The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie

Lord Louis and Edwina Mountbatten were one of the most famous couples of the 20th century. “Dickie,” as he was called by friends, was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Southeast Asia during World War II, and the last viceroy and first governor-general of India. Edwina was the richest heiress in the world, a legendary bon vivant, and royalty in her own right, albeit as a descendant of the Native American princess Pocahontas. Both were endowed with sexual and romantic appetites too great for only one partner to fulfill, and it is the adulterous aspects of the Mountbattens’ relationship that form the heart of Andrew Lownie’s entertaining joint biography.

From the moment they married, Dickie and Edwina were a media sensation. On their honeymoon tour of the United States in 1922, the couple made a short film with Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplin, watched Babe Ruth in the second game of the World Series, and visited President Warren G. Harding. Decades before other, higher-ranking royal couples sparked American fascination with the British monarchy, Dickie and Edwina enthralled the former colonials. “Lady Mountbatten wears her skirts just about as short as you see them anywhere on Broadway,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The Second World War changed the couple, thrusting them from idle rich into positions of great responsibility. Like a proto-Diana, Edwina threw herself into volunteer work, taking charge of an ambulance brigade and visiting hospitals where she spoke to every single doctor, nurse, and wounded soldier. After the war, Dickie was appointed viceroy of India, where he served in the crucial years leading up to, and during, partition, with Edwina by his side. She played a major role in helping to reduce communal tensions after partition led to violence and a refugee crisis, while also—it is rumored—carrying on an affair with Jawaharlal Nehru.

Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the onetime viceroy and vicereine of India, with Mahatma Gandhi in 1947. Lady Mountbatten is rumored to have had an affair with the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Seemingly most of the book up until Edwina’s untimely death in 1960 at the age of 58 is consumed with detailing her many affairs. Among her conquests were Hugh Molyneux, known as the “best-looking man in society”; fellow heir and champion polo player Stephen “Laddie” Sanford; broadcasting pioneer Bill Paley; and possibly Douglas Fairbanks. When a British tabloid insinuated a relationship between her and the singer Paul Robeson, King George V, aghast that a member of the royal entourage might be romantically involved with a black man, pressured Edwina to sue. While Edwina claimed never to have even met Robeson (whose wife said Edwina was “just about the one person in England we don’t know”), she did have an affair with Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, the bisexual, Grenada-born lover of Cole Porter and Noël Coward.

Whether Dickie knew what he was getting into before he married Edwina, the two worked out an arrangement that was to last for the rest of their lives together. Dickie had an “aristocratic view of marriage,” Lownie writes, “separate from love.” Though Dickie had a few affairs of his own with women (among them Yola Letellier, a French socialite whose May-December marriage to a newspaper baron inspired the novella Gigi), Lownie’s research suggests that the cause of the couple’s sexual frustrations was Dickie’s hidden homosexuality. It wasn’t until after his 1979 murder by the Irish Republican Army that Mountbatten’s love of uniforms and military pageantry (by the time he retired in 1965, he had served his country for over half a century in 35 different jobs) was pointed to as the possible manifestation of a repressed sexuality which earned him the military nickname “Mountbottom.” According to one acquaintance interviewed by Lownie, Dickie was “a crashing snob, interested in genealogy, loved uniforms and decorations—all typical of a gay man of that generation.” Upon his retirement, The Sunday Telegraph noted that he had an “infinite capacity for minor intrigue,” another quality thought to be found in older, closeted gay men. A “raving queen” is how the satirical magazine Private Eye referred to Dickie after the assassination, and neighbors later remarked upon the procession of handsome young men and soldiers seen visiting Mountbatten’s London home in the years after Edwina died.

Dickie had an “aristocratic view of marriage, separate from love.”

Most of the evidence for the claim of sublimated homosexuality is based on hearsay and anonymous sources, though the sheer accumulation of them over the decades indicates that Mountbatten was at the very least not entirely straight. Lownie interviews a man who claims to have been Mountbatten’s lover for the last eight years of his life, as well as two men who claim that Mountbatten engaged in sexual relations with them as teenagers. He has also obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, F.B.I. files on Mountbatten, which as early as 1944 reported him to be “a homosexual with a perversion for young boys.” (It should be noted, however, that such reports were often filled with fact-free innuendo.)

In his dotage, Dickie served as a mentor to Prince Charles, a role he had earlier played for Charles’s father and his own nephew, Prince Philip, the latter referred to by Lownie as “the son Dickie had never had.” He was also involved in some rather less savory activities, namely, an aborted coup to overthrow the government of Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. As recently depicted in The Crown, a cabal of right-wing newspaper barons and businessmen driven to panic over the country’s economic situation and labor unrest approached Dickie in 1968 with the harebrained idea of installing him as the head of a military junta, a scheme in which he appears to take an active interest. Lownie’s biography lends little credence to this portrayal of Dickie, who described the proposal as “Dangerous Nonsense” in his diary.

Lady and Lord Mountbatten meeting Babe Ruth on their honeymoon tour of the U.S.

That the Mountbattens’ relationship could weather so many infidelities testifies to their strong emotional bond, and so it’s not surprising Dickie would find himself listless after Edwina’s death. Following his retirement, Dickie was offered the job of governor-general of Rhodesia, just as the rebel, white-minority regime was on the verge of declaring its unilateral declaration of independence from Britain. It was a challenge he uncharacteristically rejected. “I had the world’s most remarkable woman as my wife who was an indescribable help to me in contacts with people and a support and comfort to me when exhausted and facing terrible problems,” he regretfully told Wilson. “I do not believe any Governor can do the job properly without a wife.”

James Kirchick is the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age