Happy 116th Birthday Stephen Tennant

Today is the 116th birthday of the socialite, bon vivant, and literary muse Stephen Tennant. He was called “the brightest” of the “Bright Young People”. The characters Cedric Hampton in Love in a Cold Climate, Miles Malpractice in Vile Bodies, and Lord Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited are based on him. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.

NAME: Stephen James Napier Tennant
DATE OF BIRTH: 21 April 1906
PLACE OF BIRTH: Wilsford cum Lake, Wiltshire, England, United Kingdom
DATE OF DEATH: 28 February 1987 (aged 80)
PLACE OF DEATH: Wilsford cum Lake, Wiltshire, England, United Kingdom
PARTNER: Siegfried Sassoon
FATHER: Edward Tennant
MOTHER: Pamela Wyndham
BROTHER: Edward Tennant
BROTHER: David Tennant
GREAT-NICE: Stella Tennant

BEST KNOWN FOR: Stephen James Napier Tennant was a British socialite known for his decadent lifestyle. He was called “the brightest” of the “Bright Young People”.

He was born into British nobility, the youngest son of a Scottish peer, Edward Tennant, 1st Baron Glenconner, and the former Pamela Wyndham, one of the Wyndham sisters and of The Souls clique. His mother was also a cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), Oscar Wilde’s lover and a sonneteer. On his father’s death, Tennant’s mother married Lord Grey, a fellow bird-lover. Tennant’s eldest brother Edward – “Bim” – was killed in the First World War. His elder brother David Tennant founded the Gargoyle Club in Soho.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Tennant was an important member – the “Brightest”, it is said – of the “Bright Young People”, a group of young London socialites whose elaborate parties and decadent lifestyles were heavily reported in the tabloid press, a precursor to modern celebrity culture. He was known for his effeminacy, his good looks, his charm, and his eccentric, androgynous fashion, captured in the photographs of his friend Cecil Beaton. Tennant’s outfits ranged from tailored suits to elegant gowns. He wore jewelry and ribbons, put gold powder in his hair, and applied heavy makeup with bright red lipstick. His friends included Rex Whistler, Cecil Beaton, the Sitwells, Lady Diana Manners and the Mitford girls. He is widely considered to be the model for Cedric Hampton in Nancy Mitford’s novel Love in a Cold Climate, one of the inspirations for Lord Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and a model for the Hon. Miles Malpractice in some of Waugh’s other novels.

For most of his life, Tennant tried to start or finish a novel – Lascar: A Story You Must Forget. It is popularly believed that he spent the last 17 years of his life in bed at his family manor at Wilsford cum Lake, Wiltshire, which he had redecorated by Syrie Maugham. Though undoubtedly idle, he was not truly lethargic: he made several visits to the United States and Italy, and struck up many new friendships. His later reputation as a recluse became increasingly true only towards the last years of his life. Yet even then, his life was not uneventful: he became landlord to V. S. Naipaul, who immortalised Tennant in his novel The Enigma of Arrival.

During the 1920s and 1930s Tennant had a sexual affair with the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Prior to this he had proposed to a friend, Elizabeth Lowndes, but had been rejected. (Philip Hoare relates how Tennant discussed plans with Lowndes about bringing his nanny with them on their honeymoon.) His relationship with Sassoon, however, was to be his most important: it lasted six years before Tennant off-handedly put an abrupt end to it. Sassoon was reportedly devastated, but recovered to marry in 1933 and become a father in 1936.

When Tennant died in 1987, he had far outlived most of his contemporaries. A large archive of his letters, scrapbooks, personal ephemera and artworks is held in The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History in Hackney, London.

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