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Drama Queens

Ellen Terry and Idina Sackville: who?



What's in a name? Or this being a book column, what's in a title? Sometimes next to nothing, if it's a clue you want to what a book's about. When in doubt, go to the subtitle.

That's the case with the latest from author Michael Holroyd, the acclaimed biographer of George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey. And as for Holroyd's latest, A Strange Eventful History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)? See the informative subtitle: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families.

But what of Frances Osborne's The Bolter (Knopf)? There's no telling from that title. And there's no subtitle to the book. But there is the jacket copy, which reads: "The story of the wild, beautiful, fearless IDINA SACKVILLE, descendant of one of England's oldest families, who went off to KENYA in search of adventure and became known as the high priestess of the scandalous 'HAPPY VALLEY SET.'"

That said, who are Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Idina Sackville? (We'll get to the scandalous Happy Valley set.)

Terry was the leading English actress from the late 19th century on and well into the 20th. Irving, with whom Terry often appeared onstage and toward whom she was devoted, was one of the greatest actor-managers in the history of the English theater. She was tremendously popular with audiences. He was tremendously popular with audiences. Their offspring? They weren't so popular with audiences. But they were creatures of the theater too, none more so, in the "remarkable" department, than Terry's son, from one of her multiple marriages, Gordon Craig.

Craig's stormy relationship with Isadora Duncan is a story in itself. His avant-garde theories on the modern theater and his groundbreaking set and lighting designs are another story. Craig was, unfortunately, horrific as a human being, and there's proof of his loutishness scattered throughout Holroyd's closing 200 or so pages. That's 200 or so out of just this side of 600 pages in A Strange Eventful History. But who's counting? You don't have to be ga-ga about theater history to enjoy Holroyd's masterly way with this material — but it wouldn't hurt.

Just as it wouldn't it hurt to know the name Vita Sackville-West, because Craig's sister Edy's lover/companion for decades, a woman named Christabel Marshall, had a crush on Sackville-West. This was well after Marshall had a crush on Edy's mother, Ellen Terry, and, to confuse matters, it's after Marshall changed her name to Christopher Marie St. John (Chris for short). But back to Vita Sackville-West ...

She was cousin to Lady Idina Sackville, but "lady" is pushing it. "Wild," as she's described on the jacket of The Bolter, is more like it.

Idina Sackville was born into money, some of the oldest family money in England. But upon the occasion of her first marriage (out of a record five) to a man even richer, she hit the jackpot and lived as a Jazz Age girl-about-town hell-bent on out-scandalizing everybody. Sackville succeeded at that, but her marriage fell apart, so she bolted to Kenya, where she acted as a lady farmer.

True, she did her share of hard work. But she did more than was called for as a leading member of the British, ex-pat "Happy Valley" set in the foothills overlooking Kenya's Rift Valley: She cocktail-partied until dawn. She did coke while friends shot morphine. And she indulged in that most English of upper-crust pastimes, wife-swapping.

The murder of Sackville's onetime husband Joss Hay, the 22nd earl of Erroll, put a dent in the mischief. (You've read the book White Mischief? You've seen the movie White Mischief? You know then about the dead-end days of the Happy Valley set.) But Idina Sackville carried on until she couldn't down one more gin and tonic. (God knows, she tried.) She died in 1955 at the age of 62.

How many times can one read of an aristocrat "careering" around London, around a number of continental capitals, and down into darkest Africa at its whitest and richest? Plenty of times if you're an author dependent on using that word to describe Idina Sackville every time she got behind the wheel. But give Frances Osborne a break. She's as curious about — and as bewildered by — her great-grandmother's outrageous, unmotherly (but fearless) behavior as readers of The Bolter, no doubt, will be.

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