By Vickers, Hugo
The Independent (London, England)
STUART PRESTON was for many years the art critic of The New York Times, his urbane reporting of exhibitions keeping him at the centre of the New York art world for 25 years, and assuring him the friendship of figures such as Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler, the photographer George Platt Lynes and the actress Ruth Ford.
But he is best remembered as a legendary figure who trailed through London society in the Second World War, and was known as "the Sergeant", or even "the Sarge". He was indeed serving in the US Army at the time, attached to Headquarters, but his good looks (which included earlobes that trailed lazily into the cheek), his huge eyes and round head and his bassoon-deep voice propelled him into the heart of society.
Emerald Cunard was excited to have him on her list, announcing, "I'm expecting the Sergeant after dinner, isn't that delightful?" and worrying when he did not appear: "I wonder where the Sergeant is? He promised faithfully to come if he could." She was devoted to Preston, though she complained that he never said anything memorable, to which Harold Acton replied that he did not have to - he was a character from a Henry James novel. As the Paris-based author James Lord put it:
There is some truth in this, but Stuart's story would have turned out to be of the Master's more melancholy . . . those few brilliant, exhilarating years of social glory . . . laid up a heavy burden of nostalgia for the decades to come.
When Sybil Colefax reported the news that the Sergeant was ill and confined to bed in St George's Hospital, there were cries of lamentation amongst her guests. London's beau monde hastened to his bedside. King George VI is said to have exclaimed: "Every day I meet brigadiers and generals. Why can't I meet this sergeant that everyone is talking about?"
Stuart Duncan Preston Jnr was the elder son of Stuart Duncan Preston, a Harvard graduate of 1906, and his wife Madeleine O'Brien. His parents were rich and well connected and he was educated at Yale (in the class of '37). Evelyn Waugh characterised his father in 1949 as "Spats, noisy, I thought a little tipsy".
By 1938 the young Preston had gravitated to London as a friend of Harold Nicolson's. That summer Nicolson introduced his protege to James Lees- Milne, saying: "The next time we see Stuart over here, he will be in uniform." And so he was. Preston arrived in London in December 1942, settling on a straw mattress in a billet in North Audley Street. He was taken up by Nancy Mitford and the Duff Coopers, finding Diana "wondrous, incredibly flippant, brilliant and witty". Weekends at Panshanger, lunches at the Connaught or Brooks's, and an evening at Argyll House with Sybil Colefax caused him great excitement. Lees-Milne noted that he was "attentive to the old and throws off anecdotes and literary quotations like pearls before swine". According to James Pope-Hennessy, he wore a "permanent smile of appreciation".
The famous illness began in February 1943 and lasted five weeks. Preston went down with jaundice ("grey" now, rather than "saffron") and was admitted to St George's Hospital, where he was blissfully happy in the heart of London, able to see Apsley House from his bed. Stephen Spender came twice a day, partly to discuss his "poetic perplexities" with a willing listener, Harold Nicolson would come from his office to hold his hand, "Chips" Channon popped in, the Marquess of Queensberry recited Shakespeare sonnets at the bedside, Logan Pearsall Smith (soon besotted), Raymond Mortimer and Eddy Sackville-West were there, and Lady Cunard arrived while the men in the ward were washing. As Lees-Milne described it:
The whole of London congregates round the Sergeant's bed. Like Louis XIV he holds levees. Instead of meeting now in Heywood Hill's shop, the intelligentsia and society congregate in public ward no 3 of St George's Hospital. …