Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ghostly Activities

Three of Etti's husbands, left to right, Pali Palffy, Zsiga Berchtold, Princess Peter of Montenegro, and Dr. Arpad Plesch at the Plesch villa in Beaulieu.
By Hugo Vickers

I have relished Robert Harris’s latest novel, The Ghost, a thriller about a man sent out to help a former British Prime Minister to complete his memoirs after the disappearance of the previous “ghost.” The ghost’s various adventures include being caught in the ‘vigorous embrace’ of the former Prime Minister’s wife, a phrase I feel sure he enjoyed creating. (Reviewers and readers have all had fun spotting likenesses to Cherie and Tony Blair, which the author modestly denies ...).

I too have been involved in ghostly exercises, none of which have led to a vigorous embrace. My occupational hazard has been food.

Laura, Duchess of Marlborough by Cecil Beaton.
Etti after her marriage to Clendenin Ryan.
In the summer of 1979 I helped Laura, Duchess of Marlborough complete her memoirs. I used to drive down to her house in Buckinghamshire, in dread of having my suitcase unpacked (frequently rushing out on a Saturday morning to buy new underclothes). Once I brought a bottle of rum for a pudding. This was placed on my bedside table!

Laura would press an enormous Bloody Mary into my hands, before a delicious lunch. After that she would say: ‘Well, I expect you want to work in your room’. Hardly had I closed the door than my head hit the pillow. Yet somehow I would produce some work by teatime – then chocolate cake, drinks and dinner, head back on pillow. Laughter from a Cloud was published in 1980.

Food again intervened when I helped Alexis de Redé. I would arrive at his apartment in the Hotel Lambert on the Ile St Louis at 1:15 for a lunch of many courses and fine wines produced by the chef Alexis shared with David de Rothschild. Soufflés, truffles, and foie gras passed daily before me. Bliss the first day, but increasingly challenging as the week went by. (One Friday evening I lay on my bed in the hotel, groaning with indigestion. I thought I had turned into a foie gras!)

After lunch the Baron would sit in the drawing room and say: ‘Now you must ask me some questions.’ I once asked him what he most hated, wondering if he would inveigh against the Iraq war or President Bush.

“It is a man who, when he crosses his legs, exposes between the trouser and the sock some pink flesh,” he said. Adorned with such quotes, the memoirs became a runaway success when published in 2005.

I first met Etti Plesch in 1981 at a lecture at the Knickerbocker Club in New York given by Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon. Ten years later a friend suggested I should help her record her extraordinary life. Etti had been short of money when young, but her aristocratic background meant that when she married Dr. Arpad Plesch, one of the richest men in the world, she slipped into the rich life like a quail into aspic. By the time I knew her, her world revolved around lunches and dinners in expensive restaurants – in London: the Connaught, Claridge’s, Mark’s Club and Harry’s Bar, and their counterparts in New York, Paris and Monte Carlo.
Etti during her marriage to Count Pali Palffy. Rtti, Mrs. Arpad Plesch with Psidium, Etti's first Derby winner, 1961.
Etti was an exacting luncher. Pity the waiter who asked ‘Is everything all right, Madame?’ He was rewarded with a barrage of complaints. One day this produced the opening line of the book. We were lunching at the Connaught and she looked about her. ‘The man at the next table was eating caviar. I have to tell you. I did not envy him. His caviar was black. This seemed to me typical of life today, in which so few high standards are maintained. There is no good caviar today. The best caviar I ever ate was at the wedding of Karim (the Aga Khan). It was grey – with a hint of pink.’

Etti’s life was extraordinary by any yardstick. An Austro-Hungarian countess, it was said that she was backed by a syndicate of Counts to go to America and find a rich husband. She sailed across and found one in Clendenin Ryan, Jr. in 1934. Unfortunately the eye of her mother-in-law was upon her. Etti was in love with a Count in Austria and sent him a telegram assuring him she loved him still. The copy of this telegram (addressed to Mrs Ryan) reached the mother-in-law by mistake! Similar incidents led her husband to put five detectives onto her, whom she called ‘The Five Daddies’. They followed her everywhere, and in the evening, they put on their tuxedos to follow her out to dinner. She was divorced.
Dr. Arpad Plesch. Laura. Duchess of Marlborough with filmmaker Derek Hart.
Etti then married Count Palffy and later Count Esterhazy. She lost both to Louise de Vilmorin, who stole each in turn, having told Etti she hated her and was going to destroy her life. A marriage to Count Zsiga Berchtold saw Etti through the war, and then she returned to New York.

Her marriage to Mr Deering Davis produced another good line: “As far as this marriage was concerned I had made a grave mistake. The first time I married I had been violently in love with another man. This time I had agreed to marry in order to have somebody with me. Now I did have him with me – and far too much. What could be done? I could not just kill him. If I asked for a divorce, he would refuse, as there were no other women, nor even men in his life. I thought, and thought …”
Click to order Alexis: The Memoirs of the Baron De Rede. Click to order Horses & Husbands.
The sixth husband, married before Etti was yet forty, was Arpad Plesch – he of many fortunes, not least in Haiti, a man hung about with many a sinister rumour.

At last Etti had the money, the apartments, the villa and finally the racehorses. She proceeded to win the Derby in 1961 and 1980, the only woman owner to win twice, and her horse Sassafras defeated Charles Engelhard’s Nijinsky in the 1970 Arc de Triomphe, breaking his unbeaten run of eleven out of twelve great races.

Etti’s memoirs have just been published: Horses and Husbands, available from The Dovecote Press – www.dovecotepress.com

Click here for NYSD Contents