As a child in London, Lesley Blanch and her parents were often visited by the Traveller, a mysterious Russian, who enthused the young Lesley with Siberian stories and tales of his daring-do. This passion for Russia and things Russian never left her: the ‘Love of my heart, the fulfilment of the senses and the kingdom of the mind all met here.’
Lesley Blanch was born in London in 1907 into a cultured family. She learned to read when she was very young and at the age of seven started collecting books on Siberia; she was educated mostly from her books and by her father who took her to museums and galleries from an early age, rather than by school which she loathed and where she was reported to daydream. When she was seventeen she went to Paris for the first time and lost her virginity to the Traveller in a train which she pretended was the Trans-Siberian Railway. After leaving Paris she went to Italy to study, and on returning to London joined the Slade School of Fine Arts where she studied painting. But her youthful passion for Russia soon crystallized into an adult obsession and in the 1930s she became one of the first people who had an interest in history and literature, rather than in politics, to go to the USSR.. She believed that everyone has their own moment in time, remote from the present, and that this moment is a fixed point in eternity which people reach sooner or later and it is this moment which fully expresses them and to which they know they belong. She believed her own identity was enmeshed in nineteenth-century Russian and when she was called a ‘Russian soul’ by Russians she wrote ‘no compliment could be dearer to me.’
She wrote several free-lance articles about her travels in Russia, but in 1937 settled back in London as Features Editor of Vogue where she wrote about everything except fashion and where she remained until 1944. During the war she also wrote for the Ministry of Information.
Her first unsatisfactory marriage was dissolved in 1939, but she wrote ‘what has suitability to do with the emotions?’; sometime during the war she met Romain Gary whom she married in 1945. Gary the elegant Russian-born French novelist, who subsequently won the Prix Goncourt, was part of the Free French and after the war he joined the French Diplomatic Service; they lived in Bulgaria, Switzerland and America and travelled widely in Mexico, Guatemala, North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran. She did not feel that her own writing was adversely affected by her marriage to Gary, but she did find the diplomatic life and its endless meals somewhat irksome, feeling that she was Eating for France. Gary eventually left Blanch for Jean Seberg and in 1962 they were divorced. Blanch based herself in Paris but continued to travel, working in Hollywood for a year for the director George Cukor.
She never felt that she belonged in England, or anywhere in Europe, and would only ‘dart in and out’ to see her mother to whom she felt very close. It was only when her marriage to Gary broke up that she fulfilled her childhood dream of going on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but instead of the romantic journey she had envisaged with the Traveller, she found herself with a woman from Intourist, as the Traveller had told her ‘Granting our wishes is one of Fate’s saddest jokes’
Her first book, The Wilder Shores of Love, about four women, Isabel Burton, Jane Digby, Aimee Dubucq de Rivery and Isabelle Eberhardt all of whom were enthralled with the east, was written in New York and published by John Murray in 1954. She became very friendly with Jock Murray and would drink sherry with him in Albemarle Street before crossing over to the Ritz where she would sit in the afternoons at a corner table correcting her proofs before having some frivolous rendezvous in the evening. She published four other books with Murrays before going to another publisher: The Game of Hearts, Harriette Wilson’s memoirs (1955), Round the World in 80 Dishes(1956), written for a small child who had once cooked her lunch, The Sabres of Paradise, (1960) about the nineteenth century Caucasus and the hero Shamyl, who personified freedom-fighting, taking on autocracy and tyranny single-handedly, and Under a Lilac Bleeding Star (1963) about her own and other people’s travels. She always regretted her move from Murrays, which was over a book Jock Murray did not like, and for the rest of her life missed them, wanting to think of herself as a ‘Jock author’. She was a perfectionist who wrote and rewrote and always got her copy in on time, but was understanding of the occasional need to have her flowery prose curbed.
The Nine Tiger Manwas published in 1965 and the book she considered her best, Journey into the Mind’s Eyein 1968. This is sub-titled Fragments of Autobiography and it explains her passion for Russia and her encounters with the Traveller. During the 1970s she wrote Pavilions of the Heart(1974) and a biography, Farah- Shabanou of Iran(1978) which she was slightly ashamed to admit was paid for by the Persian Royal Family. She stayed in the British Embassy in Tehran to do her research but was also happy to ‘slum it’ and travel rough; she had an ability to make friends with a wide range of people and was a totally loyal and honourable friend who although she could be waspish, never bad-mouthed people. Her mild ferociousness masked a sentimentality and she had a self-deprecating way of referring to herself as ‘Darling Self’ ; she could be coquettish and was full of charm, exuberance and vitality. After Gary left her she had various passionate liaisons which appealed to her romantic nature but she never had another long-term relationship; she learned to deal with this enforced solitude bravely, partly by becoming enamoured by cats and by being an excellent correspondent to her friends. Her cats Mildred and Kuçuk became the most important people in her life and much of her money is being left to Animal Welfare.
In 1983 her biography of Pierre Loti was published and in 1989 From Wilder Shores, subtitled the tables of my travels, a book about the food she had eaten round the world. Romain, un regard particulierwas published in French in 1998. This was a well-received tribute to Gary but although she wrote it in English she did not want it published in English as she felt it was too personal and not literary enough. Her spoken French was never fluent, although she had a feeling for the nuances of written French. Towards the end of her life she began writing her autobiography in a desultory way. She had a wide-ranging interest in music being as interested in contemporary music as the sound of whales in the ocean and gypsy music and very esoteric classical music. She was deeply cultivated and multi-talented, designing her own tapestries, doing endless drawings which she sent to friends and being a green-fingered gardener; she had a great sense of humour and could be very witty and although she could appear prim she was actually fairly improper.
She and Gary had bought an apartment in the South of France near Menton, and she remained at Garavan, seven minutes by train from the Italian border, in a house surrounded by greenery for the rest of her life. In 1994 her house burned to the ground and she lost all her possessions; she managed to escape and rather than move elsewhere she determined to rebuild the house. Some of her friends think that it was the fire which gave her the determination to keep on living.
Independent November 1998