Kiss Myself Goodbye: The Many Lives of Aunt Munca, by Ferdinand Mount, Bloomsbury Continuum, 262 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1472979421
In a letter read out on RTÉ’s Dear Sir or Madam radio programme – decades ago now but hard to forget – a listener wanted to add to a recently aired discussion on secrets. She wrote about the shock of discovering their daughter was pregnant and the decision to send the girl away to stay with relatives. Over the following months, the letter writer built up a fake pregnancy for herself; in the final weeks she used a cushion to signal an impending birth. When the baby arrived, the older woman presented the child as her own and as far as she knew, no one had ever suspected a switch.
As long as there have been families there have been family secrets: concealed pregnancies, relatives hidden away in institutions, branches pruned from family trees. Don’t go examining your lineage if you don’t want to risk startling revelations. A “parental discrepancy”, for instance. Charles Dance was in his seventies when the Who Do You Think You Are? genealogist told him his father hadn’t died when the actor was four but instead disappeared to South Africa where he started another family. A kick in the heart, right there. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby received a similar body blow when a 2016 DNA test revealed the identity of his biological father (Winston Churchill’s private secretary Anthony Montague Browne).
Parental discrepancies are at the heart of Kiss Myself Goodbye, Ferdinand Mount’s bittersweet account of the life and lies of his extraordinary Aunt Betty, the wealthy “widow” who had married his father’s brother. Insisting on being called Munca (after a Beatrix Potter character), she featured largely in the childhoods of the Mount children, having them spend summers with her, companions for her daughter Georgie.
Munca liked ostentatious emblems of wealth and a good time: she had impressive country homes, famous friends, a chauffeured Rolls-Royce for getting about and a suite at Claridge’s that she liked to refer to as “the pub”. No one seemed to know where she had come from, or the origins of her fortune, which was vast. She had charming anecdotes that implied an exotic overseas childhood while appearing to have only a vague knowledge of any blood relatives she might have. As a child in the 1940s Mount thought her good fun and welcoming and “unlike anyone else I have met, alarming and warm at the same time, in an electrifying way”.
In 1957, while in London’s Café de Paris for a show, his aunt introduced Mount to the nightclub singer known as “the last of the red-hot mommas”. Ferdinand is going to be a writer, she tells her friend. “That’s swell,” the singer says. “I’ve always had a lot of time for the guy with the pencil.”
Had Munca known that her nephew would not only become a very successful pencil-pusher but would one day set about unravelling her tangled webs, she might not have continued to invite him into her life. Half a century later, tantalising doubts about this enigmatic relative set Mount off to research a “personal memoir that turned into a quest while I wasn’t looking”. In time he uncovered a “gallery of people in her life who were not who she said they were”. Eileen/Patricia/Betty/Munca had deliberately and cleverly obfuscated what she couldn’t conceal; and so, using a blend of traditional sourcing and current technologies, Mount serves us up all the facts he could find and also, inevitably, some supposition.
Diligently working backwards, he tracked down his aunt’s birth certificate. She was born in 1894 and was forty-two when she married Uncle Grieg (claiming to be thirty-two) and nearing fifty when she said she’d recently given birth to Georgie. Luckily for the author, when it came to Munca’s sister Doris, the official documents were in order. No mysterious antecedents in the Philippines or New York, as claimed by her sister; just a father, John William Macduff, a scrap metal dealer from “grimy, polluted” Sheffield whose family became destitute when he died from an occupational lung disease.
It seems Munca really did lie about everything. Mount eventually sums her up as a “twice- divorced, triply bigamous, four- or five-times married” woman with a “seven-times-married illegitimate son” whom she has passed off as her brother. Munca’s reinvention was a personal reset so audacious that you wonder how on earth she did it. And ask if those early miseries might have fuelled the Faustian ambition.
One thing is certain: Eileen the agile social alpinist did get herself to the heights she wanted to reach, along the way perjuring herself in court and somehow avoiding prison for charges of bigamy and obtaining money by false pretences. It’s all wickedly entertaining until you get to the parts about her children, whose lives were blighted by her deceptions. Until this point she’s just been lying, bettering herself, getting out, getting on; now the story darkens.
“Betty just went off to Cornwall and came back with a baby,” the author’s mother confided in a relative. Everyone had been surprised when Munca said she’d given birth to Georgie. There had been no mention of a pregnancy and, even though she’d shaved years off her age, Munca seemed well past the possibility of childbearing.
Eight or nine years later another child, Celeste, arrived from Canada “out of the blue, like a food parcel during the war”. The two-year-old had been adopted, everyone was informed, and Celeste soon became a much-loved sibling. Until suddenly she was gone, banished, and Munca was explaining “we just borrowed her to help her parents out”. All lies, Mount later learned; the child had been legally and fully adopted but – for reasons he could only guess at – had been sent back to Canada, after which her name was not to be mentioned. The author adds a foreboding note: “Even without Celeste, there is a ziggurat of lies to be propped up.” This is a reference to Georgie, to whom the book is dedicated, and also to Buster Baring (Munca’s son, randomly surnamed after the merchant bank).
Buster’s life is chronically bad but Georgie’s is worse. Personable and attractive, she had everything a young socialite required – but she was kept on a tight leash, “like a prize greyhound with an obsessive owner, petted and groomed and trained to a hair”. When she got engaged to the broadcaster David Dimbleby in 1962 there was an announcement in The Times and an interview in the Evening Standard. They were love’s young dream, intensely happy – until Munca abruptly ended it. Dimbleby had made clandestine inquiries about his fiancée’s birth cert and Mount plausibly concludes that his aunt then realised it was dangerous to have a journalist with inquiring ways within the family. Georgie’s happiness had been sacrificed to save face. One after the other, “her courtships were scuppered by the paternal veto, sometimes openly, sometimes by covert pressure”.
As Munca always maintained military levels of secrecy it’s not surprising that Georgie was nearing fifty before she first saw her birth cert and realised she had been adopted. Already psychologically scarred by Munca’s interference in her life, the revelation hurt her deeply and she came to hate her mother. Later on, her parents’ mean-spirited wills left her beholden to trustees, ensuring she would forever feel not just wounded but unloved too.
Did Grieg know his wife’s backstory? He may have felt the wisest course was to be indiscriminately credulous, to just believe all the stories as told. Mount floats the idea, adducing some anecdotal evidence, that his uncle may have been gay and content to park himself within a conventional marriage. Grieg’s money came from a successful shoe factory but the source of Munca’s wealth took time to root out and the disclosure provides one of many eureka moments in the book. Mount is skilled at conveying the adrenaline rush that comes from thrilling finds: one example is the “undeserved and unsought” luck he had in the London Library when, despite having taken down the wrong magazine and for the wrong year, he finds a pivotal clue.
It seems that once you start lying it’s difficult to stop. “Looking back now, I realize at last that Munca never told the truth about anything. She claimed to have borne a child whom she had adopted. She claimed not to have properly adopted a child whom she really had adopted. She denied the child whom she had borne and insisted he was her brother. She blotted out her marriage to one of the most dashing sportsmen in England. The human collateral damage she inflicted over the years is hard to calculate.”
Mount has shaped that mountain of research into this page-turner: a hybrid of memoir and detective yarn likely to send readers on to read his previous volume Cold Cream: My Life and Other Mistakes. The title of this new book is from a song popular in the 1930s. Munca deliberately kissed her old life goodbye; for poor Georgie, it was her sense of self that departed. Georgie, friend of his youth, did not stay in touch with Mount. She dropped friends and family and it’s pitiful that, in the last week of her life in 2015, the one person she asked to speak to was Celeste, the little sister last seen sixty years previously. And yes, they did get in touch. It’s enough to make a movie director think there might be a happy ending to this story after all.
But the guy with the pencil wasn’t finished. If the book ended there, it would have been a grimly humorous read, though still gripping. Mount kept on looking, and, in Kiss Myself Goodbye’s last pages – and you may need heart medication while reading this ‑ he reveals what a late, random online search for Celeste turned up. Suffice to say it’s an ending to make a director high-five a scriptwriter. Now cue the swelling music.
Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist.