A Sheik's English Dynasty

By Massingberd, Hugh | The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Sheik's English Dynasty


Massingberd, Hugh, The Mail on Sunday (London, England)


Byline: HUGH MASSINGBERD

Sassoon: The Worlds Of Philip And Sybil by Peter Stansky Yale University Press [pounds sterling]25 .[pounds sterling]20 (0870 165 0870)

Among Saddam Hussein's crimes against humanity was his elimination of the Jews in Baghdad, who had played an important role in the history of the city.

Back in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Sheik Sasson ben Saleh was the head of the Jewish community, a position which also carried the role of principal finance minister and banker for the Governor of Baghdad.

From the sheik descended the Sassoon dynasty, whose members have included Siegfried, the heroic First World War poet, and the joint subjects of Peter Stansky's lavish study: Sir Philip Sassoon, politician, socialite and bachelor aesthete, and his devoted sister Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley and chatelaine of that peerless Palladian pile, Houghton in Norfolk.

The sheik's son, David Sassoon, established the family fortunes in India through, among other enterprises, the opium trade before his own son, Albert, settled in England and was created a baronet in 1890. The second baronet, Sir Edward, completed the integration of the dynasty into the Establishment by becoming an MP and marrying a Rothschild.

Philip and Sybil were the only children of the marriage.

At Eton, Philip cast an exotic figure and earned a reputation for splendid, if excessive, generosity and a slight preciosity. After a fire in his house at school, Philip, not caring for the smell, proceeded to pour a bucket full of eau de Cologne over the floor, only to set it alight again.

When his father died in 1912, he inherited not only the baronetcy but, through due electoral process, the Parliamentary seat of Hythe. During the First World War he served as private secretary to Sir Douglas Haig, the Commanderin-Chief, and subsequently exemplified his adaptability by fulfilling the same function for Haig's bete noire, the Prime Minister, Lloyd George.

Sassoon's own political career never really flourished, although he made a significant contribution to the development of the RAF as Under-Secretary of State for Air. His love of the finer things in life found expression when he became First Commissioner for Works, responsible for all the State's parks, castles, palaces and their contents - a post he held until his death in 1939. …

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