Has there ever been a more eccentric British colleague?
His dogs wore pearl necklaces, he colored his flock of pigeons in all shades of the rainbow, suggesting that neighboring farmers would like to do the same with their livestock, and kept a giraffe as a pet on his Oxfordshire estate, Faringdon House.
There – where he lived with his beloved ‘Mad Boy’ – he erected a 140 ft folly with a sign at the bottom that read, ‘Members of the public who commit suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.’
Despite his enormous wealth, the 14th Baron Berners hated pomposity and did his best to fool the upper classes – to rejoice in foolish pranks that put off the darlings of society as well as politicians.
He is said to have even scared his neighbors by wearing a pig mask when he was behind the wheel of his Rolls-Royce, which was personalized with bird silk curtains and a portable clavichord under the driver’s seat.
A true bon vivant of the early 20th century, Berners entertained everyone from Evelyn Waugh to Cecil Beaton, Salvador Dali and especially Nancy Mitford.
In fact, he left such a lasting impression on Mitford that he inspired the scandalous esthete, Lord Merlin, in her 1945 novel The Pursuit Of Love – which was brought to life on Sunday night in the first episode of the new three-part TV adaptation of the BBC.
And of course Lord Merlin, played by Andrew Scott from Fleabag, is the undisputed star of the show. Unapologically exaggerated, Merlin sweeps Linda Radlett (Lily James) away from her botched marriage for a whirl of dancing and lavish parties – even gifting her a painting of Renoir and a Chelsea house in London.
But as glorious as Lord Merlin is, his real inspiration was perhaps even more wonderfully crazy. And because everyone was fascinated by Berners’ ability for extravagance, everyone who was anyone wanted to come to his parties.
Andrew Scott (center) as Lord Merlin in The BBC’s The Pursuit of Love. His character was inspired by the outrageous aristocrat, the 14th Baron of Berners
Photographer Cecil Beaton was a frequent guest at Faringdon, taking hundreds of photos of Berner’s famous set.
One of them shows Penelope Betjeman, the wife of poet laureate John, serving tea like crazy to her white Arabian horse Moti in the salon. Meanwhile, Dali played the piano in the ornamental lake.
The Mitfords enjoyed extended periods of escapist entertainment in the house during the Blitz, and other well-known visitors included critic Cyril Connolly and writers Gertrude Stein, André Gide and HG Wells.
Another of his guests was the Marchesa Luisa Casati, who kept a pair of cheetahs as pets in her palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal and was known to have dipped her black servants in gold paint.
While she was staying at Faringdon, she brought a boa constrictor into a glass case. ‘Do you want to eat something?’ Berners’ mother asked. “No,” replied the Marchesa, “he had a goat this morning.”
Ever the Impostor, Berners once sent an invitation to infamous social climber Sibyl Colefax that read, ‘I wonder if you might even be free to dine tomorrow night? It’s just a small party for Winston [Churchill] and GBS [George Bernard Shaw]. But Berners made both his name and the address on the envelope illegible.
He was fond of jokes and jokes, and once even placed an ad in The Times newspaper listing two elephants for sale.
When he got a call from the newspaper about the ad, he joked that he had sold one to the politician Harold Nicolson.
Travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor recalled that there were paper flowers in Berners’ gardens and that Faringdon’s house was full of jokes. Leigh Fermor recalled ‘No dogs allowed’ at the top of the stairs, and ‘Prepare to meet your God’ painted in a wardrobe.
When people complimented him on his delicious peaches, he said, ‘Yes, they get ham. ‘And he used to put Woolworth pearl necklaces around his dog’s neck – and when a guy, quite troubled, ran up to him and said,’ Fido lost his necklace, ‘G said,’ Oh my, I’ll have another one from the neighborhood. safe, ” said Fermor.
Such was the allure of Berners’s surreal fantasy land, that socialite Doris Delevingne allegedly tried to seduce the gay Cecil Beaton in Faringdon by telling him, “There is no such thing as a powerless man, just an incompetent woman.”
She had already been in a relationship with Winston and Randolph Churchill and saw Beaton’s sexuality as no major obstacle.
Berners’s enormous fortune was never foreseen when he was born Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson in 1883, an only child whose father was a largely absent naval officer, while his mother was aloof and dominant. From an early age it was clear that he was different.
An unfortunate nanny was sent to pack after catching the privy with a booby trap. In his memoir, First Childhood, Berners recalled that, after hearing that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing it into the water, he threw his mother’s dog out the window to teach it to fly. Fortunately, the dog survived.
It seems eccentricity ran in the family, as his grandfather would swear incessantly – even stop a church service because his language was so offensive – and spend all day in a darkened room, according to Berners.
In 1899, Berners entered the diplomatic service (despite failing the entrance exam twice) and spent happy years on the mainland, taking music lessons with Stravinsky in his spare time.
He was a talented musician, although he did not seriously pursue his art, once admitting that he would have been a better composer had he accepted fewer invitations to lunch. But he did manage to write five ballet scores and an opera, and even the score for the 1947 film The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby.
Berners (left) approves costumes for his ballet ‘Cupid and Psyche’ at Sadler’s Wells in London in 1939
Berners’ life changed when, at the age of 35, he inherited his title, as well as enormous wealth and possessions, from an uncle. The legacy included the 12-bedroom Faringdon House, built in 1785 – with its crenellated pool guarded by stone wyverns and with a Gothic changing pavilion paved with old pennies. He initially donated the property to his mother and her second husband. It was not until their death in 1931 that he took up residence in the house himself.
The House of Lords did not interest him at all. He only attended once, after which he said he would not go back because a bishop stole his umbrella.
He enjoyed long forays across the Channel, often taking two weeks to travel between London and Rome (where he was owned) to get his driver to stop at the Ritz in Paris.
In the 1930s, and because of his eccentricity and wealth, Berners became a minor celebrity in Britain’s upper class. But being rather unattractive, with a shapely figure and a pale complexion, he had few romantic encounters.
In 1932, however, he met Robert Heber-Percy (his ‘Mad Boy’), the fourth son of a Shropshire squire, who was 28 years younger than him – it was an instant attraction.
Heber-Percy moved to Faringdon as his live-in friend, and in the heyday of the 1930s, the couple hosted lavish parties for the rich and famous.
Berners spent his days painting, writing, and composing, while Mad Boy could be found swimming or riding – often naked.
The Foolishness of the Estate was founded by a devoted Bernese on the occasion of Mad Boy’s 24th birthday.
Heber-Percy had always been a partner of both men and women, but there was some surprise when he married cocoa heiress Jennifer Fry in 1942 who was pregnant (although it remains an open question whether the child was his).
They lived together in Faringdon for a time, but Fry left with the baby two years later and Heber-Percy and Berners’ company continued.
It was only after Berners died in 1950 at the age of 66, leaving the Faringdon estate to Heber-Percy, that his typically diabolical treatment of the family portrait collection was discovered – he had put mustaches on all the paintings and all the women painted over so that their clothes appeared to have been cut up to the navel.
He was cheerful to the last and the doctor who visited him in his last weeks refused to charge him for his services, saying that his company paid enough.
And as a final act of appropriate eccentricity, Berners wrote his own epitaph, quite aptly, “Here lies Lord Berners, one of the disciples. His great love for learning can set him on fire – but praise the Lord! He was rarely bored. ‘