Andrei Navrozov remembers his tormented and ultimately tragic college chum Nicholas Hervey, the not-quite Marquess of Bristol
AS EVERY FOREIGNER who has read his Dickens believes, England is the land of coincidence, and I was little surprised to hear that a friend of mine had sold his Northamptonshire family seat to a Russian. Nor was the congenital gambler in me incredulous when I learnt that the new master of Easton Neston, Leon Max, was a keen reader of this column and rather curious to make my acquaintance. It was only when I found myself in the dining room of Hawksmoor’s chef d’oeuvre seated opposite Lord Nicholas’s godson that my faith in happenstance began to fight for breath.
The Lord Nicholas Hervey, as he styled himself, would have been 50 this past November. Had he not hanged himself in a Chelsea bedsit in 1998, he would have been Marquess of Bristol (after his half-brother, John Jermyn, died of a heroin overdose in 1999). To me or, indeed, to the reader, it is a matter of indifference that the title passed to his godson and other half-brother Frederick, my Easton Neston vis-à-vis. But it was not all the same to poor old Nicholas. That he had not waited, during that last winter, until chance had worked its way through the vicissitudes of the Hervey family was a coincidence on a par with my presence at Leon’s dinner. Except a vastly unhappy one.
In all probability Nicholas went to Yale because neither Oxford nor Cambridge would have him, but as his great ancestor, Lord Rockingham, was the prime minister widely known for the recognition of American independence by Britain, he fantasised that his education was in some part repayment of the colonists’ moral indebtedness to his family. He behaved accordingly, and the notorious Rockingham Club he had founded to teach America’s gilded youth the ways of the Empire lent his ethical position a certain poignancy.
Moreover, in the same spirit of magnanimity that impelled Lord Rockingham to make Edmund Burke his amanuensis, Nicholas befriended me, a poor Russian writer, and had me elected to his club. Now, when magazines like New York or Andy Warhol’s Interview did their stories on the Rockingham, they could no longer assert with equanimity that it was merely a feeding and drinking trough for the anglophile children of the American rich — which of course it was.
It took Nicholas six years to complete the undergraduate course I had finished in three and a half. He was clever, yet by disposition a fantasist, and when an essay was due he could not tell the professor, as would I or anybody else in his place, that I had written the paper but the dog ate it.
He would say instead that he had felt the need to amplify the veracity of a point once made by the younger Pitt with additional research in the Library of Congress, but that on the train back from Washington masked intruders, whom he would identify as mainland Chinese, had snatched his briefcase. ‘Why mainland Chinese?’ was all the exhausted professor could find to mutter. At twenty, in his inevitable dark double-breasted suit and sombre tie, Nicholas looked like he was pushing 40. Nobody dared to laugh in his face.
IN THE EARLY Eighties, when, even off campus, a pair of jeans without stain or tear was regarded by America’s collegiate youth as ostentatious effrontery, Rockingham black-tie dinners and white-tie parties were perceived as something between a gay bathhouse and The Great Gatsby, with distinct overtones, however, of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning. Nicholas, ever the unbending Englishman in a colonial backwater, paid no attention, as though the hissing detractors surrounding him were so many whirling dervishes. If he was destined to become, as he then fervently believed, the eighth marquess, one day the clash with public opinion would be seen for what it was, a character-building experience for a man of principle.
The Rockingham dinners, whose success in some measure appeared a reflection on the family silver Nicholas had imported from Ickworth, were not all-male, so at least that aspect of the club’s reputation was unjustly exaggerated. A girl — admittedly but one, where the boys numbered about 30 — was usually present, lending the proceedings what Nicholas opined was requisite delicacy. It worked, as in the tempering presence of a lady the male revellers behaved better, told funnier jokes and vomited more discreetly. I recall that Cornelia Guest, America’s It Girl of the epoch, resplendent in white gloves and décolleté, was the tempering influence on one such occasion.
Nicholas returned to England in 1986, the year I fled here from the bejeaned levellers of America’s academe, and we stayed in touch. For reasons too complex to probe here, however, his finances and health ebbed no less surely, although far less splendidly, than that of his half-brother, the seventh marquess, and consequently, again like John Jermyn, he became reclusive. The scene of our last meeting was Ickworth, where a few of the Rockingham stalwarts had travelled for the funeral.
Funny, how happenstance works. It never fails to snatch the elegiac from the jaws of the sybaritic.
Andrei Navrozov writes Spear’s Louche Life column