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."
|Gladys Deacon, her beauty celebrated, in a photograph by Lafayette. Courtesy of Hugo Vickers.
|Gladys Deacon, age 27, as painted in 1908 by Giovanni Boldini. The painting is in a private collection.
|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.
|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 Marie Deacon, in a passport photograph taken in 1918.
|The Duchess of Marlborough, snapping a self-portrait, in 1928. Image courtesy of Hugo Vickers.