Interview With William Crack

Based On Interviews With Gavin Bryars On 20 July 1980 And Peter Dickinson On 25 April 1983

[2351 words]
The interview here is a conflation of what William Crack told Gavin Bryars and Peter Dickinson

PD Did you have to audition to get the job of Lord Berners’ chauffeur?

WC He didn’t try me out. I was recommended to him really. It was in London that I got the job and we used to go backwards and forwards to Rome every year. We went all over Europe – Salzburg and Munich where the festivals were. We went to the Munich Festival for a month the year after the First World War then on to his house in Rome. The year afterwards we started going to Salzburg every year.

PD What was the journey like then?

WC Mostly we took the car from London to New Haven. In those days you’d drive it onto a platform then a crane would lift it over onto the boat and put it on the deck. Our car was too big to go underneath. We had to empty the petrol tank – the AA would see to it. In those days you’d get punctures on the road and carried two spare wheels. If you got more than two you’d have to mend it on the road. It used to take six or seven days to get to Rome. The roads weren’t like they are now.

[Now talking to GB]

When I first worked for Lord Berners I was living mostly in London. He had a flat in Half Moon Street, near Shepherd’s Market, and I used to keep the car at Hampstead. Then he and Gerald Robartes1 bought a house in Chesham Place which they shared. After I was married Lord Berners bought a garage in Lowndes Mews and I lived in the flat above. Then they sold Chesham Place, or the lease ran out, and he bought the house in Halkin Street.

We were in Rome when Mussolini took over in 1922.2 He surrounded the city and we couldn’t go out for three days. The fascists would pull you up in the street if you didn’t wave your hat when they marched by. As a precaution I locked the car away and took the float out of the float chamber so the fascists couldn’t steal it!’

I took him to Rome the first year I joined him in an old Lancia car with only two wheel brakes and I had to drive over the Alps. We came back along the coast – Florence, Spezia, Genoa, Monte Carlo, and then right the way back to Paris, where he used to stay at the Ritz. It took five or six days in those days. It was a lovely drive but we were unfortunate with that car. It had a cracked chassis in Rome and then, near Paris, the shaft broke in the axle and the back wheels came off on the road. We had to get somebody to tow us to a garage and put everything on the train. The car was ready in about three days. Before that he had a Fiat and an Italian driver. Lord Berners never learnt to drive himself though he took a lot of interest in cars.

GB Did he buy the Lancia in England?

WC Yes: it cost about £1500. After that he bought a Rolls, probably 1921, and he had a specially designed body. Park Ward was the builder: it was called a false cabriolet and you could life the top off and fold it back. Underneath the front seat of the car there was a tool box – with a Rolls they give you every spanner that you’d need for every nut on the car. He had a place made there to put the [clavichord]. I used to take him down there while it was being made by Dolmetch at Haslemere.3 It hadn’t got any legs on. You just pulled it out and carried it. We used to take it out when we were on the road, or in hotels, to take up to his room to do a bit of practising.

PD So he didn’t play it while driving along?

WC No, he couldn’t get at it. [laughs]

[Now to GB]

WC The Italian Automobile Association had a show at the Villa Borghese and I got first prize for elegance. There was a photograph in the Corriere della Serra, a tiny blue rosette for me and a gold medal for Lord Berners.

He had a manservant in Rome, Tito Mannini, who used to do the cooking and there was also a maid. Lord Berners had a garage built at the side of 3 Foro Romano – before that I had to use a public garage at the Via Varese, where he had his previous house: there was a pool at the back with fish in.

In 1922 we went to Munich for a month for the Festival and stayed at the Continental Hotel. We met little Willy, the Kaiser’s son, who used to stay there.

I’ve also been within four or five yards of Hitler. Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley…her sister [Unity] used to go with Hitler. Lord Berners went to lunch with Hitler, not at the Braunhaus but at a restaurant in Munich.4 I had to wait for him outside surrounded by all the police. When Hitler arrived he had his two guards. I used to take Lady Mosley – she was Mrs Guinness then5 – to the Braunhaus where Hitler’s place was.6

GB Lady Mosley sends her best wishes and so does Lady Diana Cooper.

WC They all dressed up rough once – at least they thought it was rough – and went to the market in the Caledonian Road. She [presumably Lady Diana] found she hadn’t any money and asked me to lend her £5. She paid me back – took me some time to get it!

The year I got married she did The Miracle with Max Reinhardt at the Salzburg Festival and my wife helped to dress her and look after her. I’ve got a photograph of her standing in front of the car with Reinhardt and his secretary, Rudolph Kommer.7

One year, after Salzburg, we went right through the Dolomites to Venice, where the Coopers had a flat. There was a carnival and they all went: I volunteered to go as a sort of page and stand on the stairs. But when they got there they were not allowed in with masks on. Royalty were present and no-one was allowed to wear a mask in front of royalty.

We nearly always came back via Paris, where we might stay for a week.8 The valets, maids, couriers and chauffeurs used to eat in a couriers’ room at the Ritz, sitting at a long table. There would be 70-100 down there for lunch or dinner – two sittings and marvellous food.

Lord Berners was very good with his staff. When we went out he’d always make sure I had somewhere to stay.

GB How many people did he have working for him?

WC Here in Faringdon he had a butler, footman, two housemaids, cook and kitchen-maid and five or six in the garden. He used to have a butler in London but he didn’t live at Faringdon until after his mother died.

I nearly left him in 1930 when the slump was on. My wife and I had to leave the London establishment so he just had a butler and somebody in the kitchen. Then when things got better I went back to the garage and everything turned out all right.

GB So he came back to Faringdon permanently after his mother died in 1931?

WC That’s right. It was always his house but he let his mother have it for her lifetime. After he inherited he had a house at Stanley in Shropshire which he sold. I went up there once or twice. It was in bad condition and needed a lot doing to it. Water had to be pumped up to the house.9

GB Do you remember his mother well?

WC Oh, yes. She was very nice. She once came out of the front door, saw he’d got GB on the car, and asked him why he put his initials there! She married a second time to Colonel Ward Bennitt, who was a funny old chap with a monocle. He never used to think we did enough work – that sort of thing. Their chauffeur told me that. They wouldn’t put me up when I first came down here. They wouldn’t have anything to do with chauffeurs so I had to stay with the butler [in a cottage in the town]. The staff lived in the house on the top floor.

She was a Foster and had a cousin who lived at Apley Park [Shropshire] - Major James Foster.10

GB How did Berners get on with Colonel Ward Bennitt?

WC I wouldn’t know – I don’t expect he did. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t come down here so much.

GB When his mother was alive how often would be come to Faringdon?

WC Weekends for a week occasionally. Not every weekend, then we’d be four months abroad. He was usually in England at Christmas. We used to go all over the place but I never went to Ireland or Greece: he went by train and boat.

GB Do you remember his mother’s chauffeur?

WC She had two. The first one was a coachman called Watkins, when they had horses and carriages, then he took over with their first car, a Daimler. After Watkins died Barrett came from Newbury in 1923. They had a butler called Smith.

Lord Berners had a butler called Marshall. I think he got himself into trouble: he’d done a bit if fiddling and he used to drink quite a lot. 11 Mrs Nelson was the cook in London.

PD What were the painting expeditions like?

WC He always used to go out painting in Italy - he was a good painter. He used to have a girl in Rome who sat for him and I sat for him too – the two portraits of me were done at Foro Romano. I’d have to sit there for hours and used to read books. He’d go out from Rome to Frascati, Castel Gandolfo round the lakes where the Pope lives,12 Lago di Nemi, Sorrento and Naples. Once when out painting we nearly got run in when two motorcyclist policemen thought we were spies!

PD He must have enjoyed having a good time?

WC I’ve taken him to many different people. On my job in those days you were out half the night waiting at parties such as Lady Cunard’s. I once took Sir Thomas Beecham to Venice then on to Rome. I remember the conductor, Constant Lambert. They didn’t talk to me. I used to take them about.

GB I’ve heard that he sometimes used to wear masks when he was in the car.

WC He had a lot of masks but he never used to put them on outside – at least I never saw it when driving.13 Funny thing, when we were out somewhere driving, he’d put on a different hat when going through a town. And he always used to smoke a lot of cigars.

Faringdon is quite small compared to some of the big houses like the Duke of Sutherland’s, where they used to treat us very well. You’d be called in the morning with a cup of tea and that sort of thing. There was a big long table and forty-five of us sat down to meals. In some places they put chauffeurs up and in some they didn’t.14

During the twenty years I was with Lord Berners we went to Rome every year, sometimes twice, but the last time was 1938. We’d booked for 1939 – I’ve still got the AA papers upstairs – but the war came.

I was with Lord Berners for five or six months when he was in Oxford early in the war then I left. He did something to do with blood transfusion but I don’t know much about him after that. In 1940 I went to training school in Southampton and got bombed out and then I was with Vickers for four years. After the war was over Lord Berners couldn’t afford to keep me so I went into the Military College of Science as a fitter. I jacked the car up, left it in the garage and put it ready. I used to see him occasionally, but he never seemed quite the same and I think he wasn’t in very good health.

PD What did people think of him in Faringdon?

WC I don’t think he was here much really. He got on all right and was very good to the people here.

PD They didn’t think he was crazy?

WC I didn’t mix much with the people in those days. You see at weekends we used to go all over the country staying at different places. I wasn’t at home all that much

PD Were there funny things that happened?

WC Once we were stopped by police in Germany for speeding and Lord Berners told me to make out that we didn’t know what they were talking about. They wanted to fine us and he said: ‘Cannot understand’. They got fed up and let us go!

PD When you got into scrapes like that it must usually have been helpful that he actually could speak the language?

WC I think he could speak four languages. But the funniest thing was when we were going along the road from Florence to Rome, approaching a railway crossing and they shut the gate just as we got there. [laughs] He was going to throw a stone at the woman at the gate! I told him not to - we might have got run in or anything! They kept you waiting sometimes half an hour for a train to go through in those days.

 

[1] Gerald Agar-Robartes Clifden, 7th Viscount.

[2] On 28 October 1922 Benito Mussolini marched on Rome and installed a fascist government two days later.

[3] Crack actually said harpsichord. Some people talked of a piano. Add full details from letter from Dolmetch about clavichord specially made.

[4] Presumably the Osteria Bavaria. See Diana Mosley, A Life of Contrasts, 122-3.

[5] She married Sir Oswald Mosley in 1936.

[6] This testimony in his interview with Gavin Bryars is so important that the transcript is unaltered. Crack is simply an impartial witness. Did Berners ‘have lunch with Hitler’ or simply go to the restaurant where Hitler usually ate? See also interviews with Lady Mosley and Robert Heber Percy.

[7] Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), Austrian American director and actor who founded the Salzburg Festival with Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1920. The Miracle, starring Diana Cooper (1892-1986), ran internationally for some twelve years. They would have been at Salzburg in 1923 when Berners’ Vales Bourgeouises for piano duet were performed at the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music.

[8] On 24 April 1924 Berners’ opera Le Carosse du Saint Sacrement was premiered at the Champs Elysées along with Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat and Henri Sauguet’s La Chatte. Crack saw it.

[9]

[10] Add details from PD RSA paper

[11] Robert Heber Percy told Gavin Bryars that Marshall claimed to have spent fourteen years with Lord Berners and was recommended by him. In fact Crack said his tenure was only five or six years and when Marshall went on to his next job a grand lady from Sussex telephoned to say: ‘What do you mean by recommending this man? He drinks like a fish!’

[12] See Berners’ painting of the Pope’s summer residence, p???

[13] This was confirmed in Crack’s interview with me.

PD Another legend was that he would wear masks when being driven along. Did he actually do this?

WC I don’t really remember. I was driving and wouldn’t see what they were doing in the back of the car. I know he had masks but I never saw him actually wear one.

[14] The Duke of Sutherland at Dunwellan Castle? in Scotland. Crack also mentioned many other visits to Gavin Bryars – Motegufoni, when Sir George Sitwell was still there; Mrs Keppel, near Florence; Marchesa Cassati near Sorrento; Lady Wimborne, Walton’s friend, at Ashby St Leger; Max Reinhardt near Salzburg; Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst; the Duke of Wellington at Stratfield Saye; Gerald Robartes in Cambridgeshire; Mario Pansa in Rome, whose family had a house near Reggio on the road to Milan, the; Max Beerbohm at Rapallo; Lady Juliet Duff at Wilton; Edward James in Sussex;