Alfred Duff Cooper, 1st Viscount Norwich, GCMG, DSO, PC (1890 – 1954) was a politician, diplomat, and author, whose courage in resigning from Cabinet over the Munich Agreement and consistency in working for closer diplomatic ties with France were complemented by his skill as a historian and his talent for friendship.
Background and education
Duff Cooper (he was always known as ‘Duff’ rather than ‘Alfred’) was born at Cavendish Square, the only son of the surgeon Sir Alfred Cooper and Lady Agnes Duff, daughter of the 5th Earl Fife, and descendant of one of the ten illegitimate children of William IV and the actress Mrs Jordan. He was schooled at Eton College and went up to Oxford in 1908 to read Modern History at New College.
Oxford and early career
At New College (1908–11), he cultivated poetry, conversation and fast living, in emulation of his hero Charles James Fox. He entered the Foreign Service in October 1913, which meant he was barred from military service until June 1917. As soon as he could he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards and spent six months on the Western Front. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for conspicuous gallantry, a rare decoration for a junior officer. Many of his closest friends, including several from New College, were killed in the conflict.
After demobilisation he returned to the Foreign Service and in 1919 he married Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the 8th Duke of Rutland. Her family strongly resisted her wish to marry a penniless commoner, but eventually they gave in. In 1923, Diana went on tour with Max Reinhardt’s lavish theatrical extravaganza, The Miracle. In it she alternated as The Madonna and The Nun, in a production so successful that it ran for the next six years. It was thanks to her earnings that Duff was able to resign from the Foreign Office in 1924 and enter politics.
1924–1931: In and out of Parliament
Within weeks he was selected for the seat of Oldham, which he won at the general election in October 1924 with a 13,000 majority over the sitting Labour member. In January 1928 he was appointed Financial Secretary to the War Office, but when the conservatives lost the election of 1929, he lost his seat.
Out of Parliament, he wrote a biography of the French statesman Talleyrand. The book was very successful, as subject and author seemed made for each other: both were pragmatic bon-viveurs, whose knowledge of European politics was expressed with clear-sighted lucidity.
1931–1935: By-election and junior minister
In the March 1931 by-election, he won the seat of Westminster St-George’s with a majority of 5,710 and held it until 1945. He served as Financial Secretary to the War Office and then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, a traditional steppingstone to the Cabinet. This brought him to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was so appalled by the prospect of another war that he explored every path that might avert such a catastrophe. Duff, on the other hand, was certain that there could be no peace with Hitler and urged rearmament. He accepted a commission to write a biography of General Haig (1935), but he did not enjoy it and it remains the least regarded of his books.
1935–1938: Cabinet and resignation
In November 1935, after the general election, he was promoted to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for War and appointed to the Privy Council. (He used to deliver the army estimates, including figures, without notes – something of a party piece which drew people into the Chamber to watch.) Since his calls for rearmament put him at odds with most of the Conservative leadership, he was surprised when the new Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed him First Lord of the Admiralty in May 1937. He enjoyed the job but refused to tone down his views.
On 3 October 1938, following the Munich Agreement, Duff Cooper resigned from the Cabinet. He said that ‘War with honour or peace with dishonour’ he might have been persuaded to accept, ‘but war with dishonour – that was too much’. Fellow appeasement-critic and Conservative Party MP Vyvyan Adams described Cooper’s actions as ‘the first step in the road back to national sanity’.
Second World War
When war broke out he went on a lecture tour of the US, in an effort to persuade the Americans to join the Allies. Duff called for all democracies to stand firm against dictatorships, and predicted that Churchill would become Prime Minister, which he did in May 1940.
He was appointed Minister of Information under Churchill, a job for which he felt ill-suited by temperament. After PG Wodehouse’s ill-judged but innocent broadcasts from Germany where he was interned that summer, Duff was much criticised for over-ruling the BBC and allowing William Connor (‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror) to launch a savage attack on Wodehouse, accusing him of being a coward and a traitor.
In July 1941 he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was sent to Singapore as Minister Resident and was also briefly involved in the deception plan known as Operation Mincemeat, in which a corpse dressed as a British officer was floated off the Spanish coast with false information about the Allied landings. This later became the subject of Duff’s only novel, Operation Heartbreak (1950).
Ambassador to France
In December 1943 he was appointed British Representative to the Free French Committee of National Liberation, then based in Algiers, on the understanding that when France was liberated he would become Ambassador to Paris. Part of his work in Algiers was to maintain a working relationship between Churchill and de Gaulle, which Duff likened to being ground between two mill stones. He took up his post as Ambassador to Paris in August 1944. The capital had been liberated, but much of France was still occupied.
The Germans had not touched the British Embassy, which had been bought for the nation by the Duke of Wellington in 1815 from Napoleon’s favourite sister, Pauline Borghese. Duff was astonished to hear that this graceful eighteenth-century house, although big enough to contain a ball room, contained no library.
Undeterred by post-war austerity, he managed to persuade the civil service to fund the construction of a library, to be stocked from his own extensive collection of books. Thanks to the efforts of no fewer than three French designers the Duff Cooper Library looks magnificent, though its gilded busts and urns are made of papier maché and the columns are hollow.
Duff and Diana Cooper were considered a great success in Paris, where they made many friends. They expected to be replaced when Labour won the 1945 election but the new Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, valued an ambassador who was close to so many French politicians – and had even managed to have a rapport of sorts with Charles de Gaulle.
On 12 November of that year, Duff and Diana Cooper gave a lunch at the Embassy in honour of Winston Churchill. Among the guests was Mme Jacques Pol Roger, whose name was Odette. She and Churchill were delighted with each other’s company, and a friendship blossomed that lasted until Churchill’s death. It created links between the Pol Roger champagne house and the Churchills which survive to this day.
Ernest Bevin’s decision to leave Duff en poste gave him the time to realise his last political ambition, which was to forge an Anglo-French alliance that would dominate post-war Europe. The process culminated in the Treaty of Dunkirk, signed on 4 March 1947. Soon after that, he retired to the Château de Saint-Firmin, near Chantilly.
Duff was raised to the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in 1948. During the war he had written a life of the Biblical King David, and in 1949 he published Sergeant Shakespeare, suggesting that Shakespeare might have spent his ‘lost years’ as a soldier with the Earl of Leicester in the Low Countries. In 1950 the Cabinet Office tried to stop the publication of his novel, Operation Heartbreak, which they claimed was in breach of the Official Secrets Act. Duff pointed out that since Churchill had been holding dinner parties spell-bound with the story for years, it was no longer much of a secret. Publication went ahead unhindered.
Cooper was created 1st Viscount Norwich in 1952. his sixth and final book was his autobiography, Old Men Forget, which appeared on 5 July 1953. The book has a valedictory ending for he was already ill with the cirrhosis of the liver that was to kill him in is sixty-fourth year. He admitted that he had consistently drunk more than was good for him, but wine was one of the greatest pleasures of his life and he did not regret it. He died on New Year’s Day 1954.
Shortly after his death, a group of his friends established a literary prize in his memory. The very first Duff Cooper Memorial Prize in 1956 went to Alan Moorehead, for his book Gallipoli. Winston Churchill presented the prize on that occasion, and for as long as Odette Pol Roger was alive, she donated Pol Roger champagne for the prize-giving party.
The prize has been given annually ever since, and is still proudly celebrating its winners with Pol Roger champagne.