Thursday, 7 June 2012

Nudism in Alexandria

'Ah! All will be truly exquisite when Alexandria is converted to nudism.'  So went the song in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1931.

The occasion was the annual review put on at the Alhambra Theatre at the bottom of Rue Safiya Zaghloul in aid of one or another Jewish welfare organisations; in 1931 it was La Société de Bienfaisance Israélite.

A prime mover behind the reviews was Claire Vincendon.  She designed the costumes and the sets and also illustrated the programme shown here.  And she sang and danced in the sketches as well as acted as compère, or rather commère as the programme describes her.

Claire Vincendon's father was Baron Felix de Menasce, a financier and one of the wealthiest men in Egypt.  Her brother was Jean de Menasce who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and became a priest and was in the words of T S Eliot 'my best translator': among other things he did The Waste Land into French.  Claire's half brother George de Menasce was also a financier and a collector of Greek island tapestries, Chinese jade and many other things; some of his collections are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. The story of the Menasce family is included in Michael Haag's Alexandria: City of Memory.

During the Second World War George gave open house piano concerts in his home in Moharrem Bey attended especially by British servicemen and for which he was awarded an OBE.  Lawrence Durrell also went to the concerts and mixed socially with many people who moved in the same circles as the Menasce family.  But he did not meet Claire's daughter Claude who was only in her late teens.

Claire Vincendon, standing centre, with her husband Jacques at a Finney carnival party in Alexandria. This is a detail of a photograph in Michael Haag's book Vintage Alexandria.
Instead Durrell met Claude Vincendon in Cyprus in 1955 while he was writing Justine, the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet.  She later became his third wife.  By 1960 when Durrell completed the Quartet the mixed communities of Alexandria's cosmopolitan society had left or been thrown out of Egypt.

In the event, nudism never came to Alexandria.