Writer and traveller whose lyrical books blurred the
boundaries between history, imagination and autobiography
Although it told the stories of four real 19th-century
women, The Wilder Shores of Love, Lesley Blanch's first
book, clearly expressed a vision of what the author wanted
her life to be. Isabel Burton, Jane Digby, Aim?e Dubucq de
Rivery and Isabelle Eberhardt "each found, in the East,
glowing horizons of emotion and daring which were for them,
now vanishing from the West".
As she did with herself, Blanch presented the book's
lyrically romanticised heroines as mysterious, semi-mythical
figures who "found some, if not all, of their fulfilment, as
women, along wilder Eastern shores". One of them was a
noblewoman who fled to the Syrian desert with a Beduin
chieftain, and another dressed as a man to explore the
Sahara. The book immediately became a bestseller, creating
an influen-tial genre of female adventure biography.
Lesley Blanch was born in London in 1904 into a family that
was cultured, unorthodox and impecunious. Her father "did
nothing", she said, but he took her to museums and galleries
as well as providing her with the books of Dickens, which
But her most vivid memories were the visits of "the
Traveller", a mysterious Russian, who enthused the young
Lesley with stories of Siberia and the steppes. "He would
spin a mar-vellous web of countries, cities, people and
things, conjuring for me a world of shimmering images." Who
he was - whether he really existed - she never revealed, but
this passion for Russia and things Russian never left her:
the "love of my heart, the fulfilment of the senses and the
kingdom of the mind all met here", she later wrote.
When she was 17 she went to Paris for the first time, and
later told of escaping from her governess and losing her
virginity to the Traveller in a train to Dijon. She
pretended it was the Trans-Siberian Railway.
After leaving Paris she went to Italy to study. On returning
to London she was sent to the Slade School of Fine Arts and
supported herself by designing book jackets. But her
youthful passion for Russia soon crystal-lised into an adult
obsession. In 1931 she was one of very few tourists to visit
the USSR of Stalin, but she was far less interested in
politics than in the haunts of 19th-century poets.
In 1937, rather to her surprise, she was made features
editor of Vogue after impressing an editor with an article
decrying the bland fashions of the day. Her writing career
there began with a wide-ra-nging column on culture. She
wrote about everything but fashion and anything vaguely
connected with Russia.
Her first marriage was dissolved in 1939; she claimed to
have entered into a second just to get her hands on a house
in Richmond. Towards the end of the war she met Romain Gary,
the elegant Russian-born French novelist, who subsequently
won the Prix Gon-court. He was then a Free French airman,
but she found in him "the eternal Slav I craved". They
married in 1945.
After the war he joined the French Diplomatic Service; they
travelled widely in Latin America, North Africa and the
Middle East. They lived initially in Bulgaria, where she
explored happily among the wild mountain villages and
developed a lifelong passion for Bulgarian music, while her
She did not feel that her own writing was adversely affected
by her marriage to Gary - even though he was largely
uninterested in her work - but she did find the diplomatic
life and its endless meals somewhat irksome.
While they were posted in Hollywood, Gary met the actress,
Jean Seberg, for whom he was to leave Blanch. After the
divorce in 1962, Blanch based herself in Paris but continued
to travel, working in Hollywood for the director George
It was only when her marriage to Gary broke up that she
fulfilled her childhood dream of going on the Trans-Siberian
Railway, but instead of the romantic journey she had
envisaged with the Traveller, she found herself with a woman
from Intourist. As the Traveller had told her: "Granting our
wishes is one of Fate's saddest jokes."
After The Wilder Shores of Love, her books included The
Sabres of Paradise (1960) about Shamyl, a messianic Muslim
holy warrior who fought off the armies of the Tsar in the
19th-century Caucasus. She often rated this as her favourite
The Nine Tiger Manwas published in 1965 and was followed in
1968 by Journey into the Mind's Eye, a fantastical account
of her early life. It told of her infatuation with Russia,
her adventures with the Traveller and her fruitless agonised
searchings for him after his disappearance. If reality and
imagination seemed blurred, it was because Blanch was not
too concerned with the distinction. The story and the
emotion were all.
In 1971 she travelled across the Middle East with the
photographer Eve Arnold, writing a series on the lives of
Muslim women for The Sunday Times. She then wrote Pavilions
of the Heart (1974) and a biography, Farah-Shabanou of Iran
(1978) which she was slightly ashamed to admit was paid for
by the Iranian Royal Family.
Her sentimental side - she had a habit of referring to
herself as "Darling Self" - was combined with a mild
ferocious-ness; she could also be coquettish and was full of
charm, exuberance and vitality.
After Gary left her she had various passionate liaisons,
which appealed to her romantic nature, but she never had
another long-term relationship; she learnt to deal with this
enforced solitude by becoming enamoured with cats and by
being an excellent correspondent to her friends. She rarely
visited England but appreciated visitors who brought her
pork pies or kippers.
In 1983 her biography, Pierre Loti: Portrait of an Escapist,
was published and, in 1989, From Wilder Shores, subtitled
The Tables of my Travels, a book about the food she had
eaten around the world. Romain, un Regard Particulier, a
well-re-ceived tribute to Gary, was published in French in
She and Gary had bought an apartment in the South of France
near Menton, and she remained at Garavan, seven minutes by
train from the Italian border, in a house surrounded by
greenery for the rest of her life.
In 1994 the house burnt to the ground and she lost all her
possessions; only a few charred fragment carpets remained of
the mementoes of her travels and her vast library. But she
was determined to rebuild: "At the age of 90 I had to start
Lesley Blanch, writer and traveller, was born on June 6,
1904. She died on May 6, 2007, aged 102
> When she was 17 she went to Paris for the first time, and
> later told of escaping from her governess and losing her
> virginity to the Traveller in a train to Dijon. She
> pretended it was the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Ah, the traditional instruction of mothers to daughters, "Lie back and think
>> When she was 17 she went to Paris for the first time, and
>> later told of escaping from her governess and losing her
>> virginity to the Traveller in a train to Dijon. She
>> pretended it was the Trans-Siberian Railway.
> Ah, the traditional instruction of mothers to daughters,
> "Lie back and think
> of Krasnoyarsk."
Hilarious. Just saw this.