Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 11 December 2017

Theodora: the original domestic goddess

Long before Nigella Lawson or Mary Berry, there was Theodora FitzGibbon, model, actress, author and muse. She hung out with Picasso, Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas; lived in London, Bermuda and Rome before coming to Ireland, where her food column was legendary for twenty years. The extraordinary woman is remembered

La Dolce Vita: A studio portrait of Theodora Fitzgibbon
La Dolce Vita: A studio portrait of Theodora Fitzgibbon
Artist's muse: Theodora FitzGibbon pictured while modelling for an artist in London
Theodora and Constantine FitzGibbon at their wedding in 1944
Constantine and Theodora FitzGibbon in their Piazza di Spagna apartment in 1950.

Emily Hourican

Theodora FitzGibbon's account of meeting her first lover, photographer and painter Peter Rose Pulham, is as random, romantic, and thoroughly French as Nancy Mitford's exquisite heroine Linda Radlett meeting Fabrice de Sauveterre at the train station in The Pursuit of Love. Except that rather than a wealthy duke, Theodora met a struggling artist, in an encounter that was to shape her life.

She saw him first in the Café Flore in Paris, where the young Theodora, clearly an unusual and remarkably self-confident young woman went any time she got money, wandering largely alone through the city, staying as long as the money would last, then coming home again to London. Pulham was always the most interesting looking person, with the most glamorous group, and for two weeks Theodora watched him, fascinated, but unable to work up any pretext to get closer, although she is at pains to point out, in her wonderful autobiography, published now by Gill and Macmillan in one book, A Taste of Love, "If I am giving the impression that I was a lonely young girl tossing on my bed at night, I must correct it. I was twenty years old, quite considerably travelled, had had a certain amount of success, and was in the middle of a nice cosy uncomplicated love affair in London."

Theodora Rosling was born in London to Irish parents. Her father, a naval officer, was a huge but intermittent presence in her childhood, and she recalls that, "as a small child I had seen him perhaps half a dozen times." He seems to have been a dead ringer for Major St Charles in Molly Keane's Good Behaviour, "His passions, in the true sense of the word, were beautiful horses and beautiful women . . . He had several children, only one being born in his own wedlock. He was definitely not the marrying sort." This most unusual father would descend, without warning and after long intervals, and take Theodora off with him, across Europe, the Middle East and India, where he insisted they eat the local dishes, including a sheep's eyeball in Arabia; "a fearsome, huge object which I don't recommend."

He was given to aphorisms, including the rather clever reflection that "you can usually tell what a man is really like by the expression on his wife's face," and "if you're broke, always go to the best hotel." She of course had her own, just as pithy: "One should never lend furniture to anyone. Once it has become part of another person's home and personality it never becomes yours again, and causes the most bitter resentment when you remove it."

For all his undoubted charm, Theodora's father was hardly the consistent presence a child needs. Neither, as it happened, was her mother, a fascinating, beautiful woman ("the remark that had dogged me since the age of six: 'She'll never have half the looks of the mother,'" was Theo's disarming admission), whose energies mainly went into the slum clinic established by Theodora's grandmother in the East End of London. So Theodora was raised mostly by this Cornish grandmother, a descendant of the writer Henry Fielding, who believed strongly in women having 'initiative' and 'go'. Her education took place in convents in Belgium, France and London, where she was taught by a "middle-European ex-Queen", how to walk backwards away from Royalty, and eat even the most delicate pastry without making crumbs, until she was expelled as a "bad influence on the other girls," for gambling.

She spent summers in County Clare, riding horses with her cousins, climbing trees and going to race meetings. During a long and varied life - she died aged 75, in 1991 - Theodora lived in London, India, Paris, New York, Bermuda, Capri and Rome, before finally settling in Dalkey with her second husband, documentary maker George Morrison. She wrote 30 or so books about food, including the encyclopaedic The Food of the Western World, two volumes of autobiography and a novel, as well as her Irish Times food column, which ran for 20 years.

Constantine and Theodora FitzGibbon in their Piazza di Spagna apartment in 1950.
Constantine and Theodora FitzGibbon in their Piazza di Spagna apartment in 1950.

After those two weeks of gazing, Theodora left Paris without ever speaking to Pulham. Back in London, working as a mannequin - "owing to having very slender arms and legs and a small head, I looked at least three inches taller than I was" - in between acting roles, Theodora won some money on a horse, and promptly returned to Paris for a long weekend. This time, she was put at a table beside Pulham. "I wonder if you would mind sitting at my table as you distract me sitting where you are?" he asked. That was the beginning. The long weekend turned into months, then years. Theodora and Pulham were together through the outbreak of war in France - and an escape that saw her cycle from Paris to Bordeaux on her own in June 1940, just one step ahead of the German army - followed by the Blitz in London. A deep, affectionate, loving bond that somehow was never a passionate love affair. That first night, he said, while examining her minutely, "You look almost transparent in this light. Pity, I like dirty, black-haired women."

She stayed, despite the fact that "He treated me as if I was a strange little animal that he should be wary of," entering straight into Parisian bohemian life. She recalls meeting Picasso, who said 'vos bras sont tres beaux'. Among the rest of their circle were Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who were to exert such influence on the young Theo that, she says, "it changed my life, for from then on I have associated myself entirely with creative people."

She also discovered that "being a muse was a rather sedentary occupation," so began the process of educating herself by reading everything in Pulham's flat, a habit she was to continue throughout her life. Despite a limited formal education, her intellectual curiosity and natural wit were such that she was an active, spirited player in the endless discussions that took place around her.

Back in London, as the city was torn up by nightly bombing raids, Theodora and Pulham moved through a series of flats - one destroyed almost completely in an attack that could have killed them - with never enough to eat. Showing characteristic initiative, Theodora sowed the last garlic clove brought over from France in a window box, giving a "small but continuous supply" throughout the war. Later, she kept hens, and proved herself inventive at creating delicious food out of unpromising ingredients, including horse tongue. Once, confronted by the reality of having no money at all, she cut off her long blonde hair and sold it to a wig maker for £5. She used shoe cream for mascara, Spry cooking fat for cleansing cream, and was once surprised by Dylan Thomas using a tube of rigatoni pasta to curl her hair.

Theodora and Constantine FitzGibbon at their wedding in 1944
Theodora and Constantine FitzGibbon at their wedding in 1944

Their friends were the artists and bohemians - Lucien Freud, Augustus John, and Francis Bacon, "my favourite, a brilliant painter working under great difficulties" - who chose to spend their evenings boldly above ground, in pubs and nightclubs, rather than huddled in bomb shelters. In fact, early in the war during a bad raid, Theodora and her mother took drinks out into the garden and sat under a beech tree because, "if we were going to be bombed, we would like to see what hit us."

Dylan Thomas was a much-loved friend. At their first meeting she thought he had "the plausible manner of a debt collector," but quickly came to see his "enchanting" charm. Caitlin, Dylan's wife, she described as "one of the most lovely young women I have ever encountered. Her colouring was magnificent: pink cheeks, a creamy skin and a superb mane of golden curly hair." She was also, Theodora insists, despite the wild legends, "a conscientious mother" and "very tolerant."

Despite the deep bond between Theodora and Pulham - "In the four years spent together, we lived life ten times over: sharing the horror of war, invasion, bombing, near starvation, and the bloodiness of botched birth" - theirs was not a relationship of passion. "He was too indolent to be a sustained lover, what energy he had went into his work." And so, when she met Irish-American writer Constantine FitzGibbon in the local pub one night, Theodora was ready to fall "passionately, irrevocably in love."

When she told Pulham, his response was "I'm not really surprised Pussy, I always thought he was just the chap for you." Later though, he wrote her a letter in which he said "you rescued me and put me on my feet . . . and I shall always be grateful to you. I'm not in love with you . . . but I do love you very much."

With Constantine, the great change was "the difference of the life passionate as against the life affectionate. The noise of gunfire and bombs drowned by the gushing rushing tumultuous lovemaking." In a funny way though, with Constantine she encountered the exact opposite of the too-indifferent love with Pulham; "many times I found his sexual drive too fierce, with never a sign of tenderness to heighten by contrast the moments of pure passion." Jealousy, too, was a problem, even though at first Theodora didn't believe in it: "I thought it was play-acting," adding "Perhaps the most alarming side-issue of jealousy is that it is contagious or infectious."

When war ended, Theodora moved to New York, to join Constantine, and from there to Bermuda, where he began to write the novels he had long planned. This was to be Theodora's introduction to the uncertain, demoralising life of a writer, as Constantine's career stalled repeatedly, leaving him "touchy and irritable," and frequently without money. "Writing seemed to me a vocation of unhappiness," she found.

They moved to Italy, to Capri first, in an existence so precarious that Theodora quipped that she had "starved in some of the most beautiful places in the world". Also surrounded by some of the most famous writers and artists in the world, including James Thurber, Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene - "I was a little in awe of him, and those pale blue eyes with a slightly tortured expression worried me" - Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Margot Fonteyn - with whom she went skinny dipping - and even Greta Garbo.

But Constantine's moods became worse, his drinking heavier and his rages more violent. They moved constantly, without security or certainty of any kind. Eventually, unable to take any more of the misery of poverty, Theo went to Rome, to get acting work. Constantine, back in Capri, hated her financial independence, and followed her progress as reported in the society pages of the Rome Daily American, which regularly sent him into jealous rages, and the arms of other women.

Yet Theo rationalised the infidelity; "Of course if I left him alone he was bound to go to bed with another woman. What on earth was I making all the fuss about?" she tried to persuade herself. And indeed, found her own consolation elsewhere. Later however, when he taunted her with yet another affair, she could not so readily forgive, because "to flaunt an affair is an expression of sadistic behaviour".

Artist's muse: Theodora FitzGibbon pictured while modelling for an artist in London
Artist's muse: Theodora FitzGibbon pictured while modelling for an artist in London

When she wrote from Rome to tell Constantine that she was pregnant, he replied "very coolly". Some weeks later, having decided to move back to London, he said to her "Pity you're pregnant. It's come at a very bad time." Finally, in response to Theodora saying "it's a funny way of loving someone, to rush off and leave them when they're carrying your child," he answered "from all I've heard its not even mine."

In fact she miscarried, shortly after Constantine had left, and made her own way back to London in very uncertain health. On arrival, she spent some weeks in hospital with a serious infection. Constantine phoned a few times but didn't visit.

They then moved together to a house in Hertfordshire, where they lived for 10 years, and Theodora began writing her cookbooks. The first, Cosmopolitan Cookery in an English Kitchen went into several editions, and led to columns in the Daily Telegraph and Harpers Bazaar. Money was less tight, but there were other problems, the same problems really, only worse.

"Although at first Constantine seemed pleased with my moderate success, as time went on he seemed to resent anything that gave me even a slight independence . . . for the first time in my life I became secretive and introverted."

There were more violent, destructive scenes and accusations of infidelity, and sadly, more miscarriages, each of which was a tragic reminder of the first; "I could not help remembering the never-to-be baby that lay forgotten in Italian earth."

From the almost constantly tense atmosphere at home, Theodora took to escaping back to Ireland. On one trip to Dublin, in La Taverene bistro, she met filmmaker George Morrison, who made the wonderful Mise Éire, about the Easter 1916 Rising. "A fairly tall, slender man of about thirty-five, with fine features . . . the sensitive, thin face with a broad forehead was dominated by the large grey-blue eyes."

Still she had no real thought of leaving Constantine; in fact the final blow was his: a particularly violent row, during which he banged her head against the wash-hand basin, and infidelity so blatant that it couldn't be ignored. And so, in 1959, she rang George and asked him to find her a small house in Dublin, which he did, also offering to help her carry her things over. She and Constantine ended up close friends, but the immediate aftermath of the marriage was very hard. "I was frightened, unhappy, and unsure of myself when I arrived in Ireland . . . but the tenderness, care and love given to me by George gradually restored my emotional security."

Ireland, for Theodora, was like a safe harbour after a stormy passage. Writer Rose Doyle, who worked with her over the years and has written the excellent forward to A Taste of Love, recalls "she was a legend, a cult figure almost. Everybody cooked her food. I think people thought that if they ate and cooked like her, they would have a life like her. Her recipes were wonderful, and so rich. She would throw in bits of information, social observation, pieces of history. She used old Irish recipes from the 19th century, and could be credited with a resurgence of interest in Irish cooking and Irish food long before anyone else was doing it. She was also a wonderful entertainer and gave fantastic parties." In the words of George, still alive at 93, who Rose met recently: "I fell in love immediately. She was a beautiful, enchanting woman; intelligent and with great wit. I was enchanted by Theodora from the very minute I met her, to the minute she died."

A Taste of Love by Theodora FitzGibbon, is published by Gill and Macmillan, €16.99

Special offer for Sunday Independent readers: get 'A Taste of Love' for €15 (plus free p&p within Ire), usual price €16.99. To order call 01-500 9570 and quote INDGM

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