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The Etonian peer who became an assistant to a Mexican commie

A review of The Red Earl: The Extraordinary Life of the 16th Earl of Huntingdon, by Selina Hastings. A daughter's biography characterized by a beguiling mix of tenderness and puzzlement

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

The Red Earl: The Extraordinary Life of the 16th Earl of Huntingdon Selina Hastings

Bloomsbury, pp.212, £18.99

The lefty hereditary peer has few equals as a figure of fun, in life or literature. The late Tony Benn comes inevitably to mind here, as does the Earl of Warminster — ‘Erry’ — in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

As his name would suggest, Francis John Clarence Westenra Plantagenet ‘Jack’ Hastings, the 16th Earl of Huntingdon, emerged into the world bedecked with promisingly absurd trappings. And for a time it looked as if his life would follow a predictably conventional path. But then everything changed.

After some routine torturing by his nanny — she branded him with an iron — he went to Eton. There, he failed to trouble the scorers academically, but scraped into Oxford, where he was a member of both the Bullingdon and another, even more boisterous, drinking club called Loder’s, whose toast was ‘Long live the King and Foxhunting!’

Proudly clutching his third-class degree, Hastings went off to a dinner at the Savoy, where he met an Italian girl called Cristina Casati. Cristina was the daughter of the Marchesa Casati, a notorious narcissist who was the first, and quite possibly only person to have the whole of St Mark’s Square in Venice closed for a private party. The Marquesa made her entrance accompanied by two diamond-collared cheetahs and a pair of naked boys covered in gold paint.

An accomplished ukelele player and keen tango dancer, Cristina had inherited her mother’s flair for the dramatic if not her looks — she had teeth like Bugs Bunny. Hastings was instantly smitten and the two of them eloped to Australia.

However, he soon regretted his impulsiveness. Cristina turned out to have a foul temper, as well as a fondness for writing some of the most glutinously self-obsessed letters ever penned — ‘Cristy is feeling well! Let me know a short time before you return so I can let my nalis [sic] grow in your honour.’

In Australia their arrival was greeted by an ecstatic frenzy of brown-nosing: ‘Viscount Hastings is one of the most utterly utter aristocrats who have ever visited these shores.’ In time-honoured fashion, he went off to work on a sheep station, while Cristina stayed in Melbourne disconsolately strumming on her ukelele and writing yet more letters: ‘Oh pussy I want to be cuddled ever so tight and kissed ever so hard.’

Hastings, though, had found a new love in his life — painting. From Australia, he moved with Cristina to California, and was taken on as an assistant by Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist. Rivera had just been hired to paint a huge mural for the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Given that he was a lifelong communist with a fondness for sneaking portraits of Marx and Lenin into his work, this has to be one of the most unlikely commissions in the history of art.

The two men hit it off and Hastings became increasingly influenced by both Rivera’s artistic style and his political views. Soon he started getting commissions of his own, most notably to paint a mural of Al Capone for a bar in Chicago. Hastings depicted Capone with a platinum haired moll perched on his knee. An old crony of Capone’s was not impressed, though: ‘Al would never have given a tumble to a girl like that,’ he complained. ‘He wouldn’t have given her a job washing dishes in a speak.’

By then Hastings had had enough of Cristy. However, it’s testament to his genial nature that he remained on good terms with his mother-in-law, the Marchesa, who now wore dark glasses day and night as her eyes had turned bright red from years of using belladonna to enlarge her pupils. When at last Cristy gave him a divorce, Hastings married a woman called Margaret Lane, and they went on to have two daughters — one of whom is Selina Hastings.

In her introduction, she writes apologetically, ‘I am well aware I am far from my father’s ideal biographer.’ I’m not so sure about this. No one else but a daughter, I suspect, could have written about Jack Hastings with such a beguiling mix of tenderness and puzzlement — puzzlement because the more she delved into his life, the less she realised she had known him.

She wasn’t the only one. Her mother once wrote to her husband, ‘There seems to be a little curtain in front of you which I have never been able to penetrate.’ But while this made Hastings a frustrating father and husband, it makes him a fascinating subject: every time you think you’ve nailed him down, he turns into something else.

Far more frustrating for the reader is the fact that there is only one example of Jack Hastings’s work in the entire book — although it contains plenty of photos. This is a very small picture of a cat on the back cover. It looks suitably inscrutable.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99 Tel: 08430 600033

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