Thursday, 24 April 2014

Grace and favour;: The memoirs of Loelia, duchess of Westminster

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

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 Frederick Ponsonby, later 1st Lord Sysonby. 'Fritz' Ponsonby was assistant private secretary to Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, and wrote Recollections of Three Reigns.
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 Sandringham 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 Venice when she woke with an uncomfortable lump digging into her: it was an emerald and diamond brooch.
They married in 1930 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 France, to say nothing of the steam yacht and a sailing ship.
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 taste.
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 Monte Carlo. Besides her memoirs she published an evocative album of photographs, Cocktails and Laughter (1983), edited by Hugo Vickers.
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 Australia. Her beautiful collection has been bequeathed to the National Trust.
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 Carlton Towers and they had a wonderful time.'
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 London, with 50 valets, and now I am reduced to one room.'
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?

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 Paris. 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 élan.

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 Coco 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 hats.

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 Madrid and Berlin to engage in cloak-and-dagger machinations with her country’s occupier.

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.

Vaughan ably charts Chanel’s clever opportunism as she works, first, to free her nephew André Palasse from a German prisoner-of-war camp, and later seeks to use the Nazis’ Aryanization of property laws to wrest control of her perfume empire away from the Jewish Wertheimer brothers. Yet his account of her one real mission for the Germans — a 1943 covert operation code-named Modellhut (“model hat”) in which she was meant to use her contacts to get a message to Winston Churchill from the SS stating that a number of leading Nazis wanted to break with Adolf Hitler and negotiate a separate peace with England — emerges neither clearly nor logically from his highly detailed telling. Too many diplomatic documents are reproduced at too much length. Contradictions are not clearly sorted out. Vaughan seems to have felt as though his rich source materials could speak for themselves, but they don’t — and he doesn’t succeed in lending authority to the accounts of contemporary witnesses who were, undoubtedly, unreliable.

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 Paris, 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 myth.

Judith Warner, a former special correspond­ent for Newsweek in Paris, is the author, most recently, of “We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.”

BENDOR Duke of Westminster
In 1925, he was introduced to Gabrielle ("Coco") Chanel after a party in Monte Carlo and pursued her. He was as extravagant with her as he was with all of his lovers. He purchased a home for Chanel in London's prestigious Mayfair district, and in 1927 gave her a parcel of land on the French Riviera at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin where Chanel built her villa, La Pausa. His romantic liaison with Chanel lasted ten years. An illustration of both Westminster’s extravagance and orchestrated technique in the courting of women has endured in the form of various apocryphal stories. He purportedly concealed a huge uncut emerald at the bottom of a crate of vegetables delivered to Chanel. Disguised as a deliveryman, Westminster appeared at Chanel’s apartment with an enormous bouquet of flowers. His ruse was only uncovered after Chanel’s assistant offered “the delivery boy” a tip.
On 16 February 1901, the Duke married Constance Edwina (Shelagh) Cornwallis-West (1876–1970). They had three children:

Lady Ursula Mary Olivia Grosvenor (21 February 1902[1] – 1978), married, firstly, William Patrick Filmer-Sankey in 1924 and was divorced in 1940. She married, secondly, Major Stephen Vernon in 1940. By her first husband she had two sons, Patrick (who married the film actress Josephine Griffin) and Christopher Filmer-Sankey, the younger dying in her lifetime. Her child by her second husband died young. Lady Ursula's descendants by her first husband are the sole descendants of the 2nd Duke. They reside in the UK, Australia and Sweden.
Edward George Hugh Grosvenor, Earl Grosvenor (1904–1909),[1] who died aged 4, after an operation for appendicitis.
Lady Mary Constance Grosvenor (27 June 1910 – 2000).
On 26 November 1920, the Duke became the second husband of Violet Mary Nelson (1891–1983). They were divorced in 1926.

Westminster married Loelia Mary Ponsonby (1902–1993) on 20 February 1930. The couple were unable to have children and divorced in 1947 after several years of separation.

He married Anne (Nancy) Winifred Sullivan (1915–2003) on 7 February 1947. She outlived him by fifty years.

The Duke was known for multiple love affairs and spectacular presents. After Coco Chanel he was fascinated by the Brazilian Aimée de Heeren who was not interested to marry him and to whom he gave significant jewellery, once part of the French Crown Jewels.

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