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Clarissa Eden in the early 1950s. She was the daughter of John Spencer-Churchill, the younger brother of Winston Churchill.
Clarissa Eden in the early 1950s. She was the daughter of John Spencer-Churchill, the younger brother of Winston Churchill. Photograph: Vivienne/Camera Press
Clarissa Eden in the early 1950s. She was the daughter of John Spencer-Churchill, the younger brother of Winston Churchill. Photograph: Vivienne/Camera Press

Clarissa Eden obituary

This article is more than 2 years old
Wife of Anthony Eden, the Conservative prime minister during the Suez crisis, who found herself at the centre of political life in the 1950s

Clarissa Eden, the Countess of Avon, who has died aged 101, is remembered for her comment, as the prime minister Anthony Eden’s wife during the 1956 Suez crisis, that she “felt sometimes that the Suez canal was flowing through my drawing room”. It reflected only partly the spirit of a stylish, intellectual woman, who found herself almost unwittingly at the centre of Britain’s political life in the mid-1950s.

Though she was descended from the Churchill dynasty, politics hardly impinged on her early life. The third child and only daughter of Winston Churchill’s younger brother, John Spencer-Churchill, a stockbroker, and Lady Gwendoline Bertie, daughter of the 7th Earl of Abingdon, Clarissa Churchill, born in London, was more attracted to the liberal and intellectual milieu of her cultured mother, a renowned beauty, than to politics.

Of her uncle Winston, she recalled attending lunches in the 1930s at his country home, Chartwell, where, at the nadir of his career, he was “endlessly telling us there was going to be a war and we would all get gassed”.

A patchy education, not uncommon among girls of her class, ended when, at 16, she was sent to Paris with two friends and a chaperone to be “finished off”. She intended to paint, but was taken up by the glitterati of Paris society and would arrive at parties in a green Rolls-Royce owned by Hugo Baring, of the banking family. It was only when she went to Oxford in 1940 to study philosophy that she discovered a direction to her life.

Though not an undergraduate, she studied seriously and found Oxford’s intellectual life “a revelation, terribly exciting”. Clever, beautiful and original, she was taken up by the elite, became a “dons’ delight”, and mixed with the pillars of the academic community – Maurice Bowra, David Cecil and Isaiah Berlin – and of the artistic world, including the composer, novelist and painter Gerald Berners, the photographer Cecil Beaton, the painter Lucian Freud, and the writers Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh and Elizabeth Bowen.

Clarissa and Anthony Eden on their wedding day in 1952 in the garden of No 10, with her uncle and aunt Winston and Clementine Churchill. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

She spent the rest of the second world war decoding telegrams in the Foreign Office basement, while living at the top of the Dorchester hotel in cut-price rooms (most people avoided the upper floors because of the bombing); and she worked for a British information newspaper directed at the Russian allies.

With no intention of pursuing a career, but without a private income, at the war’s end she landed a job reviewing theatre, music and the arts in Vogue’s Spotlight column, during which time she befriended the theatre director Peter Brook, and then as a publicist with the film producer Alexander Korda.

On the set of The Third Man, which Korda co-produced, she met Orson Welles, who became a dinner companion and was one of the few actors she liked, though the reclusive and complex Greta Garbo became her close friend. She moved on to become an editor at George Weidenfeld’s newly established publishing firm.

She had first met Anthony Eden, then respected as one of the most skilful diplomats of the age, when she was a schoolgirl, but it was not until 1946, when Eden was in opposition and in the dying stages of his first marriage, to Beatrice Beckett (they divorced in 1950), that they met again, at a dinner party. They were just friends for years; Clarissa harboured no thoughts of a closer attachment “because he was a politician, for a start”.

It came as a complete surprise to all her friends when, in August 1952, they announced their plans to marry, with only two days’ notice. The combination of the foreign secretary Eden’s glamour and Clarissa’s elegance, youth and family connections ensured that the marriage and reception at No 10 Downing Street, hosted by Winston and Clemmie Churchill, made the international headlines.

Anthony and Clarissa Eden in 1962. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

With no experience as a politician’s wife, Clarissa was thrust into the world of diplomacy and entertaining world leaders, which she handled with style. But only nine months into the marriage, Eden was struck down by illness, requiring three operations to save his life. For the rest of their marriage, during his successive illnesses, Clarissa devoted herself to his care.

Her experience as a foreign secretary’s wife was good training for Eden’s long-awaited elevation on Churchill’s retirement to the premiership in April 1955 – a move welcomed by the Conservative party. Eden, the heir apparent for a decade and deputy since 1951, was increasingly vexed at Churchill’s refusal to go. Clarissa adjusted to living at No 10 Downing Street, though she was shocked at the pace of life at the top. “I’d never seen anyone working like that in my life before – working from dawn to two in the morning – and I just felt this is so awful, this life, that I must tailor my life to his,” she said.

Though this meant sacrificing time with her friends, she derived enjoyment and interest from being at the hub of the nation’s political life. Among global figures, she counted as friends the US secretary of state Dean Acheson, who was “always making terribly funny jokes” and Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India – “a beautiful man” of “great spirituality”.

Clarissa had little taste, however, for political intrigue. During the Suez crisis, which broke in July 1956 after Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalised the Suez Canal company, her role was “to bolster” Eden in the fevered atmosphere of No 10 as he moved towards a resolution to use force against Nasser – a policy that divided parliament, families and friends. Though Clarissa never wavered, she was curious enough to wander (unnoticed) up Whitehall from No 10 to observe for herself the massive antiwar demonstration in Trafalgar Square.

Clarissa Eden at her home in London in 2010. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

The crisis would tarnish Eden’s reputation and end his political career. Illness forced him into retirement a few months later, in January 1957. In 1961 he was raised to the peerage as the Earl of Avon. For Clarissa, it was an opportunity for them to build a life together, delighting in their mutual appreciation of art and culture and the company of old friends. Although they were abroad for much of the year, in the peaceful village of Alvediston, Wiltshire, Clarissa read, and cultivated a magnificent garden.

When Eden died in 1977, Clarissa was 56. She rediscovered her intellectual friends from “before Anthony”, as she put it, became an intrepid traveller to undiscovered places, took up scuba diving, and re-entered London’s social life. As keeper of the flame, she fiercely defended Eden’s reputation, believing history should judge him in the longer perspective of his career as a skilled statesman over four crucial decades of the 20th century, rather than solely through the prism of Suez.

I came to know Clarissa in her later years when, with so many friends dying, her typically forthright philosophy was “to make new ones”. She asked me to edit her 2007 memoir From Churchill to Eden. She still radiated extraordinary beauty and elegance.

Her gift for friendship was inspiring; she was witty, always curious, impatient with convention and humbug, and she had an intellectual honesty, a finely tuned sensibility to culture, a completely original take on people, and a style of conversation now almost vanished. She illuminated any company she graced.

Anne Clarissa Eden, Countess of Avon, born 28 June 1920; died 15 November 2021

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