Elisabeth Furse, who died yesterday aged
92, was a former Communist, wartime resistance worker and London bistro
proprietress, whose Slavic warmth and ardent personality attracted a
wide circle of devoted friends; these included diplomats, MPs (among
them one former Foreign Secretary), journalists, students and
miscellaneous aristocrats who would happily crowd around the table in
her cluttered basement flat in Belgravia to eat dubious food off jumble
Reviewing her autobiography in 1993, her old
friend Lord Owen told of "a life almost inconceivable for most of us to
imagine in its fortitude, frailty and overall zest". Its dominant and
compelling theme was the conjunction of grandeur and poverty. She was
princess and peasant at the same time.
born Louise Ruth Wolpert on August 30 1910 at Konigsberg (later called
Kaliningrad) in what is now the Baltic Sea enclave of the Russian
Federation. Her father was a Russian-speaking Latvian Jew and a wealthy
textile merchant; her mother, also Jewish, a German-speaking Lithuanian
from a family of rich corn merchants. Louise was nicknamed "Lisl" by an
aunt, from which she derived Elisabeth, the name she adopted for
Her childhood was privileged but
loveless. Her mother told her: "You are not beautiful, nor are you
pretty, but you have charm, good teeth and good legs. You may make it."
This she did, but on her own terms. Her vivacious character found its
means of expression as a teenager when she joined the Communist Party.
told the comrades I was the daughter of a grocer, and I left my family
and my home. I gave up the Chippendale, the Gobelins, the Meissen, the
Bohemian glass, the Persian carpets and my own room. I went out,
literally penniless, into the world.
very wisely cut me off. I was, and have remained ever since, a
self-made poor. This is quite different from having been born into
poverty or having been forced into it. I have no envy of the rich. I
chose my condition with my eyes open, and by hard work and
determination I have managed to remain poor when circumstances were
In her early twenties, she was tasked
with collecting money in France and England to help political refugees
in Germany, mainly Party members, escape the Nazis. Soliciting support
for the cause, she met many of the leading artists and writers of the
time: Picasso, Braque, Giacometti, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide and H G
Wells. In such figures she instinctively looked for the real individual
beneath the public persona.
Her first marriage, in
1934, was a marriage of convenience, intended to give her a new
nationality and with it legal residence outside Germany, when her
activities with the Communists put her at risk of arrest and execution
by the Gestapo. She married Bertie Coker, a journalist and fellow
She left the movement in 1934, long
before Stalin's excesses disillusioned his supporters in the West, and
moved to London, where she was offered a job as interpreter and
companion to a Russian actress. That engagement led to a formal job as
a cinematic continuity girl.
In later years she
was very proud of her ACTT (Association of Cinematograph, Television
and Allied Technicians) membership card, with its early membership
number, 35. The card entitled her to free admission to cinemas in
London, and she would always make her distinguished status known to
amused box office staff when claiming her free tickets.
second marriage was to Peter Haden-Guest, son of a Labour MP. He was
22, an aspiring ballet dancer, and still an undergraduate at Oxford.
Their alliance was sealed in a cinema, where they had the following
"Where shall we go for our honeymoon?" he said.
"No, Spain. How many children shall we have? I think four."
After a pause, he said: "I'm serious. I intend to marry you."
mother didn't approve, and stopped his allowance, but they eventually
married anyway. "He brought me back to elegance and fun and life," she
wrote: the perfect antidote to the ascetic rule of 1930s Communism.
Their son, Anthony Haden-Guest, now a successful journalist based in
New York, was born in 1937.
Elisabeth was in
France, and separated from Peter Haden-Guest, when war broke out. She
spent part of 1940 in the Brittany chateau of the Forbes family, where
she recklessly fell in love with a German officer, one of a group who
had commandeered the house.
Pretending to be
American, she was allowed to remain in the house with her infant son
and his nanny, until an indiscreet remark brought catastrophe. At
dinner with the Nazi officers, who up until then had shown the
courtliest manners to her, she remarked that Churchill, a friend of the
family that owned the house, had often dined at the table at which they
were sitting. Their response was to burn down the house and send
Elisabeth and her child to an internment camp.
following year, while being transferred to another camp, she escaped
from her German escorts. Disguised as a widow, she fled from occupied
France with Anthony, giving him fragments of sleeping pills when they
travelled by train to prevent him from speaking English.
made her way to Marseilles, where she joined MI 9, a branch of British
Military Intelligence engaged in helping British soldiers and others
opposed to the Germans to escape Occupied France.
When her group was betrayed by an informer, she was held in squalid
conditions in a women's prison in a castle overlooking the harbour at
Marseilles. During negotiations over her release, occasioned by her
status as daughter-in-law of an MP, she would smuggle out messages from
other prisoners in condoms hidden in her vagina.
returned to London, where she found that her high profile and
indiscretions, such as the one made before German officers at the
Forbes house, made her unfit for further intelligence work. She spent
the rest of the war in the comparative safety of rural England, on the
Devon estate of the family of her third husband, Pat Furse. They
married in 1945, and Elisabeth continued her career in the film
In 1952 Elisabeth and Pat took the lease
of a small, "beautifully shabby" workman's cottage at Bourne Street,
near Sloane Square. Pat was an artist, and they sold pictures and
antiques from the house. Elisabeth worked as a continuity girl. When,
by the end of 1953, commitments to her three small children had grown
to make location work impractical, she and Pat started a small bistro
in the house.
Based on the French idea of the
bistro as a sociable yet intimate annexe to the home, Elisabeth's
Bistro attracted a diverse and dynamic crowd. Neither the decor nor the
food were of high quality. She despised hygiene.
Freud, then a Liberal MP, was so upset by Elisabeth's cooking that he
took her aside and trained her to cook a steak and an omelette. Her
attitude to food was formed in years of poverty and wartime
After the bistro closed in 1970, she held court at her house in Chapel Street,
Belgravia, at a long refectory table given to her by the industrialist
Jeremy Fry. This table was usually covered with papers and a manual
typewriter on which she would pound out blunt letters telling people
exactly what she thought of them. These communications invariably
arrived in a reused envelope, addressed in her Germanic scrawl.
house in Chapel Street, and its heterogeneous community of lodgers
(mostly students), was immortalised in fictional form in 1991 by the
novelist Sam North, whose superb novel Chapel Street contains a
character - a Mrs Gorse - who was clearly based on Elisabeth.
the early 1980s, her friendship with David (now Lord) Owen, allied to
an apostate Communist's distrust of the far Left, which was then in the
ascendant in the Labour Party, inspired an early enthusiasm for the
short-lived Social Democratic Party, of which Owen was leader. Harper's & Queen
described her as "the mother of the SDP". Lord [Robert] Skidelsky and
the chess player Nigel Short, then both SDP supporters, also became her
In 1993 her autobiography, Dream Weaver,
was published, with a title suggested by her son, Johnny, who felt it
expressed her talent for self-invention. The book gathers together the
cycle of anecdotes that formed her colourful life story, all her
adventures and love affairs.
It was ghost-written by the Harper's & Queen
writer Ann Barr, and Elisabeth affected indifference towards it. It is,
perhaps, the only book ever written whose author claimed to be
completely unaware of its contents.
Her zeal for
politics remained as strong as ever in her later years. In 1991 she
went to Maastricht to follow the treaty negotiations at first hand,
somehow obtaining a press pass for the purpose. With her crutch and her
wheeled shopping basket, she stood out as the oldest member of the
press corps, and was interviewed during quiet moments by younger
colleagues, with whom she shared her forthright views on human affairs.
Her last political enthusiasm was for Jimmy Goldsmith's movement for a
referendum on British membership of the EU. That he, too, was a "Bistro
boy" certainly helped focus her interest.
She is survived by two sons, Anthony Haden-Guest and John Furse, and three daughters, Katya Chelli, Anna Furse and Sara Furse.