11th Duke of Marlborough

11th Duke of Marlborough

Photo by Allen Warren, 1984.
Pho­to by Allen War­ren, 1984.

“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.”

Duchess and Duke receiving Marcus and Molly Frost, Churchill Tour XIII, 2006. At right, Paul Duffie.
Duchess and Duke receiv­ing Mar­cus and Mol­ly Frost, Churchill Tour XIII, 2006. At right, Paul Duffie.

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.”

DSCN0141The 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.

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