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Gladys Deacon – An Eccentric Duchess

Gladys Deacon and Chares Richard John Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, on June 1921. the couple had known each other for 20 years, but the duke's divorce had just been finalized.
by Hugo Vickers

A glittering reception was held at Blenheim Palace on the evening of 15 February to launch the exhibition of photographs, paintings, letters and other artefacts associated with the long life of one of Blenheim’s most unusual and dramatic chatelaines – Gladys Deacon, the second wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough – who lived at the Palace between 1921 and 1933.

For the exhibition the great bust of the 9th Duke has been moved into the Long Library from the hall, no easy undertaking. A magnificent waxwork of him has been loaned from Warwick Castle and placed not too close to the radiators. For many years a lock of Winston Churchill’s hair has been on display. For this exhibition a lock of Gladys’s blonde hair from 1933 is being shown.
The Duke of Marlborough hosted the reception in the Long Library which was also attended by many members of the Churchill family — the Marquess and Marchioness of Blandford, Minnie Churchill and her daughters, Jennie and Marina also the Duke and Duchess of Leinster and Alexander Muir (the Duke's nephew who inspired the exhibition). The Duke introduced Hugo Vickers who spoke of Gladys and of the spirit of reconciliation in which the exhibition was taking place. Above right: The Long Library when not set up for an exhibition.
Duke of Marlborough, Hugo and Elizabeth Vickers, and Countess Gina Palffy-Szokoloczy, great-niece of Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough.
Marquess and Marchioness of Blandford with John Hoy, Blenheim Palace's Adminstrator.
Minnie Churchill with her daughters, Marina Brounger and Jennie Repard - and the wax model of the 9th Duke of Marlborough, loaned to the exhibition by Warwick Castle.
Hugo Vickers with the Duke after the speech.
Gladys’s long and extraordinary life involved many dramatic incidents including murder, abduction from a convent, the destruction of her legendary beauty, and even eviction from the Palace. She left in 1933, and the only signs of her for many years were some dramatic eyes that looked down from the portico over the great door and a pair of sphinxes by the water terraces near the great lake.

Now, with the blessing of the present Duke of Marlborough, Gladys returns to Blenheim, and twelve hitherto lost years in the middle of the twentieth century are coming to life again.
When you look up at the portico ceiling in front of the main doors of Blenheim Palace, you will see the striking painted eyes. The eyes were originally painted in 1928 for Gladys Deacon, by instruction of the 9th Duke of Marlborough. The eyes, which depict three blue and three brown, were painted by Colin Gill. Gladys, who was famed for her blue eyes, climbed the scaffolding to give the artist a bright blue silk scarf and same colour as her eyes, to work from.
(Eyes restored in April 2008).
Whereas the story of how the 9th Duke of Marlborough married Consuelo Vanderbilt is well known, the story of his second wife is less so. And yet, arguably, Gladys is the more interesting of the two. Consuelo is of course remembered with great affection at Blenheim. The staff and tenants all loved her, and her vast Vanderbilt fortune literally kept the roof on. Gladys Deacon is remembered with less affection because she was considered eccentric and difficult. When I went to Blenheim as a teenager in 1968, in quest of her, the message was very much ‘We don’t talk about her.’ Yet last week I gave a lecture to the 2011 guides at Blenheim and they were fascinated to hear about this forgotten figure.

The young Gladys, the girl with the blue eyes.
Gladys and sister Audrey circa 1889.
The Gladys passport picture, 1918.
Gladys, the debutante.
Gladys was an American, the most beautiful of the four daughters of Edward Parker Deacon, of Boston, and of his rich wife, Florence Baldwin. Her father came from a rather wild Midwest American family, while her mother was the daughter of the rather peppery Admiral Baldwin, who, though an officially accredited US delegate, refused to attend the Coronation of Tsar Alexander III in 1883 as he felt he had not been given a good enough seat.

Gladys’s early days were spent in Europe and when she was 11, in 1892, she was in a room at the Hotel Splendide at Cannes when her mother was entertaining her French lover, Emile Abeille.

Her father, long suspicious, arrived unexpectedly and surprised them. Spotting Abeille cowering behind the sofa, he fired three shots into him. Abeille died later in a pool of blood. Mrs Deacon slightly shocked French society by sending a message that she would be unable to attend a luncheon the following day, but at least this was considerate to her hostess. Mr Deacon was put in prison by the French for a few weeks and then released for diplomatic reasons.

Meanwhile Gladys was placed in a convent in Paris. When her father was released, he came to claim her only to find that her mother had kidnapped her. Mr Deacon sued for custody and won, and on his return to America took her with him. Mr Deacon knew the writer, Henry James a bit. During this time, James’s brother, William saw Mr Deacon and reported to 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’.

While at school in America in 1895, Gladys read of the forthcoming marriage of the great heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. ‘O dear me,’ she wrote, ‘if only I was a little older I might “catch” him yet! But Hélas! I am too young though mature in the arts of woman’s witchcraft and what is the use of one without the other? I will have to give up all chance to ever get Marlborough’.

This seemed an impossible prospect but presently Mr Deacon’s head ‘went hot’ in the Newport Reading Room, in Newport, Rhode Island, and he was detained as a mental patient in the McLean Hospital in Belmont, at which time Gladys returned to Europe to her mother. Mr Deacon died in the hospital in 1901. Gladys found her way to London and met the Marlboroughs. She began to stay at Blenheim. The Duke and Consuelo both fell for her – Gladys’s papers contain letters written by each of them (unbeknown to the other) from the same house on the same day in 1901.

Gladys was well educated in Bonn and, released from her studies, she began to trail a blaze through Europe. Her huge blue eyes, as bright in old age as in her youth, and her almost perfect Hellenic profile attracted numerous admirers. Combined with this was a fierce intelligence.

She attracted the attention of Marcel Proust who saw her getting into her car at Versailles; d’Annunzio was said to have fainted such was her beauty; and there were suitors by the dozen, including a great many Dukes, both British and Italian.

Probably she should have married Prince Roffredo Caetani, later Duke of Sermonetta, said to be a natural son of the composer Liszt. He was a charming young man, highly cultured and they would have been well matched. Bernard Berenson, the art historian, was another who was fascinated by her as was his wife Mary, and so it continued, but she never forgot her wish to marry the Duke of Marlborough.
The beautiful Gladys. Gladys Deacon painted by Boldini in 1908. She had begun her relationship with Marlborough who was still married (in name only).
While staying at Blenheim in 1901, the Crown Prince of Prussia fell in love with her and gave her a ring. When driving a carriage to Oxford he terrified his passengers by continually turning round to gaze at Miss Deacon. His father, the Kaiser, demanded that the ring be returned. When Consuelo and the 9th Duke separated in 1906, Gladys became more closely involved with him but they could not marry as for many years there was no divorce. In the summer of 1908 Gladys became engaged to Count Hermann Keyserling, the Baltic philosopher, but after a few torrid weeks, the engagement came to nothing.

By this time, Gladys’s mother had put her troubles behind her and become the mistress of Prince Doria Pamphili, who presently installed her in the fabulous Villa Farnese at Caprarola, just north of Rome. But all was not well. In the early 1900s Gladys committed a terrible crime against her beauty. She thought there was an imperfection in her beauty and injected paraffin wax into the bridge of her nose. Gradually this slipped and her legendary beauty was lost forever. Her chin became quite heavy, and presently she had to have the wax cut out in four places along her jaw.
The Villa Farnese at Caparola outside Rome where Gladys's mother lived as mistress of the Prince Doria Pamphili.
Gladys was undeterred by this, her quick wittedness and intelligence somehow elevating her above this disaster. There remained no shortage of admirers, and as late as 1920, she was luring Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of Connaught, to unlikely rendezvous in jazz clubs in the South of France.

Meanwhile she moved in interesting circles, one of her friends being the sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Recalling him in old age, she would say: ‘Of course he was of a very lascivious nature. You know, hands all over you.’ She told me that he once gave her a statue in white marble and that as he did so, he said to her: ‘Don’t look too much at my other work. Life has taught me what will sell.’ She took it with her to Blenheim, but in that intellectual wilderness, no one ever asked her about it.

She could be capricious and some said wounding. The Baronne Deslandes, one of the loves of d’Annunzio, wrote to her: ‘You make me think of a diamond. You are, I believe, cold and pure and white, and cutting like that admirable stone. For the diamond has something cruel about it, don’t you think?’
Gladys Deacon's striking features adorn two matching stone sphinxes in the Lower Water Terraces.
The duke walking past the matching sphinx.
For years Gladys and the Duke met for holidays in Europe and were then at their happiest. She did not go to Blenheim until after Consuelo’s divorce came through in 1920, by which time she had known the Duke for twenty years. At last she was free to marry him. The prospect alarmed her – rightly. She later wrote: ‘I loved him, but was fearful of the marriage’.

The Blenheim years were not her happiest. Married at 40, in June 1921, she became pregnant three times, yet each pregnancy ending prematurely. She did not want children to come, and later would say to young girls: ‘If you have any problems, go to the vet. That’s what I always do!’ She brought fascinating people to Blenheim, such as Jacob Epstein, the sculptor, who sculpted her and the Duke, and she invited Lytton Strachey, Jean Marchand and others to come and stay.

Gladys loved the gardens at Blenheim, and had an influence over the new water terraces leading down to the lake beside the Palace, and she restored the 5th Duke’s rock garden, partly because it was about as far from the Palace itself as possible.
Busts of Gladys, sculpted by Jacob Epstein.
Winston Churchill, nephew of the 9th duke, was also born at Blenheim. The duke on the grounds of Blenheim.
As the 1920s progressed, so the marriage deteriorated, not helped by the way Oxfordshire refused to accept Gladys, and complicated dramas following the Duke’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. Finally she became increasingly eccentric. When the Duke ventured a view about politics, she said to him: ‘Oh shut up! What do you know about politics? I’ve slept with every Prime Minister in Europe and most Kings. You are not qualified to speak!’ One evening at dinner she arrived and placed a revolver on the table beside her. ‘What is that for?’ asked a guest. ‘Oh I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘I might just shoot Marlborough!’

The Duke complained bitterly when she took to breeding Blenheim spaniels, and the dogs made messes all over the Palace. Eventually he could stick it no more. He evicted her from Blenheim and then from their London home in Carlton House Terrace.

Some of the Blenheim spaniels bred by Gladys, had the run of the palace, much to the fury of the duke.
Gladys had detectives following the Duke, identifying various Norman Hartnell models and infidelities, and divorce papers were prepared in 1933. (They make grim reading). But there was no divorce since the Duke contracted cancer, and suddenly died aged 62 in June 1934. Therefore Gladys became the widow.

She lived on until 1977. Rejected by the establishment, she retreated to a house in Mixbury, and then in 1938 to her last home in Chacombe, near Banbury. As the war came so, gradually, she became a recluse. By 1943 she looked very strange. The very social MP, ‘Chips’ Channon, spotted her in a Bond Street jewellers’ shop and recorded: ‘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 hat, and had a really frightening appearance, but the hair was golden-dyed and long …’ It was Gladys, who, when approached, ‘stared vacantly with those famous turquoise eyes that once drove men insane with desire’ and denied any knowledge of him.

By the 1950s she was a total recluse, living under the name of Mrs Spencer, sleeping by day and moving about in the hours of darkness, surrounded by cats, in a barricaded house. Yet in the house were her collection of paintings (works by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, and Boldini), her jewels (including a Russian tiara which had belonged to the Imperial family) and many other treasures. She was cared for by a saintly Pole, who lived in a neighbouring village, and bought her food for her, which she then hoisted in from an upper window.
Gladys, duchess of Marlborough in a self-portrait taken in 1928.
In 1962, when she was 81, she was forcibly removed from her house and placed in St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. She lived on until October 1977, and fortunately I found her there in the summer of 1975, and it was not too late to make friends with her – though not easy – and to hear part of her extraordinary story. Well informed, capricious and mercurial to the end of her long, strange life, Gladys was still able to exert her power to fascinate.

I shall forever be grateful to her for her stimulating conversation during those years – when she was 94 and I was 23. Her advice was always sound. She was concerned that the life of a writer was precarious. ‘You be a banker,’ she said, ‘that way you will always get a hot dinner.’ Then she told me: ‘If you want to do something, don’t tell other people about it, just do it. Other people will always find a reason to try and prevent you.’

To another young visitor she enquired: ‘Have all your talents been brought out of you?’ Her view was that young people needed someone ‘to breathe life into them and make them think in another way.’ She certainly did that for me.
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