David Bruce -- elegant, pragmatic

July 28, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

"Last American Aristocrat: The Biography of David K. E. Bruce, 1898-1977," by Nelson D. Lankford. Little, Brown and Co. 496 pages.$27.

This is the first biography of eminent American diplomat David K. E. Bruce, whose OSS exploits during World War II were followed by posts to France, Germany, the Court of St. James's and China. As a scion of the Virginia slaveholding aristocracy, growing up on Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore, Bruce modeled himself on the 18th century gentleman.

Son-in-law of Andrew Mellon, Bruce became a sybarite, a connoisseur of wines, a gourmet, a collector of antiques. He was so elegant, so charming, that the Mellon family sided with him when he divorced Ailsa to marry Evangeline Bell, who became one of the formidable Georgetown hostesses.

Bruce so appealed to the imagination of others that he was the model for the main character of his Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise"; he is also Staunton Wills, a frequenter of second-hand bookstores, in John Dos Passos' "Nineteen Nineteen." David and Evangeline Bruce appear as well as in Nancy Mitford's novel "Don't Tell Alfred."

Bruce was, as Nelson Lankford ably reveals, the democrat as pragmatist. He looked on established institutions with skepticism even as it was inconceivable that he should offer them any challenge. He was a decent man, if always an elitist and neither an intellectual, an original thinker nor a reformer.

If at Princeton he opposed the snobbish club system, as American ambassador to Britain he wanted to offer Vanessa Redgrave a visa, not on First Amendment grounds, but because allowing "talkative minorities" their say best defuses their influence. He so believed in the cause of European unity that he was willing to encourage American financial support of the French war on Indochina to achieve it.

David Bruce was an intensely private man whose diaries invariably chronicle good meals rather than emotions. Clinging fast to the public record, Lankford remains content to offer only ,, Bruce's perspective. He acknowledges having interviewed only 40 people, and his book is lacking in immediacy.

Bruce appears in long shot, a tall, silver-haired gentleman smartly turned out by Savile Row. The reader comes no closer to Bruce than his own children, two of whom suffered tragic deaths.

Having worked closely with the late Evangeline Bruce, Lankford steers clear of Bruce's limitations. Lankford identifies with power, and scoffs at those who question government policy, even comparing those who opposed the Vietnam War to the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Disagreement over Vietnam, the biographer writes, "eroded civility." To write about Bruce he need not have attempted to imitate him at his weakest.

"The Last American Aristocrat" remains a welcome book. It is not definitive; others will no doubt follow. Yet it is certainly worth telling the story of 20th century Europe through the eyes of this Southern aristocrat who at his best chose egalitarian democracy over the noblesse oblige that was his natural legacy.

Lankford's best quotation comes from the inimitable Teddy White, who wrote that through Bruce's attributes "runs the thread of an unorthodoxy almost as extreme as the elegance which is its outer husk." One only wishes this book had more of David Bruce's natural effervescence, that it sparkled as he did.

Joan Mellen is the author of 13 books, including "Privilege: The Enigma of Sasha Bruce," a biography of David Bruce's youngest daughter. Her most recent book is "Hellman and Hammett," a dual biography.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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