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Cecily Mackworth

She wove journalism, novels and poetry from her travels and literary friendships
by Anthony Sheridan

The Guardian

Cecily Mackworth, who has died aged 94, was a writer, traveller, war correspondent and rebel. Her friendships included Ivy Compton Burnett, Nancy Cunard, Stevie Smith, Dylan Thomas, Tristan Tzara, Lawrence Durrell, David Gascoyne, Natalie Sarraute, and Conchita de Saint-Exupéry. Life took her from the London School of Economics in the early 1930s through the Reichstag fire, the fall of France and the birth of Israel to the Paris of the 21st century.

Born in Llantillio Pertholey in Gwent, Cecily came from a coal-owner family with military connections. Her paternal great-grandfather, Sir Digby Mackworth, one of Wellington's officers, married Julie de Richepense, daughter of one of Napoleon's generals. Her maternal grandmother was born and brought up in the Victorian English colony in Dieppe. Cecily was four when her father, an army officer, was killed in action early in the first world war. Her mother remarried and moved to Sidmouth.

Cecily managed to get through several governesses. When she was 18 her aunt Margaret, Viscountess Rhondda, editor of the weekly Time and Tide and a governor of the LSE, found a place there for Cecily. She stayed for two years. Her first love was a Hungarian LSE student, Nicky Kaldor (the economist Lord Kaldor), who became a lifelong friend.

Aged 22, Cecily married Leon Donckier de Donceel, a young Belgium lawyer she met at a Swiss sanatorium, where both were being treated for tubercolosis. Widowed at 25, she was left with a daughter to bring up, a role for which she was entirely unsuited. She returned briefly to England. Her first poems were published in the London Mercury, but she found England dull and wanted to travel.

The loveless nature of her family was illustrated when Cecily's sister Helen and her fiancé and his mother were found dead in Donegal from shotgun wounds in mysterious circumstances. Cecily recalled her mother being asked: "What shall we do with her dog?" Her mother blithely replied: "Shoot it as well". Helen was buried in a distant part of a cemetery in Ireland, which none of the family ever went to visit. The dog was apparently buried with her.

Cecily left England, and spent much of the early 1930s in Hungary and Germany, before moving to Paris in 1936. She was in Berlin for the burning of the Reichstag, an account she wrote up but could not get published.

In the summer of 1937 she was taken to meet Henry Miller, then living at the Villa Seurat, in his ground floor studio in the Rue de la Tombe Issoire. He took to her and she became part of his Paris circle. Through Miller she met 25-year-old Lawrence Durrell, newly arrived from Corfu with the manuscript of his novel, The Black Book.

"Send me everything in your jam cupboard," Durrell once wrote on a scrap of paper he slipped under her door. She showed him her poems, which Miller published - Eleven Poems (1938) - as an offshoot of his magazine the Booster, of which three numbers had appeared. The fourth, subtitled Air-conditioned Womb Number, brought it to an abrupt end.

A fraught love affair with an exiled Czechoslovak painter led to two books on his country, which she suppressed from her bibliography. She stayed in France until June 1940 when the German victory necessitated her escape via Spain and Portugal.

Her first big success was in 1941, with a vivid account of that defeat, I Came Out of France. TS Eliot read it and invited her to tea in Russell Square, interested to meet the young woman. She worked for a spell with the Free French in Carlton Gardens in 1940, in the office of Colonel Howard, the head of security.

She was at Carlton Gardens throughout the blitz, and she remembered the restless atmosphere of ill-temper in the building. There was distrust between various factions of the French and British intelligence services. It was there she met Colonel Passy, whose real name was Dewavrin, chief of De Gaulle's secret service. She also became close to the future French foreign minister Maurice Schumann, who was at that time head of the press office. He broadcast twice a day to France, Les Français parlent Aux Français, which included coded messages to Free French agents.

Cecily remained in London for most of the war, where she gave lectures to the army. She contributed poems and articles to the literary magazine Horizon and other reviews.

She moved back to France after the war and published François Villon: a Study (1947) and compiled A Mirror for French poetry 1840-1940: French Poems with English Translation by English Poets (1947) . She also worked as a journalist, visiting many countries as a correspondent. In 1947 she went to Palestine for the journal, L'Aube. She returned in 1948, travelled throughout the Middle East, and wrote an account of this wartorn region in The Mouth of the Sword (1948).

In 1952 she published her first novel, Spring's Green Shadow. Her second, Lucy's Nose, appeared 40 years later. Of her own works she was most fond of The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt (1954). In spring 1950 she had gone to Algeria to follow in Eberhardt's footsteps and travelled alone in the Sahara. Her research led to the first biography of the young woman, who was born in 1877 and brought up by Trophimovsky, a half-crazy former Pope in the Orthodox Church. Eberhardt became a Moslem, lived the life of an Arab nomad, disguised as a man, and was initiated in an esoteric sect of Islam. Eberhardt died, aged 27, in a desert flash flood.

Cecily married the Marquis de Chabannes La Palice in 1956. She had lived in Paris since the 1940s. During the next 30 years she published widely books and reviews. Notably, Guillaume Apollinaire and the Cubist life (1961) received the Darmstadt Award. English Interludes, (Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Valery Larbaud - stays in London 1860-1912) was much praised. Her contribution to Mallarmé studies is substantial.

Of her earlier memoir, Ends of the World (1987), Lawrence Durrell wrote to Cecily: "Just reading, sipping, devouring to prolong the pain/pleasure of your beautiful, cogent and brilliant memories."

She published on various occasions reminiscences of her friendships, of writers and of the literary scene from the 1930s to 1950s: at 93, she embarked upon her candid autobiography. It was typical of her, that in her last weeks, with her autobiography just completed, she was in search of a new project, this time to embark on learning Arabic.

She is survived by her daughter, Pascale.

Cecily Joan Mackworth, writer, born August 15 1911; died July 22 2006


Cecily Joan Mackworth, writer: born Llantilio Pertholey, Monmouthshire 15 August 1911; married 1935 Leon Donckier de Donceel (died 1938; one daughter), 1956 Marquis de Chabannes la Palice (died 1980); died Paris 22 July 2006.


Cecily Mackworth was a poet, critic, novelist, biographer, journalist and globetrotter. In her autobiography, Ends of the World, published in 1987, she explained her restless travelling as a form of self-exploration.

Mackworth was a tall, handsome woman - magnanimous, sociable and gifted. She was one of the few remaining links to the writers and artists - European and American - who flourished in the 1930s, and her work on Villon, Apollinaire and Mallarmé mark her as an authority on French poetry. Although as a child she had been introduced to Thomas Hardy, and later enjoyed friendships with her fellow Welsh poets Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas, she made more impact as a travel writer, biographer and critic than as a poet.

She had a delinquent streak, and the urge to travel seized her when young. As a teenager she eloped with a Hungarian. At 22, in Berlin, she watched the Reichstag burn. Later she trekked across the Algerian desert in search of the shade of Isabelle Eberhardt, the Russo-German adventurer and Muslim convert.

Cecil Mackworth was born at Llantilio Pertholey, Monmouthshire, in 1911, a member of the Mackworth dynasty - Welsh coal-owners of the more liberal persuasion. Her father, Francis, died in 1914, fighting in France, her mother was one of the first women to drive a car, her aunt, Margaret, Viscountess Rhondda, was the founding editor of Time and Tide.

She was privately educated, attended the LSE for two years and worked briefly for Time and Tide before escaping abroad. In 1935, she married Leon Donckier de Donceel, a Belgian, by whom she had a daughter the following year, but in 1938 he died of tuberculosis. Mackworth, still in her twenties, settled in Paris. There, in 1937, she had met Henry Miller, frequenting his salon at the Villa Seurat. Through Miller, she met the young poet David Gascoyne, who had published his first book at the age of 16 and A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) at the age of 19, and the electrifying 26-year-old Lawrence Durrell, then wrestling with his third novel, The Black Book. Gascoyne and Durrell became her lifelong friends. She contributed to The Booster, the magazine Miller and company were intent on destroying with obscenity, and Miller published a collection of her poems (Eleven Poems, 1938).

Paris became her home until the blitzkreig of June 1940. Forced to flee from the advancing Germans, she joined the flood of refugees trudging westwards, strafed as they went by diving Stukas, and finally made it back to England via Spain and Portugal. The account of that dramatic escape appears in her books I Came Out of France (1941) and the later Ends of the World.

Working in London for the Free French (Maurice Schumann, later French Foreign Minister, was her boss) she published two books on Czechoslovakia (Czechoslovakia Fights Back, 1942, and, with Jan Stransky for the Cross-Roads Series, Czechoslovakia, 1943, with a preface by her friend Jan Masaryk). On one occasion during the Blitz, while she was visiting T.S. Eliot in his office in Russell Square, a bomb fell close by, shattering the windows. Eliot, quite unperturbed, brushed the splinters of glass from his desk and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Wartime London brought her the friendships of a number of writers - Arthur Koestler, Nancy Cunard, Stevie Smith, George Barker and Dylan Thomas. Once, at a party, Dylan's wife, Caitlin, stubbed a cigarette out on Mackworth's hand, annoyed, it seems, that she was gossiping too intimately with Dylan.

After the Second World War she returned to a France now in the grip of a new intellectual passion, existentialism. In 1947 she published a well-received short biography of François Villon (François Villon: a study) and edited an equally successful verse anthology, A Mirror for French Poetry, 1840-1940. She became a friend of Stuart Gilbert, James Joyce's biographer and translator, and Samuel Beckett's friends Roger Blin and Arthur Adamov.

Writing commissions took her to Palestine to cover the birth of the State of Israel. She had a haunting encounter with Menachem Begin, on the run from the British, and a curious one with King Abdullah of Transjordan, later assassinated for his moderation. Apart from Clare Hollingworth, the great Daily Telegraph foreign correspondent, Mackworth was the only female journalist covering the event. The book that emerged, The Mouth of the Sword (1949), shows her at ease with both Jewish settlers and the Bedouin whom she especially admired.

The lure of the desert took her next to Algeria in pursuit of Isabelle Eberhardt, who lived disguised as a man among the Arabs. The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt (1954) greatly influenced Paul Bowles, who later translated some of Eberhardt's writings.

In 1956, Mackworth married a French marquis, becoming from that time the Marquise de Chabannes la Palice. Although this was a love-match, she later came to see her marriage as an interruption of her writing career. The Marquis died in 1980 and afterwards she lived alone in Paris, close to the Picasso Museum in the Marais district.

There she lived an interesting double life - Cecily Mackworth to her artistic friends, the Marquise to her aristocratic ones. She was a sociable figure on the Paris scene, a frequenter of bookshops such as Shakespeare and Company and the Village Voice, where she was often to be found attending talks by visiting writers. As a critic she had appeared in Cyril Connolly's Horizon, and she contributed also to Le Figaro, Time and Tide and Twentieth Century - for which she produced the first important review of Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet.

As a writer she had great powers of endurance. She published her first novel, Spring's Green Shadow (1952), aged 41, and her second, Lucy's Nose (1992), aged 81 - the latter based on an obscure case of Freud's and a brilliant work of what one critic called "deductive imagination". She worked on her second volume of autobiography, Out of the Black Mountains, until a few weeks before her death.

Her company was delightful and invigorating, and her friendships were enduring; her friends will remember her for her wisdom, empathy and critical insight. She was buried beside her second husband in Normandy.

Gordon Bowker