The Earl of Grantham’s stately pile Downton Abbey is as famous as any of the characters of the hit TV series but fans of the show might be interested to learn of Highclere Castle’s (the real Downton) other storyline which rivals any of the plots Julian Fellowes dreams up! I was intrigued by the story which first appeared in the Sunday Express so I decided to contact William Cross, the author of Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives to inquire further about this fascinating, and relatively unknown, back story.
First of all William can you explain to The Mitford Society how you became interested in the lives of Tillie and Catherine?
My interest in aristocratic women of the past spans several projects. Tilly Losch and Catherine Wendell have been hovering around my study walls over the several years I‘ve spent researching and writing about the occupants of Highclere Castle.
These two women are first mentioned in “The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon”, my full length biography from 2011 of Almina Wombwell, the indefatigable Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, of Old King Tut fame. Afterall, they were married to Almina’s only son, Henry ( better known as Porchey Carnarvon, who was the Sixth Earl of Carnarvon) : making Almina their mother-in-law.
My informants who offered up stories about Almina also swept in tales about her son’s two wives. Having slavishly written up Almina, and revealed her untold story to the world, Tilly and Catherine were relegated somewhat to bit players. Since I was left with many facts, anecdotes and testimonies about these two remarkable ( albeit very different) women it was inevitable, When I decided to continue the Carnarvon-Highclere story with a follow up title to “Secrets”, that I would hone in on them again as the two Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon, and finally give them headline billing.
What research did you undertake in writing your book, and how long did the creative process take?
Research is a long drawn out ritual, it’s an art. It’s the part of the whole process whose sum total makes a book credible or not. For the book on Tilly and Catherine it was a mix of culling from hundreds of printed sources in books, especially diaries and memoirs from the timelines of these woman, delving into newspapers, journals and plundering archives in Britain and America. The British Library and National Archives provided a good deal of the material. In America the librarians and archivists holding Tilly’s papers at Binghamton University, New York State and Catherine’s family records at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire were helpful and supportive. In the USA I was blessed in having help from another writer named Joyce Sachs ( the wife of a relative of Tilly ) who is also currently working on highlighting Tilly’s legacy ( for a play ) and who is hugely knowledgeable about the content of Tilly’s letters and diaries ( including those at Binghamton University written in German- Tilly’s mother tongue).
I had the assistance of Diana Fitzpatrick, a friend in America who acted as proxy researcher at Portsmouth and went through dozen of boxes of Wendell papers on my behalf. I was also helped by George Jackson a distinguished journalist and ballet critic in the USA ( who knew Tilly and her dance history ) and Charles W Wendell a member of the Catherine’s wider family carried out some recognisance work for me on the ground at places in New York associated with Catherine’s parents and other relatives. It helped that Charles was a notable figure in the Holland Society of New York : the Wendells are, of course, of Dutch origin!
The people I’d previously interviewed for my biography of Almina were seen again including her godson, who lived under Almina’s roof for 30 years and knew Catherine and Porchey interactions extremely well. I also interviewed several new people including a well informed octogenarian who spent his entire life at close quarters to Highclere and knew the family over several generations. Some equally aged members of the British peerage replied to enquiries providing additional details from their own memories of knowing both women and the notorious Porchey. I also carried out site visits to places associated with Catherine’s childhood years in Hertfordshire. I even made a pilgrimage to Catherine’s grave.
After sketching an outline I tend to draft chapters as I research. As this book had a good head start it was completed in about a year, including the final stages of shaping and editing and tracking down images. My book on Almina took three years to reach the same stage. The End Notes in the book set out every detail of the research sources used.
Why did you write a combined biography on the two women as opposed to a single biography of Tillie?
The book is sub- titled “ The Two Duped Wives of Porchey Carnarvon”. The focus of much of the book is on their relationship/ marriage to The Sixth Earl and what these women had to endure as Porchey’s Countesses. At the outset they were both in the same boat of having to find a husband who was better of than they were but the individual stories of the two women ( including I hope their indomitable spirit) is adequately covered in the book and their lives before and after their time at Highclere. These women were great survivors and they successfully turned their lives around without Porchey.
There is room for a full length biography of Tilly Losch: she was a very accomplished star of stage and film in her time. Rumours circulate in USA. I am told that the references in the late Ann Marie Koller’s long dormant biography of Tilly are being updated by her daughter for publication before the year is up.
We’re aware of the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, and the more recent book on Catherine written by the Countess of Carnarvon, how did that impact your project? Has it been a blessing or a curse?
Downton Abbey has shone a light on many forgotten stories from the past. But Downton is still essentially fiction. It is an enjoyable romp. The trouble with the tales outlined in “ Real Downton Abbey” books is that these are often just not a full reflection on how it all was, that’s worse than fiction since the parts left out are among the most intriguing, albeit controversial and the family would rather these secrets weren’t disclosed . Those behind the titles do NOT offer the complete picture of life stories of the Fifth and Sixth Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon. My researches on Almina and Catherine and Tilly ( and on the two Fourth Countesses Lady Evelyn Stanhope and Elsie Howard ) and their husbands and families all predate Downton and I have undoubtedly sold copies of my books on the back of Downton’s publicity machine and its great popularity. My take on the Carnarvons is offered to readers in good faith, warts and all and not to cash in on a TV series. I hope the legal deposit copies of my books ( and my working papers) will stand as a credible history of these people concerned long, long after Downton has ended its run.
Tillie’s name is always appearing in the endless volumes of Mitfordiana but if it weren’t for Downton do you feel the stories of these women would have otherwise been forgotten?
Tilly Losch is enjoying a renaissance at present, not only because of Downton The coverage given by Binghamton University in their Newsletter last summer and on their website is certainly a Downton Abbey spin off. But she is in the limelight again in her very own right. You can’t keep a girl like Tilly down. Her famous Tanz der Hande ( Dance of the Hands , and can be see on You Tube ) together with many stunning photographs of her early days dancing for the Max Reinhardt Company in her native Austria is the subject of an exhibition currently running in Vienna ( until 13 March, 2014 at the Bonartes Gallery ). This celebrates a notable period of pioneering dance history. The show has an enchanting catalogue of images of this most stunning creature and her fellow dancer Hedy Pfundmayr. I’d love to see the exhibition staged in London and in the USA. Perhaps the Tate Gallery or Barnes Museum in Philadelphia ( or even Binghamton University ) who all have examples of Tilly’s paintings ( Binghamton have many) could think about its public appeal. Perhaps Highclere coffers could offer sponsorship for staging a celebration of Tilly, the amazing dancing Countess of Carnarvon.
It is no surprise that Tilly ( a blinding star on the London and New York stage and with several films in Hollywood ) was seen by the great Society photographer Cecil Beaton ( and others) as one of the most beautiful women of her time. As to Tilly’s links with the Mitfords, especially her fling with Tom Mitford, close friendship with Nancy and her falling out with Diana ( over Tilly’s treatment of her first husband, the poet Edward James, to whom Diana was devoted), my book reflects on all on these overlaps and much more. I have also recently completed a short tribute entitled “ Tilly Losch ‘ Schlagobers’ Sweet Fragments From Her Life.” I will add more in years to come. I doubt I will ever get closure with Tilly.
I for one will carry on writing about such extraordinary woman ( and some men ) whose stories are less well known, hence my work on the Morgan dynasty of Tredegar House, South Wales which not got an iota to do with Downton Abbey.
Are you currently working on a project? What can we expect in the future?
Yes, several new books in progress for 2014, including a final look at the Evan, Viscount Tredegar and before that a book on a gay witch hunt in Abergavenny, South Wales, in 1942. I am also working on “Rosemary and Alastair: ‘Everything is More Beautiful Because We’re Doomed’ ” , the tragic story of the daughter and son of the great Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland.
William Cross is offering readers the chance to purchase his book for £10 (price includes p&p). This offer will end on 15th April. Click here for details.