He was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford. At Eton (1872-1878) he was a favourite of Oscar Browning, leading to his tutor's eventual dismissal. While at Eton, he was a controversial figure who was liked and disliked with equal intensity by large numbers of masters and other boys. This strange talent for both attraction and repulsion stayed with him all his life: few people ever felt neutral about him. At Oxford he was President of the Canning Club, the Union and the Presidents' Council, and after a brilliant university career - although he failed to achieve a first class degree in Greats, he won the Lothian and Arnold Prizes, the latter for an essay on Sir Thomas More, about whom he confessed to having known almost nothing before commencing study, literally delivered as the clocks were chiming midnight on the day of the deadline - was elected a fellow of All Souls College in 1883.
A teenage spinal injury, incurred while horseback riding, left Curzon in lifelong pain, often resulting in insomnia, and required him to wear a metal corset under his clothes, contributing to an unfortunate impression of stiffness and arrogance. While at Oxford, Curzon was the inspiration for a piece of doggerel which stuck with him in later life:
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
''My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.
In the meantime he had travelled around the world: Russia and Central Asia (1888-9), a long tour of Persia (1889-90), Siam, French Indochina and Korea (1892), and a daring foray into Afghanistan and the Pamirs (1894), and published several books describing central and eastern Asia and related policy issues. A bold and compulsive traveller, fascinated by oriental life and geography, he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his exploration of the source of the Oxus. Yet the main purpose of his journeys was political: they formed part of a vast and comprehensive project to study the problems of Asia and their implications for British India. At the same time they reinforced his pride in his nation and her imperial mission.
In 1895 he married Mary Victoria Leiter, the beautiful daughter of Levi Ziegler Leiter, a Chicago millionaire of German Lutheran origin and a cofounder of the department store Field & Leiter (now known as Marshall Field). She had a long and nearly fatal illness near the end of summer 1904, from which she never really recovered. Falling ill again in July 1906, she died on the 18th of that month in her husband's arms, at the age of 36 years old. It was the greatest personal loss of his life. She was buried in the church at Kedleston, where Curzon designed his memorial for her, a lovely Gothic chapel added to the north side of the nave. Although he was neither a devout nor a conventional churchman, Curzon retained a simple religious faith; in later years he sometimes said that he was not afraid of death because it would enable him to join Mary in heaven.
They had three daughters during a firm and happy marriage: Mary Irene (who inherited her father's Barony of Ravensdale and was created a life peer in her own right), Cynthia (first wife of Sir Oswald Mosley), and Alexandra Naldera (wife of Edward "Fruity" Metcalfe, the best friend, best man and equerry of Edward VIII); best known as Baba Metcalfe, she later became a mistress of her brother-in-law Oswald Mosley, as did her stepmother, Grace Curzon. Mary Irene had a short affair with Mosley before either were married.
In January 1899 he was appointed Viceroy of India. He was created a Peer of Ireland as Baron Curzon of Kedleston, in the County of Derby, on his appointment. This peerage was created in the Peerage of Ireland (the last ever to be so created), so that he would be (like other Viceroys) a peer in India, but free, until his father's death, to re-enter the House of Commons on his return to Britain.
Reaching India shortly after the suppression of the frontier risings of 1897–1898, he paid special attention to the independent tribes of the north-west frontier, inaugurated a new province called the North West Frontier Province, and pursued a policy of forceful control mingled with conciliation. The only major armed outbreak on this frontier during the period of his administration was the Mahsud-Waziri campaign of 1901.
His deep mistrust of Russian intentions led him to encourage British trade in Persia, paying a visit to the Persian Gulf in 1903. At the end of that year, he sent a military expedition into Tibet led by Francis Younghusband, ostensibly to forestall a Russian advance. After bloody conflicts with Tibet's poorly-armed defenders, the mission penetrated to Lhasa, where a treaty was signed in September 1904. No Russian presence was found in Lhasa.
Within India, Lord Curzon of Kedleston appointed a number of commissions to inquire into Indian education, irrigation, police and other branches of administration, on whose reports legislation was based during his second term of office as viceroy. Reappointed Governor-General in August 1904, he presided over the partition of Bengal (July 1905), which roused such bitter opposition among the people of the province that it was later revoked (1911).
A difference of opinion with the British military Commander-in-Chief in India, Lord Kitchener, regarding the position of the military member of council in India, led to a controversy in which Lord Curzon of Kedleston failed to obtain support from the home government. He resigned in August 1905 and returned to England.
During his tenure, Curzon undertook the restoration of the Taj Mahal, and expressed satisfaction that he had done so.
After a long affair with the romance novelist Elinor Glyn, Curzon married, in 1917, the former Grace Elvina Hinds, the wealthy Alabama-born widow of Alfred Hubert Duggan; in later years wags joked that despite his political disappointments Curzon still enjoyed "the means of Grace". Elinor Glyn, who was staying with Curzon at the time, read of his engagement in the morning newspapers.
His wife had three children from her first marriage. Despite fertility-related operations and several miscarriages, she was never able to give Curzon the son and heir he desperately desired, a fact that eroded their marriage, which ended in separation, though not divorce.
Curzon did not have Lloyd George's support. The Prime Minister thought him overly pompous and self-important, and it was said that he used him as if he were using a Rolls-Royce to deliver a parcel to the station; Lloyd George said much later that Churchill treated his Ministers in a way that Lloyd George would never have treated his; "They were all men of substance — well, except Curzon." Curzon nevertheless helped in several Middle Eastern problems: He negotiated Egyptian independence (granted in 1922) and divided the British Mandate of Palestine, creating the Kingdom of Jordan for Faisal's brother, which may also have delayed the problems there.
Curzon was largely responsible for the first Armistice Day ceremonies on 11 November 1919. These included the plaster Cenotaph, designed by the noted British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, for the Allied Victory parade in London, and it was so successful that it was reproduced in stone, and still stands. In 1921 he was created Earl of Kedleston, in the County of Derby, and Marquess Curzon of Kedleston.
Unlike many leading Conservative members of Lloyd George's Coalition Cabinet, Curzon ceased to support Lloyd George over the Chanak Crisis and had just resigned when the Conservative backbenchers voted at the Carlton Club Meeting to end the Coalition in October 1922. Curzon was thus able to remain Foreign Secretary when Andrew Bonar Law formed a purely Conservative ministry. In 1922-3 Curzon had to negotiate with France after French troops occupied the Ruhr to enforce the payment of German reparations; he described the French Prime Minister (and former President) Raymond Poincaré as a "horrid little man".
On Andrew Bonar Law's retirement as Prime Minister in May 1923, Curzon was passed over for the job in favour of Stanley Baldwin, despite having written Bonar Law a lengthy letter earlier in the year complaining of rumours that he was to retire in Baldwin's favour, and listing the reasons why he should have the top job. Many reasons are often cited for this decision - taken on the private advice of leading members of the party including former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour - but amongst the most prominent are that Curzon's character was objectionable, that it was felt to be inappropriate for the Prime Minister to be a member of the House of Lords when Labour, who had few peers, had by then become the main opposition party in the Commons (though this did not prevent Lord Halifax being considered for the premiership in 1940, possibly with a special Act to allow him to sit in the House of Commons; in 1963 Lords Home and Hailsham were only able to be candidates owing to recent legislation permitting them to disclaim their peerages) and that in a democratic age it would be dangerous for a party to be led by a rich aristocrat. A letter purporting to detail the opinions of Bonar Law but in actuality written by Baldwin sympathisers was delivered to the King's Private Secretary Lord Stamfordham, though it is unclear how much impact this had in the final outcome. Balfour advised the monarch that it was essential for the prime minister to be in the House of Commons, but in private admitted that he was prejudiced against Curzon. George V, who shared this prejudice, was grateful for the advice and authorised Stamfordham to summon the foreign secretary to London and inform him that Baldwin would be chosen. Curzon travelled by train assuming he was to be appointed Prime Minister, and is said to have burst into tears when told the truth. He later described Baldwin as "a man of the utmost insignificance", although he served under Baldwin and proposed him for leadership of the Conservative Party.
Curzon remained Foreign Secretary under Baldwin until the government fell in January 1924. When Baldwin formed a new government in November 1924, he did not reappoint Curzon as Foreign Secretary but instead as Lord President of the Council. Curzon held this post until the following March. That month, while staying the night at Cambridge, he suffered a severe haemorrhage of the bladder. He was taken to London the next day, and on 9 March an operation was performed. But he knew it was the end, that the suffering and overburdened body, which he had pushed so hard for so long, was giving up. He died in London on 20 March 1925 at the age of sixty-six. His coffin, made from the same tree at Kedleston that had encased Mary, was taken to Westminster Abbey and from there to his ancestral home, where he was interred beside Mary in the family vault on 26 March. Upon his death the Barony, Earldom and Marquessate of Curzon of Kedleston and the Earldom of Kedleston became extinct, whilst the Viscountcy and Barony of Scarsdale were inherited by a nephew. The Barony of Ravensdale was inherited by his eldest daughter Mary and is today held by Cynthia's son Nicholas Mosley.
In 1898 he was created Baron Curzon of Kedleston in the Peerage of Ireland. This was intended to allow him to stand for re-election to the House of Commons, since Irish peers did not, at that time, have the right to sit in the House of Lords. In the event, however, he did not return to the House of Commons. In 1911 he was created Earl Curzon of Kedleston, Viscount Scarsdale, and Baron Ravensdale, all in the Peerage of the United Kingdom; these titles precluded a return to the House of Commons, but conferred a right to sit in the House of Lords.
Few statesmen have experienced such changes in fortune in both their public and their personal lives. Curzon's career was an almost unparalleled blend of triumph and disappointment. Although he was the last and in many ways the greatest of Victorian viceroys, his term of office ended in resignation, empty of recognition and devoid of reward. After ten years in the political wilderness, he returned to government yet, in spite of his knowledge and experience of the world, he was unable to assert himself fully as foreign secretary until the last weeks of Lloyd George's premiership. And finally, after he had restored his reputation at Lausanne, his ultimate ambition was thwarted by George V.
There was a feeling after his death that Curzon had failed to reach the heights that his youthful talents had seemed destined to reach. This sense of opportunities missed was summed up by Winston Churchill in his book Great Contemporaries (1937):
The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead. But all were polished till it shone after its fashion.
It is believed that his name was given to a new school built in 1938 - Curzon Crescent Nursery School, Willesden, Middlesex, due to the area's links with All Souls.