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Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.

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When, in 1938, Mr Chamberlain returned from his meeting with Herr Hitler waving his worthless piece of paper to an ecstatic electorate proclaiming `Peace in our Time', Lady Astor and her cronies from Cliveden believed their policy of appeasement had been vindicated.

The `Cliveden Set' was not pro-Nazi, yet neither was the MP in Hyde Park entirely wrong in complaining that foreign policy was decided not in Cabinet any more but at Lady Astor's country home. Waldorf and Nancy Astor and their friends (including the editors of both the The Times and the Observer) were idealists, believing that once the more reasonable of Hitler's grievances had been sorted the unreasonable could be despatched more forcefully - if they still remained.

But Winston Churchill was unimpressed. He could see, from the way the Führer was swallowing up the small states surrounding the Fatherland that there would be no appeasing Hitler, and once the popular press realized the same they turned on `Cliveden' with the self-righteous fury peculiar to those who feel they have been conned.

Churchill and Lady Astor were never to be close. Churchill was invited to Cliveden along with the rest of the famous and influential people of his day, but Lady Astor's glamorous lifestyle and her amateurish approach to politics (her husband, Waldorf, wrote her speeches, but Lady Astor in the House was likely to sidetrack into anecdotes more suited to a dinner party) irritated him intensely.

`Winston,' said Lady Astor to Churchill at a Cliveden breakfast, `if I were married to you I'd put poison in your coffee.'

`Nancy,' replied Churchill gloomily but with feeling, `if I were married to you, I'd drink it.'

The great stately pile of Cliveden, designed for the Duke of Sutherland by architect Charles Barry in 1850, had been a wedding present to Waldorf and Nancy from William Waldorf senior, Waldorf's fabulously rich and reclusive father, `Walled-off' Astor as he was nicknamed in the press. Not his press of course: he bought the Observer in 1911, later giving it to Waldorf Jnr, and by the time of the second World War The Times was owned by his son John.

When petite American society belle and divorcé Nancy (née Langhorne) moved into her father-in-law's gift she set about furnishing it to her taste (retaining the panelling from Madame de Pompadour's eighteenth-century Château d'Asnières) and entertaining the élite. Her guests included Edward VII and Mrs Keppel, Kipling, Belloc, Henry James, Sargent (he painted the portrait of Nancy hanging in Cliveden), George Bernard Shaw and T.E. Lawrence, to name a few.

Her husband Waldorf became MP for Plymouth, doing a useful job in Lloyd George's government setting up the new Ministry of Health. It was always his intention to head the ministry, but then his father died and Waldorf was despatched unhappily to the Lords. Which is when Nancy stepped in to his shoes to become the first woman MP. It is ironic that in 1918, when women's suffrage had finally achieved its aim and women were given (nearly) full political rights, that the first woman elected to Parliament should be not impassioned suffragette Christabel Pankhurst but society hostess Lady Astor.

Nancy's political career was successful enough and her Christian Science faith - or her personal version of it - kept her in good health and spirits. She campaigned on social issues, particularly Prohibition which proved a great election liability, and she enjoyed it immensely, but one can't help feeling that it was an absorbing hobby for her. Her great friend and Cliveden habitué George Bernard Shaw described her approach: `She has no political philosophy and dashes at any piece of kindly social work that presents itself, whether it is an instalment of socialism or a relic of feudalism...'

But it is probably Harold Nicolson who described doing battle with Nancy in the House best of all. `It was,' he said, `like playing squash with a dish of scrambled eggs.'

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.

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