A look back at a birthday celebration at Blenheim Palace

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Arriving at Blenheim Palace for the birthday party of Ambassador John Loeb.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023. Yesterday was a beautiful Memorial Day in New York with the full sunshine and temps in the mid- to upper-70s, and the town still quiet – although the empty holiday weekend parking spaces had begun to fill up again by mid-evening.

Meanwhile, JH who is out in Oregon playing golf with his father-in-law at Bandon Dunes, but who is never far from the NYSD, after running yesterday’s piece about my first trip to London (back in the early ’80s), came up with another from our archives — a white tie 75th birthday dinner for our friend Ambassador John Loeb organized by his then companion (now wife) Sharon for 350 of his mainly American friends at Blenheim Palace in May 2005. A total sensation for everyone attending.

Lady Sarah Consuelo Spencer-Churchill by Bob Schulenberg.

I came over to London, arriving last Friday morning to make a seventy-fifth birthday party organized by Sharon Handler for her great and longtime friend and companion, Ambassador Jo

hn Loeb at Blenheim Palace on Saturday. I had no idea what to expect, and although I’d never been there, Blenheim is a very grand place and a place therefore, for a very grand party.

Blenheim resonates for me personally because of a close friendship I had with the late Lady Sarah Churchill who moved there when her father succeeded her grandfather and became the 10th duke of Marlborough (her brother is the current duke) when she was twelve. In fact, there is no one who ever had a friendship with Lady Sarah who doesn’t connect her enormous and powerful (and at times controversial) personality with Blenheim. Her long after recollections of first moving into this, the world’s largest private palace (covering seven acres of ground with courtyard), were of something oversized, overwrought and frightening. I think Sarah’s memories were not unusual. I found a passage about Blenheim written by the Canadian writer Marian Fowler in her book Blenheim – Biography of a Palace:

Looking out at the entrance to the Great Hall.

“I felt awed, ant-like, apprehensive, as I gazed on Blenheim’s huge baroque mass, its fearful symmetry, its threatening roofscape of ferocious lions and plunging swords, its trumpeting central portico and tremendous trailing wings. House and courtyards cover seven acres. This is a dragon of a house which once breathed fire and was turned to stone by some terrible curse. Blenheim sprawls like a petrified dinosaur or beached whale, completely out of scale with the little blue folds of hills that lap it round. Surely the huge stones of its walls were quarried by giants; how they reached the site in the days before cranes and lorries is a mystery as awesome as how the Egyptians built their pyramids.”[1]

When George III first saw Blenheim, astonished by its grandeur, he is alleged to have said something like: “But we don’t have anything like this!” And indeed, old King George didn’t, and never would.

It was England’s gift under the reign of Queen Anne to General John Churchill who defeated the armies of Louis XIV in 1703 at Blenheim. Churchill was made the first duke of Marlborough and his wife Sarah, the first duchess (actually he was first made Earl of Marlborough). It began with a gift of land and then monies to build the house which began in 1705 and was sort of completed in 1722 after acrimony and many other problems. The Churchills, both husband and wife were formidable figures and never without controversy. Jonathan Swift wrote of the first Sarah: of the `three furies that reigned in her heart, sordid Avarice, disdainful Pride, and ungovernable Rage’.

But that bit of a large history will have to be continued at another time for there is John Loeb’s 75th birthday celebration that is at hand in today’s Diary.

On Saturday afternoon, the invitation instructed, guests without cars were to meet at Claridge’s at 5:15 on Brook Street where buses (the British call them coaches) were waiting to transport us to Blenheim, about an hour and a half ride from London. The coaches were all seats of four with tables. Once aboard and off, a stewardess served champagne (or water depending on your preference), and we were off for the ride outside London through the beautiful English countryside.

About an hour and a half later we arrived at the gates of Blenheim – an imposing yellow stoned monument leading to a long driveway through a park by a lake, around a bend until before us was this great looming, stately palace with a long driveway leading directly to its front door. In Lady Sarah’s early days, this driveway was lined with great elms that had been planted more than a century before but had all been destroyed by blight in the 1940s or 50s.

The red carpet leading to the steps of the entrance to Blenheim with Susan Fales-Hill and her husband Aaron Hill in the center rear.

There was, as you can see, a long red carpet which led to the steps of the entrance to the palace, which were lined by “guards” in red uniforms. Everyone immediately seemed to muster their noblesse oblige for the trip. The immense theatricality that we were presented with immediately put everyone in an other-worldly (and very good) mood.

Inside the entrance to the palace.

Once inside we were in the Great Hall with its 67-foot-high ceiling and stone enrichments carved by Grinling Gibbons which portray the arms of Queen Anne. On its ceiling, which was painted in 1716 by Sir James Thornhill, there is a scene of John Churchill, the victorious Marlborough, with the battle order of Blenheim spread before him.

There we gathered, very patiently waiting as at the other end of this vast hall, Sharon Handler, dressed simply and elegantly in a long white satin dress and Ambassador Loeb in white tie and tails and decorations, received each of the guests who then passed into the Saloon.

In keeping with the times, there were several photographers and cameramen shooting the arrivals and the reception line. A man with a mike came along with a cameraman to ask us who we were and how we happened to be there – they were making a record of the party for the host and hostess. This exercise was an excellent device for uniting everyone as a guest, plain and simple and was also an interesting way to enter the party with its large (350) guest list of all kinds of people from all over the world – Europe, the US, Australia and Vietnam.

Sharon Handler and Ambassador Loeb receiving the guests.

The Saloon, where cocktails were served, is one of the most photographed of the rooms at Blenheim. This is used as the state dining room and the photographs of it never articulate its vastness. Its walls are covered with magnificent frescoes and a ceiling, all painted by Louis Laguerre which includes a caricature of the painter.

Drinks served were wine, cocktails or water along with hors d’oeuvres. The enormous room was very crowded and everyone was very excited to be in this – for most of us – very elegant and exotic setting. From there at the appointed time – a man in a red uniform with a handmike, announced that dinner would be served in the Long Library.

The trip required moving down a hallway to the west, by the room (open to see) where Sir Winston Churchill was born on November 30, 1874. Sir Winston’s father Randolph, was the second son of the 8th duke and brother of the 9th duke who was the grandfather of the current duke.

Jonathan Farkas and Somers White.

We moved through the three apartments known as the First, Second and Third State Rooms, the walls of which are hung with tapestries of Marlborough’s military campaigns as well as bronzes and elegant furniture of 18th-century French and Italian. In the Red Room there was a photographer waiting to photograph each of us. It was here that I got a shot of Jonathan Farkas and Somers White posing for their portrait. This room contains the huge John Singer Sargent portrait of the 9th duke and his wife, the former Consuelo Vanderbilt and their two children Lord Ivor and John, the Marquess of Blandford, father of the present duke.

From there we moved through the 2nd and 3rd State rooms into the Long Library with its more than 150-foot length, set with four long tables covered in red cloth and lit by candelabra. This room was originally designed by Blenheim’s original architect vanBrugh as a picture gallery. The 8th duke (who was also married to an American) installed The Willis organ at one end in 1891 and his successor, the present duke’s grandfather (the man in the Sargent portrait) made it into a library of books largely collected by him. The room contains coronation robes, liveries, uniforms and the coronets of the present Duke and Duchess which are displayed in a central by along with a cap which belonged to Queen Anne, Blenheim’s benefactress.

It was an amazing sight – all of these men and women dressed so formally for the occasion in this truly palatial setting with its centuries old relationship to British and European history. The room was entirely candlelit – except for the light from the dais as well as the video screen placed strategically in different quarters of the room which ran a series of black and white photos of John Loeb from infancy through and up to the present.

L. to r.: Walking through the Great Hall; Looking out at the west wing of Blenheim.

I had the privilege of being seated to the right of Mary, Lady Soameswho is a daughter of Sir Winston and Clementine, Lady Churchill. Lady Soames accompanied her father to Washington during the Second World War when Churchill came to consult with FDR, and they stayed at the White House more than sixty years ago. Lady Soames has published several books about her parents and is currently working on her memoir.

Lady Soames (Mary Churchill) and Lady Henrietta Spencer Churchill.

Sitting next to this woman who was witness to the Anglo-American alliance of six decades ago, I couldn’t resist asking her what it was like to be with the Roosevelts in the White House. I realized that she might tend to be very discreet or even be wary of divulging to another writer what is her property. She did tell me that Roosevelt at the end of the day liked to put business aside and enjoy himself with company and conversation and cocktails, whereas Eleanor Roosevelt, although Lady Soames admired her very much, was always all-business. I made a comparison between the personalities of the two and the personalities of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton. Lady Soames seemed unimpressed by my comparison.

After the dessert, there was much milling about as people wanted to see who was there. There were several ambassadors who served in the Administrations of Ronald Reagan (when John Loeb was US Ambassador to Denmark) and George H.W. Bush, as well as the Duke of Marlborough, his daughter Lady Henrietta Spencer Churchill, his cousin, Winston Churchill’s granddaughter Edwina Sandys and her husband Richard Kaplan; the Earl of Dartmouth, the Earl and Countess Dudley, M. and Mme. Michel David-Weill, Ezra and Cecile Zilkha and their daughter Donna Zilkha; John Loeb’s siblings, Arthur Loeb (who founded the famous and much missed Madison Avenue Bookshop) and Judith Chiara, Sharon Sondes (with Geoffrey Thomas), Bill Bernhard and Catherine Cahill (Bernhard’s mother and Loeb’s mother were sisters); his son Nick Loeb and daughter Alexandra Driscoll, Julie and Michel-Henri Carriol from Australia; Beth DeWoody, Anne Hearst, Kip Forbes, Lee and CeCe Black, Daisy and Paul Soros, Joanne Herring, Jeanne Lawrence, Elizabeth and Patrick Gerschel, Bobby Pressman and Mallory Samson, April and Roddy Gow, Linda Silverman, Donald and Barbara Tober, Victoria and Frank Wyman, Raul Suarez, Gail Hilson; Tito Guadier from Barcelona, Desmond Guinness, Lorna and Larry Graev, Mary McFadden, George and Carol McFadden, Dariah and Larry Leeds, Susan Fales-Hill and Aaron Hill, Gail Hilson, Dayssi and Paul Kanavos, Denise Rich, Luce and Winston Churchill II, and more luminaries than I can remember at this moment.

The Long Library was set with four long tables covered in red cloth and lit by candelabra for 350 guests.

After dinner, our hostess took the podium and introduced the ambassador’s brother and his sister, his cousin and several of John’s friends who spoke about him. What emerged for those of us who may not have known was his history and his achievements. There were letters read from Nancy Reagan, both Presidents Bush, and a video of Richard Allen. He was born on May 2, 1930 to Frances Lehman and John Loeb, the grandson of Carl Loeb who founded the great Wall Street banking house of Carl M. Loeb, Rhodes.

He grew up in an economically privileged life where much was expected of him. He attended Hotchkiss, Harvard and Harvard Business School. (The Loebs donated $150 million to Harvard on their deaths.) He entered public life in the family business and later became involved in political and community affairs. His parents were people of high expectations. Their son went into the family business and later, through his interest in politics (fund-raising for the Republican party and Ronald Reagan whom he met in the mid-1970s when few thought the former movie actor and California governor had much of a political future). In his many incarnations, he also became a wine-maker (the Sonoma-Loeb private reserve, which was served, naturally, at dinner) and among many other things, the head of the Winston Churchill Foundation.

The party at Blenheim he explained grew out of the lifelong fact that from childhood, being the eldest, his birthday was rarely celebrated because he was away at school. And because of his association with Churchill, he once told Sharon he wanted to celebrate his 75th birthday at Blenheim.

After the speeches and encominums and a brilliant video which Sharon Handler produced in the style of A&E biography (it looked very real) covering the ambassador’s entire life and ending with graphics of the Pink Panther at The End, where the Pink Panther scribbled a big “NOT” over “The End,” we were treated to a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like who came out of nowhere to sing, or rather, coo: “Happy Birthday, Mr. Am-bass-a-dor” a la MM’s original serenading of JFK at Madison Square Garden in 1962. And when she left, (“so Happy Birthday, Sugah, and toodle-oo”) the Ambassador came up to the podium where Ms. Handler surprised him and everyone else with a specially written rendition which she sang of “Danny Boy” (“Oh Johnny boy, I love you so…”). It brought tears to the eyes of the stately ambassador, and when it was over, he took the podium to thank his partner for the wonderful party she had made for him, and to thank his friends and his family for attending.

L. to r.: In the Great Hall apres dinner; Approaching the main exit entrance to the front door.

After dinner, the guests retired to the Great Hall for dancing and dessert and champagne and a tour, if they wished of Blenheim’s staterooms. At about one-thirty guests started thinking of the trek back to London although the champagne and music and dancing continued the distraction in this great private palace.

We got into a coach at about quarter to two, hardly the last of the stragglers, and were back in London by 3:30 a.m. I crawled into my very comfortable bed at the fabulous Lanesborough about quarter to four thinking how amazing life was that I would have the immense pleasure of visiting Blenheim for the first time in my life at a very grand party full of very grand people for a man of great accomplishments and friendship who was celebrating his 75th birthday. It was one of those thoughts where there’s nowhere else to go in one’s mind except … to sleep. A brilliant night behind me.

L. to r.: Daisy and Paul Soros; Edwina Sandys and Richard Kaplan; Raul Suarez and Gail Hilson.
L. to r.: Cecile Zilkha; Dalia Leeds and Sarah Lese.
L. to r.: Brenda Johnson, David Stockman, and Jeanne Lawrence; Bootsie Galbraith talking to Kip Forbes with Winston Churchill II on the far right.
L. to r.: Beth DeWoody in conversation; Georgette Mosbacher.
Mary McFadden.
L. to r.: Dinner in the Long Library; Countess and Earl Dudley.
Right: Susan Fales-Hill.
L. to r.: Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos; Jill Spalding, Desmond Guinness, and Audrey Gruss.
L. to r.: Rick Friedberg and Francine LeFrak; Denise Rich.
L. to r.: Barbara Tober and Daisy Soros; DPC and Mary, Lady Soames.
L. to r.: The Duke of Marlborough and Sharon Handler; Eva O’Neill.
L. to r.: Ambassador John Loeb and Henrietta Churchill; Lady Soames and Desmond Guinness.
L. to r.: Carol McFadden, Lorna Graev, and Michel David-Weill; Patrick Gerschel and Mme David-Weill.
L. to r.: Victoria Wyman; Preparing to exit.

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