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His lordship's wheel of fortune

Wheels Within Wheels: An Unconventional Life is the autobiography of Lord Montagu, who has enjoyed a life of privilege and wealth, yet suffered jail and humiliation for acts he denies.

By JOHN BELL YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


Walking into the life of Edward, the third Baron Montagu of Beaulieu (otherwise known as Lord Montagu) is akin to entering the pages of an old book, its saffron-hued leaves well worn with the history of its imaginative characters and the many readers who have brought them to life. You just never know what new, surprising treasure you might find.

Perhaps that goes a long way toward explaining why Lord Montagu's just published and long-awaited autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels: An Unconventional Life (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London), evokes such vivid, intense responses, particularly from those who know him.

It's a life story peppered with household names, providing an insider's view of the world of the ultra rich and famous. In wry and charming prose, Edward (as he is addressed by his friends and colleagues) alights delicately as he describes his encounters with a young Queen Elizabeth or an aging Greta Garbo; with a politically active CBS chairman William Paley or a sympathetic Sir John Gielgud; with a voracious Tennessee Williams ("He ate us out of house and home!") or a befuddled Cher.

A founder and former chairman of the Historic Houses Association, Edward is a scion of privilege. He is a peer of the realm, a son of England's most venerated aristocracy, a direct descendent of King James I and a lifetime member of the House of Lords. One of his ancestors, Lord Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, was Shakespeare's principal patron.

He is the master of a vast 7,000-acre estate in the South of England, amid the gently rolling hills of Hampshire, where his ancestral home, a 14th century castle to the rest of us and an ancient gatehouse to him, is pristinely ornamented by a monastic cloister and an impressive historic motorcar museum. The museum, which he inaugurated more than 40 years ago in tribute to his late father, an enthusiast, is now one of England's leading tourist attractions.

But he is also a child of a bygone era, the very one so abundantly described by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited.

"I was put down for Eton and was christened on 28 November (1926) in an antique dress of cream satin," Edward notes, adding, "The 264 tenants and employees of the estate presented me with a splendid silver tray engraved with their names -- better than the proverbial "silver spoon,' people would now say."

Though Edward's natural environment was no fiction, it might have looked that way to those unaccustomed to this sterling side of the tracks.

Edward's story departs from that of your run-of-the mill peer in sometimes surprising ways. He was educated in Canada during World War II, as well as in the English public (what we would call private) schools, such as Eton, where those of his class normally matriculated.

It was only in his late teens that he found his footing there and at Oxford. As an aristocrat and celebrity he has known great privilege but suffered the consequences of its temporary foreclosure when he was banished to prison for a crime he says he did not commit, and which, as he points out, is not a crime at all nowadays.

* * *

My own encounter with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (pronounced Byou-lee, which he explains was the original French pronunciation in the 13th century) began in a most remarkable way in 1977, when I had been engaged to perform first aboard HMS QE2, and then at Christchurch Spitalfields in London. My friend Alan Orenstein, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, was not at home when I arrived. The phone rang. An alto-rich, vivacious female voice on the other end inquired as to his return and then generously invited us to dinner. I asked who was calling. "Oh, this is Ava Gardner."

At dinner that evening at Joe Allen's theatrical pub, a glamorous, turbaned Ava, zaftig in a red wrap-around, sat snugly between Jonathan Balkind, a concert promoter, and Alan Sievewright, the celebrated television producer and impresario. Eventually talk turned to the subject of Lord Montagu.

Jonathan suggested we meet, as Edward ran a concert series at Beaulieu, in the remains of a 13th century abbey church that was ordered dismantled centuries ago by Henry VIII. Introductions were made, and a few days later Edward and I met for lunch.

Edward was then, as now, a tall and somewhat epicene individual, whose long face was made all the more remarkable by knowing eyes that gazed with a kind of intense sincerity. Soft spoken and unconcerned about hopscotching from one topic to the another, he seemed a cross between the film actors Leslie Howard and Alec Guinness. There was indeed in his unruffled demeanor, beyond the quiescent elegance, a certain melancholy.

Having settled on a date for my piano recital at Beaulieu, I returned to England several weeks later. Edward sent his driver to fetch me at the Southampton docks for the 15-mile drive to the estate. As the castle came into view, things began to look oddly familiar. They should have. Beaulieu was, after all, the site of the Academy Award-winning film classic A Man for All Seasons and more than a few episodes of the 1960s television show The Avengers.

Edward's longtime butler, Trevor, showed me my rooms in a sprawling, but comfortable, suite. Lady Montagu drifted by blithely, like an elegant gazelle, to say hello and introduce me to their toddler, Jonathan, to whom I would give a first piano lesson a few days later.

This introduction to the life of the gentry gave me only a glimpse of what Edward fleshes out so effectively in Wheels Within Wheels. On this and subsequent visits to Beaulieu, I met a cast of characters one would ordinarily find in a film.

In the course of a single day, breakfast with the Sheik of Kuwait gave way to tea with the Costa Rican ambassador; a poolside lunch of rabbit served on rococo trays by a formally attired Trevor preceded an outing with Baron Rothschild (yes, of the wine and banking families) on Edward's yacht, the Cygnet of Beaulieu, to watch the Cowes speedboat races; and then, bringing things to a close, a memorable late dinner at Edward's beach house with an Argentinean media mogul and Edward's octogenarian mother.

* * *

Edward's natural, ever-so-British reserve has probably served him well. Given the unusual circumstances of his life, it enabled him to move past, rather than conceal (as his detractors would contend) the darker moments, which account for a small but significant period of his unusual life.

Fresh out of Oxford and a newcomer to the House of Lords just after the war, it didn't take Edward Montagu long to become the toast of the town. A dashing and eligible bachelor with an inherited title, wealth and implicit connections that come with them, he had a natural affinity for the life of a bon vivant that expressed itself in a public relations career. He fell in love with a socialite and was engaged to be married. Then the roof fell in.

In what has become known as the Montagu Affair, a chapter in the house of Montagu that would reverberate for years to come, in the early 1950s Edward's celebrity burgeoned into something he neither wanted nor expected.

Bisexual by his own admission, Edward, twice married and the father of three, is philosophical about the nightmare that eventually landed him in jail, making him something of a 20th century Oscar Wilde. What started as a minor theft of a camera by a stranger became an accusation of sexual harassment.

Subsequently accused of having a homosexual affair, an unspeakable offense in those days, he was towed off to jail in a Rolls Royce following his conviction for what he contends was something that never happened. At best, he tells us, evidence was circumstantial, and facts were so cruelly distorted as to create a climate of persecution as much as prosecution.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Lord Montagu, however he defines his sexuality, is acutely aware of his aristocratic responsibilities to keep the family line going. Even so, he expresses pride in the fact that his misfortune eventually led to the repeal of antiquated gender and privacy laws that forbade any expression of homosexual behavior, no matter what its metier or moniker.

"Only two out of seventeen chapters deal with that episode of my life," he says, speaking from Palace House. "Still it is significant because of the favorable changes it led to in British law."

Still, the aristocratic show must go on. Decrying the recent assault by the Labor Party and the prime minister on the inheritance rights of peers to assume their seats in the House of Lords, at the same time Edward has no illusions about his first priority -- perpetuation of his family. As history, to speak nothing of biology, has so elegantly proven, there is only one effective way to do that. Any damage to the extension of lineage and the ancient body of traditions it represents is, in his view, damage to British heritage itself.

"Fortunately, there are some members of the aristocracy who were and remain pioneers," he says. "We cherish the heritage while conserving and preserving it. It is a most varied life."

Indeed, had Lord Montagu never been born, some imaginative writer would surely have invented him. If truth is stranger than fiction, Edward Montagu has amply proven it both in life and in this extraordinary memoir.

-- For more information, visit the Beaulieu Web site at http://www.beaulieu.co.uk/main/index.htm

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