POLLY DEVLIN’s remembrance of people and times past is triggered by her collection of treasured antiques and the backstories of their acquisition …
For new readers and seasoned ones … This is the fourth episode in the loose concoction called The Remembering Rope – a series of memories describing the fruits of my travels and my addiction to collecting – an addiction which skewed my life as all addictions do. As I move through my house past the pictures and objects I also see my past life in geographical detail and in memorable panorama. I try not to be like a priestess guarding a shrine but there’s an element of that in it. So I also try to cull – and it’s difficult. I still slightly mourn the ones that get away.
So: last time we met I wrote that I was rolling up some precious fabric into an old trunk and wondering if there would be a next time. I didn’t know I was rolling up my life, but here I am again shaking it out, frangible, a little crumpled, the spangles a bit dulled but when I cheer up it still catches the sun.
This trunk is one of two which I treasure. The first one, where I keep the fabric is an example of meticulous craftsmanship and was the work of a 19th-century estate carpenter at a house called Castle Hill where my husband’s family lived – and live – in Devon. It was made specifically for storing some family silver – so unlike our own dear family life – and is fitted with tightly layered trays full of oddly sized compartments lined in green baize, with hand-written labels for each section. Such arcane objects – not just fish knives and cake slicers and fork props (I think that’s what they are) but condiment spoons and candle-snuffers and parts of an elaborate silver garniture for the centre of the table. It is a work of art – yet just made for storage. When I first opened it, I found, not silver, but old letters and documents about a shocking incident at Castle Hill.
The other trunk is by Louis Vuitton, painted with blue and white livery stripes and the initials CB on each end. The livery looks both simple and grand. This is a proper heirloom and shouldn’t be mine at all unless I change my name.
It belonged to Consuelo Vanderbilt, the fabulously wealthy, famously beautiful and unhappy American heiress whose mother in 1890 forced her into a marriage in return for an English title. This was the time of the Dollar Princesses around the end of the 19th-century, when young American heiresses were more or less sold to impoverished English aristocrats. (More than £600 billion in today’s money went to English and French aristocrats as dowries from these mostly reluctant young women. Edith Wharton wrote many a good novel about them.)
Consuelo was only 17 and terrified of her domineering snobbish mother who had set her sights on the Duke of Marlborough as her future son-in-law. (She later testified to having psychologically blackmailed Consuelo into accepting the Duke’s reluctant offer of marriage.) Consuelo was secretly engaged to someone else and the Duke too was in love but he needed the money to restore his enormous debt-ridden Blenheim Palace and so two unhappy young people set off to a warped future in unimaginable luxury.
When Consuelo (who was no saint though she projected an air of injured innocence) had produced “the heir and the spare” the marriage was over and immediately after her divorce she married the dashing sportsman and aviator Colonel Jacques Balsan who, it was rumoured, had first fallen in love with her when they met in New York when she was 17.
Jacques was the brother of Etienne Balsan who took Coco Chanel off the streets and taught her the rules of high society so she could break them. The brothers sound the most attractive of men, not physically beautiful but rich, gregarious, tremendously horsy and sporty and most important – they both loved and cared for women. And did they have an eye for them!
When Consuelo married Jacques Balsan in 1921, all her Louis Vuitton luggage was marked with these three white and blue stripes and her new initials and after her death this trunk went to Cecil Beaton – not much of a puzzle as to why. In turn it was given to a man called Sam Green, a sort of amanuensis to Cecil Beaton as well as a sort of kingpin in many recherché fields of art and travel and 1960s cultural bohemian life. Now it is mine mine mine and I am considering changing my name to Colly Bevlin.
And when I sat constrained and isolated during those strange lost months, it was my PASSPORT TO MEMORIES of wonderfully open vanished worlds.
Sam Green was the first person I ever saw with so many fingers in so many pies and a gold stud in his tooth. I was living in New York when I first met him and I had no idea what he actually did – and never did quite know. In fact I was pig-ignorant considering I was a features editor supposed to be au courant with the scene. I did know he was always whizzing around the world and seemed to know everyone but that was par for the course in that society.
I liked him so much and our walks downtown together were a highlight of any week; what I didn’t know and he never told me was that for 15 years when he was in NY he walked with Greta Garbo in Central Park. Nor did I know that he was a close friend of Andy Warhol’s and acted in some of Warhol’s films. When he was 25, he became the first director of the cutting-edge Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and set about installing a major retrospective of Warhol’s work when Warhol was still an unplaceable suspect phenomenon. Hubristic wasn’t in it. The opening night was a riot. Though the building could hold only 300 people, Sam sent out 6,000 invitations and he and Warhol had to hide on a balcony until rescued by the police from the ravening crowd. He was also cultural adviser to John Lindsay, the handsome WASP mayor of New York and the thing that most knocked me out was how he had used his power to help put a stop to the building of a refuelling station for the US Air Force on Easter Island. As part of the protest against this proposed unbelievable vandalism, Green managed to shut down the busy 59th Street Bridge and both lanes of Park Avenue to allow the installation of one of the giant moai monolithic statues of Easter Island in the forecourt of Seagram’s Plaza. Park Avenue didn’t know what had hit it. The project was cancelled.
I never thought that Sam had any money, that he was flying by the seat of his pants, but suddenly he was taking Concorde and staying in the Connaught and the Carlisle and had bought a house in Cartagena and was John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s art adviser and was named Sean Lennon’s guardian should he and Yoko be killed together.
“What happened, Sam?” I said. The question diverted him. “I made it,” he said, “I can do what I want”. Well, he always had.
This was deep in the English countryside and I had one of my babies clamped to my breast and Sam was ruff ed at the sight and I didn’t blame him but other than making St Agatha of myself * there was no way to unzip the baby. He said, backing out of the room and averting his eyes, “I’ve got something for you” and came back in dragging this wonderful trunk and Cecil Beaton by a handle and a hand. Cecil didn’t know where to put himself, so he parked his elegant bum on the trunk.
And when I sat constrained and isolated during those strange lost months, it was my passport to memories of wonderfully open vanished worlds.
There’s a happy ending. Consuelo Balsan lived a radiantly happy married life all over the world in wonderful houses until her death in 1964. Near the liveried trunk on a shell bureau is a large, intricate, detailed, pottery model of an Elizabethan house, which with its two towers at each end of the façade, has a faint air of fortification. I will tell you about this object next month … and that shocking story.
Now I’m all shaken out. Are you?
* St Agatha is commonly featured in religious art with her breasts on a plate.
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