Anne Clarissa Eden, Countess of Avon (née Spencer-Churchill, 28 June 1920) is the widow of Sir Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon (1897-1977), who was British Prime Minister from 1955-1957. She married Eden in 1952, becoming Lady Eden in 1954 when he was made a Knight of the Garter and Countess of Avon in 1961 on his elevation to the peerage. Her memoir, sub-titled From Churchill to Eden, was published in 2007 under the name of Clarissa Eden.
Lady Avon's elder brothers were Johnnie (1909-1992), an artist, and Peregrine (1913-2002).
|Clarissa Spencer-Churchill, Lady Eden (Countess of Avon 1961)|| Father:|
John Strange Spencer-Churchill DSO
| Paternal Grandfather:|
Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill
| Paternal Great-grandfather:|
John Winston Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough
| Paternal Great-grandmother:|
Lady Frances Vane-Tempest-Stewart
| Paternal Grandmother:|
Jeanette (Jenny) Jerome
| Paternal Great-grandfather:|
| Paternal Great-grandmother:|
Lady Gwendoline Bertie ("Goonie") (married John Churchill 1908)
| Maternal Grandfather:|
Montagu Bertie, 7th Earl of Abingdon
| Maternal Great-grandfather:|
Montagu Bertie, 6th Earl of Abingdon
| Maternal Great-grandmother:|
| Maternal Grandmother:|
Gwendoline Mary Dormer
| Maternal Great-grandfather:|
Lt.-Gen. the Hon. James Charlemagne Dormer
| Maternal Great-grandmother:|
Ella Francis Catherine Alison
When Lady Avon returned to London she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art. Around this time she displayed her individualism by acquiring a specially tailored trouser suit along the lines of that associated with the actress Marlene Dietrich since the latter's appearance in the film, Morocco (1930). 1938 was Lady Avon's "coming out" year, but, having mixed with older and more sophisticated people in Paris, she seems to have disdained the débutante circuit - since described by Anne de Courcy as "more or less naive seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds suddenly flung into a round of gaities - and was never presented at Court. Among those with whom Lady Avon danced at that year's Liberal Ball was the future double agent Donald Maclean who complained that she was too smart to be "a proper Liberal girl like the Bonham-Carters or the Asquiths" . In 1939 she spent another four months in Paris and in August of that year travelled to Romania as the guest of the novelist Elizabeth Bibesco and her husband Antoine, only just managing to return to England - on one of the last flights out of Bucharest - before the start of the Second World War .
When Lady Avon moved back to London she decoded ciphers in the Communications Department of the Foreign Office, where her future husband was the Secretary of State from 1940-5. One of her colleagues was Anthony Nutting, who, in 1956, resigned from Eden's government because of his opposition to the Suez operation. For a time Lady Avon lived in a roof-top room at the Dorchester Hotel, which she obtained at a cut-price rate because of its vulnerability to bombing.
Lady Avon also edited the magazine Contact, which was part of George Weidenfeld's publishing empire.
As a result of this eclectic early career, Lady Avon widened her circle of friends and contacts beyond those in society and politics with whom she already had close connections. As one of Anthony Eden's biographers put it, she was "equally at home in the worlds of Hatfield and Fitzrovia" , while a reviewer of her memoir wrote that "few lives can have touched so many social worlds, or graced them so elegantly" .
A photograph on the dust jacket of the memoir, depicting a young, pensive Lady Avon, cigarette in hand, conveyed an alluring and slightly Bohemian image. The book was generally well received by critics and even generated an engaging "spoof" in the satirical magazine Private Eye ("In the early 1950s I married Anthony Eden, a politician of above average height, with a prominent moustache ..." ). Historian Andrew Roberts described it as "the last great British autobiography of the pre-war and wartime era" .
Lady Avon was quoted by Wyatt as having told him that she resisted the amorous advances of Duff Cooper, wartime Information Minister and British Ambassador in Paris 1944-7, who, thirty years her senior, had also been a friend of her mother: "I was the only woman who he never got more than a peck on the cheek from". She informed Cooper in 1947, following a weekend in the country with Anthony Eden, at which the only other guest was the French Ambassador to Britain, that Eden "never stops trying to make love to her". When Cooper was raised to the peerage (as Viscount Norwich), he sought Lady Avon's views as to a title - "Think, child, think ... Have you any suggestions? (not funny ones)" - and she was the recipient of the last letter that he wrote (from White's club) shortly before his death at sea on New Year's Day, 1954 .
Lady Avon was a long-standing friend of Anne Fleming, wife of novelist Ian Fleming, who had previously been married to Viscount Rothermere and was also lover of Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party 1955-63. Lady Avon and composer and playwright Noel Coward became godparents in 1952 to the Flemings’ son Caspar, who died of a drug overdose in 1975. In later years, as a widow, she was evidently close to the influential solicitor and adviser Lord Goodman.
Lady Avon first met her future husband at Cranborne, Dorset (home of the future 5th Marquess of Salisbury) in 1936 when she was sixteen. Already famous at the time for his elegant attire and Homburg hat, she was struck by Eden's tweed pinstriped trousers.
R .A. Butler, then a junior Minister, recalled a dinner party in Eden’s flat above the Foreign Office, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Attempting to defuse an argument between Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook about their respective motivation during the Abdication crisis of 1936, Lady Avon, just turned twenty-one, proclaimed with patent improbability that she had three favourites, King Edward VIII, King Leopold III of the Belgians and the aviator Charles Lindbergh. (All three men, for various reasons, would not have appealed much to Churchill at that point in the war.)
Waugh enquired of Lady Avon, "Did you never think that you were contributing to the loneliness of Calvary by your desertion [of the faith]?" . On the eve on the wedding, John Colville, a long-time private secretary of Winston Churchill, who, in his younger days, had been part of the same social “set” as Churchill's niece, recorded in his diary that Lady Avon, who was staying at Churchill's home at Chartwell, Kent, was "very beautiful, but ... still strange and bewildering". He added that Churchill "feels avuncular to his orphaned niece, gave her a cheque for £500 and told me that he thought she had a most unusual personality". According to Lady Avon herself, Churchill's wife Clementine thought her "too independent and totally unsuitable" , while the marriage is said to have exacerbated the antagonism towards Eden of their often wayward son Randolph, who, having defended his cousin to Evelyn Waugh, gave her "two years to knock him [Eden] into shape". His subsequent attacks on Eden in the press culminated in a scathing biography, The Rise and Fall of Sir Anthony Eden (1959).
The issues relating to the Edens' marriage resurfaced in 1955 when Eden was Prime Minister. In that year Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, announced that "mindful of the [[Church of England|Church [of England]'s]] teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble", she had decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, a divorcé. Townsend subsequently reflected that
Eden could not fail to sympathise with the Princess, all the more so that while his own second marriage had incurred no penalty, either for him or his wife, he had to warn the Princess that my second marriage - to her - would [mean] she would have to renounce her royal rights, functions and income.
Lady Avon maintained many of her wider acquaintances. For example, Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo visited 10 Downing Street at her invitation in October 1956. They drank vodka and ice and Beaton recorded Lady Avon's observation that her husband was kept awake by the sound of motor scooters, which were growing in popularity among young people in the 1950s. Lady Avon is said to have murmured, "he can't keep away", as Eden, in Beaton's words, "gangled in like a colt" and proclaimed to Garbo, who had a cigarette holder between her teeth, that he had always wanted to meet her.
The Edens' marriage, which lasted until his death in 1977, was, by all accounts, a happy one, though Lady Avon miscarried in 1954 and there were no children. Her stepson, Nicholas, Eden's surviving son from his first marriage, who succeeded him as 2nd Earl of Avon, was a Minister in Margaret Thatcher's Government in the 1980s, but died of AIDS in 1985.
Eden’s premiership lasted less than two years. For much of this period Eden was the subject of hostilty from elements of the Conservative press, notably the Daily Telegraph, the wife of whose Chairman, Lady Pamela Berry, a noted society hostess, described by the biographer of her father, Lord Birkenhead, as "the politician manquée of the second generation" , was said by some to have had a "blood row" (Macmillan's phrase) with Lady Avon. The latter's attempts to make this up this puzzling rift were apparently shunned.
Lady Avon was not very fond of Chequers, though she did take a keen interest in the garden and grounds, introducing old fashioned roses and increasing the range of fruit trees. However, her successor, Lady Dorothy Macmillan, so keen a horticulturalist that she sometimes gardened at night, removed yellow and white flowers planted by Lady Avon and replaced them with roses of "normal colour".
One episode at Chequers attracted considerable publicity. In January 1956 Lady Avon politely requested the occupant of a farm worker's cottage on the estate to hang her washing where it could not be seen by visitors. Although it seems that the washing may have been hung across a lime walk, beyond the boundary of the cottage garden itself, the story was taken up by the Daily Mirror as an alleged example of Lady Avon's high-handedness. Coming shortly after attacks in the press on Eden's leadership, the timing was unfortunate.
As the Suez Crisis reached its climax in 1956, the Labour Party opposed Anglo-French attacks on Egypt. On 1 November Lady Avon found herself sitting next to Dora Gaitskell, wife of the Labour leader, in the gallery of the House of Commons, whose sitting was suspended, due to uproar, for the first time since 1924. "Can you stand it?" she asked, to which, according to one version, the seasoned Mrs Gaitskell replied, "the boys must have their fun". (An alternative version is that Mrs Gaitskell responded, "What I can't stand is the mounted police charging the crowds outside". ) Three days later Lady Avon attended, out of curiosity, an anti-Government "Law not War" demonstration in Trafalgar Square, but thought it politic to withdraw when she was recognised with friendly cheers.
Less dramatically, there were suggestions that Eden’s touchiness and over-sensitivity to criticism, characteristics frequently remarked upon by colleagues, were exacerbated by Lady Avon (described by historian Barry Turner, without explanation, as "equally touchy). One of Eden's private secretaries claimed that "she had a habit of stirring up Anthony when he didn't need it". However, Eden's biographer D. R. Thorpe concluded that such imputations arose from a misreading of the Edens' relationship, noting also that, during Suez, the only two people in whom Eden could confide without inhibition were his wife and the Queen. Similarly, David Dutton, a biographer generally less sympathetic to Eden than Thorpe, while noting that "some observers believed that Clarissa was excessively protective and tended to exacerbate Eden's natural volatility", nevertheless remarked on her devoted companionship and that "during the dark days of the Suez Crisis, [she] was at his side, supportive throughout" .
Lady Avon herself recalled that, though she sought to "bolster up" her husband and scanned the newspapers for anything that she thought he ought to know, she did not feel she "knew enough about what was going on to try and interfere in any way". Even so, her knowledge of the inner workings of Government was such that she was able to record in her diary the precise stance, at a critical point of the Suez operation, of every member of the Cabinet:
[E]ach was asked in turn what they felt about going on. Selwyn [Lloyd], Alec Home, Harold [Macmillan], Alan [Lennox-Boyd], Anthony Head, Peter [Thorneycroft], [Sir David] Eccles, Duncan [Sandys], James Stuart, Gwilym [Lloyd George], and [Lord] Hailsham were for going on. [Lord] Kilmuir, [Derick] Heathcoat Amory, [Iain] Macloed, Bobbety [Lord Salisbury], Patrick Buchan-Hepburn were for doing whatever Anthony wanted and Lord Selkirk was unintelligible .
Once installed in Jamaica, the Edens were temporary neighbours of Noel Coward, who presented them - "poor dears" - with a basket of caviare, pâté de fois gras and champagne. Coward also sent Frank Cooper's marmalade and Huntley and Palmer's biscuits, which, according to Lady Avon, "was not what we had been looking forward to" . The publicity that this sojourn attracted is credited by some with boosting Fleming's literary career, including sales of his early novels about James Bond, the first of which, Casino Royale, he had written at Goldeneye in 1952.
Shortly after Eden's resignation, he and Lady Avon sailed to New Zealand for a further break. Their cabin steward, on what she described as "the hellship Rangitata", was the future Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Half a century later Prescott recalled that, while kneeling down to clean the ship's brass, he had occasion to admire a pair of legs that turned out to be Lady Eden's - "You naturally look, don't you" - whereupon Sir Anthony tapped him on the head. When they arrived in New Zealand, which was among the few countries publicly to have supported the Suez operation, the Edens received a rapturous "red carpet" reception .
The last entry in Eden's diary, dated 11 September 1976, had read; "exquisite small vase of crimson glory buds & mignorette from beloved C[larissa]". When he was taken mortally ill with liver cancer, he and Lady Avon had just spent their final Christmas together at Hobe Sound, Florida as guests of Averell Harriman, elder statesman of the Democratic Party, and his English-born wife Pamela, Lady Avon's exact contemporary, who had also taken a room at the Dorchester during the Second World War and had previously been married to Lady Avon's cousin Randolph Churchill. (In the 1990s Pamela Harriman was President Bill Clinton's Ambassador to Paris, where she died in 1997.) The Edens were flown back to Britain in a Royal Air Force VC-10 that was diverted to Miami after Prime Minister James Callaghan had been alerted to the situation by Pamela Harriman's son, Winston.
In 1994 Lady Avon unveiled a bust of Eden at the Foreign Office.
Lady Avon was 87 when her memoir appeared in 2007. A journalist who interviewed her and her editor, Cate Haste, observed that Lady Avon "seems slight and wan, as if painted in watercolour rather than oil", but described her as "vigorous and knowing" in conversation . In April 2008 she and Haste appeared at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival , the literature for this event observing that, although Lady Avon was perhaps best known for her lament about the Suez Canal flowing through her drawing room, "she was far more than a drawing-room consort".
Over the years Lady Avon attended various gatherings of former Prime Ministers and their families. For example, Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell noted that, at a dinner at 10 Downing Street to mark Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee in 2002
Prince Philip was deep in conversation with T[ony] B[lair], the Countess of Avon, Macmillan's and Douglas-Home's families, and there was lots of reminiscing about life in Number 10.