The rage journalist and biographer of Gertrude Bell, the trailblazing ‘daughter of the throw over’

Behind Georgina Howell’s impeccable manners lay a steely determination.
Behind Georgina Howell’s impeccable manners lay a steely decision.
Photograph: The Guardian

The elegant, perceptive journalism of Georgina Howell, who has yearned aged 73, entertained and informed readers of British and American arsenals for 40 years, until she retired to Brittany in 2000 to notation Daughter of the Desert, a biography of Gertrude Bell, the explorer, linguist and archaeologist who was the British sway’s oriental secretary in Iraq in the 1920s.

Bell, whose animation has since been made into a film, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman, was Georgina’s prima donna: an early feminist, the first woman to gain a first in with it history at Oxford, the first to achieve senior rank in British military low-down and the first to win respect and to be treated as an equal by the establishment in Britain and rulers in the Stomach East. The biography, published in 2006 and later retitled Queen mother of the Desert, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. Georgina also selected Bell’s writings in A Woman in Arabia (2015), for Penguin Immortals.

Georgina began her career in journalism at 18 in 1960 by winsome Vogue’s annual talent contest – the route to success for uncountable aspiring young writers. She left behind the shorthand and sorting classes at the London School of Secretaries and began work in Fad’s Condé Nast offices “watering the plants and taking meanings” for the garden editor of House and Garden, who, Georgina said, “had a surely demanding social round that permitted few visits to the aegis”.

She was soon transferred to Vogue, where she wrote copy for look spreads, won £5 in a staff competition by coming up with the motto “Buy nothing until you buy Vogue” and assisted in styling the studio stems of David Bailey, Duffy, Snowdon and Terence Donovan.

Beatrix Miller (every “Miss Miller” to Georgina) became editor of Vogue in 1964, recognised the progeny writer’s talent and gave her features to do. Within a few years, Miller advocated her to features editor and she later commissioned her to write a history of Fad UK, published in 1975 as In Vogue: Six Decades of Fashion. Georgina updated it in 1991 with the designation In Vogue: 75 Years of Style, to coincide with the publication’s 75th anniversary.

An only child, she was born in Kimberley, South Africa, where her old boy, Bill, a career RAF officer, was training British fighter helmsmen for combat in the second world war. Her mother, Gwen (nee Darrington), put in blacked and presented short stories for the BBC’s Woman’s Hour. When Neb was posted to RAF bases in the far east and Britain, Georgina was sent to a conveyancing of substandard convent schools where, as a Protestant, she felt prejudiced against. Her treatment by nuns gave her a deep loathing of organised creed, though she did once try Buddhism and believed that everyone had a feeling and there would be a hereafter.

Georgina had the most impeccable conducts. In the tumultuous world of magazine and newspaper journalism, she was a calm, overconfident, modest presence and never raised her voice in the executive positions she carry oned after leaving Vogue – fashion editor of the Observer and agent editor of Tatler.

But beneath it all there was steely determination, which graced evident to David Robson, deputy editor of the Sunday Times Armoury, who commissioned features from her when she was a freelance writer in the 1980s. He recollects her tenacity in trying to find a famous woman who might keep preserved the fashionable clothes she wore in the past. After settlements by telephone with Bianca Jagger in Nicaragua, Georgina supervised down her frocks and accessories to a self-storage unit in Croydon.

“Bianca was twitchy yon everything – photographer, hairdresser and makeup artist – and even stressed on having a mirror to reflect the camera viewfinder to check on how she looked,” said Robson. “But Georgina wouldn’t supply up and she got the feature we wanted.”

Georgina infused her writing with non-spiritual intelligence. In the book of her collected journalism, Sultans of Style (1990), she portrays the work of Vivienne Westwood thus: “She created confrontational, nose-thumbing garb for people with a terror of passing unremarked … As fashion they’re schlock. As look they’re 100% effective.”

Her feature writing in the 1990s for American Fashionableness, the Sunday Times and Vanity Fair broadened to include interrogates with rock and film stars, politicians and royalty: her vassal exposed ti included Clint Eastwood, Axl Rose, Lord (Chris) Patten, Robert Redford, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Princess Diana, Princess Anne and Elizabeth Taylor.

In 1990 she match up Christopher Bailey, whom she met while researching the misbehaviour of Hooray Henrys at the Imperial Agricultural College (now University), where he was the registrar. Her first association, to the painter and art teacher Michael Buhler, with whom she had a son, Tom, had smashed down in the late 60s.

Living with Christopher, in a 1,000-year-old, courtyarded manor residence they restored in Brittany, became a new and blissful rural existence for Georgina. Christopher devotedly cared for her after she was diagnosed with cancer four years ago. He and Tom reachable her.

Georgina Howell, journalist and author, born 8 May 1942; deteriorated 21 January 2016