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Jennifer Ross

Aide to Alan Ross on the 'London Magazine'

Friday 19 December 2003

Ann Jennifer Evelyn Elizabeth Fry: born London 29 March 1916; married 1942 Robert Heber-Percy (died 1987; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1947), 1949 Alan Ross (died 2001; one son; marriage dissolved 1985); died London 10 December 2003.

The witty and glamorous Jennifer Fry was loved by Henry Green and Cyril Connolly, and cracked other hearts besides when, in 1949, she married the poet Alan Ross, who was to become editor of the London Magazine.

Elegant, clever, modest and supremely generous, Jenny had exquisite taste, and her jollity and her always sympathetic ear ensured that her various houses were seldom empty of her many generations of friends. John Betjeman, Violet Wyndham, Anthony and Violet Powell, Heywood and Anne Hill were all lifelong friends, as was her girlhood companion, Prim Rollo, who married the actor David Niven. (Niven said that he never saw a better pair of legs than Jennifer's, among all of the stars of Hollywood.) If Jenny liked someone, she often liked their children, too: the writer Francis Wyndham and the television producer Tristram Powell among them.

Jennifer was the only child of Sir Geoffrey Fry Bt (of Fry's chocolate) and his wife Alathea, one of the beautiful Gardner girls (another sister, Evelyn, was Evelyn Waugh's first wife). Fry was Private Secretary to Stanley Baldwin and lived in some splendour at Oare House, Wiltshire, where Jennifer grew up.

In 1942 she married Robert Heber-Percy, whose daring and fecklessness had earned him the nickname "The Mad Boy". He took his bride home to Faringdon House, Oxfordshire, where he was already living with the genial Lord Berners, model for Nancy Mitford's Lord Merlin, who composed music and dyed his white doves brilliant shades of violet, blue and pink.

Jennifer very much liked Berners, who she always remembered as having been kind to her, but Heber-Percy was not cut out for married life. In the spring of 1944, when their daughter was only a year old, he packed his wife's bags and sent her back to her father's house. Jenny left Faringdon in such a hurry that she forgot her handbag, which was a small wicker basket, in the shape of a fish. Berners and Heber-Percy never moved it from the chair where it had been abandoned. It is still there, today.

She soon moved to London. A decade later, Cyril Connolly wrote her a letter, fondly remembering "the brown-gold evening dress you had in the War and those lovely hands and tiny feet" . As she came out of the Ritz one evening, her knicker elastic snapped; with typical aplomb, she simply stepped out of the knickers, leaving them on the pavement without a backward glance. Throughout the 1940s she was besieged by admirers, some of whom became lovers.

Connolly and the novelist Henry Green vied with each other for her affections, but she let them both down when she fell for a 17-year-old soldier, Michael Luke, who also became a writer. She described Luke as the love of her life. (Seldom roused to temper, she was privately rather proud of having stabbed him, once, with her hat-pin.)

"Your voice is delicious I never want to listen to anything else," Connolly lamented,

it is like a brown sunny stream with a smell of pine needles as one finds in the Lande... you are stupid to prefer the other two to me... I'd no idea I was going to feel so sad. Well perhaps. It is a testament to Jennifer's affectionate, giving nature that she remained close friends with nearly all the men who had loved her.

Alan Ross took over the London Magazine in 1961. His wife helped the magazine immensely, not only with financial backing, but in her perceptive literary judgement. Ross was interested in poetry, painting and photography, but it was Jennifer who often read unsolicited short stories and proof-copies of novels. Graham Swift and William Boyd were first published in the magazine.

Francis Wyndham - himself generally credited with the rediscovery of Jean Rhys - remembers that it was actually Jennifer who introduced him to Rhys's writing. Having read about Rhys in Penguin New Writing during the Second World War, Jennifer hunted down a copy of her 1934 novel Voyage in the Dark in Harrods Library, which she passed on to Wyndham. Together they searched out other of Rhys's books and spread the word of her talent.

During the 1970s (perhaps with her forebear, Elizabeth Fry, in mind), Jennifer worked without fanfare for the voluntary Prisoners'Wives Service, helping the families of long-term inmates.

Following her separation from Ross in 1978, she enjoyed the company of a new, young group of friends and her adored children and grandchildren. A stroke in the early 1990s affected her memory, but not her funniness, nor her radiant sweetness, nor the unique and always infectious peal of her silvery laughter.

Cressida Connolly