Biographies, once a niche genre, are enjoying a wider readership than ever before. According to a survey in 2016, biographies accounted for annual sales of 38,000; in 2019, sales rose to 1.8m. A case in point is the unexpected success of Anne Glenconner’s book Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, documenting her time with Princess Margaret, which has sold 230,000 copies. It’s just one of several I’ve read recently including The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind The Jewellery Empire by Francesca Cartier Brickell and Paul Howard’s I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. The Short and Gilded Life of Tara Browne.
My enjoyment of (non-celebrity) biographies is undoubtedly their vignettes of dysfunctional aristocratic behaviour, fashion history and enviable lifestyles. I’m currently reading The Sphinx – The Life of Gladys Deacon – Duchess of Marlborough by Hugo Vickers, a master of the glossy biography. A revision of a book Vickers first published 40 years ago, this includes new material from previously closed archives and letters, and coincides with a exhibition about her life at her former home, Blenheim Palace.
Vickers was in his early 20s when he first forged a close bond with the eccentric duchess: “I believe young people need to have their eyes opened by curious friendships – she was 70 years older than me. She was very alluring, a complete sphinx. I’d love to have been at a dinner party when she was conversing with Anatole France for instance.” Not everyone shared the same opinion of the American heiress. To improve her profile, she had her nose injected with paraffin wax which slipped to her chin causing disfigurement. She ended her days in the geriatric ward of a psychiatric hospital, where she was placed against her will.
Vickers is loyal to all his subjects, telling me, “I feel you have to be on the side of the person you are writing about.” That said, he felt he was “hard” on society photographer Cecil Beaton. “It took me five years to write Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography and I viewed it as a long journey. Many people did not like him, saying he was ruthless and very ambitious. However, I met him when he was 76 and had had a stroke and considered him someone who would renvoyer l’ascenseur – terribly kind to young people. He helped me up the ladder, making me feel I wasn’t going to be a failure.”
I believe young people need to have their eyes opened by curious friendships
Success has followed all of Vickers’ biographies. The impeccably mannered, meticulous author began his career writing obituaries for The Telegraph and contributing to Debrett’s Peerage, and has the inside track on the House of Windsor having penned biographies of Queen Mary, Princess Andrew of Greece, Wallis Simpson and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, among others.
“Of course, The Crown has had much to do with the renewed interest in the Windsors and upper echelons of society,” he says. He likens the Queen Mother to Tammy Wynette: “She was fiercely protective of George VI, she was the power behind the throne and her strength made it possible for him to rule.” He adds, “her philosophy was to send people away feeling better. She was a life enhancer.” Possibly not when it came to Wallis Simpson? I suggest. Vickers counters, “She didn’t hate Wallis, she just didn’t know her very well.” Vickers believes Wallis was much maligned. “She didn’t steal the King, she turned herself into the most royal of duchesses and created a miniature court in exile for him. It was a huge responsibility.” Vickers’ opinion is informed by his lucky break – meeting the Windsors’ private secretaries and spending time while they were in exile in Paris.
His fondness for actress Vivien Leigh is apparent: a beauty whose talent was marred by manic depression in later life. “She crammed a lot into her 53 years. Larry [Laurence Olivier, her second husband] was dreadful, in my view.”
Spending much of his working life poring over correspondence between and about his subjects, Vickers laments the decline in letter writing. “I’ve kept every letter I’ve ever been sent but now only receive handful a month. It’s a rare luxury to read a book in full. I am finally working my way through the works of Proust in tandem with audio tapes while driving. It’s 170 hours, which will keep me going for a long time.”
The Sphinx, The Life of Gladys Deacon – Duchess of Marlborough (Hodder & Stoughton, €18.50) is out now.
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