. . . to National Treasure

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Three summers ago Hugh Massingberd told me he had written a dramatic version of James Lees-Milne’s diaries, and hoped to produce it at the Jermyn Street Theatre. In a somewhat quixotic way I volunteered that Heywood Hill should fill the theatre for the second performance and buy all the available tickets (which were issued under the blanket name of the Duke of Devonshire). Although we had invited many people who had known Jim well, the result was not a total success: they felt uneasy at seeing an actor, albeit a complete professional, playing the part of their old friend, and Moray Watson himself thought he must be doing something wholly wrong.

During the same month Larry McMurtry, novelist and bookseller extraordinary, wrote a brilliant article in the New York Review of Books claiming the Lees-Milne diaries for literature. For anyone who had not known Larry’s remarkable range of reading, or seen his huge private library of Anglophile subjects, this might have seemed an odd pairing: the West Texan cowboy-turned-man-of-letters enthusing about a refined, élitist aesthete from the English gentry. But the article carried considerable conviction and, although the diaries have still not found an American publisher, his essay may well have influenced the amazing rise in price of the early diary volumes ever since.

To get the diaries’ full flavour, Larry had read them from their beginning in 1942 to the date they had reached at that point (1984). This is a luxury I have not yet given myself. When Ancestral Voices was first to be published in 1975, Chatto & Windus knew that it was ‘Heywood Hill’s sort of book’. I asked for the earliest possible proof copy and signed up a large number of customers for the finished book. In my innocence I told Helen Lady Dashwood (‘Hellbags’) that the diaries covered the period when Jim lived at West Wycombe, and she ordered an early copy. A few days after it was published, she appeared in th

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About the contributor

John Saumarez Smith has been buying and selling old and new books at Heywood Hill for forty years.

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