“On Sunday night, Clarissa Avon – the Countess of Avon, and widow of former prime minister Anthony Eden – ate a chocolate soufflé, drank a glass of champagne, and said goodnight to her devoted carer, Amina,” says Hugo Vickers in The Daily Telegraph. The next morning, she did not wake up. She was 101.
To most people, she seemed forbidding. Her uncle, Winston Churchill, thought she had “a most unusual personality”, Deborah Mitford found her “rather alarming” and Margaret Thatcher called her “colourless”. But around friends, “Clarissa had a wonderfully youthful streak of fun”. As a teenager she sneaked into tutorials at Oxford, hoping no one would notice she wasn’t enrolled. As an adult she befriended Greta Garbo and rejected Evelyn Waugh. And at 56, after her husband died, she travelled the world and took up scuba diving. If she seemed aloof, it was out of choice. “She claimed that she remained silent unless she had something particular she wanted to say.”
She married Eden in 1952; he was 55 and she was 32. Three years later he would succeed her uncle as prime minister. According to her obituary in The Times, Clarissa couldn’t stand politics. “How self-important all politicians are!” reads a despairing diary entry. Chequers is a “stockbroker-with-taste’s place”, moans another. That said, she described the Egyptian pyramids as “suburban”, so she had high standards.
Still, she never shied away from her husband’s political legacy. At the height of the Suez Canal crisis, Clarissa attended a rally against her husband to see what all the fuss was about. Years later, at a lunch party, when a guest referred in hushed tones to “the events of 1956”, Clarissa said firmly: “We call it Suez at this end of the table.” As The Times observes: “She was not the granddaughter of Lord Randolph Churchill for nothing.”