Like most of the other writers we’ve interviewed, James Reginato, writer-at-large for Vanity Fair and former features director of W magazine, is much happier being on the other side of the tape recorder. However he has a wonderful new book to promote, Great Houses Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli) so he might have to get used to it, although that said, he probably hasn’t done many interviews in his bedroom—Jeff had to shoot his living room and we had to get out.
With a few exceptions, the focus of the book is upon current generations of aristocratic families who, together with the help of the National Trust, have revived many of the great houses of Britain, making them vibrant and relevant for the modern era. Apparently some of the people featured in the book were somewhat uncomfortable at being called “aristocrats” but there’s no escaping their extraordinary family histories or their beautiful houses, which haunt them even after they’ve collapsed into a pile of rubble. The gilded privilege, the frequent tragedy, the financial ruin and the eccentricity that only the posh can get away with—all of it is magnetically interesting no matter your political views on class or caste. While the photographs are richly detailed and gorgeous, this is one of those few coffee table books that also deserves to be read.
We loved your book—and it does need to be read, not just looked at. Each story in each section could be a mini-series! In some senses I wondered if that was a double-edged sword because it makes it fun to report but then you have to condense it all—how did you manage?
I know … all of these houses and all of these people … it makes it hard to report and you’ve got to focus. You’ve got to pick one thread and kind of follow it. I tried to put all these houses and the families in perspective and then bring it back to the present day. I’m fascinated by these families and why it is that they’ve been able to keep going for so long under these same roofs. I really do think there’s something special in all these people. I do think they must have something special in their genes.
This is what struck me. To have these houses in the first place you have got to be an exceptional person—not necessarily a likeable or a good person. This is the person who, in the 1300s or whenever, starts off these families. But what also struck me is that the current generation in this book seem quite … sane and level-headed.
They’ve got to be. These people now taking over these estates have got to be very level-headed to manage them—I mean they’re such big businesses. They find different ways to make them relevant. The Earl of March and Kinrara who owns Goodwood House has made it into this car mecca and the Earl of Burlington at Lismore has opened this contemporary art gallery. The Marquess of Cholmondeley is also doing contemporary art installations at Houghton Hall. Not all of them are open to the public but a lot of them have some portion open to the public. They get some tax benefits for being open to the public. They’ve got to attend to the box office as it were and they are all incredibly creative and resourceful. The upkeep of these houses is just never-ending.
They’ve turned them into entertainment as you say. How do they stop a place from turning into a theme park, you know, the car parks and the gift shops and so on?
Oh, you mean not turn them into Disneyland? Well some of these establishments are so much larger than others, like Chatsworth is an enormous operation. It was interesting that Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire, as you probably know, was crazy about Elvis and she was fascinated to go to Graceland to see how they maintained the crowd control—she thought there were certain similarities between Graceland and Chatsworth.
I like that comparison. It seemed that the generation before this current generation suffered more because they didn’t have the financial back up of the National Trust to keep up the houses and also, I suppose they came from all the worst of that repressed upper class thing and those awful boarding schools. Some of them were tragic figures.
That’s exactly right. This guy … [he points to Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, known as Nick, who is on the cover of the book. His father, who had become deeply depressed over the course of his life, was murdered by a prostitute he had recently married; an older brother who had inherited the estate died shortly after the murder and not long after that, Nick broke his back in a riding accident] My feeling is the fact that he is still standing is kind of amazing. Not only that he’s standing but he’s really triumphed. This house was shut up for fifty years. He absolutely said his father’s generation was the one that was caught in the middle. And even though his father in a way abandoned the whole place, he doesn’t feel in any way bitter towards his father. The house for his father was just a big albatross. Nick was then able to realize that there was a way to make the house bring money in.
Yes, it didn’t seem to occur to the previous generation—in part, you have to say that was also because of class—bringing money in wasn’t really what was “done”.
Also the National Trust really didn’t exist—there was no support for these houses.
I suppose for many of the families in this book, they’ve changed their whole outlook on what it is to be an aristocrat—do you think that’s true?
Yes. I don’t think as a class, they’re vilified as maybe they used to be. I think it’s like costume drama—people seem them as real-life Downton Abbey. It’s funny, [when we put] “aristocrat” in the title of the book, a few of them were not happy with it. One of them said, “Ugh, if I’d known you were going to have ‘aristocrat’ in the title, I wouldn’t have done it.” In the end he came round. He was very gracious about it.
Who was that?
I’d prefer not to say.
What do you think appeals so strongly to Americans about Downton Abbey?
You know, there’s a sort of longevity … a lot of Americans can’t quite differentiate between royals and aristocrats and they just sort of lump them together. I think Americans are fascinated by the long-standing privileges they’ve had and the traditions. These people—they have amazing style. Oftentimes it’s very low key style but it’s the product of hundreds of years of good breeding and they do things very impeccably.
But it’s not necessarily impeccable—it can be sort of disheveled too.
Yes … there’s this certain effortlessness. They just do things in a way that looks right.
Of course there is the irony that a lot of these houses were saved by American money.
That’s true—Blenheim most notably. They needed constant infusions of cash.
So you must have had to go after a lot of people to get your subjects.
[It] required great diplomacy to get in the door. It took years. One person would give me an introduction to another person.
How did you keep track of all the lineages and intermarriages—did you have a spreadsheet?
I did actually! It’s hard! So many of these people are related to each other. I was always amazed in doing my reporting … you really do need a chart.
Did you occasionally feel, when you were doing this, the need to run away to a cozy pub or something? Some of these places are so overwhelming.
[Laughs] Um … yes and no … but you know the wing where they live [for example at Blenheim] is surprisingly cozy. I was surprised by how comfortably one could live in all this grandeur … you get used to it I guess!
Why did you decide to do Dudley House? [owned by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani] I thought it was wonderful. It’s a riot!
I thought that was an interesting example of someone somewhat emulating the English and paying homage to it. He was sort of outdoing the English. He took the English style and went to town with it. It really is the only intact private non-royal palace in London. And [the royal family] welcome it.
I didn’t know there was that much antique stuff in the universe—it makes Howard Slatkin’s apartment look minimalist.
The Queen apparently said to him, “This place makes Buckingham Palace look rather dull.”
In which of these houses could you live in yourself?
Luggala is just so divine. It’s [a] hunting lodge in southern Ireland. It’s got five thousand acres of beautiful property but the house itself is fairly snug. David Mlinaric restored it but he kept the original spirit of it. He said, “We’re going to change it but keep it exactly the same.” I do love the gothic style and it’s got a quirkness to it. In terms of just architecture, Haddon Hall is perfection.
Whose company did you enjoy the most?
Oh … that’s going to get me into trouble. I really enjoyed Ned Lambton a lot, at Villa Cetinale. Edith Wharton—I have her quote in the book—when she visited this place, she described it as “one of the celebrated pleasure houses of its day.”
And I got the impression you enjoyed Pamela Hicks—I loved her offering you a whisky at noon.
You know what? These people enjoy life, I have to say. I could listen to her for days and days.
And so here is my British question: how many pairs of thermal underwear did you pack in order to traverse the icy wastes of a drawing room of an English country house—or to survive the night in one of the bedrooms?
Well, some of them did have hot water bottles, which came in handy. Fortunately we shot most of them in the summer.
That makes no difference! Did your breath hang on the air whenever you spoke?
For a couple of them I did bundle up considerably. I did remember them being quite chilly. I do think the younger generation is getting a little tired of that. But the one thing that does drive me crazy is separate taps for hot and cold. I love everything British and English except for that.
I would think this book is doing well—is it doing well?
It is. There’s already a second printing and there’s talk of a third. I was on Amazon yesterday—I’ve just posted it on my Facebook—and I am number two in the Residential Architecture category behind a book called “Cabin Porn.” I don’t know how I can compete with a book with “porn” in the title.
Yeah … your interviewees would probably have been even less keen on “Aristocrat Porn.”
Probably not. There are a couple of boobs. [see page 75]