Elisabeth Furse, who died on Monday at the age of 92, was one of the most amazing hostesses London has known. One could not say she had a ‘salon’, for the word carries connotations of politeness and self-restraint which were entirely foreign to her. When I first descended the fire-escape-style steps to her basement flat in Belgravia in the mid-Eighties, she had already been inducting shy young Englishmen into the charms and horrors of bohemian Central European life for half a century. Her flat felt like a Berlin flea market. It was dominated by a long table at which 20 or more people could sit down to dinner, squashed together on rickety chairs. One saw enough in the candlelight to tell that the room was very dirty and disorderly, decorated with extravagant bits of kitsch, filled with old things that might be priceless or might be junk, amber necklaces and once-raffish clothes, books and newspapers in many languages, presents crudely wrapped and waiting to be distributed to friends and the children of friends.
Mrs Furse’s portable typewriter, at which she poured out her thoughts to her friends in long, passionate and almost illegible letters, stood somewhere amid the chaos, loaded with a piece of paper removed from one of the grandest hotels in Venice. Until an advanced age, and despite being virtually crippled, she travelled by train at very frequent intervals to Paris, where she had a daughter, and to Berlin, where she had a flat, sometimes getting the German equivalent of the Salvation Army to let her sleep in their hostels at railway stations. She had about five doctors in Berlin, all of them leading specialists in their fields, paid for by the German taxpayer under some system of wartime reparations, for which she was duly grateful, though she could be as acerbic about the Germans as about anyone.
If you arrived at her basement in London before the other guests, you would generally find the large television set booming away, showing whatever news or politics was on. Mrs Furse was passionate about politics. It was one of the many fields in which she mounted a one-woman assault on the decorous English desire to avoid getting emotional about anything. If you were bold enough to suggest to her that British politics were quite dull, she would answer in a fury, ‘To be uninterested in politics is to be uninterested in your survival.’ Politics, she said, made the difference between living or dying, eating or starving. ‘Politics to me is sacred,’ she added, then remarked with no sense of contradiction, ‘Politics is a science – at least to me.’
She had great loves and hates, and unlike the English she took immense pleasure in expressing them. She could not remain outside her friends’ lives; as she said in a letter, ‘It is very un-English to walk into other souls, hearts and minds – it is called