifer, now aged 80, was separated from her second husband and, following a stroke, was living in a small flat in Fulham, close to my mother. She was very forgetful and often muddled in her thoughts, so my mother could easily have taken no notice when one day, vis-á-vis nothing in particular, Jennifer suddenly said, 'You don't look at all like Robert.' 'Is he my father?' Victoria asked. 'Oh no,' replied Jennifer casually. 'Well, who is?' asked my mother. 'I don't remember,' came the disturbing reply.

Victoria with Gerald

A portrait of Jennifer by Gerald

My mother knew there had been rumours: there is no doubt that it was strange for a man who was basically homosexual to get married. However, my mother had never heard anything conclusive. Now, in response to her questions, Jennifer suggested that Victoria enquire through an old friend, Billa Harrod, who had known all the members of the Faringdon wartime household. While Lady Harrod came up with one suggestion, a young man who had been killed in the war aged 22, another friend suggested someone quite different – an actor who took a role in Berners's wartime play The Furies.

As Jennifer's old friend Francis Wyndham put it, it was like a Henry James story with these possible candidates for the role of my mother's father: the scion of an old English house who was killed in the war; the actor son of a Jewish pianist and a Quaker teacher who ended up an alcoholic; and Robert Heber-Percy, the Mad Boy who created havoc by choosing an unlikely heir for his estate. For her own part, although initially bewildered by this revision of her past, Victoria became convinced that it was the young man who had been killed in the war. She even met surviving members of his family: he became an idealised figure to replace Robert, who never fitted her idea of what a father should be.

Victoria and Peter on their wedding day in 1960 with, from left, Peter's uncle Kynl Zinovieff, his mother Sofka Skipwith, Victoria's half-brother Jonathan Ross, Robert, Jennifer, and Victoria's stepfather Alan Ross

From left: Jennifer, Victoria, baby Sofka and Jennifer's mother Alathea at Oare in 1962

But if Robert wasn't the father, why had Jennifer married him? Some suggested that Jennifer had already been pregnant and Robert had gallantly helped her out. Others disagreed and argued that the dates didn't work for the young soldier to have been the father. When I tried to decipher the timing, it did seem extraordinary that, if it was really just a convenient solution, Jennifer and Robert could have managed to arrange the marriage within a week or so of her discovering she was pregnant.

'Robert had no doubt that you were his granddaughter,' insisted one of the Mad Boy's old friends. Apparently, although she knew he was living with another man, Jennifer had believed that the marriage could work and was disappointed when Robert locked his bedroom door at night.

I made as many enquiries as I could to try to establish the truth, and for a time we discussed having DNA testing. There were those who asked whether this development meant that perhaps Faringdon was not really mine.

'Who is my father?' asked my mother. 'I don't remember,' came the disturbing reply In the end, my mother preferred to remain with the version she wanted to believe, irrespective of biology. Jennifer died in 2003, aged 87, and although her disclosure had added a twist to the tale of my relationship with Robert, it didn't make a difference to how I thought of him – a glamorous, obstinate and alluring old Mad Boy who wasn't afraid to make a final crazy decision about his heir. I wondered whether it would have mattered to him. In any case, as they say, 'It is a wise child who knows his own father.'

For most of the years since I inherited it, Faringdon has been rented out to pay the extortionate bills its upkeep demands and my family and I have lived abroad in Italy and Greece. But it remains like an enchanted place. Whenever I pass through the gates there is an after-echo of my first visit and a sense of wonder at entering a world where the spirits of love affairs, mad adventures and masked intrigues still exist.

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandfather and Me by Sofka Zinovieff is published by Jonathan Cape, price £25.