Oswald Frewen, the son of Moreton Frewen and Clarita Jerome, was born in London on 11th September, 1887. His mother was the elder sister of Jennie Jerome, who had married Randolph Churchill. He became close friends with their son, Winston Churchill. Oswald and his sister, Clare Frewen, were brought up at Brickwall, a large black-and-white Elizabethan manor in Northiam. They also owned Brede Place near Rye and a house in Innishannon.
Frewen was educated at Eton College. He joined the Royal Navy and during the First World War he took part in every major Naval engagement in the North Sea. His sister's husband, Wilfred Sheridan was killed at the Battle of Loos on 25th September, 1915. The following year the twenty-year-old, Seymour Edward Frederick Egerton, 6th Earl of Wilton, asked Clare Sheridan to marry him. Oswald Frewen, wrote in his diary: "The fiancé is evidently of generous and lovable disposition. That Puss (Clare) should marry him, an Earl with £90,000 a year aged 20 cannot fail to look bad, and indeed the material benefits accruing thereto are so great for the entire Frewen family indirectly that I have the utmost circumspection in admitting a desire for it even to myself - I don't like the idea of her marrying again when the first union was perfect - but she is not the sort to go coldbloodedly after money & a coronet is certainly nothing to her. He is very much in love with her (his heart is weak and he requires humouring), she is obviously fond of him, old Wilfred expressly told her that if he were killed he hoped she would marry again."
Frewen wrote about the progress of the relationship in February, 1917: "Suddenly, last October, she met Simon who fell in love with her. She accepted a gold wrist watch from him, which shocked me (Lady Annesley describes me as a prude, or a "prig" is it?)... After that I was positively relieved when she said she was engaged to him. He is 20, she is 31. She is, moreover, his first love. He is a Ward in Chancery and his mother disapproves. All her friends were against it, argued it out, said what a dear he was (which he is) & that he is so unlike Wilfred that they don't clash, that Wilfred wanted it. Anyway I finally came round to it. Besides it was her affair & I was loyal to her. They have been engaged now a couple of months, he has been before the judges for permission & got it for April, had a row with his mother, announced it in the papers; now because Puss has tonsillitis which appears to have the same effect as jaundice, she says she isn't going to marry him at all! No reason; just a whim. Thinks she won't be happy - after weighing it all up & saying 'Yes,' now to do a volte-face, shatter his faith in her whole sex, make him miserable, make herself & all of us who were loyal to her the laughing stock of the whole world, & set aside (for what it is worth) a comfortable & assured future for Wilfred's children... I decline to follow her gymnastics any further. She has brought me round to approve of it all; with time & trouble I have reconciled myself to it. I have met him & he is a ripper; and I am just not going to turn again. I would consider any girl who treated any man so, rather a beast if she were young & he were old. I would consider any woman who treated a boy so as a cad."
Clare Sheridan had fallen in love with Alexander Thynne, the son of the John Thynne, 4th Marquis of Bath, and the MP for Bath. Although he was 43 years old he had joined the Wiltshire Regiment on the outbreak of the First World War and given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Thynne was wounded twice at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Clare had met him while he was on leave and described him as "entrancing - alive - able to give a sense of purpose."
Thynne returned to the Western Front to take part in the Battle of Passchendaele in November 1917. Clare heard that "someone high up" was trying to get Thynne out of the trenches but told a mutual friend "don't let him know strings are being pulled". In April 1918 he was slightly wounded in the left arm which gave him a month in London. Clare admitted that she hoped that his wound would go septic, but it healed and he rejoined his regiment and Thynne was killed in action in France on 14th September 1918.
On 14th August, 1920, Clare Sheridan met Lev Kamenev, the head of the Soviet Trade Delegation that was visiting London at the time. Kamenev agreed to sit for Sheridan: "There is very little modelling in his face, it is a perfect oval, and his nose is straight with the line of his forehead, but turns up slightly at the end, which is a pity. It is difficult to make him look serious, as he smiles all the time Even when his mouth is severe his eyes laugh.... We had wonderful conversations. He told me all kinds of details of the Soviet legislation, their ideals and aims. Their first care, he told me, is for the children, they are the future citizens and require every protection. If parents are too poor to bring up their children, the State will clothe, feed, harbour and educate them until fourteen years old, legitimate and illegitimate alike, and they do not need to be lost to their parents, who can see them whenever they wish. This system, he said, had doubled the percentage of marriages (civil of course), and it had also allayed a good deal of crime - for what crimes are not committed to destroy illegitimate children?"
Clare Sheridan took a holiday with Kamenev on the Isle of Wight. While they were there Kamenev promised her that he would arrange for her to return to Moscow with him. She told her cousin, Shane Leslie, that doing busts of Lenin and Leon Trotsky might bring her world fame. On 5th September 1920, Oswald Frewen, wrote in his diary: "Puss (Clare) is trying to go to Moscow with Kamenev to sculpt Lenin and Leon Trotsky.... I rather she didn't go but she has got Bolshevism badly - she always reflects the views of the last man she's met - and I think it may cure her to go and see it. She is her own mistress and if I thwarted her by telling Winston, she'd never confide in me again.... I went to the Bolshevik Legation in Bond Street with her and waited while she saw Kamenev. Several typical Bolshies there - degenerate lot."
Oswald Frewen shared the views of his cousin, Winston Churchill: "Winston was.... interesting about the Bolsheviks, France having just recognised Wrangel, a South Russian anti-Bolshevik leader. He said nobody hated Bolshevism more than he, but Bolsheviks were like crocodiles. He would like to shoot everyone he saw, but there were two ways of dealing with them - you could hunt them or let them alone, and it was sometimes too expensive to go on hunting them for ever. This from our fire-eating Minister for War was interesting."
Sheridan and Kamenev arrived in Moscow on 20th September, 1920. Olga Kameneva was on the station to greet him: "We reached Moscow at 10.30 a.m. and I waited in the train so that Kameneff and his wife could get their tender greetings over without my presence. I watched them through the window: the greeting on one side, however, was not apparent in its tenderness. I waited and they walked up the platform talking with animation. Finally Mrs. Kamenev came into the compartment and shook hands with me. She has small brown eyes and thin lips."
While in Russia Sheridan produced busts of Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev and Felix Dzerzhinsky. She also met other important figures such as Alexandra Kollontai, Maxim Litvinov, Angelica Balabanov and Clara Zetkin. She also attended the funeral of John Reed and attended his funeral. According to Robert Service, the author of Trotsky: A Biography (2010), Trotsky and Sheridan became lovers while in Moscow.
Clare Sheridan arrived back in England on 23rd November, 1920. She was besieged by reporters. A representative from The Times begged her not to talk to other newspapers and offered her an exclusive deal where she would be well rewarded for her story. Her cousin, Shane Leslie, who was busy negotiating a deal, told her: "Do stick to art and literature and leave politics.... So tread delicately and print nothing that has not passed over my typewriter. If you take my advice I may recover caste with the family!"
Eventually she agreed a deal where The Times to publish her diaries. The New York Times negotiated a contract that gave them the rights to publish them in the United States and the rest of the world. According to Oswald Frewen: "The telephone rang incessantly with pressmen... The Times gave her £500 for the first installment. We still tried to sell exclusive photo rights, also got her to sign about £400 of most pressing bills." The Times sold the series of extracts from the diaries as: "With Lenin and Trotsky. Diary of an Englishwoman." She later recalled she enjoyed her new-found fame: "All the city clerks read it in the omnibuses and the Tube on the way to work. I boarded both during the rush hours to watch them doing it!"
However, the establishment disliked her apparent sympathy for the Bolshevik government. They were especially hostile to the comments made about communism in her diary on 2nd November, 1920: "My ear has accustomed itself to the language of Communism, I have forgotten the English of my own world. I do not mean that I am a Communist, nor that I think it is a practical theory, perhaps it is not, but it seems to me, nevertheless, that the Russian people get gratis a good many privileges, such as education, lodging, food, railways, theatres, even postage, and a standard wage thrown in. If the absence of prosperity is marked, the absence of poverty is remarkable. The people's sufferings are chiefly caused by lack of food, fuel and clothing. This is not the fault of the Government. The Soviet system does not do it to spite them, or because it enjoys their discomfiture. Only peace with the world can ameliorate their sufferings, and Russia is not at war with the world, the world is at war with Russia. Why am I happy here, shut off from all I belong to? What is there about this country that has always made everyone fall under its spell? I have been wondering. My mind conjures up English life and English conditions, and makes comparisons. Why are these people, who have so much less education, so much more cultured than we are? The galleries of London are empty. In the British Museum one meets an occasional German student. Here the galleries and museums are full of working people. London provides revues and plays of humiliating mediocrity, which the educated classes applaud and enjoy. Here the masses crowd to see Shakespeare. At Covent Garden it is the gallery that cares for music, and the boxes are full of weary fashion, which arrives late and talks all the time. Here the houses are overcrowded with workers and peasants who listen to the most classical operas. Have they only gone as someone might with a new sense of possession to inspect a property they have suddenly inherited? Or have they a true love of the beautiful and a real power of discrimination? These are the questions I ask myself."
Sheridan then went onto argue: "Civilisation has put on so many garments that one has trouble in getting down to reality. One needs to throw off civilisation and to begin anew, and begin better, and all that is required is just courage. What Lenin thinks about nations applies to individuals. Before reconstruction can take place there must be a revolution to obliterate everything in one that existed before. I am appalled by the realisation of my upbringing and the futile view-point instilled into me by an obsolete class tradition. Time is the most valuable material in the world, and there at least we all start equally, but I was taught to scatter mine thoughtlessly, as though it were infinite. Now for the first time I feel morally and mentally free, and yet they say there is no freedom here. If a paper pass or an identification card hampers one's freedom, then it is true. There may be restrictions to the individual, and if I were a Russian subject I might not be allowed to leave the country, but I seem to have been obliged to leave England rather clandestinely. Freedom is an illusion, there really is not any in the world except the freedom one creates intellectually for oneself."
After retiring from the Royal Navy as a Commander, Oswald Frewen embarked on a career in journalism and found a job with The Daily Telegraph. In March, 1923, Herbert Swope, the editor of the New York World, put Clare Sheridan on a $100 a week contract and sent her to Berlin. Frewen travelled with her to Germany. One of her first reports was on Adolf Hitler: "In Munich Mr. Hitler had raised an army of Fascists and threatened violence to the German Republic. That he fizzled out into a mere nothing could not have been foreseen. At the moment he seemed all-important."
Frewen and Sheridan also interviewed Maxim Gorky in Freiberg. Frewen wrote in his diary: "Gorky told us he left Russia because the Soviet government were not for Russia but for Internationalism, and he was for Russia. Why did he live in Germany? Because he could get visas for nowhere else." Gorky told them that he thought the peasants were better off after the Russian Revolution. "When asked about the attendant miseries, he replied that a rainy day is good for the potatoes."
After General Miguel Primo de Rivera obtained power in Spain Sheridan and Frewen travelled to Madrid. Frewen wrote in his diary: "We retired to the Hotel to write and pack. We are the only correspondents to whom he has granted a special interview, and we are off with our loot." Frewen wrote a long article headed Coup d'État in Spain which occupied nearly a page of the newspaper. They then caught the evening train to Paris on which King Alfonso XIII also happened to be travelling: "Puss (Clare) stopped dead in the middle of the swaying compartment to drop a most unbolshevistic curtsey."
Frewen and Sheridan next went to Moscow where they had a meeting with Maxim Litvinov, the Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs. He was interested in talking about Winston Churchill: "Two first cousins of that abominable Churchill meet at my table. What hostages! I ought to arrest you both - that man cost Russia thousands of lives by prolonging our Civil War." Litvinov was unwilling to arrange any interviews with members of the government. Sheridan wrote: "What was I to write about the New Russia; how circumvent the dreadful anti-climax? I felt as a woman might who, having dreamed of reunion with a lover after years of faithful separation, met him and he turned his back upon her."
On her return to London Sheridan wrote a series of hostile articles in The Daily Express about the Soviet Union. According to Anita Leslie, the author of Clare Sheridan (1976): "As Clare's latest articles in the Daily Express criticized Russia, her previous infatuation with the Communist regime was forgiven, and Mrs. Sheridan found herself lionized by London Society. She greatly enjoyed it while continuing to lament bitterly the disillusion of her great love, the Soviet Union."
Christian Rakovsky, the Soviet Ambassador, called her in to complain about her articles. He offered to arrange for her to visit the Ukraine to see how much progress was being made. Oswald Frewen agreed to go with her. It was decided to travel to Russia across Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland on a motorbike and side-car. Frewen claimed that the only way she got a visa was because "Rakovsky's fallen for her. They all do. And in the end she'll be shot. The couple left on 6th July 1924."
Sheridan produced Rakovsy's letter to the guards on the Poland-Russia border. The officer commented: "We have been waiting for you for two days. All Russia is yours." While in Odessa they met William Norman Ewer and Rose Cohen. Ewer, was the diplomatic correspondent of The Daily Herald. Frewen fell in love with Cohen. He wrote in his diary: "She has probably been thinking that I was rather in love with her and that unless she kept a trifle aloof I might get a trifle unmanageable. She is old enough anyway for all her childish appearance, to have that amount of worldly wisdom . Frank, friendly, gentle but aesthetic, unconventional and a communist, I wonder just how I shall react to her in London. Bare legs and a Tartar dress are her setting. How will she appear in Mount Street?" Frewen eventually married Lena Spilman.
The fiance is evidently of generous and lovable disposition. That Puss (Clare) should marry him, an Earl with £90,000 a year aged 20 cannot fail to look bad, and indeed the material benefits accruing thereto are so great for the entire Frewen family indirectly that I have the utmost circumspection in admitting a desire for it even to myself - I don't like the idea of her marrying again when the first union was perfect - but she is not the sort to go coldbloodedly after money & a coronet is certainly nothing to her. He is very much in love with her (his heart is weak and he requires humouring), she is obviously fond of him, old Wilfred expressly told her that if he were killed he hoped she would marry again.
Winston was.... interesting about the Bolsheviks, France having just recognised Wrangel, a South Russian anti-Bolshevik leader. He said nobody hated Bolshevism more than he, but Bolsheviks were like crocodiles. He would like to shoot everyone he saw, but there were two ways of dealing with them - you could hunt them or let them alone, and it was sometimes too expensive to go on hunting them for ever. This from our fire-eating Minister for War was interesting.
I have something on my mind that I will have to write to you and that I hoped I could avoid doing but I did not see my way clear any longer... I am a funny woman, I know myself. I go a long time in a smouldering state, & one day I burst. I've done it several times... It is all the more difficult to write because I do love you.
You may criticise me to myself, or even to my friends if it so move you, but I cannot tolerate your criticising me to my children. Happily nothing you can say about me to Margaret has any effect. She adores me & she's loyal. She has lived with me too long & too intimately not to know and appreciate me. Her love and respect will never waver.
My children are all I live for. I could easily have parked them both years ago on the Wavertrees as you know, but I happen not to be that sort. They are mine and I am sole guardian, according to my lights I have brought them up and educated them-my ideas may not be yours just as yours are not mine-I dare not bring Dick any more into your orbit-As for the Navy, this new idea is a week old & he thinks it might be a good plan to learn a little about men-of-war in order to know later how to handle his Thames bargel He wants the Sea & he can have the Sea-If he loved the Desert it would be no reason for going into the Foreign Legion - So darling there will be no visit to Brede for Dick this time. I have explained that I am too busy.