“You mustn’t address him as ‘Your Grace.’”
It was 2005. Lady Soames was helping me write to her cousin the Duke, asking (again) for the lease (at another friend-of-the-family discount) of the Great Hall at Blenheim Palace for a black tie dinner to crown the 13th Churchill Tour.
“What should I call him then? I can’t say ‘Sunny,’ as you do!” (The family nickname stemmed from the Duke’s first title, Earl of Sunderland.)
“Of course not. But ‘Your Grace’ is too formal, or for servants. Why not 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 can write ‘Dear Sir,’ But it will sound like a solicitor’s letter.”
Dutifully I wrote “My Dear Duke,” and he quickly replied (Dear Richard…Yours, Sunny). Of course we could have the Great Hall; yes, at lower cost; yes, he and the Duchess would be happy to attend. Just one thing, he added: “This will have to be the last time at that price. I have to answer to my trustees, and they simply don’t understand my making exceptions.”
I remembered that episode when I heard he’d left us, because it illustrates not only what a generous man he was, but how much he cared about Blenheim, so often run down in the past, which waxed glorious thanks to his attention to detail, his business acumen. And to assure continuity, he had organized a new 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 once asked 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 did emphasize the work needed to preserve an 18th century palace.
The Marlboroughs were committed at every level. “I think people 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: “Trust me, I’ve been up there on the scaffolding scrubbing the dentils with a toothbrush like everybody else.” Rosita, his wife from 1972 to 2008, was as welcoming as he was.
For our first Great Hall dinner in 1996, 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 then lived next to a New Hampshire dairy farm; Barbara merely 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 sometime habitation of Winston Churchill. Twice we dined in ultimate splendor in the Great Hall, the Duke and Duchess in the receiving line, putting everyone at ease. Another time it was the Orangery, as always organized by the Duke’s indispensable manager Paul Duffie. Once it was the Spencer-Churchill Conference Room, which the Duke made available for our academic symposium on Marlborough: His Life and Times. Yet again it was the Blenheim Muniment Room, off limits except to scholars, where we were shown the Marlborough archives that Churchill had perused while writing the great biography of his ancestor. 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 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.