The 1920s were a great period for the young and gilded, in both the US and the UK. We all know the lives of the rich in the US at that time through the novels of Mr F Scott Fitzgerald, which in their oblique way revealed the attitudes and lifestyle of people with very little to do but enjoy the privilege of their position and make even more money in business deals with friends and, of course, on Wall Street.
But in England it was all done slightly differently. The between-the-wars jeunesse dorée were an almost entirely endogamous tribe, flitting incestuously along their own inward-looking tribal pathways: grand country house to even grander London town house and back to the country again. Although it was a way of keeping at bay the boredom of having nothing to do, and was boring in itself, it had the great thing that the young English upper class wanted, which was no responsibility and certainly nothing that could be called a serious occupation.
In the US, Messrs Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway perfectly captured the roaring 1920s and the jazz age. In Britain Mr Somerset Maugham and, above all, Sir PG Wodehouse, were doing the same for the Bright Young Things.
No writer on either side of the Atlantic was able to create a character of the total bizarreness of the effete young aristocrat Mr Tennant
But no writer on either side of the Atlantic was quite able to create a character of the total bizarreness of the effete young aristocrat Mr Stephen Tennant, such a leading light in the social life of the period that he has become the standard bearer for his times.
And not without justice. We have to look in awe at a man who said his life was transformed when, as a boy running around the gardens of Wilsford, his parents' Wiltshire home, he stopped, transfixed by "the blossom of a pansy". He never looked back. Out poured the succession of arch comments that so endeared him to other young men of similar attitudes, such as Sir Cecil Beaton and Mr Rex Whistler. "I need a very great deal of beauty," he confided in his friends. "I am going to be a bird of paradise this spring," he assured his fans. And, most telling of all, "I don't want ever to be a man; I want always to be a little boy."
Mr Tennant photographed by Sir Cecil Beaton in Smith Square, London, 1927. Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's
One can understand why. Born in 1906, the youngest of five children, whose father was the first Baron Glenconner, Mr Tennant was a beautiful child and an incredibly effeminate young man, who caused a stir by having an affair with the poet Mr Siegfried Sassoon. Mr Tennant was still in his early twenties, even though it was generally believed at the time that he was engaged to be married, but, as the story was told, his bride-to-be very sensibly bolted when he insisted that his nanny must come on the honeymoon with them.
Known as "the brightest" of the Bright Young People by the popular press, referring more to his looks than his intellect one feels sure, he had blond Marcel-waved hair, and a very fetching rosebud pout. Not surprisingly, his dress was frequently eccentric but, certainly before he aged and lost his figure, always elegant whether he was arriving in "an electric brougham wearing a football jersey and earrings" or in full drag as the dotty late queen of Romania. Rather surprisingly, perhaps, he was frequently photographed wearing a perfectly cut formal dark suit, stiff white collar and precisely knotted tie - the epitome of the London clubman of the time.
His dress was frequently eccentric but elegant, whether he was arriving 'wearing a football jersey and earrings' or in full drag
He was loved by other poseurs such as the Sitwells and the Mitfords, who spread his bons mots across society with great glee. In fact, he was brilliantly portrayed in Ms Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate as Cedric Hampton, who descends on, and causes mayhem throughout, the Cotswolds with his very uncountry antics and attitudes.
But did he do anything else? Well, he spent many years on his novel: Lascar: A Story You Must Forget, which he frequently and probably wisely forgot for long periods himself so, of course, it remained unfinished at his death. And age was not kind to the man who in his youth had declared, "I am so beautiful". The stream of visitors to Wilsford slowly dried up as he grew fat and spent increasing time lying on or in his bed, in his Charles James leopard-print pyjamas, looking at fashion magazines or society scrapbooks and changing his make-up and hairstyles when not occupied in decorating himself with tinsel. A cruel but possibly honest friend described him in later years as a "transvestite cocotte who has seen better days". He died in 1987, aged 80, an almost total recluse, having rarely left his bedroom, where the light was carefully calculated to treat him kindly, something he could no longer rely on the outside world doing.
Mr Tennant photographed by Sir Cecil Beaton at his childhood home, Wilsford Manor, 1938. Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's