Lady Ursula d’Abo

Lady Ursula d'Abo photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1939

Lady Ursula d’Abo photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1939

Born into an aristocratic family in 1916, Lady Ursula d’Abo (née Manners) was interrelated with some of the most powerful and interesting figures of the 20th century. She counted the famous beauty and hostess Lady Diana Cooper as her paternal aunt, and among those famous aunts were Laura and Margot Tennant, part of the Victorian intellectual group known as “The Souls”. Indeed, her mother was Kathleen Tennant, descended from the extraordinarily rich Scots family who had made their fortune in bleach, and she counted the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith as an uncle-by-marriage. There were fascinating cousins, too, including childhood summers spent with Anne Charteris, the future wife of Ian Fleming – creator of James Bond. Lady Ursula’s father, the Marquess of Granby, was the second-born son of the 8th Duke of Rutland, who upon the untimely death of his eldest brother at the age of nine (he twisted a gut from turning a somersault), became his father’s heir.

It was a magical childhood, with visits to Belvoir Castle – “my playground and fiefdom” – the Rutland seat, where the vast army of servants extended to liveried footmen and the Pig Man. Although Nanny and the nursery were the centre of Lady Ursula and her siblings lives, she and her younger sister, Lady Isabel, were allowed to ride with the famous Belvoir hunt. The Master of Hounds, terrified that the two children would get squashed in the gates, would hold up the two hundred horses so the girls could pass through first. Occasionally the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, would join the hunt and he and Lady Ursula would gallop the twelve miles from Belvoir Castle to Melton Mowbray. But, following his abdication, Lady Ursula’s father (by then the Duke of Rutland), refused to have him in the house; he was shocked at his betrayal of the country. Furthermore, he and his wife’s loyalties lay with their friends the Duke and Duchess of York, who ascended the throne as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

A clever and sophisticated child, Lady Ursula counted the artist Rex Whistler – “an attractive man with an original sense of humour” – as a pen-pal. Befriending him before his fame, he sent her illustrated letters when she was at school in Italy. She also helped her father, who had inherited the Dukedom in 1925, with the restoration of Haddon Hall, the Derbyshire home of the Rutlands dating from 1066. From her childhood home, The Wood House, north of Rowsley village, Nanny drove the children in a tub cart pulled by a pony for picnics at Haddon whilst it was being restored. As her siblings played, Lady Ursula and her father worked together on the mullion windows in the Long Gallery; the small panes were a diamond pattern of greenish glass which caught the light as they were set askew. And, while restoring the chapel at Haddon, Lady Ursula discovered some medieval frescoes which had been whitewashed over in the Reformation. A remarkable find for anyone, most especially an eight-year-old child. It should also be mentioned that Lady Ursula – in spite of being a girl with three brothers – was her father’s favourite. When she was sick, it was not Nanny who sat by her bedside, but her father who would bring his child a jug of champagne and say: “Cheer up, you will be all right in the morning.”

Away from the countryside there were swimming and dancing lessons in London, and having been inspired by the ballet, Lady Ursula dreamed of becoming a famous ballerina. She took lessons with the great Russian ballerina, Tamara Karasvina, who praised her for having “a great aptitude”. However, Lady Ursula could not pursue her training as her parents did not approve of a stage career.

The path in which Lady Ursula’s life should progress was made clear, when, at the age of seventeen, the Duke and Duchess of Rutland hosted a “coming out” ball with two hundred guests at Belvoir Castle for her and Lady Isabel. Their matching white tulle dresses were from Worth in Paris, though they proved a disappointment with the girls who longed to appear grown up. In spite of the dresses not living up to expectation, Lady Ursula realised that her coming out ball would launch her into a glamorous, grown-up world. “Suddenly…I was expected to be a young lady with great social graces, and dressed immaculately in the most beautiful clothes.” The freedom “felt exhilarating” after being chaperoned for years. However, to Lady Isabel it was not enough and she eloped with Loel Guinness, an heir to the banking branch of the Irish dynasty. Sailing for over four months on Guinness’s yacht to Palm Springs and New York City, the couple’s honeymoon was so long that it wasn’t insured by Lloyd’s. Although dismayed at her sister missing out on the social season, Lady Ursula went along to the parties and “had five years of growing up in the most enjoyable way”.

Change was in the air, and a great event in history was about to draw Lady Ursula to the forefront of British society. The coronation of King George VI, following the abdication of his brother King Edward VII, brought a sense of optimism and pageantry to the people who feared Adolf Hitler and the threat of another world war. As her ancestors had done before her, Lady Ursula and her family took part in the coronation. Her father carried the orb in the procession into Westminster Abbey, her mother was a canopy-bearer to the Queen, and her two younger brothers were Page of Honour to the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Ancaster, the Lord Great Chamberlain. Lady Ursula was one of six maids of honour who carried the Queen’s ermine-trimmed velvet train. Dressed identically, the six girls wore matching tiaras and white satin, puff sleeved Norman Hartnell gowns with a motif of corn embroidered down the front.

Afterwards, Lady Ursula joined the royal party on the balcony of Buckingham Palace where she stood next to the Dowager Queen Mary and behind the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. At the end of “that magical day”, she was sent home from the palace in a taxi, still feeling quite overwhelmed by all that had happened. But it was not the end of the excitement as Lady Ursula was to discover. A certain Mr. Laurence McKinney from Albany, New York wrote a poem to The Knickerbocker Press, imploring: “In many of the pictures of the Coronation there is shown at the back of the royal party a statuesque brunette with a widow’s peak. Who is she?” The attention, she freely admitted, “produced a lot of jealously amongst my peers”.

There were duties beyond the coronation, and along with her mother, aunt Lady Diana Cooper and uncle Duff Cooper, and Winston and Clementine Churchill, Lady Ursula accompanied the new King and Queen on their first official visit to Paris. Being the youngest in the Royal party, Churchill nicknamed her “the cygnet”.

Though as much as Lady Ursula had become a society star, her father reminded her that she should set her sights on a good marriage. She recalled: “I had no money of my own and was brought up to be subservient to the male species.” Although she proved her mettle during WWII when she became a voluntary Red Cross Nurse, and then managing two thousand women in a munitions factory, Lady Ursula did indeed fulfill her father’s wish for her to marry.

In 1943, Lady Ursula married Anthony Marreco, a man she barely knew and who threatened to commit suicide if she refused to do so. The swiftness in which a wedding was organised prompted the minister to place a chair for her to sit on at the altar as he assumed she was pregnant. This, she admitted, had infuriated her. Ill-suited and separated by war, the couple divorced in 1948. She married for a second time to Erland d’Abo with whom she had three children. The marriage lasted until his death.

Lady Ursula has experienced a life of many high and lows set to the backdrop of a gilded age, the like of which we will never see again. All of this has been recorded in her charming memoir, The Girl with the Widow’s Peak.

The Mitford Society Annual Vol. 2

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The Mitford Society’s second annual is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com as well as various retail outlets. This year’s edition features lots of exciting features, photographs and tributes to Debo from those who knew her and admired her.  I have included a complete list of contents below…
The Horror Sisters: A Mitford Tease by Meems Ellenberg & Lyndsy Spence

Evelyn Waugh & Diana Guinness by Lyndsy Spence

An American’s Conversion to U-Speak by Nathan Duncan

How Do U Do Social Qs? A Mitford Quiz by Meems Ellenberg

The Making of a Modern Duchess by Katherine Longhi

Cooking and Eating Like a Duchess by May Tatel-Scott

The Kennedys & The Devonshires: A Family Intwined in History by Michelle Morrisette

The Mitfords & Hitler by Jane Thynne

The Mitfords in Love by Georgina Tranter

Tilly Losch & The Mitfords by William Cross

Sheila Chisholm: An Ingenue’s Introduction to High Society by Lyndsy Spence

Reviving an Icon by Robert Wainwright

Decca Mitford: Rock Star by Terence Towles Canote

Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan by Lyndsy Spence

The Asthall Poltergeist & High Society’s Fascination With the Unseen by Lyndsy Spence

Tales From the Archive by Lucinda Gosling

Nancy Mitford: A Celebration by Eleanor Doughty

Lady Ursula d’Abo: The Girl with the Widow’s Peak by Lyndsy Spence

Wolf for Two: A Wartime Dinner with Pamela Mitford & M.F.K Fisher by Kim Place-Gateau

Only Connect by Lee Galston

The Rodds in Italy by Chiara Martinelli & David Ronneburg

The Mitfords & The Country House by Evangeline Holland

The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Memories of Debo by Joseph Dumas

Tributes to Debo

– Emma Cannon

– Emma Gridley

– Robin Brunskill

– Stuart Clark

– Leslie Brodie

The Girl With The Widow’s Peak

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Before the war started you could choose between four great balls every night, rivalling each other in luxury and grandeur. There was a court ball every summer and London tingled. There was little premonition of the tragedies and disasters that were soon to unfold. There were wonderful weekend parties organised for the young people at country houses such as Cliveden. I loved being invited by my aunt Lady Diana Cooper. She entertained with great flair the most famous people from all over the world and you were honoured to be asked. She was my father’s younger sister and famed for her beauty. She appeared in all the magazines in the latest fashions, which she adored. She was very nice to me but used to tick me off because I didn’t really care about the way I looked. She would say, ‘Darling it’s all very well being a wild child in the garden and playing at Mrs. Mop, but it’s very selfish because other people have to look at you. – An extract from The Girl With The Widow’s Peak by Lady Ursula d’Abo. Click here to read more

The forthcoming publication of Lady Ursula’s memoirs, The Girl With The Widow’s Peak, will appeal to admirers of Mitfordiana. Born in 1916 to the Marquess and Marchioness of Granby, Lady Ursula’s memoirs recall a gilded age at the centre of high society. Recalling her childhood spent at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, the rigid formalities of liveried servants, maids and the ‘pig man’ are reminiscent of Downton Abbey. Following her father’s ascent to the Dukedom of Rutland in 1925, Lady Ursula writes about the extensive restoration of another Manners’ family seat, the medieval Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. Fans of Debo and the restoration of Chatsworth are sure to enjoy this section of the book!

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In 1934, Lady Ursula was presented at Court and three years later, she swapped her Prince of Wales feathers for a Norman Hartnell gown when she acted as one of the six maids of honour in the Coronation of King George VI. After the Coronation, Lady Ursula writes, she was recognised everywhere. With her striking black hair, pale skin and distinctive widow’s peak, it is not difficult to see how her beauty would have turned heads. In 1938, she accompanied the new King and Queen on their first state visit to Paris and Versailles.

Lady Ursula stands on the balcony of Buckingham Palace

Lady Ursula stands on the balcony of Buckingham Palace

A year later, and with the outbreak of war, Lady Ursula stepped away from her glamorous life and into the role of nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. She then took charge of 2,000 women making bullets in a munitions factory in Springfield, Grantham. Those who enjoyed John Julius Norwich’s book Darling Monster will appreciate the letters included in this memoir, sent by Diana Cooper detailing Lady Ursula’s wartime work to her son.

The young beauty photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1939

The young beauty photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1939

As with any fascinating memoir, Lady Ursula touches on her extraordinary friendships, and such friends included the artist Rex Whistler, the Maharaja of Jaipur, Paul Getty and Baron Hans Heinrich von Thyssen. But unlike the fabrication of Downton Abbey, Lady Ursula’s account is entirely real.

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Lady Ursula is still beautiful at 97

After the war and a brief marriage to Anthony Marreco, Lady Ursula went to India. She married Edward d’Abo in 1951 and settled down to family life at West Wratting Park in Cambridgeshire, with two sons and a daughter. Lady Ursula is now 97 and  lives in London.