The Stucco Venus: The Life and Times of Enid, Countess of Kenmare

A glamorous shot of Enid, late 1920s

Originally published in Social and Personal magazine

Despite accusations of gold digging, drug taking and murder, Enid Lindeman was certain of one thing: she was never going to be a wallflower. Born into the Lindeman wine family, in Australia in 1892, she had an upbringing befitting a young lady but she longed to escape colonial life. At the age of twenty-one, she married Roderick Cameron, a forty-five-year-old shipping magnate from New York. The marriage lasted a year, before Cameron’s death from cancer, leaving her with a baby son and a million-dollar fortune. She then began an affair with Bernard Baruch, an American financier and presidential adviser, but marriage was out of the question, for Enid thought ‘he was not much good in bed and he was very mean’.

The First World War gave Enid the excitement she craved and she moved to Paris to drive an ambulance for the war effort. Standing almost six-feet-tall with red hair and emerald green eyes, she caused havoc amongst the officers and one threatened to commit suicide. This was not a new occurrence for Enid, and during her many affairs five of her lovers killed themselves – one jumped into shark infested waters, another blew himself up. In 1917 she married Frederick ‘Caviar’ Cavendish, her reason for marriage was simple: she needed someone to manage her money. She followed Caviar to Cairo, where he was given command of the 9th Lancers, and as a dare she slept with his entire regiment. By day she schooled Caviar’s polo ponies, and by night she dressed as a man and played the piano or her Swanee whistle in the band of the officers’ mess. She also met and began an affair with Lord Carnarvon, custodian of Highclere Castle and dedicated Egyptologist, and she was among the first to be shown Tutankhamun’s tomb after its discovery in 1922. But she soon found herself in the familiar state of widowhood, after Caviar’s death from a cerebral haemorrhage.

Enid’s next marriage in 1933 was a bold move, even by her standards. Her new husband was Viscount Furness, the sixth richest man in the world. His first wife, Daisy, had died aboard their yacht during a cruise and he buried her at sea. Some say he murdered her, and others believed he would hang if the evidence was ever revealed. His second wife, Thelma Morgan Converse, from whom he was divorced, had been the mistress of the Prince of Wales and was the best friend of Wallis Simpson. He first saw Enid at a casino in Le Touquet, and after their first meeting he pursued her relentlessly: flowers and jewellery would arrive daily, and planes, yachts and Rolls-Royce cars were put at her disposal. Enid herself claimed she received the aforementioned without making any effort whatsoever. But her lifestyle came at a cost and Furness, a jealous man prone to uncontrollable rages, directed his anger towards Enid and her three children. This, she thought was a sign of his love for her. ‘There was nothing in the world he was not prepared to give me. Of all the men that loved me, he was the one who was prepared to lay the world at my feet.’ As the ‘thirties drew to a close the rows between Enid and Furness escalated. No longer did she discreetly see other men and outsmart the detectives he set upon her, she flaunted her affairs openly. One paramour, the Duke of Westminster, known as Bendor, was a threat to Furness as he was only man who rivalled his wealth. Furness departed overseas, a rare move for he rarely left Enid’s side, afraid that if he did she would cast her eyes elsewhere. What would follow would be something of a charade: she sent Furness a letter, claiming she was going to commit suicide by shooting herself. In great distress, he returned home and sent a search party to find her. She was discovered at the London Clinic with a wound on her head, but it was from a face-lifting operation.

In the early days of the Second World War Enid and Furness were staying at La Fiorentina, his villa in Cap Ferrat. He was bed-bounded with cirrhosis of the liver and surrounded by medical staff who cared for him until his death. Trapped in the south of France and short of money, Enid pawned her jewellery and bought a few goats so she could turn their milk into butter and cheese. There was a detention camp close to the villa, and she would often see the prisoners. It was not long before she began to help them escape, dressed in the gardener’s clothes or any civilian attire she could find. The police soon grew suspicious of her activities, and Enid began to plot how she and her daughter could leave France. Owing to her connections within the British government, she secured passage on an airship departing from Lisbon.

At the height of the Blitz, Enid moved into Claridge’s while she awaited her inheritance from Furness to be settled. As fate would have it, Enid discovered an old boyfriend, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat, Valentine Browne, once the most famous gossip columnist in London, had taken a suite at the hotel. He had been married to Doris Delevingne, a notorious courtesan, which ended in divorce. Over the years he and Enid had contemplated marriage to one another, but as Enid put it: ‘My husband or his wife got in the way.’ Despite his fame and Earldom of Kenmare, he was always short of money. Enid, however, must have suspected his title came with a fortune, and Valentine himself assumed she was a millionairess. Their love of money and false impression of one another inflamed their love affair, and they were married in January 1941. Now the Countess of Kenmare, she followed her husband to Ireland, where she established herself at his family seat, Killarney, in Co. Kerry. Eight months later, she was, once again, a widow after Valentine suffered a fatal heart attack. As he died without an heir, Enid, who was fifty-one at the time, fabricated a story that she was pregnant. Remaining at Killarney she kept up the ruse for a year, during which time a baby failed to materialise.

Having been gossiped about and associated with the rumour that she had killed four husbands, Enid would become embroiled in a real scandal. In 1954 she and Donald Bloomingdale, of the department store family, crossed paths at the Sherry-Netherland hotel. Over the course of her stay, Bloomingdale asked for heroin and she gave it to him. It was said that the heroin was delivered in a lace handkerchief embroidered with a coronet and her initials. Another claimed it had been smuggled in a silver frame behind a photograph of Enid. Either way, the dose proved fatal and Enid fled New York. ‘You know how the American police are,’ she said at the time. In light of the Bloomingdale scandal, Enid’s own drug-taking past was scrutinised. She was said to be a former heroin addict herself, and was on the drug register. This was partly true: in the 1930s she had fallen from her horse and was prescribed morphine to ease a back injury. Having become addicted, she entered a clinic to cure herself. If she was absent from a party or late to arrive, Daisy Fellowes, with whom Enid shared a difficult relationship, would say: ‘Probably busy with her needle.’

After the incident, she never discussed Bloomingdale and for a long time she stayed away from New York. Her society friends had their theories, but they never asked her about it. Daisy Fellowes was far more blatant: she was going to host a dinner party and invite twelve people. ‘All murderers, very convenient,’ she said. ‘There are six men and six women. And Enid will have the place of honour, because she killed the most people of anyone coming.’ She was never kind to Enid, describing her as ‘an Australian with a vague pedigree’. Once, when they were conversing, Enid began with, ‘People of our class . . . ‘ Daisy raised her hand and stopped her, ‘Just a moment, Enid, your class or mine?’ And at a dinner party on Long Island her host asked why she was known as ‘Lady Killmore’ – a nickname given to her by Somerset Maugham. Enid rose from the table and said she had endured enough, she was leaving. Predicting her reaction, earlier in the evening the host had sent her car back to Manhattan, but Enid walked to the highway and hitch-hiked home.

In her old age Enid lived at Broadlands, a farm in South Africa, from where she bred race horses. Her old friend, Beryl Markham, trained them but their partnership was tested by various factors, notably Enid’s refusal to give her control of the stables. This frustrated Beryl, and she said: ‘Enid was getting very old and difficult. She couldn’t understand what I needed, and so I left.’ She felt the loss of Beryl greatly, and the running of the farm became increasingly difficult. For the remaining years of her life, until her death at eighty-one, she was in great pain but refused to take medication, fearing her old morphine addiction would return. She was determined to overcome weakness, but strong enough to recognise it. Her motto for life springs to mind: ‘Never be ill, never be afraid, and never be jealous’.

The above is an edited extract from These Great Ladies: Peeresses and Pariahs by Lyndsy Spence


Society Star: Jean Viscountess Massereene

image (11)

This pen portrait has been extracted from These Great Ladies: Peeresses and Pariahs. Please excuse any formatting errors, as it was copy and pasted from a  template.

Jean Massereene was never going to play by the rules, despite her high birth and place, as a woman, in society. ‘The worst of being a woman is the pre-conceived idea of her that is held by the average man,’ she would say. ‘He has formed a mould into which he would fit all womankind. If she does not take kindly to this mould he tries to force her into it.’¹

She was born Jean Barbara Ainsworth on 3 December 1883 in Kensington,² London, to the Australian-born³ Margaret Catherine (née) Macredie, and Sir John Stirling Ainsworth. Her father was a wealthy industrialist, banker, and Liberal MP, who on his mother’s side (the daughter of a clergyman and industrialist) was Scottish but his paternal roots were firmly established in Cumberland. Likewise, Margaret, although born in Melbourne, was of Scots parentage. Margaret had given birth to a daughter, Janet Mary, in 1880 but the child died shortly after. Jean would be their next child, followed by two brothers, Thomas and John Stirling, and a sister, Margaret Louise. Her childhood was spent at the family’s nineteenth-century manor house, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll on the edge of Loch Awe, and at Cleator, a country house in Cumberland. When in London she lived at her father’s home at 28 Queen’s Gate, and then at 55 Eaton Place.

The family fortune came from Sir John’s ore iron mines, and the flax mills which his mother’s family, the Stirlings, had founded during the Industrial Revolution. Thus, with no shortage of money and nine servants, including a governess, a nurse, and a French lady’s maid, Jean’s upbringing was that of privilege. As with many upper-class girls, she and her younger sister, to whom she was particularly close, were taught by a governess at home while her two brothers attended Eton. And, owing to her father’s mind for business and his political career (he was an MP for Cumberland and Argyll), which was not without controversy, she had a sharp intellect but university was out of the question. Although largely self-educated – she was well-read and followed the latest literary stars – she ‘realised more and more what a blessing it was to have a good education when one was young’. She said there was ‘nothing that so fitted men and women to take part in the battle of life as a really sound education in childhood’. As clever and single-minded as she was, Jean did what was expected of her: she was presented at Court at the age of eighteen, and at twenty-one she was engaged to be married. The man in question was Algernon William John Clotworthy Whyte-Melville Skeffington, the second son of the 11th Viscount Massereene and Ferrard.

The marriage to Algernon, or ‘Algie’ as Jean called him, was not an ambitious one on her behalf. His family had held onto their title as it was demoted from earl to its original status of viscount, owing to the latter title being passed through the female line (hence the earldom was lost) for a generation before returning to a male heir, the 10th viscount. As with the unconventional passing of the title, the family’s money had changed many hands and was long spent. It was largely squandered by the eccentric John Clotworthy, the 1st Viscount, who had been imprisoned in Paris for embezzlement, and who died without a male issue and bequeathed his estate to a London prostitute. John Clotworthy’s brothers challenged the woman and were able to retrieve the money and properties which had been left to her, but had to pay her off with a hefty sum and an annual allowance thereafter. But it is unfair to pin the blame entirely on John, for the family’s wealth was as such, his spendthrift ways merely dented the Massereene money and his debts had been paid off by his mother’s own fortune. However, through the years and as land and tax laws changed, the family’s money dwindled.

As such, Algie was not expected to inherit his father’s title, estate, or money, and would therefore have to find a career. This he did, and upon leaving Sandhurst he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the 17th Lancers, and he moved up the rank to 1st lieutenant and then to Captain. Between 1900-02 he served as adjutant to his regiment in the Boer War, and he was wounded in the shoulder by a shell splinter. He was twice mentioned in despatches and was awarded a Distinguished Service Order and the rank of brevet-major. He was also ten years Jean’s senior. She came to the marriage with her own fortune: an allowance paid from the Stirling and Ainsworth trust funds. And although her father, a baronet, was a master of the Industrial Revolution, his title was fairly new. Thus, Algie brought a certain pedigree and Jean supplied the money.

They were married on 16 February 1905 at St Margaret’s church, Westminster. The bride wore a gown of white chiffon velours, trimmed with Limerick lace, and an uncommon wreathon her head made of silver wheat-ears mixed with orange blossoms and shamrock. The eight bridesmaids were dressed in Elizabethan style costumes of white satin with the upper part of the bodice and sleeves a lattice work of satin and pearls, with coils of blue velvet from which fell a tulle veil. They were given sapphire shamrock brooches, a gift from Algie. It can be assumed that her father gave her the use of 55 Eaton Place as a wedding present, for the address is listed in various diaries from the period, all crediting Jean with throwing parties at the residence. The newlyweds honeymooned at Algie’s parents’ Irish home, Oriel Temple, in Co. Louth, and in the years before tensions surrounding Home Rule were to flare up, Jean and Algie were very much a part of Dublin society.

In May 1905, three months after the wedding, Algie’s eldest brother and his father’s heir, Oriel, died unexpectedly at a health resort in Scotland. Aged thirty-three, Oriel was not married and had no heir, and so the titles from the Irish Peerage were to pass on to Algie upon his father’s death. This was to happen sooner than either Jean or Algie expected. On 26 June, he succeeded his father, who had died after a short illness (brought on by his alcoholism), to become the 12th Viscount Massereene and the 5h Viscount Ferrard. Using his title from the British Peerage, he sat in the House of Lords as Baron Oriel. At the age of twenty-one, Jean became the chatelaine of the family’s Irish seat, Antrim Castle, a seventeenth-century castle in the province of Ulster, rebuilt in 1813 as a Georgian-Gothic mansion, as well as the nearby Skeffington Lodge, a hunting residence overlooking Lough Neagh. There was also Oriel Temple, and a London townhouse at 108 Lancaster Gate.

Photographs taken of Jean from this period portray an exotic creature; black hair, dark eyes, and pale skin, she stood apart from the typical English roses who were lamented for their fair beauty. And she did not adhere to the fashions of the day, preferring to shun the exaggerated form of the early Edwardian era to wear a straight silhouette, not popular until a decade later. Said to be conspicuous of her tall, slight figure, she was credited with starting the trend for wearing ropes of pearls down to her waist, elaborate headbands, and long, shapeless dresses.

It had also become clear to not only Algie, but to her contemporaries, that she was an eccentric young woman who was far from conventional. Her husband found this charming, but as the years passed her peers dismissed her as being a peculiar individual, and that was not always a welcomed trait within her circle. In the meantime, she courted celebrity as a fashion icon, and was said to be ‘socially ambitious’, which coming from her fellow peeresses was viewed as a put-down. This insult could have been inspired by Jean’s informality and, regardless of her upbringing, she was personable with friends and strangers alike.

In 1909 the Bassano Studio in London produced a book entitled England’s Beautiful Ladies, with an introduction written by Queen Alexandra. Jean featured, photographed wearing a viscountess’s coronet and evening dress over which she draped a net shawl, the caption beneath the image read that she was ‘an ardent follower of hounds’. Her face was devoid of makeup in the shot, but in several photographs taken during WWI and thereafter she began to emphasise her dark looks with cosmetics, and she painted a mole, or beauty spot, on her cheekbone. Often, her style of dressing was deemed ‘inappropriate’, but she ignored her critics and continued to favour strapless and backless dresses, long opera coats and furs, and chandelier earrings dangling to her shoulders. Far more scandalous to the sartorial set was the certainty that she was not wearing a corset underneath her flimsy clothes. And, in a more contrasting choice, she opted to wear men’s tailoring – loose fitting trousers, a wax jacket, and brogues – as her country attire, almost two decades before trousers had become acceptable for women working the land. ‘Lady Massereene [looks] very actressy, but certainly pretty . . .’¹ observed a contemporary. But Jean dismissed those who thought her vain, and she said:

What we need is to think less about appearances and more about doing things. It is better to win races surely, and pit our muscles and brains against our fellows in friendly rivalry than to emulate the peacock. The peacock is a brainless bird, and despised by the sparrow, and those who think only of clothes resembles him.¹¹

With Algie’s military career consuming his attention, Jean was left to her own devices, socially speaking. As a viscountess she did what was expected of her and spoke at charity events, attended the local schools’ prize giving ceremonies, and hosted bazaars on the grounds of Antrim Castle. A significant cause was the Women’s National Health Association (WNHA), founded in 1907 by Lady Aberdeen, dedicated to eliminating white scourge¹² (tuberculosis) and reducing high rates of infant mortality in Ireland, with the Antrim branch being led by Jean. Matters relating to health and social conditions would remain a prominent interest, and among the WNHA’s greatest achievements was providing children with free dental and health checks. She also organised the ‘Tooth and Nail’¹³ drive, which encouraged children to care for their teeth and hands, for she believed in educating children in matters relating to their own health. Each year she hosted a party for five-hundred children on the grounds of Antrim Castle and prizes were given to those who demonstrated the best care. She also served as patroness to the Antrim Philharmonic Society, and to the local infant schools.

In London she attended parties and her life carried on much as before. ‘If modern debutantes want to spend hectic days and nights the only sensible plan is to let them do it,’¹ she would say, years later. It was only when Algie retired from active military service in 1907 and accepted the appointment of a major in the North of Ireland Imperial Yemonary that Jean saw herself spending more time at Antrim Castle. However she went to Dublin, which had a social scene as lively as London, whenever possible. And, when in Ireland, she preferred to reside at Oriel Temple in Co. Louth.

The following year, in 1908, Algie transferred to the newly created North Irish Horse and commanded A Squadron (Belfast) from 1907-1914. The military way of life, from the fringes at least, suited Jean and she took an interest in political and world affairs. Algie was content with his wife dabbling in ‘men’s business’, and her quick mind and easy intimacies with strangers and acquaintances worked in his favour.

Despite Jean’s approach to individuals and boundless energy, her general health was always perilous. She was prone to symptoms that would today fall into the mental health category, or at least would be openly spoken about and accepted as mental fatigue. In those days, however, she was merely described as ‘highly strung’ or ‘eccentric’.

In 1909 Jean gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington. Judging from newspaper notices and letters written during the period it is clear that she was a modern mother, especially by aristocratic terms. Diana was her mother’s constant companion, and from a young age she accompanied Jean to social functions. She would also call Jean by her first name, which was not coldness on Jean’s behalf, but a demonstration of how close they were. A press photograph of the two exists with the child, aged five, sitting on Jean’s lap while she chatted to Lord Londonderry.

In years to come, Jean granted Diana a certain amount of freedom that was unheard of for its day: she was a member of the local branch of the Girl Guides in the town of Antrim, and she befriended the gardener’s daughter. This is another example of Jean’s informality, which others found unnerving, including that of the gardener’s wife, for when Diana visited their home she entered through the back door. Given her high birth, the gardener’s wife protested at her using the back door, for it meant Diana had to pass through the scullery. But the idiosyncrasies of her aristocratic upbringing were apparent, and when Diana wanted to return to the castle she merely stood up, a signal for her nanny to put her coat on. This was not done out of haughtiness, she had simply known no different. It appeared Diana retained her common touch as she grew older, and in her teens she became a member of Antrim Hockey Club, and was instrumental in aiding local charities and visiting the poor and infirmed.¹ On one occasion, in the 1920s, she accompanied Jean to a fete at Mount Stewart, the Ulster seat of the Marquess of Londonderry, and a guest remarked to Lady Londonderry that a certain ‘tall, good looking girl’ in the refreshments marquee was ‘working harder than any waitress’.

Fourteen months after Diana was born, Jean gave birth to a son, on 24 April 1910, who lived for a day. She had been manning a stall at an exhibition of Irish goods in Dublin the previous month, and a few days before the birth she attended a party at Dublin Castle. It is unclear if the baby, referred to as the Hon. N. Skeffington, was premature or ill, and his death was mentioned in the Court Circular. She convalesced for a month at Oriel Temple, and then spent a week at her father’s house in London.

Returning to Antrim Castle in August, Jean opened a bazaar in aid of a Masonic lodge in Randalstown. She appeared in good humour, and in her speech joked about the secret society and its rituals. In November, she offered the use of the Oak Room to hold a meeting for those in favour of forming an Antirm committee for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Addressing the large numbers who answered Jean’s call, Algie spoke of his personal views on the charity and how he hoped no child would suffer needlessly. It was agreed by the charity’s representative for Ireland that a branch of the NSPCC would be founded for Antrim, and that a ladies committee would also be formed. Jean was appointed secretary of the new committee, and she said it was ‘a sincere pleasure to her to help forward the work of the society in any way’.¹

1912 marked an adventurous year for Jean and Algie, and they went on a three-month ‘pleasure tour’ of Australia, where they received the hospitality of distinguished individuals. In Canberra they stayed at Government House with the Governor-General and Lady Denman, whom Lady Massereene accompanied to a ball hosted by the Young Women’s Christian Association, given in her honour. They ventured to the Tablelands in Queensland, where they were the guests of Mr and Mrs W.F. Ogilvie. Before leaving the region they stayed with Mrs W. Collins at Beaudesert. They also spent a weekend with the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba at Coombe Cottage, Coldstream. There were polo matches, horse racing, and garden parties. At a race meeting, Jean surprised onlookers when she debuted her newest style of dressing – a long skirt, which she left unbuttoned twelve inches above the hem to purposely display her petticoat. ‘At first glance it looks rather odd, not pretty or graceful by any means,’¹ reported a fashion critic.

Three months later, Jean and Algie left Australia for New Zealand, where they stayed for a few weeks, before sailing home. However, with the topic of Jean’s fashion dominating the society columns, before departing for Australia she had attended a ball given at Taplow Court, the home of Lord and Lady Desborough, in which she wore an Assyrian dress. She was photographed striking a pose before an imposing fireplace, her head covered with a veil, her eyes lined with dark pencil, and the midriff and skirt of her dress was sheer with her modesty protected by carefully placed panels and a shawl tied around her hips. It was a daring choice, and newspapers as far away as America printed the photograph.

Before the Australian trip, Jean had taken an interest in the uprising of Irish Nationalists who sought Home Rule for Ireland. She allied herself with the Ulster Unionists and believed Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom and under British rule. With a large protestant stronghold in Antrim, she appealed to those locals who were patriotic, and she spoke at the Protestant Hall about remaining loyal to the king. She said: ‘The people of Antrim had always been noted for their loyalty to their King and Empire.’¹ On one occasion she gave a rousing speech on the 1689 Siege of Londonderry, and afterwards she unveiled a banner which displayed a painting of Algie in his North Irish Horse uniform. She also wrote an article lamenting the fiscal reasons for remaining under British rule:

Assuming, for example, that an Irish Parliament were to impose a duty on foreign corn for the purpose of benefiting the Irish farmer, what effect would this measure have on the artisans and mill hands in Belfast? Are the workers in the shipbuilding yards of Belfast and in the linen mills in the North of Ireland to pay more for their daily bread in order that the farmer in the South of Ireland may obtain a higher price for his corn? . . . Great Britain is the best market for Irish produce in the world, and might conceivably, though improbably enter upon a policy of retaliation.¹

Having returned from their tour, she and Algie threw themselves into Sir Edward Carson’s cause. Her father, a Home Ruler, thought Jean’s decision an ill-judged one and he accused Algie of influencing her. Further wounding Sir John Ainsworth was his daughter’s involvement with Carson and his militant organisation, founded earlier in the year, which he named the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Algie was appointed Officer in Command over the 3rd South Antrim Battalion. This marked the beginning of Jean’s affection for Carson, and he was often received at Antrim Castle.

As well as entertaining Carson, Jean and Algie discussed the militant plans and the parts they would play. It was largely a secretive operation, with the Massereenes, the Londonderrys, and Lord O’Neill, of the neighbouring Shane’s Castle, opening their homes and grounds as a meeting point for local men to sign up to the UVF, and to hold fundraisers. The Massereenes land became a parade ground for the UVF, where, after militant marches and various displays of pageantry, Jean inspected the men. Afterwards she passed out cigarettes, known as ‘smokes’,² and gave rousing speeches to the local supporters.

The UVF was breaking the law by holding armed events, and Jean, a participant in their illegal activity, would soon suffer the consequences. A rumour spread through Antrim that Algie had been arrested and that Carson was hiding at the castle. In a letter to her friend Theresa, Lady Londonderry, Jean described how the rumour had provoked an ‘angry’ and ‘over-zealous’ crowd to follow their housekeeper, who was manhandled in an attempt to retrieve information. Owing to the discord, she missed the London season and opted to remain at Antrim Castle with her husband. She wrote:

I’m afraid I will not be in town this season, unless I come with Algie when the [Home Rule] Bill comes up in the Lords as I don’t like leaving him here as they [Irish Nationalists] have threatened to shoot him when they get the chance. Of course I would probably feel anxious all the time if I was living without him.²¹

Indeed, Algie was privy to secret information regarding the UVF, and on an April morning in 1914, he watched from a safe distance in his chauffeur-driven car as guns were smuggled into Larne Harbour. The operation became known as the Larne Gun Run. Its organiser, Captain Wilfrid, and his wife Lilian Spender, held a dim view of Jean, whom they thought of as vain and self-serving. The ill-feeling had been caused when Jean appointed herself in charge of various fundraisers which were to be presided over by Lilian, and she wrote to Wilfrid that her nemesis was ‘looking quite impossible as she always does’.²²

But Algie’s actions were not confined to upsetting the Antrim townsfolk, and he conspired to offend Irish Nationalists in Southern Ireland when he removed his great-great-grandfather John Foster’s (Lord Oriel) chair and mace from the National Museum of Ireland. Foster had been the last Speaker in the Irish House of Commons, and Algie had gifted the items five years prior to removing them to Antrim Castle. He feared Nationalists would claim the items for themselves, and his actions caused outrage, with the Dublin Telegraph accusing him of ‘raping’ the museum of its rightful heritage.

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Jean founded a corps of nurses, named the Volunteer Aid Attachment Corps. The training consisted of five weeks with the Red Cross or St John Ambulance to ensure the women were equipped to care for volunteers of the UVF if they went into battle with the Nationalists. ‘“We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do!” sums up the feeling in the North of Ireland today pretty accurately, and should furnish an answer to the question whether Ulster will fight if the Government succeed in passing a Home Rule bill,’ ²³ she said. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, five miles from the Massereene seat, while Antrim Castle and Shane’s Castle were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.²

On Easter Monday of 1914, Carson returned to Antrim Castle to review almost three-thousand volunteers from the three south Antrim battalions. A luncheon was given at the castle in his honour, and among the UVF hierarchy were the Marquess of Londonderry, the Duchess of Abercorn, and various lords and ladies from the Peerage of Ireland. Afterwards, Carson inspected the nursing corps, led by Jean, on a swarm facing the castle and comprised of eighty members from Antrim and its surrounding towns of Randalstown, Lisburn, Glenavy and Crumlin. Prayers were followed by the formal dedication of the UVF’s colours, made by the Lord Bishop. After which, Jean presented Carson with the King’s colour and the regimental colour of the battalion, a personal gift from her.

As there were no women in local government, Jean was a rare female voice in public life. Her views on women’s roles in society were made clear when, opening a bazaar in the village of Dunadry in aid of Muckamore New Schools, she referred to the topical Suffragette movement. The school’s colours of green, blue and orange were Suffragette colours, and she joked that if any such ladies were present they should not begin ‘operations by destroying the New Schools’. She added: ‘I believe in the higher education of women – the reason was that education makes them much better wives and mothers. The future of the empire depended to a very large extent, if not altogether, upon the mental training of mothers, and the way in which they brought up their children.’² The speech was an example of her chameleon-like tendencies to appeal to whichever crowd she was addressing.

However, ten years later in 1925, in a column for the Daily Express, Jean championed a woman’s right to work for a living: ‘A right to work should be the privilege of every woman, whether she marries or not, even if she is a rich man’s daughter.’² And, on the topic of her involvement in politics, and what was believed to be ‘men’s business’, she said: ‘Men would give [women] a higher place if she demanded it, and it would be well for her if she did.’²

The arrival of the First World War saw Jean move out of her husband’s shadow and into a role that was entirely her own. On 8 August 1914, Algie went to the Front with the North Irish Horse, and on his departure there had been scenes of gratitude as he travelled to the railway station, a short distance from Antrim Castle. Accompanied by Jean and their five-year-old daughter, Diana, the Massereene Brass and Reed Band, founded by his father, played a number of patriotic tunes on the platform as the train departed.

This was the era in which Jean’s charity work came to the forefront, and divided locals seemed to forget about, or at least forgive, her alliance with Sir Edward Carson. In Algie’s absence, Jean joined a distress committee aimed at helping dependents of soldiers and sailors who had gone to war. She also stepped into the role of welcoming visiting royal representatives and servicemen who came to Antrim, either to speak on behalf of the Empire or to convalesce at Shane’s Castle. Along with members of the local branch of the Red Cross she collected money for wounded soldiers, thousands of which were being cared for in the town. And she performed with her ‘bird like voice’ at a Protestant Hall concert to raise funds for St John Ambulance Society and the Dental Clinic for local schools. The National Institutes of Health presented Jean with a silver salver in 1916, in appreciation for her fund raising work.

On 22 October 1914, Jean gave birth to a son, born at her father’s home at Eaton Place, while Algie was in France with the North Irish Horse. As his birth coincided with the death of her youngest brother, John, who was the first of his regiment to be killed in action while serving in Belgium with the 11th Hussars, Jean named the child after him. He was christened John Clotworthy Talbot Foster Whyte-Melville Skeffington, and was known by his nickname ‘Jock’. His godparents were the Marchioness of Londonderry, his grandmother Florence the Dowager Viscountess Massereene and Ferrard, Mr George Spencer-Churchill and Sir Edward Carson.² It should be noted that, due to a clause Sir John Clotworthy had negotiated when he was given the Viscountcy of Massereene by King Charles II, the title could pass through a female line. Had Jean and Algie not had a son, Diana would have therefore inherited her father’s viscountcy in her own right.

In her typical way Jean shunned tradition not only by refusing to adhere to a decent mourning period, in society at least, following the death of her brother in October and her sister’s husband a month later, but by ignoring the confinement after Jock’s birth. Her baby was only a month old when she began collecting money for a motor ambulance service, which she planned to send out to France.² From her father’s home she arranged for a fancy dress party to be held in Antrim, with the money going to the North Irish Horse Ambulance Fund. Although she could not be there in person, as her son’s christening was taking place in London the day after, she donated plants for the occasion.

Her war work continued in London, where she had been made Commandant of Women’s Legion Canteens. Dressed in her usual flamboyant style, a group of soldiers mistook Jean for a prostitute and asked if she had had much luck at Piccadilly the night before.³ With her usual good humour, she laughed it off and told the anecdote for years to come. She trained as a nurse and volunteered at London hospitals, tending to the wounded. In 1918, Jean, along with other aristocratic nurses appeared as themselves, albeit in uniform, in the Hollywood silent film The Great Love, starring Lilian Gish.

The postwar years saw Jean resume her hedonistic social life. With spiritualism on the rise, and with the fashionable set adopting the movement, she began to speak openly about her psychic experiences. She befriended the society spiritualist Violet Tweedale and contributed to her book Ghosts I have Seen. And she became renowned for her parties at Lancaster Gate, in which her friends partook in seances. The fascination with spiritualism was always there, for at a garden party in 1918, which she hosted in aid of the Women’s National Health Association, Jean hired a palm reader³¹ to tell fortunes. 1918 was also the year that her mother died, and so this might have explained her taking a more serious interest than before.

In the mid-1920s Jean began to write a column, ‘in a most interesting and forceful style’,³² for the Daily Express. Her articles ran the gamut of how to entertain a large number of guests to her personal ghost sightings. The candour in which she wrote was reminiscent of her personality, and although after the war the occult had become a fashionable topic, she still ran the risk of appearing foolish. Perhaps she did not care. Of her ghostly encounters, she wrote:

If you say nowadays you have seen a ghost you are no longer greeted with superior derisive smiles. Scientific research has established beyond a doubt that certain phenomena exist, which, commonly called ghosts, are held by many to be the souls of the departed, and which come back for some reason or other to the earth they once inhabited in human form . . . I was driving back after a long day with the hounds, with two friends, Lady J, with whom I was staying, and a Mr X, who had an estate a few miles away. We were going along a narrow road when I saw just in front of us a man in a pink coat riding on a grey horse. I turned to Mr X and asked if he knew the man in front, as I had not noticed him during the day . . . ‘There is no man there,’ said Mr X. I appealed to Lady J, but she could see nothing. Finally, however, they both became convinced that I saw something . . . Two days later Lady J and I received an invitation to lunch at Mr X’s place. When we arrived, Mr X took us straight to the dining-room and pointed to an oil painting over the fireplace. I gasped. It was a picture of the man I had seen riding on the grey horse before.³³

Before the 1920s, Jean had not only spoken about her psychic experiences, but of her abilities too. This added to the general belief that she was eccentric and somewhat unstable, but this did not deter her. The first of her many confessions was in 1912, and it was prompted by her tiara going missing. She believed it had been stolen by a ‘respectable, although rather seedy looking man’,³ whom she had seen on the grounds of the estate. The tiara itself had been brought from the strong-room at Antrim castle, with the purpose of showing it to a relative. Afterwards, she placed it in its tin box and left it in her bedroom, without returning it to the strong-room. It was only when she sent for the tiara, and a servant brought the empty box, that she realised it had been stolen.

Speaking in a personal statement, Jean recalled going to her bedroom that evening, which was above several empty rooms in the castle. She remembered her dog barking – he often barked at the wind and draughty noises throughout the old castle – and she thought nothing of it. Furthermore, she had a dream on three different occasions in which she saw the tiara lying on the bed of the Six Mile Water, on the banks of which the castle had been built. Following her intuition, she told the police of her dream. Under constabulary supervision, Lough Neagh fishermen were ordered to comb the riverbed in the hope they would find the tiara, but they did not.³ The tiara, worth £2000 and set with white diamonds, was believed to have been stolen by a network of jewel thieves, as their loot had been discovered in London and several accomplices were arrested. Jean, however, did not get her tiara back. She, herself, claimed it would have been broken into pieces³ in order for it to have been smuggled so easily from the castle.

During this period and with the supernatural dominating her interests, Jean found a kindred spirit in the Tredegar family, namely Evan Morgan, the son and heir of Courtenay Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar. The family seat, Tredegar Park, in Wales, was a hub for unique individuals, with the family’s interest in the occult well documented among their contemporaries. Viscountess Tredegar, formerly Lady Katharine Carnegie, was a great friend of Jean’s. A renowned eccentric, it was rumoured she sat in an enormous bird’s nest and that the family practiced ‘Monarch Mind Control’.

It is easy to gauge Jean’s attraction to the Tredegars. For despite Evan being a dedicated occultist (perhaps Jean regaled him with her ghost stories), the parties thrown at Tredegar Park were unique, unpredictable, and a world away from the formality of the ‘smart set’ in London. A homosexual, Evan, in years to come, took a fancy to Jock, but his infatuation was one-sided, for Jock preferred the opposite sex. An interesting point relating to Jean’s personality and her open-mindedness in an age when homosexuality was illegal, was her close friendships with men of this persuasion. Many were married to women, for the sake of appearances, but were privately conducting their own affairs. Harold Nicolson was one such individual whom Jean revered, as referred to in Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart’s diary. Reading between the lines of his entries it is clear that she had something of an unrequited crush on him. ‘[Pam Chichester] told Max [Lord Beaverbrook] that she could never get on to me for Harold being rung up by Jean Massereene.’³

However, with much of her social life being spent in the company of peculiar men whose taste ventured to the flamboyant, she felt at home at Tredegar Park. The household was run by handsome menservants, and Evan lived there surrounded by Great Danes and a boxing kangaroo, which visitors had to fend off with a stick. It was common for Evan to tell his guests’ fortunes, and an incident recorded in John Bedford’s memoirs recounts a familiar evening, with Evan undertaking this in his bedroom, accompanied by a few guests, with the flames from the fire illuminating the four-poster bed. An owl flew around the room, and Evan wore clothing which had belonged to a witch from the past, and he also held up the skeleton of a witch’s hand. Despite the theatrics, his guests took his ‘terrifying interest in black magic’ seriously, and there were altars throughout the house. He would become a great friend of Aleister Crowley, and perhaps Jean had met the infamous occultist during her many visits to Tredegar Park, but there is no record of this. Recalling a typical house party there, something which Jean would have experienced, John Bedford wrote:

[Evan’s] notions of hospitality were pretty bizarre. One of the evenings we were there he settled in his house-party of twenty or thirty people down to dinner and then went off to some regimental or local do, abandoning his guests to carry on as best they could. He had asked some Welsh singers to entertain us during dinner. They stood outside the dining-room windows, which we had to keep open. In the end freezing to death in the icy draught, we got up and shut them, leaving the Welsh singers barbling on happily outside. Folk-songs are not exactly the ideal accompaniment to a meal. Lady Cunard was the only one of us who was civil enough to go out and thank them. Lord Tredegar then came back from what had obviously been a liquid occasion, and flew into a terrible rage when he discovered we had shut the windows on his favourite choir.³

The Roaring Twenties saw Jean re-emerge on the social scene, both in Ireland and in London. Sir John Lavery R.A. painted her portrait, a macabre study in black that, in hindsight, foretold the tragedies that were to come. And Algie, whose fighting days were behind him, returned home from the war having spent the remaining three years of conflict at a desk job in Egypt. She continued with her public work, and was appointed by Viscountess Fitzsalan to collect contributions from the people of Ulster to buy Princess Mary a wedding gift. ‘I am authorised to state that all money collected in the Northern Parliamentary area will be spent on household linen manufactured in the North.’³

Years had passed since the Massereenes association with Sir Edward Carson, and during the war years at least, Jean had redeemed herself with locals from both protestant and catholic backgrounds. However Nationalists did not forget, and Antrim Castle became the target of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), particularly those who sided with Sinn Féin. These Irish militants torched many stately homes belonging to the gentry, and what they perceived to be a symbol of English rule. In the spring of 1922 Antrim itself had fallen victim to several attacks of arson, with Lord O’Neill’s seat, Shane’s Castle, being set alight by Sinn Féiners from Co. Tyrone. Lord and Lady O’Neill, both elderly, were taken hostage inside their castle while petrol was poured throughout the building. And Galgorm Castle, in the neighbouring town of Ballymena, had suffered a similar fate.

On the 28 October 1922, the Massereenes hosted a party for their six guests and son, who was belatedly celebrating his eighth birthday. Among the guests were Grace d’Arcy, and Mina Conynham’s (chatelaine of Springhill House) American house guest, whom Jean was putting up before her sailing to the United States. This American woman had also stored her valuable furniture at the castle. At midnight they all went up to bed after a lively game of bridge in the library, during which the thirteen-year-old Diana was present (Jean permitted her daughter to attend parties with the grown-ups long before she came out as a debutante). Before retiring, Algie ensured the fire in the library had been extinguished and he checked that all points of entry were locked. He had been vigilant since the police guard had been removed from outside the castle, and he lost his appeal to have an armed presence on the estate.

Around three o’clock in the morning, Algie’s agent, a former war hero, Col. Richardson, was awakened by smoke coming into his bedroom and he immediately raised the alarm. Algie was the next to rise, and he ran down the landing to Jean’s bedroom, engulfed by a black cloud of smoke. As the heat and smoke made it impossible for him to continue, he went to the other side of the castle and discovered another fire close to the billiard room. There were also independent fires in the Oak Room and dining room. He tried to activate the cistern which held almost two-thousand-gallons of water, but he discovered it had been drained as it produced a mere trickle. And the windows in the boot room and larder had also been tampered with.

Jean had not been asleep long when she heard the voice of Col. Richardson yelling, ‘Wake up, Algie, they’re in below.’⁴⁰ She assumed the arsonists were inside the castle and she jumped out of bed, put on her dressing gown, and lifted the revolver which she kept next to her. Like Algie, she had not felt safe since the recent bouts of sectarian attacks. She rushed to Diana’s bedroom and pulled her under the staircase and into the night nursery, whereupon she managed to get Jock’s nurse out. Then, she became trapped on a burning stairwell with her children. ‘You must be very good and do as you are told and you will be all right,’¹ she had told them. Though, she did not know how they could be saved, and they looked on as the nursery cat’s fur caught on fire and the animal perished. The only chance they had was to climb out of the nursery window, which led to the chapel roof. Fearing they had run out of options, she warned her children they might die. Col. Richardson came to the rescue, and he tied sheets together and lowered Jean to the chapel roof, and he sent Diana and Jock, one by one, down to her. They called out, ‘Help! Help!’² and Algie used the gardener’s tall ladders for pruning the trees to fetch Jean and the children, and they were brought safely to the ground. The American guest ran down a staircase, which was ablaze, and suffered serious burns on her feet and legs. Grace d’Arcy, an athletic woman, dropped from an upstairs window onto the lawn. And a larder boy, who was in a deep sleep, was hauled from his room and thrown onto the damp grass, which brought him round, and having suffered a shock he ran off in his nightshirt and was found ten miles away.

Locals rallied to the castle and concentrated their efforts on rescuing the servants, whose quarters were fifty-feet above the ground. Many paintings were lost, and the locals who had entered the castle had thrown the silver and china out of the windows, and had managed to retrieve a billiards table, thinking the latter was of far more significance to the family. The historical papers from Oriel Temple were destroyed as they were at the castle, following the recent sale of the house. Speaker’s Chair, which Algie had ‘stolen’ from the National Museum of Ireland, was another casualty of the fire, but the mace was safe as it was at his mother’s home in England at the time. And although his family, friends and servants were saved, a maid named Ethel Gillingham succumbed to smoke inhalation and later died in hospital. Her ghost, known as the ‘White Lady’, is said to haunt the grounds of Antrim Castle.

The Massereenes took refuge at Skeffington Lodge. A few months later, Algie travelled to the West Indies to recuperate after the trauma of the fire, and Jean went to Paris.³ At the time of the fire, Algie was reported to have looked on, as his ancestral home burned before his eyes, and said: ‘I have lost everything in the world.’⁴⁴

In 1923 a claim was made, and eventually rejected, totalling £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the High Court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that had been full before the fire and afterwards was found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to have been forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (Jean showed her husband but not the police) in which Jean was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’.⁴⁵ Such letters were sent in retaliation to her pro-Unionist speeches, particularly one she had made in 1920 in which she said: ‘Let’s arm ourselves that Ulster will never surrender an inch of her soil or title of right to the insidious bloody foe.’⁴⁶

The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally, as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single blaze but from many independent fires throughout the property. Not only had the water supply in the cisterns been tampered with, several items that had been saved from the fire were found to have been covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Jean was questioned about the repairs that had been carried out on the fireplaces. She replied that, owing to a dream she had had ten years previously that a fire had broken out in her bedroom, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in that room replaced. Her response prompted much laughter from the jury, and had, perhaps, been the deciding factor in the case.

The statement in which Algie had said, ‘I have lost everything in the world,’ was beginning to ring true. Following the end of the war in 1918, the landed gentry were struggling to maintain their stately homes due to a shortage of staff and the government’s new taxation policy for the rich. Before The First World War they paid little tax on their earnings and assets, with the working classes paying a high percentage of tax on their meagre wages. The Massereenes finances had been perilous for years, and Jean’s private income⁴⁷ could no longer sustain the lifestyle they had known before the war. And so, they moved into a suite of rooms at Hall’s Hotel in Antrim town while they waited for Clotworthy House, a large stable block on the grounds of their estate, to be converted into apartments.

This also marked a transitional period for Jean, and always drawn to Scotland, she began to look for a house there. After renting several properties on the Isle of Mull, Algie eventually bought Knock House, the former estate of the Dukes of Argyll, which had a stone lodge situated on its forty-thousand acres. He quickly realised it had been an expensive error and attempted to pass the lease of the lodge on to several of his friends. The Duchess of Leinster⁴⁸ rented it for a summer season, extending her stay until October, but she declined Algie’s offer of taking a longer lease. He was seldom there, as he preferred to remain at Clotworthy House due to his post of H.M. Lieutenant for County Antrim and his serving in the Northern Ireland Senate – Northern Ireland had been created in 1921, formed by the six counties of Ulster and would remain under British rule. In time, Jean became attached to the house and she began to frequent it more often as the years progressed, eventually making it her permanent residence.

The fire had signalled more than an end to their high life, and Jean and Algie had grown somewhat semi-estranged, by distance at least. He permanently set up home at Clotworthy House, and she went to London where she continued to keep up appearances. However their marriage was far from fraught and, following the initial shock of the fire and the aftermath of establishing their respective homes, one for his political life and another for her social pursuits, they remained devoted to one another. When Algie’s political career came to an end in the late 1920s he moved to Knock House, and it became known as their family seat. He continued to make frequent trips to Antrim and held an interest in Northern Irish politics.

In 1922, the year their misfortune began, Jean was named by society photographer E.O. Hoppe as one of the most beautiful women in the world. And she represented Scotland in his comprehensive study of ‘the loveliest living specimens of their sex’.⁴⁹ She continued to attract controversy, whether it was intentional or not. A significant incident occurred in 1924, when she failed to produce her driver’s licence after being stopped by the police in Warwick. She was summoned to Kineton Court and pleaded not guilty, and the case was dismissed with Jean ordered to pay certain costs. It was a petty issue as far as she was concerned, for she was an enthusiastic and competent motorist, and drove herself whenever possible. Two years later, in 1926, she moved at the centre of the General Strike when she drove a lorry transporting vegetables.⁵⁰

In 1926, Jean entered into a partnership with Elspeth Fox-Pitt, a famous costume designer and high society dressmaker. Together they opened a shop in central London. For years she had been designing her own clothes, and the merging of her artistic talent with the skills of Fox-Pitt seemed a natural business venture for her. Their premises attracted attention because, instead of a large showroom, there were a series of small rooms for the individual client. Further cementing the shop’s success was their part in dressing the Duchess of York for her royal tour of Australia in 1927.

The youth of the 1920s caused concern for Jean. Although she gave Diana permission to attend parties and to live an independent life since coming out as a debutante in 1926, she disapproved of the ‘speed age’ of fast motorcars and aeroplanes, and felt society was moving and changing at a rapid pace. She joined in with the Bright Young Things and their parties, and in gossip columns her name appeared alongside Diana’s. Such was their close relationship that Jean was often mistaken as being her older sister rather than her mother. A year later, in 1927, she played a live game of bridge for a London radio broadcast alongside Algie, the Countess of Ossory, and the famous gossip columnist Viscount Castlerosse. In 1928, while attending a debutante ball in Mayfair, given by Mrs Bower Ismay for Miss Del Ismay, a fire broke out in the large marquee and two-hundred guests scrambled to safety. Jean and Diana were among them, and there was scarcely enough time to grab their wraps and cloaks, before the fire blazed through the marquee, threatening to set the surrounding garages on fire.

Interestingly, given Jean’s stance on this new era of excess, she appeared to revel in Diana’s social life. She attended a tropical themed party in 1929, which could have been Bryan and Diana Guinness’s fabled party aboard the Friendship, a moored riverboat on the Thames. For this, she wore a white dress with a white flower in her hair. Following the trend for themed parties, Jean threw a party for Diana in the garden of her London home, which was lit by Chinese lanterns and she hired a group of Italian singing troubadours¹ to entertain her guests. She was also a reliable confidante to her young friends, namely Daphne Vivian when she called on Jean for an alibi during her romance with Henry Thynne, then Viscount Weymouth and heir to the Marquess of Bath. With both Daphne’s and her future husband’s parents disapproving of the relationship, she confided in Jean, and in turn Jean gave her an alibi so she could spend three secret days with Henry before their marriage. A scandalous thing for a young unmarried woman to do, Daphne had Jean say she was staying with her in London. And Jean, a ‘romantically minded woman who delighted in helping frustrated lovers’,² was happy to do so.

In the spring of 1930, and having come of age, Diana had become something of a rising society star in both London and Scotland. Among her chief interests were horse racing, hunt balls, singing, and performing in plays for charity. She was best friends with Lady Georgiana Curzon, and existed on the fringes of Lois Sturt’s³ circle. A society ‘wild child’ and actress, Lois had a fondness for booze and men, and in 1928 she had married Evan Morgan. Lois’s parents, Humphrey Napier ‘Nap’ Sturt and Lady Feo (née Yorke), were friends of Jean’s, and during the war Jean had acted as one of the sultanas alongside Lady Diana Cooper in Nap’s Persian sketch.⁵⁴ Diana had also been friendly with Gwyneth Morgan, the daughter of Courtenay and Katharine Tredegar, but Gwyneth had become entangled with drug dealers and her body was discovered washed up on a riverbank of the Thames.

There were rumours that Diana had caught the eye of Edward, the Prince of Wales, or at least that was the gossip in Antrim. But Edward preferred the company of older, married women, and it seemed the romance had been nothing but a tall tale. She had been close to relatives of the British royal family, namely her mother’s friends, Princess Maud of Wales, and the Prince and Princess of Conaught, who attended her debutante ball given by Jean at Lancaster Gate in 1926. Her lack of scandal (surprising, given her ‘fast’ company) and gentle disposition made her a catch among upper-class men. But aside from her companion Hubert Duggan, son of Grace the Marchioness of Curzon, there were no serious boyfriends and, like Jean, she had many close male friends who were homosexual. As a testament to her popularity, she was asked by her friend Lady Dorothea Murray to be the godmother of her son, the future Earl of Mansfield. With a bright future on the horizon, nobody predicted the storm clouds which lay ahead for Diana. And, in November 1930, the light of Jean’s life would be extinguished forever.

In October 1930, Diana went to Scotland to stay with Lord and Lady Mansfield at Scone Palace. And, during that same month, she served as a bridesmaid at the wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. The visits to Scotland, and then London, were conventional and it followed her usual round of countryside pursuits and society balls. However, during the last week of the month, she developed a fever and complained of having a sore throat, which nobody, including Diana herself, felt concerned about. A week later she collapsed at Knock House, and Jean sent for a doctor. Diana was diagnosed with typhoid fever, which was believed to have been brought on by drinking contaminated water at a social event.

Jean and Algie took Diana down to their home at 63 Rutland Gate,⁵⁵ which the family had moved to after selling Lancaster Gate in 1928, and a specialist from Harley Street was summoned. It appeared her health was improving, for on Trafalgar Day – she was a member of the Club of the Veterans’ Association – she went out with a group of friends to sell flags in aid of servicemen. The weather was cold, and friends expressed their concern for Diana’s health, but she joked: ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again.’⁵⁶ She developed pneumonia and her condition was deemed serious enough that newspapers printed daily updates regarding her health. Jean continued to cling on to the hope that the specialist from Harley Street could cure Diana, and her spirits were momentarily lifted when her daughter appeared to be getting stronger.

On the evening of 5 November, Diana’s health took a turn for the worse and she died the following afternoon with her parents by her side. Jean and Algie brought Diana’s body back to Antrim, where her funeral commenced. As a mark of respect, all businesses suspended trading that afternoon and the flags at Antrim Castle flew half-mast. Wreaths from her parents, in the shape of a cross and dedicated ‘to our darling’, decorated the coffin. And Jean, swathed in black, carried a bouquet of white roses which she placed inside the grave. The hearse carrying the coffin broke down⁵⁷ as it reached the barbican gate of Antrim Castle, and led by the town’s troupe of Girl Guides, the final journey was made by foot. Jean asked for Diana’s grave on the grounds of their estate to be re-dug, as she wanted it to face her home in Scotland.

Days before Diana had been diagnosed with typhoid fever, Jean wrote a newspaper article, expressing her thoughts on reincarnation. In it, she said:

Would you live your life again if you had the chance? How many of us would answer “yes”, if we had the opportunity?

Very few I believe.

It would be a weary business going over the same ground, and human-beings are ever on the outlook for something new.

Living again, having to go through the same troubles, the same sufferings, even the same joys, would not be a really entrancing prospect. Childhood, adolescence, maturity; illness, mistakes, failures, good times and bad. What is past is past, for good or ill.

I believe it is only the very young who would be willing to start their present existence again. They have not had enough of the world to realise the futility of reliving their former years. If they were cut off abruptly before their prime, reliving to them would be a new life which next time they might continue to its natural end.

People have been known to remember places and persons that they have certainly never come across before in their lives. If reincarnation were a fact it would be quite understandable.

Now that science is investigating many mysteries perhaps we may one day discover whether reincarnation is a fact or not.

It would certainly add to the attractiveness of existence if it were true.

“What shall I be next time?” would be an interesting speculation.

The death of her eldest child and only daughter proved too much for Jean, and in 1932 she suffered a nervous breakdown.⁵⁹ She had previously written in a newspaper article that ‘troubles crumble if you laugh at them and lose half their sting. The man who looks on the bright side, come what will, is the one who gets the best out of life. As for the rest, it is on the knees of the gods’.⁶⁰ But Jean, despite her strong belief in the spirit world, could not seek comfort from this. After Diana’s death, she did not wish to live, and in many ways it marked the beginning of the end for her. Algie himself, also shattered by grief, was at a loss to comfort her, and they began to drift apart. She was admitted to a nursing home for several months, during which time she missed the London season. On her doctor’s orders she spent the remainder of her convalescence at Knock House, where she was forbidden to do any entertaining. But she was feeling better by September, and planned to greet the Argyll gathering the following month.¹ This marked a period of ongoing ill-health for her, and newspaper reports often wrote about her bouts of sickness, and how she had collapsed in Hyde Park from a ‘mystery illness’.² Such illnesses were said to have taken weeks to recover from.

After Diana’s death, Jean seldom went to Antrim unless it was for an official engagement. And she did not stay for any length of time, perhaps finding the memories of their happy lives together too much to bear. Algie spoke of rebuilding the castle on a smaller scale and he commissioned Belfast architects to draw up the plans but, after all that had happened, he lost heart. Although she was not as politically active in Ulster as she had been years before, she paid short visits to the province to carry out duties, such as giving speeches at charity fundraisers and handing out prizes at schools. She went over to welcome visiting royals, and for the annual garden party at Stormont Estate, the seat of the Northern Ireland parliament. In November 1936 she went to Clotworthy House, the occasion was to acknowledge her son’s coming of age and repay the kindness the locals had shown him upon reaching that milestone. She was warmly received, and spent her brief visit becoming reacquainted with her friends in the town. It would mark her last visit to Northern Ireland.

Politics continued to hold Jean’s fascination, and it was rumoured she had considered a career as a politician. With Nancy, Viscountess Astor taking her seat in the House of Lords in 1919 (the first woman to do so), Jean’s supposed ambition would have been challenging but plausible. In 1935 she was enrolled as Justice of the Peace for Argyll, in the Sheriff Court at Oban. She continued to influence public opinion and in 1936, following the Munich Agreement she, along with various noble ladies, wrote an open letter to the Belfast Newsletter, claiming they were ‘prepared to defend that quarter of the world which we call the British Empire’.

During one of her many speeches, she advised young women at Glasgow University to act as ‘recruiting agents’ among their boyfriends. ‘I believe that no young man in this country should be asked to risk his life for a quarrel which is no concern of his,’ she said. ‘But I do think every young man ought to join the Territorials or the regular Army; and I appeal to you girls to persuade your boyfriends and your brothers to at least join the Territorials.’⁶⁴ She undertook many speaking engagements at women’s meetings, and she asked them to influence their menfolk in the defense against Adolf Hitler. ‘I cannot understand the mentality of any able-bodied young man who does not, at any rate, join the Territorials because it is a monstrous thing that people who have the advantage of being citizens of the greatest country in the world should take all the advantages and then do nothing in return.’⁶⁵ She was determined to spread the message of securing the country at all cost, and before a meeting she boarded a ferryboat and in the process lost her footing and fell to the bottom deck. Hurting both of her legs and suffering cuts and bruises, she bore the pain to fulfill a speaking engagement.

As she had done in the 1920s, she expressed her fears for modern life, especially those who sought adventure with little regard to human safety. An article written in 1933 was relevant to her speeches on securing Britain against attack, and she thought of the fast motorcar as a risk towards those wishing to live in peace. She wrote:

Petrol has changed the face of the world. In less than another half century it will have taken complete possession of the air. Will humanity survive? Probably not, if the accidents increase in ratio to the amount of planes and cars. We had as many casualties on the road last year as would occur in a fair-sized war. On the other hand, it is true that the cautious man rarely rises to great heights. He is apt to be so careful that opportunity passes him by.

There is, however, a very great difference between taking a risk and being foolhardy.

We do not yet seem to have got rid of the war-time idea of the cheapness of human life. Human life is not a commodity to be risked at the throw of a dice. It is always the best lives that are lost thus, those we can ill spare.⁶⁶

Although she bypassed a professional career in politics, another occupation presented itself in modelling. In her early fifties she loaned her celebrity and fabled beauty to advertisements for Pond’s cold cream and setting powder. It was a period when many society beauties were paid to endorse the product, and Jean, photographed in a wistful pose with short, shingled hair whose brunette colour she maintained with dye, praised the cream for preserving her good looks. ‘I practically live out-of-doors. Mine is not a hot-house life at all . . . I’d be as weather-beaten as a gillie, if it weren’t for my skin care.’

Towards the end of 1937, Jean’s health began to decline. In November she had a stroke, and was confined to her bed. Her absence was felt on the social scene, and she was notably missing from the annual meeting⁶⁷ of the League of Mercy, of which she was honorary secretary for the Scotland branch.

Newspapers wrote of a ‘mysterious’ illness, which they explained had plagued her for some time. The truth was, the stroke had caused her considerable brain damage and she had been left with aphasia, hemiplegia, and bulbar paralysis.⁶⁸ For someone as lively and active, both mentally and physically, as Jean, this must have been a cruel blow. Five weeks after her stroke, with her husband, son, and sister by her side, she died on 11 December 1937. She was fifty-four. ⁶⁹

Speaking of her death, the Rev. Collis of All Saints Parish Church in Antrim said: ‘Lady Massereene had friends in all positions in life . . . and I am sure there will be widespread and sincere regret at the unexpected death of one who was so kind-hearted and friendly to all around her and so noticeably charitable in her judgment of others.’⁷⁰ One can only hope that, with her belief in the afterlife, she is languishing on a spiritual plane.


  1. Lancashire Evening Post, 25 May 1931

  2. Jean’s birthplace has often been listed as Scotland. Although of Scottish heritage, she was born in London. Source: 1893 census

  3. Ibid

  4. Ibid

  5. Ballymena Observer, 8 August 1918

  6. The Graphic, 25 February 1905

  7. Truth, Volume 63, 1908 p. 63

  8. Vickers, Hugo, Elizabeth: The Queen Mother (Arrow, London 2006) p. 76

  9. Roberts, Pam, PhotoHistorica, Landmarks in Photography: Rare Images from the Royal Photographic Society (Workman Publishing, London 2000 ) p. 125

  10. Baguley, Margaret, WWI and the Question of Ulster: The Correspondence of Lilian and Wilfrid Spender (Irish Manuscripts Commissions, 2009) p. 250

  11. The Advertiser, 18 July 1925

  12. Larne Times, 28 October 1911

  13. Belfast Newsletter,, 7 August 1913

  14. The Scone Advocate, 4 May 1928

  15. Ballymena Observer, 11 November 1930

  16. Belfast Newsletter, 19 November 1910

  17. Weekly Times, 16 March 1912

  18. Ballymena Observer, 27 January 1911

  19. Ibid

  20. Information given to author by Alvin McCaig

  21. Letter from Viscountess Massereene to Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry. PRONI

  22. Baguley, Margaret, WWI and the Question of Ulster: The Correspondence of Lilian and Wilfrid Spender (Irish Manuscripts Commissions, 2009) p. 220

  23. Information given to author by Alvin McCaig

  24. Ballymena Observer, 27 January 1911

  25. Ballymena Observer, 8 August 1915

  26. Daily Express, 26 March 1925

  27. North West Champion, 11 March 1926

  28. Daily Express, 3 December 1914

  29. The Witness, 6 November 1914.

  30. Vickers, Hugo, Elizabeth: The Queen Mother (Arrow, London 2006) p. 76

  31. Belfast Newsletter, 6 August 1918

  32. Ibid, 31 May 1928

  33. The Advertiser, 19 June 1925

  34. Ballymena Observer, 24 November 1911

  35. Geelong Advertiser, 11 January 1912

  36. Ballymena Observer, 24 November 1911

  37. Young, Kenneth (ed), The Diaries of Sir Bruce Lockhart (Macmillan, London 1973) p. 66

  38. Bedford, John, A Silver Plated Spoon (Cassell, Woodburn Abbey, 1959) pp. 66-7

  39. Belfast Newsletter, 9 January 1922

  40. The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 9 May 1923

  41. Ibid

  42. Ibid

  43. The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Vol, 120, 1922

  44. As reported in several newspapers

  45. Weekly Telegraph, 12 May 1923

  46. New York Herald, 9 February 1920

  47. At the time of her death she had £1143 in savings. Source: The Scotsman, 5 August 1938

  48. Extracts of the Duchess of Leinster’s memoirs, So Brief a Dream, were provided by William Cross

  49. Sacramento Union, 5 November 1922

  50. Courtney, Nicholas, In Society: The Brideshead Years (Pavilion, London 1986) p. 135

  51. The Sun, 25 August 1929

  52. Fielding, Daphne, Mercury Presides (Eyre & Spottiswoode, London 1954) p. 119

  53. Told to author by William Cross, Lois Sturt’s biographer

  54. Ibid

  55. The Massereenes also rented Harrington House at Kensington Palace Gardens, 1929

  56. The Argus, 20 December 1930

  57. Told to me by Lord and Lady Massereene’s chauffeur’s son

  58. Lincolnshire Echo, 25 October 1930

  59. Belfast Newsletter, 6 February 1932

  60. Lincolnshire Echo, 25 October 1930

  61. Dundee Courier, 24 October 1932

  62. Western Daily Press, 9 May 1931

  63. Northern Whig, 17 October 1935

  64. The Scotsman, 13 December 1937

  65. Ballymena Observer, 22 October 1937

  66. Northern Whig, 15 April 1933

  67. The Scotsman, 26 November 1937

  68. Death certificate, with thanks to William Cross for providing this for me

  69. Jean’s Death certificate erroneously listed her age as 52

  70. Belfast Newsletter, 13 December 1937

Pamela Mitford: The Country Girl


Pam and Debo, Lismore 1979. Source: Nick Harvill Libraries 

Unlike her sisters who, with the exception of Debo, left the English countryside and their ancestral home nestled among the sprawling green fields of the Cotswolds, Pamela Mitford never craved the bright lights of London, or any city for that matter. Nancy, a self-confessed, Francophile, ached for Paris and in her forties left the grey landscape of war-torn London and a failed marriage for the City of Light. Diana, too, fled Swinbrook at the age of nineteen, never to return (how could she after she disgraced her family and broke her father’s heart by shacking up with Sir Oswald Mosley?), and eventually settled in Paris and then Orsay. For Unity, the baroque grandeur of Munich caught her fancy and she only returned after a botched suicide attempt left her unable to care for herself. Decca, perhaps the most urban of them all, settled for the suburbs of Oakland, California. But Pam, she never really left the countryside.

From the practicality of her country clothes – quilted jackets, oil skins, Aran knit cardigans, tweed skirts, and woolly tights – to her knowledge of the landscape to the care of livestock, Pam was a country girl to her core. She was hardy and oblivious to the elements, preferring to add another layer rather than turn on the central heating. Diana recalled a visit with Pamela at Riverview Cottage, Swinbrook, and how she was forbidden to turn on the electric blanket while Pam was there. This idiosyncrasy for preserving energy and resources remained all her life, and she could not abide the daily worker squandering water, instead she made her use a bucket to catch the cold water as it heated up. ‘ . . . Then you can take the buckets of tepid water downstairs and out into the vegetable garden, where it is always welcome.’ She did not like throwing furniture away, and if she could not use something (a rare occurrence) she practically talked others into taking it off her hands. ‘It would be quite impossible to get such wonderful armchairs,’ Pamela told Diana, by way of forcing her into re-homing a set of tweed armchairs, which, she boasted: ‘And they’ve got flat arms to put a drink on.’ Perhaps owing to the fact she was not frivolous with her money, she expected others to appreciate the presents she bought for them, especially children: ‘I sent presents [. . .] in time for Christmas Eve, and here it is the third of January and none of those children has written.’

As with her custom of giving away what she no longer needed, Pamela liked to pass on her knowledge to those willing to learn. Of course, being practical and self-sufficient in a family filled with servants, her skills were often exploited, most especially by Nancy. When they were children, Nancy shirked her chores and gave them to Pamela, whom she promised to pay, if she rose early and opened the bedroom curtains. In true Nancy fashion it had been a tease and the payment never materialised, however their mother intervened and forced Nancy to part with her pocket money in exchange for Pamela’s services. Then, a few years later, the children had pet mice and Pamela asked the carpenter to make her a wooden palace for her mouse. Nancy was envious and asked if her mouse could move in, and Pamela suggested she share the feeding and cleaning of the mice, to which Nancy agreed. The mice went hungry and Pamela’s mouse had eaten Nancy’s. Then, as adults, Nancy found herself short of clean clothes and with no means to have them laundered (they were at Inch Kenneth, their mother’s remote Scottish island). She asked Pamela to teach her how to wash them: ‘She did the washing while I stood and looked. Now I’m going to get her to teach me to iron them,’ Nancy wrote to Decca.

Unlike her sisters she did not ride or hunt, owing to a lame leg which had been the result of childhood polio, but she stood behind the guns and prepared the game. Decca wrote in her memoirs, Hons and Rebels, that as a child Pamela had wanted to be a horse and spent hours galloping across the lawn, and when she grew up ‘she married a jockey’. This was typical Decca, for Pamela’s husband, Derek Jackson, was an amateur steeple-chaser and excellent horseman, but his main profession was that of a physicist. The solitude of a country house, its stone walls and unspoiled views, suited her character. Although good fun, a witty raconteur (not as quick as Nancy, but still funny in a gentle way), she was essentially a loner. She did not look for attention, although it often found her, and she took male admiration in her stride, never really aware of how pretty she was (golden hair, clear complexion, no need for make-up), and always downplaying her housekeeping skills. Having learned the art of running a big house from Muv, and despite being, what we would diagnose today as, dyslexic, she had a head for household accounts and was a natural cook, using her instincts and common sense when preparing and measuring ingredients. Debo gave her full credit for inspiring the kitchen garden at Chatsworth House. She could, to quote her nephew Jonathan Guinness, ‘make soup out of her head’, that is, she had a photographic memory serving as a cookbook, and she understood the compatibility of herbs and spices. Indeed, she often spoke of writing a cookbook but to our everlasting disappointment the idea was rejected by ‘Jamie’ Hamilton, the publisher Hamish Hamilton, who gave Nancy her platform. I speak for a large majority when I say Pam’s would-be cookbook is a real loss to the literary canon.

Like those who have spent their lives amongst the ebb and flow of the landscape and its seasons, Pamela understood the cycle of animals and the unsentimental purposes they served. As a young woman she managed her brother-in-law Bryan Guinness’s farm at Biddesden, and she learned about agriculture and husbandry. It was not a seamless transition from debutante to farmer, and during those novice years she accidentally won an expensive cow at auction, only to discover ‘the brute was bagless’ and therefore useless for milking. Later, during her marriage to Derek Jackson, she bred Aberdeen Angus but was forced to give them up during WWII when land was needed to grow potatoes; she especially missed her bull, a Black Hussar, who had ‘been sent to the butcher’. She could be tough, too, and was forced to make difficult decisions during the war – when Diana was imprisoned at Holloway a beloved mare was living at Pamela’s farm and was slaughtered, and she also had Diana’s dog euthanised. Although, at the time and facing an uncertain future in prison, Diana failed to understand Pamela’s decision.

When she lived in Ireland, towards the end of her marriage to Derek, Pamela was responsible for the clearing out and selling of their marital home, Tullmaine Castle, in County Tipperary. There was an estate sale of its contents, supervised by Pamela, and eggs preserved in brine exploded, prompting her to say: ‘Nothing is to leave this house until it is paid for.’ Despite the eggs exploding, Pamela was cheered when glasses from Woolworth fetched four times the amount she paid for them and were still obtainable from the shop. She remained in the house, after its sale, as a tenant and when the workmen came to rewire the house she asked the new landlord for a dairy cow, as the workmen had no milk for their tea. They used a pint a day, and so Pamela bought four piglets which she reared on the extra milk, and sold the rest to a creamery. A typical Pamela thing to do: she was frugal all her life, and not only did her pets bring her great joy, she also kept animals for commercial purposes.

An animal lover who had many dogs and ponies throughout her life, Pamela could easily abandon a trip to Paris when her pet dachshund looked at her sadly, as dachshunds are apt to do. During her middle-age she spent several years in the 1960s living in Switzerland with her companion (Decca referred to her as Pamela’s ‘German wife’), Swiss-Italian horsewoman Giuditta Tomassi. The reason for her settling in Switzerland, as she told German Elle, was because her dogs (after the article’s publication they became known as the Elles) were very old and she thought they would prefer to spend their last days on the Continent. Thoughtful to her four-legged friends and treating them with the utmost care (often she panicked when they were carsick, thinking it was rabies), she did indeed stay until her dogs died. A poultry expert (self-taught, of course), she used her time in Switzerland learning about Swiss chickens and hens, and she is credited with introducing the Appenzeller Spitzhauben breed of chicken to Britain, having smuggled its eggs through British customs inside a chocolate box. Who would dare to question a well-bred Englishwoman carrying a box of Swiss chocolates through an airport? When she returned to England during the Christmas holidays she used her car to transport cheap Swiss household goods, and begged of her sisters not to buy her a present, as she was far more preoccupied with dishwasher salt, bought in bulk, and other cleaning paraphernalia. When the inevitable happened and her dogs died, Pamela left Switzerland where, according to Diana, ‘She was Queen there for ages.’ Debo agreed: ‘In Zurich she is Empress. All her friends are multis and wherever one goes one hears the cry “Pamela! How wonderful to see you!”’

There was a practicality to Pamela, that was otherwise lacking in her sisters. Rarely was her head turned by a celebrity and she refrained from obsessive romantic crushes the other girls developed. Seated next to Lord Mountbatten at a smart function, she was far from dazzled when he referred to her nickname ‘Woman’, and said: ‘I know you are Woman.’ Yes, she responded, and demanded to know who he was. When she had a private audience with Hitler, along with her mother, she exchanged recipes for wholemeal bread with him and complimented the new potatoes served at luncheon. Food occupied much of her thoughts, and she could recall an event merely by its menu – ‘in our brief twenty-five minutes she managed to tell us every menu between Zurich and here’. During a dinner party she sat next to a Frenchman and shared with him a long menu for cooking pork, related in French (she was fluent in both French and German), and said: ‘Il faut le couper LÀ‘ and pointed to the place on her leg to demonstrate where the meat should be cut. On another occasion and in a similar setting, she told two guests to ‘smash the potatoes in the best olive oil’. Such stories were referred to by the family as ‘Woman’s Sagas’. New friendships were formed over her food, and she was renowned during her time in Tipperary for her hunting teas. There was also a period when she had blue Aga, its hue chosen to match her eyes.

Although all her life Pamela had been the victim of her sisters’ teasing, and, as Diana said, ‘Pam was often right but seldom listened to’, she was the sister they relied on most. When Diana was imprisoned, two of her four children went to live with Pamela at Rignell House, her farm in Berkshire, but Pamela did not care much for babies and although the children were well looked after, she didn’t have the maternal instinct Diana had. She boasted of making Alexander, then twenty-months, walk through a field of bristles, and she spoke of a close encounter with a fighter plane on a walk with the children. The letters sent to Diana in prison were far from comforting and she worried about Alexander’s ‘poor little legs’. Described by Decca as ‘half mad, half vague’, she wondered why Pamela never had children of her own as ‘she’d have made a super mum’ – it seemed Decca, who lacked her sister’s domesticity, thought Pamela’s chief talents of housekeeping, cooking, and driving were the makings of a good parent. She was also the sister Nancy looked to most, when she was dying of cancer, which remained undiagnosed and largely untreated. ‘The only real answer is Woman,’ Diana said. She stayed at Nancy’s Versailles house, a place she disliked as she found it claustrophobic, and gave up much of her motoring around the Continent and time with Giuditta, to be at Nancy’s disposal. A stream of sisters and relatives came to visit, and Decca flew in from California and asked what she could do to help. ‘Well, I always make my own bed on the day Mme. Guinon (Nancy’s daily help) doesn’t come,’ Pamela said. She did her duty of tending to Nancy, comforting her during painful attacks, weathering her insults, helping around the house, and weeding the garden. When it was over, and Nancy died, Pamela said to Diana: ‘Let’s face it, she’s ruined four years of our lives.’

After years of living in Switzerland with Giuditta and her dogs, Pamela returned to the English countryside. Years before, she had bought Woodfield House, in Gloucestershire, with money from Tullamaine’s estate sale. She spent a contented old age, with her black Labrador for company, and continued to breed poultry – such an expert, in 1984 she had been invited on a television show to discuss chickens (‘Woman ought to have her own chicken chat show,’ Debo said). And, until her leg afflicted by childhood polio grew weaker, she spent winters with Diana in South Africa. Largely referred to as the ‘quiet Mitford’ and the ‘forgotten sister’, Pamela’s star turn came in 1980 when she appeared on-screen in Nancy Mitford: A Portrait By Her Sisters. Filmed in her natural habitat; she sat on a tree stump on the banks of the River Windrush, let her pony off for a run, and stoked her Aga stove. Before her death in 1994, Pamela had been staying with an old friend in London, when she fell down steep stairs and broke two bones in her weak leg. She was operated on, but did not recover, and died in hospital. In true Pamela fashion, her last (known) words were, ‘What won the Grand National?’

Quotes taken from The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters and Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford

Published in The Mitford Society: Vol V 


The Mitford Society Vol V


The Mitford Society is pleased to present its fifth annual, with contributions from Meems Ellenberg, Kathy Hillwig, Robert Morton, Gail Louw, Chiara Martinelli, William Cross, May Tatel-Scott, Ella Kay, Terence Towles Canote, Kim Place-Gateau, Meredith Whitford, and Lyndsy Spence. It has been released early this year to mark Decca’s 100th birthday! The table of contents includes:

A Mitford Mimicry: A Mitford Tease

Six Sonnets for Six Sisters

The Most Dangerous Moment of All: Decca Mitford and the Plot to Escape

The Loves of Jessica Mitford: Chapter Two

Decca Mitford: The Entrepreneurial Communist

A Sheepish Short Story

Bertie Mitford and the Birth of Modern Japan

Almost a Bohemian: Diana Mitford and the Bloomsbury Set

The Disappearing Act of Miss Muriel Perry

The Mitford Sisters: A One Woman Play

Pamela Mitford: The Country Girl

Nancy in Venice

Love Him, Loathe Him: Tom Mitford Revisited

Revisiting Chatsworth and House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth

Debo and The Whopper: The Devonshire Diadem

A Dangerous Devotion: Venetia Montagu and Henry Asquith

A Tale of Two Susans: Nancy and Decca

What Would Decca Do: A Muckraker’s Legacy

Murder in the Hons’ Cupboard: The Original Mitford Murder, and Then Some…

Available from and



Mariga Guinness: Princess, Preservationist, Icon


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.’

Source Notes

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.

  1. Smith, Anne (ed) Women Remember: An Oral History (Routledge, London 2013) p. 60

  2. Zemeckis, Leslie, Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteause Lili St. Cyr (Counterpoint, Berkeley 2015)

  3. Cambridge Independent Press, 5 November 1920

  4. Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) p.41

  5. Smith, Anne (ed) Women Remember: An Oral History (Routledge, London 2013) p. 59

  6. Ibid

  7. Ibid

  8. The Independent, 1996

  9. Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) P.41

  10. Ibid

  11. Ibid

  12. Vickers, Hugo, Beaton in the Sixties: More Unexpurgated Diaries (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) p. 98

  13. Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) P.41

  14. Zemeckis, Leslie, Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteause Lili St. Cyr (Counterpoint, Berkeley 2015)


  16. Smith, Anne (ed) Women Remember: An Oral History (Routledge, London 2013) p. 60

  17. Peck Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) p.61

  18. Illustrated London News, 30 May 1970

  19. Norris, David, A Kick Against The Pricks (Random House, London 2013) p. 133

  20. Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) p. 126

  21. The Illustrated London News, 30 May 1970

  22. Peck, Carola, Mariga and her Friends (The Hannon Press, Meath 1997) p.186

  23. Ibid p.147

Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble : Guest post by Catriona McPherson


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

The President and The Duchess by Michelle Morrissette

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

Camelot in the Derbyshire Dales by Kim Place-Gateau


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

Guest Post: The Most Exotic Mitford of them all: Algernon Bertram Mitford (1837-1916) by Robert Morton


Bertie by Samuel Laurence, drawn in 1865, just before he went to China.

Of course, the Mitford sisters didn’t come from nowhere. Mitties know about ‘Farve’ – David, 2nd Lord Redesdale – and probably wonder how such an eccentric, but apparently untalented, man could have produced such exceptional daughters. Few, however, go one generation further back, to his remarkable father, Algernon Bertram Mitford, a man of considerable ability and personality, who played a significant role in a faraway revolution.

Bertie (being Mitfords, they pronounced it ‘Bartie’) had a difficult early life. His mother abandoned the family when he was four and he was sent away to board at Eton at the age of nine, where he struggled. He recovered, however, going on to Oxford, and then entering the most prestigious government department, the Foreign Office. As a young adult, he had everything going for him: he was tall and handsome, always immaculately dressed, with large blue eyes and an elegant pointed, slightly hooked nose, set off by a carefully-groomed moustache.

Bertie had seemed set to follow the same course as his father by taking a congenial overseas posting (in his father’s case, Florence), before settling to a calm aristocratic existence in Britain. But in 1865, Bertie did something strange. The top civil servant in the Foreign Office casually mentioned that he was having trouble finding someone for a junior attaché position in Beijing and Bertie amazed him by volunteering for it. Beijing was considered the ultimate hardship posting: remote, lonely, dangerous and uncomfortable. And the following year, Bertie went somewhere that was a lot more hazardous: Japan.

In spite of this, it was a country that suited Bertie much better than China. There, he found that his elegant manners, combined with his status as a diplomat, gave him access to the highest levels of government and society, just when they started tolerating the presence of outsiders. He met with the Emperor face-to-face when almost everybody else, including the Shogun, could only talk to him from behind a screen. He became friendly with the last Shogun and was in the first group of Westerners to witness a hara-kiri (ritual suicide). He played a part in one of the great turning points in world history: the chaotic1868 revolution that saw the demise of the 250-year feudal dynasty ruled over by the Shoguns and its replacement by a modern state.

Bertie showed remarkable courage in Japan: he almost drowned, could have burned to death or died of exposure, was shot at, and was nearly cut down by samurai swords, but he did not flinch. The country was the making of him and his classic Tales of Old Japan, which is still in print nearly 150 years after it was first published, turned him into a celebrity in Britain. This set him on a path of fame which would lead him to being made Lord Redesdale by Edward VII in 1902. This meant that on his death, David succeeded to the same title, making his daughters ‘Hons’ – the style that they used so memorably.

Bertie died in 1916 and so only knew his older grandchildren. Nevertheless, there were two things that he did towards the end of his life which had fateful consequences for them all, but especially for Unity. The first was to write a long introduction to a book by a British writer who lived in Germany, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, entitled The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. The work attracted Hitler’s attention, for obvious reasons: ‘Physically and mentally’, Chamberlain wrote, the Aryans are ‘pre-eminent among all peoples’, and ‘for that reason they are by right … the lords of the world’, while the Jews were ‘everlastingly alien’. Bertie was not anti-Semitic, but he went along with Chamberlain’s crackpot racial theories. Because of his association with the work, Hitler held Bertie in high regard, which made him look on Bertie’s descendants favourably; when he was showing Diana and Unity the grave of Wagner, Hitler told them it was an honour to be visiting it with the great Lord Redesdale’s granddaughters.

The other thing Bertie did was insist on Unity being given the middle name Valkyrie, a strange choice at any time, but especially for a baby born four days after Britain had declared war on Germany in 1914. Bertie pointed out that the Valkyrie were Scandinavian, not German, war maidens, but the choice was a reflection of his love of the operas of Richard Wagner. The name Valkyrie became important because Hitler thought that it made Unity a talisman of good fortune for him.

It is easy to see much in Bertie that carried down to the sisters: looks, aristocratic bearing, literary talent, bold imagination and an ambitious, enterprising spirit. What he did not share with them was their susceptibility to scandal. He was the son of divorced parents and knew how painful social disgrace could be, so his own family life was a model of respectability – on the outside. He appeared – and indeed was, in many ways – a devoted husband to his wife Clementine, and they had five sons and four daughters together. When Sydney first met them, she was impressed: he was ‘the best looking old man’ she had ever seen, ‘with pure white hair and glittering … blue eyes, together with a bony rather hooked nose and a good figure’. Clementine, on the other hand ‘had a fine presence and much personality. She was beautiful in her youth but … was too fat.’ She gave birth to their youngest children, twins, when Bertie was fifty-eight and she forty-one, which suggests that they kept some spark in their marriage over the years. Jonathan and Catherine Guinness (Diana’s son and granddaughter) in The House of Mitford portrayed her as a conventional woman, a ‘bit stuffy’, but fair-minded. It looks like she ruled the roost indoors, while Bertie was allowed to do what he wanted outside.

Which is certainly what he did. His most significant affair was with Blanche Hozier, the mother of Winston Churchill’s wife, another Clementine – there is a strong chance Bertie was her father (see Sonia Purnell’s post on Blanche for fuller details!). In carrying on with Blanche, he was having an affair with his wife’s sister, something which would have utterly outraged society, so Bertie was taking a big risk. However, he made sure that they were not found out.

How much easier, but how much less interesting, life would have been for his granddaughters had they been as careful as he was.

A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan as a Modern State: Letters Home by Robert Morton is published by Renaissance Books


A.B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan as a Modern State: Letters Home, by Robert Morton is published by Renaissance Books


Robert is a biographer and historian living in Japan. In the few free moments he has when he isn’t thinking about the Mitford family from far away, he is a professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.

Patricia, Countess Mountbatten of Burma

Lord and Lady Louis Mountbatten with daughters Patricia and Pamela

The death of Patricia, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, strikes me as sad despite her great age (93). Born on Valentine’s Day 1924, into one of the great families of the twentieth-century; she was a last link to a generation that will soon be extinct, and a reminder of the lost world in which the Mitfords and their ilk lived. She was the eldest daughter of Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma (born Prince Louis of Battenberg) and Edwina (nee) Ashley, an heiress to her grandfather’s fortune. The relationship between the infant Patricia and her mother was strained, and Edwina has often been accused of being neglectful  –  I have written about it in The Mistress of Mayfair: Men, Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne. The aforementioned reference is due to the fact Edwina ‘stole’ Doris’s man and benefactor, Laddie Sanford, a millionaire polo player and man about town. But, of course, as with the Mitfords, it would be unfair to judge Patricia solely on her family.

As Countess Mountbatten’s obituary in the Telegraph states, she was a great-great granddaughter of Queen Victoria, a first cousin to the Duke of Edinburgh, and a third cousin to Queen Elizabeth II.  ‘A divine little daughter. Too thrilling,’ Edwina wrote of her daughter’s arrival. On the morning of Patricia’s birth, fifty letters arrived and flowers were delivered every fifteen minutes, and Edwina was given a bracelet, from her mother-in-law, that had once been Queen Victoria’s, and Dickie gifted her a ruby ring. Dickie himself was overseas with the Royal Navy, and upon hearing the news went ashore to Madeira to begin his long journey home. When the excitement was over, Patricia was sent to the nursery and placed in the care of Nanny Woodward, and Edwina concentrated on regaining her health and figure, and was determined to slim down for the latest Parisian fashions. The baby, however, became the centre of Dickie’s world: he photographed her, took her to see ponies, and gave her a hedgehog which he had found down the lane from their home. She was fourteen-months-old when Edwina finally referred to her as Patricia, rather than ‘the baby’, and two or three times a year (when nanny was on holiday) she lunched with her in the nursery. Edwina’s biographer, Janet Morgan, states that, while it was true Patricia lacked maternal love, she was safe in the nursery, away from kidnappers, journalists, and prying eyes. Five years later, a sister, Pamela was born.

It was a childhood of wealth and privilege, owing to her mother’s trust-fund and her father’s royal relatives. Patricia went to schools in England, Malta and New York, unusual for a girl from her background, for upper-class girls were usually taught by a governess. Perhaps Edwina enjoyed the freedom of her children being away from home. There were holidays abroad, although spent a safe distance from her mother, and always in the care of nanny. One holiday in particular was memorable, due to the frivolity of Edwina. The children and nanny went to the Hungarian mountains and, deposited in a small hotel, Edwina and her lover motored off on their own adventure. She lost the piece of paper which had the name of the hotel, and it was months before she returned for her children. Patricia was in her teens when the Second World War began, and Edwina decided Patricia and Pamela would be better off in America. Patricia and her sister were to travel as evacuees, and they would stay as the house guests of Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt III. ‘Too sad and all in tears,’ Edwina noted in her diary, after taking the children to have their hair cut and to buy winter clothes. But the tears soon turned to smiles, and Patricia had become something of a social butterfly among the gatherings at New York apartments and Gilded Age mansions in Newport. She was, after all, an English evacuee with royal connections, whose mother knew everyone on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Nearly everyone we meet knows you,’ she wrote to Edwina. The only downside to American life was the absence of her French governess, ‘Zelle’, but she was soon shipped over and it put an end to the high life. Zelle taught the girls how to wash and mend their clothes, and they were no longer taken to luncheon parties to be gawked at by enquiring Americans with a thirst for British aristocrats. Patricia was enrolled in Miss Hewitt’s, a progressive establishment run by an Englishwoman and the former school of Margaret Whigham and Barbara Hutton. She turned eighteen while in New York, and missed out on a debutante ball like that of her English contemporaries, and she took off to Colorado by Greyhound bus to explore the country. The trip was varied; she picnicked with students from the School of Mining in Denver, and went to Washington to spend the night as the guest of President Roosevelt.

In 1942 Patricia left America and returned to England to join the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service). She served in Combined Operations in England, working in a tunnel one-hundred-feet below ground and was later commissioned as a third officer in the Supreme Allied Headquarters in South East Asia. It was during this latter post that she met her husband, John Knatchbull, who inherited the Barony of Brabourne after the death of his elder brother in 1943. They married after the war, at Romsey Abbey in 1946, and lived at Mersham, the Brabourne family seat in Kent. Despite an eccentric childhood and parents who, as they grew older, shared a partnership rather than a traditional marriage (both had lovers), Patricia was to devote her life to her family and to public service – something which her parents were also committed to. She served as Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Patricia’s (her distant cousin and namesake) Canadian Light Infantry for thirty-three years, until her retirement in 2004. ‘When I turned 80, I said for goodness sake, I can’t drive a tank any longer,’ she remarked. In 1973 she was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Kent, and she served as a magistrate, was a Dame of the Order of St John, and was patron of the Countess of Mountbatten’s Own Legion of Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth. Although her father had been appointed Viceroy of India in 1947 – he was to be the last one, with a mandate to oversee British withdrawal – Patricia had her own family to contend with. She would go on to have eight children, including a set of twins; and her husband, despite his title, juggled a successful career as a film director.

The summer of 1979 was to become a turning point for Patricia. She, along with members of her family, were on a boat which was blown up by an IRA bomb, off the shores of Sligo. It killed her 14-year-old son, Nicholas, her father, her mother-in-law, and a 15-year-old boat boy from Co. Fermanagh. Patricia, her husband and their son, Timothy (Nicholas’s twin), were injured but had survived the blast. She was pulled from the boat’s debris onto a rubber dinghy, and she remained unconscious for days; her face needed 120 stitches, and she would refer to it as ‘my IRA facelift’. Following the death of her son, she supported the Child Bereavement Charity and became patron and later president of The Compassionate Friends.

Patricia Knatchbull, the 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma and Lady Brabourne, died on 13 June 2017. ‘I would love to feel that when I die I shall be reunited with my husband and son. Sadly, I can’t say I do believe it. But I think it’s a lovely thought.’