Lady Lindsay of Dowhill
Lady Lindsay of Dowhill, better known as Loelia Duchess of Westminster, who has died aged 91, wrote a remarkably candid volume of memoirs, Grace and Favour (1961), which is a valuable record of high life between the wars
04 Nov 1993 / The Telegraph / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/6455125/Lady-Lindsay-of-Dowhill.html
An Edwardian by birth, Loelia Ponsonby became a leading 'Bright Young Thing' in the 1920s and went on to marry the 2nd Duke of Westminster - the legendary sybarite 'Bendor', whose yacht features in Noel Coward's play Private Lives.
Coward also wrote the foreword to the Duchess's well-received memoirs. He did so, he said, 'cowed by the steely inflexibility of her tone and a look in her eye that I suspect caused the late Duke of Westminster some uneasy moments'. Another friend, Ian Fleming, used her as the model for Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond books.
Loelia Mary Ponsonby was born on Feb 6 1902, the only daughter of the courtier Sir
1st Lord Sysonby. 'Fritz' Ponsonby was assistant private secretary to Queen
Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, and wrote Recollections of Three
Young Loelia once occupied the lap of Edward VII and amused His Majesty by seizing his beard and demanding: 'But King, where's your crown?' Her childhood - spent variously at St James's Palace, Park House at
and Birkhall - was, as she recalled, made irksome by a succession of fierce
foreign governesses. She escaped from the stiffness of her parents' world into
the hedonism of 4the Bright Young People'.
Their pranks included treasure-hunts and impersonating reporters to obtain interviews from famous people. The older generation were duly shocked, although in her own old age Loelia Lindsay insisted that it was 'just light-hearted fun'.
Her own contribution was to invent the 'bottle-party' in 1926, when, for economic reasons, guests were bidden to bring their own drink. The first guest was the author Michael Arlen, bearing a dozen bottles of pink champagne.
Towards the end of the 1920s Loelia met Bendor Westminster, a selfish, spoilt, twice-divorced playboy, though a generous landlord and gallant officer. The diarist 'Chips' Channon summed him up as 'a mixture of Henry VIII and Lorenzo Il Magnifico'.
The Duke courted Miss Ponsonby in style, showering her with diamonds. A typical incident occurred one night in her sleeper en route for
when she woke with an uncomfortable
lump digging into her: it was an emerald and diamond brooch. Venice
They married in
a blaze of publicity, with Winston Churchill as best man. The new Duchess
became chatelaine of the Gothic palace
of Eaton in Cheshire,
as well as houses in Scotland,
Wales and , to say
nothing of the steam yacht and a sailing ship. France
But the marriage was not a success. The Duchess found Bendor a man of changing moods - charming and generous one moment, furious and cruel the next. Their choice of friends differed considerably. James Lees-Milne described the Duchess's married life as 'a definition of unadulterated hell'.
The marriage was dissolved in 1947. By this time the Duchess had established a new life for herself, in considerably reduced circumstances, at Send Grove in
Surrey, where she was a skilful hostess with impeccable
She was an expert needlewoman, with a knack of incorporating beads into flowers and leaves. The actor Ernest Thesiger gave her his collection of beautiful multi-coloured beads and she once threaded 20 shades of mauve into a dusky rose.
A talented horticulturist, she transformed a muddy rubbish dump at Send into a magnificent garden. She would bind roses high up a tree-trunk and then allow them to tumble over, giving the impression of a floral waterfall.
In the 1950s Loelia Westminster worked as a feature editor for House and Garden, and covered Grace Kelly's wedding in
. Besides her memoirs she published an evocative
album of photographs, Cocktails and Laughter (1983), edited by Hugo Vickers. Monte
She found much happiness in her second marriage, in 1969, to Sir Martin Lindsay of Dowhill, 1st Bt, Arctic explorer, Gordon Highlander, Conservative MP and historian of the Baronetage. He died in 1981.
Hugo Vickers writes: Some years ago I was discussing the new style of obituary with Loelia and she fixed me with a steely eye, and announced: 'Now I'm counting on you for a good spread when the time comes.' I rise to the challenge.
Loelia's life was almost a classic 20th century Cinderella story. It was, she readily admitted, one of rare privilege.
Yet the contrasts were too extreme for comfort: a stern childhood, the seemingly fairy-tale marriage, the sorrow that followed - including incidents that would make some of today's court cases look tame. She told me she had consigned to paper the story of a night when the Duke of Westminster, in one of his rages, tried to strangle her.
Loelia was a mixture of two souls. On the one hand she was insecure, an inheritance from childhood. 'I was most unhappy,' she recalled. 'I never learned a thing. And I was out of everything for a very long time because I was too shy to speak.'
Her parents were so strict that they often put her in the wrong unfairly. In later life, as a defence mechanism, she sometimes wrongfooted her friends.
On the other hand, she had infinite patience and imagination, and made needlework designs of great finery, even picking out the clouds in a sky with strands of her own hair. Her house at Send was full of painstaking work -a wonderful hand-woven carpet, a mirror adorned with shells hand-picked by her in
beautiful collection has been bequeathed to the National Trust. Australia
As a hostess she had the skill of a conductor, imperceptibly bringing the silent to life, so that everyone had their say. Nor was she lacking in confidence; I once saw an American guest reach for the decanter of wine, whereupon her restraining hand descended with some alacrity. She lived in a world in which feuds consumed considerable energy, 'cutting dead' was part of the vocabulary and the morning telephone buzzed with enjoyable gossip in her rich, melodic voice. She was celebrated, too, for such aphorisms as 'Anybody seen in a bus over the age of 30 has been a failure in life'.
By her own choice Loelia spent her last years in nursing homes, first in Surrey and latterly in Pimlico, where the matron gave an annual Christmas party at which delicious champagne flowed and the atmosphere was about as far from a geriatric establishment as you could hope to find.
Though Loelia always claimed rather to dislike Margaret Argyll, another resident, they were thrown together in their last days.
Matron told me she had taken them out to tea: 'The Duchess of Argyll wanted to go to the Ritz and Lady Lindsay to Claridge's, but I took them both to the
and they had a wonderful time.' Carlton Towers
In her rooms Loelia recreated the atmosphere of Send in miniature, with her favourite furniture, pictures and needlework. 'To think,' she would say, 'that at one time I used to own half
with 50 valets, and now I am reduced to one room.' London
She retained a youthful enjoyment of life, regularly visited by old friends 'that I've known since I came out of the egg'.
Some of her reminiscences were broadcast on BBC Radio 4, such as the occasion at a ball at Balmoral when all her party, as a joke, decided to kiss Queen Mary's hand on presentation. When Loelia's turn came, she found, to her lasting horror, that she had left the perfect impress of red lipstick on the white-gloved royal hand.
Looking back on her life on her 90th birthday, Loelia reflected on the contrasts of her life: 'Rich as Croesus, then not a penny . . . That was all verv exciting, I must say. It ended badly, but things like that do end badly. I never could have done any better. I was out of my depth the whole time. It had moments, there's no question about it. I can see how lucky I've been compared to other people.'
Phillips/Topical Press Agency — Hulton Archive — Getty Images
"A bath of nobility": Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster at the races in 1924.
Was Coco Chanel a Nazi Agent?
By JUDITH WARNER
The New York Times Review of Books ? Published: September 2, 2011 / http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/books/review/sleeping-with-the-enemy-coco-chanels-secret-war-by-hal-vaughan-book-review.html?_r=0
Gabrielle Chanel — better known as
Coco — was a wretched
human being. Anti-Semitic, homophobic, social climbing, opportunistic,
ridiculously snobbish and given to sins of phrase-making like “If blonde, use
blue perfume,” she was addicted to morphine and actively collaborated with the
Germans during the Nazi occupation of .
And yet, her clean, modern, kinetic designs, which brought a high-society look
to low-regarded fabrics, revolutionized women’s fashion, and to this day have
kept her name synonymous with the most glorious notions of French taste and
Exploring the contradictory complexities of this woman, at once so very awful and so very talented, should make for fascinating and enlightening reading. After all, Chanel’s life offers biographers a trove of juicy material. Chanel was a creative genius, her own expertly polished self-presentation perhaps the greatest triumph of her brilliantly inventive mind. She was born in
1883 in a hospice for the
poor in the Loire Valley, to unwed parents of peasant stock and, upon her
mother’s death, was placed at age 12
in a convent-orphanage to be raised by Roman Catholic
nuns. This left her with a lifelong fear of losing everything. The point is
nicely captured by Hal Vaughan in “Sleeping With the Enemy,” who quotes her as
saying: “From my earliest childhood I’ve been certain that they have taken
everything away from me, that I’m dead.”
She was put to work as a seamstress at age 20 and took the name
from a song she liked to sing in a rowdy cafe patronized by cavalry officers.
One ex-officer, the wealthy Étienne Balsan, installed her in his chateau,
taught her to conduct herself with high style on horseback and, generally, gave
her the skills she needed to make her way up through society. Balsan also
introduced her to Arthur (Boy) Capel, a friend who soon became Chanel’s first
great love, and who also, conveniently, set her up in a Paris apartment and
helped her start her first business venture, designing sleekly simple women’s
It wasn’t long before Chanel took Jazz Age Paris by storm, liberating women from their corsets, draping them in jersey and long strings of pearls and dousing them with the scent of modernity, Chanel No. 5. She caroused with Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso, designed costumes for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and amused herself with the cash-poor White Russian aristocracy. As her personal fortunes rose, she turned her attention to making serious inroads into British high society, befriending Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales and becoming, most notably, the mistress of the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (known as Bendor), reputedly the wealthiest man in England.
Bendor’s — and Chanel’s — anti-Semitism was vociferous and well documented; the pro-Nazi sensibilities of the Duke of Windsor and many in his circle have long been noted, too. All this, it appears, made the society of the British upper crust particularly appealing to Chanel. As Vaughan notes, after she was lured by a million-dollar fee to spend a few weeks in Hollywood in 1930 — Samuel Goldwyn, he writes, “did his best to keep Jews away from Chanel” — she found herself compelled to run straight back to England, so that she could wash away her brush with vulgarity in “a bath of nobility.”
It wasn’t much of a stretch, then, for Chanel, during wartime, to find herself the mistress of the German intelligence officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a charming character who had spied on the French fleet in the late 1920s, and who found himself pleasingly single in occupied Paris, having presciently divorced his half-Jewish German wife just before the passage of the Nuremberg Laws. It wasn’t any particular betrayal of her values, or morals or ideals either, for Chanel to find herself traveling to
engage in cloak-and-dagger machinations with her country’s occupier. Berlin
The story of how
Coco became Chanel has been told many
times before over the past half-century, most recently (and, sad to say, much
more engagingly) in last year’s “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life,” by the
British fashion columnist Justine Picardie. The story of how Chanel
metamorphosed from a mere “horizontal collaborator” — the mistress of a Nazi —
into an actual German secret agent has been less well known, though earlier
writers have reported that she had worked for the Germans. It’s here that
Vaughan makes his freshest contribution, using a wealth of materials gleaned
from wartime police files and intelligence archives, some of which were only
recently declassified by French and German authorities, to flesh out precisely
how and why she became an agent, and how she sought to profit from her German
connections during the war.
Despite her indisputable collaborationist activities, and after a brief period of uncertainty during which she was questioned by a French judge, Chanel eventually got off pretty much scot-free after the war, once again using her wiles to protect herself most expertly. She tipped off the poet and anti-Nazi partisan Pierre Reverdy, a longtime occasional lover, so that he could arrange the arrest of her wartime partner in collaboration, Baron Louis de Vaufreland Piscatory; she paid off the family of the former Nazi chief of SS intelligence Gen. Walter Schellenberg when she heard that he was preparing to publish his memoirs. (It was Schellenberg who had given her the “model hat” assignment.)
Vaughan could have done better in providing the context to
the seemingly incomprehensible ease of Chanel’s reintegration into French
fashion and society, telling more, for example, of the widespread desire for forgetting
and moving forward that held sway in Charles de Gaulle's postwar . France
These weaknesses — of authorial voice and critical judgment — run through “Sleeping With the Enemy.” Vaughan, a retired diplomat who has made his home in
, has allowed his
writing to become a bit too imbued with the reflexive verbal tics and general
vive-la-séduction silliness of his adopted country. “Sometimes the kitten,
sometimes the vamp, and often the vixen, . . . she must have melted Bendor’s
knees” is how he captures Chanel in her 40s; “beautiful and sexy, her
silhouette stunning,” he appraises her in her 50s. (Indeed, his English often
sounds like French — the most cloying sort of breathy French — in translation.)
Despite all he knows about Chanel, Vaughan often appears to be as beguiled,
disarmed and charmed by Coco as were the men in her life — not to mention the
countless women who have sought over the decades to cloak themselves in her
image. And like them, he never gets beyond the self-protecting armor of her
Judith Warner, a former special correspondent for Newsweek in
, is the author, most recently, of
“We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.” Paris