James Reginato

Featured image

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.

Click to order Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats.

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.

The façade of James’s Greenwich Village home, which was built in 1845.
Geraniums are still blooming in the window boxes.
An oversized Fornasetti ceramic foot stands guard at the front door.

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.

A view across the living room. Upon purchasing the apartment ten years ago, James enlisted the help of friends Stephen Sills and James Huniford.
A bust of Shakespeare purchased from Robert Kime stands atop one of a pair of bookcases from Louis Bofferding.
The pedestal, used as a small table, came from the Marché aux Puces; the magazine rack is by Fornasetti.
A pastel of the Grand Canal in Venice, bought at the Marché aux Puces, hangs above the doorway to the bath.
Silver candlesticks, a gift from designer Michael Smith, stand on either side of a portrait also found at the Marché aux Puces. James purchased the star-shaped lantern while on a trip to Rome.
Covering the fireplace opening is an oil painting purchased at the 26th Street flea market.
The small Victorian side table came from the former summer home of the architect, Lee Mindel.
Two scrimshaw whale teeth from Nantucket are arranged with shells, a tin lighthouse and a pair of fresh pineapples, a symbol of welcome and hospitality.

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.

The bust of Homer was purchased on Portobello Road. A small Noguchi lamp balances on a stack of books.

The painted console upon which the TV is placed, came from a dealer in Massachusetts.

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.

An iron sunburst mirror from Hemisphere Gallery in London hangs above a painting of the Pantheon purchased in Rome. The Gothic Revival chair also came from Lee Mindel’s former summer house in Southampton.

A bright pink azalea topiary from Zeze Flowers adds a dash of color.

A photograph of Eudora Welty by Bruce Weber is propped up against the wall in a corner of the living room.

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!

Looking towards the dining area and open kitchen.
Two views of Mt. Vesuvius bought at a market in the Piazza Borghese in Rome hang above a painted pedestal from an antiques store in Massachusetts.

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.

Peeking into the bedroom. The silk curtains are from Michael Smith’s “Jasper” line.
More books and a Burmese lacquered offering vessel from Cambodia share space with Hermes boxes, a still life painting and the all-important US passport.

A reflection of the bedroom in a round mirror purchased from Design Within Reach.
Bedtime reading.
A framed antique wallpaper image hangs above a plaster seal by Anthony Redmile and a silhouette from an antiques store in Massachusetts.
Fall maple leaves are displayed in a Murano glass vase.
Gucci loafers are arranged neatly near the bedroom clothes chest.

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.

The master bath.
A souvenir from the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II is now a toothbrush holder.

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]

From Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Principal Photography by Jonathan Becker): From The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, “Debo” Mitford, who died in 2014, moved from the 297 rooms of Chatsworth to the eight-bedroom Old Vicarage in 2005. “The luxury of having everything so small–it’s amazing!”
The Smoking Room in the Bachelors Wing of Waddesdon Manor, restored by David Mlinaric in 1994.
The Saloon, one of the magnificent state rooms at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England.
A collection of gold and enamel boxes in the fifty-foot square ballroom of Dudley House, owned by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani.
The conservatory of Dudley House that overlooks Hyde Park.
Luggala, the hunting lodge in County Wicklow, Ireland, that belongs to The Honorable Garech Browne and is one of James’s favorite houses.

Recent Posts