16 February 2011

The Eyes Have It

British artist Colin Gill's 1928 depictions of the bright blue eyes of Gladys Duchess of Marlborough (née Gladys Deacon) stare down from the North Portico of her former country house, Blenheim Palace, near Woodstock, Oxfordshire. The Marlborough seat is hosting an exhibition about the duchess through 25 March 2011. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.

History is a curious thing. Scandals become footnotes, emotional bruises fade, and people that once commanded international headlines recede into anonymity. Such an individual was the American beauty Gladys Marie Deacon (1881—1977). But through 25 March 2011, visitors to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, where she briefly but memorably reigned as Duchess of Marlborough in the 1920s and 1930s, have an opportunity to step back in time and catch a fleeting glimpse of a lady the Anglo-American Member of Parliament Chips Channon called “the world’s most beautiful woman, the toast of Paris, the love of Proust, the belle amie of Anatole France.”

The Long Library at Blenheim, site of the exhibition "Gladys Deacon: An Eccentric Duchess."

Curated by the bestselling British biographer Hugo Vickers and arranged from end to end of Blenheim’s ravishing Long Library, “Gladys Deacon: An Eccentric Duchess” is an intimate exhibition of photographs, art, and fascinating ephemera, among them a lock of golden hair, a Jacob Epstein bust, suitcases, and Gladys’s personal photograph albums. Last night was the show’s gala opening, and Mr Vickers will be giving a lecture about Gladys and her rackety life at Blenheim on 2 March. To purchase tickets online, go to Blenheim Palace's website.

Gladys Deacon, her beauty celebrated, in a photograph by Lafayette. Courtesy of Hugo Vickers.
“It’s quite an emotional story, and my involvement with it is emotional as well,” Vickers told me in a telephone interview on Sunday. “When I was 16 years old, if somebody had asked me who I would have most liked to meet, it would not have been Winston Churchill but Gladys Deacon, the fascinating woman who married his cousin.” Vickers befriended the Duchess of Marlborough when he was 23 and spent two years visiting the aged aristocrat, then in her 90s and confined to a psychiatric hospital, feeble rather than insane. The more than 60 interviews that resulted ended up as the foundation of Vickers’s first book, Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough; it was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1979, two years after its subject’s death.
Gladys Deacon, age 27, as painted in 1908 by Giovanni Boldini. The painting is in a private collection.

In her heyday Gladys Deacon (the name was pronounced GLAY-duz) was an A-list personality, as renowned for her unsettling beauty—especially those great, staring, crystal-blue eyes—as for her impressive intellect. Writers, musicians, and politicians were in her thrall, as were several dukes and princes. The German kaiser’s eldest son fell head over heels for her though his father put an end to that infatuation; the dandy and poet Robert de Montesquiou compared her beauty to that of an archangel. The self-absorbed Gladys adored being adored, though she seems to have loved no one. Art scholar Bernard Berenson, who met Gladys when she was 17, bitterly wrote of his disappointment in what he perceived as her capriciousness. "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 it off with them noisily when the fancy struck her."

Gladys Deacon, daughter of Florence Baldwin and Edward Parker Deacon, as a young girl. Courtesy of Hugo Vickers.

Berenson's wife, Mary, recorded her mixed impressions of the intriguing American, then 20 and taking Italy by storm. “The event of this month has been the reappearance of the radiant Gladys Deacon, so beautiful, so brilliant with her soft elixir ways, her hard clear youthful logic, her gaminerie, her lively imagination, her moods, her daring. It would take volumes to describe her and I don’t feel up to it. … Beautiful, cruel, selfish, untrained. What will become of her?”

"Gladys Deacon," a 1917 bust by Jacob Epstein. It is in the collection of The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

What became of the fascinating Miss Deacon is the stuff of “Gladys Deacon: An Eccentric Duchess,” which Vickers says should really be called “Gladys Deacon: The Lost Years.” (It includes the lady's numerous scrapbooks, which have never been seen before and are in Vickers's possession.) At the age of 40, on 25 June 1921, she married her lover Charles Spencer-Churchill, ninth duke of Marlborough, following the end of his marriage to her close friend the American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. (A morose and irritable man, the duke was perversely called Sunny, a nickname derived from his courtesy title, Earl of Sunderland.) The newlyweds soon realized the union was a mistake—Sunny's only passionate relationship was with Blenheim, to whose survival he was devoted at all costs. Still the duke honored her presence in his life. A pair of long-necked lead sphinxes, cast in Gladys’s image in 1930 by W. Ward Willis, grace the grounds of the palace.

A detail of one of Gladys Marlborough's eyes, as painted on the ceiling of the North Portico of Blenheim by British artist Colin Gill. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.

Two years earlier artist Colin Gill (1892—1940) painted gigantic evocations of her famous blue eyes on the ceiling of the portico; the brown ones accompanying them, in some sort of inside joke, are suspected to be Consuelo's but could just as well have been the duke's. Leaks and weather largely destroyed those surreal orbs and the flashing gilded rays surrounding them, but thanks to the present duke, Gladys’s step-grandson, Gill’s distinctive work was restored to its original glory a few years ago.

Gladys Deacon and Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough on their wedding day, 25 June 1921. The ceremony took place at the Paris home of her artist cousin Eugene Higgins and was described by one of the guests, Linda (Mrs. Cole) Porter as "the most incredibly vulgar performance I have ever witnessed." Others witnessing the nuptials were the interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe and several crowned heads, including a maharajah.

In Gladys Marlborough, the blueblooded world of Edith Wharton intersected with modern tabloid tawdriness. Her parents’ tempestuous marriage ended when her father, Edward Parker Deacon, murdered her mother’s French lover and then went insane. Obsessed with her Greek-statue good looks, Gladys, at age 22, had an enterprising surgeon inject melted wax into the bridge of her nose in an effort to create a perfectly straight line from forehead to nostrils. The freakish procedure worked for a while; eventually, however, the wax migrated, settling in her cheeks and along her jawline, somewhat altering a beauty recorded by Rodin, Degas, Boldini, Epstein, and other leading artists. Her enormous aquamarine eyes, however, remained intact, as did that inquisitive mind.

Gladys Marie Deacon, in a passport photograph taken in 1918.

Unfortunately the duke didn’t appreciate his wife's mental acumen or her increasingly odd behavior. Nor did he happily accept her many Blenheim spaniels, which left their mark, literally, in the state rooms of his ancestral seat. Ultimately a union that began in mutual if misjudged admiration turned to implacable hatred. “Watch Sunny—he hates her guts—great sport!” Winston Churchill's son, Randolph, chortled on a visit to Blenheim in the early 1930s, as Gladys prepared to enter the room. “She left Blenheim under pretty gruesome circumstances,” Vickers says. When Gladys refused to find other accommodations as her marriage disintegrated, the duke abandoned her and ordered Blenheim's gas and electricity cut off. When she took refuge at their London mansion, he did the same thing. (Friends smuggled in a portable stove so she could cook.) Those actions didn’t dislodge the recalcitrant duchess either, so he had her evicted. Divorce proceedings followed; unfortunately the duke died in 1934 before the legal papers could be finalized. And with that, Gladys Marlborough, Europe's golden girl, vanished into the English countryside—growing older, more reclusive, even adopting an alias to avoid detection. Eventually, in the 1960s, she was committed to an institution. Gladys apparently didn't put up much of a fight as she was removed from the cottage she called home. As the elderly duchess told Vickers on one of his visits, “Sometimes something happens that is so awful that it cuts you off and after that you don’t care.”

Gladys Duchess of Marlborough, died in 1977 at the age of 96. And now, at least through the end of next month, she’s back home.

The Duchess of Marlborough, snapping a self-portrait, in 1928. Image courtesy of Hugo Vickers.


columnist said...

What a terrific tale, and so much more interesting with your Hugo Vickers connection, and his to the duchess. Isn't is extraordinary how mean Marlborough was to his ex-wife, (a trait one sees in Spencer towards his two; alarming that he intends to marry a[nother] third)?

The Down East Dilettante said...

Great post---poor Duke, married to two smart women in succession. Apparently a great nuisance to his enjoyment of life.

Decorative footnote: In the MFA in Boston is an extraordinary set of boiserie panels saved by Peter Parker from the destruction of the Hotel de Montmorency. They were designed by Claude Nicholas LeDoux and are probably the finest example of their type in the country. I mention this because Peter Parker was Gladys Deacon's grandfather, and he later installed the panels in a mansion he built for her parents in Boston, believed to be the first instance of antique French woodwork brought to this country, long before the Vanderbilts and their ilk started doing the same. I mention it because it sets the stage for the cosmopolitanism of Deacon's life from childhood on.

The Swan said...

Over 20 years ago I traversed the halls of Consuelos Money pit...and prison. It is spectacular to say the least. It was amazing to stand and look up at THOSE EYES...very hypnotic and surreal. I was told that the Brown Eye was Consuelos.

Consuelo and Gladys were best of friends - one growing up literally down the street from the other. It was Consuelo who begged Gladys to stay with her, to keep her smiling for the Duke was morose and forever reminding her of how he did not love her even at dinner parties.

Yes, Gladys was the victim of a doctors proclamation of Power to make one a Goddess...not much different from what is going on lately on the pages of Socialites and Movie Stars gossip.

By the way...the Sargent of Consuelo, The Boldini of Consuelo are MASTERPIECES...I have always thought that Gladys by Boldini was just as beautiful if not reminiscent of La Casati on the Peacock by the same. Where is it today?

An Aesthete's Lament said...

I'll ask Hugo about the whereabouts of the Boldini. Consuelo has always left me a bit cold. (And the brown eyes make no sense to me as Consuelo's; she and Gladys had stopped talking to one another about a decade earlier, so what would be the point of painting portraits of her eyes in 1928, except as some kind of odd joke?) I remember talking with the ghostwriter of her memoirs, Stuart Preston, who informed me so much of Consuelo's personal life was purposefully left out of the book, such as her aborted elopement with Lord Castlereagh (later 7th Marquess of Londonderry) and her affair with Sunny's cousin Reginald Fellowes. That being said, a friend of mine is a descendant of Consuelo's onetime fiancé Winthrop Rutherfurd and says he adored her forever.

The Swan said...

My Dear Aesthete,

How COMFORTING to know that her FIRST Love OF HER CHOICE...still adored her. I always recall the dark room of the other prison - Marblehouse - she locked within and he coming to see her - forbidden by the guard at the gate posted by Alva.

I too thought how strange for the 2eyes to gaze upon all who entered...but was told they were done at a much earlier time. Legends grow from a seed of truth. Could it be that she had these eyes painted to remind herself of her Triumph over a 'Best Friend' who had ALL, and in the end her destiny placed her with NOTHING.

The betrayal must have cut so deep into Consuelo's heart.I do remember the affairs that CV had, the love shack she camped out in with her lover - but I thought they were due to a pressure bore down from a loveless marriage.

Like Marie Antoinette entering Versailles already much reviled, Consuelo was nothing more than the end product of a monetary transaction...

Love your connections and YOUR mind!

Topaz said...

The blog entry itself was fascinating, and the erudite comments make it more so.

Thank you for sharing this with us.

Jemimagold said...

Thank you so much for this post. It was fascinating! I have been to Blenheim twice but never paid much attention to Gladys. Consuelo always seemed to be the more glamorous one!

As an aside, I can't quite imagine wax into my nose....

Paul Pincus said...

Riveting stuff. So heartbreaking... and her exchange with Mr. Vickers -- “Sometimes something happens that is so awful that it cuts you off and after that you don’t care." -- kills me!! Now i'm left haunted.

I adore those bright blue eyes by the underrated Mr. Gill (my partner has a wonderful hand-me-down painting by Colin Gill). And I really enjoyed Mary Berenson's impressions of Gladys. Mary knew a thing or two about ''moods''. ;-)

laughingsalmon said...

What a lovely article on a super subject...I'd written a letter years ago to Mr. Vickers when the "Gladys" book came out...He was kind enough to respond and thank me for buying and enjoying his work...
I had a few questions on the late Princess Alice,Countess of Athlone...He was able to answer my queries perfectly...
The AL once again is a delight...

jones said...

As always, your posts set my mind a hummmmming.
This a tragic story. But those eyes are truly mazing. The accepted narcissism of this time frame never ceases to mystify me.

Reggie Darling said...

The Vickers biography, which I read a number of years ago, was most absorbing, and Gladys a fascinating, cold, self-absorbed, beautiful subject. The supposed love triangle of great interest, and so little known. I only recently came across (again) the Boldini of Consuelo and the little Lord Ivor at the Met and am always transfixed by its sheer elegance. The neck! The slashes of paint! Almost like a latter-day Gainsborough. I love it. I was unaware of the portrait of Gladys by the same hand. How fascinating. Thank you, again, Aesthete, for this (and all) that you teach us, your lucky and most-fortunate readers.

Heather Robinson said...

This to me, seems to be an example of the best of what a blog can offer. Thank you so much for this thoroughly explored and touching tale.

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

would love to see this and the makeup touch ups to her eyes, the all seeing eye-wonder if she was speaking beyond her own vanities? did the Duke really like women at all? her story is woeful but oh so intriguing-no wonder Mr. Vickers was attracted to her and thank goodness he was their to record that story. It is a great read as this post was-as always.pgt

Square With Flair said...

Enjoyed your beautifully written and researched post. Isn't it interesting to see such prominent personalities through the eyes of great painters? I am reminded of Dali's portrait of Mona Bismarck in rags.

Didn't Elsie de Wolfe have her Boldini portrait cut off at the neck, resulting in a head shot rather than full body, because she disliked the "writhing" aspect of how her figure had been painted?

Unknown said...

wonderful read. very fascinating. first i am reading about gladys.thank you

Unknown said...

loved the story of gladys. fascinating. thank you