Wednesday, October 26, 2022. Rainy days, temps in the high 50s to high 60s, often overcast, sometimes sunny bright with periods of rain, sometimes misty, sometimes light and sometimes heavy. Mild really, for November just around the corner.
Lunch at Michael’s. When people ask if New York has come back, I would say yes and we’re all caught in traffic in midtown on any weekday in Manhattan. In my neighborhood the schools are open and active. Mid-afternoon it is a traffic jam for three blocks, the big yellow school buses, the SUVs, and the better part of an hour. If you’re driving through it, it’s frustrating (one lane only stuff). But if you live here, it’s a reminder of the better things in all our lives whether we notice it or not.
Today, this evening in fact, down in Huntsville, Alabama, at the Huntsville Museum of Art, there’s a dinner with a guest speaker. It is part of an ongoing program for members under the category of Voices of Our Times. I bring this up because I am aware of the good work of the Huntsville museum, and specifically because tonight’s guest speaker is Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill.
I am a fan of Henrietta, and when I think of her I think of what she represents in terms of family heritage. Because it’s a particularly grand one as history, as well as tabloidal.
I met Henrietta years ago when I was living in Los Angeles and a dramatic houseguest of Lady Sarah Spencer Churchill who was Henrietta’s paternal aunt. The names of both women go back in the family to the 17/18th century when the first Sarah, a close friend of Queen Anne, and a strong powerful personality who asked for and got. The first Sarah had a daughter named Henrietta who married Lord Spencer, an 18th century ancestor of 20th century’s Princess Diana.
Family history. The first duke — who defeated Louis XIV’s army in the Battle of Blenheim, hence the name of the Churchill palace — and the duchess also had a son. But the son died before his father. Marlborough was a new dukedom back in the 18th century, and there was no male heir to carry on the title. So when the first Duke died, his eldest daughter, Henrietta became Duchess of Marlborough.
In the beginning right through the first half of the 19th century the dukes of Marlborough were Spencers. Around that time, one of the dukes directly related to the duchess was harried by family debts. They all lived well and famously, but they were a family whose fortunes basically came from marriage. A serious financial affaire. Today’s Henrietta’s great-grandmother Consuelo Vanderbilt brought today’s fortune with the marriage back in 1895 to refill the family coffers for the entire century.
Consuelo was a very young and sheltered 18 when her mother Alva Vanderbilt forced her to marry the 9th Duke who was in his 20s and in the market for a major financial solution to the family coffers. Consuelo’s father William K. Vanderbilt set up a number of trusts for the family and the palace that is open for peering and for business.
Seeing the news about Henrietta’s speaking tonight reminded me of the family whom I came to know through her aunt. Lady Sarah had what I think of as “world class personality.” That included the good and the bad and the charm to turn it into something bigger than life. She was a pleasantly serious Lady, tall and forthright. She was curious about the world, and one to check it out whenever the opportunity came her way. Years after meeting her, I happened to be reading a biography of John Churchill, the first Duke, when I came upon a chapter about the First Sarah the duchess.
It was paragraph describing the personality of the first Sarah — a very strong personality, power-oriented, driven, clever and in no way passive for a woman of her era. After reading it, I called my friend Schulenberg on the phone and re-read the paragraph to him; and then asked him who he thought it was.
“That’s easy,” he said, “that’s Sarah. What’s the book?” I explained that it was Sarah but NOT the one he knew personally but the one who lived 300 years ago. Same name; same personality.
Lady Henrietta. From that first meeting 40 years ago, I’ve seen her occasionally over the years; and once at Blenheim. I’m not a traveler but I see her here frequently. She has a prosperous international business that extends beyond just interior design. She’s a worker although she wears it matter-of-factly, even pleasantly. She’s written several books on the properties and the subject. She lectures, as she’s doing tonight in Huntsville, Alabama. It’s a very active business life.
She also is actively involved in the preservation and upkeep of the ancestral palace. There is very much a sense of it being part of her life. Since she also grew up there she has a strong, personal sense of the place. It’s a monument now, and made more interesting by the family that has owned and occupied it for more than three centuries. It’s been one of those families where the female line has kept it on the track. From an historical point of view, this Henrietta, the 21st century version, the modern woman.