‘Is Lees-Milne a homosexualist?’ This was the first question put to me by the Editor-in-Chief of the Literary Review when I met him back in the 1970s, at a Private Eye lunch. Disconcerted at hearing one of my special heroes – whom I revered for his architectural writings, his acutely observed diaries and his enchanting sympathy – described in such stark terms, I mumbled incoherently: ‘Er… he’s married, you know, to Alvilde, a friend of Vita Sackville-West’s, actually – whereas Jim, of course, was a friend of Harold Nicolson’s. So, um…’.
When James Lees-Milne died, aged eighty-nine, in 1997, I continued to dodge the question in my obituary of the great man for the Daily Telegraph. Subsequently, Bevis Hillier twitted me in the Spectator for giving no hint that Lees-Milne ‘preferred his own sex’. (Not strictly true: we did mention that J L-M had been tempted mischievously to entitle his biographical sketches, Fourteen Friends, ‘Bent and Straight’.) But I took the view that as Lees-Milne had not ‘come out’ in his lifetime (a phrase which would have filled him with horror), and had indeed been fastidious in eliminating allusions to his homosexuality (‘bisexuality’ would be more accurate) in his published diaries, a discreet restraint was what he would have wished. Rather like Sir Noël Coward’s not wanting to upset the old ladies who flocked adoringly to his matinées by flaunting his homosexuality in public, one felt that Lees-Milne would prefer not to have his private life paraded in front of his adoring fans in the National Trust (where he was the pioneering secretary of the Country House Scheme). What the National Trust ‘Navy’ will make of Deep Romantic Chasm one shudders to think.