Wednesday 26 October 2016

Model, artist's muse, actress, domestic goddess

A Taste Of Love, Theodora FitzGibbon, Gill and Macmillan, €16.99

Emily Hourican

Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30

La Dolce Vita: Theodora Fitzgibbon and husband Constantine in Italy, circa 1950
La Dolce Vita: Theodora Fitzgibbon and husband Constantine in Italy, circa 1950
A Taste of Love cover

During the very early days of the Blitz, when bombs began to rain down nightly on London, Theodora FitzGibbon, then aged 21, and her mother, instead of cowering underground in shelters like everyone else, took drinks outside and sat under the beech tree in the garden, the better to see what might hit them. It's an attitude - brave, slightly reckless, rather fabulous - that Theodora was to bring to everything she did, from love and work, to the cookery columns she wrote for the Irish Times for over 20 years; a more modern Mrs Beeton, perfectly mixed with a Nancy Mitford heroine.

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Theodora began as a model and actress, the lover of photographer and painter Peter Rose Pulham, wife of writer Constantine FitzGibbon and later documentary-maker George Morrison, and friend to what seems a pretty comprehensive who's who of artists, writers and directors, including Picasso, Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene and David Selnzick. She lived in London, India, Paris, New York, Bermuda, Capri, Rome and finally Dalkey, gaily and insouciantly dealing with war, rationing, the Blitz, poverty, several miscarriages, and a very tempestuous relationship with Constantine. Through it all, she maintained a cool demeanour, far more likely to mix up a batch of whiskey sodas than complain, no matter how bad the circumstances. Her autobiography, originally published as two volumes during the 1980s, has now happily been brought together into one glorious whole by Gill and Macmillan, with an introduction by writer Rose Doyle. Tracing her life from the age of 20, with plenty of dashes back into the past, through to the end of her marriage to Constantine and move to Ireland, it is funny, fascinating, and admirable.

She was born Theodora Rosling in London to Irish parents in 1916. Her father was a dashing naval officer who lived mostly in India, appearing but sporadically during Theodora's young life, but always to great effect. He would whisk her off on unexpected adventures, including an audience with the Pope, and visits to his mistresses, once asking Theodora whether she thought the baby of a beautiful Italian aristocrat might be his. Her mother, beautiful and high-minded meanwhile, worked hard at the slum clinic established by Theodora's grandmother in the East End of London, so that Theodora was raised mostly by this Cornish grandmother, and educated in a variety of convents in Belgium, France and London.

She spent idyllic summers in County Clare, and learned to cook by trying to recreate for her father the dishes they ate together on their various jaunts across Europe and India. He always insisted on whatever was local, including, once, a sheep's eyeball in Arabia; "a fearsome, huge object which I don't recommend".

The years of the Blitz in London are where she really honed her culinary skills, turning the unappetising rations into something palatable, and finding endlessly inventive ways with anything that wasn't rationed, such as rabbit, creating, variously, "big jellied pies with scraps of bacon and onion; braised rabbit in dark beer with prunes, which made it taste vaguely like pheasant . . ."

Throughout, she showed herself to be intrepid and resourceful, often supporting the men in her life financially - once by cutting off her long blonde hair and selling it for £5.

She writes frankly about these men - saying of Peter Rose Pulham "He was too indolent to be a sustained lover, what energy he had went into his work", and of Constantine almost the exact opposite: "many times I found his sexual drive too fierce, with never a sign of tenderness to heighten by contrast the moments of pure passion" - but forgivingly, refusing to stay angry or bitter, despite the failure of the relationships.

Writing was something she came to late, and only because a family-friend-turned-publisher suggested out of the blue, "you're always giving us such delicious meals, Theo, why don't you write a cookery book?" so she did, 30 in fact, including the encyclopaedic The Food of the Western World. In Ireland, where she moved after meeting George Morrison, as well as her Irish Times cookery column, which was as much historical record, pithy observation and social chat as recipe suggestions, she championed an early revival in traditional ways of eating.

Beautifully written, Theodora FitzGibbon's account of her own life is witty, warm and vivid, as fond in its recollections of seafood dishes eaten in Bermuda, as of meeting Greta Garbo or Truman Capote.

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