Illustrated Travel Diary, 1948
In 1910, when Stephen Tennant was 4 years old, he ran through the gardens of his family's Wiltshire estate, Wilsford Manor, and was literally stopped in his tracks when he came face to face with the beauty of the "blossom of a pansy." Thirty years later, so precious and high-strung that he sometimes took to his bed for months at a time, he was coaxed outside by a friend for a ride in the car on the condition that his eyes be bandaged, since passing scenery might make him too "giddy." Aubrey Beardsley, Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch -- believe me, Stephen Tennant made them all seem butch.
According to Philip Hoare, the author of "Serious Pleasures," the witty and amazing life story of this great sissy, Cecil Beaton was one of the first to encourage Tennant's eccentric vocation of doing nothing in life -- but doing it with great originality and flamboyance. Completely protected by class, Stephen Tennant couldn't care less what people thought of his finger waves, his Charles James leopard pajamas, his makeup ("I want to have bee-stung lips like Mae Murray") or his dyed hair dusted with gold. Who would dare criticize this "aristocratic privilege," this self-described "fatal gift of beauty"? As The London Daily Express, in 1928, so succinctly summed up Tennant's attitude toward life, "you . . . feel that condescension, indeed, can go no further."
Although many who knew Tennant later in life maintained that they "could hardly believe the physical act possible for him," the one real love affair of his adult life was with Siegfried Sassoon, the masculine, renowned pacifist poet old enough to be his father. Sassoon brought to their relationship "his fame, his talent, his position," while Tennant's only daily activities were "dressing-up" and reading about himself in the gossip columns. Looking at the photos of the two lovers in Mr. Hoare's book, Tennant posing languidly (vogueing, really), way-too-thin and way-too-rich, as Sassoon looks on proudly, even the most radical Act-Up militant might mutter a private "Oh, brother!" But the author makes us see that Tennant's extreme elegance was close to sexual terrorism, as it flabbergasted society on both sides of the Atlantic for half a century.