Some of you might recall my review of Lillian on Life, a faux memoir written by Alison Jean Lester which has become one of my favourite books. I revisit Lillian every summer, and own the hardback and paperback versions (both covers are a work of art and ought to be gazed at!). When Alison suggested her publisher send me a copy of Yuki Means Happiness I naturally jumped at the chance to read an advance proof. She told me that her latest book, a work of fiction (and not a memoir, as she warned) was a ‘different animal’ from Lillian, and she was right. It is the story of Diana, a young nurse from Boston who answers an advertisement to work for a Japanese couple, Naoki and Emi, who have travelled to America to await the birth of their first child, Yuki. However, under the close scrutiny of Naoki (often from afar), Diana senses something is not right, but she ignores her instincts and assumes her uneasy feelings are the result of a learning curve. Then, a few years later, she is offered the job of nanny to Yuki, who is now three, and she moves to Tokyo. The household is, again, controlled by Naoki and Emi is gone, her disappearance is not explained, and the silence surrounding her abandoning Yuki evokes Diana’s old feelings. She finds herself trapped in a world that is filled with secrets, and discovers the truth about why Emi left. With Alison Jean Lester’s beautiful prose, the simplicity of the narrative, and the uneasy complexities of her characters bubbling to the surface, the plot is much more than what the nanny saw. It is a character study of a young woman adapting to a new life and culture while trying to come to terms with her own past and struggling to step into a future that has not been tainted by familial issues, unresolved feelings about love, and it is those factors which drive her instinct to protect Yuki. In that sense the character study of Diana did remind me of Lillian, as the narrative, written in Diana’s voice, draws the reader into her experiences of Japan (the author lived in Japan), and her descriptions of its pop culture, the underground, the food, and daily rituals offered a glimpse of a young woman’s life, albeit fictional. Like Lillian, she exposes the intricate detail of a woman’s life and, as before, she has the Midas touch.
The extremes of Mariga’s life, the hollow memories of a lonely childhood and the abandonment she felt from both parents, inspired in her a resilience against the modern world. Born Princess Hermione Marie-Gabrielle von Urach, on 21 September 1932, she was not expected to live, owing to an infection she caught at birth. Two months later, she recovered and Mariga would consider the month of November as her real birthday.
She was descended from the German royal house of Württemberg, as was Mary of Teck, the Queen Consort of King George V. ‘She is much more German than my Great-Aunt Elisabeth, Queen Mother of the Belgians,’ Mariga said. Related to every royal house in Europe, Mariga’s pedigree was older than the Windsors; her grandfather was briefly the King of Lithuania, a great-grandmother had married the Prince of Monaco, and she was related to Elisabeth ‘Sissi’, the Empress of Austria. Years later, she attended a dinner party and a guest spoke of Sissi and her alleged affair with King Ludwig, to which Mariga said: ‘They were just cousins.’ The guest challenged her response, claiming that neither he nor Mariga could be certain for they were not alive during those days. ‘I have it on good authority,’ she told him. She did not confess that Sissi and Ludwig were among her regal ancestors. But, then again, her upbringing had been a world away from her noble birthright.
Born in London to Prince Albrecht von Urach and Rosemary Blackadder (pronounced Black-a-derr), of Scots and Norwegian descent, Mariga’s parents identified themselves as artists. Albrecht counted Pablo Picasso as a close friend, and he painted the first commissioned portrait of Adolf Hitler, but it was declined because Hitler thought the staring eyes made him look mad. Adding to his false start as an artist, he convinced his mother to pay for an exhibition in London and he managed to sell one painting, which critics thought not very good. Rosemary’s income came from journalism, and she had been employed by the Daily Express to work two or three days a week for the Manchester edition. She was sent on assignments to interview interesting people, such as Feodor Chaliapin but his interview answers consisted of sex and violence, and so it could not be printed. Aside from her writing which she often illustrated, and brief engagement as an actress in the play And So To Bed, she could not hold down a job and depended on her mother to send her money. It was during a trip to Norway to visit her cousins that Rosemary had met Albrecht – it had also been reported that she met him at the German Embassy in Paris. Despite being two years younger and engaged to a Spanish aristocrat, he proposed to her and she accepted. Though, according to her sister, Erica, she did not love him and had no interest in raising their baby. When her sister asked to see Mariga, Rosemary said: ‘We don’t show the baby to strangers.’¹
With little money, and the royal house in a perilous position following the First World War, Albrecht would have to work for a living. For a brief period he, Rosemary and Mariga lived in Venice, where he eked out a living as a painter but it was not enough to keep a family. Thus, he accepted a post as a correspondent for the German Embassy in Japan, working as, among other things, a photo-journalist covering the Chinese-Japanese war. Prior to the family setting up home in Japan, Rosemary had visited her brother Ian in California because, according to her sister, Rosemary dreamt of becoming a film actress. When she failed to land a screen test she lay around Ian and his wife’s apartment, shooing away her small nieces. ‘Go away, little girls. Go away,’² she said. She had no interest in her own child, and she could not abide the curious children whose framed photographs she had turned to face the wall. Her brother’s stepdaughter, the future burlesque star Lili St Cyr, observed her step-aunt with interest. And although they were not related by blood, Lili, known as Willis in those days, felt a deep affinity with this fragile, glamorously made-up woman with dyed blonde hair and purple eyes, who had swapped her ordinary life for a royal title and world travel. Before Rosemary left America, she wrote to Albrecht and told him that artists were sought for an animated film and it might be a chance for him to earn good money. He declined her proposal to move to California, and the film in question had been Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
It was in Kamakura, Japan, at an early age, that Mariga’s love of buildings was born. Years later, when a friend spoke of their talent for buying and selling houses for a profit, Mariga commented that a ‘house is for always’. To her, a house had a soul and to neglect a house was on par with neglecting a human-being, or worse: the latter could speak up for itself. She was given an informal education, perhaps a rebellion against her mother’s own academic career. Rosemary had been to Girton College at Cambridge, on a scholarship, where she read Modern Languages and English. But she left her studies due to illness, after which she travelled around Europe with a puppet show. Beforehand, Rosemary had got into trouble with the police and was fined 10-shillings for riding her bicycle along a dark road without a lamp, and when questioned she said: ‘I am very sorry; I was only going very slowly.’³ Mariga’s lessons were compiled of drawing (she inherited her mother’s artistic talent), literature, music, dancing, foreign languages, and sight-seeing. The famous spy, Richard Sorge, taught little Mariga to play chess. And Rosemary instructed her to look at things as an artist would.
Having been accustomed to travelling and meeting people along the way, this new solitary existence did not bode well for Rosemary and, in spite of her surroundings, she suffered from a lack of social life. Her husband was in China, reporting on the war, and her only companion was her child. The Japanese did not mix with foreigners, and the staff at the Embassy, regardless of her husband’s lineage, were aloof. This, along with being thrown from her horse and suffering a concussion for the third time, added to a breakdown in health. Rosemary’s pendulum of moods, governed by a deep depression, cast a shadow over Mariga’s briefly idyllic childhood. ‘I adored Maman, though sometimes I was terrified by her unreasonable temper,’⁴ she wrote in a letter to her father. It appeared Albrecht was also exasperated by his wife’s temperament, for he came home from China and found her throwing the furniture out of the house, with a crowd of onlookers gathered close by.
In 1937, Rosemary’s mental stability collapsed. She was convinced Emperor Hirohito was being misled by his generals, and she took Mariga to Tokyo so she could relay the message to the Crown Prince in person. Her sister Erica wrote that Rosemary stormed into the Imperial Palace with the intention of drowning the Crown Prince, and when she did not succeed she then tried to drown Mariga. She was restrained by guards, injected with morphine, and put on board the Scharnhorst, en route to Europe, with two nurses. The nurses, however, were ditched by Rosemary in Marseilles and she continued her trip to London alone. Then, in London, she decided she wanted to meet Hitler and travelled to Berlin with the intention of doing so. Staying at the Adlon, she slit her wrists with a glass inkstand,⁵ and on a later occasion she supposedly lost part of her nose from jumping through a closed window.⁶ She left for Scotland to live with her mother, but at nightfall she disappeared and her mother had to search for her, thinking her corpse would be found in the river.⁷ Eventually, with Albrecht wishing to take no responsibility for his wife, Rosemary was put into an asylum at Morningside, Edinburgh.
This incident, and what would follow, would leave a lasting impression on Mariga. At the age of six she travelled alone on a Japanese liner to England and was met by Hermione Ramsden, her elderly godmother known as Aunt Mymee. With her mother sectioned against her will at Morningside Mental Home, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and her father working in Europe, free of parental and marital ties, she became Mymee’s responsibility. They set up home in Haslemere, Surrey. And they would spend their summers in Norway, in the ten-acre wood at Slidre, which Mymee had bought in 1917. She had built several wooden huts, executed in a traditional Norwegian style with elaborate carvings, overlooking the Jotunheim mountains. An Aubusson carpet was laid out on the lawn, and hot water came from an enormous tea urn from the Girl Guides in London. An old fashioned Fabian, who believed that art and literature were the birthright of everyone, and devoted to spiritualism, Mymee would play the Ouija board much to Mariga’s criticism. The farmers, too, were wary of the otherworldly channel, for they were afraid her seances would spoil their crops.
This eccentric lifestyle, along with her memories of Japan, conspired to give Mariga an unorthodox education. And, an intellectual herself, Mymee would go through a succession of sixteen governesses to educate Mariga, one being an exiled Ethiopian princess. Mariga liked to tease them by asking inappropriate questions; with one of her governesses, while on an outing to a park in Norway, she pointed to the nude statues and said: ‘Look at that one, don’t you think it looks wonderfully naturalistic?’ When Mariga was old enough, friends would successfully persuade Mymee to send her to the Monkey Club, on Pont Street, a finishing school for upper-class young women, where they learned domestic arts, typing, and how to behave in society. Its name was derived from the motto drummed into the students: ‘Hear no evil, see no evil’.⁸ This turned out to be a blessing, and it played a part in connecting Mariga to her natural family. For, during the winter term, she boarded at More House, a Catholic hostel, and met her cousin Prince Rupert Löwenstein who, in the future, would introduce Mariga to the man she would marry. It is interesting to take note of her cousins on both sides of her family; on her German side she had a smattering of royal cousins spread across Europe, and on her mother’s Scots-Norwegian side her non-royal cousins were living in grander circumstances – her uncle Ian Blackadder’s daughter, Barbara (half-sister of Lili St Cyr), for instance, had a brief Hollywood career before marrying Louis Marx, an American toy-maker and millionaire.
Although Mariga was a mere seven-years-old when the Second World War was declared, she held a romantic notion of war and what it would mean for her. In her heart, she believed she would be reunited with her parents and they would return to Germany, to the family seat Schloss Lichtenstein in Stuttgart. It was not to be, for Albrecht had since moved to Venice, where he rented an apartment from the artist Anna Mahler (Rosemary’s former roommate in Paris), and by chance photographed the first private meeting between Hitler and Mussolini. Her father had considered sending her to relatives in Berlin, but a friend appealed to his better judgment and said it would be cruel to take the child from Mymee. Common sense prevailed, in Mariga’s favour, for the said relatives’ home had been bombed three times and, during this period of her life, Germany would have been a strange place and another upheaval.
In 1939, prior to Britain’s declaration of war, Mariga and Mymee went on their usual trip to Norway. When war was announced, Mymee decided it was too dangerous to attempt a sea-crossing to England. And so they went to Sweden and from there they flew to Brighton. It is possible that Mymee thought her young ward needed a distraction, for she sent her to her first school, at Malvern. Mariga hated it and, too shy to make friends, she convinced Mymee to let her leave. The remainder of the war was spent in the attic at Haslemere, from where she observed Mymee’s guests and sketched caricatures in a jotter. A guest glanced at her drawings and thought she showed genuine talent, but Mariga snatched the jotter away and dismissed their praise. Such shyness was often mistaken for haughtiness.
When the war ended in 1945, Mariga’s dream of reuniting with her family, or her father at least, remained unfulfilled. Nobody came back for her. And Albrecht was charged by German authorities for having created Nazi propaganda, and for membership of the Nazi Party, which he had subscribed to in 1934. His joining the Nazi Party, according to Albrecht himself, was to pursue a career as a journalist. He apologised and there was no action, a lucky escape for his superiors were tried during what became known as the Nuremberg Trials.
In 1949 Mymee sent the sixteen-year-old Mariga on an architectural tour of Paris and Touraine. ‘Paris . . . that sparkling city of beauty and romance . . . with its Vogue models and its Quartier Latin, who would have thought its houses would be so dusty and drab?’⁹ she recorded in her diary. Undertaking the tour with a friend of a similar age named Eva, the girls returned to Mymee in Norway, stopping in Hamburg to visit Albrecht. ‘Suddenly I saw him. I knew him at once. That big head – its hair grey now, that bristly moustache, bad teeth, tall figure and long arms . . . But I didn’t shout MAFFEN, I didn’t burst with hysterical tears,’¹⁰ she wrote in her diary. Albrecht, on his behalf, remained unmoved during their reunion, and he offered Mariga his hand to shake.
After meeting her father she boarded the train and was trembling from shock, and she ‘longed to cry’ at the hopelessness of her father returning to her, or to her mother. It was some time after their encounter that Mariga learned of her parents divorce and of her father’s remarriage, to Ute Waldschmidt, and that he had had two children with his new wife. ‘When I heard about your new marriage in such a horrible, indirect way, you, my God of perfection, were tumbled forever I thought into dust,’ she wrote to her father. She believed that he would come back to her after the war, and would have landed ‘some rich type-writing job, and that Maman would remain cured by money, pretty clothes and you’.¹¹ The trauma of discovering her father’s secret family never left Mariga, but through time she forgave him and they struck up a friendly correspondence. In his letters he advised her to visit several of his relatives as she travelled through Europe, the latter tour being one of Italy with a friend from the Monkey Club.
Before leaving for England, Mariga went to Germany to meet her stepmother and half-siblings for the first time. It was to be an unsuccessful visit, and she wrote to her father with several excuses to justify her churlish mood. It should be noted that friends, throughout the years, spoke of the barrier she put up when speaking to a person; she detested hugs and kisses, and shaking hands. Some have explained this peculiarity as shyness, others praised her for attempting to overcome it. And yet, in an extreme juxtaposition, she appeared to have not been self-conscious when it came to decorum. An example of such was when she came to the breakfast room wearing only a bath towel, and as she passed through, Lady Rosse said: ‘There goes a true aristocrat.’ In the 1960s, Cecil Beaton described, in his diary, an encounter with Mariga. Calling her ‘the Mal Occhio‘ (the evil eye), mad, frightening and horrible . . . like some mad female impersonator creating alarming ambiance wherever she wandered’.¹² Explaining her behaviour to her father, Mariga wrote: ‘I know I behaved badly . . . I have awful manners – all my governesses said so, but I never realise the gaffes till it’s too late to do anything but apologise.’¹³ She also said that she could not love her stepmother, whom she called ‘Momi’, while her own mother was still alive.
At the age of eighteen Mariga was entirely alone, for Mymee had died aged eighty-four. She was without a home, a parental figure, and a steady place in a country that she could not identify with – she held a German passport and continued to romanticise the place of her ancestors. However England had been her home for twelve years and Mymee, as eccentric as she was, had provided her with the only permanency in her young life. The old lady had set aside money for her, fearing the inevitable would come while Mariga was barely out of childhood. From the £16,000 she inherited, she rationed her living expenses at £1 per day. A family named Ford, who were friends of Mymee’s, took her in, and she lived with them at their home in London. They remembered their young lodger going out, swathed in veils, which excited her male admirers. Around this period she had also given herself a new name, inventing ‘Mariga’ from Marie-Gabrielle, and until 1950 she had been called Gabrielle.
Now that Mariga was somewhat independent, one of the first things she did was visit her mother at the asylum. Rosemary had moved from Morningside Mental Home to Craig House, a sixteenth-century house that was converted into a psychiatric hospital.¹⁴ Years before, Rosemary’s mother had thought it would be a good idea for her to take an interest in Mariga. They brought Mariga to the family home in Scotland, and left Rosemary alone with her, and according to Rosemary’s sister they heard shrieks, which they thought were the result of her attacking the child. They could not be certain of this, but Rosemary ran away and for two days the police searched for her. After this incident, and when Mariga was older, Mymee had taken her to visit her mother at Morningside when Rosemary was more or less herself. However, in 1941, Rosemary was given a lobotomy, its method invented by the famous American surgeon, Dr Walter Jackson Freeman. The procedure although cruel was acceptable in its day, and she was subjected to electroshock treatment which rendered her unconscious before the surgeon hammered an ice pick through her eye sockets to destroy tracts of neurons in the brain cortex.¹⁵ This information, it can be assumed, was kept from Mariga. But now the truth would reveal itself, and showing up unannounced she found her mother in a distressing condition and unable to recognise her, saying that her daughter was five-years-old.
With Rosemary’s incurable illness coming to light and then the subsequent rejection of her, Mariga realised how alone she was. A short time later, she introduced herself with the greeting: ‘I am related to the Wittelsbachs and a little bit mad.’ Her aunt Erica was concerned about the stigma surrounding Rosemary’s schizophrenia and how it affected the family, most especially Mariga. Apparently Erica had approached the head doctor at the asylum and asked if Rosemary’s condition was hereditary, and that she was inquiring because Mariga’s father-in-law had wanted to know. ‘If it had been my son,’ said the head doctor, ‘I would have moved heaven and earth not to let that marriage take place.’¹⁶
It was during this rootless existence that Mariga left for Germany, and travelling through the French countryside she spied a beautiful house and asked to be shown around. Pretending she wished to buy it, she asked the estate agent if it had a ghost. He said no, and she said: ‘In that case I will certainly not buy it.’ When she reached Waldenburg she discovered that life for her father, and her royal relatives who had remained in the country, had drastically changed. The von Urach’s castle had been burned down by American troops, and the family lived in log huts on the estate. The conditions were spartan and, aside from their background and breeding, there was no hint of a regal life. They were indebted to the local butcher, who continued to supply meat without payment, and Albrecht wondered how he could afford the bill. Years later, Mariga would invite the butcher to her wedding in Oxford. It warmed the old man’s heart, and it was an example of Mariga as a person; social ranks meant little to her and a kind deed would always be remembered. During this period to make ends meet and to earn pin money for clothes and makeup and, more importantly, books, Mariga did a variety of odd jobs. She modelled for photographers, and she exercised horses at a Waldenburg riding school. Her ingenuity paid off when, longing to meet Gary Cooper, she disguised herself as a reporter and ‘asked him every question that came into her head’.
Returning to England, Mariga had been persuaded by her cousin Prince Rupert Löwenstein to move to Oxford, where she attended an extramural school. Her mother-in-law, Lady Mosley, formerly Diana Mitford, recalled: ‘Mariga was one of those girls who go to Oxford, not as undergraduates but to learn something or other.’¹⁷ Her future husband, a graduate of Christ Church, teased her that she had gone to Oxford to find a husband. He was somewhat right, as Oxford was to serve as a distraction for her broken heart.
Mariga had been in love with her cousin, Prince Moritz von Hessen, and as fate would have it, it ended badly. Prince Moritz’s mother, Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the daughter of King Emmanuel III of Italy, was the wife of Prince Phillip of Hesse, a member of the Nazi Party. Despite Prince Phillip acting as an intermediary between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Hitler and Joseph Goebbels believed Princess Mafalda was working against the German war effort. Hitler called her the ‘blackest carrion in the Italian royal house’, and Goebbels echoed his sentiments when he, too, referred to her as ‘the worst bitch in the entire Italian royal house’. She was imprisoned at Buchenwald concentration camp, where the conditions caused her arm to become infected and as a result the guards ordered it to be amputated and she bled to death. The treatment of Prince Moritz’s mother, combined with Mariga’s father having been on good terms with Hitler, conspired against the young couple’s happiness and they were forbidden to marry. Mariga claimed her heart was broken and said she would marry the first man who proposed to her. That man happened to be Desmond Guinness.
Having moved to Oxford in 1951, Mariga was introduced to Desmond Guinness, who was something of a star on the university’s campus owing to his flamboyant sense of style. His handsome looks were set off by bright blue eyes, referred to as ‘Mitford eyes’, the genetic trait of his mother’s family. And Mariga, too, though in those days she adhered to the tailored fashions of the ‘fifties, attracted attention. With her pageboy haircut, elegant nose and ‘devastating smile’, she was considered a beauty and was drawn by Nicholas Egon for his 1952 book, Some Beautiful Women of To-day.
When Mariga and Desmond met they were young, good looking and shared a taste for flamboyance. She was yet to express herself through her signature style, which became prominent in the late 1950s and ’60s: her dark hair piled on top of her head, she wore mini skirts and opaque tights, black patent shoes with buckles at the front, often paired with a jacket from her vast collection of costumes. Perhaps in one another they recognised the strain their respective parents had placed on them. Desmond’s mother, Diana Mosley, was the wife of Sir Oswald Mosley (for whom she had left Desmond’s father, Bryan Guinness) and had befriended Hitler in the 1930s, for which she had been imprisoned at Holloway during the war. Neither Desmond nor Mariga shared their parents’ political views. She came from a crumbling dynasty and her own branch was penniless, and he was a scion of the Irish brewing family. As a second son, he would not inherit his father’s Barony of Moyne, but he was given a substantial inheritance when he turned twenty-one and received an allowance from his Guinness trust fund. However, as generous as his financial situation was in comparison to Mariga’s, Desmond would still have to generate an income for himself and his wife.
On their wedding day, in 1954, Mariga was given away by her father, and although she was a Catholic, she married in an Anglican church. Her royal cousins from Germany had attended, along with Scottish relatives, and her father-in-law Lord Moyne sent a bus to fetch his estate workers. Among the aristocrats and princelings was a stranger named Paddy O’Reilly, who had been invited by mistake. The elderly dustman from Dublin had become something of a celebrity as a result, and was documented by the Irish press and television cameras on his journey from Dublin to Oxford, for the society wedding of the year. Convention never held much esteem for Mariga, and she walked down the aisle wearing only one shoe, as she had misplaced the other. It had also been said that a curious journalist had stolen it.
It seemed only natural that Mariga and Desmond chose to settle in Ireland. And, in the beginning, they haboured a dream of owning a farm. Although born in London, his paternal ties to the country were strong and he spent his summers there, with his father, at Knockmaroon, a stately pile on the edge of Phoenix Park. Mariga was enchanted by the countryside, the ancient ruins, and the Georgian architecture hearkening back to when Ireland had a royal family and a dynastic past. She had first visited Eire several years before, at the invitation of her friend Mark Bence-Jones, and stepped off the aeroplane wearing a tulle ballgown, having come from a party. Before she left, on that particular visit, she said: ‘I can’t think how you can ever leave Ireland.’ As it turned out, she never really would.
She returned to Ireland with Desmond and, for a year, from 1956-57, and they rented Carton House, an eighteenth-century manor house near Maynooth, where their young children, Patrick and Marina, lived up a winding staircase leading to the nursery. But the dream of owning and restoring their own Irish property had never left them. In 1958 Desmond bought Leixlip Castle, a twelfth-century castle in the town of Leixlip, Co. Kildare. Mariga moved into the castle, while Desmond was on a course in London, with four-hundred books, a cat (at one time she had twenty-six cats, all named after friends), and a rifle.
The late 1950s and mid-1960s were to become the golden age of Mariga’s life as a hostess. She and Desmond filled Leixlip with aristocrats, foreign royals, celebrities, local tradesmen, and various colourful individuals they had befriended along the way. The parties thrown in the winter of 1958 set the tone, and they continued until four o’clock in the morning. When Desmond became tired he wound up an antique Gothic organ which played ‘God Save the King’, and this signalled it was time to go home.
In the early ’60s, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden (who, when he was simply Antony Armstrong-Jones, had photographed Mariga on honeymoon in Venice) came to Ireland and were put up by Mariga and Desmond. Naturally, given the status of southern Ireland as a republic and the embittered feelings towards British royals, not everyone curtsied. Mariga herself failed to do so, explaining that she was the senior princess, and with her lineage she was, but a friend told her that she was wrong: dispossessed royalty always curtsy. Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting appeared flustered and commented that it was a difficult scenario indeed, for the princess did not know who would curtsy and who would not.
Having restored the derelict castle, with Mariga sourcing antique furniture and painting the rooms herself, she and Desmond became interested in saving and restoring Georgian properties. In 1958 they founded the Irish Georgian Society, and Mariga discovered her calling in life. Their first restoration project was The Conolly Folly, an obelisk structure on the Castletown estate in Co. Kildare. Today Mariga is buried beneath it. Another passion project was Castletown House, built for Speaker Conolly by the Italian architect Alessandro Galilei, for which the Guinnesses ‘had to remortgage [their] grandchildren’s fortune’¹⁸ to save. Along with the one-hundred acres of land they bought to prevent two-hundred houses being built on the estate, they organised a band of volunteers who worked alongside them in restoring the house. Mariga herself gave Jacqueline Kennedy a guided tour when the former First Lady visited Ireland in 1967.
With Mariga’s enthusiasm for her adopted country’s heritage, she brought a certain panache to Irish life and, to quote a friend, ‘she positively exported a fresh awareness of Ireland to Europe and America’. The Irish Georgian Society’s list of achievements are too vast to list and deserves its own book for posterity. However, especially in Ireland in those days when the general attitude towards the aristocracy was tinged with sectarianism, Mariga and Desmond worked tirelessly to ensure the palatial buildings had not been left to fall into ruin, and they restored the ones that had. She understood the general feeling of resentment which people held against the old British landlords, but she explained that the buildings, previously occupied by the British nobility, were built by Irish hands and as such belonged to the Irish people.
Credited with appealing to young people and for sparking their interest in architecture, part of the Irish Georgian Society’s success was owed to Mariga’s charm with the public. Or, as friends recalled, how she ‘chatted up’ parliamentary ministers, foreign visitors, rich sponsors, and those who were curious or, rather, suspicious of her. David Norris, in his autobiography, recalled befriending Mariga at the beginning of his interest in Georgian buildings. At a dinner party given by two of Norris’s friends, Mariga appeared late and after banging on the door was shown into the dining room. In her arms she carried what appeared to be wisps of hay, and she explained she had brought some herbs for the cook. Two policemen followed her into the room, looking embarrassed by the spectacle. What had transpired was that Mariga had been motoring along a country road and, driving in her usual harebrained style, she smashed into the side of an unmarked squad car. Then she wound down her window and asked in her low pitched voice, ‘Are you the pirates of Penzance?’¹⁹ As it turned out, they were – they had sung in the Gilbert and Sullivan production at Leixlip Castle the year before. They overlooked her error, and loaded her into the squad car and delivered her to the party.
Although she was rarely offended, Mariga took exception when a guest at Leixlip, who claimed to be a socialist, accused her of being highhanded with the locals. She asked what he was doing in her capitalist house, and why, as a socialist, he did not help her butler to do the washing up. ‘Socialists are always prepared to watch as you slave away; the only people who ever offer to help are the English generals.’ Referring to Mymee’s household and her upbringing, Mariga declared herself ‘a REAL socialist . . . I believe that nobody has the same mind, so we must pool what everyone is good at’.²⁰ Their harshest critics sneered at Mariga and Desmond’s fund raising efforts, and they were dismissed as ‘a consortium of belted earls’.²¹ She was quick to challenge such opinions, and she emphasised that they had approximately five-thousand members, with two-thousand subscribing from America.
For years to come, the couple would fight off developers who planned to demolish Irish architectural and historical splendours. Many were successful, some were not, but Mariga and Desmond never gave up. She fought the demolition of Mountjoy Square in Dublin, and part of her tactic was to live in a house, No. 50, which she bought for £550. The house itself, surrounded by two Georgian properties which had been demolished to ground level, was unsafe and she had it propped up with planks to ensure its stability. The reason such terraces were demolished was due to their perilous structures; one had collapsed on two girls, resulting in their deaths, and another killed an elderly woman. Meeting with a property developer, who had no interest in her vision of restoration, brought out Mariga’s fighting spirit. During an exchange he tried to pat her on the knee to settle her temper, and in retaliation she pulled her skirt away and said, ‘Don’t TOUCH me!’ Although she did not succeed in saving Mountjoy Square, except for No. 50, she was praised for having put up a brave fight and in doing so had done more for Georgian Dublin than any other individual. Today the square has been rebuilt in imitation Georgian architecture.
Aside from campaigning, there had been promotional endeavours to attract interest in the movement. There were excursions with the Irish Georgian Society at home and abroad, to places like India and Moscow, and trips over the border to visit Ulster’s stately homes. They hosted Georgian themed cricket matches, with authentic costumes, played against the Northern Ireland National Trust, and each year until ceasing in 1969 they were held at a different historical property. At one time Mariga sent six-hundred Christmas cards – the number increased over the years – to the members, addressing each as ‘Dear Georgeenian’.
Amid the triumphs of the Irish Georgian Society and two children together, Mariga and Desmond’s marriage had fallen apart. As the 1960s petered out she had met and fallen in love with Hughie O’Neill, whom she called ‘Mr O’Neill’, the future 3rd Baron Rathcavan. And in 1969 she left Desmond and Leixlip, and went to London to set up home with him. They bought a house on Elder Street, in the East End of London, with a spiral staircase leading to the drawing room. The house, which Mariga restored, was decorated relatively cheaply, and curtains were made from Indian bedspreads. She would live in London on and off for years, in between her travels and settling in various places. Later there was a flat on Bolton Street, given to her by her father-in-law, when the affair with Mr O’Neill was over and she had left Elder Street. She began to dress in what she called her ‘knock-about’ clothes (this, she called ‘les apparence extérieures de la pauvreté‘ – ‘the external appearance of poverty’), as a protective measure against being mugged. To her delight she discovered an abandoned railway, and she would walk for miles without interruption, admiring the wildflowers and butterflies. She attended functions in the area, and brought her usual panache wherever she went. At an art exhibition at a nearby gallery a stifling atmosphere prevailed, that is, until she entered and immediately cast her mischievous eye over the rather bad artwork on show. One painting in particular stood out and, as she breezed past, she said in her best regal voice: ‘I wouldn’t give two bits for it.’ Everyone laughed, it was typical Mariga.
As time passed she missed the Irish countryside and the informality of socialising and entertaining. London, with her friends busy lives, had become a lonely place for her. In comparison to Leixlip, she lived in reduced circumstances with her pet parrot, Xerxes. One evening she entertained her young neighbours who noticed the parrot was going mad. As it turned out, she was giving her guests Xerxes’s nuts to eat with their drinks. During a particular gathering, she said one should not speak of ‘folk music’ but say ‘traditional music’, and that one must never use the term ‘gypsy’ but ‘traveller’. ‘We are all travellers in life,’ she remarked. It was a prophetic comment, for the next two decades would mark a transitional period for Mariga. She displayed a restlessness, and she moved around Ireland and went to Norway, where she had inherited log cabins from Mymee. Friends who had visited her in Norway recalled taking a helicopter up to a glacier, where they found Mariga walking around in a long Edwardian dress and parasol, impersonating (or channeling) Mymee circa her suffragette years.
Although she loved buildings more than people, and Leixlip was where she imagined she would grow old, she followed Mr O’Neill to Northern Ireland. His family seat, Cleggan Lodge, was in Broughshane, close to the Antrim coastline. Mariga chose to settle in Glenarm, the next village over, where she stayed at the former courthouse (she sometimes referred to it as The Court House), built in the 1700s, and standing on the corner of Toberwine Street and Castle Street. Relocating to the north appeared to have a steadying effect on Mariga’s spirit, in the early days at least, and with her adaptable nature she soon made herself at home among the villagers. And, despite the fractured politics at the time, she was not put off by ‘the troubles’, and encouraged friends to travel over the border to visit Ulster’s historical homes and landmarks.
At Glenarm the conditions of her new home were grim, and the weather on the edge of the North Atlantic was far more ferocious than that of Kildare, and she recorded how it changed often and the freezing wind whipped through the house. But it was not a house in the conventional sense, for the judicial bench and various legal artifacts remained there. Over the years it had had tenants, such as the owners of the post office who lived upstairs, and it served as a canteen for American troops during WWII. When Mariga moved in, in 1972, it had been in the midst of a renovation and she later installed a fireplace from a Lutyens house in Yorkshire.
Owing to the discomfort at the old courthouse, Mariga went to stay at the Agent’s House, the former home of the Earl of Antrim’s agent, but it was just as spartan. There were no watches, clocks or radios, and so she rarely knew what time it was. She had brought her Arabian stallion with her, a wedding present from Lord Moyne, but its grazing and general hijinks on a nearby glen became disruptive to farmers and its fate was inevitable. Unable to telephone a vet to do the deed, she asked a police officer to shoot the horse. A friend was astonished to see the horse’s leg in a bucket, but Mariga explained she was having its hoof made into an ornament as a memento.
Mr O’Neill was often absent and Mariga remained at the courthouse without him, but her friends came to visit. Parties were ramshackle affairs, thrown in the kitchen, but this was typical of Mariga and her flair for entertaining under any circumstances. One guest was shown to a mattress in what had formerly been a holding cell but was serving as a guest room, and sacks of turf were piled in the hallway, blocking most of the entry. How she accumulated the turf became something of a production, and recruiting the services of her high-born friends, dressed in their finery, she thought it a good idea to cut the turf from a bog near Glenarm. Mariga hoped the first guest at one of her gatherings, whom she was told was ‘athletic’, would help her carry it to the second floor. And, after dinner, she explained to the ladies the location of the lavatory, however she advised the gentlemen to use the garden but ‘kindly, not to pee on the petunias’. She attempted to throw her famous picnics, but the wind at the edge of the cliff caused the insides of the sandwiches to fly out. Still, unperturbed, she asked members of the Ulster Orchestra to provide the music while her friends battled with the food, and the elements. It was her eccentricity, and her kindness, which made the biggest impression on the locals. Wearing her big hats, long skirts, and carrying a basket between the courthouse and the Agent’s House, to eat in one and sleep in the other, she caused a stir. The local youths, who loitered outside the courthouse, attempted to tease Mariga and her guests, but one evening during a party she appeared with a tray of sandwiches and invited them to join in the fun upstairs. This was typical of Mariga and her ability to not only side-step tricky situations, but to form unlikely friendships. She also left the key to her car in the ignition, a sign of her good faith in mankind.
Mariga had lived at Glenarm for around seven years, but eventually her time, and the magic she brought to the tiny village, was coming to an end. The courthouse had been sold by the local council and plans were underway to turn it into a recreational centre for elderly people. She showed an interest in buying it (presumably it was owned by Mr O’Neill, bought from Lord Antrim) but after its renovation the price had been increased and she could not afford it. Writing to friends, she explained that she felt frustrated by the situation. The same could be said about the end of her relationship with Mr O’Neill – after all she had given up, she felt shortchanged. As for the courthouse, Mariga herself thought it would be better suited to giving music recitals. Her friends made plans to campaign for her tenancy to be extended, but it was not to be.
Although her marriage to Desmond was over, Mariga continued to visit Leixlip Castle, making the cross border journey from Glenarm in her battered Citroen Safari. But it was no longer the easy-going atmosphere she had created, and perhaps life had moved on and yet she remained in the past, a place of comfort. Her father had died, and this had a traumatic effect on her and friends thought her much changed after the event. His last words to her were, ‘Tu es . . . enfin tu as‘ (‘You are . . . finally you’).
Before returning to Leixlip she had written of her ramshackle life at Glenarm: the windows were encrusted with lime-dust, sea-blown salt and ordinary dirt; there was no telephone; the inside of the kitchen range had fallen out and she had to do her cooking on the clergyman’s stove. Everything was located within walking distance on the narrow, sloping street. The post office was next door to the courthouse, a pub a few doors away, and around the corner was the barbican gate of Glenarm Castle, home to her friend the Earl of Antrim. There was a woodland with a river running through it, and a marina at the foot of the village, and a walkway to the hills of Antrim with views of the Mull of Kintyre. But it was a lonely life. She had become something of a recluse, or at least without the constant presence of friends, and would walk barefoot to Mrs O’Boyle’s pub in search of company. Her money was also running out, and she complained that the worst part of being poor was that one could not buy books. Speaking of her future at Glenarm, she said: ‘There is no purpose to my being here. Why, is somehow impossible to explain. Friends are at Leixlip and where but there can my children go. It is so impossible to guess what to do next.’²²
Having left Leixlip on her own accord she decided to return, despite a pending divorce between herself and Desmond. Their former marital home was divided, with Mariga attempting to revive her old social life and inviting a small number of friends to visit her. They did, and she appeared to revel in the companionship but her closest admirers noticed a sadness surrounding her and they thought it unfair that she was being forced to surrender so much of what she had built up. If guests were to stay overnight she would ask them to bring their own bed linen, and there was no hot water so she often relied on friends for a bath. When Desmond left for speaking tours to raise money and inspire interest in the Irish Georgian Society, Mariga would break into his wing of the castle. Once, she discovered a gate had been padlocked and she used an ax to break it open. And on another occasion she threw a picnic in the garden and proceeded to climb in and out of the kitchen window to retrieve plates and cutlery. As she had done in the old days, she gave guests impromptu tours of the castle, and during such an evening she opened the door of a historical bedchamber and discovered an unknown couple sleeping in bed. They were Desmond’s guests. Suddenly it struck her that Leixlip was no longer her home and that she ought to leave. ‘Sometimes I feel like a ghost,’ she said.
After her divorce from Desmond in 1981, Mariga was granted a settlement of £150,000. With the money she moved into Tullynisk House, the dower house on the Rosse Estate, at Birr in Co. Offaly. She spent £3000 on improvements, and a further £100,000 buying back the furniture she wanted to bring with her from Leixlip. It was money she could not spare and, with her allowance from her father-in-law having stopped, she would remain short of cash.
Still, with her natural exuberance, she tried to keep up appearances. It was a struggle; her cardigans had holes in the elbows, and she had begun to drink although she did not have the appearance of an alcoholic. According to a friend, she could only manage two glasses of red wine before becoming drunk, so it’s difficult to gauge her alcoholism. She said: ‘I don’t sleep. I get drunk whenever possible . . . I feel it is a very eighteenth-century thing to do.’²³ And at Tullynisk the rooms were warm and inviting, and she made an effort for visiting friends. There were turf fires, electric blankets, antique furniture, books, flowers, and her collection of taxidermy birds and seashells were on show. Costumes, too, were on display; military uniforms, footmen’s liveries, antique dresses, baskets of shoes including her grandmother’s wedding shoes in their original box, feather boas and plumed hats.
For pin money she wrote a weekly column for a provincial magazine, offering nuggets of advice such as the best place to buy knickers in Offaly. Writing came naturally to her, and throughout the years she dabbled with the idea of writing a book on famous picnics, which never materialised, and she started a book on the history of the First World War. She spoke of the challenges within her manuscript, and how she used the word ‘very’ too much. The book remained incomplete which, to admirers of not only Mariga herself but of her historical knowledge, remains a significant loss to the literary canon.
Despite the renovation of Tullynisk, Mariga expressed a bleak outlook for the future. Friends who observed her thought she was withdrawn, as though she was tired and had nothing to say. She had a weak heart and she knew her time was running out. As a young woman she had told a friend that she wanted to die young. ‘When I go,’ she said, ‘it’ll be pretty smartly.’ On the weekend before her death, aged fifty-six, she went on a Friends of the National Collection tour of North Wales. And she appeared enthused by Mostyn Hall, a seventeenth-century house remodelled in a Jacobean style. She was, after all, in her natural habitat.
One great fascination for Mariga was her great-great-aunt, Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria. During their lives, as in death, they were to share interesting parallels. They both died travelling on ferry boats. Sissi stabbed in the heart; Mariga of a heart attack.
A perceptive woman, she must have sensed it was time to bow out. Some have said she was not made for the modern world, that she was far better suited to a Tolstoy creation. ‘She would have been the Queen of Lithuania had the Kaiser won the war,’ remarked an admirer. Her perfect blend of magic and mystery, of pleasure and pathos, and her pilgrim soul has left its mark. And so, it would be appropriate to conclude with her favourite Disraeli saying: ‘Never complain; never explain.’
Invaluable books in writing Mariga’s story have been Mariga and her Friends by Carola Peck, and Women Remember: An Oral History (ed) by Anne Smith.
Smith, Anne (ed) Women Remember: An Oral History (Routledge, London 2013) p. 60
Zemeckis, Leslie, Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteause Lili St. Cyr (Counterpoint, Berkeley 2015)
Cambridge Independent Press, 5 November 1920
Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) p.41
Smith, Anne (ed) Women Remember: An Oral History (Routledge, London 2013) p. 59
The Independent, 1996
Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) P.41
Vickers, Hugo, Beaton in the Sixties: More Unexpurgated Diaries (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) p. 98
Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) P.41
Zemeckis, Leslie, Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteause Lili St. Cyr (Counterpoint, Berkeley 2015)
Smith, Anne (ed) Women Remember: An Oral History (Routledge, London 2013) p. 60
Peck Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) p.61
Illustrated London News, 30 May 1970
Norris, David, A Kick Against The Pricks (Random House, London 2013) p. 133
Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) p. 126
The Illustrated London News, 30 May 1970
Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) p.186
In Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble there are two stately homes. One – Castle Bewer – is a dark, damp Gothic pile where a production of Macbeth is being mounted. Thus the Bewer family hope to keep the wolf from the door. Castle Bewer is more or less Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfriesshire.
The other house is Mespring. And nothing like it exists in Dumfriesshire, that’s for sure. It’s fictional. It truly is fictional. But I know some of its over-the-top décor is identical to the décor of real stately homes I’ve wandered round, with my mouth hanging open, unable to believe that people ever chose such insane levels of ornamentation for walls, floor and furniture. Visits to Chatsworth have definitely helped me write this. Hopetoun too. And Drumlanrig Castle, where I first saw leather wallpaper of the kind described here.
I thought it would be fun to have the Annandales of Mespring be quite sanguine about the look of their house, even while they prepare to open it to the public at a shilling a pop. Here’s some of the best fun I’ve ever had writing fiction – Billy Annandale giving Dandy Gilver an advance peek at the splendours of Mespring:
It was, quite simply, staggering. A game of rugby football could have taken place in this hall and still left room for the household to have tea undisturbed by the fire. It was enormous, like a cathedral, and stuffed to its waistline with marble in every conceivable shade. The floor was mustard with green veins, the fireplace ginger with pink, and the pillars were the nasty brown of chocolate ice-cream. The statues were good plain white but they were dwarfed by what was above them. Surely, I thought, this hallway had been raised at some time in its long life. Surely no architect had planned all of this at once. For on top of the green, brown and pink marble excesses was another room entirely, as though its floor had fallen through and they had simply left it hovering there. The upper room was a riot of painted frescos, crawling over walls and ceiling. Literally crawling in most instances, I noted, since the tableaux – as such tableaux tend to – suggested that people do not walk around or sit down but that instead they drape themselves on couches if mortal or clouds if not, so that a crowd of them painted on a grand scale is simply a tangle of arms and legs and the odd bit of floating drapery. Gods, cherubs, graces, nymphs and puttis rolled about from the top of the hideous marble on one wall all the way across to the top of the hideous marble on the other, eyes beseeching, limbs waving and clothes mostly falling off.
‘It’s-’ I said.
Billy Annandale guffawed. ‘It certainly is. Let’s keep walking. I’m afraid there’s a lot more of it before we get to the long gallery.’ He cleared his throat modestly, an impeccable imitation of a very correct footman, or perhaps a clerk in a rather staid bank. ‘This, as you see, is the great hall and if we ascend the great stairs’ – he waved to both sides, pointing out the disputed Rembrandt on the way – ‘we arrive at the great drawing room.’ Here, in a chamber forty feet long if it was an inch, as well as marble and tapestries and a fresco of the birth of Venus with a great many more flailing arms and legs and even less clothing, there was also a quantity of veneered wood in that very intricate parquetry that I am afraid makes me think of dartboards. Add the fact that the carpet was Victorian and so had not yet begun to fade the way that older carpets do – so kind to their surroundings – and the fact that the curtains were set about with tassels and tucks and looked like the costumes of a battalion of pantomime dames, and the drawing room was worse than the hall.
‘And now the great dining room,’ Billy said, flinging open one of a pair of doors.
‘What on earth is that?’ I asked, stepping through into an even longer room, which seemed to have been afflicted with some kind of fungus.
‘It’s leather wallpaper,’ Billy said. ‘Stamped, silvered and gilded. Do you like it?”
‘Uh,’ I said. ‘It’s ingenious.’
Again Billy only laughed and said: ‘if you’re wondering how much better it would look with more gilding covering the leather . . . Behold the great music room.”
‘Oof,’ I said, for here the gilt was dazzling and the marble border above it – quite ten feet deep – had even more naked nymphs, all managing to play violins, pipes and lutes while rolling on their backs.
‘We did think of redoing the chairs,’ said Billy, waving at the rows of those uncomfortable little gilt and velvet affairs one sits on during music recitals. They are wonderful at keeping one awake even after a solid dinner, but most unfortunately in this case they had been covered in what I can only call orange. It was not the gold of the leather walls nor even the cream of the damask curtains. It was an unrepentant orange. ‘But really,’ Billy went on, ‘what’s the use? If we actually started to look at any of it with the eye of taste we would curl up in little balls and weep wouldn’t we? Anyway, finally the ordeal is over and we have arrived at . . . the great gallery.’
We passed through another tall door and it was a testament to the garish nature of the rooms behind us that this – a sixty-foot gallery with red walls, red carpet and gargantuan portraits in those gold encrusted frames that look as though they have been overrun by barnacles – seemed almost soothing.
‘God knows what the trippers will make of it all,’ Billy said.
‘I think,’ I told him, quite honestly, ‘they will be over-awed and delighted but, because not everything is exactly in accordance with modern tastes, they won’t be quite so covetous and dissatisfied with their own little villas and flats as they might be otherwise.’
Billy stared at me. ‘What a nice woman you are,’ he said. ‘They’ll be happy to have paid their shilling to see this ugly barn of a place and they’ll go home to cream paint and plain rugs quite content?’
Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble is published by Hodder & Stoughton
When John F. ‘Jack’ Kennedy arrived in Southampton, England, aboard the Normandy on 2 July 1938, little did he know that he would meet lifelong friends. And that those friends would be involved in his Presidential Administration some 20 years later, and they would help him hold on to a piece of the past he could not forget.
Since Jack arrived 2 months after his sister Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’, she introduced her older brother to her friends, and he formed close friendships with Debo Mitford, brothers Andrew and Billy Cavendish, and David Ormsby Gore, who would become President Kennedy’s Ambassador to Great Britain. Soon after his arrival and subsequent introduction to his sister’s society friends, he attended a ball given by Lady Mountbatten for her best friend’s daughter, Sally Norton, and there he danced with Debo. Renowned for his charisma, especially with the female sex, he failed to make a favourable impression on Debo, and she declared he was ‘boring but nice’. Her mother, Lady Redesdale, however, predicted that young Jack would one day be the President of the United States. On the evening of Sally Norton’s ball, Kick would have her first date with Billy Cavendish, and although Debo failed to see how Jack would make history, Kick and Billy were already creating their own. They concluded the 1938 social season at the Goodwood Races in Sussex. Jack was thin from various illnesses,but he lived those days as if there would be no tomorrow. It is sad to think of it now, but the world for these young people was about to change, and it would become the last season of debutante balls, and their carefree days before the Second World War.
During wartime their futures appeared certain. Debo and Andrew married on 19 April 1941; and Kick and Billy were to marry in May 1944, only for him to die 3 months later from a sniper’s bullet in Belgium. As historians know, Kick, as Billy’s wife, was to become the Duchess of Devonshire upon the death of her father-in-law. However, Billy’s early death changed the line of succession and now Andrew was to be his father’s heir and Debo would take Kick’s place as duchess. But Kick felt an affinity with England, and rather than moving back to America as her family wanted her to, she bought a house at 4 Smith Square, where she felt at home with her English friends and late husband’s family. Fate can be cruel, and Kick herself met an untimely death in May 1948 when she was killed in a plane crash. Her parents-in-law arranged for her to be buried in the family’s graveyard at St Peter’s Church, Edensor.
Despite this abrupt end to their association with the Kennedys, the two familys would share an everlasting bond throughout the years. The Kennedys visited England, and the Cavendishes watched Jack’s budding political career from across the Atlantic. Then, in 1961, Jack fulfilled Lady Redesdale’s premonition by becoming the 35th President of the United States.
Acknowledging this familial tie, he sent Debo and Andrew – now the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – an invitation to his Inauguration on 20 January 1961, and Debo remembered that Jack was like a ‘Queen Bee’ and was followed by photographers wherever he went. On their next visit to Washington, in December 1961, Debo dined with Jack and his two friends at the White House for the first time. When dinner was announced, she went to open the door but Jack threw out his arm and said: ‘No, not you. I go first, I’m Head of State. Accustomed to his informal ways, Debo realised he was right, and said, ‘Oh, so you are.’ The following evening, Jack and Debo went together to the National Gallery of Art, and when they arrived he turned to her and whispered: ‘They think I like art. I hate it.’ During the event, an English delegate tried to monopolise the president, but he turned her down saying, ‘Not now. It’s your turn tomorrow.’ This managed to get rid of the woman in question without offending her. Formalities aside, Debo admired Jack’s humour and his willingness to laugh at himself, and she liked that he was not self-absorbed about his accomplishments or his political rank. And, if he did not know something, he said so without feeling intellectually challenged. This, she found refreshing.
The next time Debo and Andrew were in Washington was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The purpose of their visit was to attend an exhibition of Old Master Drawings of Chatsworth at the National Gallery. They dined at the White House on October 21, the night before the President announced to the nation the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade. Although Debo herself admitted she did not realise what kind of crisis America faced, she thought the atmosphere at the White House remained the same and she attributed this to Jack’s steady nerves. During that week, they laughed and talked of the old days, of Kick and the various girls he had known from his days in England, before the war. Before she left, Jack invited Debo for a swim in the White House pool, and again they reminisced.
When she returned home, she often received telephone calls from Jack. Sometimes it was a question about Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister and uncle to Andrew. Like Debo and Andrew, Jack too had begun to call him ‘Uncle Harold’. Or sometimes he would call just to talk, and it was during these transatlantic chats that Jack was given the nickname ‘Loved One’, or ‘L.O.’. In true Mitford fashion, the nickname was inspired after he called on the 4th July to ask Debo if she had her ‘loved ones around her’. Among the items auctioned at Debo’s Sotheby’s auction was a copy of Jacques Low’s 1961 biography The Emergence of John F. Kennedy (Item #138), and the President himself had signed it ‘For Debo, with happy thoughts. John Kennedy LO’.
The last time Debo saw Jack was before his death in June 1963 while on an official visit to Europe. He wished to pay his respects at Kick’s grave, and, due to the security risk, the visit was kept as quiet as possible. A wooden bridge had been erected across the park to the church, and Debo and Andrew went with him and then left him alone to visit with his sister. But the locals soon realized, due to the noise of his helicopter, that he was there, and as he left the churchyard people had gathered to take photographs. Then, against the advice of the Secret Service, he decided to visit Chatsworth. On the way there, Jack took great delight in describing the Presidential helicopter which, he said, had a bathroom. When Debo asked him ‘What for? You could not need a bath in that short a trip,’ she realized he meant a lavatory.
The awful news of Jack’s assassination on November 22 1963 reached Debo and Andrew, and they felt as though tragedy had struck them once again. They travelled to Washington alongside the Duke of Edinburgh, who represented Queen Elizabeth, to attend Jack’s funeral. Their presence was more than a formality, they had gone to attend the funeral of a very dear family member and friend.
I believe that the Duchess and the President got along so well for a number of reasons, above all else she valued his wit and laughter. And, for Jack himself, Debo was a link to his sister, whom he had loved dearly.
Michelle Morrissette is a Kennedy Researcher, and the mother of two sons. She lives in St Louis, Missouri.
Originally published in The Mitford Society Vol IV
Whenever one decides to re-imagine a bit of history, one must accept that in this alternative universe they’re creating, some of their favourite events might not have happened. But in exchange, something magical may have taken place instead.
In her memoir, Wait for Me, Debo devotes a chapter to her relationship with the Kennedys. And no wonder; not only were she and Kick good friends, Debo and her sisters had moved in the same social circles as had the Kennedys when Joe Sr. was ambassador in the late 1930s, and they’d married into the same family. Thus her connection to this remarkable and tragic family endured.
John F. Kennedy, known as ‘Jack’, certainly felt this same connection. He made a point of including Debo and Andrew in important Washington events, including his inauguration in 1961. He also visited them at Chatsworth. He sometimes called her at 3AM, just to talk things over. Some have speculated that perhaps Debo has fallen sway to Jack Kennedy’s famous charm, and that they were lovers. This writer remains agnostic on that conclusion; it seems far more likely that Jack, having been so very fond of Kick, simply saw Debo and her family as part of the Kennedy clan. (A terribly attractive, magnetic and utterly fascinating part of the family, perhaps, but still part of the family.) Bobby picked up the correspondence after Jack’s death, and continued to flirt amiably with her until his assassination in 1968.
So had Billy and Kick succeeded as the duke and duchess, it’s certain that Jack and Kick, as close friends as well as siblings, would have created a social and political alliance between their generation of Devonshires and Kennedys.
Let’s imagine this, for a moment. What if Billy Cavendish had returned from the war? He would have inherited the estate and the title in 1950, assuming Eddy’s drinking and wood chopping had continued apace. It’s tempting, however, to wonder if Eddy would have been as dedicated to drink as he was had he not lost Billy and Kick. This happy turn of events would have enabled the family to hang onto many of the real estate and art treasures that had to be sold to pay death duties on the estate, which leads us down even more alternative paths.
In any case, Billy and Kick would have already started a family by 1950. Jack and Jacqueline Bouvier, married in 1953, would have been frequent guests through the 1950s, as Jack was a dedicated Anglophile, and as his political career blossomed, Congressman Kennedy, then Senator Kennedy, and eventually President Kennedy and his growing family would have likely had a suite waiting for them at Chatsworth. Once there was a president in the family, surely Uncle Harold would have been invited to these high-powered family gatherings. David Ormsby-Gore would have completed the picture. Chatsworth would have become the political, social and style centre of England. It would have served as a retreat for presidents and prime ministers and a backdrop for important summits. Perhaps Jack, infamous playboy that he was, would have found a way to stash a mistress there periodically (though I suspect he would have had to accomplish this without Kick’s overt co-operation).
Of course, in this alternative universe, it would still be the grand country house it is in reality, but in addition, it would be in the international spotlight as the impossibly beautiful home where the English aristocracy, with all its wealth and tradition, mingled with American power and youthful glamour. It would have been Camelot, brought back home to England.
The Jet Age is the perfect backdrop for this imagined scenario. Travel between Washington, D.C. and England was suddenly quite fast, though still very expensive – not a problem for the Kennedys or the Devonshires, of course. With a young, beautiful monarch on the throne; a handsome duke and his fetching, charming wife at Chatsworth; a prominent Kennedy on either side of the Atlantic and the easy availability of international airports, it’s difficult to imagine how the Kennedys and the Devonshires wouldn’t have turned Chatsworth into a hub of international intrigue, and the very centre of everything fashionable and modern. On the other side of the Atlantic, imagine the media coverage of Kick, Billy and their children playing American football at the famous Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port. Already a regular fixation of the US media, the addition of English nobility would perhaps have been more than the American public could bear.
Debo, of course, wouldn’t be duchess in this alternative universe, and that would be a loss. Andrew would have lived the life of a second son; making his way in business, or law, or perhaps taking up residence at Lismore Castle, which Andrew inherited in 1947. (Adele Astaire, presumably, would still have been a frequent guest.) But surely Debo and Kick would have remained close friends, since Kick would surely have admired Debo’s flair for business and entertaining, and would have found her fascinating and scandalous family an irresistible diversion. Debo and Andrew would have frequented the power gatherings at Chatsworth, different as it may have been from the Chatsworth they oversaw in the real world during this period.
One of the enormous challenges Debo and Andrew faced, of course, was paying off the death duties on the estate after the death of Edward Cavendish in 1950. Had Billy and Kick been the Duke and Duchess instead, perhaps some of Joe Kennedy’s millions would have been available to preserve more of the assets than Debo and Andrew were able to. What effect would that have had in England? Joe didn’t distinguish himself as ambassador, after all, as exciting as his family might have been to the English public. And what would Nancy have thought? New, American money invested in Chatsworth? It is a dreadful prospect, do admit.
And then there’s the children. Kick’s American children would have been part of the English aristocracy. Of course, English aristocrats were fond of marrying American socialites and heiresses, so this wasn’t an uncommon turn of events. But Kick’s great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Kennedy, were working-class Irish immigrants to the United States, and had she lived, one of Kick’s children would have been in line to inherit one of the most valuable estates in England, along with a prestigious title. It’s heady stuff. As baffled as the immigrant Kennedys would have been by their descendants’ rise to such monetary and political success, surely being part of the English nobility would have been the second least believable part, right behind their great-grandson being the US president. And, of course, this means that Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s children would be nearly as tied to England as their cousins, with an English duke for an uncle and a vast estate from which to base their foreign travels and social lives.
I like to imagine Kick and Billy, by then in middle age, smoking cigarettes on the South Portico of the White House, along with Jack, Jackie, Andrew, Debo and perhaps Bobby or Teddy, kings and queens of the 1960s landscape. It’s true, Chatsworth would likely have lost some of its essential Englishness had Billy and Kick lived, but imagining these two powerful, famous families jetting between our two countries, enjoying a shooting party in Scotland in September, a reception in the Rose Garden in May, and sailing off the New England coast all summer, almost makes up for the loss of Debo’s remarkable transformation of Chatsworth. Almost – but not quite.
Kim lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, cats and dog. A friend of hers in Scotland recently had her piano tuned by Decca’s son, a fact which gives her enormous pleasure.
Originally published in The Mitford Society Vol IV