With its 2,000 acres, 187 rooms, and Masterpiece Theatre lifestyle, Blenheim Palace eclipses even the British monarchy’s homes in the eyes of many. And for the three centuries since Queen Anne bestowed the land on the first Duke of Marlborough, his heirs have battled to keep it going. In a rare interview with the 85-year-old 11th duke, known as Sunny, and his fourth wife, the “exotic” and wealthy Lily, James Reginato explores the sacrifices made in Blenheim’s name—from loveless marriages to a bitter legal battle—while Jonathan Becker shoots exclusive photos of the palace and its private quarters.
BY JAMES REGINATO
VANITY FAIR, June 2011 – For 300 years, Blenheim Palace, seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, has awed all visitors, even the grandest among them. “We have nothing to equal this,” King George III said with a gasp to Queen Charlotte in 1786 as they caught their first glimpse of the Baroque behemoth, in Oxfordshire.
Indeed, Buckingham House, as the monarch’s dwelling was then called, was primitive by comparison. With seven acres under its roof, Blenheim arguably still eclipses in splendor and magnitude any of the British royal family’s homes, and it is the only nonroyal, non-ecclesiastical residence in England styled a “palace.” Its grandeur registered even with Hitler, who according to wartime lore planned to move in after his invasion of England and thus ordered the Luftwaffe not to bomb it.
The palace’s cornerstone was laid in June 1705, less than a year after the first Duke of Marlborough’s pivotal victory against the French on the fields of Blenheim, in Bavaria. On behalf of “a grateful nation,” Queen Anne granted Marlborough and his heirs the 2,000-acre royal manor of Woodstock, and Parliament voted to provide funds to build on it a suitably magnificent structure.
The problem was nobody thought to set a budget. To make a very long story very short, costs to build what was to be not just a home but a national monument had skyrocketed to £240,000 by 1711 (from the duke’s initial guesstimate of £40,000), leading Parliament to cut off all funds. Meanwhile, political intrigue prompted Queen Anne to dismiss the duke and duchess from court, sending them into self-imposed exile abroad for two years.
Photos: Inside Blenheim Palace
The sprawling home of the Dukes of Marlborough for more than three centuries, Blenheim encompasses 187 rooms—from the sumptuous reception halls to the equally magnificent private quarters. Herewith, a virtual tour of Blenheim’s grandeur.
Construction halted and did not recommence until 1716, now completely on the duke’s dime. Over the next few years he poured in £60,000, even as he and his formidable duchess argued vehemently over aesthetic decisions—between themselves as well as with their long-suffering architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, who finally stormed off in a rage, leaving Nicholas Hawksmoor to keep things going (though the project was not completed until around 1733, 11 years after the duke’s death).
Its maintenance has been an albatross for every succeeding generation of the family. As a consequence, the Dukes of Marlborough have sometimes had to make sacrifices. On occasion that has meant marrying for money, not love—the most famous example being the 1895 union of the ninth duke and Consuelo Vanderbilt, the poster heiress of the Gilded Age. It was the ultimate “cash for class” deal. Consuelo’s socially ravenous mother, Alva, craved a duchess’s coronet for her family, while his family sought the $2.5 million dowry she would bring (about $66 million in today’s money).
But not only do Marlborough men marry well, they marry often, it seems. According to Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage, the last four dukes have notched up 10 duchesses among them. Four of those brides have belonged to the current titleholder, His Grace the 11th Duke of Marlborough, John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill, who turned 85 on April 13.
His most recent trip to the altar took place on December 3, 2008. Just a few family members and close friends attended the discreet ceremony in the chapel of the palace. But word of it soon rocked the upper echelons of English society. The duke had married his girlfriend of two years, Lily Mahtani, a vivacious charmer who was far from him in age as well as in background: 32 years his junior, she is of Indian extraction. “Exotic” was the adjective most frequently used in the English press to describe her, rather archaically.
In another key respect, however, she is not so different from her predecessors and her new peers: she’s rich. Her father, Narinder Sahni, has been a top executive with the Hinduja Group, a secretive multi-billion-dollar worldwide conglomerate. Through marriage, and divorce, she has done well, too. According to Tatler, she received hundreds of millions of pounds around 2000, at the end of her 13-year marriage to Nigerian-based tycoon Ratan Mahtani, a settlement she invested carefully.
But, for many, it was most shocking that the elderly duke made the effort to obtain a divorce from his third wife, Rosita (the daughter of a Swedish count), whom he had married in 1972. In the fashion of the European upper class, the pair had more or less been living separate lives for the past few years, during which time he had been seeing Mahtani relatively openly. The arrangement seemed to work for everybody, hewing to the adage promulgated by the late—and much-married—Sir James Goldsmith: “If you marry your mistress, you create a vacancy.”
Tall and gruff, with his aristocratic mumble, the duke was a Wodehousian relic. If one adjective had been used over the years to describe him, it was grumpy. Which is deliciously ironic, given his nickname, Sunny—coined certainly not thanks to his disposition but after one of his courtesy titles, the Earl of Sunderland.
But suddenly the old duke, as many of his longtime friends observe, has a bounce in his step—and a dashing mustache, for the first time in his life.
“Sunny’s younger than springtime!” exclaims Mercedes Bass (who kindled her romance with her future husband, Sid, at a 1986 ball at Blenheim).
As longtime friend Taki Theodoracopulos observes, “He’s régéné—born again.” According to Palm Beach queen Terry Allen Kramer, “He seems like a man who’s not his age. He’s in the throes of love with a beautiful young woman.”
Mahtani, in turn, has quickly won over most of this crowd with her charms. “She doesn’t play the part of the duchess—and I mean that in a nice way,” says Kramer. “She’s a breath of fresh air—refreshing and fun.”
“Everybody at first was skeptical of her. She came from left field,” says Taki. “But she’s beautiful—and she’s not exactly broke. I wouldn’t put it past her to fix the roof.”
Bells and Whistles
With its 187 rooms, Blenheim was one of the first “great houses” of England to open its staterooms to visits from the paying public. By the late 1700s, crowds were turning up to gawk at the 64-foot-high marble Great Hall, the 180-foot-long Long Library, and the palace’s other colossally scaled rooms.
“Everything’s open except my loo!” barks Sunny jokingly. In fact, plenty has remained highly private, notably the East Wing, where the family lives—a 46-room, four-story block with 12 bedrooms and 10 bathrooms. A staff of 158, many of whom have been there for decades, still runs the estate by standards rarely seen today outside of Masterpiece Theatre. Overnight guests get to their rooms to find the contents of the luggage taken by the under-butler at the front door pressed and hanging in wardrobes or neatly folded in dresser drawers, while their shoes have been shined to a gleam. (Before departure their items are meticulously packed.) In the morning, a housekeeper or valet comes to draw the curtains and serve coffee, as well as, for ladies, the option of breakfast in bed. At 8:30 A.M., male guests are expected to join His Grace in the dining room, where copies of the Racing Post and all the London dailies also await.
And while they are not used as they formerly were, the 50-some “house bells” in the servants’ hall, connecting to most of the major rooms, can still function. “You have to learn your bells,” says Tim Mayhew, the head butler for 14 years. Each of the bells, he explains, has a different pitch, enabling staff to quickly discern if the call is emanating from, say, Lord Blandford’s anteroom or the Bachelor IV room. “But if you hadn’t learned your bells, you had to rush to see which pendulum was swinging before it stopped.”
Yet, for the duke, who remembers the days of his childhood, when the family inhabited the whole of the palace, this is somehow life in reduced circumstances. (While they were still flush with Vanderbilt cash, the family halted public visits until 1950. Today they bring in £12 million annually.) “Now we have this small area,” he says, almost apologetically. “But it’s quite warm and cozy, and quite effective as a family home,” he adds, seated in the Smoking Room. Indeed it is. Pictures by Stubbs and Wootton hang on silk-lined walls, and a fire crackles while a butler brings in tea and Jerry, a four-year-old yellow Lab, romps around.
He does not deny that Blenheim is a burden to maintain. “Yes, but it’s a labor of love and I adore it,” he insists. “All my life I have tried to assure its future, and ensure that it remains unique in the annals of British history. My famous ancestor won the Battle of Blenheim in one day—but his descendants have been fighting it ever since.”
To wit, repainting the interiors took seven years, and rewiring took another seven years. In 2009, he had to spend a million pounds to rebuild the Blenheim Dam and its adjoining cascade, created by “Capability” Brown, to comply with a law requiring that such structures be able to withstand a one-in-ten-thousand-year flood. “You never know when something unsuspected will turn up,” he says.
Not surprisingly, the duke can go on at length about his illustrious family tree. “There have been some black sheep, that’s for sure,” he says with a laugh. But he issues a curt “No comment” when asked about his distant relation Princess Diana. He fondly remembers, however, his grandmother Consuelo, who died in 1964. “She was a lovely, wonderful lady, beautiful, with long legs, tremendous taste, great kindness.” Although the unhappiness of her marriage is now common knowledge, she did remain loyal to Blenheim after her separation, in 1906 (and 1921 divorce), returning to visit her two sons, whom she adored.
Also warmly recalled is cousin Winston Churchill. Born at Blenheim, in 1874, he was the son of the eighth duke’s younger brother, and the presumptive heir to the dukedom until 1897, when Sunny’s grandfather finally produced a son, an event that much relieved the dowager duchess, for one. “It would be intolerable to have that little upstart Winston become Duke,” she snapped.
But the prime minister spent many of his happiest days there. “He used to come quite a bit,” Sunny says, “and during the war he asked us to Chequers and Downing Street. He was so nice to children. One Christmas, he drew me aside and gave me a lovely gold watch. One was in awe of him, too, for his complete control of the English language.”
It was in 1972 that Sunny inherited the dukedom and took the reins at Blenheim. By this time he had two marriages behind him. In 1951 he married WH Smith heiress Susan Hornby, with whom he produced two children, Lady Henrietta, who is now a successful decorator, and Charles James, the Marquess of Blandford, known as Jamie, who arguably became his generation’s most infamous wayward heir (on which more later).
In 1961, Sunny wed Athina “Tina” Onassis, née Livanos. The daughter of Greek shipping magnate Stavros Livanos, she had just ended her 14-year marriage to Aristotle Onassis, with whom she had two children, Alexander and Christina. (In 1971, following her divorce from Sunny, she would marry Onassis’s arch-rival, Stavros Niarchos—her sister Eugenie’s widower. She died in 1974.)
The new blended family settled into Lee Place, a handsome Georgian country house about five miles from Blenheim. As Henrietta wrote in her memoir, Blenheim and the Churchill Family: A Personal Portrait, the early years of the marriage were happy for everyone, especially Christina: “For the first time, she was having a relatively normal childhood—attending a local school, riding her horse Cobweb, and enjoying sport and pets as opposed to the high social life [She] adored my nanny, who, unlike anyone else, treated her like one of us, disciplining and punishing her and thus earning her respect.”
While Henrietta “hero-worshipped” her elder stepsister, there were already portents of the troubled days ahead: “She had quite an obsessive character, often playing the same song over and over…. She was also addicted to Coca-Cola and Mars Bars.”
A year after his 1971 divorce from Tina, Sunny middle-aisled it with Rosita Douglas, a painter and onetime fashion designer, with whom he has two children, Lord Edward and Lady Alexandra. Though Rosita has her fans, “starchy” is an adjective that has been applied to her.
While Rosita is said to have been a fine mother, her stepson must have been a handful, to put it mildly. By the mid-80s, Jamie was addicted to heroin and other drugs, and was regularly seen collapsed at the most fashionable parties, or combing the streets of Brixton in search of crack. Over the next decades he was in and out of rehab clinics and jails, on charges including theft, road rage, and drug possession.
By the mid-90s the situation had become so dire that the duke took the virtually unprecedented step of going to court to break the estate’s 300-year-old trust and partially disinherit Jamie. A new trust was established that would oversee the estate’s assets after Sunny’s death, and then pass control to Jamie’s son, George (born in 1992 during a short marriage to Becky Few Brown, the daughter of a real-estate tycoon), when he succeeded.
“That awful trial business, it was dreadful,” says the duke today. “But we had to put in place what I would call controls to safeguard the estate.” (Some three dozen outbuildings sit on Blenheim’s 2,000-acre park; there are another 200 dwellings within the adjacent 11,000-acre estate.)
Inevitably, around this time, father-son relations hit bottom, and the two did not speak for several years. Meanwhile, Edward seemed to be doing everything right, such as rowing crew at Eton and studying economics at Cambridge. He currently is a partner at Sun Capital, a private-equity firm, which he co-founded.
Within English society, there was speculation that Edward, who was made a trustee of the estate 12 years ago, might be allowed to take the reins at Blenheim (though Jamie was always assured of inheriting his father’s title). Meanwhile, by 2007 Rosita and Sunny’s marriage had deteriorated to the extent that she decamped more or less full-time to Lee Place. (The family had kept it as their summer home, to escape the high-season tourist crush at Blenheim.)
Grace and Favor
While it has frequently been reported in the British press that Sunny and Lily first met in Palm Beach, the romance actually began, they reveal today, off Sardinia, on the Virginian, the 204-foot yacht of industrialist Sir Anthony Bamford and his wife, Carole.
“It was a stroke of luck!” says His Grace. “It was just very fortunate running into her on a boat in the Mediterranean.
“She’s brightened my life,” he continues, beaming. “She’s such an outgoing, charming person. She gets along with everyone so well and has got great joie de vivre.”
As Lily tells it, it was music that moved them. “We both love dancing and the same songs, from the 30s and 40s, which they were playing. So we danced all night. When it was time to go he asked for my number and I quickly scribbled it down. But as I got off the boat, I said to myself, This man is never going to remember my number.”
But call he did, with an invitation to dinner. “He was just so wonderful, so open. He told me everything,” says Lily, whose pet name for her husband is “Sunbuns.” “People think we’re so different—that I’m so ‘exotic.’ But Sunny has a Latin soul. That comes out.”
Also contrary to most press accounts, Lily was born not in India but in Iran. “We are very much Indian, but my family was in Iran for three generations,” she explains. Her father, she says, built railroads and other public-works projects for the Iranian government with the Hinduja Group, which began doing business in Iran in 1919.
Life in pre-revolution Tehran was “very, very decadent,” she remembers. “At 16, girls were coming to school in fur coats. It was ridiculous.”
When the revolution occurred, she had already enrolled at the London School of Economics, where the atmosphere could not have been more different. “At the time, it was very socialist. A little shocking, but very liberating.”
After getting a degree in international relations, she did “what seemed to be the right thing to do,” as she recalls, and got married, in 1987, to Ratan Mahtani, an Indian expatriate whose diversified businesses, including banking, shipping, and property interests, were based in Nigeria. The couple, who did not have children, divided their time between London and Lagos. “Unlike everyone else, I loved Lagos,” says Lily. “I’m a gypsy, so wherever I go I find something nice. The Nigerians look angry, but they’re not. And it’s not like you’re always avoiding gunshots—unless you’re in politics, which I’m not.”
When she was in London, however, she was moving in ever loftier circles, sometimes dining with members of the royal family, including the Queen Mother, who was said to have been charmed with her. According to numerous reports, John Bowes-Lyon, a cousin of the Queen Mother’s, opened many of these doors to Lily.
She sometimes mixed money and friendship. After befriending David Rocksavage, the seventh Marquis of Cholmondeley and the Queen’s Lord Great Chamberlain, she helped finance Other Voices, Other Rooms, the 1995 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella—Rocksavage directed and she was executive producer.
“We didn’t make a penny, but it was a great experience,” she says.
There was a less happy ending after she provided Sarah Ferguson, then still H.R.H. the Duchess of York, with £100,000 in 1994. While Lily thought of it as a loan, Fergie apparently considered it a gift. Eventually, Lily went to court to reclaim the funds, much to everyone’s embarrassment.
But in 1999—around the time the Mahtanis’ marriage dissolved—the suit was withdrawn.
“It was just a big misunderstanding,” Lily says. “We’ve ironed it out. I’m fond of her. If I run into her, great.” Her Grace is similarly magnanimous about her ex-husband, with whom she has remained close. “I absolutely still adore him,” she says about Mahtani, who is now based in Singapore and who has not remarried. “We’re great friends.”
After she resettled in London following her divorce, life as a single woman was fairly solitary, she says. “I was always in front of the computer, trying to invest my money. I always wanted to be in control of my money.
“That’s one of the nice things about Sunny,” she adds. “He’s the opposite. He lives in another world. His family—they’ve never seen a bill in their lives!
“It’s charming,” she continues. “Sunny opened up a whole new life to me. I’ve started playing golf, enjoying walks, being a more outdoors person.”
But the new duchess admits she is finding one of her husband’s favorite pastimes an acquired taste: his annual six-week winter visit to Palm Beach. “I like the weather,” she says tepidly. “And the fact that we have a tiny apartment on top of a store [in the Everglades Club on Worth Avenue]. It’s totally different to this. We make our own breakfast; we drive ourselves in a rental car, and go to the supermarket.
“I don’t like the social scene there as much as he does. They’re his friends. A table full of just rich people—it’s so boring.” The duchess goes on to note tartly that one of her husband’s closest friends there “doesn’t have one friend who’s not rich.”
Becoming chatelaine of Blenheim Palace took a bit of adjustment, she admits. “In the beginning it was a little scary—I felt like I was being watched. I found myself sitting next to people I had nothing in common with. I felt they were as bored with me as I was with them.”
While she’s made some minor interior alterations, she has no plans for major renovations, as some new wives in her position might. “It’s so perfect,” she says. “It is a formal house, but I try to make it as relaxing as possible. The old-fashioned world … we have to get rid of. It has to be more fun, more relaxed, warmer.”
That extends to embracing houseguests with alternative lifestyles. In a first for Blenheim, a same-sex couple—gentlemen from New York—officially shared a bed recently. When Her Grace informed His Grace of the impending arrangements, he was somewhat baffled, but she prevailed. “I said, ‘Sunny, it’s going to happen,’ ” she recounts.
But that’s a footnote to social history compared with another recent accomplishment, which should have significant impact on the estate. According to many sources, she was instrumental in bringing about a reconciliation between the duke and his heir, who, at age 55, finally seems to have pulled himself together. Recently, Jamie moved back to a house on the estate, with his second wife, Edla Griffiths, a Welsh-born ceramist, and their two young children; he’s been given an active role in running the estate.
Though Blandford was no doubt a difficult son, his family is hardly blameless for his troubles. The Spencer-Churchills, like many aristocratic English families, were not exactly reading Dr. Spock.
“Sunny’s father was the meanest man in England, and then Sunny neglected his children—as they do in England,” says Taki. “Lily talked sense into Sunny. She really went out of her way to get him to fix things.”
“It’s taken a long time, but we seem to be in the clear now,” says the duke about Blandford. “There were a lot of problems that seem to be overcome. Fingers crossed.”
“He’s had a difficult life,” says Lily. “But he’s clean now, and he’s absolutely a delight. And his wife will be the best duchess ever.”
The marquis returns the compliments.
“I get on incredibly well with Lily, I have a fantastic relationship with her,” he said, calling from a mountain in Verbier on a ski trip. “I wish her and my father every happiness.”
One by one, Lily seems to have won over her husband’s other offspring. “We all get along very well,” says Henrietta. “She’s slotted into her role now. She likes the house and she’s very good at running it.”
The new duchess even seems to have won over her younger set of stepchildren. According to rumors that circulated soon after the wedding, Edward and Alexandra remained firmly in the camp of their mother (who continues to live in Lee Place), which would hardly have been surprising, given the situation. But now everyone seems simpatico. “Lily has been a breath of fresh air,” says Edward. “She makes my father enormously happy and has changed his perspective in so many positive ways. My father runs around like a love-struck teenager—it’s very sweet.”
Given its ancient history and magnitude, it can’t be easy to bring change to Blenheim. Rules endure here. Every year before August 13—the anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim—the duke must, as all his predecessors have, send his representative to Windsor Castle, to present the Blenheim Standard to the sovereign, as “quit-rent” for the estate.
But some old customs seem to be falling by the wayside. Reminded of the old Jimmy Goldsmith line about mistresses and vacancies, the duke issues a sharp rebuke: “Not here!”
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