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Who was the Sarge? - David Platzer

Blog | By David Platzer | Jan 03, 2023

The life of Stuart Preston during and beyond the war by David Platzer

Stuart preston (1915-2005) was the New York Times art critic from 1949 to 1965 and wrote an excellent monograph on Édouard Vuillard (1972).

But he’s most famous as ‘the Sarge’, renowned for the extraordinary social success he enjoyed in wartime London’s aristocratic bohemia 80 years ago. His nickname derived from his rank in the US Army as a sergeant.

His HQ was in North Audley Street, minutes away from Heywood Hill bookshop, turned by Nancy Mitford into a salon. The great hostesses Emerald Cunard and Sibyl Colefax begged him to adorn their parties – though Lady Cunard, herself American-born, complained that he never said anything memorable.

He stayed in the country, too, with such Edwardian survivors as Lady Desborough and Maurice Baring. More recently, it’s been suggested he was a counter-intelligence agent.

Tall and elegant, he was blessed with good looks that reminded Cecil Beaton of Gary Cooper, and his boyish enthusiasm was matched by erudition. His part in the liberation of France won him a Croix de Guerre, proving him a hero as a well as a social lion.

Evelyn Waugh caricatured him as the Loot (short for Lieutenant Padfield) in Unconditional Surrender. Meeting him in New York in 1950, Evelyn Waugh told Nancy Mitford, ‘Sergeant Preston is as bald as an egg and very watery-eyed. I suspect he drinks.’

He appears too in James Lees-Milne’s first volume of diaries, Ancestral Voices (1975), a book that wounded Stuart.

After leaving New York in 1976, he settled in Paris, where I came to know him. He lived in a small, book-filled flat in the rue Saint-Dominique. He had the look of a scholarly soldier turned monk. Dressed invariably in a dark blue suit and a tie, he had an air of austerity which lightened when something amusing made him crack a playful smile.

I never saw him completely blotto, but he could be abrupt, ringing off without saying goodbye – a Bloomsbury affectation – and carelessly rude.

He enjoyed sharing his considerable knowledge of literary life, though. Harold Nicolson had introduced Stuart into literary London and Stuart was devoted to his memory. Diana Mosley was Stuart’s favourite Mitford. ‘A perfect person except for one thing – Hitler,’ he said. ‘There was something touching about Nancy.’ Nancy, despite her professed anti-Americanism, defended ‘Serge’ from Evelyn Waugh’s barbs.

The writer Francis King urged Stuart to write his memoirs, but he demurred. Until the end, he retained the certain mystery that Harold Acton observed in him.