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Clarissa Eden, British Countess and Political Influencer, Dies at 101

Clarissa Eden, an elegant and well-connected insider among a British elite that shaped the country’s empire, stewarded its wars and presided over the onset of post-imperial decline, died on Monday at her home in London. She was 101.

Hugo Vickers, Ms. Eden’s friend and literary executor, confirmed her death.

Long before her marriage to Anthony Eden, a Conservative who became Britain’s prime minister, Ms. Eden had built an iconoclastic reputation that set her apart from her cohort of debutantes, traveling across Europe, studying art and philosophy, consorting unwittingly with Soviet agents and decoding secret messages at the Foreign Office in wartime Britain.

She was born into the Churchill family and, in a memoir published in 2007, recalled lunching with Winston Churchill — her Uncle Winston — as he allowed a pet cat to prowl the table to be fed. When she married Mr. Eden, then the foreign secretary, Churchill provided for her to celebrate the occasion at 10 Downing Street, the seat of prime ministerial power.

Winston and Clementine Churchill with the Edens, center, at their wedding in August 1952. Credit…PNA Rota/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

Yet, according to “The Goldfish Bowl,” a 2004 book detailing the lives of the wives of several British prime ministers, “Though she belonged to a family whose history had been entwined with the fortunes of the British state for centuries, politics had never interested her.”

Britons were interested in her, however; indeed, at midcentury, the country’s upper crust competed with Hollywood in public fascination. Ms. Eden’s marriage in 1952 at Caxton Hall register office in London drew crowds as big “as had cheered Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, Michael Wilding, up the same steps only six months before,” the book said.

“The Goldfish Bowl” was written by Cherie Booth, the wife of Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time, and Cate Haste, who also collaborated with Ms. Eden on her 2007 book, “Clarissa Eden: A Memoir — From Churchill to Eden.”

Both books chronicled encounters with a procession of global leaders including Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington and Nikita S. Khrushchev in Moscow. Ms. Eden recounted adventures with the so-called cafe society of writers and artists in Paris in the 1930s, and among the princely cliques of prewar Romania. In London, she was on friendly terms with prominent cultural figures, including the photographer Cecil Beaton, the filmmaker Alexander Korda, the publisher George Weidenfeld and the artist Lucian Freud.

Even during World War II, her life seemed touched by a wry sort of whimsy. With her uncle leading the nation, she lived for a time, she said, on the top floor of the renowned Dorchester Hotel, where accommodations were less costly than those on lower floors because of the threat of Nazi bombing. By day she decoded telegrams in the Foreign Office basement.

By the time her husband became prime minister, in 1955, a year before the Suez crisis that came to define his premiership, Britain was entering a different era, though the ruling class still moved in glittery circles. “You were perpetually in evening gowns, tremendous evening clothes — tiaras and God knows what, and long gloves that had to be buttoned up,” Ms. Eden was quoted as saying in “The Goldfish Bowl.”

At the same time, the blue-collar deference that had sustained the country’s rigid class system had begun to weaken. Ms. Eden drew adverse press coverage when she asked Maud Butt, the wife of a farmworker, to refrain from hanging out her laundry to dry across a path at Chequers, the prime ministerial country retreat in Buckinghamshire.

“When we had foreign visitors, we used to take them walking around, and that was one of the places we walked,” she said. “And then one day there was suddenly this washing line across. I said, I thought very nicely, ‘Would she mind the washing not being there?’”

Ms. Butt declined the request, and her story appeared in the left-leaning newspaper The Daily Mirror, drawing a swarm of reporters to Chequers to seek out other examples of Ms. Eden’s purported highhandedness. But “there was no further evidence of Clarissa’s alleged imperious ways,” Ms. Booth and Ms. Haste concluded in their book.

Anne Clarissa Spencer-Churchill was born on June 28, 1920, the youngest child of Lady Gwendoline Bertie, a daughter of the seventh Earl of Abingdon, and John Strange Spencer-Churchill, a stockbroker and decorated military veteran who was the younger brother of Winston Churchill. She had two elder brothers, Johnnie and Peregrine.

She went by several titles over the years. After her husband was knighted in 1954, she was known as Lady Eden, and when he was ennobled as the Earl of Avon in 1961, she became the Countess of Avon.

The couple had no children, and Ms. Eden died without immediate survivors. Mr. Eden, who had suffered enduring health problems, died in 1977.

Ms. Eden attended fee-paying schools but completed her education as a teenager without formal qualifications. At that time, young women of her station were expected to play the part of debutantes, whose “season” of balls and social events culminated in being presented to the royal court.

By most accounts she took a more iconoclastic route, hobnobbing with artists, adventurers and aristocrats in Paris and studying art in London before returning to the debutante circuit. At one event — the Liberal Ball — she danced with Donald Maclean, a Soviet agent who, along with Guy Burgess, defected from Britain to Moscow in 1951 to avoid being unmasked.

Maclean “complained that I was not a proper Liberal girl like the Bonham-Carters and the Asquiths — I was too smart,” Ms. Eden wrote in her memoir in 2007. “It turned out that he wasn’t a proper Liberal boy, either.”

Despite her lack of formal academic credentials, she studied philosophy at Oxford University under such intellectual luminaries as Isaiah Berlin and Maurice Bowra. Antonia Fraser, a British historian, said Ms. Eden was known as “the don’s delight.” For a time she was a music and theater reviewer for the British version of Vogue magazine.

In 1946, she was seated at a formal dinner next to Mr. Eden, who was more than two decades’ her senior. At the time, he was still married to his first wife, Beatrice, with whom he had two sons: Simon, who was killed in action with the Royal Air Force in 1945, and Nicholas. (A third son, Robert, died shortly after birth in 1930.) Mr. Eden separated from his first wife in 1946, and their divorce was finalized in 1950.

He and Ms. Eden married in 1952. Since Mr. Eden was a divorcé, the marriage drew criticism from the Anglican Church of England, but also from the novelist Evelyn Waugh, a onetime potential suitor of Ms. Eden’s and a convert to Roman Catholicism, who castigated her for abandoning the Catholic faith.

“He disapproved so strongly that the curtain fell on our relationship,” Ms. Eden wrote in her memoir.

The Edens met with Queen Elizabeth II, left, and Prince Philip, right, at the Edens’ house in Barbados in 1966. The couple wintered frequently in the Caribbean and made annual trips to Paris to buy books and paintings and have lunch with Charles de Gaulle.Credit…Associated Press

For all her worldliness, she was unprepared for her new role as the spouse of a high-ranking politician.She was unaware, for example, that she had access to an official, chauffeured car. “All dressed up in her tiara and long evening dress, she would normally drive herself to embassy functions in her own little car,” Ms. Booth and Ms. Haste wrote.

Mr. Eden served as prime minister for less than two years, between 1955 and 1957, brought down by a combination of recurrent illness and the Suez crisis, when the United States forced Britain, France and Israel to end an invasion of Egypt following President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for Western oil and trade.

The combination of America’s readiness to use its diplomatic and financial muscle to bigfoot Britain, and Mr. Eden’s consequent humiliation, have been widely depicted as the twin harbingers of the decline in British influence.

Historians have debated whether Ms. Eden encouraged her husband to act over-boldly in the Suez crisis, and there is little doubt that she felt closely involved in it. “For the past three months I have felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room,” she told a gathering of Conservative Party women.

The crisis left Mr. Eden weakened, politically and physically. He and Ms. Eden retreated to the Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, owned by her friends Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, and his wife, Ann. Their choice of such an exotic destination kindled resentment in 1950s Britain. But Ms. Eden insisted that “if we didn’t go to Jamaica, he was going to drop down dead.”

When the couple flew back, it became clear that their tenure at 10 Downing Street was drawing to a close.

“Returned to find everyone looking at us with thoughtful eyes,” Ms. Eden observed in her diary in December 1956. The following month, she and her husband drove to the royal estate at Sandringham in Norfolk to meet Queen Elizabeth II for the constitutional formality of offering his resignation. Ms. Eden was 36.

“I was pleased to leave politics, and that we could have a marriage without all the tensions, plottings and shenanigans of political life,” she said in her memoir. Her husband went on to write several volumes of memoirs and “remained energetic,” she wrote, “playing tennis, traveling, writing, farming.”

The couple wintered frequently in the Caribbean and made annual trips to Paris to buy books and paintings and have lunch with General de Gaulle. After her husband’s death in January 1977, Ms. Eden promoted biographies of him to help restore his reputation.

“She sees herself as the keeper of Anthony’s flame,” Ms. Booth and Ms. Haste wrote, “and would wish that his career and reputation be seen by history not solely through the prism of Suez.”

Ms. Eden’s interests led her to travel to remote places as well as to take up scuba diving. But back at home in her later years, in her well-appointed “salon,” she would share her memories of a Britain that is starkly different from today’s.

Anna Schaverien and Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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