Friday, August 01, 2014

Best Exotic Kingdom - Philip Eade’s ‘Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters’

“I have done almost everything in life except two things. I haven’t had a son, and I have never come down in a parachute.”

Sylvia Brett Brooke, wife of the last “white rajah” of Sarawak, may have had a reputation for embellishing the truth, but it was decidedly well earned. This, after all, was a woman who inspired naughty nursery rhymes by her pal George Bernard Shaw (“She’ll have bells on her fingers / and rings through her nose, / And won’t be permitted to wear any clo’es”) and sent J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, scurrying for cover when he became the focus of her amorous attentions. In the chunk of northern Borneo her husband’s great-uncle had received for his services to the sultan of Brunei, she played hostess to the daredevil adventurer Richard Halliburton.

In Hollywood, she spurned Errol Flynn, whose plan for a film version of the original rajah’s exploits was, she decided, vastly inferior to her own. During her heyday, between the two world wars, she presided over a kingdom the size of England whose subjects greeted her arrival with 21-gun salutes and elaborate parades. Marooned in New York in 1941, with little to sustain her but hot dogs and gin, she was reduced to telling fortunes in a bar called Leon and Eddie’s, “where I was known as ‘Toots.’ ” Her novels and stories were published on both sides of the Atlantic, and she jotted down not one but two autobiographies. The second, the reviewer for The London Evening News observed, “could be an Evelyn Waugh novel.”

And yet, as Philip Eade makes clear in “Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters,” his suitably dishy account of her to-ings and fro-ings, she wasn’t lying about the importance of her failure to produce a male heir. The abdication in 1946 of Sylvia’s deeply diffident and unconventional husband, Sir Vyner Brooke, might have occurred even if a son had been on the scene, but the fecklessness of his three daughters certainly added to the melodrama surrounding the succession, which straggled on even after Sarawak became Britain’s last colonial acquisition. When one daughter married a popular band leader (or, as the scandalmongers had it, Princess Pearl became the bride of the King of the Hot-Cha), 5,000 fans assembled outside the London registry office. Not to be outdone, another daughter married a wrestling champion known as “the Gable of Grapple” — who, alas, quit the ring to open a fish-and-chips shop. After their divorce, she transferred her affections to a Spanish orange importer with, her mother remarked, “the face of a meditative goat.” The daughter who succeeded in marrying a respectable (albeit much older) aristocrat became, upon his death, “the merriest of widows.”

Not that the parents of Leonora, Elizabeth and Valerie Brooke were models of propriety. As the daughter of the “fabulously well-connected” Reginald Brett, the second Viscount Esher, Sylvia spent her childhood trying to attract the attention of a father who found his two girls “tiresome” and doted, to an alarmingly intimate degree, on the youngest of his two sons. Sylvia’s sister grew up to be the Bloomsbury painter known simply as Brett, who found her niche in D. H. Lawrence’s domestic entourage, but it wasn’t until Margaret Brooke, the estranged wife of the second rajah of Sarawak, became the Bretts’ neighbor in the countryside that Sylvia found a way of distinguishing herself (if mostly disapprovingly) in her father’s estimation. After a “strange, shy luncheon,” at which, she reported, they “discussed lavatories and plumbing,” she became engaged to the rani’s son, Vyner, who, despite his social ineptitude, would soon demonstrate that he’d inherited his father’s talent for extracurricular dalliance.