Waldorf and Nancy Astor
A hundred years after Americans won the War of Independence, we Yanks began a British invasion –– not to conquer but to wed. America’s nouveau riches kept many grand British names from penury and kept their houses from the swing of the wrecker’s ball.
7th Baronet of Rufford
Exuberant Catalogue of Dreams: The Americans Who Revived the Country House in Britain chronicles the decades-long run of American fortunes funding the pleasures and palaces of British aristocracy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although Brooklyn girl Jennie Jerome had married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874, the book begins in 1880 when Sir Thomas George Fermor-Hasketh, 7th Baronet of Rufford, traveled to America on his yacht, captivated Flora Sharon and then sailed Flora and her $2,000,000, Comstock Load-generated dowry back to England. After that, the flow of American heiresses to Britain grew into a bejeweled, silk and satiny torrent –– heiresses like Consuelo Vanderbilt (with an astonishing $20,000,000 dowry) came to procure the prestige of a title and its attendant history and ancient estates. Let's face it, the varnish was barely dry on America's stately homes.
Edith Wharton called the women “buccaneers”–– adventuresses that came and waged pitched battles for titles using beauty, intelligence and cash (although sometimes the girl wasn’t the instigator, it was a scheming mother). The richest buccaneers were surrounded by flocks of titled suitors –– merely rich young ladies had to use their wiles to win husbands. There were great successes like Mary Leiter and Lord Curzon and monstrous, very public failures like Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough (I wrote about Leiter HERE).
Consuela Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough by John Singer Sargent
As a Country Life editor-at-large, author Clive Aslet is a well-trained observer of the comings and goings of the denizens of Britain’s stately homes –– he captures the milieu beautifully using the Country Life picture archives as well as his own astute observations:
“For their part, Europeans were equally struck by their visitors, particularly the type known as ‘the American girl’. She was almost unreservedly a good thing. She was likely to be better educated than her equivalent in Europe, where it seemed hardly worth spending money on educating female offspring because their future in life would be assured through marriage; it was thought –– wrongly, as the popularity of the American girl would prove that men were put off by signs of cleverness. On the contrary, it was considered delightful that the American girl could converse on a wide range of subjects. Nancy Astor exemplified, in heightened form, another characteristic of the American girl. She was thought to be livelier than any product of a British upbringing, having, in some cases, been allowed a greater degree of independence; the prospect of a misalliance was not so formidable in the United Stares as in the caste-bound aristocracy of Europe. Fault was not constantly being found with her, in terms of her failure to live up to inherited standards, or what the aristocratic code had laid down.”
“If the American girl offered a devastating combination of money, liveliness and quite possibly looks, the appeal of the British male had been assumed to rest in his title.”
It wasn't only American woman bobbing for titles and real estate, there were also rich American men who married titled women and couples who purchased grand houses and got titles all on their own (former American Waldorf Astor became a peer in 1916 and his wife Nancy Astor the first female MP).
Nancy Astor was certainly one of the wittiest members of the American invasion. She won over worried British ladies who asked, "Have you come to get our husbands?" by responding, "If you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine...." This endeared her to one and all –– well, perhaps not Winston Churchill. She seemed to have a special quiver of zingers just for him. What are my favorites? When asked what disguise Churchill should wear to a masquerade ball, she replied, "Why don't you come sober, Prime Minister?" And the most famous, "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea," to which he responded, "Madam, if you were my wife, I'd drink it!"
Nancy became one of the most celebrated hostesses of her day and Clivedon a meeting place for everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Gandhi. She used to jump on the back of TE Lawrence's motorcycle and speed off at 100 miles an hour when he came to visit and argue politics for hours with Prime Ministers. She was an original.
Approximately 60 American heiresses became peeresses for many reasons, sometimes even for love.
Because of Americans and their money, such palaces as Blenheim, Leeds Castle and Clivedon were saved from rot, restored and often enhanced. Horrified by the cold, damp inconvenience of their new palaces, the wealthy spouses also Americanized them by installing central heating, bathrooms and electricity. Although the rush of Americans came before WWI, they continued to come into Britain between the wars, influencing style as much as plumbing.
Blenheim Palace (Consuela Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough)
Leeds Castle (Olive Paget, Lady Baillie)
Clivedon (Waldorf and Nancy Astor, Viscount Astor)
From the 1930's on, the American Nancy Lancaster created what has come to be known as the English country house style. First on her own, then as a principal in the design firm of Colefax & Fowler.
Nancy Lancaster, wearing her Aunt Nancy Astor’s Tiara with the 55 carat Sancy Diamond
A NYT article about her said, “Long before she was recognized as a force in the world of decoration, Lancaster was just one of a swarm of children produced by the Langhorne sisters, effervescent Virginians whose daring horsemanship and hyperactive vivacity dominated Anglo-American society from the turn of the 19th century well into the 1950's.” Nancy Astor was her aunt. Thanks to her remarkable work at her home, Ditchley Park, she was reputed to have had "the finest taste of almost anyone in the world."
Nancy Lancaster believed in “pleasing decay” and would “spoil” new fabric by exposing it to the elements and scuffing it so that her rooms would look lived in. She would use much of what a great house already had and make it work with a few new pieces of furniture or decoration, a great paint job or wallpaper and fabrics. It was said the "YellowRoom" was comfortable for 2 or 50, quite an accomplishment. Her style continues to influence country houses today.
Nancy Lancaster’s Ditchley Park
Nancy Lancaster’s famous Yellow Room
There were long-term Anglophiles and then there were the dippers like Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst who came, rebuilt a castle at enormous expense and walked away –– they were just not that into the lifestyle.
Skibo Castle, Scotland
Carnegie re-built the ruins of Skibo Castle in Scotland to show off his enormous wealth to his hometown but then walked away (Skibo went from 16,000 to 60,000 sq. ft.). The house was too big for Mr and Mrs. Carnegie, neither of them were really comfortable there.
St. Donat’s Castle, Wales
Hearst bought St. Donat’s, a medieval castle with Victorian improvements that he then sunk a fortune into –– requiring 60 new bathrooms for his spoiled American house guests and embellishing it with bits of many other houses, including materials from Bradenstoke Priory, removed stone by stone and transferred it to St. Donats. “The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings” put up posters in the Underground warning against another possible Hearst-like outrage against England after news of the Bradenstoke destruction came to light. The poster read, “Protect Your Ancient Buildings.” Hearst shrugged the warning off but in the end walked away from the house after only a few visits with his movie star friends, catered by chefs from the Savoy and Claridges –– appropriately comfortable with indoor plumbing, hot water and lots of bathrooms as well as fine dining. Aristocratic house owners complained that American's plumbing upgrades forced them to do the same, ruinously expensive renovations –– once people enjoyed the comforts, the cold rooms and inconvenient bathrooms were distasteful.
Considering all that Americans had done to preserve ancient houses it seemed a bit petty to paint Americans with such a black brush. As I found out reading England's Lost Houses, England's native stately home owners were the ones responsible for demolishing their expensive white elephants and selling them for parts to anyone with the cash –– be they English or American, individual or institution.
Eccentric owners might not have demolished their properties, but some horrified the historic preservation crowd with their startling renovations.
Edward James and Igor Markevitch in the tent room by Norman Parkinson
One of these radical redecorators was Edward James –– a natural inductee to the colorful and storied soup of British eccentrics. Edward James, son of wealthy American Willie James of West Dean House was a champion of surrealism and a perfect example of Eccentricus-maximus.
Monkton House on the West Dean Estate
After his marriage to dancer Tilly Losch, James turned West Dean into an artistic escape for dancers, poets and artists who took to staging performances and cavorting over the many rooms. Monkton House, "became a Surrealist caprice, filled with self-conscious weirdness." James painted the house lavender and had Salvador Dali design some of the furniture (Edwin Lutyens had designed the charming arts and crafts cottage to be a cosy escape from the grand West Dean house for Willie James). When he and Losch parted he had the Monkton House carpet with her footprints on it replaced with those of his dog (she thought she had married a gay aristo, he was romantically in love with her). He tired of his life there, escaped from England and sold his magnificent collection of Surrealist art to finance the creation of the fabulous, Las Pozas in Mexico (there's a great video of him HERE).
A great new find was Henry "Chips" Channon, a bi-sexual super host-with-the-most in pre and post WWII England. Cole Porter played his piano –– everyone came to his parties. He said, "I have flair, intuition, great good taste.... I am riveted by lust, furniture, glamour, society and jewels." All the qualifications one would need to be a provocative host. It has been said that Somerset Maugham based his Elliot Templeton in Razor's Edge on Channon.
Chips Channon hailed from from Chicago. He had come to England during WWI and stayed to go to Oxford for a bit. He married Honor Guinness of the Guinness beer family.
Stéphane BoudinChannon hired Stéphane Boudin from Maison Jansen in Paris to decorate his newly acquired house at 5 Belgrave Square, London (the Upstairs Downstairs neighborhood). Just the ornamental plaster-work in the dining-room cost £6,000. "He is considered the greatest decorator in the world," Channon enthused when Boudin arrived with his plans. "I think it is going to be stupendous."
Boudin was really a thread throughout the book –– he had worked for many American transplants like Nancy Lancaster at Dichley Park, Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as well as Channon (and famously for Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House).
The famous blue and silver dining room, designed by Stéphane Boudin CL
The famous blue and silver dining room, designed by Stéphane Boudin with table leaves removed CL
Chips "... employed Stéphane Boudin to create a dining room inspired by the riotous rococo of the Amalienburg pavilion in the Nymphenburg Palace.... As he gushed... 'It will be a symphony in blue and silver... cascades of aquamarine. Will it be London's loveliest room or is my flame dead?'” As far as I know there are no color photos of the room which was by all accounts a knockout. His 25' table went up for sale at Southebys in 2011.
In a review of the 2003 The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon, the Telegraph shared some amusing anecdotes:
“When he had the Queens of Spain and Romania round to dinner at Belgrave Square in 1947, he laced the cocktails with benzedrine "which I always find," he languidly observed "makes a party go."
“Of Channon, Lady Diana Cooper declared that "never was there a surer or more enlivening friend." And she recalled his unmistakable style: "He installed the mighty in his gilded chairs and exalted the humble," she sighed. "He made the old and tired, the young and strong, shine beneath his thousand lighted candles."”
Her husband Duff Cooper thought he was a toady and Noel Coward didn’t like his taste, “Very grand and rather agony.” However, most enjoyed him and his hospitality (maybe it was the benzedrine?).
1944 Kitchen from neighboring 11a Belgrave Square – not very luxurious CL
"Faced with austerity, Chips put on a brave face. Nevertheless, coupon rationing and shortages didn't quite seem to apply to him, and Chips spent as freely as ever. Delicacies were less than plentiful. Still, a typical menu at Scholss Chips, even as London tightened its belt, might include oysters, salmon, dressed crab and minced chicken, or blinis and platefuls of caviar, served with Swedish schnapps. In between, brandy and Champagne, Chips' favorite party drink at £3 a bottle, flowed."
Ah yes, time to think about food, isn't it? Even with all the grand houses and parties, Chip's seems a good place to land when thinking of something to eat –– lobster came to mind.
Chips Channon seemed fond of lobster. In The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon he recalls having champagne with lobster ice cream with Ribbentrop and writes that a friend likened some Lobster Newberg he was eating to a "purée of white kid gloves" –– you have to admit that is a provocative image.
I love Lobster Newberg but made it for you HERE so I didn't want to repeat myself. I thought lobster was a fitting offering to American buccaneers of both sexes. Named after a colorful 19th century character known for his flamboyant bisexuality, Lobster à la Hervey seems a perfect choice for a little soiree at Chez Channon or for a guilty pleasure to nibble on your own while you enjoy the book. What's more decadent than delicate bits of lobster with a creamy madeira-scented sauce accented with apple croquettes –– I love the idea of the tart/sweet crisp apple accent to the rich dish that's actually a breeze to make. The recipe is American from Delmonicos cookbook and fitting for an American to serve in London. I decided to use only the tail because it is, let's face it, the best part.
I also added a bit of vanilla because for some reason, vanilla and lobster are fabulous together. The first time I had it in Paris I was in love –– just a hint though, more is cloying.
Toast the buccaneers and the houses they saved so we can enjoy them today!
Lobster à la Hervey
2 lobster tails, removed from shell and sliced into rounds
1 T butter
1 small D'Artagnan truffle, sliced or truffle oil to taste (a few drops should do it)
1 T madeira (I used The Rare Wine Company's Moniz Vedelho)
1 T D'Artagnan demi-glace
1/2 c cream
1 egg yolk
S&P to taste
a drop or 2 of vanilla to taste –– just a hint is all you want
1/8 to 1/4 t cayenne
6-8 1" apple croquettes
Put the sliced truffle in the madeira and demi-glace and let it sit while you prepare the lobster.
If you are not using truffles, just combine the madeira and the demi-glace.
Sauté the lobster slices gently in butter over low heat, remove when just done (3-5 minutes, high heat makes lobster tough).
Add the cream and reduce a bit. Remove from heat and whisk in the egg yolk. Do not let it get too hot or it will curdle. Add the spices, salt and pepper. Warm the truffles. Pour off the madeira mixture and add to the sauce. Toss the lobster in the sauce to coat. Place the slices of lobster on the plate and insert the truffles if you are using them. Add the apple croquettes to the plate.
1 medium apple, cored peeled and chopped into small pieces
1 T butter
1/2 to 1 t sugar for a medium sweet apple, more for a Granny Smith
1 c bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
oil for frying (duck fat is great for this but a light oil is fine)
Sauté the apple in the butter until softened. Add the sugar to taste (you don't want it too sweet - just enough to take the edge off).
Make about 6 1" size balls -- they will be loose. Roll them in the bread crumbs, then in the egg and then back in the bread crumbs. Fry till brown and crisp and reserve.