In Memoriam: 13 April 1926 – 16 October 2014
“You shouldn’t call him ‘Your Grace,’ you know.”
It was 2005. Lady Soames was coaching me on a letter to her cousin the Duke of Marlborough, asking (again) for the lease (at a friend-of-the-family discount) of the Great Hall at Blenheim Palace for a black tie dinner crowning the 2006 Churchill Tour.
“What should I call him, then? I can’t call him ‘Sunny,’ as you do!” (The family nickname stemmed from one of the Duke’s early titles, Earl of Sunderland.)
“Of course not. But ‘Your Grace’ is too formal, or for servants. Write, ‘My Dear Duke’”
“Sounds positively medieval,” I said, drawing a snort from Winston Churchill’s daughter. “Well,” she said, “if you want to be completely unimaginative you may write ‘Dear Sir.’ But it will sound like a solicitor’s letter.”
Always having benefited from her advice, I duly wrote “My Dear Duke,” and he quickly replied (“Dear Richard,” signed “Sunny”). We could have the Great Hall; yes, at a reduction; and thank-you, he and the Duchess would be glad to attend. Just one thing, he said at the end: “This will have to be the last time at that price. I have to answer to my trustees, and they simply don’t understand when I make exceptions.”
I remembered that episode when I heard he’d left us, because it illustrates not only what a generous person he was, but how much he cared about Blenheim. The estate so often run down in its history waxed glorious under his stewardship, with his attention to detail and canny business sense. And to ensure continuity, he had placed Blenheim under a board of trustees, to whom even he paid deference, knowing that they were devoted to its survival as the national monument to John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough.
Make no mistake, it is no easy task. I remember asking him why, every time I visited, there was scaffolding up somewhere around the building. “Because,” he said with a smile, “every time we finish painting the window sash, it’s time to start all over again.” I had to think he was speaking figuratively, but it certainly emphasized the work needed to maintain and preserve this grand edifice.
The Marlboroughs were involved at every level. “People must visualize me lounging on a divan in leopardskin leotards with a long cigarette holder,” joked his wife of thirty-six years, the former Countess Rosita Douglas, in the Orangery during a lesser but by no means ungrand Churchill banquet. “She gestured toward the ceiling: “But I’ve been up there on the scaffolding scrubbing the dentils with toothbrush like everybody else.”
Rosita was as welcoming to us as he was. For our first Great Hall dinner, warned that the Duke was notoriously hard to converse with, I seated at his right my secret weapon, Mrs. Barbara Langworth, who is capable of engaging with anybody. The two of them chatted gaily throughout the meal. “I thought he was hard to talk to?” I asked her afterward. “How did you do it?” “Cows,” she said. We lived next to a New Hampshire dairy farm at the time; Barbara simply mentioned cows, and the Duke was off and running on the fine points of bovine husbandry.
Churchillians came to Blenheim not to gape at its wonders but because it was the birthplace and frequent location of the man they revered. Twice we dined in ultimate splendor in the Great Hall, the Duke and Duchess standing in the receiving line, putting everyone at ease. Another time it was the Orangery, as always organized by the Duke’s indispensible manager, Paul Duffie. Once it was the Spencer-Churchill Conference Room, which the Duke made available for an academic symposium on Marlborough: His Life and Times. Yet again it was the Blenheim Muniment Room, off limits to all but scholars, where we were shown the Marlborough archives that Churchill had himself perused while writing his great biography. At every one of those occasions the Duke and Duchess made themselves available, even when pressed by other concerns, to welcome us to their home.
The Long Library at Blenheim is dominated by an 1891 Henry Willis organ, which bears a poignant legend: “In memory of happy days & as a tribute to this glorious home, we leave thy voice to speak within these walls in years to come, when ours are still.”
The 11th Duke of Marlborough went to his rest knowing that his great work to preserve and protect a Churchillian monument goes on under his trustees. I am confident that his voice will speak through their example, in years to come, when ours are still.