An Adventure – asking the questions about Paddy and Joan’s marriage

Perhaps a rather belated link to the Harvard Review Online but one that openly questions some of the things that Artemis probably deliberately left out, and worthy for a quick read for that point only. We have no real discussion as to the reasons and background of Paddy and Joan’s “open marriage” and how it really impacted Joan, who frankly must have been deeply hurt by Paddy’s behaviour.

by Laura Albritton

First published in the Harvard Review Online, March 24 2014

The cover of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is an excellent introduction to its subject. Leigh Fermor sits on deck with the sea behind him, his chest bare, cigarette casually in hand, his gaze focused on the discoveries ahead. By anyone’s estimation, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s life was an extraordinary adventure. His biographer, Artemis Cooper, has the advantage of having known him; she is also the granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper, who carried on a great correspondence with him. As a result, she seems very much at ease with her subject, referring to him as “Paddy” throughout.

Leigh Fermor came to fame in the U.K. for his daring exploits in the Second World War and for a series of beautifully written travel books, including The Traveller’s Tree, Roumeli, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water. As a teenager at King’s School, Canterbury, he learned Greek but was eventually thrown out. His housemaster reported that, “He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.” A devotion to Greece, the pursuit of women, recklessness, and an irresistible charisma became defining elements in Paddy’s life.

Leigh Fermor’s originality becomes clear when, with no prospect of attending university, he decides to walk across Europe to Constantinople. Cooper does excellent work researching his trek (which Leigh Fermor himself chronicled in two volumes). She quotes from his diary and introduces us to the people he met, many of them members of the faded aristocracy. People welcome him because: “In Paddy’s company everyone felt livelier, funnier and more entertaining.”

Abroad, Leigh Fermor uncovers a world that seems preserved in amber, with intimations of the terrible events to come, including a pervasive anti-Semitism. In Athens he meets the cultivated and older Romanian painter Princess Balasha Cantacuzene and becomes her lover. He spends a year on her family’s dilapidated Romanian estate, Balani, after which he and Balasha move between London, Greece, and Romania. Cooper notes that:

Living with the Cantacuzenes in Rumania had granted Paddy several of the opportunities afforded by a university education . . . he had learnt Rumanian, studied its history, and read as much as he could in that language and French. Above all, Balasha and the Cantacuzenes had given him . . . a set of people among whom he felt he belonged and was understood.

Later, during World War II, Leigh Fermor was given a commission in the Intelligence Corps based on his skill with foreign languages: “He would be in Crete, out of uniform, living in the open, in constant danger.” Cooper supplies us with welcome context, from the political to the geological, though the initial passages chronicling Paddy’s war work lag in places due to too many actors. “The Hussar Stunt,” however, is nail-biting. With the aid of fearless Cretan partisans, Leigh Fermor and a few Brits capture German General Kreipe and sneak him off the island in a boat to Cairo. Their improbable success later inspires books and even a film.

After the suspense of the Cretan episodes, Cooper keeps things lively as she recounts Paddy’s meeting with his future wife, the photographer Joan Rayner (née Eyres Monsell), and his friendship with figures like Lawrence Durrell. Leigh Fermor had a relentless curiosity, traveling to the French West Indies (inspiration for his only novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques) and to Haiti (inspiration for The Traveller’s Tree). Here, Cooper reveals some of Leigh Fermor’s unpublished judgments: “All the Caribbean islands have something wrong with them,” he wrote. “All are founded on bloodshed and slavery, and are now miserable, subsidized, impoverished places.”

Greece remains a central organizing principle in Leigh Fermor’s life, and Cooper does a fine job of weaving tumultuous Greek politics through his personal chronology. He and Joan eventually build their dream house in Kardamyli. Writing, however, was sometimes a torture, as Cooper observes: “He set great store by the initial surge of writing . . . Yet the moments of creative possession, when the self is lost and time becomes meaningless, were rare.”

As a biographer Cooper shows little interest in psychoanalyzing her subject. On one hand, this shows admirable restraint; on the other, Leigh Fermor remains enigmatic. We wonder, for example, how exactly he became so erudite. Leigh Fermor and his wife maintain an open marriage, but their motivations and emotions are often left unexplored. Elsewhere, Cooper points out that the Duchess of Devonshire adored him, but we’re given only glimpses of his charisma.

Cooper does, however, add a great deal in terms of tracing the trajectory of Leigh Fermor’s life, pinning down facts (as opposed to myths), providing historic context, and quoting from diaries and letters. The result, even with unanswered questions, is an excellent read and should revive interest in his writing. For that we owe Artemis Cooper a debt of gratitude.


18 thoughts on “An Adventure – asking the questions about Paddy and Joan’s marriage

  1. Julian

    Well there are quite a few comments above from those who seem better informed than I but I do recall reading somewhere that Joan said at some point that ‘I am not going to sleep with you any more’ and after having dinner somewhere ‘Here’s some money, that should be enough to get you a girl’.

    Not exactly the statements of someone who was discontent with the situation – more those of someone who was accepting of the reality of a husband whose sex drive was greater than hers. If she didn’t want her husband to sleep with other women she wouldn’t give him the money for so do do. And it doesn’t seem as though Paddy was short of offers anyway!

    There are some unseemly (to our mores) incidents in the biography (I wasn’t enthralled by the pubic lice incident) but this doesn’t detract one jot from my admiration of him.

    There is an old (Indian I think) saying about not criticising a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins and I try (and usually fail) to live by it.

    Everyone on earth is less than perfect – does their lack of perfection detract from our interest in them? In most cases, no. Why should this be different for Paddy?

    1. Julian

      Well actually the pubic lice thing maybe DID detract slightly from my admiration of him, but hey ho…

  2. Daniel Bamford

    Ah, I knew there was something I forgot!

    The reviewer writes: ‘… the initial passages chronicling Paddy’s war work lag in places due to too many actors.’

    Well, yes, quite, not least since Cooper spends one and a half pages on a digression about Cairo during the Second World War in which Paddy disappears from view entirely (ch. 7 pp. 138 – 140).

    The endnotes reveal that this is nothing more than an extended advert for Artemis Cooper’s earlier book ‘Cairo in the War’!

    It was at this point that I began to develop an active dislike of Artemis Cooper’s biography of Paddy. Considering that it was personal family connections that got her the job of Paddy’s official biographer in the first place, surely she could have spared us this kind of self-promotion?

    1. Julian

      One and a half pages is hardly a major digression…

      Could anyone else have written such a detailed biography of PLF?

      I’d like to read it!

  3. Christos Paganakis

    I dont think there is any mystery about how Paddy got to be so Erudite .
    It is simply that , living in a pre TV and pre IT age , he read a lot of BOOKS .
    He liked books .
    Proof ( if needed ) is in those pics of his salon at the Kardamyli house .
    If you grow up with a voracious reading habit , and are blessed with a retentive memory , then you get to know a whole load of stuff , you get to be an Auto-didact , that is , self-educated .
    And if you have particular enthusiasms and interests in particular subject areas which you follow for decades , then through your steady reading you get to be an unacknowledged expert in those subjects or fields .
    Paddy liked company but was also a bit of a maverick loner and content in his own company ; Without wealth , and often abroad and among foreigners , Books are a natural recourse for the leisure of those so inclined .
    Nowadays , with the marvellous availability of the Internet / web , each of us has a world-class library a few key-strokes away , and it’s a pity Paddy was a little too old to explore that . I know you have to sort the gems from the dross , but then you actually had to do that too when rummaging through the old lending libraries .

    Passing on to the rest of the piece , WHY is everybody so obsessed nowadays with other people’s sex lives ? What damn business is it of ours anyway ?
    Perhaps , like many couples , they liked each other very much indeed , and found over time that they were simply content and very happy with each others companionship , but that did not extend to a endless mutual bonk-a-thon .
    Nobody’s business but theirs .
    Tom comments that ” . . . . .How It really impacted Joan , who frankly must have been deeply hurt by Paddy’s behaviour ”
    Well actually , unless she told you so , ( or has written that somewhere ) I’d say that was a classic unwarrantable assumption .
    For people of that generation , appearances and etiquette and the avoidance of scandal were of great importance .
    I think we can safely assume she would have feared a scandal and gossip , but beyond that ?
    I think Laura Albritten simply exhibits the classic default female ape-human response to that pic of Paddy , caught in testosterone-dribbling beefcake-male pose .
    As for me , I’d rather have a nice hot cup of tea these days than contemplate all that sweaty fumbling .

    1. proverbs6to10 Post author

      Typically robust comments Christos. Some points may be valid but I stand by my own assessment that Paddy’s behaviour, sometimes parading his young lovers right under Joan’s nose, must have been hurtful. Maybe her own personal life was a little more interesting than we have so far been led to believe. I come more and more to the conclusion that Paddy may only have stayed with Joan for her money, until ” companionship” kicked in during their latter years.

      1. Christos Paganakis

        Well I think I’d say ” Judge not ” until there is evidence , actually , and the problem we have is that there really isn’t very much at all .
        PLF and Joan kept their bedroom curtains tight shut , and if Artemis Cooper refrained from tweaking them aside for us ( or more probably actually never got to see beyond them herself ) that’s fine by me .

        The British ” Upper Classes ” often DO tend to live lives that vary wildly away from what most people would class as the ordinary , standard , decent , respectable mean , you know .
        Living here in darkest Norfolk ( where the time in some of the local ” Landed Gentry’s ” rural fiefdoms is about 1600 ) we get to see and hear of plenty of Cavortings and rather odd lifestyles among our Social ” betters ” .
        (I know Paddy really wasn’t in that social grouping by birth , and climbed into it , but he thought and behaved with that mindset ) .
        It’s the combination of financial independence , fostered nurtured arrogance and the assumption of Privilege-as-my-Right that persuades many of them that they can do quite as they please in their own lives , while continuing to honk disparaging and condescending moralistic platitudes at the rest of us , to keep us all from straying off their dogmatic line , and in our appointed stations .
        ( Five years of that to come now , God help us all )
        Paddy as ” Gigolo and Parasitic Lounge Lizard ” is an unattractive image , but I think he’d have been awfully hurt to see himself portrayed thus , merely because he liked sleeping around , and because he’d married into a modicum of money .
        If Joan was really all THAT annoyed about him , she’d have given him the boot in pretty short order .
        After all , that’s what seriously annoyed women do , hmm ?
        And in THEIR time there was far less financial risk of losing half your money to your ” ex ” as there is now , plus the divorce law was the old one incorporating all the old notions about the ” guilty party ” .
        She’d have probably kept nearly all of her money , so she certainly wasn’t chained to the situation .
        I think all we can say is that they had a strong relationship , which may not have been the Ideal marriage as laid down by the Synod of the C-of-E , but which stood the test of time , and which therefore probably suited both of them .
        Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense , then ?

        1. proverbs6to10 Post author

          My money is on more being revealed as time passes Christos, especially about Joan. Your so-called gentry may behave in the way you describe – it is not only they that do so – but we are all human, with human frailties, and feelings. We suffer all the same. Some are just a little better at carrying it off. That doesn’t mean it does not hurt. Why did they stay together? Perhaps she loved Paddy and was waiting for it all to pass.

        2. Daniel Bamford

          “Paddy as ” Gigolo and Parasitic Lounge Lizard ” is an unattractive image , but I think he’d have been awfully hurt to see himself portrayed thus , merely because he liked sleeping around , and because he’d married into a modicum of money.”

          Yes, it is an unattractive image, but it is an image that nonetheless comes across in Artemis Cooper’s biography.

          After her account of Paddy’s disastrous encounter with Somerset Maugham, Cooper mentions that Maugham was later heard to dismiss Paddy as “that middle-class gigolo for upper-class women” (ch. 17, p.298).

          Cooper has relatively little to say about Paddy’s writing – which is presumably why we are all interested in him! – so that the quote about what a wonderful writer he was from John Betjeman (on the back cover of the hardback British edition) bears little relation to the contents of the biography.

          The remark attributed to Somerset Maugham is sadly more relevant to the life chronicled by Artemis Cooper and – to this reader – seems painfully accurate.

          Cooper herself is very much part of that British upper class world and seems to revel in what little she managed to glean about Paddy’s philandering.

          At one point she includes an extended quote from one of Paddy’s letter’s in which he tried to make a joke about the fact that one of his lady friends had caught pubic lice off him, which he had apparently caught off a prostitute. Artemis Cooper seems to find this highly amusing.

          This is the crude reality of “merely” sleeping around.

          She also seems to be delighted that Paddy and her father had both had affairs with the same woman (although at different times!).

          There was a fascinating BBC Radio 4 interview with Norman Tebbitt by Peter Hennessey a year or two ago in which Lord Tebbitt remarked that the social history of Britain in the second half of the twentieth century was the story of how the lower classes gained the freedom to behave just as badly as the upper classes.

          Paddy himself may have mercifully drawn a veil over this distasteful aspect of his life, but the same cannot be said of his official biographer, Artemis Cooper.

          I hope that some time soon, someone will write a _literary_ biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

          1. proverbs6to10 Post author

            Amen to that last point Daniel, and thank you for popping in and making all these detailed comments.


  4. Des Harney


    I am less black-and-white on some missings from the biography than is Evangelina (above).
    Ms. Albritton’s is a professional review. As far as I’m aware she has no agenda beyond fulfilling a commissioned review and carries no Paddy-specific ‘baggage’ (although his views and sometimes disparaging comments about the Caribbean might touch a raw nerve in somebody who lives in Florida, on the doorstep of that region). She appears to make a suitably dispassionate and writerly assessment of the book; and her observations seem, to me, to be fairly accurate. This might irritate those who feel they have a closer connection to the man, his writings and his life. I claim none of these things; although I have read several of his travel books, through which route I have became a partial ‘fan’. Which is why the autobiography was bought as a gift for me shortly after its publication, by my wife. The open-ness or otherwise of our marriage is of little interest to readers of this blog page, i suspect; and should remain so.

    One of the factors that bothered me and jarred noticeably, even while I was reading Artemis Cooper’s book, was the closeness of her own relationship with her subject – and the impact this might be having on her depiction of “Paddy”. I know this is far from a unique issue, for biographers. I am, for instance, currently reading “Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love” by James Booth, who knew Larkin for 17 years as a colleague, at Hull University. It may be unsurprising (spoiler alert!) to find that Booth attempts to re-calibrate the popular identity of Larkin as “Mr Nice not Mr Nasty: attentive to friends, loyal to his women, kind to animals and even rather fond of children” (a quote lifted from “The Guardian” review of the book –

    Cooper’s portrait of Leigh-Fermor may, or may not, have a similar unstated or unconscious(?) motive. Either way, one assumes she wrote the book which she intended and wanted to write; and that omissions are intentional. These do, however, leave some passages of the mans’ life, his motivations and his character traits less well explored. As a less “decided” audience I was strongly aware of these matters, as I read. Perhaps these things are best left less fully explored and explained by somebody so close to their subject; but their omission, surely, leaves “An Adventure” as a less than definitive study. Perhaps there is no material that allows for such an exploration to be undertaken. Although perhaps the way is left open for future commentators, who might be less sympathetic to the PL-F legacy. If so, I just hope they also manage to avoid any cod ‘psycho-analysis’; which really is best left well alone.


    1. Daniel Bamford

      The review quotes Paddy’s opinion of the Caribbean islands, but does not mention how he immediately contrasted this with his experience of the Latin Americna mainland in British Honduras (ch. 12, p. 225).

      I think despairing and demoralised would be a fairer description of Paddy’s views on the Caribbean than “disparaging”. The quote from Paddy about how he was accosted in the street by locals clearly illustrates his frustrations (ch. 12, p. 224), but this does not seem to have deterred his inquisitiveness, so much so that Ian Fleming apparently sued ‘The Traveller’s Tree’ as a source on voodoo for ‘Live and Let Die’!

      Artemis Cooper’s ‘omissions’ are more the result of Paddy’s determined reticence. In the passage about the two girl music students who entertained Paddy in Frankfurt in 1934, it is clear that Cooper had pressed Paddy on the subject in the hope of revelations about youthful philandering.

  5. evangelia dascarolis

    ….perhaps a feeling of loyalty to both Joan & Paddy was the reason Artemis Cooper did not seek to reveal more insight & comment into deep & probable feelings(of hurt on Joan’s part).Do we really have to discover such private matters ?My impression of Joan Leigh Fermor is of a private,refined lady who would have loathed the intrusion into her private life…..Artemis Cooper wrote enough about the couple,& it’s a satisfying biography-let well alone……Evangelia

    1. Daniel Bamford

      I think Artemis Cooper reveals quite more than this review seems to imply.

      There is a very revealing quote from one of Joan’s letters to Paddy about her trip through France with Cyril Connolly in which she reprimands herself for failing to live up to her commitment to ‘open’ relationships and denounces herself as ‘a boringly monogamous bourgeois bitch’ for not being willing to satisfy Connolly’s sexual desires (ch. 13, p. 230).

      So much for what Cooper euphemistically calls ‘bohemian values’.

      There is another passage elsewhere about Paddy’s hostility to Joan’s desire for children, which she dropped some heavy hints about at one point.

      Please also see my other comments on this post: The issue here for me is my general dislike of Artemis Cooper’s biography, rather than any personal judgements about Paddy.


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