Partner Juliet Duff, Alexander Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Carisbrooke

Queer Places:
34-36 Wardour St, London W1D 6QT, UK
22 Bury Walk, London SW3 6QB, UK

Simon Fleet at writing table by John Deakin on artnetSimon Henry Fleet aka Harry Carnes (1913 - December 11, 1966) was an English journalist. He was a socialite antiques expert, who entertained continuously at his Chelsea house, the Gothic Box. He was a close friend of Richard Buckle and of Cecil Beaton. He was the companion of Lady Juliet Duff. Simon Fleet had also a relationship with Alexander Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Carisbrooke (in his later years Lord Carisbrooke had a longtime male lover). Simon Fleet features in Truman Capote’s letters.

Fleet doubled as salesroom correspondent of the Observer and as a pimp for upper-class married gay men. Originally named Harry Carnes, he wished to change his name to ‘Simon Sailor’, but being dissuaded, compromised by becoming ‘Simon Fleet’. Duff says that Fleet woke each morning thinking ‘what has this day got to offer me, and for me to offer others?’ It might be the epigraph for his tender-hearted, prickly, resilient and life-enhancing memoir.

Along with Edgar Blatt, the driving force behind the ill fated “To and Fro” was Simon Carnes. He wrote a number of Revues in the 1930s, including “One of Those Things“(1934), “All’s Well” (1936) and “Back Your Fancy” (1938). He was also an actor and a set designer. Although primarily a lyricist he seems to have also done some composing and is credited with providing the music for the 1935 Fortune theatre production of Elmer Rice’s “Not For Children“. The Revues seem to have been generally well-received but they peter out at the end of the decade.

Simon Fleet by John Deakin on artnet
Simon Fleet by John Deakin

Deakin John | 2 Works: Simon Fleet in his studio (1950) | MutualArt
Simon Fleet by John Deakin

Lady (Gladys Mary) Juliet Duff (née Lowther); Lynn Fontanne; Alfred Lunt; Simon Fleet; Chips Channon by Cecil Beaton bromide print, 1948 5 3/8 in. x 5 3/8 in. (138 mm x 138 mm) Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1991 Photographs Collection NPG x40084

Simon Carnes, like so many others, disappears from the records, a small footnote to theatrical history. It's at this time that "Simon Fleet" was born. Carnes had lived in Wardour Street, upstairs of what, in the 1930s, was Mrs.Brown’s Little Tea Shop, and now Vietnamese restaurant. He was evidently already something of a “character”. Tall, handsome, very much a dandy, he was taken up by some very influential friends. The two most important were probably Sophie Fedorovich and Lady Juliet Duff. Sophie Fedorovich was a Russian-born artist who was part of the circle that included Barbara Ker-Seymer, Olivia Wyndham, Marty Mann and Lucy Norton. She was also very close to Frederick Ashton. Although a gifted painter, it is for her costume and set designs for the Ballet that she is best remembered. When she met Simon is uncertain – her name is on the programme for “To and Fro” so it is likely that they knew each other from the mid-thirties. Equally significant was his relationship with Lady Juliet Duff, a socialite and patron of the Arts (particularly Ballet) to whom the adjective “extraordinary” is customarily applied. Lady Juliet was thirty years Carnes’ senior and he was to be what Viva King terms her “cavaliere servente” for many years. She provided Carnes with an income – he seems not to have been independently wealthy – and encouraged his transformation. He was a constant presence at her house and as a companion at the theatre. Sir Francis Rose describes Simon in the early days of his alliance with Lady Duff. “Simon Carnes, as he was called then, drifted about the house quietly, politely, and with sufficient personal fantasy to make him the most pleasing of modern and youthful eccentrics.”

During the War Carnes (whose real name is something of a mystery – Nicky Haslam says he was originally Harry Carnes, while Viva King thinks it was Kahn) changed his name to Simon Fleet. He was in the Merchant Navy at the time. He also changed his appearance, thanks to an experiment with plastic surgery that left him with a rather snub-nosed look, and his profession – moving from the world of the stage to Antiques. Starting off as a Portobello Road stallholder, he was to eventually become the salesroom correspondent for various Arts journals and the Observer’s antiques expert.

His good taste was legendary and his 1961 book on the history of clocks is still regarded as a classic. But it was his persona and distinctive companions for which he is most usually remembered. As Viva King recalled, “His house was made gay by his great variety of friends – high, middle or lower class. Simon brought gaiety to his world and one was lucky to know him.” These friends included Chips Channon, Cecil Beaton, Richard "Dickie" Buckle and Oliver Messel. His appearance too, guaranteed that he was noticed. He had a fondness for thigh-length boots, which, in the 1950s, must have even caused Chelsea heads to turn. The house in question was 22 Bury Walk. He had inherited this from Sophie Fedorovich, who died there in 1953 – owing to a gas leak. It was known as the “Gothic Box” and was sumptuously and ornately decorated. Nicky Haslam, to whom Simon was an early mentor in all things stylish and sophisticated, devotes considerable space to affectionate reminiscences of the house and its owner in his autobiography Redeeming Features.

Apart from his writings on antiques, Fleet edited a tribute book to Sophie Fedorovich and an odd little booklet on Henry James at Rye. He befriended Lady Diana Cooper and appears to have had a similar relationship with her as with Juliet Duff. When the latter died in 1964, she left him money in her will, a testament to their long friendshio. Thereafter he went into a serious emotional depression. His end was sad and undignified. Less than sober, he fell down the stairs at the Gothic Box and died as a consequence. Richard "Dickie" Buckle gave the eulogy at his funeral.

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