David Platzer has written a memoir of his acquaintanceship with Stuart Preston who was well known during his military service days among Waugh and his friends in WWII London. The memoir, entitled “A Sergeant Abroad”, appears in the latest issue of New Criterion and opens with this:
Stuart Preston was one of the more curious figures of London during the Second World War, the U.S. Army Sergeant who […] inspired “the Loot,” Lieutenant Padfield, in Evelyn Waugh’s Unconditional Surrender (retitled The End of the Battle in America), the last and best volume of Waugh’s war trilogy. Until leaving in July 1944 to take part in the liberation of France, Stuart lived in the U.S. Army Headquarters, conveniently located in North Audley Street, only minutes away from Heywood Hill’s bookshop on Curzon Street, where Nancy Mitford and Bridget Parsons were holding the fort, and the Dorchester, where Emerald Cunard continued to host parties. An eager, well-informed American, he was enraptured with everything Edwardian. […] The “ample leisure” mentioned by Waugh with regard to the Loot may have had something to do Preston’s possible position in counter-intelligence, directed by Eisenhower himself. One wonders if many of the Sergeant’s admirers suspected that the charming GI might be reporting overheard gossip to his superiors.
Notwithstanding her professed distaste for Americans, Nancy Mitford had a soft spot for the “Serge,” who dismissed Nancy’s anti-Americanism as “part of the image.” “You are horrid about that good old Serge & I’m afraid he’ll mind. So naughty making him talk American,” Mitford wrote to Waugh. Indeed, the Loot’s clumsy jargon, reminiscent of Nancy’s own Hector Dexter in The Blessing, is most unlike Stuart. Damningly, Waugh paints the Loot as a social climber: “Now some days back I was at a Catholic Requiem in Somerset county. It was the live people there I found significant. There were a lot of them.” Waugh’s Loot is no linguist, something untrue about Stuart, who read as much, if not more, French than English—though he spoke it with an American accent—and knew German and Italian, too. Waugh’s description of the Loot’s ubiquitous social success is closer to the mark:
“He was in every picture gallery, every bookshop, every club, every hotel. He was also in every inaccessible castle in Scotland, at the sick bed of every veteran artist and politician, in the dressing-room of every leading actress and in every university common-room.”
What follows is Plazter’s own memoir of Preston whom he met while they were both living in Paris in 1990. This was after Preston had decamped to Paris from New York in 1976 (possibly via a disappointing stay in London) after a career as a cultural journalist in the post-war years. This included a stint as art critic for the New York Times from 1949-65. During that time “the pre-Pop Andy Warhol made a portrait of him in 1958, capturing him as a haunted, bald Casper the Ghost, painfully sensitive and tentative.” He also met Waugh in 1950 during Waugh’s last visit to the USA. At that time Waugh commented that he “suspected that the aging Dorian Gray, now bald, had taken to drink.”
Platzer’s memoir makes it clear that Preston never ceased to search out interesting new friends and collected them right up until his death in 2005. This was in the hope, according to Platzer, that his new acquaintances would “open new doors” to him, but he was more and more disappointed as time went on to discover that they were more interested in hearing him talk about his own illustrious past. This is an interesting memoir for Waugh readers because it follows a Waugh character into his post-Waugh years when he continued to meet some of the friends they had in common in wartime London. The memoir is headed on the New Criterion website with a copy of the Andy Warhol drawing mentioned above. That doesn’t appear in the library subscription copies.