Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To the tropics

A lone Magnolia hangs on after a flower box watering. 3:45 pm. Photo: JH.
August 31, 2010. A very hot day in New York although low humidity – a gift. The weatherman is hinting that Hurricane Earl might tap us at the end of the week.

With the calendar practically bare of social activity this week I decided to treat yesterday as a vacation. I had a yoga lesson late in the morning and then spent the rest day reading, taking a break to get some grub for lunch and din as well as a short nap.

Among the reading, the Telegraph of London had an obituary of an English aristocrat who made a name for himself by following a typically British aristocratic path – to the tropics.

Lord Glenconner, the self-annointed King of Mustique.
Colin Tennant, the 3rd Lord Glenconner is a name only vaguely familiar to Americans. He was, however, famous in his native land as a member of a famous British industrial family and fortune created by his grandfather at the end of the 19th century, and for his relationship with the Queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret.

It could be argued that the British aristos have a greater talent for enjoying their inheritances than their American counterparts, mainly because they often spend it pursuing their interests and/or bliss Lord Glenconner was decidedly one of those. He was 32 when he took a chunk of his fortune and bought the island of Mustique, 1400 acres of barren rock in the Grenadines with a local population of 100 who survived off the sea.

He later claimed that her persuaded his wife that winters in Mustique were cheaper than heating the family castle in Scotland. He also had a natural talent for what today is known as “marketing.” His secret: “I don’t believe in advertisement. I believe in self-advertisement at which I’m adept. No one ever knew what I did. They said that I was a lotus eater but I never even had time to pick a lotus, let alone eat it.”

It was a full life, as you will see, and graced with an unusual surprise in the last year of his life, which he embraced with the same enthusiasm that he expressed throughout his life.

From the Telegraph of London:

The 3rd Lord Glenconner, formerly Colin Tennant,
who died on August 27 aged 83, transformed the West Indian island of Mustique from a barren insect-plagued rock into a lush multimillionaires' paradise.

The island became famous during the 1960s and 1970s for Tennant's grand parties and for the roll-call of pop stars, aristocrats and royalty – most famously Princess Margaret – who found it a refuge from the British winter and the paparazzi.

The Tennant family owed their fortune to Colin Tennant's great-great-grandfather Charles Tennant, a Scottish scientist who invented an industrial bleaching process which revolutionised the cotton industry and brought the industrial revolution to Scotland.
Princess Margaret in the tropics, thanks to the generosity of her friend, the King of Mustique.
As business prospered, the Tennants bought estates and built grand houses, including, in 1850, a gloomy neo-gothic castle in Peeblesshire, the Glen, which became the family seat. By the early 20th century the Tennants had not only amassed a huge fortune, they had also established family connections with the Asquiths, Wyndhams and Lyttletons. Edward Priaulx Tennant was created the 1st Lord Glenconner in 1911.

Colin Tennant acquired Mustique in 1959 with money from the sale of a piece of land in Trinidad that had been acquired in the mid-19th century by another Charles Tennant, second son of the scientist, a youthful banner-carrier for the Chartists who became a successful businessman. His one business mistake had been to sell off the Trinidad pitch lake, failing to foresee the coming of Tarmac; the remaining acres yielded grapefruit.

Until Colin Tennant arrived in Mustique, the Grenadine island had been a neglected backwater of Empire. The two resident white families had visited each other in carts, Gone with the Wind-style, for centuries. There were no modern conveniences – even a camera was a novelty – and the journey to Mustique from England took three days.

"It was like a graveyard," said Tennant, "run down and badly managed – very mouldy."
Lord and Lady Glenconner; a long and perfect marriage often spent separated by the Atlantic.
At first Tennant bought the island simply because he liked the beaches and thought it would be a pleasant place to retire. He intended, he said, to specialise in "sea island cotton, beef and mutton". However, he soon had other ideas.

In 1963 his father sold the family merchanting business, C Tennant & Sons, to Consolidated Goldfields, and Colin suddenly inherited £1 million. At first father and son were kept on as chairman and deputy chairman, but after his father's retirement in 1967 Colin was passed over for the job of chairman, so he resigned.

With money and time on his hands, Tennant worked at establishing Mustique and providing the island with an infrastructure. First he built a village, then a hotel and then constructed and sold "fantasy" houses, designed in a variety of architectural styles. A school was built, then a doctor's surgery. A police station, custom house and post office followed.

The island's popularity was assured when, during Princess Margaret's honeymoon visit to Mustique in 1960, Tennant gave her a piece of land as a wedding present. Later he built her a Georgian-style colonial villa, Les Jolies Eaux. It was there that she went to find refuge during the break-up of her marriage in the early 1970s, often in the company of her friend Roddy Llewellyn. Mustique was, she said, "the only place I can relax".
The Princess and her friend Colin, Lord Glenconner at one of his famous parties. Bianca Jagger on Mustique.
In Princess Margaret's wake came the rich, the chic, the famous – and their hangers-on. There were rock stars (Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie), media folk (John Cleese, David Frost, Nigel Dempster) and socialites.

Tennant's hospitality and lavish fancy dress parties became celebrated. At his 50th birthday in 1976 Princess Margaret crowned him "King" of Mustique, while during the celebrations village youths formed an honour guard wearing gold-painted codpieces made from coconut shells. For his 60th birthday he took his guests 100 miles by boat from Mustique to neighbouring St Lucia. "I've always found that people envy you less if they get things for free," he observed.

To Colin Tennant, the role of monarch of Mustique was more than a party joke. Like his grand Liberal forebears he took his patrician responsibilities seriously: on his arrival in Mustique, for example, he awarded pensions to all the island's grandmothers.
The Princess following the "honour guard" at the coronation of Lord Glenconnor as "king."
In the late 1970s, however, things began to go wrong. Recession and exchange controls turned profit into loss. In 1978 he sold 13 paintings by Lucian Freud from a substantial collection built up during the 1950s and 1960s, terminating a long-standing friendship. Freud regarded the sale as a financially motivated act of personal betrayal.

Worse, Tennant's subjects grew restive. Muddles about service charges and a cavalier attitude to accounting led to rows with the island's management committee. Tennant eventually sold his interest in Mustique for £1 million – the total of his original investment. He sold his own home, the Great House, to Christina Onassis's third husband, the former KGB agent Sergei Kauzov.

"You should never sell to the rich," Tennant once remarked. "They always make sure they get the best value. The owners and bankers made all the money, not me. I got a lot of publicity, but it got me nowhere. Even my barman ended up a millionaire."

A resort built by Lord Glenconner in St. Lucia in the early 90s.
Meanwhile he decided to buy land in St Lucia, to which he moved in 1992 with his pet elephant, Bupa. His second attempt at empire building, however, was not successful. He fell out with St Lucia's most famous son, the Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott, who objected to his plans to build a huge hotel complex – La Jalousie – on a sacred site.

In 1992 he had to sell his £6 million London home to help raise funds. Another Freud – a portrait of Tennant himself – went under the auctioneer's hammer in 1997. Meanwhile, he quarrelled with his Iranian partners in the investment, who bought him out.

By the mid-1990s Glenconner (he had inherited the title on his father's death in 1983) was living a somewhat more reclusive existence in a small beachside house, with only a remote chicken restaurant, a rum hut and a lot of empty land. At the end of his life, however, he was much involved in the construction of an upmarket beachfront village in St Lucia, and was planning a boutique hotel to be owned and run by his long-serving valet and personal assistant, Kent Adonai.

Even in his heyday there was always pathos behind the frivolity. Some detected the emotional insecurity that lay behind his need to be liked. And though usually urbane and good-humoured, he was prone to mercurial changes of mood – courteous one moment, in a temper tantrum the next.
Lord Glenconner with his royal guest.
His relationship with his wife, Lady Anne Coke (daughter of the Earl of Leicester), whom he married in 1956, was happy, although they lived apart for much of the time. After his move to Mustique, they holidayed together regularly – winter in the Caribbean, summer in Scotland – but for most of the year led separate lives. She preferred to live in England, where she was Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret, he in Mustique.

Family tragedy – Glenconner rejected all talk of a family curse – struck in various forms; their first son, Charlie, a one-time heroin addict, died of hepatitis in 1996. Their second son, Henry, died of Aids in 1990. Their third and youngest son, Christopher, was disabled following a motorcycle accident in 1987.

Despite everything, Glenconner continued to throw parties. "We weren't brought up to throw in the towel," he said. "We were brought up to bite bullets and to fold towels neatly."

Colin Christopher Paget Tennant was born on December 1 1926, the son of the 2nd Lord Glenconner. His mother, Pamela, was the daughter of Sir Richard Paget, 2nd Bt.
Colin Tennant on the veranda of his "shacks" in St. Lucia.
After his parents' divorced in 1935, for years Colin Tennant seldom saw his father. Holidays from Eton were spent with his maternal grandmother, Muriel Paget, a formidable grande dame who had diverted a train from the Crimea to Siberia in the First World War to save the lives of 70 British nannies.

After Eton, Tennant went straight into the Irish Guards, serving during the tail end of the war. After the war he went up to New College, Oxford: "I read diplomatic history from 1898 to 1904. It was not very helpful." At Oxford he gained a reputation for being terribly kind to plain girls with nice manners and extremely waspish to pretty ones with nasty manners.

After graduating, he settled down to work in the family firm in the City and at the same time began to attract the attention of the gossip columns as Princess Margaret's escort.

Joshua Bowler, who learned less than a year ago of his real father's identity.
Bowler's mother Henrietta Moraes at the time of her affair with Glenconner.
During the early 1950s he was often involved in amateur dramatics; in 1953 he took part, with Princess Margaret, in a production for charity of an Edgar Wallace play, The Frog; Tennant played the title role (a serial killer) and the Princess was assistant stage director.

In 1954 he was forced to deny newspaper reports that he would shortly announce his engagement to the Princess. "I don't expect she would have had me," he said, gallantly, years later.

As his business ventures in Mustique were beginning to turn sour, in 1977 Tennant joined the Scottish Nationalist Party and briefly flirted with the idea of standing for Parliament.

In 1998 he returned to Scotland from St Lucia, bringing Cletus and Marcellinus, twin St Lucian limbo dancers and fire eaters, to appear at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The climax of their performance was the 71-year-old Glenconner himself "limbo dancing" under a low pole aided by the St Lucian twins.

In old age, Glenconner was dismissive about his life: "Nothing much has happened to me... I don't think about the past; it's like a party – gone the day after." He was, however, working on an autobiography.

He and his wife Anne had five children, and she survives him with their third son and their twin daughters. The title passes to Cody Charles Edward Tennant, born in 1994, Colin Tennant's grandson by his eldest son. Last January, Lord Glenconner discovered that before his marriage he had fathered a son, Joshua, by Lucian Freud's former muse Henrietta Moraes. Joshua has since been welcomed into the family.
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