SMOKE SIGNALS
or
THE BIOGRAPHY OF A SMOKER


In later life, every time Evelyn Waugh was asked to be photographed, he reached for a cigar. But when did this start? Did Evelyn smoke at Oxford? The first image of him smoking may have been taken when he was a teacher at Aston Clinton. On 22 February 1926, the 22-year-old mentioned that proofs had been sent to him by a photographer from Tring. He wrote that they were amusing, in particular the ones in ‘ordinary clothes’ in which he looked like a ‘popular preacher’. Below is one of the photos taken when he was wearing non-ordinary clothes.

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Evelyn Waugh in February 1926, taken by an unknown photographer from Tring

The pictures of Waugh taken when he was married to Evelyn Gardner do not show him smoking when in the company of She-Evelyn. But a painting made of him by Henry Lamb after Waugh had newly finished the manuscript of Decline and Fall, shows that he still favoured the pipe. This painting is now lost, probably due to the messy split up of the Evelyns in 1930.

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Copyright: estate of Henry Lamb

The above is similar to the photo taken of Waugh when he was teaching. In fact let's see that more clearly…

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Left: Evelyn Waugh in February 1926, taken by an unknown photographer from Tring. Right: Copyright: estate of Henry Lamb

Yes, the hand has been taken out of the pocket and has got to work. At it's true vocation.

Next, there is the more famous painting of Waugh by Henry Lamb, commissioned by Waugh's ardent admirer, Diana Guinness, in 1930. It shows that he still favoured the pipe. This painting is not lost, hence the high quality, colour reproduction.

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Copyright: estate of Henry Lamb

I made use of that image (with permission) when visiting Appledore to give a talk on EW in 2015:

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Evelyn obviously liked this pipe-posing, for the p-p-poseur used it again in a publicity shot made after he'd become a bestseller through Vile Bodies. That being the book he finished off while staying at The Royal George in Appledore after She-Evelyn had left him.

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Note the V in the background. Again this photo is similar to Waugh's immediately previous pose. So again let's bring that out more clearly:

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Left: Copyright: estate of Henry Lamb

He's square-on to the photographer by this time in his career. Very sure of himself. So sure of himself that he no longer needs to be pictured with the tools of his trade.

It was in 1930 that Evelyn Waugh changed his signature, as detailed on another page on this site. It may also have been around this time that he switched from pipe to cigar, never to return. Below is a scene from
Black Mischief, written in 1931 and 1932, involving the book's protagonist and his girlfriend:

'Prudence passed through the shop, out and up. The atmosphere of the room was rank with tobacco smoke. Basil, in shirt-sleeves, rose from the deck to greet her. He threw the butt of his Burma cheroot into the tin hip-bath which stood unemptied at the side of the bed; it sizzled and went out and floated throughout the afternoon, slowly unfurling in the soapy water.’

Basil and Prudence have sex.

‘Strips of sunlight traversed the floor as an hour passed. In the bath water, the soggy stub of tobacco emanated a brown blot of juice.'

As I say, Basil and Prudence had sex.

Evelyn Waugh wasn't photographed much while travelling in the 1930s, but there is this advert that appeared in The Times in November 1938, shortly after he'd returned from a trip to Mexico, a few months before his commissioned, right-wing polemic, Robbery Under Law, appeared. Waugh wrote the copy of the advert, which, rather oddly, distances himself from the rich:

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Waugh wasn't photographed much during the war either, except when in uniform. The first time he was photographed smoking a cigar may have been while sitting in his library at Piers Court, I think in 1944 or 1945. John Howard Wilson, who uses the image as a frontispiece to his Evelyn Waugh: A Literary Biography 1924-1966, suggests only that it was taken 'after the Second World War'.

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A second photo was taken that day, with Waugh having stood up:

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A similar shoot was made in 1947, by the photographer, George Platt-Lynes. The photos may have been taken somewhere suggested by the photographer, as that was his style when photographing cultural celebrities around then. But the scenario essentially repeats the Piers Court shoot:

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Copyright: estate of George Platt-Lyne's. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

I can't quite make out the book that Waugh is resting his hand on. Perhaps it is there at the photographer's suggestion to symbolise Waugh's trade. Whereas the smoking box on the desk alongside has a cover which shows a picture of a pipe, plus other smoking accoutrements.

'Ce n'est pas une pipe.' As Magritte tells us.

G.P.-L: "Would you place your left hand on a book resting on the table?"

EW (picking out a book at random): "There we go.
Waste of Time by John Courteney Boot."

G.P-L: "The viewer will be thinking of it as
A Handful of Dust."

EW: "The viewer may be thinking of
Murder at Mountrichard Castle by John Plant. The viewer may be thinking it's a book of ridiculous pensées by Cyril Connolly. We have no idea what the viewer will be thinking."

And, following the barbed banter, the money shot…

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Copyright: estate of George Platt-Lyne's. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Here is another photo by George Platt-Lyne, taken in 1944 of Tennessee Williams. It looks like something from the pages of a 2021 issue of Valet.

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George Platt Lynes’s 1944 portrait of writer Tennessee Williams.Gelatin silver print, 7-3/8 × 9 in. From the Collections of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. © Estate of George Platt Lynes.

And this too from George Platt-Lyne's. It reminds one of the photograph of Alastair Graham - a nude and a rear-view - that Evelyn kept in an envelope for the rest of his life.

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Copyright: estate of George Platt-Lyne's. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Which makes it all the more 'important' to try and decipher what the book is that Evelyn Waugh is resting his palm gently on in the photographs taken by George Platt-Lyne. Is the fifth line of gilt on the spine decorative? If so, then the book, or at least the publisher of such a book in that style, should be apparent to the odd reader. Do study the spine in the photo below, and please let me know if you have any suggestions as to the book's title, however fanciful.

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Moving on. This next photo was taken in 1948 by Madame Yevonde. No hint of buttock to be glimpsed here. Unless the smooth curve of the bowler is to be so interpreted.

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Copyright: Estate of Madame Yeyonde. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Back to Piers Court. 1950. The hands still clasped. The suit a belligerent check. The cigar half-smoked and, we imagine, fully enjoyed.

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By the early 1950s, Waugh was a father of six children. Which impacted on his writing if not on his smoking.

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Below is Evelyn hiding from his family. Actually, the photo was taken in the splendid grounds of Lady Diana Cooper's house near Paris. And it was taken by Lady Diana's other great celebrity chum, Cecil Beaton. Waugh and Beaton had disliked each other since Evelyn had bullied Cecil at primary school, and Beaton, using the kind of large-format camera where you have to look vertically down the viewfinder, must have been in fear of Evelyn stepping forward and pressing the burning end of his cigar into the soft flesh on the back of his neck.

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Copyright: estate of Cecil Beaton. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Clearly, Cecil Beaton had really wanted that shot of his despised and formidable rival.

Time rolls on, all by itself. And Evelyn began to age as we all must do. Next, a photographer cornered 51-year-old Evelyn at home in Piers Court on the eve of the publication of
Officers and Gentlemen, in the summer of 1955.


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Getty Images. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

It would seem that the photographer managed to persuade Waugh to stagger out into his garden. Septimus, his sixth surviving child, was now several years old.

EW: "You don't smoke do you, boy?"

SW: "No, Papa."

EW: "Never mind. Not long to wait now."

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Getty Images. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

It was Tim Raisin who was interviewing Evelyn, who (I can imagine) was more interested in talking about smoking. According to Evelyn, the best cigar was either pre-sex or post-sex. A pre-sex cigar should be smoked while presenting the cigar in impressive profile to your partner…

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Getty Images. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

While the post-sex cigar could be enjoyed to the full, without giving your partner a second's thought.

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Getty Images. Used with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Officers and Gentlemen begins with Guy Crouchback and Ian Kilbannock watching the blitz while on the point of going into their London club. KiIlbannock goes to relight his cigar when the voice on an ARP warden shouts at him to 'put that light out'. "A preposterous suggestion," is Ian's spirited retort.

By the time this next photo was taken, Evelyn had moved his family to a house called Combe Florey in Somerset.

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This next photo too was taken at about the same time. What role did cigar-smoking play in his life by then? His correspondence is littered with remarks about cigars. Thanking friends for gift boxes. Complaining to others of their failure to provide him with cigars. This one is to his agent, A.D. Peters in 1957:

'Where are my cigars? What explanation do the Americans give of their beastly conduct. Have cigars been dispatched? When?
I do not mind the Americans putting this blurb on my book but they must send cigars.
I do not mind the Poles publishing short stories. My mind is on cigars.
I have no recent photograph of myself. Nor have I cigars.'

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Waugh more or less retreated to his library full-time. But it was at White's Club, at the age of 60 or 61, he confided to Christopher Sykes, his first biographer:

'My life is roughly speaking over. I sleep badly except occasionally in the morning. I get up late. I try and read my letters. I try to read the paper. I have some gin. I try to read the paper again. I have some more gin. I try to think about my autobiography. Then I have some more gin and it's lunchtime. That's my life. It's ghastly.'

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No mention of cigars there, but there is in the next anecdote, from autumn 1965, when Evelyn had just turned 62. He'd been driven to Christopher Sykes's house for lunch. Over to Sykes, from the ante-penultimate page of his Waugh biography:


'He hardly ate anything and only sipped at his glass of wine. He was looking old and had become slow in speech - a thing I had not noticed in him before. On arrival he was smoking a cigar which he threw on the carpet before sitting down, and did not seem to notice when my wife hastily plucked it up.'


Shall we refer to that as Waugh's last cigar? I think we could. Evelyn died a few months later.

Let's not be too hard on him. He smoked like a king when the smoking was good.







Notes

1) Thanks to Paul Gallagher for the George Platt-Lyne link, and to Tim Jones for the
Waste of Time joke, and to the Twitter exchanges yesterday that got me going on this. Sept. 3, 2021.

2) Thanks to Jeff Manley for the
Times ad.

3) There is room in this hastily written piece for more anecdotes and quotes. So if any come to mind, do let me know and I'll incorporate them