The lives and loves of the Mountbattens, by their new biographer

The tale of Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten and Edwina Mountbatten is, the historian Andrew Lownie told us at Chiswick Book Festival, the tale of a very unusual, and “very English”, marriage. A tale of two distinguished figures, often in competition with each other, yet who were loving and mutually supportive. And a tale of two people who had countless affairs, yet could not live without each other.

Their Westminster wedding, in July 1922, was the stuff of fairy tales and was described at the time as “the wedding of the century”. Dickie’s best man was the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII); souvenirs were produced, a Pathé film made and thousands of well-wishers lined the streets of London.

So what had brought this glamorous pair, who were to have such an impact on English politics and society, together? Dickie Mountbatten was born in June 1900, the last godchild of Queen Victoria. His connections were impeccable; his two older sisters made royal marriages and the family regularly holidayed with the Russian Imperial Family.

Edwina was equally well-connected; a descendant of Palmerston and the granddaughter of Edward VII’s banker. She was also the richest heiress in the world. Nonetheless, her upbringing was unhappy; her mother died when she was just nine and her deeply unpleasant stepmother insisted she be packed off to boarding school. As a child, Edwina felt deprived of love and compensated by building a menagerie of animals in whom she invested all her affection.

The “incurably romantic” Dickie joined the Navy, continuing to maintain his royal connections. Before meeting Edwina, he had a number of girlfriends, most significantly Audrey James, the illegitimate granddaughter of, funnily enough, Edward VII. Dickie and Edwina first encountered each other in Claridges, in 1920, but it wasn’t until the following year that romance blossomed. Edwina found her future husband to be a breath of fresh air and followed him to India, which he was touring with the Prince of Wales. The couple were soon engaged.

By the time they went on honeymoon, differences were beginning to emerge. Edwina was a free spirit and lover of spontaneity; Dickie an inveterate micro manager. Arguments broke out, but were eventually resolved and the couple set out on a second honeymoon, this time to America, where they stayed with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and Edwina made a pass at Charlie Chaplin.

After Dickie joined Portsmouth Signals School the couple bought a large house locally, where they threw lavish parties. Dickie took up polo and golf; Edwina, on the other hand, had little to do, even after their first child, Patricia, was born in 1924. She was less of a hands-on mother, more a socialite – but blossomed during the General Strike of 1926, when she worked as a receptionist. A highly intelligent woman, this was the first time Edwina had even considered the possibility of a career.

By now, Edwina was having multiple affairs, with both men and women. Newspaper editor Mike Wardell, polo player Laddie Sandford, performer Sophie Tucker, golfer Bobby Sweeney, actor Larry Gray and pianist Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson were just a few of the people who fell under her spell, while she travelled around the world, leaving her husband and children for months at a time. But it was her affair with Paul Robeson, a handsome black musician, which scandalised society and had to be hushed up – leaving Robeson devastated after Edwina pretended that their relationship had never happened.

Inevitably, Dickie discovered his wife was being unfaithful – and was broken-hearted, to the point that the couple discussed divorcing. However, he loved her money and she loved his connections – so they agreed to an open marriage, with Dickie immediately taking on a long-term lover. Interestingly, once his own affair began, he ceased being jealous of Edwina’s affairs – while she was wild with rage over his.

Edwina did, from time to time, fall deeply in love; no more so than with Bunny Philips, a Young Guards officer. She was shattered when Bunny married a woman to whom she had introduced him.

Having remained close to Edward VIII, Dickie found the king’s abdication, in December 1936, difficult to deal with. Ever the wily operator, Dickie lavished attention on the new king, George VI, whose daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, were around the same age as his own, whilst staying close to Edward. It was Mountbatten, in cahoots with the monarch, who engineered Princess Elizabeth’s and Prince Philip of Greece’s romance. Lownie has seen letters between Dickie and George confirming this; Dickie engineered a meeting between them when Elizabeth was just 13. He also arranged Philip’s naturalisation and entry to the Navy. Philip was “like a son” to Mountbatten, taking his surname when naturalised – although the pair enjoyed a love-hate relationship.

A loyal friend Dickie may have been, but he made a disastrous naval commander. His ship, HMS Kelly, was only in operation only months before she was sunk, following a string of catastrophes that you could not make up. Unabashed, Dickie persuaded Edwina to lobby for a DSO for him. In the meantime, he and Noel Coward, another good friend, produced naval propaganda film ‘In Which We Serve’– one of the most successful films of 1942.

Edwina had joined St John Ambulance and was finally stepping out of her husband’s shadow, becoming a formidable figure in her own right (she would receive a CBE for her war work). In 1941, the Mountbattens were sent to the USA to drum up money and support from our American cousins. On a visit to Pearl Harbor, just before it was bombed, Dickie won friends by making practical suggestions about the way the USA’s aircraft were harboured – suggestions that, tragically, were not acted upon in time.

With Dickie now Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia, the Mountbattens based themselves in Ceylon. This is where Dickie met Janey Lindsay, a former girlfriend of JFK and Donald Niven and, arguably, the love of Dickie’s life. Their affair continued until the end of the war, and the pair adored each other.

A favourite of Winston Churchill, Dickie was in charge of the Fourteenth Army – or the Forgotten Army, as it was known. He made it his mission to resolve the ‘Three Ms’ – Morale, Malaria and Monsoon – and was further respected for allowing people to get on with their jobs, ensuring they had the resources to do so. The Mountbattens played a key role, at the end of the war, in repatriating troops, with Edwina again coming into her own.

And then, Dickie – viewed as “progressive” by the British government – was asked to become Viceroy of India. Despite this being a time of personal crisis – he and Edwina had just decided to divorce – he accepted, the couple reconciled and a whole new chapter began.

This is not a post about Partition and this is not the place for reflections upon its bloody and far-reaching consequences – although it should be noted that Dickie Mountbatten bore ultimate responsibility. And yet, his and Edwina’s time in India started off promisingly: they loved its people and the “pomp and ceremony” of the country, whilst understanding that British authority was waning quickly and that India was set upon independence. They made a strong team and showed great bravery throughout numerous assassination attempts, winning Indian hearts in the process.

And not just in a metaphorical way. Edwina launched into a passionate affair with Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru, with whom Dickie had formed a close friendship (he has since been criticised – rightly, says Lownie – for favouritism). Mathatma Gandhi became a friend, too – but Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a different story. The Mountbattens found Jinnah austere, and consequently more difficult to deal with, and never achieved their hoped-for results with him (had they been able to, argues Lownie, India’s history might have taken a different course).

The Mountbattens left India in 1948 and Edwina returned every year until her death in 1960. She continued her humanitarian work, travelling the world on behalf of St John Ambulance. When she died, in Malaysia, aged just 59, she was found surrounded by love letters from Nehru.

The Mountbattens with India’s future Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru

Dickie was devastated – as was the public, from whom he received over 8,000 letters of condolence. He continued his naval career, whilst fending off romantic advances from the likes of Barbara Cartland and embarking upon yet more affairs, including one with Shirley MacLaine. Dickie loved the glamour of Hollywood and spent as much time there as possible. Once retired, he became a doting grandfather to his grandchildren, enjoying spending time with his family.

Dickie Mountbatten’s assassination by the IRA, in August 1979, has been well-documented, but I learned facts today of which I was previously unaware. The Mountbatten family had been holidaying in County Sligo since the 1960s and had faced down many assassination attempts. Ignoring the latest warnings, and their bodyguard’s professional assessment that it would be dangerous for them to do so (that gentleman was sacked and forced to sign a gagging order), the family travelled to Classiebawn Castle for their summer holiday.

Eight men were involved in the assassination plot, Andrew Lownie told us – and the authorities knew who they were. One went to prison, one died in a mysterious accident (while the SAS were in the area) and the others were never arrested.

Dickie died “a great hero”, with much public mourning. It was a massive shock to Lownie, therefore, whilst researching this book, to discover a document in the FBI’s archive stating that Mountbatten was a homosexual “with a perversion for young boys”. He then found documents from other organisations making the same claims – and subsequently discovered letters between Frederick Lawrence Long, Dickie’s childhood tutor, and Dickie in which they declare their love for each other. Is it a surprise that he’s been denied access to a number of official papers which he’s asked to see? I’ll leave you to decide.

Dickie was almost certainly bisexual; Lownie interviewed several men with whom he had affairs and Mountbatten’s driver has spoken of being tasked with finding gay brothels for his employer. Both Dickie’s and Edwina’s affairs are documented in the couple’s draft divorce papers and documents in the National Archives and the House of Lords’ library. They were also confirmed to Andrew Lownie by the couple’s daughter, Pamela Hicks. But what to make of the claims of paedophilia?

For that is what he stands accused of, although Lownie shied away from using that word today. Mountbatten has been linked to the abuse of children from the Kincora boys’ home in Belfast and other claims continue to surface, some of which have previously been suppressed. Lownie wouldn’t be drawn any further, commenting that these revelations shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Mountbatten was an “extraordinary” man and that Dickie and Edwina made an “unconventional and amazing” couple.

When asked whether or not he liked Dickie Mountbatten, Lownie described the former First Sea Lord as honest, hard-working and with a strong sense of public duty – but countered that by admitting that Dickie wouldn’t have got where he did without his (many) connections and probably should have been court-martialled after the HMS Kelly debacle.

Andrew Lownie is a brilliant speaker and I shall certainly read his book. Although I would have preferred him to be more direct, I understand why he steered today’s talk in the direction he did; we are all capable of drawing our own conclusions, and sensationalism never helps. It seems likely that this is a saga that will run and run, however.

23 comments

    • Thank you: and that’s exactly it: the rich and well-connected live in a different world from the rest of us. Who knows whether we’ll ever learn the full truth about Dickie Mountbatten’s behaviour.

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    • Likewise, thank you very much for the follow, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I’m yet to watch The Crown but keep hearing great things about it; hopefully, I’ll catch up with it over autumn.

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