Cooper, Alfred Duff, first Viscount Norwich 1890-1954, politician, diplomatist, and author, was born at 9 Henrietta Street, Cavendish Square, London, 22 February 1890, the fourth child and only son of (Sir) Alfred Cooper by his wife, Lady Agnes Cecil Emmeline Duff, sister of the first Duke of Fife. His father, who came of a family long established in Norwich, was a popular and successful London surgeon. His mother had been twice previously married. While still a child he acquired from his sisters a love of poetry, a gift for memorizing, and the habit of declamation. He was educated at Eton where he achieved no special prominence and after a year abroad went up in 1908 to New College, Oxford.
His mother by then had retired into secluded widowhood and his three sisters had married. His Eton friend, John Manners, introduced him to Clovelly Court, near Bideford, where he stayed every summer from 1908 to 1914, and where he met the more gifted and vigorous of his contemporaries. They cured him of a tendency to dilettantism and aroused in him the ambition to secure the richest prizes which life had to offer. This ambition was not, it is true, very apparent during his first two years at Oxford. He made a few pugnacious speeches in the Union, profited much from the guidance of his tutor, H. A. L. Fisher [qv.], but in the end obtained only second class honours in history (1911).
After two years spent mainly in Hanover and Paris he passed into the Foreign Office in October 1913. Many of his dearest friends, including John Manners, were killed during the early stages of the war and it irked him to be tied to a civilian job. In July 1917 he obtained his release from the Foreign Office and, after a period of training, joined the 3rd battalion of the Grenadier Guards in time for the offensive. On 21 August 1918, in the Battle of Albert, known as the battle of the mist, he led his platoon with such skill and gallantry that he was cited in dispatches for splendid leading and was appointed to the D.S.O. On demobilization he returned to the Foreign Office.
In 1919 he married Lady Diana Olivia Winifred Maud Manners, daughter of the eighth Duke of Rutland, and one of the most beautiful women of her time. In her he found a dazzling and valiant companion, who watched over him with intelligent devotion until his death. At their house at 90 Gower Street, where they lived for seventeen years, they would entertain the survivors of his own generation together with some of their older friends, such as Augustine Birrell [qv.], Edwin Montagu [qv.], Maurice Baring [qv.], Hilaire Belloc [qv.], Lord Beaverbrook, and (Sir) Winston Churchill. Duff Cooper's ambition to enter Parliament was stimulated by these associations and by the fact that, on being appointed private secretary to the parliamentary under-secretary in February 1922, he was regularly attending debates in the House of Commons. The difficulty was finance. In 1923, however, Lady Diana obtained a rewarding contract to play the leading part in The Miracle in New York. On 31 July 1924 Duff Cooper, who had never been a natural civil servant, resigned from the Foreign Office and in October of that year he was elected Conservative member of Parliament for Oldham. On 15 December he delivered an impressive maiden speech which immediately placed him in the forefront of the back-benchers. In January 1928 he was appointed financial secretary to the War Office, but lost his seat in the general election of 1929. He was consoled by the birth of his son, John Julius, on 15 September 1929. He devoted the leisure to working on his biography of Talleyrand which, when published in 1932, earned universal acclaim.
In March 1931 a by-election occurred in the St. George's division of Westminster. Certain Conservatives, with the encouragement and support of Lord Rothermere [qv.] and Lord Beaverbrook, decided to put up an independent candidate as a protest against Baldwin's leadership of the party. Duff Cooper volunteered to stand as the official Conservative. After a spirited campaign, which attracted much public attention, he won by 5,710 votes and retained the seat until he resigned it in 1945. In September 1931 he resumed his former post as financial secretary to the War Office; in June 1934 he was promoted to financial secretary to the Treasury; in November 1935 he became secretary of state for war and a privy counsellor.
During the abdication crisis in 1936 Duff Cooper was one of the two cabinet ministers whom, with Baldwin's approval, King Edward VIII consulted. Realizing that His Majesty's resolve could not be shaken, Duff Cooper begged him to postpone his marriage for a year and meanwhile to be crowned. The King felt it would be wrong to go through so solemn a ceremony as the coronation without letting his ultimate intentions be known: this advice he therefore rejected.
In May 1937, when Chamberlain succeeded Baldwin as prime minister, Duff Cooper was, to his surprise and pleasure, offered the post of first lord of the Admiralty. Meanwhile he had been able to complete his life of Haig, undertaken at the request of the executors, in two volumes (1935-6). Duff Cooper enjoyed being first lord. He got on well with the naval staff, he grappled with the problem of the Fleet Air Arm, and he strove to put the navy in readiness for a war which he saw to be inevitable. Chamberlain, with whom he was never on terms of ease or confidence, did not support these endeavours. Duff Cooper, having abandoned his initial trust in the League of Nations, had fallen back on the two classic principles that Great Britain must be the natural enemy of any power seeking to dominate the Continent, and that it was a mistake to have more than one major enemy at a time. Thus, although he was not opposed to an agreement with Italy, he was convinced that any compromise with Hitler would prove unworkable. When, therefore, the Czechoslovak crisis arose in the autumn of 1938, he found himself at variance with Chamberlain and the majority of his colleagues. It was with difficulty that he obtained their approval to the mobilization of the Fleet which took place on 28 September. When two days later Chamberlain returned from Munich, bringing with him the terms of his agreement with Hitler, Duff Cooper was unable to share the general relief and jubilation. On 3 October, in a speech which shocked the country and profoundly impressed the House of Commons, he demonstrated that the Munich agreement was meaningless and dishonourable. Even among those who were most pained by this opinion there was admiration for his moral courage.
Immediately on his resignation he accepted an offer from Lord Beaverbrook to write a weekly article for the Evening Standard. Although he did not always share the political views of Lord Beaverbrook, he was accorded complete independence on the condition that the editor need not publish, although he must pay for, any article of which he disapproved. The winter of 1939-40 was devoted to an extended lecture tour in the United States. When in May 1940 (Sir) Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain, Duff Cooper was given the post of minister of information. On 26 June 1940 after the fall of France, he flew with Lord Gort [qv.] on a forlorn hope to Rabat with the intention of establishing contact with those French ministers, such as Georges Mandel, who were credited with the wish to continue resistance in North Africa. The French authorities had orders to prevent any such meeting, if necessary by force: Duff Cooper returned to London with his mission unaccomplished. In July 1941 he left the Ministry of Information with a sigh of relief and became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In August he left for the Far East on behalf of the War Cabinet to examine and report on the arrangements for consultation and co-ordination between the various British authorities, military, administrative and political, in those regions. After Pearl Harbour he was appointed resident cabinet minister at Singapore and authorized to form a War Council, but the appointment of Sir A. P. (later Earl) Wavell [qv.] as supreme commander very shortly afterwards made his post redundant. He arrived in England in February 1942 to find that his name had been associated with responsibility for the Singapore collapse. He consoled himself for this unfairness by working hard as chairman, from June, of the cabinet committee on security and by writing a romantic study of King David (1943).
In January 1944 he arrived at Algiers as British representative with the French Committee of National Liberation established in North Africa under General de Gaulle. In September 1944 his mission moved to Paris and on 18 November he presented his letters of credence as British ambassador. During their three years' residence at the embassy Duff Cooper and Lady Diana sought by their tact and hospitality to heal the wounds left by the war and the aftermath of Vichy. Duff Cooper's aim had always been to secure a treaty of alliance: at first his efforts were hampered by the incompatibility existing between de Gaulle and Churchill: it was not until March 1947 that the treaty was finally signed by Bidault and Ernest Bevin [qv.] at Dunkirk. When, at the end of 1947, he lost his post as ambassador he had the satisfaction of knowing that the main purposes of his mission had been achieved. He was appointed G.C.M.G. in 1948 and raised to the peerage as Viscount Norwich, of Aldwick, in 1952.
The remainder of his life after his retirement was devoted to literature and to entertaining his friends at his house at Vineuil near Chantilly. His ingenious fantasy Sergeant Shakespeare as well as a selection from his poems were published in 1949. In 1950 came his novel Operation Heartbreak. His remarkable autobiography Old Men Forget appeared in 1953. A few weeks later, on 1 January 1954, he died when on a voyage to the West Indies. His body was landed at Vigo and buried at Belvoir Castle, the home of his wife's family.
Duff Cooper possessed a striking personality. Although too reserved to win popularity, and too proud to court it, he influenced his contemporaries by the force of his courage, the vigour of his principles, and the distinction of his mind, his manners, and his discourses. He was choleric in argument and pugnacious in debate; yet in his later manhood he was never, as some imagined, a fanatical conservative, since he regarded as barbarians all extremists, whether of the Right or the Left. Although his political ambitions waned in middle life, he never lost his zest for literature, travel, conversation, shooting, wine, and the society of gifted and beautiful women. Life has been good to me, he wrote in the last paragraph of his autobiography, and I am grateful.
He was succeeded by his son John Julius (born 1929) who entered the Foreign Service and resigned in 1964. A portrait of Duff Cooper by Sir John Lavery, painted in 1919, is at the Château de St. Firmin, Vineuil, Oise. There is a memorial tablet in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.
Duff Cooper, Old Men Forget, 1953
Diana Cooper, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, 1958, The Light of Common Day, 1959, and Trumpets from the Steep, 1960
Contributor: Harold Nicolson.