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  (Alfred) Duff Cooper (1890–1954), by Man Ray, 1930s (Alfred) Duff Cooper (1890–1954), by Man Ray, 1930s
Cooper, (Alfred) Duff, first Viscount Norwich (1890–1954), diplomatist and politician, was born at 9 Henrietta Street, Cavendish Square, London, on 22 February 1890. His father, , was a fashionable London surgeon who specialized in the sexual problems of the upper classes and was celebrated for his skill, discretion, and conviviality. Dr Cooper in 1882 married Lady Agnes Cecil Emmeline Flower (1852–1925), sister of the first duke of Fife. Lady Agnes was an adventurous lady who had already eloped with two husbands; one of them she deserted, the other died. The marriage produced four children who survived to maturity, three girls and finally Duff (as he was always known: the name Alfred was never used).

Education, Foreign Office, and marriage

After unhappy passages at two preparatory schools Duff Cooper went to Eton College, where he enjoyed himself greatly without achieving any particular distinction. His prodigious memory and precocious literary skills enabled him to gain respectable academic results without too much hard work, and the same proved true at New College, Oxford, where he got a second-class degree in history (1911) and narrowly missed a first. More importantly, to his mind at least, at Eton and Oxford he made close friends among a group of young men who were intelligent, cultivated, notably self-indulgent, and for the most part high-born. With them he learned to drink too much, gamble for stakes higher than he could afford, and pursue beautiful women—tastes which he cherished throughout his life and which brought him vast pleasure. Almost all these friends were to die in the First World War.

After two abortive efforts, Cooper passed into the Foreign Office in October 1913. When war was declared he was working in the commercial department; neither this, nor the contraband department in which he also served, entertained or stimulated him. He did not actively seek to escape from the Foreign Office to do military service, but when in June 1917 he was released to join the army he welcomed the opportunity. ‘I am not afraid of death’, he wrote in his diary at the time, ‘though I love life and should hate to lose it’ (Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, 61).

This nevertheless seemed the most probable outcome, for the life expectancy of a subaltern in the Grenadier Guards was short indeed. Cooper spent only six months at the front, but this was long enough for him to prove himself exceptionally courageous, resourceful, and a natural leader of men. In the allied advance on the Albert Canal in August 1918 he acquired both a minor wound and, most unusually for a second lieutenant, the DSO. He left the army with relief but also with great distinction.

Cooper returned to the Foreign Office, shone, and after a period in the Egyptian department became private secretary to the parliamentary under-secretary. Far from satisfying him, this promotion merely fed the appetite he had been nurturing ever since he became a diplomatist: to leave the Foreign Office and enter politics. Only a lack of money held him back. Salvation came through his wife. On 2 June 1919, in spite of much initial opposition from her family, he had married Lady Diana Manners [see ], formally daughter of the eighth duke of Rutland but in the view of most people, including herself, child of the notorious philanderer and literary eminence Harry Cust. Lady Diana was one of the great beauties of the age and a woman of striking intelligence and wit. Their marriage was sublimely happy if by conventional standards irregular. Duff Cooper was endlessly promiscuous, and his wife endlessly tolerant, secure in her certainty that, however often he might stray, she was unchallenged as the most important woman in his life.

Politician and biographer

Lady Diana was eager to see her husband launched on a political career, but her financial resources were equally limited. Then, in 1923, she was engaged to play the part of the Madonna in Max Reinhardt's extravagant pantomime The Miracle. The rewards for her work were substantial, sufficient to embolden Cooper to leave the Foreign Office. In July 1924 he resigned; within three months he had been adopted as Conservative candidate for the two-member constituency of Oldham and returned triumphantly with a majority of several hundred over the Liberal candidate, Edward Grigg, and of 13,000 over the sitting Labour member.

It was quickly clear that Cooper was not for long to remain a humble back-bencher. His maiden speech—on the Egyptian question—was a spectacular success; ‘Brilliant’ said H. A. L. Fisher, who followed him in the debate, ‘perfect in form and distinguished by a liberality and generosity of spirit’ (Charmley, 46). He was soon accepted as one of the more formidable debaters and orators among the younger Conservatives and was mentioned with such figures as Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan as a coming man on the liberal wing of the party. In January 1928 he was appointed financial secretary to the War Office—not the job he would have chosen, but fortunate for him in that his easy-going secretary of state, Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, was happy to allow him a considerable degree of independence. If the Conservatives had remained in power he would probably soon have won promotion, but he was to enjoy little more than a year in office; at the general election in the spring of 1929 Labour became the largest party and Cooper was one of the many Conservatives who lost their seats.

Defeat had its consolations. Duff Cooper had long been attracted by the personality and career of Talleyrand, and resolved to devote some of his newly gained leisure to writing a biography of the French statesman. Rarely can subject and author have been more satisfactorily matched: Cooper shared Talleyrand's scepticism, his broadness of vision, his intelligence, his dislike of cant, and, above all, the pleasure he got from the more civilized features of social life. Cooper wrote slowly, but with considerable panache and elegance, and rarely needed substantially to revise his earliest draft. It was 1932 before the book was published, but it was then received with great enthusiasm, has been constantly reprinted, and, though not the fruit of prolonged historical research, is still considered one of the most illuminating and enjoyable of twentieth-century biographies.

Success carried its own hazards. The executors of Earl Haig's estate were inspired by it to invite Cooper to take on the official biography of the field marshal. The assignment was financially rewarding but not suited to Cooper's talents; when it appeared in two volumes in 1935 and 1936 it was widely criticized for being inadequately considered and being biased in favour of its subject. The years in opposition, however, bore other fruits; in September 1929, after ten years of marriage, Diana Cooper produced a son, John Julius. He was the only child.

War Office, Admiralty, and resignation over Munich

In March 1931 Cooper returned to the House of Commons after a by-election in the St George's division of Westminster. No one doubted that a Conservative would be returned for this seat, but the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, had many enemies in the party, notably the empire free traders backed by the press barons, lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, and these were running an ‘independent Conservative’ candidate, Ernest Petter. It was a bitter campaign, marked by Baldwin's denunciation of the press barons as wanting ‘power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’. At the end of it Cooper emerged triumphant with a majority of nearly 6000.

Within a few months Cooper was back in office, once again at the War Office, as under-secretary to the aged and fainéant Lord Crewe. He shone sufficiently to earn a transfer in June 1934 to the Treasury as financial secretary, traditionally accepted as a staging post on the way to the cabinet. This brought him into close contact with the then chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, who, according to Sidney Herbert, ‘valued your judgment and wise reticence’ and was ‘full of optimism about your future’ (Charmley, 77). But Chamberlain also saw reason to warn him to be less vehement in his denunciations of Nazi Germany. Cooper had recently visited Germany, had attended a Nuremberg rally, and had been appalled and alarmed by what he saw. He warned Churchill that Hitler was preparing for war and continually urged the need for rearmament at a time when this was unfashionable if not politically incorrect.

After the general election of November 1935 Cooper was appointed to the cabinet as secretary of state for war and was sworn of the privy council. He was one of the few cabinet ministers who Edward VIII felt was sympathetic to his cause in the abdication crisis of 1936. Cooper urged the king to avoid a confrontation with the government until after his coronation and was prepared to contemplate the possibility of a morganatic marriage, ideas which held no appeal for Baldwin and Chamberlain. Both temperamentally and politically Cooper felt himself increasingly at odds with the Conservative leadership, and he was pleasantly surprised when in May 1937 Chamberlain became prime minister and invited him to become first lord of the Admiralty. In this post he proved an unequivocal success: he relished the opportunities it afforded for high living aboard the official yacht Enchantress but also worked hard on the nuts and bolts of naval affairs and fought the navy's corner against the parsimonious chancellor of the exchequer, John Simon. Chamberlain increasingly viewed him as an indiscreet and belligerent firebrand, and Cooper was already largely isolated in the cabinet before the Munich crisis brought matters to a head.

In autumn 1938 Chamberlain returned from a meeting with Hitler bearing ‘peace with honour’ at the price of the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. In Cooper's view the peace would be only transitory and the dishonour so gross that he could not bear to be associated with it. On 3 October he denounced the Munich agreement in the House of Commons and resigned from the government. Arguments over the merits and demerits of appeasement continue to rage, but no one has ever disputed that Cooper's action was high-principled and courageous and involved great personal sacrifices, both political and financial.

On the back benches once more, Cooper joined the Conservative dissidents who were grouped loosely around the former foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. His opposition to the government was muted, and his weekly articles for the Evening Standard—his main source of income during this period—were more concerned with the need for a strong Anglo-French alliance at the heart of a united western Europe than with such issues as appeasement. When war broke out and Churchill joined the government, Cooper was offered no job; instead he left for the United States on an extensive lecture tour in which he propagandized vigorously for the cause of the democratic powers.

Office under Churchill

Among other things Cooper predicted that Hitler would attack through Belgium in 1940 and that Churchill would subsequently become prime minister. At the time the prophecy seemed far-fetched, but when it was fulfilled in May he found himself recalled to power as minister of information. It was not a task that he relished, and his discomfiture was made worse by the hostility of the press, who portrayed him as the enemy of free speech and an arch—if ineffective—spin-doctor. When he tried to establish the state of popular morale his investigators were called ‘Cooper's snoopers’ and the enterprise was generally derided; his term in office is best remembered for his outspoken arraignment of P. G. Wodehouse, who had made some singularly ill-advised but essentially harmless broadcasts on the German radio from Berlin. It was a great relief to Cooper when, in July 1941, he was appointed chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, traditionally the odd-job man of the cabinet.

Cooper's odd job took him to Singapore on an ill-defined mission which led to his appointment, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, as resident cabinet minister with responsibility for Far Eastern affairs. He was authorized to form a war cabinet but found neither the civil nor the military authorities disposed to accept his leadership and was pleased when Wavell's appointment as supreme commander made his continued presence in Singapore unnecessary. He had been given neither the powers nor the time to affect the situation but returned to Britain to find himself unfairly associated in the public mind with the defeats in south-east Asia and the abject surrender of Singapore. For the next eighteen months he was under-employed, serving as chairman of the cabinet committee on security but free to devote much time to his writing and to weekends at Bognor, where his wife busied herself with the running of a smallholding.

From this relative inactivity Cooper was rescued by an invitation to take on a task which was close to his heart and which was to occupy him for the rest of his professional career. In December 1943 he was appointed British representative to the French committee of national liberation in Algiers, on the understanding that he would be the first post-war ambassador in Paris as soon as events made this possible. His most urgent and enduring responsibility was to maintain a working partnership with the Free French leader, General de Gaulle, and in particular to patch up the often turbulent relations between de Gaulle and Churchill. Cooper found de Gaulle exceedingly difficult to deal with but considered Churchill almost equally impossible; it is greatly to his credit that at the operating level the relationship between the two governments remained more or less satisfactory.

Ambassador to France

In September 1944 Cooper moved to Paris, and on 18 November he presented his letters of credence as British ambassador. For the next three years, thanks in large part to the maverick brilliance of his wife, the entrée to the British embassy was one of the most sought-after privileges in the social and political world in Paris. It was complained, with some justice, that Lady Diana's glittering gatherings contained too few worthy trade unionists and civil servants and too many people who, because of their wartime record, should not have been received in an official residence. The fact remained that parties at the embassy were tremendous fun and that Cooper's obvious love of Paris and the French made him as popular as any British ambassador has ever been.

Cooper's views on global affairs were resolutely Euro-centric, and he was passionately convinced that a Franco-British alliance should be the corner-stone of British foreign policy. He did not find it easy to convince Churchill's government of this priority. When Labour won the general election of July 1945 Cooper thought it probable that he would swiftly be replaced, but the new foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, liked Cooper and thought that he was doing a good job. His work as ambassador was actually made easier by the change of administration. On 4 March 1947 his efforts were crowned by the signature of a treaty of alliance between Britain and France at Dunkirk. At the end of the same year he left the embassy, his passage being made less painful by the award of the GCMG (1948) and, in July 1952, his elevation to the peerage as Viscount Norwich, of Aldwick, Sussex, a choice of title which caused some adverse comment among the dignitaries of the East Anglian capital. He bequeathed to the embassy a large part of his extensive library, housed in a handsome room which he had persuaded the office of works to install.

Retirement and assessment

The Coopers' choice of a retirement home—to the dismay of the new ambassador, who would have preferred not to have had his predecessor so close to Paris—was the Château de St Firmin in the park at Chantilly. Cooper took on several business assignments, notably on the board of the International Wagons-Lits, but his main occupation was writing. During the war he had found the time to write the life of the Old Testament hero King David; now, in 1949, he added an imaginative and entertaining study of Shakespeare's early life, Sergeant Shakespeare. In the same year he published a selection of his own poems. His only novel, Operation Heartbreak (1950), was based on a real-life incident in the Second World War and was viewed unenthusiastically by the cabinet office, who tried to stop its publication on the ground that it breached security. Finally, in 1953, his autobiography, Old Men Forget, appeared, an eloquent, stylish, and in many ways revealing account of a life that was not totally successful in worldly terms but was never dull. By now his health was faltering. He had already suffered a dangerous haemorrhage in May 1953. At the very end of that year he embarked with his wife on the French liner Colombie on a cruise to Jamaica. On new year's eve he had another haemorrhage, and he died on board at 3.30 p.m. on 1 January 1954. He was buried five days later at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, the home of his wife's family. His son, John Julius, the writer and broadcaster, succeeded him.

‘I love the sunlight but I cannot fear the coming of the dark’ Cooper wrote in his autobiography (Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, 384). Courage and joy in living were the most conspicuous features of his personality; if he had had less of either he might have achieved higher office but his life would have been far less fulfilled. He can fairly be accused of an extravagantly short temper, self-indulgence, and an inordinate appetite for wine, women, and gambling, but he was never mean or in the least ignoble; at times, indeed, he showed true nobility. He was a great-spirited patriot, too proud to court popularity, too reserved to command it readily, but a man whose honesty, generosity, and public spirit were never put in question.

Philip Ziegler


priv. coll., Duff Cooper MSS · J. Charmley, Duff Cooper (1986) · D. Cooper, Old men forget: the autobiography of Duff Cooper (1953) · D. Cooper, The rainbow comes and goes (1958) · D. Cooper, The light of common day (1959) · D. Cooper, Trumpets from the steep (1960) · P. Ziegler, Diana Cooper (1981) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1954) · GEC, Peerage, vol. 14, p. 802


BL, diaries, reserved MS 94 · CAC Cam., corresp. and papers · priv. coll., MSS · UCL, school of Slavonic and east European studies, album relating to Czechoslovakia |  BL, corresp. with Lady Caroline Duff, reserved MS 94 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Margot Asquith · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · Herts. ALS, letters to Lady Desborough · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · Lpool RO, corresp. with earl of Derby · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook  



BFINA, news footage · IWM FVA, actuality footage · IWM FVA, news footage


M. Ray, photograph, 1930–39, NPG [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1938, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, c.1939–1940, NPG · C. Beaton, photographs · J. Lavery, oils, priv. coll. · D. Low, double portrait, chalk caricature (with Lady Diana), NPG · Quiz [P. Evans], mechanically reproduced caricature, NPG; repro. in Saturday Review, 141 (1926) · group photograph, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£ 14,303 7s. 0d. in England: probate, 21 April 1954, CGPLA Eng. & Wales