Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Most Beautiful Girl In The Mid-West

Cathleen ni Houlihan, one of the symbols of Irish nationhood, is often depicted in literature as an old woman who needs the help of young men to fight for Ireland. She is not usually as beautiful as Hazel Lavery appears on the old Irish pound note.

Born Hazel Martyn in Chicago in 1880, she was the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist descended from an old Irish family. Hazel was a talented young artist and ambitious, but fate had other plans.

The ‘most beautiful girl in the Mid-West’ fell in love with the Irish artist, John Lavery, on a family holiday in Brittany, when she was quite young. The widower was thirty years older and Hazel’s family was not impressed with the match. Hazel agreed to marry Ned Trudeau, a handsome surgeon, who was her family’s choice.

Ned died of pneumonia a short time after they were married when Hazel was pregnant with Alice. Hazel wanted to return to John but her mother still opposed the idea.

After her mother died Hazel was free. She married John in 1910.

John Lavery was a very successful artist who painted Queen Victoria, the Asquiths, the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, and other famous people in society. He also painted many exquisite paintings of his wife, Hazel. He was knighted in 1921 so Hazel became Lady Lavery. (I can’t help receiving the impression that she was the type of woman who’d enjoy having a title!)

The Laverys were friendly with the Churchills. After the Dardanelles Campaign in 1915, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, thought that Winston would ‘die of grief.’ He had always wanted to paint and bought a paintbox and brushes. One day when he visited Hazel, she asked: “Why do you hesitate?” She persuaded him to finally start painting.

Hazel and John also helped Winston Churchill by becoming involved in diplomacy. Hazel became extremely interested in Irish nationalism – she even described herself as Irish and put on an Irish accent. She and John offered their house in South Kensington, London, as the site for the negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 which formed the basis for the Irish Free State.

Legend has it that forty year old Hazel fell for the handsome Irish nationalist, Michael Collins, and that they had an affair. She and John apparently had a rocky marriage. Michael wrote poems about her ‘delicate sad grace.’ However, Michael Collins was engaged to a young lady and Hazel was twenty years older and dyed her hair, according to one of Churchill’s daughters. There are claims that Hazel would have been shot by the I.R.A. if they’d had an affair.

There are also stories that Hazel wanted to put on widow’s weeds after Collins was shot and even throw herself onto his grave, but this is probably an exaggeration.

It’s a pity that Hazel’s talent for painting has largely been unnoticed. Perhaps her husband was the more talented of the two. Hazel died in 1935 and is buried with John in Putney Vale Cemetery.

(I hope to write about Sir John Lavery soon. They were certainly a fascinating couple!)

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