Monday, July 18, 2016

The Mistresses of Cliveden

Moon over Manhattan. 9:10 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, July 18, 2016.  A very warm weekend with temperatures hovering in the high 80s, low 90s, and the humidity occasionally adding to it. The nabe was quiet, and it was easy getting around. I had dinner Saturday night with friends at Orsay, seated outside, and it was very pleasant.

Click to order "The Mistresses of Cliveden.”
I spent a good deal of the weekend finishing: “The Mistresses of Cliveden” by Natalie Livingstone. It could have been titled “The Mistresses of Cliveden, Politics and Carnal Knowledge for the Past Four Centuries in England.”

It is a history of the house and the women who presided over the house since its first building (it burned down twice) in 1688. It was commission by George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, born to the station, childhood  and (almost) lifelong friend of King Charles II.

Buckingham, or as he was known to his friends, George Villiers, was a fellow who gained prominence through his bravado. It was a personality that today would be a celebrity for his energy and his flamboyance, not to mention his powerful political connections. And potentially the tragedy of the narcissist.

When the house was first going up it was the talk of the community (the upperclasses). Alexander Pope, the poet who moved in that society wrote about it more than once, more an editorial comment on its creator, called it “the bower of wanton Shrewsbury and love,” a “proud alcove” (meaning, in those days as a place of intimacy, a pleasure garden).
George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham. His father, a close friend of King Charles I, was assassinated by a renegade officer when the baby was 7 months old. The child was brought up by the King along with the King's children including the son who would become King Charles II. Buckingham led an adventurous life serving his sovereign as well as involving himself in politics. He followed his friend Charles II into a Civil War that ended with Charles taking back the throne from Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Another side of him was his cavalier ways in female relationships and his famous affair with Anna Maria Talbot, the much married Countess of Shrewsbury with whom he shared Cliveden along with his wife Mary.
Anna Maria Brudenell Talbot married the 36-year-old Earl of Shrewsbury when she was sixteen. Livingstone writes: "Anna Maria quickly learned the way to achieve recognition within the court was to wield her sexual power. " She learned well.
Buckingham was a randy fellow or what today we would call sexually active in a variety of circumstances. He was married to a rich aristocratic wife which was a wise move financially, but for a long time he was all eyes for among others, the Countess of Shrewsbury, Anna Maria Talbot (hence Pope’s reference to Shrewsbury –whom many referred to as a “whore”). Eventually Buckingham killed the Earl of Shrewsbury in a duel (swords) – which was still popular back then. After which he came out into the open about his affair with Anna Maria.

Although Buckingham had a wife, Anna Maria became the first mistress of Cliveden. It was a noble threesome, as it were. In more ways than one.  Not unlike “Razzle Dazzle” which I’d read just before this book, the “Mistresses” is potentially a grand maxi-mini-series because it is five portraits of five remarkable women over a period of more than three centuries, all of whom were chatelaine of this great house.
Elizabeth Villiers. Born to a colonel Sir Edward Villiers and a daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, she grew up to a be a governess to Princesses Mary and Anne, both later queens, and daughters of James II. In that post she was sent with Mary to Holland when the princess was wed to William of Orange, and didn't return until after the marriage and the couple William and Mary came to London as monarchs. Said to be the mistress of King William. After his death she married her cousin, Lord George Hamilton, Count Orkney who acquired Cliveden from the estate of Buckingham. She was hostess to both George I and George II at Cliveden.
King William III, a Dutchman who came to England with his wife Mary, daughter of James II and heir to the throne. William and Mary shared the throne until her death three years after their arrival in London. William did not remarry and there remain stories about his very close relationship with William Bentinck, who was a close associate (and best man at the wedding of William and Mary).
Augusta, Princess of Wales, wife of Frederick the Prince of Wales, son of George the II. Augusta had come from Saxe-Coburg (Germany) to marry the Prince of Wales. The Prince was deeply disliked by his mother and his father and was all but ostracized from the Court. The couple acquired Cliveden because of its proximity to Windsor Castle (five miles) and its accessibility to London. There they cut a swath that brought the Waleses a prominence despite the King and Queen's dislike of their son and heir. They had several children and then Frederick died suddenly while in his forties. His son George would later inherit the throne from his grandfather George II.
Frederick the Prince of Wales.
Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, was the granddaughter of Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire. Harriet married the richest heir in England George Leveson-Gower who upon his father's death, became the Duke of Sutherland. Harriet, befriended the fourteen year old Princess Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Kent before she was regarded as a candidate for the throne. Harriet was thirteen years older than the princess but they forged a very close relationship that lasted until Harriet's death at 62 in 1868. Although Nancy Astor is one of the most compelling personalities, Harriet, the Duchess of Sutherland was perhaps the most remarkable of all the women who presided over life at Cliveden in the middle of the 19th century.
The Duke himself eventually fell on very unfortunate and hard times, dying in poverty. Again Alexander Pope provided an editorial opinion, describing His Grace’s end:

In the worst inn’s room, with mat half-hung,
The floors of plaster, and the walls of dung,
On once a flock bed, but repaired with straw,
With tape-tied curtains, never meant to draw,
The George and Garter dangling from that bed
Where tawdry yellow strove with dirty red,
Great Villiers lies – alas! How changed from him,
That life of pleasure and that soul of whim!

She came to London, a divorcee with son, a very spoiled girl brought up by an adoring and kindly mother. She herself was neither with her children much of the time. She was also a bigot although the word doesn't wear smartly on an otherwise smart personality. She probably did not regard herself as a bigot as most bigots don't (and there are a lot of them out there and some of it in everyone of us). But she was. She was also immensely charming, fascinating, funny, sweet, odd, kind and curious. You can't not like her – which explains how she served as the first woman (and an American at that) in the House of Commons for 25 years. And at the same time you can't deny she possessed and acted off of all those characteristics. An oft-told anecdote about her was in a conversation with Winston Churchill she is said to have uttered, "if I were your wife, I'd poison your coffee," to which Churchill is said to have replied "if you were my wife, I'd drink it."
Those of us who are familiar with the estate (having read about it) knew it as the home of the Astors about thirty miles outside London (and five miles from Windsor Castle). It was there during the 1930s that the subject of The “Cliveden Set” came out as a group thought to be trying to appease Hitler. Nancy Langhorne Astor, an American from Virginia and the first woman to hold a seat in the British House of Commons, was regarded as the leader of that “Set.” The Second World War changed all that for everyone including those who wanted to appease Der Fuehrer.

In the early 1960s, still under the ownership of the Astor – this time Bill, son of Nancy and Waldorf Astor, there was a major political/sex scandal in which several prominent names of the aristocracy as well as politicians and a Soviet military man were reported cavorting frequently with some very pretty and agreeable young women to whom they were not married (the wives were elsewhere). All around the Cliveden swimming pool. It became known in the press as the Profumo Affair.

John Profumo, the government’s Secretary of State for War,  was alleged to have had an affair with an 18-year-old girl named Christine Keeler, who also slept with a Soviet military officer. National Security, National Security, and all that produced a field day for the press --  which led to the public account of their first meeting poolside at Cliveden, introduced by a well known osteopath named Stephen Ward. Dr. Ward was also the procurer in the private later to be public drama, and evidently had a list of girls who liked to have fun ... with older well-fixed men of rank and power, and others too.
The Daily Mail breaking the news of Profumo's resignation.
Christine Keeler in the empty swimming pool at Cliveden – where she famously caught the eye of John Profumo – in 1986.
In retrospect it seems rather tame compared to what’s going on in our world today, although it led to the resignation of John Profumo from his post, and the arrest, trial and suicide of Stephen Ward. 

Natalie Livingstone takes us from the concept of building the house in the late 17th century (it was rebuilt twice thereafter after fires destroying much of it) to a cast of characters that included both Kings Charles I and II, Queen Anne, Sarah the first Duchess of Marlborough, James II, William and Mary right up through the Queen Elizabeth II.

Years ago when I lived in Los Angeles, I knew a very successful real estate broker who talked about different houses had different vibes. In her experience every house has its own which attracts a certain kind of story. She said there were houses that were “bad luck” houses, where whoever lived in them, the resident had a serious misfortune of some kind. There were also houses that whoever lived in them went on to great success (and moved into a better house).
Cliveden House exterior.
A nineteenth-century engraving of the 1851 house from the parterre.
The 1666 house. Only the arcaded terrace remains today.
Cliveden, you can see by Livingstone’s portraits of its mistresses, had a vibe, an energy, that began with its building in 1688 and continued right on through to its last private residents, the Astors almost three centuries later. One of those similarities was the kind of woman who lived there and defined it. It was a house that all of the aforementioned royals and many more knew well as friends and frequent guests.

Reading its history through the women who presided over it one is struck by the coincidences and similarities that these women shared. What remains striking is how despite the changing rules and codes of behavior, and the political beliefs and points of view of their times -- as well as religious traditions, and industrial development and technology -- human behavior nevertheless remains the same today as it was back then.
The Hall showing the fireplace and portrait of Nancy Astor.
The French Dining Room in Cliveden, now Cliveden House, a five-star hotel.
England was the most powerful nation on Earth. These five women of Cliveden who lived (and slept) very close to or with that power are highly relatable to the contemporary reader and the world we live in.  Each demonstrates her power repeatedly as the stronger sex, while they nevertheless acquiesced to, and lived in, the male dominated society. Theirs was the ultimate power -- acquired with their wits and ambition.

One is constantly reminded, as if witnessing a fact, how despite the social and cultural changes in our society since the 17th century, with women having emerged to a strata which never before existed, our behavior as men and women with each other, remains the same, politically speaking. Therein lies the dilemma we are facing today. The Cliveden residents over the centuries are a hyper-example of that reality because they were all possessors of, or closely associated with, Big Money and Political Power at the top. How they used it is what made their stories remarkable.

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