Clarissa, Countess of Avon, died on November 15, 2021, at the age of 101, taking a well-kept secret with her in the grave.
Clarissa’s brother, Peregrine Spencer-Churchill, whom I interviewed in 2001, told me that âyoung girl, Clarissa had been away for a while and then she came home, brandishing an engagement ring in diamond on his finger. No one knew where she had been. She announced to the family that she was engaged to Guy Burgess.
Obviously, since she was quite promiscuous, having bragged about her first “affair at 17”, she had lived with Burgess while he was away. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Burgess was also gay and communist, spying for Russians.
In a separate interview, Clarissa told me that she and her family spend every Sunday with Winston and Clementine Churchill. There, she said, referring to World War II, âWinston only spoke of a terrible war. He said we were all going to be devastated. There is no doubt that Burgess used it to obtain first-hand information about the war from Winston, which he passed on to the Russians.
Burgess had been a friend of Clarissa and her entourage for several years. It was a crowd of what you might call “intellectuals.” Clarissa had been partly educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, which was unheard of for a girl at the time. Born June 28, 1920, she was 19 when World War II broke out. It was during the war that she became engaged to Burgess. Peregrine said the engagement âlasted for three months and then in typical flamboyant style she came home and saidâ it’s all over. âNo reason was given!
Another family secret was that Clarissa’s family side was Catholic. Sir Winston Churchill’s almost unknown brother, John Strange Spencer-Churchill, married Clarissa’s mother on August 7, 1908, in the Catholic Church in Oxford. Lady Gwendeline Mary Bertie was a devout Roman Catholic, daughter of Gwendeline Mary nÃ©e Dormer and Montagu Arthur Bertie, 7th Earl of Abingdon. According to Clarissa, “Winston had previously had romantic plans for my mother Gwendeline. The Berties would not have accepted Winston as a son-in-law. They saw Jack as the brains of the family, Winston whom they saw as a wild and maverick character. .
On Lady Gwendeline’s wedding day, Winston had to be content to be the wedding witness. However, by this time he had fallen in love with Clementine Hozier and they were married the following month, in September 1908, at St Margaret’s Church in Westminster.
Clarissa also recalled that it was dangerous to have Winston in their house and that his mother did not want him. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s government, he decided to restore the gold standard to its pre-World War I parity of $ 4.86 for the pound sterling, which he announced in his budget report, in April 1925. The following year, the TUC called a general strike which lasted for 10 days. Clarissa, 5, remembers “standing on the window sill of our house, watching a crowd that had gathered, calling Winston, because they thought he was living with us”. Clarissa was âstartled when she saw a woman wearing a red stocking on her head, who looked like a character from the French Revolution, clenching her fist. My nanny pulled me away from the window.
As for Clarissa’s future; she was ambitious – that’s what Peregrine’s wife, Yvonne Spencer-Churchill told me. As a young woman, she put her cap on the next Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon (1897-1977). Twenty-three years his senior, he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1955 to 1957. The mess he caused during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 brought about his downfall. Clarissa showed courage in front of me, referring to that time: âAnthony was not doing well – he had had an operation. Problem with his kidneys.
Clarissa was aware that her husband was much older than her. In recent TV clips of an interview with Anthony Eden, she was in the studio with him and was shown to blacken his white mustache with his eyeliner to make it look younger, before it was broadcast live.
I have stayed in touch with Clarissa over the years, sending her a card on every birthday. She told me that her mother Gwendeline did not like the Churchills and that it was “political”. By the time they all first met, Winston Churchill and his fiancee Clementine Hozier were Liberals, as was Clarissa. Whereas, when Winston defected again from the Conservative Party and the others followed him, Gwendeline “remained liberal her whole life.” She was a close friend of the Asquith family and frequently played cards with them throughout World War I, when her husband Jack served in Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
Clarissa was fiercely aware of her figure but very funny with a sense of humor. She told me that she was “rather tough” meaning short of money, but I noticed that several beautiful oil paintings adorned the walls of her apartment. When her sister-in-law, Yvonne Spencer-Churchill, widow of her brother Peregrine, passed away in December 2010, the 11th Duke of Marlborough kindly took all of us who attended his memorial service at St. Martin’s Church, Bladon to us. , in January 2011., at Blenheim Palace for a sumptuous lunch. Clarissa, who was then 90, was so fit that she passed us all on her way up the long palace stairs, even though she was using a cane.
Clarissa, with blond hair and blue eyes, with a perfect figure and brain, was considered in her time to be a great beauty and an intellectual. His passing marks the end of the Churchills of that time.
You could say that his motto in life was: “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die.” “
Clarissa, Countess of Avon – June 28, 1920 – November 15, 2021
Celia Lee is the author of The Churchills: a family portrait (Lume Books, 2021)