Monday, May 31, 2021

Gladys Deacon, Duchess of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace and Apple Meringue

     Gladys Deacon, 1908 by Giovani Boldini

After 5 years of a teasing and tantalizing pregnancy, Julian Fellowes is finally birthing/filming his Gilded Age series this year for HBO. Set in the Newport and New York of the 1870s and 80s, it’s a cakewalk through the America that gave us Cora of Downton Abbey -- an America of newly minted, Anglo-mad heiresses that have been beckoning to Lord Fellowes since he started down the Downton Abbey road over a dozen years ago - compelling him to investigate their spawning ground and spin his addictive, gilded-thread story webs.

The French statesman George Clemenceau observed that, “America is the only nation in history which, miraculously, has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.” In the late 19th and early 20th century, many highly pedigreed British families may have agreed with Clemenceau’s assessment but held their noses and took the new, before-the-ink-was-dry money for their titles. It will be a blast to see where Julian goes with it. I hope it encourages you to dig around on your own... it's an amazing time.

Celebrating Gilded Age gives me an excuse to visit an eccentric American/Anglo connection very different from the one that bought British titles and saved ancient family piles from rack and ruin with infusions of massive amounts of nouveau riche American cash. 

John Singer Sargent – Duke of Marlborough & Consuelo Vanderbilt 1905

I’ve investigated a few American heiresses and the British aristocrats who benefited from their family’s largesse before, and have a passing familiarity with the landscape (Here and Here) Today, most of those “dollar princesses ” have been forgotten. For the most part, once-famous family names and the sources of their vast wealth have dissolved into the tarnished murk of history – Work (Wall Street), or Leiter (commerce and real estate) or Jerome (Finance) are only known to their descendants and a few history nerds. I’m going to go down a different, slightly less gilded, fork in that road.

A good friend has been pushing me to read about Gladys Deacon for years and I finally picked up the Hugo Vickers biography, The Sphinx (Vickers wrote the original biography in the 70s but went back and revised it a few years ago with new information and fewer objections from the now deceased characters – an opportunity few writers have). He was right, it was right up my alley and Gladys had quite a ride -- from minor heiress to Duchess. The quotes are all taken from Vickers’ book (links for all the books at the bottom).

This American was not ridiculously rich - she was instead brilliant and beautiful. Gladys Deacon was to become the Duchess of Marlborough after Consuelo Vanderbilt vacated the position. She was 40 by the time she became the duchess, although she had been the Duke of Marlborough - Charles Spencer-Churchill’s on and off mistress for many years.

 Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough -Boldini

Consuelo separated from the Duke in 1907. She disliked him, but waited to divorce him until she found a replacement –– and that took 14 years. Consuelo finally married a rich aviator – and wrote a popular book about her fabulous life – The Glitter and the Gold. It pilloried the Duke but a recently discovered letter revealed that she lied about the multiple affairs she carried on during their marriage and neglected to mention the pained acquiescence of the Duke to those affairs. He was fully aware she was in love with another man when they married and at least one of his heirs wasn’t his child.  He did it to rescue Blenheim. She did it because her mother forced her to do it.

Gladys and her Duke (you can see them on film HERE)

Remaining married hadn’t been a requirement to keeping the marriage purse – the Vanderbilt fortune had rescued the Duke’s crumbling kingdom with an obscenely large dowry that included yearly payments no matter what happened to the Vanderbilt union. His family’s palace was secure, so his marriage to Gladys was for love and/or attraction. She had come into his life in 1901 and bewitched both the Duke and the Duchess. Sadly, it wasn’t happily-ever-after when the long-awaited marriage finally came to pass in 1921.

                              Helleu drawing

Before that marriage, Gladys had enjoyed a very rich and interesting life. In a way, once she had achieved what had been foretold by a fortune teller when she was a child, it was downhill from there – it had literally been her life’s ambition. The means to fulfill the prophecy came soon after. “In October 1895, when she was fourteen, Gladys spotted an item in the newspapers that changed her life. She wrote to her mother: I suppose you have read about the engagement of the Duke of Marlborough. O dear me if I was only a little older I might ‘catch’ him yet! But Hélas! I am too young though mature in the ways of women’s witchcraft and what is the use of the one without the other? And I will have to give up all chance to ever get Marlborough.”

Florence Baldwin Deacon, Boldini

Florence Baldwin Deacon, Boldini

Florence Baldwin Deacon

Young Gladys 

Gladys Deacon was born in 1881 in Paris to Edward Deacon and his wife, the former Florence Baldwin. Gladys was a supernally attractive creature with gigantic turquoise eyes and a lightning intellect - she spoke 5 languages and was fascinatingly conversant in art, music, history and literature. Consuelo Vanderbilt described her as, “… a beautiful girl endowed with a brilliant intellect. Possessed of exceptional powers of conversation, she could enlarge on any subject in an interesting and amusing manner.” Gladys knew EVERYONE ~ and mingled with the brilliant minds and talents of her day from an early age when her mother moved her around France, Italy and England. Nearly everyone that met her was bewitched – at least for a while.

      1918 Boldini Drawings of Gladys

Marcel Proust wrote of her: "I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm.” This was not a pretty vapid doll.

Walter Van Rensselaer Berry

Bernard Berenson 

Among her closest friends were art historian Bernard Berenson and statesman, art collector, litterateur and Edith Wharton’s great love, the tall and elegant Walter Berry .

Bernard Berenson at Villa I Tatti (he lived there for 60 years – until his death in 1959)

Villa I Tatti

She felt very much at home at Berenson’s celebrated Villa I Tatti near Florence where an empyreal collection of intellectuals and artists of the age congregated. The teenaged Gladys was very fond of “Bibbins” and although he married someone else, he was in love with her. “At one point Gladys sent Berenson a thistle from Paris as ‘a tiny souvenir of my pleasant character’. She explained: ‘I fear alas that even the thistle is not enough to adequately express my prickly disposition. But search and you will find that within the spiky exterior there lies a heart capable of feelings of fondness and serenity.’ “When Gladys was in Paris, she missed him and longed to see him. ‘You are not a person to me,’ she declared, ‘you are a burst of soul and spirit.’ ”. 

Hamadryad, Emile Bin

She shared a dream of being a Hamadryad in a letter to Berenson – a term that had been used to describe her, “I wish I could die so as to be buried in the earth and return in the shape of a beautiful tree with a slender and glorious silhouette, or rather to emerge from its branch as a delicate and beautiful flower which, no sooner picked, would wilt in order to return the next year more beautiful still. Why can’t it be so?”  This desire for perfection was to mar her beauty - there was a small dip in her nearly perfect Grecian profile and she tried an early plastic surgery treatment - injecting the dip with paraffin.  Over the years it slowly leaked over her face causing red streaks and lumps which she disguised with makeup. It could be helped but never properly removed. 

                 Berenson and his wife Mary

Bernard’s wife, Mary, made many sharp observations of young Gladys in letters, “…she is perfectly natural, and is a frightening mixture of extreme youth and very dangerous womanhood.” and, “Suddenly Gladys came . . . and she has been filling our time & thoughts. She is radiant and sphinx-like. Strange likenesses to her mother flit across her face. Placci has come to adore. She has been marvellous. Mary also wrote of her in her diary. “A wonderful creature, but too young to talk to as an equal, and so much of a born actress to take quite seriously. But so beautiful, so graceful, so changeful in a hundred moods, so brilliant that it is enough to turn anybody’s head. Part of her mysteriousness comes from her being, as it were, sexless. She has never changed physically from a child to a woman, and her doctor said she probably never will. She calls herself a ‘hermaphrodite’, but she isn’t that. Brought up by a mamma who thinks of nothing but Dress & Sex, her mind plays around all the problems of sex in a most alarming manner with an audacity and outspokenness that make your hair stand on end. She is positively impish. But she has never felt anything, so she dares. Her defects are bad form – for she is distinctly in bad form – and lying; but as Bernhard says, she is so wonderful she can afford the first, and she may outgrow the second.” She didn't.

Sadly, she never saw Berenson again after a chance carriage meeting after WWI. After that meeting, Berenson wrote, “I decided to stop seeing Gladys Deacon when I convinced myself that in human relationships she offered nothing but an offensive arbitrariness pursuing people in a flattering and ensnaring fashion only so as to be able to break off with them noisily when the fancy struck her.” 

              Comtess de Greffulhe

She had female friends, but the relationships were often fraught. She was prickly and dropped and was dropped by many – she could be infuriating. The inspiration for Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes, the inimitable and diabolically elegant Comtess de Greffulhe was considering taking her under her wing, but first had her investigated to see what made her tick. “Dr Henri Favre, an astrologer and alchemist (a friend of George Sand and Alexandre Dumas fils. then aged eighty), found her deceptive, capable of moving others to sympathy with her eyes, and prepared to go to prolonged lengths to obtain what she wanted. He found her detached and thought she had never loved anyone. He suggested that she had the habit of doing malicious things, and a completely black spirit, the hands of a reptile with a long lifeline, revolving around instinct, a sensual mouth, a ‘voluntary’ chin, and seraphic eyes, and that her stated mission was: ‘I want to dominate, I want to drive, I dominate. I don’t care.’ She had no strong moral current. The handwriting analyst detected singularity of spirit, anxiety in her allure and in the manifestations of her mental state, both mysterious and cryptic. There was stability of thought, with both the need to express herself and equally to hold herself in. She had a feminine spirit, without the least masculinity in her instinct. She wanted to elevate herself in life, but lacked the necessary drive, so she tended to retreat into vague spaces. She sought grandeur without the means to obtain it.” 

              Comte Robert de Montesquiou by Boldini

The Comtesse’s cousin, Robert de Montesquiou was the inspiration for Proust’s Baron Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past and Huysmans’ des Esseintes in Against the Grain. He was enchanted by the young Gladys and drew her into his perfumed orbit, “The count was no less impressed by Gladys, nicknaming her ‘The Marvel’. At dinner at one of his celebrated fêtes at Versailles he exclaimed: ‘And Gladys Deacon was truly beautiful. She had the absolute appearance of an archangel.’ ". They shared a love of ‘the externalized soul of Aubrey Beardsley’. He wrote a poem for her.

Crown Prince Willhelm of Prussia

                       Lily de Clermont-Tonnerre
There were many men that she drew in and then tossed aside, among them, the Duke of Connaught, Robert Trevelyan – who was particularly addled for love of her,  Berenson and Berry, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, a middle-European philosopher Hermann von Keyserling, composer and Prince, Roffredo Caetani and a few women along the way (like Lily de Clermont-Tonnerre ).

Villa Farnese, Caprarola built by Vignola in 1547 – NW of Rome

Prince Alfonso Doria

One of her favorite places was her mother’s house, Villa Farnese, Caprarola – belonging to her mother’s friend and lover, Prince Alfonso Doria. Although the Prince died in 1915, he gave Florence a lifelong lease for 5,000 lire a year for a palace. Gladys loved to escape there and spend time in the garden which her mother restored. It was a haven to be sure, but she wanted more.

Blenheim Palace

The quest to become the Duchess of Marlborough had obsessed Gladys for most of her life,  but Blenheim Palace was her home for only 10 years (you can take a virtual tour HERE ). It was her very own 187 room fairytale palace.

It took nearly 20 years (1705-22) to complete the baroque gem – the only non-royal house to hold that title. It was a gift from a grateful Queen to the 1st Duke for his service to the country at the 1704 battle of Blenheim. The amateur architect, John Vanbrugh with the help of Wren’s former assistant, architect Nicholas Hawksmore got the commission -- over the1st Duchess’s favored Christopher Wren. Vanbrugh and the Duchess warred relentlessly and Vanbrugh left after the first year. The Duchess hired cheaper labor (my great favorite master wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, would not work for the low rates).


The legendary landscape architect, Capability Brown did the garden in 1764. The house had been designed to interact with the landscape views and Brown did a brilliant job.

The family squandered their limited resources and by the 19th century – the house’s treasured masterpieces and libraries were being sold off to keep the huge enterprise afloat.

By the time Gladys came in 25 years later, the Vanderbilt fortune had righted the sinking ship and restored it to its former glory. Still, a few things were added during her tenancy there. Most notably, Colin Gills’s painting on the North Portico ceiling that was based on Gladys’ famous turquois eyes in 1928.

The sphinxes created by W. Ward Willis were based on Gladys’ face and were installed in 1930.  They still stand guard today.

                                                       W. Ward Willis Sphinx at Blenheim

Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein bust of 9th Duke

Gladys’ friend, the wild sculptor Joseph Epstein’s statue of the duke is still on display.

This wasn’t the happily-ever-after dream Gladys had imagined. Far from it. It would not be long before she and the Duke avoided one another -- their meetings crackled with hostility.

He left Blenheim first and then kicked her out – he was incensed with the way she was handling her hobby - breeding Blenheim spaniels. She let them have their run of the palace and they were not housetrained. They ruined irreplaceable carpets and furnishings and the house smelled of dog waste which infuriated the Duke. She started waving a pistol around, threatening the Duke (her father and her father’s mother had both ended in a madhouse—it was in the blood).

Gladys with the Blenheim spaniels

 Blenheim spaniel

Gladys decamped to their place in London and the spiteful Duke cut off all the services and forced her out. Although they never divorced, the Duke’s early death in 1934 saw an end to the interactions between the Spencer-Churchill’s and Gladys save for ugly wrangling for the return of artwork that had belonged to her before the marriage (many given to her by the artists). She got most of them back eventually. It was an ugly end to her childish dream of her life as the Duke's beloved.

After Blenheim Palace and London, Gladys moved to a cottage and dispensed with all the trappings of rank. She eschewed any invasion of her privacy and so abjured the intrusion of servants – only allowing a lone handyman access when necessary and slowly cutting herself off from human contact. As the years passed she became more and more a recluse.

Her dog-breeding partner, Mrs. Agnes “Cherry” Grylls, left and her friend Ethel Boileau died. Boileau “… was convinced that Gladys had taught her ‘the greatest of all values in life – that of detachment, that sure and certain core in oneself which lifts one above the chances and bitterness of life’. She prayed that the cruelty Gladys had suffered at Marlborough’s hands would never result in her losing that detachment.” That detachment did not save her. Her eccentricities were her undoing.

In the end, her relatives had her committed to the famous St Andrews Asylum that catered to the rich, famous and titled. She remained there for 15 years, till her death in 1977 at the age of 96. A sad end to a remarkable life that was chronicled by the 23-year-old Vickers. Vickers pressed to be allowed to interview her for a book and slowly won her trust. Over many visits in the final years of her life,  he found her to be very intelligent, of excellent memory and quite funny. Her madness only bubbled to the surface intermittently and harmlessly. She never should have been forced into an asylum. 

So, what to eat?  I discovered a remarkable book, Mrs. Seely's 1902 Cook Book, A Manual of French and American Cookery, with Chapters on Domestic Servants, Their Rights and Duties and Many Other Details of Household Management  with recipes and detailed rules and regulations for servants in houses large and small - the type of houses Gladys had grown up with and was used to. The servants were forever cleaning, polishing, airing and repairing and an anathema to the elder Gladys (I imagine rejecting servants was one of the reasons she was committed).Given Gladys’ history, I can understand her desire to be on her own and to keep her house without a large retinue of staff. If you suffer at all from apantrophy/misanthropy as Gladys did as she got older – servants were stifling.   I, on the other hand, found Seeley's scrupulously detailed list of servants and their duties fascinating (addressing such issues as Liability of a Servant to discharge under Differing Circumstances or Penalty for forging a reference by self or Proxy) and the recipes were marvelous. You will be able to check your next period show for downstairs accuracy!

I had a hard time deciding on what to make even after deciding I wanted to do a dessert (Gladys had something of a sugar addiction so it seemed only right). I finally settled on Apple Meringue. It’s absolutely beguiling with enough sugar to aggravate incipient diabetes but the blushing apple with cream and meringue and strawberry surprise inside is worth it. Not something to have regularly but a great excuse to be naughty.



4-6 crisp apples, cored and peeled
2 c water
1 c sugar
2 cloves
½ stick cinnamon,
dash of nutmeg

2 egg whites
1 c sugar
2 T powdered sugar

1 c of chopped strawberries
2 T rose jelly* or powdered sugar

1c Cream, whipped to a stiff consistency

Boil liquid and spices. Put on low, add the apples and simmer for 10 minutes on the bottom and then flip to top and simmer a few more—don’t over-cook because they need to stay together. Cool the apples and strain the syrup to use for another purpose.

Preheat the oven to 275º

Whip the whites to a stiff consistency and add the sugar slowly and then the powdered sugar.

Placed the apples in a buttered dish.

Combine the strawberries and jelly/sugar and stuff the apples with them.

Cover the apples with a lid of meringue (put any additional meringue in a buttered dish if you have any left and cook to use for another dish – like a little Eton Mess)

Bake the apples for about 30 minutes till crisp but not too colored.  Remove from oven and cool.

Flip the apples over so they sit on the meringue like a pillow and cover the top with whipped cream. Add sliced berries on top with a bit more of the rose jelly


2 c water
3 c red damask rose petals with bitter white cuticle/base cut off with scissors (***use only roses that haven’t been sprayed)
2 ½ c sugar
¼ c lemon juice
3 oz liquid pectin
A few drops Aftelier Rose essence or 1 T rosewater

Boil the water and then add the rose petals and remove from heat. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes. Discard the petals pushing on the solids and add sugar and lemon and boil 2 minutes to dissolve the sugar. Add pectin and make sure to blend it thoroughly, boil another 3 minutes. Turn off heat and add the rose. Pour into sterilized jars (I used 3- ½ c jars and 2-1c)

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