Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sarah Churchill

Lady Sarah Consuelo Spencer Churchill.
December 1921 - October 2000.
Sketch: ©Robert Schulenberg.
In Memoriam. October 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.

She 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).

When 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.

It 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).

The 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."

From 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."

In 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 amusement.

At 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.

When 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 perfectly.

In 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.

About 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 went.

Sarah 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.

The 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.

She 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.

The 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.

Many 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."

I began reading. Three or four sentences in, he stopped me. "Oh that's easy, that's Sarah."

He was as awestruck as I, when I told him that indeed it was Sarah, but the one from the 18th century.

So, 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.