‘Femme de lettres” — “woman of letters” — is how Sybille Bedford once listed her profession on a customs form, following a conceit suggested to her by Aldous Huxley years before she found success as a writer of travelogues, novels and court-trial journalism. But in truth, Bedford — a renowned novelist, journalist and biographer who died in February at the age of 94 — might better have billed herself as a “femme d’epoque”: “a woman of the era.”
She was born Sybille von Schoenebeck in Berlin, in 1911. Her mother was an English socialite with some Jewish blood, and her German Catholic father was a minor aristocrat whose first wife had come from a prominent, assimilated Jewish banking family — the sort that would throw gala lobster-dinner receptions. Her early years were spent in antediluvian splendor in a nursery on Voss Strasse, a central Berlin street that later housed Hitler’s chancellery and, much later, a stretch of the Berlin Wall. She passed the Great War (World War I) with her father in the relatively peaceful isolation of rural Germany, after her parents divorced.
She spent her formative years with her mother and Italian stepfather, first in Italy and then on the French Riviera, in a little fishing village called Sanary, and as a teenager she spent time in London, where she pursued a self-devised plan of education rather than any sort of formal English schooling. Her real education came in Sanary, which in the late 1920s and early ’30s became home and refuge for a constellation of European writers and intellectuals from Huxley and Bertolt Brecht to Thomas Mann, Alma Mahler, Wilhelm Herzog and Lion Feuchtwanger. The group adopted young Sybille as a sort of pet and protégé.
Indeed, it was Huxley’s wife, Maria, who eventually came up with the idea of marrying Sybille — a lesbian — to one of the Huxley’s “bugger friends,” an English army officer named Walter “Terry” Bedford, so that she could get a British passport and an English surname. In her last book, the memoir “Quicksand” (Counterpoint Press, 2005), Bedford wrote that by 1935, the Nazis had “taken connaissance” of her “partly Jewish descent,” perhaps because of the fact that her half-Jewish half-sister’s husband had become the Nazi cultural attaché in Paris.
I met Bedford last fall, at her tiny ground-floor flat in London’s Chelsea neighborhood. She insisted that her decision to adopt British citizenship and an English surname “had nothing to do with being Jewish at all.” Rather, she explained, “I was utterly appalled by what was happening in Germany, and I felt something awful was coming — nothing like what actually happened, but something.”
Indeed, in light of what being Jewish and German eventually came to mean during and after the war, Bedford seemed ambivalent about claiming Jewish heritage for herself at all. She pointed out that she had never set foot in a synagogue, and that she never knew just how Jewish her mother’s family had been, though she was certain that her great-grandfather had been “extremely Orthodox,” and she knew that a cousin of her mother’s had married into the Sassoon family. (“You don’t get more Jewish than that!” she said, with her trademark deep chuckle.)
And yet, in “Quicksands” — the only one of her books to officially carry the designation of memoir, though her novels were all to some degree autobiographical — Bedford wrote: “I was born in Germany, and of partly Jewish descent. By a chain of circumstances… I left by chance and stayed away for good. And that, in due course, apocalypse not yet foreseen, put me on the way to becoming an escapee, a survivor.”
Bedford left Europe in 1939, at the behest of friends who were concerned that the combination of her being “Jewish enough” and of having Charlottenburg (a suburb of Berlin) listed as her place of birth, even in her British documents, was enough to put her in danger. She had meant to go from Normandy across the Channel to England, but she told me that while she dithered over travel arrangements, “it all got so very fast indeed. First it was just Holland and then it was only Belgium, and suddenly they were right into Paris, and there was no more messing about.” With a friend, Allanah Harper, Bedford sailed to New York on the last American ship out of Genoa, Italy, and spent the war in America, first with the Huxleys, who by then had moved to Southern California, and then in New York.
“America was very alien to me, and I wished not to have escaped the experience of the Europeans in the war,” Bedford said. “I never felt at peace with the war, but of course I felt we had to win this war, and so as a matter of conscience I felt I should have had to take the risks.”
In New York, Bedford fell in with “the Partisan Review crowd,” became close friends with Dorothy Parker and spent evenings sitting in Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment, watching Parker and Mary McCarthy outdrink each other. After the war, Bedford had to wait a year before qualifying for repatriation to Europe, so she went to Mexico on a trip that eventually formed the basis of her first successful book, a travelogue titled “The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey” (later republished as “A Visit to Don Otavio”). Once back in Europe, she spent some time traveling with Martha Gellhorn and then lived for several years in Rome before settling in London for good and becoming what she had always imagined herself to be: an English writer.
Bedford returned to a Europe that had lost all traces of the Belle Époque grandeur and easy cosmopolitanism she had known as a girl, and she set about reviving it in her fiction. Her first published novel, “A Legacy,” which appeared in London in 1956, recounted the history of a German aristocratic family undone by the law of unintended consequences, modeled on her father’s family; her later books featured expatriate Italian princesses and the recurring character of the naive but willful young girl living in the South of France, surrounded by philosophers and intellectuals in the early decades of the 20th century.
What she felt herself to have survived, ultimately, was the destruction of prewar Europe and the culture — cosmopolitan, laissez faire, languorous and, in large part, Jewish — that animated the characters she had known in her youth.
“In my childhood, I was very conscious of a different kind of civilization, and one was astonished to be alive,” Bedford said. “So much in life is pure chance.”
Allison Hoffman is a reporter for The Associated Press in California.