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The Guise History


Marie Amelia Guise

Marie Amelia Guise

born  2 October 1922
daughter of Jules and Vera Guise

died  29 January 2004

Maria Amelia Guise

2.X.22 – 29.I.04

A great Spirit

Her Eulogy 

The word that immediately springs to mind when thinking of Marie Guise is formidable. She was a powerful woman and to the very end, the phrase “little old lady” would have seemed ridiculous applied to her. Despite the physical limitations brought on by her three major strokes, she remained strong, strong in heart and mind, strong in. her opinions, strong in her resolve, strong in her affections. This strength was something she had developed in herself from an early age. As for so many of her generation, growing up during the Depression, her schooling had come to an abrupt halt at an early age - in her case when she was fourteen and she had taken her chances in the market place of employment, learning shorthand and typing, becoming like her elder sister Yvonne a secretary in the days when young women in that job were still addressed by their surnames, and contributing to the household in which, her father, an engineer, had been unemployed for a decade. She immediately proved her quickness of wit and her diligence and prospered in her work.

She was already a veteran of some three years in the workplace when the Second World War broke out. By now her father a tempestuously temperamental Dane, whose dark good looks and some of whose sharpness she had inherited, was dead of heart disease, and her gregarious and charismatic mother, Vera, who had worked in a bewildering range of occupations to keep the family alive, made their home open house to the newly enlisted soldiers and sailors and airmen on their way to the front or back home on leave. These six years, during which Marie did firewarden duties, debarred from any more official work by her alien status (she remained technically speaking Danish until after the war), were in some ways a highlight of her life, as foe so many Londoners: a terrifying time, as bombs fell and doodlebugs whined through the skies, but a time of gaiety and sudden intimacy, awash with cheap booze and food rustled up from pooled ration books, the possibility that any one of their large circle might never be seen again; a time for entertaining chain-smoking, piano-playing Armenian airmen, for intense short-lived romances, for listening to purple passages of romantic music in candlelit front rooms. Marie, with her striking features, her hour-glass figure, her sharp wit and her enviable ability to drink everyone under the table and then be the first up to make breakfast, was the object of many a young man's attention, though she and her sister and brother always played supporting roles to their enchanting but often demanding mother who took centre stage as of right.

The war was in some ways an unreal period, a drama, a romance, where life and death were both experienced more vividly. The toll of the young dead, Marie's older brother Tony among them was terrible, but the memory of the gallantly, the camaraderie, the laughter, the informality of that time remained in her mind as an ideal of how life might be. With the war over, Marie started to explore her professional options, and landed a job as secretary to a remarkable woman, Lily Wassermann, who had come to England to create a branch of the Swiss engineering firm Eutectic. Lily saw the potential of her new secretary and advanced her rapidly as the British branch grew. Marie’s grasp of management structures was exceptional, and by the early nineteen sixties she was Company Secretary, an uncommon position for a woman at that period. Too challenging as it turns out, for the male hierarchy of the now American based company. An edict was issued barring women from central executive positions, which was pretty rich, since two women, Marie and Lily Wassermann, had seen them create the highly successful English operation. Reluctantly, Marie allowed herself to be moved sideways to become Export manager of the company, but once in the job she ran it with rare vigour, commanding the respect and sometimes the fear of her salesmen.

This was the period when she became truly formidable. Her appearance was fiercely handsome, her long, long black hair which naturally fell below her knees, arranged in a striking pattern of two adjacent circles on the top and a bun at the back. I don't know where she got this design from, but it gave her an imperious quality which was confirmed by the fierce red of her lipstick and the enhanced eyebrows, a touch of Joan Crawford with something of the Wicked Queen from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES. It took her a good hour to assemble herself in the morning. I as a boy used to watch spellbound as she skillfully deployed the dozens of Kirby grips required to achieve the effect, the while uttering various colourful and furiously muttered oaths: she was never at her best in the morning, but she would no more have left the house without her warpaint on than fly.

On the daily train to Feltham, she would comfortably dispatch the DAILY TELEGRAPH crossword before arriving. She then devoured the rest of the paper on the way back. She was exceptionally well informed about world affairs, about the economy, and about the political situation. On the whole, her own political stance was somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun. She adored Margaret Thatcher, on account of her gender, her common sense and her capital C Conservatism, though even she was sometimes suspected of being a dangerous red. Marie was interested in power and attracted to it; her favourite piece of music was the end of the first act of TOSCA, when the all powerful head of the Roman secret police, Scarpia, expresses his desire for the singer Floria Tosca while the choir sings a mighty TE DEUM to which he scandalously adds his voice. To Marie, Scarpia was the sexiest character in all opera. She herself was often balked of power, at the office, due to the cabal of men intimidated by her authority, and generally in the world due to her lack of qualifications. She had withering contempt for men as a breed, though she was deeply attracted to them on the physical level. She had many relationships, many of them - in the phrase of the time - unsuitable. It had become clear from an early stage that her mother, afflicted with various vague conditions, would need looking after permanently, and Marie, with her unflinching sense of duty, knuckled down to the job, though she never pretended that it was a labour of love. They were utterly at odds temperamentally. But Marie continued to make the house and particularly the beautiful garden. For relaxation she liked nothing more than to sit down with friends and a bottle of whisky and laugh, quite bawdily when the mood struck. At these evenings, as often as not on a Friday night, Marie and her mother at last became a good team - a bit of a double act.

Marie loved music, and, unlikely as it may seem, her earliest dream had been to be a ballerina, but of course there was no money for any such indulgence. She was not a great reader, nor a theatre-goer, nor was she a traveller, housebound on account of her mother, to some extent, but in truth not especially interested in other cultures, other climates. She left England once only, to go to Zurich for a board meeting, and came back the same night. She was technically a Roman Catholic, but never a very enthusiastic churchgoer, though she loved a drink and a laugh with the priests. For her, God was to be found in flowers and above all in animals. She worshipped, the word is not too strong her pets, a long succession of pampered pussies, most of whom grew dangerously portly under her loving regime. For her, they were, in Auden’s words, the entirely beautiful. In general, she thought the human race a bad lot, but curiously enough, she had a very special gift for friendship, and her friends loved her with a particular intensity, which amounted to devotion. She was extraordinarily lucky in her neighbours, over the years, on both sides of her house in Pinfold Road. In particular, in her last years the twin blessings of Nick Bell at No 2, unendingly generous with his time and energy, and at No 6 the family of Christina Matthews brought her meals, gossip, advice and huge affection which continued to her dying moments, Christina talking to her as she lay unconscious, assuring her of all the arrangements that had been made in impeccable order as Marie would so ardently have desired. She could be astringent, demanding, haughty, harsh in judgement, but there was about her a splendour, a magnificence, a bigness of spirit that made all that bearable, almost fitting.

The end was serene. On the day before she died, she had a return to consciousness and she and Nick chatted and laughed and admired some pussycat photos he’d brought to show her. As she sat at the top of St Thomas' Hospital, looking out over the Thames at the House of Commons bathed in golden light, it started to snow, and this must have been the last sight she ever saw, a gentle engulfing whiteness softly descending from above. The following day, she died in her sleep. I arrived at her bedside two minutes later. The nurses, the wonderful, diligent, respectful nurses, who could not have laboured harder for her than if she’d been a Prime Minister or a Queen, had arranged her on the bed, and I sat with her motionless form, her face now clear and strong again after all the fretful turmoil of the pneumonia which beset her at the end, and her still unlined features seemed to be those of a monarch or a warrior, noble, powerful, beautiful. Of course, in life she would have made a scathing joke or uttered a dismissive curse had I said any such thing, but the woman in whose presence I sat that night was the stuff of which greatness is made. Life, as it so often does, balked her of her fulfilment, but anyone who knew her would understand what I mean.

 Simon Callow