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The lives and loves of the Mountbattens: passion, high society and violent death

The lives of the Mountbattens read like a novel of a tragically doomed but dazzlingly bejewelled era

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Louis Mountbatten (buried in sand) plays with his daughter, Lady Patricia Brabourne (later 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma), and her children, from left, Joanna, Philip, Norton and Amanda on the beach in front of Classiebawn Castle in Sligo in 1963

Louis Mountbatten (buried in sand) plays with his daughter, Lady Patricia Brabourne (later 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma), and her children, from left, Joanna, Philip, Norton and Amanda on the beach in front of Classiebawn Castle in Sligo in 1963

Lord and Lady Mountbatten and their daughters Patricia and Pamela in 1938. Picture courtesy of The University of Southampton Library

Lord and Lady Mountbatten and their daughters Patricia and Pamela in 1938. Picture courtesy of The University of Southampton Library

Lady Edwina Mountbatten (1901 - 1960) with Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964) at a reception given for him by the Indian High Commissioner in London at Kensington Palace Gardens, 11th February 1955. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lady Edwina Mountbatten (1901 - 1960) with Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964) at a reception given for him by the Indian High Commissioner in London at Kensington Palace Gardens, 11th February 1955. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A diamond-set and enamelled gold bracelet containing a miniature portrait of Albert, Prince Consort, as a child, is part of Wednesday’s Sotheby’s auction of the family collection of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma

A diamond-set and enamelled gold bracelet containing a miniature portrait of Albert, Prince Consort, as a child, is part of Wednesday’s Sotheby’s auction of the family collection of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma

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Louis Mountbatten (buried in sand) plays with his daughter, Lady Patricia Brabourne (later 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma), and her children, from left, Joanna, Philip, Norton and Amanda on the beach in front of Classiebawn Castle in Sligo in 1963

We have an uneasy relationship with the name Mountbatten in Ireland.

First and foremost, that name will always mean the shocking tragedy of the murders of August 27, 1979 at Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, when Lord Louis Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb, along with his 14-year-old grandson, Nicholas, Nicholas’ grandmother 83-year-old Lady Doreen Brabourne, and 15-year-old Paul Maxwell, a local boy who had a summer job working on the boat.

We know there was a long life before that violent death.

Mountbatten was Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command during the Second World War, the last Viceroy of India, and was then made the Admiral of the Fleet – but most of that has been overlooked here; overshadowed by the final hours out on his boat, Shadow V, while on holidays at Classiebawn Castle.

However, recent seasons of The Crown have done something to redress the balance, giving us a portrait of a clever, complex, ruthless man, who occupied a place in the heart of his godson, Prince Charles, left vacant by Charles’ own father, Prince Philip.

Alongside Charles Dance’s portrayal of Mountbatten are tantalising glimpses of his wife Edwina (played by Lucy Russell). Edwina died suddenly in 1960, in Borneo – and left instructions to be buried at sea, causing the Queen Mother to say: “Dear Edwina, she always liked to make a splash.”

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The Mountbattens had two children – Patricia and Pamela – and later this week, on March 24, Sotheby’s will auction a collection of Patricia’s effects. Coming under the hammer will be furniture, paintings, jewellery and various objets d’art – many with historical and emotional links to her parents and the family’s fascinating lives.

Patricia was born in 1924, among the last of the 'grand generation’ who grew up before the Second World War permanently changed the lives of Britain’s landed aristocracy.

Hers was immense privilege from birth – she was the great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, great niece of Russia’s last Tsarina, and first cousin to Prince Philip (she became the second Countess Mountbatten of Burma after her father’s death in 1979).

Edwina Mountbatten exists in the public mind somewhere between fascinating and forgotten. He life has been subject to several screen adaptations, including Viceroy’s House with Gillian Anderson – but her various minor appearances during The Crown were usually greeted with ‘who was she again?’

Even in real life, she occupied ground that lay somewhere between scandalous and admirable.

Alongside her partying and scandalous relationships, there was another side to Edwina – one that suggests that she needed an occupation at least as much as she needed the excitement of love affairs.

Once the Second World War broke out, she found an outlet for her energies and threw herself into war service, including making a tour of America to raise funds for the Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade.

The American newspaper columnist Drew Pearson described her as “one of the most beautiful women in England”.

She was also fabulously rich – her grandfather was the merchant banker Sir Ernest Cassel, who outlived his only child, Edwina’s mother Amalia, and left most of his fortune to Edwina.

When she married Mountbatten, in 1922, the wedding attracted a crowd of 8,000 spectators, and was attended by half the royal family. If the crowd had known how that marriage would turn out, there may have been even more of them.

Famously, the Mountbattens had an open marriage. “Edwina and I spent all our married lives getting into other people’s beds,” Dickie once said.

Later, she helped with the repatriation of prisoners of war from South East Asia, and in 1943 was awarded a CBE in recognition of her war work.

From the start, Edwina and Dickie seem to have been ill-matched in the bedroom.

“I wish I knew how to flirt with other women, and especially with my wife,” he wrote to her. “I wish I had sown many more wild oats in my youth, and could excite you more than I fear I do.”

Edwina’s first affair apparently began in 1924, with Hugh Molyneux, a former army officer described as “the best-looking man in society”.

After that came Stephen ‘Laddie’ Sanford, a big game hunter who joined the Mountbattens on their annual holiday in Deauville with the Prince of Wales (later the abdicating king Edward VIII).

Dickie, apparently, suspected nothing until the Prince of Wales told him – and even then he refused to believe it.

“Went to see David,” he wrote at the time. “He had a queer story about Edwina.”

Dickie Mountbatten agreed to the open marriage reluctantly, and only because the alternative seemed to be divorce.

“When my father first heard that she had taken a lover, he was devastated,” their daughter Pamela later said. “But eventually, using their reserves of deep mutual affection, my parents managed to negotiate a way through this crisis and found a modus vivendi.”

In fact, once agreed, the arrangement was managed so successfully that Pamela recalls various men who she considered ‘uncles,’ who were in fact her mother’s lovers – and once claimed that Edwina, returning from shopping one day, was met by her butler with the information that: “‘Mr Larry Gray is in the drawing-room, Mr Sanford is in the library, Mr Ted Phillips is in the boudoir, Señor Portago is in the anteroom, and I don’t know what to do with Mr Molyneux.’”

Mountbatten himself had affairs – including one with Yola Letellier, a French socialite widely considered the model inspiration for the main character in Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi (in which a teenager is educated in the ways of becoming a courtesan; a role played by Audrey Hepburn in the rather more saccharin Hollywood film).

She was in her twenties and married to a French newspaper owner when they met. They reportedly continued their relationship until Mountbatten’s death, and Yola – like the ‘uncles’ – was a visitor to various Mountbatten homes.

“Yola… would visit frequently, bringing us charming gifts,” Pamela wrote.

Later on, Mountbatten seems to have been a client of the celebrated Madame Claude, who was initially a sex worker – but “was never pretty enough” by her own account – and turned very successfully to business, running a ‘exclusive’ network of escorts in France.

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Lord and Lady Mountbatten and their daughters Patricia and Pamela in 1938. Picture courtesy of The University of Southampton Library

Lord and Lady Mountbatten and their daughters Patricia and Pamela in 1938. Picture courtesy of The University of Southampton Library

Lord and Lady Mountbatten and their daughters Patricia and Pamela in 1938. Picture courtesy of The University of Southampton Library

According to the American writer William Stadiem, who worked for her, Mountbatten “was so discreet that the only place he would see her girls was in Baron Elie de Rothschild’s private jet, circling the skies above Paris.”

There have also long been disturbing suggestions that Mountbatten was involved with a group of abusers who orbited the Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast during the 1970s, although the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry concluded that abuse at the home was limited to three staff members.

The Mountbatten arrangement was an open secret within the society they inhabited, but when every once in a while it tipped over from discreet acceptance into the newspapers.

At one point she was cited as co-respondent in the divorce of Henry Simpson, a naval colleague of Dickie’s. The petition brought by Simpson’s wife claimed that he had “frequently committed adultery with Edwina Cynthia Annette, Lady Louis Mountbatten”.

Around the same time, the celebrated divorce of actor Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford looked as if that too would cite Edwina as ‘the other woman’.

And in 1932, the Sunday newspaper The People, ran a story under the heading ‘Society Shaken by Terrible Scandal’, in which their gossip columnist wrote: “I am able to reveal today the sequel to a scandal which has shaken society to the very depths. It concerns one of the leading hostesses in the country.

"Her association with a coloured man became so marked that they were the talk of the West End. Then one day the couple were caught in compromising circumstances. The society woman has been given hints to clear out of England... from a quarter which cannot be ignored.”

The “leading hostess” was known to be Edwina, and the “quarter that cannot be ignored” was Buckingham Palace. The Mountbattens found themselves forced to sue the paper, with Edwina claiming she had “never in the whole course of my life met the man referred to”.

The People was unable to prove otherwise, and the judge ruled in Edwina’s favour. She received a full apology and didn’t press for damages.

The man in question was rumoured at the time to have been Paul Robeson, then playing the lead in a massively successful Othello in the West End. In fact, Edwina apparently had a long affair with the Grenada-born singer and musician Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson – one of the biggest cabaret stars in the world during the 1920s and 1930s. The London-based Hutch also apparently had affairs with Tallulah Bankhead, Merle Oberon and Cole Porter.

Later, when she was settled in India as vicereine, Edwina had a long and very close relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, future prime minister of India – a relationship that may not have been physical, but was certainly intimate.

Within 10 days of their arrival, one observer noted in his diary that “Nehru’s relationship with Lady Mountbatten is sufficiently close to have raised many eyebrows”.

That relationship, according to the historian Philip Ziegler, “was to endure until Edwina Mountbatten’s death: intensely loving, romantic, trusting, generous, idealistic, even spiritual. If there was any physical element it can only have been of minor importance to either party.”

Her husband’s reaction was apparently “one of pleasure” says Ziegler.

"He liked and admired Nehru, it was useful to him that the prime minister should find such attractions in the governor-general’s home, it was agreeable to find Edwina almost permanently in good temper – the advantages of the alliance were obvious.”

As a mother, Edwina was detached and largely absent – and Patricia and Pamela were brought up by a series of nannies, occasionally produced to be photographed with their parents.

When Patricia was about 10, she and Pamela were sent from the naval base of Malta (where their father was stationed) to a small hotel in Budapest. Months later their mother arrived to pick them up, having seemingly lost the piece of paper on which she had written down the hotel’s address.

As they grew up, the girls were drawn into their parents’ social lives, including attending weekend parties with King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson at the Mountbatten's estate in Hampshire.

When the Second World War broke out, they were evacuated to stay with Grace Vanderbilt in her New York mansion. In 1946, Patricia married John Knatchbull, Lord Brabourne, who later became an Academy Award-nominated film producer for his films A Passage to India, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.

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A diamond-set and enamelled gold bracelet containing a miniature portrait of Albert, Prince Consort, as a child, is part of Wednesday’s Sotheby’s auction of the family collection of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma

A diamond-set and enamelled gold bracelet containing a miniature portrait of Albert, Prince Consort, as a child, is part of Wednesday’s Sotheby’s auction of the family collection of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma

A diamond-set and enamelled gold bracelet containing a miniature portrait of Albert, Prince Consort, as a child, is part of Wednesday’s Sotheby’s auction of the family collection of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma

The couple had eight children, and on the day of the IRA bombing, Patricia lost both her father, and her son. She too had been aboard the Shadow, later saying: “My own memory is of a vision of a ball exploding upwards and then of ‘coming to’ in the sea and wondering if I would be able to reach the surface before I passed out.

"I have very vague memories, now and again, of floating among the wood and debris, being pulled into a small rubber dinghy before totally losing consciousness for days.”

Her injuries required 120 facial stitches, which she later described as “my IRA face-lift”. Apparently the damage was so extensive that she couldn’t cry for a year – and did not stop crying for a year thereafter.

The family collection of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma is to be offered at Sotheby’s in London on March 24. www.sothebys.com/Mountbatten


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