Hazel Lavery’s relationship with Michael Collins is the subject of the new novel A Great Beauty by Andrew O’Connor – the author explains his interest in this part of history
Belfast man John Lavery’s status as a portrait artist has flourished in the decades since his death with his paintings fetching tens of thousands of pounds at auction.
But as Lavery’s reputation continues to thrive, his wife Hazel has slipped into obscurity. This was not always the case.
During their lifetime, Lavery often had to take a back seat to his legendary wife. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Lady Hazel Lavery was a notorious woman, often immersed in scandal and political intrigue.
Born into a wealthy Irish American family, Hazel first met John Lavery in 1903 when she was twenty-three on a family vacation in France. The two fell head over heels in love. Hazel’s mother, Alice, who, since been widowed six years previously, and had been left in reduced circumstances, was horrified with the relationship. Lavery was twenty-four years Hazel’s senior, a widower and not their social equal.
Hazel dutifully broke off the relationship and married Edward Trudeau, a doctor of a similar age to her and from a family Alice approved of. Edward however died within the first year of marriage leaving Hazel pregnant. Once her daughter Alice was born, Hazel rekindled her relationship with John and the two finally married in 1909. By this time John’s career had risen spectacularly and he was now the favoured portrait artist for London’s fashionable set.
His career had also given him an entrée into British high society, complete with a Regency mansion in Kensington. When he married the extremely beautiful and charming Hazel, the Laverys were elevated to the very top of society. An invitation to one of their diner parties was considered a great honour. Hazel took to her new role as a society queen with great relish and ease.
She quickly became close friends with everyone from Winston Churchill to the Marquess of Londonderry. It became common knowledge that many of her male friends fell hopelessly in love with her. Hazel enjoyed the attention tremendously to such an extent that the wives of Kensington formed a Husband Protection Society to guard against her.
The Laverys enjoyed further success when John was appointed as an official war artist during the First World War which led to a knighthood for him, and Hazel was then titled Lady Lavery. It was a title she enjoyed greatly and must have been a source of satisfaction for John as Hazel’s mother had originally thought he was not good enough socially for her.
It was through John’s work as a war artist that Hazel became embroiled in Irish politics. When John had attended court to paint the proceedings of the trial of Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, Hazel had accompanied him. The case led to Hazel becoming intrigued and obsessed with all things Irish. She even began to speak with an Irish brogue although it had been two centuries since her ancestors had left Ireland for America.
As the War of Independence erupted in Ireland, Hazel watched from London with horror at the violence. When the ceasefire was declared in the Summer of 1921, Hazel saw a way of inveigling herself in the peace talks that followed that Autumn in London.
John wished to paint the delegates on both sides of the talks. When the Irish representatives arrived at John’s studio to pose for their portraits, Hazel offered their Kensington mansion as a base for them to use during their stay in London.
Most of them readily accepted and Hazel then began to use her friendships with members of the British delegation, such as Churchill, to act as an unofficial go-between for the two parties. Again, thriving on the notoriety this led to, Hazel seemed oblivious to the controversy and danger this new role put her in.
The friendship she developed with Michael Collins at this time even lead to death threats against her. Hazel had grown very close to Michael Collins. It was an unusual and surprising relationship as on the surface the revolutionary and the titled society lady had nothing in common.
But their bond became so strong it became the subject of much gossip with a tabloid even referring to Hazel as Collins’s sweetheart. Whatever John Lavery made of the relationship, Hazel seemed to love the rumours of a love affair and did nothing to dissuade them.
When Collins’s was killed in August 1922, Hazel was heartbroken. Hazel even tried to attend his funeral wearing widow’s weeds and had to be persuaded to change her outfit by her close friend the Countess of Fingall. As well as causing great hurt to both John Lavery and Collins’s fiancée Kitty Kiernan, attending the funeral in widow’s weeds would have caused a public scandal.
After Collins’s death and Irish independence, Hazel slipped away from the political spectrum. Although she tried to stay relevant, she reverted to being a society hostess. As the years progressed, people were amazed that she continued to look remarkably young for her age. There was shock when she died in 1935 at the age of fifty-five. John Lavery outlived his wife by six years.
Hazel was deeply missed by her friends, particularly the men in her life. Throughout the 1930s Winston Churchill, consigned to the political wilderness during this period, often suffered bouts of depression and missed his close friend Hazel greatly. No doubt had Hazel lived, she would have thoroughly enjoyed a political renaissance as an advisor to Churchill when he resurfaced to become Britain’s wartime leader in the 1940s.
A Great Beauty by A .O’Connor, Poolbeg, £7.99, is available now