Lady Diana Cooper, 93, the dowager viscountess of Norwich who was a former actress, noted eccentric, legendary beauty, and a star in the social constellation surrounding the Prince of Wales in the 1930s, died June 16 at her home in London. The cause of death was not reported.
She was born Diana Olivia Winifred Maud Manners on Aug. 29, 1892. Her father was the eighth Duke of Rutland and her mother, the former Violet Lindsay, was an artist and former lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria.
Lady Diana grew to become one of the most beautiful and photographed women of her age. Raised in rare privilege in Edwardian England, she grew up surrounded by such frequent family houseguests as the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, the marquess of Salisbury, who had served as prime minister and foreign secretary, statesman Arthur Balfour, writer George Meredith, playwright J.M. Barrie and the young Winston Churchill.
During World War I, she did volunteer work at Guy's Hospital in London and met a young war hero, Duff Cooper. Cooper was a Foreign Office clerk when he and Lady Diana married in 1919. Her mother, who had nourished hopes that her ravishing daughter would marry into the high aristocracy, disapproved and spent the marriage ceremony under sedation.
Duff Cooper continued as a diplomat, went on to serve in the House of Commons, and held several cabinet posts, including that of information minister in Churchill's cabinet during World War II. He was a much respected ambassador to France from 1944 to 1947, was created Viscount Norwich in 1952, and died two years later.
In order to maintain the life style she so much enjoyed, Lady Diana turned to acting. She starred on the silent screen in several less than memorable films, though they achieved great popularity because of Lady Diana's beauty. Her deep blue eyes, flawless complexion and delicate features led poet Hilaire Belloc to enthuse that she possessed "a perfected face immutable," while designer Cecil Beaton compared her to Helen of Troy, Cleopatra "and all the other great goddesses of beauty."
Her performances in such films as "The Glorious Adventure" and "The Miracle" did not impress Lady Diana, however. "Why I was chosen remains a mystery and miracle," she once wrote.
The high society in which she took such a prominent part in the 1920s and 1930s included the Prince of Wales, who was to reign briefly as King Edward VIII before his abdication. She was aboard his yacht with the king and Wallis Warfield Simpson when the news broke that he planned to marry the American divorcee.
Lady Diana was not only the classic madcap socialite of the roaring twenties but the classic British upper-class eccentric that has known no age. Her friend Evelyn Waugh portrayed her as "Mrs. Stitch" in his comic novel "Scoop." In it, Mrs. Stitch gave a memorable demonstration of driving by accidentally navigating her automobile down the stairs of a public toilet.
In fact, Lady Diana's own driving record could be described as mixed. Though she drove for more than 60 years before having an accident, she spent much of that time driving on the sidewalks of London, which she considered safer and in many ways quicker than the more conventional thoroughfares.
And if public toilets did not, strictly speaking, enter into her own motoring experiences, she did once arrive barefoot at a country house party after mistakenly driving to the estate's rear entrance and stumbling into a dungheap. She was heard to ask her host why he kept dungheaps in such odd places. Another host once awoke to find that Lady Diana, a weekend guest, had installed a flock of ducks in the house "left there to rest" for a time. Lady Diana, for reasons known only to her, was taking them to Paris.
Lady Diana wrote three witty volumes of memoirs and tried to keep up with her social life to the last. She insisted on remaining Lady Diana Cooper, rather than using her title Lady Norwich. She grumbled that, "It's no fun being old. A lot of friends are dying and those that aren't are losing their marbles. It's really my profession now, visiting the marble-less."
Her biographer, Philip Ziegler, wrote, "Even at the age of 18 she could not enter a room without being noticed or leave it without causing a sense of loss, and at 88 she can still command the attention of a crowded room."
The Times of London called her "the vital spirit of a vanished age."
Or, as Lady Diana said in her late 80s, "I am very conscious of having had a wonderful life."
Her survivors include a son, John Julius, the second Viscount Norwich.