HAROLD ACTON, American writer and dilettante (d. 1994); British writer, scholar and dilettante, among the “Bright Young Things” of British society during the 1920s, few shone quite as brightly as Harold Acton. Known for his flamboyant dandyism and his extraordinary demeanor, he was the object of frequent mention in gossip columns. He may also have been the inspiration for the notorious “Anthony Blanche,” the outré homosexual undergraduate character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), although Waugh himself claimed that Brian Howard inspired the character.
Although he was at various points in his long life a poet, novelist, historian, university lecturer, Royal Air Force officer, and philanthropist, Acton’s true vocation was that of an aesthete with a mission, in his own words, to “excite rage in the hearts of the Philistines.” Acton’s own works include Memoirs of an Aesthete and The Bourbons of Naples, 1734-1825, a gossipy history of the Bourbon rulers of the Kingdom of Naples in the 18th century. He also wrote Peonies and Ponies, the most popular satirical book about the clash between European and Chinese culture. In 1974 he was named a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE).
When he died he left his Italian home, Villa La Pietra, to New York University. Following Acton’s death at the age of 89, DNA testing revealed the existence of a half-sister, whose heirs have gone to court to challenge Acton’s $500 million bequest to NYU.