Lady Diana Manners was a high-society wild child who tore through London with her glittering wit and legendary beauty. Before long, the whole world knew her name—but they didn’t know her most ruinous secrets.
Lady Diana’s life started out like many a rebel before her: In an extremely suffocating family. Her mother was Violet, Duchess of Rutland, who married the Duke of Rutland after securing her own reputation as one of the great beauties of her time. Yet Diana’s home life was far from functional. While her mother was artistic and bohemian on the surface, she ran the home like a nun.
The Duchess insisted that Diana follow strict house rules and made her keep her hair down like a child long into her teenage years, all while banning her from most social events. Above all, Diana’s mother was terrified of her little girl losing her “purity” before she could make a good match in society. As it happened, this was a recipe for disaster.
By the time she was old enough to debut in society, Diana was bursting at the seams to have any independence. Once she debuted, however, she was in for a grave disappointment. She had imagined full adults having the time of their lives, but quickly realized she was only surrounded by other sheltered girls like her—with most of them lacking her verve, bravery, and charm. The men were hardly better, and she was supposed to marry them.
Desperate to experience the life she knew was out there, Diana jumped off the deep end. After all, she had zero training in moderation.
One of the few people Diana did like anywhere near her age bracket was Raymond Asquith, son of British Prime Minister HH Asquith. Diana had grown up idolizing (and crushing on) Raymond, who was over a decade older than her and ran with a very fast crowd indeed. As soon as she could, Diana jumped in on the fun too, quickly forming “The Coterie” with Asquith and their other well-to-do friends. It turned out to be the beginning of Diana’s infamy.
The Coterie also sometimes called themselves the “Corrupt Coterie,” and the name was more than apt. What they got up to would make Diana’s mother gasp. One of their haunts was the very first nightclub in London, The Cave of the Golden Calf, and soon Diana was giving her chaperone the slip dancing all night with other men and women, not to mention taking taxi rides and necking with several lovers. Only, that was the least of it.
The Coterie also liked performing pranks and stunts all around London—some of them childish, some of them terrifying. With a motto to be "unafraid of words, unshocked by drink, and unashamed of 'decadence' and gambling," they went on treasure hunts, hosted lavish parties, and caused a great deal of monetary damage that they would then aristocratically insist on paying for.
To Diana and her new friends, they lived by a code, if a hedonistic one. To others, they were shallow, unthinking, and cruel; Raymond Asquith’s sister-in-law once wrote that their antics were “really suicidal to happiness". And Diana, as it happened, was the worst of them.
In the end, Diana far outstripped Raymond Asquith when it came to naughtiness. While he became a more moderating influence in the group, Diana—having gone so quickly from repressed childhood to full-blown adulthood—was soon going off the rails. The Coterie, Diana most of all, liked dabbling in substances, and particularly used chloroform recreationally.
One night at a dinner, Diana even proclaimed, “I must be unconscious tonight” and went off in search of “jolly old chlorers". Then again, there was a grave reality she was trying to escape.
Throughout this time, Diana was falling more in love than ever with Raymond Asquith. He too, shared feelings for her. But the pair of them were doomed to a heartbreaking end. As it happened, Asquith already had a wife, Katherine Asquith, and the trio were all friends together. Not wanting to step on toes, Diana stayed as far away from Asquith as she dared…at least for now. Instead, she began attracting the attention of another suitor entirely.
During her time with The Coterie, Lady Diana hadn’t just gotten scandalous, she’d also grown undeniably beautiful. She had a “blind blue stare,” and many men and women who saw her described her as goddess-like and electrifying. So it was no real surprise when the wealthy American finance man George Gordon Moore was so taken with the socialite, he swore to divorce his wife for her and began lavishing her with gifts. But these attention-attracting gifts had a big downside.
Moore wasn’t Diana’s only suitor, and her Coterie friend Duff Cooper was also continually pestering her with marriage proposals. Diana, for her part, glibly rejected Duff by saying she was “very decadent, and theatrical, & inclined to look fast—qualities no man likes in his wife". She was joking, of course, but with all the male attention on her, some people took her at her word.
Society naysayers began to whisper that she was merely a “scalp hunter” out to corrupt the young men around her. What happened next made matters ten times worse.
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In 1914, a horrific tragedy visited Diana’s doorstep. The Coterie, who had been continuing their dangerous antics and partying, finally got a harsh, fatal lesson. Actually, they got two. First, their friend Gustav Hamel perished in a daredevil plane maneuver, and then another member, Denis Anson, drowned during one of their cheeky midnight swims. But that wasn’t all.
By this time, no one was more synonymous with The Coterie and their pleasure-seeking ways than Lady Diana Manners herself, and the papers were quick to place the blame squarely on her shoulders. More than that, they erroneously claimed that Hamel and Anson had both died after trying to show off romantically for their Queen Dee.
It had crushing consequences: Suddenly Diana was persona non grata in high society, with people removing her name from guest lists and refusing to let her into their houses. Only, they didn’t know the truth.
Diana’s reputation in society was that of a bratty wild child—and it’s true she did much to uphold that reputation. There was one aspect of her life, however, that people had all wrong: She was categorically not out bedding every man she saw. While she rebelled against her suffocating noble family through partying, the fear about needing to keep her “purity” somehow stuck, and she kept her suitors at arm’s length.
In the end, though, all this sturm und drang about Diana was about to get washed away. Something much bigger and more destructive was coming.
The same year that Diana found herself as the society black sheep, WWI broke out. Suddenly, her life morphed into a true nightmare. She watched in horror as many of her male friends went to fight, powerless to do anything about it. Meanwhile, fears about the conflict ran through even the most hedonistic of her night clubs, and the very world changed before her. And then the worst of her terrors came true.
Soon, Diana’s beloved Raymond Asquith was called to the front too, and Diana couldn’t take it anymore. Breaking their years-long détente, she and Asquith met in secret at his training camp for one last goodbye. Although there was still no physical consummation of their feelings, they poured their hearts out to one another. Later, Asquith would write to her of that night: “Even in this foul and dingy inn the recollected glory of your beauty flings its unquenchable beam". Tragically, this would only make the news to come that much harder for Diana.
In 1916, Diana got the most devastating news of her life. Raymond Asquith had been killed just a year after going to the front—and the story of his death is now legendary. In a classic “British stiff upper lip” move, Asquith had been shot in the chest, but lit a cigarette to distract from how badly he was hurt so that his men’s attack on the enemy could continue. By the time the troop tried to carry him back to safety, it was too late.
Diana now felt all alone in the world—and that world was about to get a whole lot crueler.
In the midst of the conflict and her grief, Diana’s partying ways only grew more desperate and destructive. In particular, she began hanging out more and more with her wealthy admirer George Gordon Moore, who was now pressing his suit harder than ever. Moore would throw parties specifically for Diana and fill them with all manner of drink and racy art. Diana, for her part, would drink up and try to forget. Yet these nights were also laced with a dark secret.
Diana was certainly happy to accept any form of debauchery she could right now, but her relationship with Moore had grown creepy to the extreme. Because Moore’s financial connections gave him influence in the war efforts, Diana’s mother Violet was praying that he could prevent her son John from going to the front and a near certain end.
Diana, under her mother’s urging and in order to save her brother, had to seduce Moore for all he was worth. The results were deeply disturbing.
In truth, Diana despised fanning the flames of Moore’s lust, calling him “George Gordon Ghastly” and describing with revulsion his “straight black hair, flattened face, and atomic energy". Then the real crisis hit. One night, Diana’s mother let Moore sneak into her daughter’s bedroom at three in the morning. Although the girl wasn’t “compromised,” she wrote that Moore’s attempted seduction was “sullying…mutilating and scarring,” not to mention her trust in her mother was completely gone. As we’ll see, this had lasting effects.
Eventually, Diana’s brother did escape the front, and Diana tried to put the whole affair behind her. Only, she couldn’t. Men still liked her very much—her friend Patrick Shaw Stewart once practically went down on his knees begging to have her for just one night—but Diana could barely stand their attraction. There was, however, one man who could still slip past her defenses, and he was quite the surprise.
Around the time that Diana found out Raymond Asquith wasn’t coming back, she deepened her friendship with Duff Cooper, one of her many admirers and a fellow Coterie member. And while Cooper couldn’t have been more different from Asquith—he was gruff, stout, and bawdy next to Asquith’s reedy elegance—he was a man who had a great understanding of women, and easily found his way into Diana’s heart. But Duff also produced a strange change in Diana.
With Diana’s stuffy upbringing and then her horrible pseudo-relationship with George Gordon Moore, she began to feel utterly frozen when it came to bedroom matters, even if she was indulging in every other pleasure in other aspects of her life. Well, Duff had no such problems: He was as lusty a womanizer as they came, and his presence thawed Diana somewhat. Perhaps a little too much.
Where Diana could barely work up emotions for most of the men throwing themselves at her feet, her reaction to Duff Cooper was through the roof. With him, she knew passion, not the numbness of chloroform. But it did get out of hand. During one argument, she hit him so hard that his lip bled. They also frequently and passionately fought about her residual feelings for the late Raymond Asquith, especially when Diana promised Cooper she loved him best, but only “among the living".
Cooper even once famously wrote to her in a fiery, ill-advised letter: "I hope everyone you like better than me will die very soon". Still, as their relationship got serious, more problems developed.
Diana’s mother Violet hadn’t given up on her ambitions to make her daughter an advantageous match, and the Duchess had even considered trying to link her up with the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII. So Violet was not happy with “that awful Duff,” whose womanizing, gambling, and drinking were legendary. Well, she wasn’t going to get her wish this time.
In the end, Duff Cooper’s connection to The Coterie and all of Diana’s old, long-lost friends was too much to deny. The pair married in 1919, just after the end of the conflict that had decimated their social circle. With all the whispers and unhappiness surrounding the union, it was no doubt the talk of their well-to-do set…but behind closed doors, the wedding was even more salacious.
For the new Lady Diana Cooper, the wedding night was a momentous occasion. She could finally give in to her passions without feeling guilty—and the way she remembered it, it was glorious. She later described feeling “elated” and “desirous". But there was another side to the story. While Duff was very much in love with his new wife, he found the experience in bed “very old fashioned and conventional". Right away, their relationship took a dark turn.
With the cat now out of the bag in the bedroom, Diana’s new husband started to show his true colors. Namely, just days after the wedding, Duff admitted to falling into lust with another woman—and while for some husbands this would just stop at harmless fantasy, Duff’s thoughts were anything but trivial. In fact, it wasn’t long before they turned into actions.
Diana had always run with a loose crowd, but she quickly realized that not even she could handle Duff Cooper’s libido. Soon, he was entertaining high-profile mistresses like socialite Gloria Guinness, who was one of Truman Capote’s swans. At one point, he even fathered an illegitimate child with an American diplomat’s wife. As for Diana’s reaction to all this? It was unconventional, to say the least.
For the most part, Diana was magnanimous about her husband’s roving eye, at least in a white-knuckled way. She allowed the affairs to go on right under her nose and frequently became friends with the “other” women. Later in life, she even claimed complete indifference, once saying of the mistresses, “They were the flowers, but I was the tree". In reality, though, it was quite the adjustment to make. One day, she hit her breaking point.
For all her cool-girl Zen about her marriage situation, there was one mistress who drove Diana to the edge. When Duff Cooper took up with notoriously catty heiress Daisy Fellowes, even Diana couldn’t shrug it off. After all, Daisy was a woman so mean-spirited and bawdy in her life and bedroom endeavors, she reportedly filled even Duff Cooper with “self disgust".
Diana, for her part, made a rare snipe calling Daisy “the very picture of fashionable depravity”…but Diana took it further than just jibes.
Diana had tolerated a lot with Duff before they were out of their honeymoon phase—but she wasn’t about to tolerate Daisy Fellowes. Eventually, she got an ingenious revenge on her straying husband and his mistress. When Duff all but abandoned her in the middle of a date night to go spend time in Daisy’s bed, Diana merely rung up the authorities and, affecting genuine panic, claimed her husband had gone missing. Duff and Daisy had quite the time that night.
Still, Diana wasn’t one to let her husband have all the fun, and she quickly made a scandal of her own.
Around this time, Diana got a scandalous offer. Film director DW Griffith approached her to star in his upcoming film Hearts of the World, selecting her because he thought her “the most beloved woman in England". American cinema had been sniffing around Diana for a while, but her parents and social circles forbid her from partaking in what they considered employment for loose women. No less than the Queen Consort of England, Mary, declared that she would banish Diana from court if she saw her on screen.
For once in her life, though, Diana put her foot down and took the part. It set off a fateful chain reaction.
As it happened, Diana was so effervescent on screen that even her strict mother was a convert, crying at one role, “Oh why can’t Diana be longer?”—but she wasn’t the only one. Diana became a true celebrity, acting in a string of successful productions and even once almost replacing Greta Garbo before Garbo reconciled with the director.
In typical Diana fashion, she was flippant about her accomplishments, once quipping that she acted “only for money and distantly imagined fun. Don’t let my grimaces to order be called self-expression". Yet there were other perks of the job.
At the beginning of the 1920s, especially after starring in the smash revival hit The Miracle and its subsequent stage production, Diana was now wealthy beyond even her wildest dreams, and famous to boot. This had a crucial side effect: The position gave her enormous power in her once-imbalanced marriage, and she lent her celebrity and money to Duff Cooper’s rising political career. And oh, she enjoyed using that power.
When Duff got a little out of line, Diana liked to pull on her purse strings. Once, after taking up with his latest mistress, Lady Warrender, overseas and asking his wife for more money, Diana sent back a 200-pound note with a letter saying, “I hope it will be enough, tho I expect you to drop it on plovers’ eggs and Lady Warrender". Satisfactorily, this led the shameful Duff to write in his diary, “She’s onto that as I thought she would be". Still, all this fame had a dark side.
Lady Diana sparkled on screen and in ballrooms across England, but this entire time, she was hiding a ruinous secret. For some time now, ever since she had suffered a serious fall through a skylight in 1919, she had become increasingly dependent on morphine. And while she’d had an easy time with “jolly old chlorers,” this habit proved difficult to break, disconcerting even her fun-loving husband. Then Diana got some news that made her truly concerned.
By the late 1920s, Diana was enjoying the fruits of her fame…when an enormous wrench came into the works. She began to feel nauseated nearly all the time and jumped to the conclusion that she had a tumor. The real issue was what she least suspected: After over a decade of marriage to Duff Cooper, she had assumed she was barren, but it quickly became clear she was now pregnant. At first, Diana was elated—and then her excitement transformed into terror.
Diana had a lot to worry about when it came to her unborn baby. There was the (untrue) gossip that she had given Duff Cooper as good as he got and that the child belonged to another man. There were also Diana’s fears that her body would turn “grotesque". But it got worse than that. Above all, Diana feared childbirth would put her in mortal danger. Unfortunately, she was right to worry.
Not only did women still regularly perish while giving birth during this time, but Diana was also 37 years old and doctors discovered she had a fibroid in her uterus. Both these complications only increased her certainty that she was nearing the end of her life. In fact, Diana felt so certain of this, she spent her days in the nursing home leading up to her labor telegramming goodbye letters to her friends. Then the day finally came.
On September 15, 1929, Diana gave birth to a baby boy. Though both mother and child survived, not without the complications she feared. Her son had to be born via Caesarean section, prompting the ever-witty Diana to name him John Julius Caesar. Still, there were consolations for the difficult labor. When Diana emerged from the hospital, a crowd was waiting for her as if she had just birthed the Prince of Wales.
Motherhood, as it happened, hardly changed Diana. If anything, she only got sharper.
By the 1940s, Duff Cooper’s political career had taken off with the coming of WWII, Diana’s addiction issues were at bay, and suddenly the pair were playing host and hostess to some of the most powerful people in the world. Diana took to it like a duck to water, reaching back into her days with The Coterie to set up some of the most lavish parties. But being around all these famous people didn’t faze her. It often only revealed her cruel side.
Diana had come a long way from the little girl under her mother’s thumb, and she began developing some sharp opinions about the respectable guests she and Duff had to receive. For one, she called famous macho writer Ernest Hemingway “the greatest bore to end all bores". She even turned her nose up at the former King Edward VIII, the man her mother once considered marrying her off to.
Edward had since abdicated the throne for his mistress Wallis Simpson, and Diana sniffed that Edward was “sillier and duller". As she got older though, empathy wasn’t all she lost.
Diana had always been a shockingly bad driver. Early on in her driving career, she rammed into a milk cart on the side of the road and laughed uproariously when dogs started lapping the mess up. It got even more ridiculous as she got older. When parking laws came into effect, Diana simply ignored them, often writing silly notes on her windshield for officers after parking anywhere she felt like it.
One read, “Dear Warden, taken sad child to a cinema—please forgive,” and another: “Dearest Warden, Front tooth broken off, look like 81 year old pirate so at dentist".
Whatever her eccentricities—and there were many—the aging Diana still retained her elegance. She also kept her natural ability to receive invites to the best parties on any continent. When Carlos de Beistegui hosted Le Bal Oriental in Venice, AKA “the party of the century,” Diana went there as Cleopatra. As a bonus, she liked the photograph Cecil Beaton took of her so much, she used it on her passport. Sadly, though, the good times were coming to an end.
In 1952, it looked like Diana and Duff Cooper couldn’t fly any closer to the sun of high society. That year, the government even made Duff into the Viscount Norwich for his services to Britain throughout WWII and beyond. Diana, for her part, hated the title of Viscountess Norwich and refused to go by the honor, sniping that it sounded like “porridge". As it happened, she had precious little time to use it.
Within a year of becoming the Viscountess Norwich, Diana’s whole world fell apart. The Coopers’ fast living and hard drinking caught up to Duff in a spectacularly brutal manner. In May of 1953, he had a massive stomach hemorrhage likely brought on by cirrhosis of the liver. He managed to survive this instance, but Diana, deeply disturbed, took him on a cruise to try to help him convalesce. All it did was seal his fate.
In the end, Duff Cooper couldn’t outrun the grim reaper. While on the ship, he suffered another hemorrhage on New Year’s Eve and lay in agony for hours while the doctors tried to stop the bleeding. It was no use: Duff passed at the age of 63 on January 1st of 1954. It was a gruesome scene, but Diana’s reaction was the most heartbreaking of all.
Throughout Duff’s final hours, Diana couldn’t work up the courage to even say goodbye, and refused to watch her husband pass in pain. Such was her grief that she didn’t attend the funeral, feeling that it would only be an opportunity for the public to gawk at her. Instead, she preferred to mourn in private. Her road back to any sense of normalcy was a long one.
Diana had many, many years without Duff, only passing in 1986 at the ripe old age of 93, but she never forgot him. After his passing, she took out space in the paper to announce that she was reverting back to “Lady Diana Cooper” so she could drop the “Viscountess Norwich” business and still honor her husband. As that anecdote indicates, she also never lost her verve. But there is one secret about Lady Diana Manners that still fascinates society.
Diana always had a fraught, complicated relationship with her mother Violet, who had tried to keep her daughter in eternal ignorance and never liked Diana’s husband. But all this makes more sense when you know the family’s biggest secret. According to pretty much everyone, Diana was actually not the daughter of the Duke of Rutland; she was the product of an affair with her mother’s lover Harry Cust.
Maybe that’s why the Duchess felt the need to control Diana’s libido. How Diana found out about this, though, is worthy of a soap opera.
In reality, her parentage was something of an open secret in high society, as Diana also reportedly shared a huge resemblance with her biological father. The rumor was so commonplace, Diana actually first heard about it casually from a friend at a party as a teenager. In classic Diana fashion, she was completely unruffled at the revelation. As she said, “It didn’t seem to matter—I was devoted to my father and I liked Harry Cust too".
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