18, 2000 - The
sketch of Sarah in repose captures a side that
was rarely seen by most who came in contact with her. She was
a very tall woman with an imposingness, a take-charge personality
that was direct, and could be both charming and disarming.
Yet in the sketch, there it is: sensitive, thoughtful, a kind
of innocent (although not a Pollyanna), basically a very generous
spirit who loved life.
was born Lady Sarah Consuelo Spencer Churchill on December
17, 1921, at a house in Portland Square, London, the
daughter and first born of the Marquess of Blandford,
and Mary Cadogan, one of four daughters of Viscount Chelsea
who were fashionably known in their day as "the Cadogan
Square." Her maternal grandmother, the former Consuelo
Vanderbilt, was world famous for having been forced by
her mother Alva (Mrs. Willie K.) Vanderbilt to marry
Sarah's grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough at the end
of the 19th century. Ironically, many years later, as
a young woman, visiting at Cliveden, Sarah was told by
Nancy Astor, in what were clearly meant to be unflattering
terms, that she was "just like Grannie Smith." Grannie
Smith being Astor's reference to Sarah's great-grandmother,
Alva (whose maiden name was Smith).
she was thirteen, her grandfather died, her father became
the duke, and the family moved to Blenheim. Socially
isolated, except for mainly the company of her siblings two
younger sisters and a brother (who is presently the duke),
poorly educated as upper-class British girls were at
the time, Sarah was nevertheless a most curious individual.
She loved to read (which became a lifelong habit) and
her favorite hours were spent in the servant's dining
hall where she could pretend to be reading while listening
to the staff gossip.
was there that she first heard talk about Mrs. Simpson
and the Prince of Wales, their relationship still unknown
to the British people. The couple were coming for a weekend,
and their bedrooms would be adjoining. Too young to know
what a "mistress" or an "affair" was, she still could
easily discern that Mrs. Simpson was not a "nice lady." So
it surprised the young girl to meet a very charming woman, "very
soigné" compared to Sarah's mother and her friends,
Sarah recalled years later, and also, compared to Sarah's
mother and her friends, very kind and affectionate toward
Sarah's pet dog. Sarah loved dogs all her life and had
lots of them (mainly Jack Russells).
most influential person in her life was Grannie (Consuelo),
who after divorcing the duke in 1920, married a Frenchman
named Jacques Balsan. I once asked Sarah if she thought
her grandmother had a happy second marriage. Her immediate
answer was approvingly matter-of-fact, "Oh, of course
... it was her show."
an early age Sarah and her siblings were brought to Long
Island and Palm Beach to visit "Grannie." The child knew
then that she wanted to live in America. American women
led "independent" lives, "not shut up in cold country
houses all week long while their husbands were down in
London having a wonderful time."
1939, she made her debut at Blenheim in what has been
referred to in histories as "the last great party" in
England before the War. It was there that her mother
openly disapproved of her "dancing with that black man" who
happened to be the Maharajah of Jaipur, something that
on recollection years later, left Sarah with wonder and
the beginning of the Second World War, she married an
American, Edwin Russell, and the following year, their
first daughter, Serena (they had four), was born. Shortly
thereafter, mother and daughter came to America to stay
with Grannie. And so began Sarah's American life.
the War was over, the Russells settled in Philadelphia
on the Mainline. Their lives revolved around Philadelphia
and Grannie's world of Manhattan, North Shore Long Island,
Southampton, and Palm Beach. Proximity solidified the
relationship of Sarah with her grandmother. As Grannie
grew older, Sarah became the family member she could
depend on, a role that fulfilled Sarah's maternal personality
the early 1960s, in her early forties, Sarah's life changed
dramatically. Her grandmother died, leaving her a small
fortune and another fortune in furniture, paintings,
porcelains, and jewelry. Sarah also divorced her husband
and became involved with a very handsome young Chilean
man about twenty years her junior, named Guy Burgos.
Her grandmother, who had long suggested the divorce from
Russell, probably would have approved of Sarah's romantic
adventure with Burgos. Her family, however, did not.
Sarah, however, didn't care and never would care what
anyone thought about it. The marriage lasted less than
a year, but the couple remained very close friends for
the rest of her life.
a year after Burgos, while on a yachting trip in the
Mediterranean off Greece, a guest of Henry McIlhenny,
a Philadelphia socialite and art collector, Sarah met
another very handsome man, a Greek named Theo Roubanis,
also about twenty years her junior. Another Philadelphia
friend, Gloria Etting, who was on the McIlhenny yacht
at the time, recalled that the two became almost instantly
involved, and were the "golden couple" everywhere they
and Roubanis were married shortly thereafter. By this
time Lady Sarah had garnered a great deal of attention
in the American and British press as a "madcap heiress," which
amused her greatly. She never took the attention seriously,
however. Sarah was a woman who followed her heart.
Roubanis marriage lasted for thirteen years. Sarah built
a large house on the Peloponnese, while maintaining houses
in Manhattan and Montego, and, finally, Beverly Hills.
Although wealthy, she was never rich (the bulk of Grannie's
fortune went automatically to the Blenheim trusts). Nevertheless,
she lived well (someone once said she could "stretch
a buck around a New York City block"), brought up and
educated her four daughters, while at various times supporting
husbands, staffs and, various friends.
never lost the thrill of traveling and she did so constantly.
She was never more than three weeks in one place when
she didn't have a reason (and a plane ticket) to travel
elsewhere. Houses, friendships, family, and plain curiosity
required her constant peripatetic attention.
almost hyperactive pattern of movement in Sarah's life
easily suggests a restless spirit. But she wasn't restless
as much as she was energetic. If she had been a man,
she would have been the duke, being the first born. A
number of close friends always referred to her (usually
out of her earshot, but not always) as "The Duchess." There
was this huge propensity to lead, like a General, like
John, the first Duke, who won the battle of Blenheim
against the armies of Louis XIV.
years ago, while reading a biography of the first Duke,
I came upon a long description of the personality of
his wife, the first Sarah Churchill, the powerhouse whose
intimate friendship with Queen Anne brought them Blenheim
as a gift from Her Majesty. I was struck by detailed
similarities between the Sarah of the 18th century, and
the Sarah I knew. To confirm my impression, I called
a friend who also knew her. "I'm going to read you a
personality description," I told him, "and I want you
to tell me who it is."
began reading. Three or four sentences in, he stopped
me. "Oh that's easy, that's Sarah."
was as awestruck as I, when I told him that indeed it
was Sarah, but the one from the 18th century.
for those who knew her, it is a great loss, that great
force, that great light, a personality barbed and brilliant
and melodious and enthusiastic and adventurous and bossy
and embraced. She was all those things, and much much
more. When they carried her casket from the church yesterday
afternoon, hoisted on the pallbearers shoulders, it was
almost baffling to know that she would be still forever.
you subscribed to New York Social Diary?
Enter your Email address below
and click on subscribe if you
would like to receive emails keeping you abreast of the activities
of NYSD. It's that easy. And it's free!