Finest Hour 188, Second Quarter 2020
Review by Ophelia Field
Ophelia Field is author of The Favourite: The Life of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (2018)
Hugo Vickers, The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon, Duchess of Marlborough, Hodder and Stoughton, 2020, 388 pages, £25. ISBN 978–1529390704
When Hugo Vickers concludes, towards the end of this jaw-dropping biography, that Gladys Deacon “had lived a fuller and more varied life than most,” he is guilty of extreme British understatement. This was a woman who had been a muse, an object of infatuation, or at least an object of curiosity to Auguste Rodin, Bernard Berenson, Giovanni Boldini, the Crown Prince of Prussia, Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Count Hermann von Keyserling, Henri Bergson, Jean Giraudoux, Jacob Epstein, Virginia Woolf, Jean Marchand, H. G. Wells, Paul Valéry, Lytton Strachey, Arnold Bennett, George Moore, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Siegfried Sassoon, and many more. Events such as having lunch with Mussolini, or D. H. Lawrence entrusting her with his dirty drawings, barely even find space here for explanation.
By comparison, the ninth Duke of Marlborough seems a rather boring man for the beautiful young American heiress to fixate on marrying from the age of fourteen, a consistency of purpose at odds with the overall discontinuity of both her life and personality. Like an actress, Gladys could metamorphosise. One hostess wrote of her when she visited, “Fortunately she is a hundred people in one, and entertains herself by her own rapid changes of mood.”
Gladys’s long life (1881–1977) also contained at least four distinct lives. First, as a precocious child caught up in her parents’ high society scandal of sex and murder—material which Henry James briefly considered turning into fiction. Second, as a self-centred young celebrity in belle époque Europe, described as the Goddess Minerva (or as an “archangel,” “meteor,” “Maenad,” or “Sphinx”) by others, while inwardly she felt so disturbed by a tiny indentation between her forehead and already perfect Grecian nose that she injected it with liquid paraffin. Third, she achieved the pyrrhic victory of becoming Duchess of Marlborough after the duke’s first wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt, finally agreed to a divorce. Gladys summarised this phase as having “married a house, not a man,” and then finding that Blenheim Palace was “an intellectual wilderness.” She therefore filled its plush rooms with dog kennels and set herself landscaping projects. The couple separated in 1933, with the Churchills accusing her of insanity, though Viscountess (Verena) Churchill wrote in sympathy: “[U]nless anyone knows the ways of the Churchill family as I DO how could anyone know the truth.”
The letters between Winston Churchill and his cousin the Duke show Winston pulling strings, or the Duke airing his deep conservatism—for example, his displeasure when Churchill increased skilled workers’ wages in 1918—and both men disregarding Gladys. Gladys later described Churchill in a way that implies they were two of a kind: “He took an instant dislike to me….I knew him from top to bottom….He was entirely out for Winston.”
Gladys’s fourth and final metamorphosis was as an eccentric old hermit and hoarder living in a filthy cottage in Oxfordshire, where local children called her a witch, and then in a rather grand asylum to which her avaricious relations had her committed. It was here that Vickers visited his subject throughout 1975–77, as touchingly described in this new edition, which has been substantially revised to reflect all the material gathered since its original 1979 publication.
Considering how many people fell in love with Gladys, her life was strikingly loveless. Only a few friendships—with the likeable American diplomat Walter Berry, with several loyal servants, and then with the young biographer himself—seem to have contained any real affection. She grieved for her mother and a sister after they died but often kept her distance from them in life. Nor, compared to her mother, were there even many sexual relationships: she was said to be, “as it were, sexless,” and perhaps even physiologically underdeveloped.
Besides being an immersive description of a world that, like Gladys, changed beyond all recognition within a few decades, this biography is also a study of the line between mental health and disturbance. Gladys grew up in fear of inheriting her father’s insanity, had at least one breakdown when young, and insisted till the very end that “There is a chasm between sanity and madness; madness is an inability to balance or impress.” Vickers is a staunch defender of his subject’s lucidity, yet many of the excerpts from her early letters appear to be cryptic verging on nutty, and she was clearly always a compulsive liar. She boasted of having written a good novel, yet the only work she seems to have actually produced, for all her intelligence and dazzling conversation, was a magazine article about—ironically—“the psychology of beauty and its relation to…success in life.” She claimed to be content because she was without artistic ambition, but it is hard not to wish that the marvellous Miss Deacon had achieved something of her own beyond the list of famous names in this book’s index.