She was a woman who captivated men. They fluttered round her like moths attracted by a candle – “a figure of unusual glamour and mystery”, according to novelist and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare.
His aunt Priscilla remained so for decades, as Nicholas revealed on Tuesday night when he came to the Royal Oak, Marlborough, to talk about his newly-published biography of her.
And wow the audience at the White Horse Bookshop event with the sensational secrets he has discovered almost by chance about a woman who spent the war years in Nazi-occupied France, a secret agent with the resistance so it was supposed.
But in fact the aunt he originally met in the early sixties at her husband’s mushroom farm on the Sussex coast – they were a delicacy few enjoyed then – and watch the TV set in her bedroom, had a dramatic hidden past.
She had swopped identities after her failed marriage to an impotent French viscount and had been questioned by the Gestapo in an internment camp, not raped in a concentration camp as one source suggested.
And she had then had love affairs with a string of men in her bid to remain safe, the final one, however, with Otto, the code name for an Abwehr Colonel, real name Colonel Hermann Brandl, who dined her at Maxim’s in Paris and bought her dresses in Schiaparelli and Patou.
“His role in military intelligence was to oversee the systematic plunder of France and the transportation of French art collections to Germany, cherry-picking the best paintings and sculptures for Goering and Hitler’s private collections, seizing paintings from apartments deserved by Jews who had fled,” Nicholas told the stunned audience.
When Nicholas informed his mother about her sister’s activities, she replied: “Nothing would surprise me in the war. Absolutely nothing. It’s a question of survival. I am sure you would have collaborated if you had wanted to live.”
He accepted that his beautiful aunt was no traitor but faced the dilemma of many learning how to stay alive in a country they thought would by German dominated forever.
“Priscilla was one of remarkably few English women who have lived in Paris through the Occupation – perhaps one of fewer than 200,” added Nicholas.
“She learned what it was to be faced with decisions that her family and friends in England never had to confront, and yet which they judged others or having made.
“Her story is not about an elite coming to terms with Fascism, but about ordinary women especially – adjusting, screwing up, developing survival skills of a deeply primitive and totally understandable, if ruthless, kind.”
By October, 1943 some 85,000 French women had children fathered by Germans at a time when there was a dearth of available men, nearly two million Frenchmen prisoners in Germany.
According to the historian Hanna Diamond: “The prestige of the stranger, the hint of perversity and adventure, the persuasive white dress uniform of a Luftwaffe pilot, the dinner in sumptuous surroundings – a German boyfriend offered immediate and sold advantage.”
And Nicholas quoted the memorable words of Joseph Paul-Boncur, France’s representative in Switzerland, to his mistress, a woman of charismatic liability who had seduced Mussolini.
“When I think of your lovely body, I don’t give a damn about central Europe.”
Oscar-winning actor Robert Donat’s desire for his Darling Priscilladimples
How Priscilla had been pursued by the Oscar-winning actor Robert Donat before she embarked for France – and after -- is also detailed in Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, published by Harvill Secker at £18.99.
Donat’s remarkable intensity is shown in a folder of letters Nicholas found in a chest that stood in Priscilla’s bedroom when he watched TV there.
Writing in green ink, Donat declared: “Darling Priscilladimples,
“I wish I could undress you very slowly, very, very slowly indeed, and then be wonderfully sweet and kind to the wounds on your tummy, and dress you again in exquisite black-market undies, including sheer silk stockings, and send you back home safely to your mammie and grannie with a copy of Peter Quennell’s latest drivel – just to show you how platonic my love is for you.”