Enid as a child with her father.

Enid as a child with her father.

It seemed an odd choice. As Rory quipped, when told: “Darling, how very eccentric of you. I’ll bet you are the first woman to have a male lady’s maid.” But it just added to the legend of a woman whose excesses had always been the subject of rumour and innuendo.

Caryll, Rory’s younger brother, would tell the story of a conversation with university friends, during which one woman asked if he knew about a beautiful countess who had two footmen to help her out of the bath. “Oh yes,” he replied without a hint of sarcasm. “That’s my mother, but she has four footmen, not two, because she gets worried that the floor might be slippery.”

This was not true, of course, but Caryll and his sister Pat had learnt to accept and even have fun with the myths of Lady Kenmare, as their mother was now known, which made it almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction.

There was the story about an Austrian suitor named Meissner who met Enid on the ski fields of France and followed her home to London, where he would wait forlornly outside the family’s Mayfair house. When Enid finally insisted that he leave her alone, Meissner blew himself up.

Supposedly another jilted lover, upset that Enid was seeing a rival, threw himself beneath the wheels of the Calais-French Riviera express known as Le Train Bleu. A third had leapt off a boat steaming into Sydney Harbour and drowned, or was eaten by sharks, depending on who was telling the story. “They couldn’t take the strain,” was the tongue-in-cheek explanation.

Life was now centred in the South of France. Renovation of La Fiorentina was essentially complete and work was continuing on three other houses on the property, Le Clos, La Florida and La Maison Blanche, which would be either let out or used for the overflow of guests who would stream in and out of the property over the next 20 years.

As a widow with son Rory in 1914.

As a widow with son Rory in 1914.

Somerset Maugham had also returned to the Riviera after the war and, like Enid, had spent time restoring his house, La Mauresque, which had been abandoned and left to rot. Willy, as Maugham was known, was an almost permanent fixture at La Fiorentina where he and Enid would spend hours playing bridge, often with Elvira de la Fuente, the daughter of a Peruvian diplomat. During the war, Elvira had operated as a double agent with the unlikely code name of Bronx, after a popular rum-based cocktail she liked to drink in London clubs.

It was during a bridge session that Somerset Maugham gave Enid the nickname by which she’d be remembered: Lady Killmore.

Still glamorous in her 70s.

Still glamorous in her 70s.

Maugham and Enid carried on like an old couple, according to Elvira. This was sometimes misread by observers, as if there was a possible romantic liaison between them, and the previously married novelist might become husband number five.

Elvira knew them well enough to insist that Enid had the measure of the notoriously crusty Maugham: “They were a funny couple, intimate because of bridge. They played all the time. It was companionship and affection but there was no thought of romance. Two people more different you could not find.”

Rory hated the constant smoking around the card table in the main living room, so he had a pavilion
built among the trees overlooking the water and moved the card players out of the main home. It was here, during one drawn-out bridge session, that Maugham gave Enid the nickname by which she would always be remembered. Wondering aloud about her name – Lady Kenmare – and the fact that all four husbands had died, he suggested that a more apt title would be Lady Killmore.

Over the years, the timing of this conversation would be changed, the most popular amendment being that it took place before the war, when Enid first arrived at Cap Ferrat (and before she had met Maugham).

Rory in uniform during World War II.

Rory in uniform during World War II.

Countess Helene de Breteuil’s version went like this: “Maugham arrived at luncheon and said, ‘Apparently there is a lady on Cap Ferrat who has killed all her husbands.’ At which Enid turned to her son and asked, ‘Rory, did I really kill them all?’ ”

Ever willing to add to her own mythology, Enid would sometimes raise the nickname herself in conversation: “Do I look like a murderer? Tell me, do I?” she once asked a guest, who interpreted the question as a challenge.

When she arrived back in Australia in 1947, a reporter asked her how many times she had been married. “Oh, four or five times,” she replied lazily. “I don’t bother with divorce; it’s too messy.
I just kill my husbands.”

Pat was shocked: “Why did you tell them that? It’s not true.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Enid replied. “They’ll print what they like anyway.”

But the joke had begun to wear thin by the mid-1950s, when Enid attended a dinner party on Long Island, outside New York. The host, Jimmy Donahue, an heir to the Woolworth fortune and cousin of Enid’s great friend Barbara Hutton, asked her directly about the nickname. When she replied that it was a painful story that had caused her much distress, Donahue persisted: “But why do they say that?”

Enid turned to her escort for the evening and asked him to take her back to New York.

Edited extract from Enid (Allen & Unwin, $33) by Robert Wainwright, out now.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 19.

Most Viewed in Culture


Source link