A Life of Her Own

By Janet Morgan

Scribners. 489 pp. $27.50

TAKE A woman with knockout looks, serious money, a handsome husband of royal lineage, amusing lovers, yachts, palaces, jewels, furs, killer outfits and cozy friendships with kings. Add feverish dissipation in youth, and respected work in later life. Top it off with a stint as the last vicereine of India and a passionate 12-year correspondence with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, that country's first prime minister after its independence. Set it all against the grandest houses in England during the first 60 years of this century and bingo: You have Lady Edwina Ashley Mountbatten, a mini-series waiting to be made.

To be fair, Britain's Lord Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten had no idea he was setting himself up to star in a model open marriage when he stalked Edwina, his 19-year-old bride-to-be, in 1921. (He used some of the same smooth strategies he later recommended to his nephew, Prince Philip of Greece, for his wooing of the current queen of England.) Edwina was a big-time heiress. Her doting grandpa was Sir Ernest Cassel, a charming, self-made, German-Jewish-born financier who successfully crashed the English upper class, and became best friends with King Edward VII, Edwina's godfather.

Both Dickie and Edwina were virgins when they married. She was a love-starved post-debutante with a wicked stepmother and the curious isolated innocence of the very gently reared. Could they start their honeymoon in Paris, she asked Dickie, "going to the most awful places we can find?" Dickie, even at 21, didn't want to know the "awful" stuff. He thought of sex as half hydraulics and half psychology, and of marriage as an occasional smug diversion from real life, which was the navy.

His ego and naivete were so vast that he was astonished when, after a few years in what he thought was happy tandem -- and the births of two daughters -- his cousin David, the Prince of Wales, summoned him for a chat.

"Went to see David . . . He had a queer story about Edwina," he wrote miserably in his diary. His cousin had revealed that among Edwina's dozens of "ginks," as he called her walkers and traveling companions, were some -- including Lord Hugh Molyneaux, the American Laddie Sanford, the Daily Express's Mike Wardell -- who bedded Edwina. Worse, everyone knew about them except Dickie.

It must have been sobering in the extreme to think of the consequences of a divorce -- the effect not only on his royal relations, who didn't even let divorced persons set foot in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, but also on his income, which, without Edwina, would consist of a paltry naval officer's pay. Finally, in 1931, after one of Edwina's freewheeling transatlantic jaunts had American gossips in a feeding frenzy (she was supposed to be breaking up the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford marriage) the Mountbattens sat down and cut a deal: They would stay together with separate beds and, to some extent, separate lives. But they would remain loving, mutually supportive chums. Above all, they would be discreet. Soon after, each found a long-term main squeeze: Dickie fell for Yola Letellier, the vivacious 26-year-old who was the model for Colette's "Gigi"; Edwina for Bunny Phillips, a boon companion her friends called "Dickie with the volume turned down." They all became bosom pals. Bunny and Dickie, in fact, celebrated the Mountbattens' 18th wedding anniversary by going to the theater together.

The labors of the British uppercrust between the wars, as meticulously chronicled by Janet Morgan, were exhausting. There was a ceaseless grind of partying, tennis, riding, castle-hopping, lunching, yachting, traveling, night-clubbing, dining, cocktails, gossiping, affairs, charity and deb balls, and, to break up the monotony, novelties like one hostess's "Night-Time Day": Breakfast at 8 p.m., followed by horseback riding in the Row, luncheon at midnight, then tennis, and cocktails and dinner at the Savoy at 7 a.m.. There was the constant uprooting to a new family-owned locale -- from Bond Street mansion to country house, from horse-farm to Swiss villa.

Luckily for Edwina, the real world kicked in. Her first lick of fun came during the 1926 General Strike in England. Then, with 24-year-old energy, she hurled herself, as did many fashionable people, into scabbing. She was on her feet for five hours at a stretch in a canteen. She was hunched over a switchboard between 9 a.m. and midnight as a telephone operator. It was a revelation. After all, grandpa's house had so many maids that one was employed full-time to wash the flower-vases. She was accustomed to footmen in livery, ladies' maids, governesses, valets, three chauffeurs, a house electrician and a chef with four assistants.

She adored the novel game. Still, after the strike there was no excuse for her to play on, so she clambered back aboard the social treadmill, never to get another breather until World War II. Although she and Yola had planned only minimal contributions to the Allies' effort -- they had vowed to give up chocolate and quit painting their toenails until peace came -- she became a War Star. Drawing on unexpected reserves of efficiency, she worked her way up through the "old trouts" of the volunteer bureaucracy, and rapidly became a British legend. Lithe, bold and winsome in her custom-made uniforms, she at first inspected the crowded, filthy air-raid shelters, reported to the government on what was needed, and got it done. She worked up to inspecting apallingly squalid hospitals, welfare centers and leave camps in far-flung corners of the empire, and used her considerable influence to improve them. Finally, she was combing refugee and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in heartfelt efforts to reunite families.

She had a marvelous time, and made herself quite sick. Her lowlier countrymen, once thoroughly disenchanted with their decadent debutante, were won over again.

Dickie popped with pride.

He, too, had risen to the occasion as a brave leader, much-loved by his men. Noel Coward wrote a movie about one of his shipboard commmands. Dickie smoothed over bitter service rivalries with such delicacy that Churchill made him the Supreme Allied Commander in South-East Asia. After the war, he was seen as a natural to become the last viceroy of India. It was his job to turn the longtime star in the crown of the British Empire back to its own people. IT WAS there that the fortysomething Edwina met Nehru. Janet Morgan is, I believe, the first biographer to have read both sides of the 12-year Edwina-Nehru correspondence.

"I hated seeing you drive away this morning . . . You have left me with a strange sense of peace and happiness," she wrote tentatively after one of their earliest heart-to-hearts. "Perhaps I have brought the same to you?"

Her letter crossed his: "Life is a dreary business, and when a bright patch comes it rather takes one's breath away . . ."

After the high-jinks of youth and the high-minded toil of early middle-age, a late-booming affair-by-mail with an exotic was just her cup of tea.

"You have brought me all I was yearning for, happiness, balance, misery even! but we know the reason (and we would not change it) and there is infinitely more power and purpose to life . . ."

Throughout their lives, both Mountbattens left a Beltway-size paper-trail of all their emotions, purchase, clothing, social rounds, travels, love affairs and health. Janet Morgan was apparently allowed access to every scrap: copious diaries, intimate and self-revealing letters, photo-albums, childhood mementoes, correspondence with lawyers, builders, decorators, furriers, dressmakers, travel companies and hoteliers. Not for her the data-poor biographers's desperate "she must have felt" or "it might have seemed." They wrote it; she'll quote it. She writes with both charm and economy. Her occasional lapse into Edwina's post-deb slang is perhaps inevitable, after total immersion in the Mountbatten cult of the smart, worldly and endlessly desirable Self. If anything, it adds to the startling time-capsule quality of her book.

For, as much as it portrays a woman, Edwina Mountbatten: A Life of Her Own evokes a world that has fled. Beneath the relentlessly detailed aristoporn, it rings true, touching, familiar and foreign -- like a Noel Coward song tinkled on a grand piano in a glittering room somewhere off a long, dim hallway that looms behind us.

Diana McLellan is the Washington editor of Washingtonian magazine.