Nature and fortune had vied with one another in heaping on Ivor Lombard all their choicest gifts. He had wealth and he was perfectly independent. He was good looking, possessed an irresistible charm of manner, and was the hero of more amorous successes than he could well remember.
– from Chrome Yellow, by Aldous Huxley
We espied Evan Morgan, 2nd Viscount Tredegar, lurking in the Café Royal on our tour of London and he is someone whose company we should, by rights, have sought out long before now. Like Marchesa Casati, Morgan was an exceptionally wealthy aristocrat of no fixed occupation who lived for intrigue and outrage. Though he had connections to the highest levels of society, Morgan’s true milieu was not to be found in a dog-eared Debrett’s but in a network of similarly free agents, some of whom will be familiar to Strange Flowers readers. And like many of those unique entities, his improbable existence proved irresistible to writers.
But a curious duality emerges when you examine Morgan’s relationships. He was an occultist, yet chamberlain to two popes; gay, yet husband to two women. He was a friend to Augustus John, john to Denham Fouts, bogey-man to the Establishment – all the more so because he was corrupting from within. He mixed with royalty and rabble, and there was a Jekyll-and-Hyde polarity within his own personality. His friend Nancy Cunard was alert to his Janus-like nature, calling him “a fantasy who could be most charming and most bitchy”.
Morgan was born in 1893 at Tredegar, an exceptional 17th century house in South Wales said to be teeming with ghosts. It was perhaps these surroundings that encouraged his later fascination with the occult. It was certainly not an environment conducive to normality. As with his friend Lord Berners, there was something avian about Morgan – writer Alan Pryce-Jones saw in his curious movements a bird about to spread its wings and fly, while Augustus John referred to “the bird-like flights of Evan Morgan” when he witnessed the viscount in rhetorical flow. In addition to a menagerie of exotic animals, Morgan had numerous birds on his estate who responded to his command and one of his party pieces was to have a parrot crawl up his trousers and peer out from his fly. During the Second World War he was charged with monitoring carrier pigeons, and was court martialled when he let slip war secrets to a pair of girl guides.
Morgan’s reputation preceded him, and Pryce-Jones’s father had warned him against even appearing in the same room as the notorious viscount. It wasn’t just his scarcely-concealed sexuality, his treachery or his conspicuous Catholicism. There was the necromancy as well, a pursuit which went far beyond the fashionable parlour spiritualism of the day. Aleister Crowley was an occasional visitor to Tredegar and impressed by Morgan’s “magick” accoutrements, but even the Great Beast was freaked out by what Morgan cooked up. One of the viscount’s rituals – revenge for his dismissal from the army – apparently landed his commanding officer in hospital.
Morgan’s reputation as practitioner of the dark arts may have been the reason he ended up dining with Rudolph Hess, Ernst Röhm and other top Nazis one night in 1932. The location was Bad Weissee outside Munich, notorious two years later as one of the sites of the Night of the Long Knives which claimed Röhm and many of his fellow SA members (see Visconti’s The Damned). Not that Morgan was unique among the British upper class in enjoying a pre-war flirtation with Nazism: witness the dabblings of Unity Mitford, Lord Rothermere, Oswald Mosley or the execrable Duke of Windsor.
It is a matter of conjecture whether Morgan actually believed in Fascism, or if it was just another affectation. Virginia Woolf saw the effort with which Morgan constructed his persona, “most carefully prepared to be a poet & an eccentricity, both by his conversation, which aimed at irresponsible brilliance, & lack of reticence, & by his clothes, which must have been copied from the usual Shelley picture.” Aldous Huxley, as the opening quote showed, lampooned his myriad qualities (in fact Morgan was a middling painter and a disregarded writer).
Philippe Jullian visited Tredegar and was intrigued by his host, a figure given to “inventing new eccentricities to show the variety of his immense learning, the confidence of his taste, the insolence of his character and extent of his fortune” as Jullian’s biographer put it. The viscount appears as Lord Tanquerville in Jullian’s roman à clef Café Society (which also featured recent Flower George de Cuevas). But the French writer also witnessed the flipside to his character during dinner one night, as Morgan dressed down one of his servants – drunkenly, viciously and at length.
Morgan was married to an English actress and a Russian princess (both unions without issue), but the most significant attachment in his life introduced himself in London’s Eiffel Tower restaurant one day with the words ‘Your name is Rameses’. This statement issued from the mouth of novelist Ronald Firbank and was evidently inspired by Morgan’s resemblance to an effigy of Rameses II in the British Museum. So highly strung was Firbank that he seemed perpetually on the point of fleeing the physical plane through sheer nerves; nonetheless he embarked on an affair with the man he came to call ‘Heaven Organ’.
Like Firbank, Morgan was a Catholic convert, and indeed had studied for the priesthood (although he sent his valet to attend lectures for him) and eventually moved in the highest Vatican circles, laden with papal honours. Despite this bond, it was Morgan’s dual nature and hair-trigger temper which caused the end of their relationship. Firbank had dedicated a play, The Princess Zoubaroff, to Morgan, who accepted the gesture but didn’t trouble himself to read it. Only as the book was going to print did Morgan state his objection to the play’s portrayal of Catholics, furiously demanding withdrawal of the dedication. Fairbank – always more canny than his flighty demeanour would suggest – had his revenge in the novel The Flower Beneath the Foot, in which he pilloried Morgan as “Eddy Monteith” of “Intriguer House”.
And so while the real Evan Morgan died on this day in 1949, his confounding dichotomies live on in the fiction of his more talented associates.