Philip Sassoon was (among other things) an exotic, an aesthete, a plutocrat, a politician, a patron of the arts, a society host and an arbiter of taste. Harold Nicolson once wrote that he was ‘the most unreal creature I have known’. No one was really close to the slender, feline Sassoon, with his hooded eyes and clipped, sibilant voice. Unreal, unknowable people are hard to write about, especially if their private papers are sparse, as Sassoon’s seem to be. Damian Collins is an MP who sits for the same constituency as his subject, and in this no-nonsense biography he focuses on Sassoon as a politician.
Virginia Woolf once described Sassoon as an ‘underbred Whitechapel Jew’. This was both unpleasant and wrong. Sassoon was born in Paris in 1888, but his great-grandfather was a Baghdad Jew who set up in Bombay and made a vast fortune. His mother was a French Rothschild and he was educated at Eton. Aged twenty-three he inherited a baronetcy and a fortune of £1 million from his father, whom he succeeded as MP for Hythe.