Gladys Marie Deacon was the daughter of American citizens Edward Deacon and his
daughter of Admiral Charles H. Baldwin. She had three sisters and a brother who
died in infancy. Her father was imprisoned after shooting her mother's lover to
death in 1892 and the girl was sent to school at the Convent de l’Assomption at
After Edward's release from prison,
from the convent. The couple was divorced in 1893 and the custody of the three
older children, including Gladys, was given to Edward. He took them to the Florence ,
where Deacon remained for the next three years. Edward Deacon soon became
mentally unstable and was hospitalised at United States ,
dying there in 1901. Deacon and her sisters returned to McLean Hospital to live
with their mother. Marcel Proust wrote of her: "I never saw a girl with
such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm." France
In the late 1890s, the Duke of Marlborough invited Deacon to
and she became friends
with his wife Consuelo. In 1901, the Crown Prince of Prussia visited the palace
and took a strong liking to her, giving her a ring that the Kaiser demanded to
be returned. At the age of 22, Deacon underwent a plastic surgery attempt in
which she had her nose injected with paraffin wax; it slipped, destroying her
famous good looks. Deacon became the Duke's mistress soon after moving into the
palace. However, Marlborough and Consuelo did not divorce until 1921. Deacon
and Marlborough were married in Blenheim
later that year. Paris
Artistic and a keen gardener, the new Duchess of Marlborough had enlarged images of her startling blue-green eyes painted on the ceiling of the main portico of
where they remain today. Later in their unhappy, childless marriage, she kept a
revolver in her bedroom to prevent her husband's entry. As her behaviour became
increasingly erratic, most noticeably following the Duke's conversion to Roman
Catholicism, the couple began drifting apart. The Duchess pursued her hobby of
breeding Blenheim Spaniels, much to her husband's displeasure. Finally, the
duke moved out of the palace, and two years later evicted her. He died in 1934. Blenheim Palace
Widowhood and deathThe Dowager Duchess of
Gladys, Duchess of
aristocrat with attitude Marlborough
Her beauty and fierce intelligence left Proust and Rodin obsessed, and the upper-classes besotted. Then why did the vivacious Gladys Deacon die a recluse?
By Hugo Vickers5:31PM GMT 07 Feb 2011 / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/8303256/Gladys-Duchess-of-Marlborough-the-aristocrat-with-attitude.html
Murder, abduction from a convent, the destruction of her own legendary beauty, the Aesop’s Fable of wishing to marry a Duke, years of reclusive seclusion… All were combined in the long and turbulent life of Gladys Deacon.
The story of the first marriage of Charles, 9th Duke of Marlborough, and Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895 is well known. Deals were struck on both sides. Both were in love with others, but he needed the Vanderbilt millions to restore
and her mother
wanted a daughter as a Duchess. Blenheim
As a consequence the marriage was unhappy and ended in separation and, later, in divorce. It is generally recorded that both remarried – though the second marriages are less well known. Consuelo married Jacques Balsan, an aviator and balloonist who profited from “rejuvenating” monkey gland injections to an alarming degree. While in 1921, Charles married Gladys Deacon.
Gladys’s dramatic story might have been lost forever had I not stumbled on an intriguing reference to her when I was 16 and thumbing through the diaries of the Conservative MP Henry “Chips” Channon. Chips encountered her in a jeweller’s shop in
Bond Street in 1943: “I saw an
extraordinary marionette of a woman – or was it a man? It wore grey flannel
trousers, a wide leather belt, masculine overcoat and a man’s brown felt hat,
and had a really frightening appearance, but the hair was golden-dyed and
Chips continued to examine this “terrifying apparition” and then suddenly he recognised her – “Gladys Marlborough, once the world’s most beautiful woman, the toast of
the love of Proust, the belle amie of Anatole ”. France
He attempted to introduce himself: “She looked at me, stared vacantly with those famous eyes that once drove men insane with desire and muttered: ‘Je n’ai jamais entendu ce nom-la’. She flung down a ruby clip she was examining and bolted from the shop.”
This description instilled in me a fascination that never waned. I wanted to know what happened to her – particularly as there was no indication that she had died. But she seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
A visit to Blenheim in 1968, endless questions asked to anyone who might know, and finally a visit to her last address in Chacombe in 1975 provided little to go on. The publican in the village horrified me by saying: “She’s been gone a long time.” He did not think she was dead, however, but in a hospital “up
This was at least a clue and St Andrew’s Hospital, a well-known psychiatric hospital, seemed the most likely place. I telephoned them, was asked to put my request in writing and soon found myself bombarded with letters from lawyers and a nephew in
By this time I had made the extremely arrogant decision to write her biography. The nephew warned me to do my homework before visiting her. “She’s as cute as a cat,” he said. “She’ll look right through you.”
So I read about Proust, Rodin, Monet and Anatole France, and the many others on whom she had had an effect. Proust wrote of her: “I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm.”
I discovered she had been evicted from Blenheim by the 9th Duke, that on a visit to the palace in 1901 the Crown Prince of Prussia had fallen madly in love with her and given her a ring that the Kaiser had forced her to return. I heard rumours of a bizarre operation in which she had injected paraffin wax into her nose to create the perfect Grecian profile, and how the wax had slipped, destroying her legendary beauty.
Then there was the dramatic incident in which her father had shot her mother’s lover dead in a hotel room in
in 1892. And as
for the later life, the life after her encounter with Chips Channon, she had
become a most eccentric recluse, disappearing into a house at Chacombe, near
Banbury, and eventually locking the doors against the world. Cannes
Her nephew told me how he managed to visit her and, as the evening came and darkness descended, she turned on no lights. She watched him getting increasingly terrified.
In 1975, the Duchess was 94. There was no time to lose. I was given a letter of authority to visit her by a lawyer, who looked at me in astonishment, wondering why I would want to go near her. I was only 23 and had never been near a psycho-geriatric ward. I confess I was deeply scared, my nerves made no calmer by a vivid nightmare in which the old and the young Gladys Deacon curiously merged into one – as, in a way, they did.
Arriving at the hospital, Mrs Newton, the chief nursing officer, conducted me down a seemingly endless succession of corridors, past the doors of the unseen members of well-known families. Doors were unlocked, relocked until we eventually arrived at O’Connell Ward.
The Duchess was in the green room, with sweeping views over the beautiful park. The room was deserted but for a figure asleep in a chair with her feet up and a white linen cloth over her head. “Duchess, you’ve got a visitor,”Mrs Newton said.
She stirred. I knelt down beside her and gradually she lifted the cloth. First I saw a distorted jaw due partly to the wax injections of the early 1900s and not helped by old age. Then the cloth came higher and finally I found myself looking straight into those famous blue eyes. They were just as strong and beautiful as had been described by the great writers of the age.
She looked at me. “Later, later, later,” she said, dropping the cloth. She returned to sleep.
That first encounter was not encouraging, but things got better – gradually. On a subsequent visit, I found her surrounded by nursing staff. Gladys looked at pictures and joked about them. At the end of that key meeting, she said to me: “Thank you very much. You’ve given me a better laugh than I’ve had since I came here.”
She invited me to have a cup of tea and we began the slow process of making friends. She was all but stone deaf, but with good eyesight. Every question I asked her was written on a piece of paper in large black capital letters. These she read and when it suited her, she answered.
I visited her 65 times over a period of more than two years. I loved going to talk to Gladys; she changed the course of my life.
Her extraordinary story unfolded, glimpses revealed in conversation but mostly found in archives across the world. She gave me clues. She told me that Rodin was “of a very lascivious nature – you know, hands all over you”, adding “of course I never knew him”.
So off I would go to the
in , where
I would find her letters to him. The contrast was stark. Paris
Her family urged me to try to find out where she was educated. She would not be pressed on this until one day she announced: “I was a miracle. Differential Calculus was too low for me!” The door opened and a nurse brought some tea in. “Getting any sense out of her, are you?” she asked. I was merely trying to keep up.
She had been born in
in 1881, to the kind of family that
Henry James wrote about; indeed, James knew her father. Edward Parker Deacon
came from Paris ,
where to this day stands Deacon House. The Deacons had married well. Gladys’s
grandmother, Sarah Ann Parker, was well connected, but sadly went mad. It was
from her that an unstable streak entered the family. Boston
, was the daughter of Rear-Admiral
Charles H Baldwin. He was a somewhat peppery figure who, when sent to represent
the United States at the Coronation of Tsar Alexander III in 1883, refused to
attend because he was not given a good enough seat. Florence
The Deacons had four beautiful daughters and a son who died as a little boy. They lived in
and travelled about Europe. moved in an interesting set, with
friends such as Bernard Berenson, Rodin and Count Robert de Montesquiou. But
the marriage was not happy and she took a lover called Emile Abeille. Florence
Deacon pursued the couple through Europe and tracked them down to the Hotel Splendide at
in February 1892. Discovering
Abeille’s presence, Deacon took a loaded gun, insisted on entering his wife’s
room and fired three shots at Abeille as he cowered behind the sofa. Cannes
Deacon gave himself up and was jailed. Abeille lingered on through the night and died in the morning.
Gladys was sent back to school at the Convent de l’Assomption at
Auteuil. After her
father’s release from prison, he made his way there to take custody of her,
only to find she had been abducted by her mother. A court case followed. But
after the divorce in 1893, Deacon was given custody of his three older children
and he promptly took them to the , where Gladys remained for the
next three years. US
During this time, William James saw Deacon and reported to his brother, Henry, how vain Deacon was, how he clearly considered his “conjugal exploit” gave him “a distinction for him in the eyes of fashionable New Yorkers” and how shocked he was “by the way he talked about it before his little daughter”. Deacon eventually lost his reason and was put away in the
McLean Hospital in Belmont,
where he died in 1901. Boston
In 1896 Gladys and her sisters returned to
with their mother. Her education over, she began to blaze through France Europe like a brilliant meteor of beauty, intelligence
and wit, taking princely and ducal scalps along the way.
Legion were those who fell in love with Gladys: Prince Roffredo Caetani; Bernard Berenson and his wife; the Duke of Marlborough and possibly Consuelo, too, the Dukes of Camastra,
Newcastle and Connaught; RC Trevelyan; Gabriele
d’Annunzio; Anatole France;
and Lord Brooke (later ).
But she was set on a marriage to the Duke of Marlborough and eventually, in
1921, having known him for more than 20 years, she followed Consuelo to Warwick . Blenheim Palace
Now Blenheim is mounting an exhibition paying tribute to Gladys’s life there: the creation of the lower terraces on the west side, leading down to the lake, with the two sphinxes that bear her features, and the curious eyes painted in the portico. To the palace she lured figures like Jacob Epstein and Lytton Strachey. But she found herself a lone intellectual caught among county figures. Rodin had given her a little statue. It stood in one of the state rooms but nobody ever asked her about it.
Then the Duke became a Roman Catholic and soon afterwards the marriage descended into a state of internecine warfare. One evening Gladys placed a revolver on the dining room table. “What’s that for?” asked one of the dinner guests.
“Oh I don’t know,” Gladys replied. “I might just shoot
Not surprisingly he took fright, left her alone at the palace for nearly two years and then evicted her – first from Blenheim and then from the London house in Carlton House Terrace. Courageous to the last, Gladys stood on the steps at Blenheim and photographed the vans taking her possessions away.
The Duke died in 1934, before they were divorced, and Gladys settled with her dogs in north Oxfordshire, eventually at the Grange Farm at Chacombe. She began by filling it with her treasures: the Rodin statue, her portrait by Boldini, her fabulous collection of books.
But as time wore on, she retreated from the world, becoming a total recluse. Her only link to the outside world was her kind Polish helper, Andrei Kwiatkowsky, to whom she would lower the key to her door from an upper window. In 1962, she was forcibly removed to St Andrew’s; she died in 1977.
My conversations with Gladys over the two years I saw her were never less than stimulating. She opened avenues of possibility that had previously been closed to me. When my book came out in 1979, Cecil Beaton read it and invited me to be his biographer – in a sense a gift from Gladys. It was the first time it occurred to me that I might not be a failure in life.
She often told me that young people needed someone to breathe life into them and make them think in a different way. That is certainly what Gladys did for me.
‘Gladys Deacon – An Eccentric Duchess’ is at
from February 12 until March 25;
www.blenheimpalace.com Blenheim Palace
one of the sphinx at Blenheim- the likeness of Gladys
The eyes on the portico at