Remembering my favorite Churchill

Featured image
Lady Sarah Spencer Churchill surveying her lair in the hills above Montego Bay, Jamaica, New Year's, 1980.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Another pleasant day in New York yesterday, with temps in the low to mid-70, not much humidity and a continuing possibility of rain. These have been very pleasant days in the city.

It’s been quiet (which is fine with me) but quiet isn’t that readable if you catch my drift. Then, fate knocked.

I got an email inquiring about Lady Sarah Churchill. NYSD readers may recall that Sarah was a friend who at an important moment in my life as a writer, made a big difference. Looking through the archives, I found a couple of Diaries that I’d written about her, after her death in 2000. After re-reading them, so much came back to mind.

In 1978, I’d decided to move my life to Los Angeles and embark on a life as a writer professionally. I’d sold a small business I had in Westchester and packed up my belongings and with my dog and five cats, moved West.

A corner of the living room in Content, Lady Sarah’s Jamaican villa overlooking Montego, a watercolor by Bob Schulenberg. The photograph in the frame was in reality of Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, inscribed to Lady Sarah after the Queen Mother’s visit to Content.

A couple of weeks before my departure, some friends of mine gave me a going away present in the form of a “reading” by Dezia Restivo here in New York who was a numerologist and read the Tarot. I knew nothing about either talents except what everyone knows: the future is in their hands, or head.

Dezia is an English lady with a sunny and gregarious personality, and she liked people. So she read my cards and did my numbers. As she looked at the  cards spread out before her, referring to the move I was about to make, she said: “You’re going to meet a woman who is royalty, or like royalty. And she is wearing rose colored glasses and has houses on three oceans …”

Well, that sounded pretty exotic, or more like an opening for an adventure novel and not the life of this New England boy.

But Dezia was right. About six months later, now living in Los Angeles, I met Sarah. That first night, she was in a reception line, a tall, imposing presence, blonde and well coiffed wearing rose colored glasses. She was not “royal,” she had presence we imagine a royal might have (and rarely do, just like the rest of us). More than the tint of her glasses, they gave her that European woman appearance which suggests mystery somewhere in there.

Sarah and Sparky, her Jack Russell, Beverly Hills, Christmas 1980.

It so happened, that at that moment in her life she did indeed have three houses – Greece, Jamaica, and Los Angeles – all of which overlooked an ocean.

Anyway, all of this came back from that email inquiring about Sarah, and so I decided to share this since it’s a helluva lot more interesting than what’s going on in New York on these cold winter weekend days at the end of January …

Sarah and I met in Los Angeles in the late ’70s, through a mutual friend, Luis Estevez. I’d recently moved there and Sarah had moved there only a couple years before. Coincidentally, her last apartment in New York from which she moved West, was across the avenue from where I live now.

At the time we met she was about to separate (unwillingly) from her third husband whom she’d been married to for thirteen years. She was in her mid-fifties and very distressed about his leaving. I was in my late thirties and embarking on a brand new life/career in a new place and a new world. We were in not dissimilar states of mind, anxiously anticipating the future. We became fast friends, so much so that Sarah saw possibilities of replacing her departing husband with a new one: me. I squelched that idea immediately but our friendship grew intensely nevertheless.

We were first introduced at a black tie charity gala, funnily enough (a very rare experience for me in those days; very). There were roulette tables where chips were obtained by donation to the cause. I was very lucky that night and raking it in. Sarah, standing right next to me, was soon wiped out. Seeing her situation, I pushed half my chips over to her. This mere moment impressed her mightily, I later learned. Sarah was used to being on the giving/donor side to the point that it never occurred to her that someone might give her something (wills and last testaments notwithstanding).

Our relationship was purely platonic although it took on spousal dimensions in a variety of ways. In Beverly Hills, those dimensions resembled in some ways the lives in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” the ultimate story of Hollywood.

I, the struggling writer looking to launch a career; she, the British aristocrat (American citizen), Vanderbilt heiress, multi-married, and a big liver of life. She hatched an idea for us: she wanted to write a memoir. She would need a ghostwriter.

Sparky a/k/a Boyzie on the terrace of Sarah’s house on Lloydcrest Drive in Beverly Hills.

We put together a first chapter and outline and Marianne Strong, the literary agent here in New York got us a deal. What a break for me! Then Sarah reneged. She suddenly wasn’t sure she wanted to write a “life” story. She decided she’d rather write a cookbook. She was an enthusiastic cook and high on the improv side and broad on details (her most famous dish was a salmon garnished and wrapped in aluminum foil and run through one full cycle in the dishwasher).

So the book never got written. She got divorced. She sold her house in Beverly Hills and moved back East to Florida and Connecticut. She had a very restless side although she gave it a form. She liked moving, traveling. Two or three weeks in one place was enough for Sarah. For much of her life she had more than one residence, sometimes three or four in different places. This required her constant attention and a handy excuse when needed for her traveling hither and yon.

In the 1960s and ’70s she was a frequent guest of Aristotle Onassis on his Christina. It was in Grecian waters that she met her third (and last) husband, a very handsome Greek. He was 22 and she was 44. Love in the afternoon. She built a big house on the Peloponnese for them. Years later he tried dismantling as much of it as possible when he couldn’t get it in a divorce settlement, right down to the doorknobs off the doors. She put it back together and later sold it to a rich Arab.

Lady Sarah Consuelo Spencer-Churchill. This sketch of Sarah in repose captures a side that was rarely seen by most who came in contact with her. Illustration by Bob Schulenberg.

By the 1990s Sarah was living in Old Lyme, Connecticut, divested entirely of her multi-residences, including Jamaica, and continuing to travel frequently either to new places or to see friends and family. If she weren’t traveling, she was entertaining often with a houseful of guests. To be a guest of hers was to be in her life. I felt very close to her, intimately close to her, the way one feels with a sibling or a mate.

However, it may be that many people felt very close to Sarah. It was a big personality, all-encompassing, charming, pugilistic; a gusto of Churchillian karma. To be around it was to know it. And she shared everything. She helped herself to it also, but nothing material ever had a value greater than sharing for her. She loved dogs. Jack Russells. Abounding.

The following was written shortly after her unexpected death shortly before her 78th birthday. The house in Old Lyme needed to be painted. Sarah called around for estimates. The lowest one she got was $8000. Ridiculous in her mind. “Maureen and I can do it,” she said to friends.

Maureen was the young Jamaican woman who was her housekeeper. Sarah bought her a condo and got her two small children into the country so they could live with their mother. The two women started the job by taking down all the shutters, scraping them down and applying a new coat of paint. It wasn’t a tiny house. There were quite a few shutters. They had just finished the shutters a few days before Sarah went in for her surgery. She never came out; she died on the operating table by accident.

Maureen was very upset by Sarah’s death. “It wasn’t her time!” she insisted. “She had much much more to do.” Ironically, Maureen was killed instantly in an automobile accident only a little more than a year later.

May 16, 2001 — She was attracted to the Caribbean when she reached majority (and was married) because she was allowed to spend the income from her small trust in pounds, but not in dollars. Her father, the duke of Marlborough, and so many other British friends, including Noël Coward, as well as American friends, went to Jamaica. She was also attracted to the island culture, and visited often.

Sarah loved Jamaica. Her heart was really there, more than anyplace else, for most of her life. She loved Content, her hillside estate above the village of Reading, outside Montego. The property had originally been a fort built in 1732. By the 1960s, Montego Bay, with Round Hill and Tryall, was one of the stops for the jet setters and international nomads. The great yachts all made the stop. It was very British, very Colonial.

Lady Sarah’s Villa Content, Montego Bay, Jamaica.

I think Sarah bought Content in the mid-60s from a very elderly British baronet. It sat at the end of a long circular driveway, a deceivingly small looking one-story white stucco house almost buried in bougainvillea. When you entered, it transformed into a quite large house of two stories (it was hillside) with seven or eight bedrooms and bathrooms, and wide, comfortable public rooms, with wood or tiled floors. All overlooking a magnificent sweeping view of the island below and the Caribbean.

There were always houseguests. They were entertained by large dinner parties that she’d have, or large ones she’d be invited to, bringing her dozen houseguests along with her. There was the party she was invited to when she not only brought her houseguests, but also the piano, so that one of her houseguests could entertain.

Poolside at Content, overlooking the Caribbean.

Dozens, scores, probably hundreds came over the years. Clementine Churchill came to stay when Sir Winston died. Sarah called her friend Noël and asked him to come over to visit, to cheer her up. In the mid-70s, the young John Kennedy, Jr. came with school chums and Secret Service. Everybody else came too. Prince Andrew came for R&R after the Falklands. The Queen Mum, stars of stage and screen, as well as politicians, writers, hairdressers, manicurists, carpenters, interior decorators, friends of friends, their children.

Jamaica was in many ways a rather primitive place, compared to American standards. It was very British for the whites, big old houses, kept up, but nothing extravagant. Just damned useful. Everything had to be brought in from the mainland: appliances, parts, auto parts, foods, wines, dry goods. Things were often in need of patching up. Sarah liked this kind of roughing it. She was often shipping things in to upgrade the place.

Loading the piano into a van to be transported to the Ourisman’s for New Year’s Eve at Tryall.

The house was very old. The modern “conveniences” were all added over the years and quite improvisationally. Sarah never spent any more than she had. After her grandmother died (in 1964), she became a wealthy woman. Not rich, but wealthy. Sarah ran her house with a staff of five or six, including a Jamaican butler/major domo named Alty, who came with the house, along with his wife, the housekeeper, Melvia.

Melvia was, according to Sarah, a Communist, and as much as Sarah hated the Communists, and as aristocratically sure she was of her position in life, (her friends often called her “The General” on the island), Sarah was intimidated by Melvia. Alty was one thing (and of course he made a great rum drink that all the guests got plastered on), for he was a man. And men needed to be straightened out. But Sarah didn’t tussle with her maid, Melvia.

View of Montego from the old fort.

Sarah loved a big dinner party. These pictures were taken over the Christmas holidays in the early 1980s, when she went down to Montego from her then home in Beverly Hills, with ten houseguests, from New York, Dallas, and mainly California.

Sarah’s house parties were always very active and full of surprises. One night she had sixty for dinner. Two long tables in the dining room and on the terrace under a great tamarind tree. The menu was typically English — meat and potatoes — and the wine something Lady Sarah was able to wrest from the meager supplies (at the right price) of the local wine merchant. Having inherited a vast supply (more than one service for sixty) of china and silver from her grandmother, everyone had the proper place setting.

Troubadours Jamaica arrive to get the party dancing.

Lady Sarah sat at the head of one long table. It wasn’t unlike her to re-direct conversation (they didn’t call her “The General” for nothing) amongst the guests if she felt they weren’t mixing equally (“Mary, you’ve been talking long enough to Jennifer, talk to Tom!”). Sarah’s guests, no matter who they were, or how long they had known her, followed orders.

After dessert, everyone left the tables for demitasse in the living room and sunroom. It must have been about eleven; a bright warm moonlit Jamaica night. Windows all open, the bougainvillea framing their casements, outside, in the distance, from another part of the forest, one could hear the jubilant percussion of reggae music makers making a party somewhere. Shortly, it seemed that the music and the party were closer. Within minutes, the music was on the property — what was it? — and soon thereafter, at the door … and then bursting in, shattering the clatter of conversations.

Lady Sarah and tropical guests in the dance (DPC in the background).

In danced three Jamaican troubadours, playing and singing, dancing in a line around the living room and dining room. Soon the guests were following them. Then the whole house was dancing to the pied pipers of reggae, a kind of lighthearted pandemonium. Who were these people? From out of nowhere, playing and singing in the Lady’s house.

There was no time to stop and ask; it was: just dance! Which we did. For a whirl of fifteen or twenty minutes. When suddenly, the troubadours, still playing, moved from the living room to the dining room, to the front hallway, still dancing … then out the front door, and down the driveway, with their music slowly fading back into the distant night, to another part of the forest, until there was silence once again. It happened so quickly and so “spontaneously,” these dancing music makers, that none of us realized until it was over, that it had been perfectly planned and scheduled by Sarah, to revive her guests after dinner and set the celebratory tone for the night.

Lady Sarah and Bob Schulenberg.

The pictures tell only a small part of the story. This was a very difficult time in Sarah’s life and there was much sadness about. Her third husband of more than thirteen years had only a few months before left her for a much younger woman.

The separation and divorce was already heating up to be very messy, for the husband (for whom she moved to California to support his business ventures — that eventually failed spectacularly) was suing for a big chunk of her assets. She had been not only abandoned but felt deeply betrayed by his legal actions.

She was fifty-eight, and broken-hearted probably for the first time in her life. The lawsuits (which she finally won) took years to settle, so there would be many disappointments ahead. Life, nevertheless, went on, and Sarah was not one to get off the train. She kept moving forward.

Upon Sarah’s Death, published October 18, 2000 — She was a very tall woman with an imposingness, a take-charge personality that was direct, and could be both charming and disarming.

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).

Lady Sarah Churchill, the “royal lady who wears rose-colored glasses and has houses on three oceans.” This photo was taken about a year before Sarah died.

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 became the duke when his father died), and a brother Lord Charles who was a later arrival — twenty years after Sarah). The sisters were  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 by the time she was a teen-ager, 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, comparing the duchess to Sarah’s mother and her friends, she 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.

Sarah’s “Grannie,” otherwise known as Consuelo Vanderbilt.

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.

The first Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, by Charles Jervas, after 1714.

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, whose daughter Lady Henrietta Spencer did inherit the title becoming the Duchess of Marlborough.

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.”

Kensington Palace, where Sarah and Anne met for the last time, as it looked at the time of Queen Anne.

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.

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