A figure who materialises in many memoirs of the inter-war period is the writer and artist Edward James. According to his biographer:
Edward [James] freely admits to homophile leanings at various times in his life: he has been in love with men as well as with women. There is a sequence of sonnets he wrote some time in the mid-forties invoking a journey with a loved one from Oregon down through California and Arizona to the Mexican border; one line reveals that the companion is a man. Another attachment mellowed into a friendship that has lasted thirty years. In Hollywood he moved a good deal in gay circles [and frequented gay bars] and was once arrested by, he says, an agent provocateur from the Vice Squad who fortunately couldn't make the charge stick. But he insists that he never wanted to consummate a relationship with another man. He likes women too much.
James was reputed to be the illegitimate son of Edward VII. He was born on 16 August 1907, nine months after the King’s 19 November visit, one of many, to West Dean Park, Chichester, the home of Mrs and Mrs William Dodge James. However, James himself had letters to his mother from the King which established to his satisfaction that she was not the King’s mistress but his daughter. Edward James was just five when William Dodge James died , leaving him little more than the admittedly extensive land, 10,000 acres, of West Dean Park. The boy eventually went to Eton—where he was a contemporary, but no great admirer, of Harold Acton’s—and to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1926. There, his contemporaries included Tom Driberg and, for a year, W.H. Auden. James co-edited the Cherwell with John Betjeman, who was at Magdalen. It was James who published Mount Zion, Betjeman’s first poetry collection.
He left Oxford after only six terms and went off to Berlin, where he stayed with Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. There followed a calamitous stint as an Honorary Attache in Rome. For a start, contrary to all the best diplomatic traditions of discretion, he arrived there in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Then he rented not one but two fourteenth-century mansions: the Palazzo Celesia and the Palazzo Orsini, one on either bank of the Tiber, connected by two bridges and a small island. Guests sometimes dined in one and took coffee in the other. Worse, however, than this ostentation, which left the Ambassador himself in the shade, was the incident which led to James's leaving the service in October 1930. One Sunday when he was on duty, intelligence came through that, contrary to the terms of the Locarno Treaty, the Italians had laid down the keels of three warships at La Spezia. Somehow, in his coded message to London, James managed to say that there were three hundred such ships. As a consequence, Ramsay MacDonald had to cut short his weekend at Chequers.
Back in London, Edward James took a lease on 35 Wimpole Street. Having developed a taste for working artists, he started hanging around Rex Whistler's studio. It took the intervention of Oliver Messel to persuade him that his presence there was actually stopping Whistler working. His new friends in London included the likes of Edith Sitwell, Lord Berners and Noël Coward. At twenty-one he inherited a fortune from an uncle who had died before he was born. In 1930, the James Press, his own publishing house, brought out his own Twenty Sonnets to Mary, which, according to his biographer, consisted of poems ‘evidently written three years earlier to a girl (or boy) who otherwise seems to have left no enduring impression’. The following year, he married Tilly Losch, an actress and dancer he had first seen three years beforehand in Noël Coward’s revue This Year of Grace. Having assumed he was queer, and yet gone ahead with the marriage regardless, the bride was pleasantly surprised by his sexual ardour. As for that suspicion of queerness, ‘She remained half-convinced of it, or alternatively chose to revive the suspicion as soon as she tired of the marriage’. Indeed, on the second day of married life, when their train to San Francisco stopped at Reno, she said, ‘Let’s have the divorce now’. On their honeymoon in Hawaii he kept photographing a beach boy whom she later found in their room. Her husband claimed the boy was helping him close their trunk.
Edward James published his own Hawaiian poems in The Next Volume (1932), with illustrations by Rex Whistler. He paid for Les Ballets 1933, a programme of three ballets, to showcase his wife. It included L’Errante, designed by Pavel Tchelitchev. However, the marriage came to its end in 1934 in a very messy divorce, with public accusations (infidelity, homosexuality) on both sides. James's novel The Gardener Who Saw God (1937), published with a cover design by Pavel Tchelitchev, contained a character based on the author’s friend Lord Berners. (The fictional Lord Bullborough has ears built on to his house.) When Tchelitchev brought his American boyfriend Charles Henri Ford to West Dean, Ford made every effort to get James interested in surrealism. Although it seemed, at first, that he might not succeed, before long James had become one of surrealism’s most discerning and enthusiastic collectors.
Friendships ensued with both Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali. Magritte painted a double portrait of a rear view of James in his celebrated work Le Reproduction Interdit. In 1938, Dali and James visited Sigmund Freud in St John’s Wood, with Dali’s painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus, which belonged to James. Freud’s only comment was ‘Warum die Ameisen?’ (Why the ants?). James also owned Dali’s Autumn Cannibalism, plus many Magrittes and works of other modernist masters. West Dean being too big, he had let it in 1937 and moved into nearby Monkton House. Originally designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the rather dull neo-Georgian box was utterly transformed by James into a surrealist fantasy palace. The furnishings included the famous Mae West sofa, designed by Dali specifically for Monkton. Three of Edward James’s own surrealist poems would be set to music by Francis Poulenc.
Edward James’s poetry collection The Bones of My Hand was published by the Oxford University Press, subsidised by the author, in 1938. Stephen Spender gave it a hostile review in the New Statesman. James subsequently believed that it was this one review that put an end to his literary career. Attracted to California by Gerald Heard and Vedanta, James became a disciple of Swami Prabhavanandra; but as a millionaire, he was not taken seriously by Heard. Christopher Isherwood became a friend in this milieu, and in Hollywood James met up with many European refugees, including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and visitors, including Somerset Maugham. Although James did nothing warlike in the war, typically he gave rise to persistent but unconvincing rumours that he was a secret agent.
Source: Philip Purser, Where Is He Now? The Extraordinary Worlds of Edward James (London: Quartet, 1978), pp.38, 35, 37.