Literary Scamp Evelyn Waugh

Author: Arthur Jones

It was February 24, 1949. A bitter winter rain battered the Notre Dame campus. Unconcernedly striding through it, despite water streaming over the brim of his bowler hat and saturating his serviceable tweed coat, was Evelyn Waugh (pronounced EVE-lin war).

Writer of the U.S. best sellers Brideshead Revisited (1945) and The Loved One (1948), Waugh had arrived first-class to examine the church of immigrant Catholic Americans who had made the same trip from Europe traveling steerage. During his two-part winter of 1948-49 reporting trip for Life magazine, it is unlikely Waugh actually met an immigrant, unless one happened to wait on him in a restaurant or on a train.

Half-a-pace behind, and equally wet, was Ken Thoren, intrepid reporter for Notre Dame’s weekly, The Scholastic. This was Thoren’s sole opportunity to buttonhole Waugh, who had addressed the crowded Navy Drill Hall on campus the previous evening on his eminently repeatable topic, “Three Convert Writers” — referring to his fellow Englishmen G.K. Chesterton, Father Ronald Knox and Graham Greene.

Waugh’s choice of topic was deceptively easy — Knox and Greene were personal friends, and he knew Chesterton fairly well. He spoke entertainingly, with wit and without notes, according to one young priest present that evening, Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC. However, his visit to Notre Dame and other U.S. Catholic colleges was something of a charade. He was not in America to sell himself but to indulge himself. He’d been in the United States the year before with his wife, Laura, on a luxurious trip to Hollywood underwritten by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which wanted to make Brideshead Revisited into a movie.

What he sought in 1948 was another excuse to escape from a war-torn England and his five children, all younger than 11. He didn’t like the company of children. Nor did he like England’s socialist government and its policies, which he referred to as “Welfaria.”

In Britain, everything that was essential was rationed: food, fuel, clothing, even travel money. The British were limited to a mere 20 pounds ($100) British currency foreign travel allowance. Waugh, therefore, laid his America plans carefully.

Early in 1948, Loyola College of Baltimore, Maryland, wrote to announce it had conferred on him an honorary doctorate. The honor set his mind thinking. Eight years earlier, as a Royal Marines officer candidate, Waugh acquired the essential military dicta the British Army taught its junior leaders: “What is my intention? Is there more than one way of achieving it?”

His intention was to wallow in luxury for a month or two at someone else’s expense. His travels could include a speaking tour of Catholic colleges, so he could stop off in Baltimore to collect his doctorate. But speaking fees could not match his anticipated expenses. Luxury, he decided, could be achieved only through a lucrative writing assignment.

He took aim at Life magazine. (In the 1940s, having Life underwrite a major freelance reporting project would be like having NBC underwrite one today.)

Waugh had already written several articles for the magazine. One, in April 1946, was “Fan-Fare,” about the impertinence of readers who, wrote Waugh, for the price of the book believed they also had purchased the right to pry into the author’s private life. It was followed in September 1947 by “Death In Hollywood.”

That article gave him background for The Loved One, his ironic fictional novella based on several visits to Los Angeles’ Forest Lawn cemetery. The popularity in America of The Loved One added a fillip to his reputation with the broader U.S. public and was ammunition for his assault on the coffers of Time, Inc.

Through his pal Randolph Churchill, son of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Waugh wangled an introduction to Clare Booth Luce. She, like Waugh, was a convert to Catholicism. More useful still, she was the wife of Time’s founder and publisher, Henry R. Luce.

Waugh proposed to Clare Luce that he write an extended essay for Life on American Catholics. This, at the time, was quite a daring idea. Catholics were an underclass, confined primarily to big city ethnic “ghettoes.” Waugh was sufficiently wily to realize that as a new Catholic, Clare Luce might welcome an opportunity to see her new religion explained and popularized. Her Protestant husband was smart enough to realize that as Catholics were 21 percent of the U.S. population, such an article could be a sound marketing ploy.

Before long, Waugh sent a note to Randolph: “thanks to your kind offices I am off to USA as soon as the Luce family can get me a cabin.”

Waugh pretended his examination of U.S. Catholics would be part of some grander work he had in mind. This suggestion was a mere bargaining fiction. What wasn’t fiction was to have Life meet all Waugh’s speaking-tour travel costs, on the grounds he’d be doing his research at the Catholic colleges he addressed. Life agreed to pay him $1,000 for the article and some $4,000 in expenses (in all, more than $35,000 in today’s dollars).

The scheme was unveiled in a letter to Father Francis X. Talbot, S.J., president of Loyola College, Baltimore. “I don’t seek to make any money. Nor do I want publicity. What I do want,” he wrote, “is to get to know American Catholics. I am coming to the United States to learn, not to teach. But I wish to pay my way by telling you something about us and our particular qualities.”

The Englishman was then honest enough to get to the nub of the trip: “I explain also that by long and deplorable habit my ‘way’ is a luxurious one. I don’t want to take a penny out of America but I want to travel and live there in fat style. I think that defines the aim.”

At Notre Dame, on the dismal February morning following his talk, Waugh sat back in a leather chair in the students’ dining hall, puffed on a cigar and talked informally with 15 or so students. (In Life magazine he referred to America’s young Catholics as a “Catholic proletariat.”) Father Leo L. Ward, CSC, moderated the discussion. The dining room conversation was ended by a telephone call that advised Waugh he must leave for the train station. As the English writer departed, he let hang the answer to the students’ final question, “What do you think of America?”

The Waugh who addressed the Navy Drill Hall audience was unabashedly anti-American. Much of it, but not all, was a pose. Unlike his deliberate rudeness to people he did not know, Waugh’s anti-Americanism waned with the years.

Now, striding through the rain, Waugh tackled the “America” topic by addressing the unavailability of alcohol in the university cafeteria, “I should think,” he told Scholastic reporter Thoren, “you would have great tankards of wine or liquor at the end of your [cafeteria] lines instead of those teetotaling liquids. One should consume great quantities of wine while eating.”

At which point Father Ward caught up with the wet duo and began to explain University regulations regarding alcoholic consumption. Waugh would have none of it. “I still maintain,” he said, “that [wine and beer in the cafeteria] is better than having them take swigs of gin in their lodgings. Which they probably do, don’t they?” Waugh’s question provoked no response from Father Ward. Meantime another man arrived with a black umbrella.

Waugh wouldn’t let the topic go. He turned to the trio and asked if they knew what Chesterton had to say about drinking. They admitted they did not. So the three stood in the rain as Waugh, under the umbrella and showing off, faced them and recited:

Feast on wine or fast on water
And your honor shall stand sure,
God Almighty’s son and daughter
He the valiant, she the pure;
If an angel out of heaven
Brings you other things to drink,
Thank him for his kind attention,
Go and pour them down the sink.

And with that he disappeared into the infirmary to await the University chauffeur.

Waugh was impressed by the piety of Notre Dame’s students. He said, “the number of churches and the great amount of daily communions, it’s all quite wonderful.” But had the Waugh who disappeared into the infirmary re-emerged to explain his experiences and beliefs, the Notre Dame students in the dining room would have been goggle-eyed, rather than doting or amused. At Oxford, and in the years immediately afterward, Waugh was homosexually active and a borderline debauchee at orgies, the excesses of which only the ex-GI’s among the Notre Dame students could have guessed at.

Post-Oxford, brothels and stinging jellyfish were responsible, in part, for giving Waugh direction. In the early hours of December 29, 1925, the 22-year-old Waugh, who’d recently been fired as a teacher at a private school, emerged from a dingy all-male brothel on to a dirty, cold, pre-dawn Paris sidewalk. “I took a taxi home and to bed in chastity. I think I do not regret it.” He told his diary he left because he couldn’t afford the grotesque debauch he’d orchestrated.

There’s reason to think otherwise. The brothel incident was the only graphically sexual scene he left in his diaries when he later removed all other traces of his libertine life. As with everything Waugh did, the diary entry remained for a purpose. It seems to have been a turning point.

Five months earlier, he had emerged naked from the frigid Welsh coast waters following a failed suicide attempt. He had been driven back to shore by an attack of stinging jellyfish. If the did-he-intend-it-or-didn’t-he suicide attempt was a tentative turning point, the night in the brothel confirmed it.

Three years later, in 1928, he was the toast of London for his book Decline and Fall. Two years after that he was receiving plaudits in New York as the daring, entertaining, witty, delightfully ironic chronicler of the era’s Bright Young People.

On a far deeper level, Notre Dame’s Catholic students would have admired — or been mystified by — what Waugh was currently up to as a Catholic: deliberately sacrificing his career and glowing future.

For the laudatory reviewers had recoiled when Waugh became a “Catholic” writer. Waugh fully understood. He wrote that his Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited had cost him “the loss of such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries.”

The esteem had been real enough. The pre-eminent American critic Edmund Wilson, in the 1930s had described Waugh as “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw.” In 1945, however, when Brideshead Revisited appeared, with its unhappy family of committed, fallen away or newly attracted Roman Catholics, Wilson scoffed, “It is a Catholic tract,” and “as the author’s taste fails him, the excellent writing goes to seed.”

In 1947, Waugh turned down the most money he’d ever see in his life, roughly $1 million (in today’s dollars), by refusing to let MGM film Brideshead Revisited — because he wanted to retain control of its Catholic message, its “theology.”

After 1948’s The Loved One he would place his pen at the service of the church — though on his own terms — and get along as best he could. He would return to the path he’d set himself on with Brideshead Revisited; he would write books about Catholic Christianity not aimed at Catholics.

The parallel lines and crossovers between Waugh the Catholic man and Waugh the Catholic writer are worth a brief explanation.

Waugh, essentially, was an unhappy young man bleakly seeking God. A pious child — he had a the requisite couple of years as an atheist in high school — he left his childhood Anglicanism for Rome after his first wife, Evelyn Gardner (they were known as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), cuckolded him within months of their 1928 civil marriage.

The marriage foundered on Waugh’s selfishness and inabilities in the marriage bed. Evelyn Waugh’s troubles with heterosexual sex spilled over into the book he was working on during the break-up, Vile Bodies, and even into his newspaper columns. There he wrote that too much was made of the role of sex in marriage. Waugh got the hang of things following his second marriage in 1937; he and his wife, Laura Herbert, had six children live beyond infancy.

In 1929, however, the tormented 26-year-old abandoned writer desperately needed something to cling to. Something unshakeable. He found it in the unchanging Roman Catholic Church. This yearning for something constant was mirrored in Waugh’s reactionary political views. He called himself an “Old Tory.” That phrase meant the Tory orthodoxy of George III — reforms based only on practical expediency; not too much emphasis on democracy; a leading role for the monarchy; society ordered by the existing social system; social change discouraged. Waugh never voted, despised Britain’s Conservative Party and loathed its Labour Party.

Socially, heading for Roman Catholicism was not rare among the Brideshead generation. Several of his Oxford friends had gone the same route during college. His lover, Alastair Graham, was one. Many close friends were Catholic, not least his dear friend, the poet Harold Acton (think Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited).

Auberon Waugh said his father, Evelyn, was probably clinically depressed. Further, Waugh had an addictive personality, and not just to alcohol and narcotics. He seemed to be addicted to strong personalities — the first was Acton. Next came Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet who was the subject of Waugh’s first real book, Rossetti (1928).

The morose, brilliant Rossetti, an alcohol and chloral-addicted fallen-away Catholic, and the effete, polished Acton seemed to occupy opposite corners of Waugh’s personality. Acton had a genuine impact on his generation’s artistic perceptions, but particularly on Waugh’s. Evelyn was a skilled if minor artist who illustrated Acton’s Oxford magazine, The Broom.

It was as if Waugh absorbed Acton and Rossetti and Roman Catholicism into his persona out of his need to bolster his strengths with theirs.

One girl he quite unrequitedly fell in love with was Olivia Plunket Greene. Her mother, Gwen, loaned Waugh letters she had received from her uncle, Baron Friedrich Von Hugel, a leading Catholic theologian who was trying to convince Gwen to convert to Catholicism.

There’s no evidence one way or another that Waugh ever finished the letters. But he did ask Olivia to “find me a Jesuit.” The rather bewildered Rev. Martin D’Arcy, S.J., who received Waugh into the church in 1930, said “few converts can have been so matter-of-fact; firm on intellectual conviction but with little emotion.”

The idiosyncratic Catholic could bewilder his Catholic friends, too. Sir John Mortimer, author of the Rumpole of the Bailey series, recalled Graham Greene’s account of Waugh behavior at a famous British film producer’s home. At the gathering, Waugh was brutally cutting to the producer’s young mistress, a starlet the producer later married. Greene later remonstrated with Waugh.

“But Graham,” explained Waugh, “she was his mistress.”

“Evelyn,” said Greene, “I was there with my mistress.”

“I know,” replied Waugh, “but your mistress is a married woman.”

Waugh’s incredible verbal cruelty and bullying attitude toward people weaker than himself continued to disturb his friends. When rebuked, Waugh retorted, “if I was not a Catholic I’d be much worse.”

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) shook Waugh’s Catholic foundations. He was blistering in his ridicule of “hootenanny liturgies,” anxious as he saw slip away much he’d depended on in Catholicism. In 1964 he wrote, “When I first came into the Church I was drawn, not by the splendid ceremonies but the spectacle of the priest as a craftsman. He had an important job to do which none but he was qualified for. A kind of anti-clericalism is abroad which seeks to reduce the priest’s unique sacramental position. Pray God I will never apostatize but I can only now go to church as an act of duty and obedience. Protests avail nothing.”

He died on Easter Sunday, 1966, at age 62, after he’d attended a Latin Mass.

Despite his 1935 biography of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, Waugh did not let his religion drive his work until Brideshead Revisited.

After Rossetti, Waugh the ironist played lightly with religion in Decline and Fall (1928) — the anti-hero was a divinity student. In Vile Bodies, he introduced a strange character, the Jesuit Father Rothschild, and executed an excruciatingly entertaining parody of the American evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who appeared around London in those years.

The English novelist’s conversion was fairly rapid. He inserted a hasty apology into his 1930 travel book, Labels (published in the United States as A Bachelor Abroad). His views had changed between the writing and the publication: “So far as this book contains any serious opinions they are those of the dates with which it deals, eighteen months ago. Since then my views on several subjects, and particularly on Roman Catholics, have developed and changed in many ways.”

In these years his friends the Lygons, a Catholic family, exposed Waugh to the stately home life in which everything functioned like clockwork, thanks to a highly organized army of servants dedicated solely to that task. A Lygon death-bed scene provided Waugh with Lord Marchmain’s death-bed return to the faith in Brideshead Revisited.

Campion came about because in 1933 Waugh had met the 18-year-old Laura Herbert and was smitten. Waugh had triple problems — Laura’s family was Catholic, the Herberts were aristocrats, and his first wife, She-Evelyn, was part of the Herbert clan.

Desperate in love, Waugh wrote a fine biography of Campion as a calling card to prove his Catholic worth. The Herberts otherwise regarded him as a social upstart with dubious claims as a writer. Waugh then set about having his first marriage annulled. He persuaded She-Evelyn, who was not Catholic, to perjure herself by attesting the couple had not intended to have children. She-Evelyn later suggested such was not really the case.

Before and after his 1937 wedding Waugh continued traveling and writing; British Guiana (Guyana), Africa, North Africa, Abyssinia, Mexico. His fiction included A Handful of Dust in 1934, which many consider his best novel, and Scoop (1938), his send-up of war correspondents. Slowly forming, however, was Brideshead, written and produced under circumstances to baffle the modern imagination. A serving officer with the Royal Marines, Waugh was given time off during World War II to finish it. He was back in uniform in Tito’s Yugoslavia when the galleys were parachute-dropped to him so he could do final revisions. The galleys returned to London in a diplomatic pouch.

Brideshead is a novel of unhappy people, and deals with their relationships with each other and their connections to their Catholic faith. The setting is the stately home, Brideshead. The book is about belief, about the paradoxical tenacity yet tenuousness of belief, and the chance involved in the gift of faith.

With Brideshead, Waugh firmly committed his writing to evangelical work. He knew this would infuriate the critics, which is possibly another reason he wrote The Loved One — to show he could still turn out fine irony whenever he chose. Or chose not to. He regarded Helena (1950), his fictional biography of the saint who discovered the True Cross, as his finest work. Few agreed. The Sword of Honor trilogy (published in 1965) with the Catholic Guy Crouchback was meant to persuade as much as entertain.

Waugh knew what he was doing. He played tough, although he was easily hurt and brooded mightily over slights. Clare Booth Luce, the Catholic convert who wangled his 1948 writing assignment, is an example of someone who needled him. He once wrote to Randolph Churchill that “I spent my first evening with your friends the Luces, but it was not a success . . . she complained later to others that I lacked heart.” The dig was on target.

Waugh was having mixed emotions over his attitude toward Americans. He increasingly found he liked some of them. Waugh penned a note to the novelist Nancy Mitford, “I am bound in honor to write a long article for Life magazine whose money I have been spending like a drunken sailor, on the state of the Catholic church in America, and there is nothing to say except that Americans are louts and that Catholic Americans are just a little better than panglossist Americans.”

In August 1948, he’d read a manuscript written by a 33-year-old American Trappist monk. This was Thomas Merton’s soon-to-be published The Seven-Storey Mountain, the account of his conversion to Catholicism.

The Englishman was more impressed by Merton than by his overwritten book, which he later trimmed by 20 percent for publication in England as Elected Silence. Merton was the man Waugh most wanted to meet during his American trip. The two did meet and then developed an intermittent correspondence.

For the eventual Life article, Waugh depended heavily on meeting other writers — always a journalist’s shortcut.

One was Dorothy Day. Wrote Waugh in a letter home: “To the slums to see Dorothy Day, an autocratic ascetic who wants us all to be poor, and her young men who are poor already and have a paper called The Catholic Worker.” Waugh wanted to take the simple-living Worker volunteers to lunch at Le Chambord, which, he told Laura, was the “best restaurant in the world.”

Day demurred. So “I gave a great party of them luncheon in an Italian restaurant in the district & Mrs. Day didn’t at all approve of their having cocktails or wine but they had them and we talked till four o’clock.”

Day’s version is that she received a telegram from Life magazine at the Catholic Worker house on Mott Street with a request to meet Waugh at the Chambord that week. Jack English, a Catholic Worker member, laughed heartily at this, she wrote, and told her: “People like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor eat there. The place is famous for its wines. If you go there Life might very well carry a picture of the breadline next to one of you and Evelyn Waugh feasting, with the caption ‘No soup for her.’”

Said Day, “We would impute no such malice to Life magazine, but Jack’s devilish imagination had painted a picture that caused me concern. Out of politeness I telegraphed hastily: ‘Forgive my class consciousness but the Chambord appalls me as Mott Street does you.’”

The crack about Mott Street "evoked an immediate response from Mr. Waugh, who telephoned personally. He would meet me anywhere I suggested. So he came first to Mott Street, and then we went on to an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street, where I am afraid the prices were way too high and the food not too good.

“But Mr. Waugh was kind,” wrote Day, and said to her, “’It’s the austerity regime in England. I just wanted a good meal, which was why I suggested the Chambord.’”

Day wrote that since that dinner “he sends us checks every now and then, always made out to ‘Dorothy Day’s Soup Kitchen.’” Mr. Waugh, she said, “does not recognize the anarchist-pacifist Catholic Worker as anything other than a movement that has to do with feeding people. And perhaps he is right. Food and the land, and the work which coordinates them, are indeed fundamental.”

Waugh was determined to overlook the anarchist-pacifist element in favor of the soup kitchen. In a postcard to Ammon Hennacy at the Catholic Worker he wrote: “Many thanks for your card. I shall explain that I am an old fashioned Tory without any sympathy for your political views. I greatly admire the corporal works of charity you do among the destitute of New York. E.W.”

Arthur Jones is editor-at-large of the National Catholic Reporter and author of the biography Pierre Toussaint. He has been European bureau chief of Forbes magazine and is an international political and financial journalist and broadcaster.

(Permissions: I am indebted to the late Auberon Waugh for permission to quote from his father’s works; to Orbis Books for the excerpt from Dorothy Day’s Loaves and Fishes. The description of Evelyn Waugh’s “Old Tory” political views is based on Oxford historian D.C. Somervell’s definition.)

(October 2003)