Death of a Self-Confessed Heterosexual

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SOMERSET Struben de Chair, 83, was buried on Thursday at his Essex home, in earth specially consecrated for the purpose. Two black horses, heads elegantly plumed above blow-dried manes, pulled his glass-sided hearse. In the short distance between hearse and grave, six strong men nearly buckled beneath the weight of the coffin of honey-oak. Somerset de Chair, as many have testified, was a big man - in more than one sense.

But, like the driver of his hearse, he was a figure from another, half-forgotten era: when the "Quality" cavorted with minimal risk of exposure in the press, and "Society" was an impervious elite; an era which, like Somerset de Chair himself, can be rec a lled only hazily, even by older citizens.

Mr de Chair said and did things that ought to have been memorable, yet, until his death during a winter break on Antigua, his name rang few bells for the British public. He certainly took unusual pains to be memorable, convinced since his youth that his place was high in the firmament.

"I really thought . . . I should be Foreign Secretary, if not Prime Minister," was an early opinion of himself. With a later change of focus, he pronounced: "I gave up frequenting tarts . . . before my third marriage {and} after they were swept off the streets . . . I think the decline of the British Empire coincided with the removal of these healthy distractions from the heart of London's West End."

After his interment outside the private chapel of St Osyth Priory - a former 12th-century mon-astery, near Clacton, which had been his home, off and on, for years - a nephew said: "He was a man who could have gone to the top - a great man. He just lost it by being a bit naughty."

News of a bizarre and melancholy coincidence brought Somerset de Chair to the attention of contemporary Britain two weeks ago. On 5 January, his brother Graham de Chair, 89, a retired naval commander, died at his home in Norfolk. Within hours two furtherde Chairs had succumbed: Somerset himself during a holiday in Antigua, and Sarah de Chair, wife of Somerset's son, Rodney, who died in Scotland. Newspapers faced the unusual task of running obituaries of two brothers on the same day.

Graham's son Colin describes his father as "a tough old sea-dog", a Second World War hero who went on to do good works, such as organising boys' clubs in Hertfordshire and painting in watercolour. He will be cremated tomorrow in London. But Somerset was heroic in a different way entirely - "great fun to be with", his nephew Colin says.

Somerset de Chair (a version of a Huguenot name, de la Chaire) was said to be "stinking rich" and amorous. Some of his fortune had come from his maternal grandfather, HW Struben, who mined gold in South Africa, and some from his father, Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair, a friend of Lord Jellicoe and a former governor of New South Wales. Further wealth came with his marriages.

When his third marriage foundered, a fourth - to Juliet, former wife of the Marquess of Bristol and only daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam - brought into his home her pounds 20m art collection and other riches.

But it was not wealth that made him seem so unusual for his time. It was the flaunting of his indiscretions, legion and reckless, which abruptly ended a parliamentary career of outstanding promise. "I love women - all women," he once said. He was not thefirst British gentleman to be equally at ease in the company of royals and prostitutes. But he may be unique in his desire to talk about it. When he wrote his autobiography, Morning Glory, published in 1988, he wanted to subtitle it The Indiscretions ofa Self-Confessed Heterosexual. The publishers said: "Oh dear, no", preferring Memoirs From The Edge. …