The curious life of Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough.
Perhaps it became evident to Gladys that hers would be an unusual life when her father fatally shot her mother’s lover.
Her parents were American and rich. They were in Paris in 1881 when Gladys, one of their four daughters, was born. The Deacons moved in the best social circles and their children were largely brought up and educated in France, mostly in Paris itself.
Gladys’ mother was a beautiful woman who had married Edward Deacon when she was quite young and these things, plus the fact that Edward was not the best of husbands led her towards extramarital affairs
Her mother, Florence, was a glamorous and beautiful woman who had married and embarked on motherhood at a young age. These facts, plus the moral code of the time and her husband’s tempers, virtually made affairs an essential part of her life. She had long-time lover named Emile Abeille.
Needless to say, Edward Deacon was not the sort of man to take his wife’s unfaithfulness lying down and after pursuing the couple throughout France as they travelled, he hunted them down in Cannes. There he staked out his wife’s bedroom and late at night heard Abeille’s voice. He returned to his room, grabbed his revolver and shot Abeille in the chest.
The dying man staggered into the hallway with Deacon hot on his heels and it was clear to witnesses what had happened. Deacon was arrested. As the French are notoriously lenient about crimes of passion he was jailed, but not for murder but manslaughter. With her life now in disarray, Florence sent Gladys to be educated at a convent.
The Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer Churchill
A few years later, many American mothers had their eyes on Charles Spencer Churchill as potential son-in-law. He was an English lord and the owner of the fabulous Blenheim Palace and its extensive lands.
Wealthy American girls were beginning to marry into the English nobility. These men had titles and lands but little money so they were marriages beneficial to both parties. She received an English title and his money worries were alleviated.
In his early twenties and extremely eligible, Charles was the subject of much speculation – who would he choose to be his bride?
Eventually this speculation came to halt when it was announced that he was engaged. Gladys had hoped he’d wait a little longer. See the image showing what she wrote to her mother. This was when she was fourteen years old.
The duke’s search for a bride
Charles had to marry a girl with money. His father, the previous bearer of the title had been forced to sell several valuable antique pieces and paintings from Blenheim Palace to maintain the splendid stately home.
Charles had inherited not only the property but also his father’s love of the palace which he was determined should be properly maintained.
Marrying an heiress was definitely one way to ensure that this happened. He had seen other titled Englishmen do exactly that. Girls loved the idea of marrying into British nobility and their mothers loved it all the more.
One American mother in particular had focused her sights on acquiring the duke as her son-in-law.
American heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt
Alva Vanderbilt knew that her daughter Consuelo was a beautiful girl. And Alva had decided that Charles was the man Consuelo should marry. She was rich and beautiful so what could possibly stand in the way?
Well, the fact that Consuelo was in love with someone else could have been problem but her mother dismissed that small detail and set to work. She arranged for the two young people to meet.
Alva then started to suffer from a mysterious ailment and told Consuelo that she was close to death. Her ”dying wish’ was that Consuelo should marry Charles Spencer Churchill.
It goes without saying that as soon as the marriage plans were announced, Alva had miraculous recovery from her bogus ailment
But the marriage was not to be happy
It’s hardly surprising that the marriage was an unhappy one. It was said that Charles too had been in love with someone else before Alva hatched her scheme so the marriage had rocky foundations. Nevertheless the couple had two children, both boys, but even so the marriage was heading towards its demise when Charles met another woman, Gladys Deacon.
He invited her to his family home and Gladys often stayed at Blenheim. Strangely Gladys and Consuelo became good friends but by the time the Spencer-Churchill marriage ended Gladys had become Charles’ mistress.
Gladys Deacon and early cosmetic surgery
Gladys wanted to become Charles’ wife but she had an insecurity. She was without doubt a beautiful young woman but she had fixation about her nose.
Seeking perfect looks, she had decided that the slight depression at the top of her nose was marring her classical beauty.
Plastic surgery as we know it today didn’t exist in those days but nevertheless Gladys decided to attend to what she saw as a terrible flaw on her face. She decided to have wax injected into the depression.
Unsurprisingly, this had a temporary effect on her nose but the wax that had been injected into her face remained there for the rest of her life, moving around and distorting her features.It’s said that a friend saw her heating her face in front of the fire and trying to massage the wax with her fingers from her jaw.
The Duchess of Marlborough
Despite this though, she did become the Duchess of Marlborough. Charles’ divorce took a long time to be finalised and Gladys was forty years old when they married but she had what she had wanted since the age of fourteen. But was he really the right man for her?
It wasn’t long before Gladys realised that the marriage had been mistake. Being Charles’ mistress was one thing but being his wife was quite another. When she became pregnant she recorded in her diary that she saw it as’a calamity’ and was relived when the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. She was so determined that it shouldn’t happen again that she kept a revolver in her bedroom to keep him away. She would also take the revolver to dinner with her,even when guests were present.
The Blenheim spaniels
Now in an unhappy marriage, with no children to keep her occupied, she looked around for a hobby. Whereas many women in her position would have taken up embroidery, watercolours or good works, Gladys decided to breed spaniels. The incredibly fine and opulent rooms of Blenheim Palace we soon filled with dog cages. The salons that had been used to entertain royalty and the nobility were now being used by Gladys’ ever-increasing menagerie as their bathroom.
Needless to day, Charles moved out.
Gladys and Charles both knew that the marriage was over but it was necessary for the duke to have his wife evicted from his ancestral home that was rapidly being ruined by her dogs. She moved to a cottage where her dogs could roam free and became increasingly eccentric. She transformed her cottage into a small farm with animals everywhere. Local children avoided walking past her home as they thought she was a witch.
Once a beautiful socialite, she was now a deformed and eccentric old woman
She became a recluse and it was just as well. Her home was in disgusting condition. Animals had the run of the place and it wasn’t unusual for her valuable jewellery and other artefacts from her previous life to mingle with her many cats and their resultant mess.
Yet she was still a duchess. She and Charles were never divorced. Every evening once her animals had been attended to she would sit smoking a pipe. Right next to her chair sat a huge fridge. The fridge had never been plugged in and every time one of her pet animals died, its body would be thrown into the fridge ‘to be buried later’.
The authorities eventually became aware of her living conditions and when she was eighty,she was taken into a care home where she remained until her death at the age of ninety six.
Author Hugo Vickers
When Hugo was sixteen years old, he read about Gladys. He decided to find out more and discovered that she was still alive an in the care home. In 1975 – two years before she died – he decided to visit her. To his surprise she was remarkably lucid and knowledgeable about the world and current events.
This unlikely pair became friends and Hugo visited her sixty five times and each time they would talk at length. At first she didn’t talk about her past but as they got to know each other, she confided more and more to Hugo.
He told her that he wanted to write about her and her life – and that book is seen here. After Gladys’ death he researched extensively and was granted permission to use her letters and private papers for his book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR