1960s. Lesley Blanch with The Duchess of Windsor at The Mill near Paris © Lesley Blanch Archive
From her base in Paris, Lesley Blanch continued to write and travel, now East, now West. She saw old friends — Nancy Mitford, Violet Trefusis, Rebecca West and the Windsors, “Wallis was a very nice person and I don’t mind what anyone said, he was highly intelligent.” She continues, "I knew Camus, but not very well. I spoke French rather badly. I am not an intellectual in their way. I loved Malraux — he was a really romantic figure."
In 1963, Lesley Blanch worked in Hollywood for the great director George Cukor at M.G.M., on the film of Romain Gary's novel Lady L for which she was the inspiration. Then in 1964, she crossed Siberia at last on the legendary Trans-Siberian Express. She roamed across Outer Mongolia, Egypt, Iran, Samarkand, Afghanistan, and returned to the Sahara which had inspired The Wilder Shores of Love.
1970s. Lesley Blanch in Syria © Sveeva Vigeveno
Blanch says, “I like to travel alone, to just go, the excitement of not knowing where you will doss down for the night or what might happen next. I have never felt frightened anywhere, however dicey the situation. I feel among friends, as I do in Russia; even with wild Muslim tribesmen in the Balkans. I was never raped, and I was very rapeable then!” She wishes she could travel again, “I long, I long to go to the Sahara; I would love to go back to Oman; I yearn for Afghanistan, and ache for Central Asia — Kashgar, Turkoman, and Chinese Turkestan which is to me the most interesting still.”
1970s United Arab Emirates. Lesley Blanch with Sheik Zaid © Lesley Blanch Archive
Contrary to general belief, her inspiration was never Lady Hester Stanhope — she does not consider herself to be remotely similar: “Hester Stanhope had a romantic life, but she was not really a romantic in herself. A formidable lady, she came from an aristocratic family, and ended up in a castello in Lebanon draped in Arabic robes and smoking a narghile, receiving the distinguished personalities who came up the mountainside to call. She was a picturesque rather than a romantic figure.”
1970s. Lesley Blanch in Afghanistan © Lesley Blanch Archive
Blanch has profound respect for those great travellers, Wilfred Thesiger and Freya Stark. She does not consider herself to be in the same league, but simply as someone who “likes to reach different horizons, to break away from the present and look at the past in far distances”. Freya Stark was a friend, “We shared the same publisher and would meet there and elsewhere. She was always extremely nice and encouraging to me as a beginner.”
1960s. Lesley Blanch in the Golestan Palace, Iran © Roloff Beny Archive
She shared an interest in the world of Islam with the distinguished soldier and diplomat, Gerald de Gaury, who gave her a special insight into certain closed worlds, “He spoke beautiful Arabic, and could talk Arabic lore. Living among, and as one of, the royal household in Arabia, he knew a great deal and could tell you marvellous legends. His books are a brilliant reading of the Middle East that is vanishing as we watch — he was a historian manqué”.
Drawn to the Islamic world, Lesley Blanch never intended to settle permanently in the South of France. However, in the early 1970s, Blanch moved from the old stone donkey stable (which she and Romain Gary had converted) in the provençal village of Roquebrune, to a larger house submerged in lush Mediterranean greenery on the French-Italian frontier. She comments, “One is not given sight for long enough to appreciate the beauty given to us by nature — we do not realize what is given to us for free.”
1970s. Lesley Blanch with Henry Clarke in the Syrian desert © Sveeva Vigeveno
In each of her homes she has always surrounded herself with the magic of the East. “I have never made any plans about what to do with my life. But I have always been open to what has come along, and I have always plunged”.
June 2005. Lesley Blanch, age 101 © Eamonn McCabe
Lesley Blanch has turned away prospective biographers throughout her life, and is now writing her autobiography. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2004, the French government awarded her the coveted medal of Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
She appreciates the solid, good health she has enjoyed for most of her life, (her cookery book From Wilder Shores, The Tables of My Travels is dedicated to her digestion). Lesley Blanch believes that, “Life is a present — one can’t have enough of it, can one?”