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I visit the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough as they open Blenheim palace to the public.
I went to Blenheim Palace for lunch alone with the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. I wanted to see for myself what the post-war socialized lottery has shaken up for the cream of Britain’s blue-bloods.
The Marlboroughs own the tremendous 300-room palace - surrounded by a 5000-acre park - which one working man described to me as “the biggest white elephant in England.”
In all honesty, I must report that the present duke, who is the tenth to bear the title, and his wife - as regal-looking a brunette beauty as any Hollywood producer could dream up to fit the role - are putting up a darned good fight.
Taxes and upkeep - the duke’s 12,000-acre holdings require some 50 to 60 employees to keep them in condition - have made it impossible for the tall, ramrod-backed, patrician-looking 53-year-old duke to consider this home his castle in the old sense of the proverb. This year, for the first time since Queene Anne, in 1705, presented the first Duke of Marlborough with the royal estate and a starter bequest of 240,000 pounds to erect suitable mansion for her favorite war lord, Versailles-like Blenheim is being opened to the public.
For about thirty-two cents (American) you can brouse among family portraits by Reynolds, fountains by Bernini, furniture by Reisner - and drool over the world’s finest collection of Powder Blue china and silver like you never gazed upon in Madison Avenue windows.
The Marlboroughs, who own all this, are somewhat bewildered at the prospect of the invasion of the thousands who will undoubtedly come to view their treasures. But they are completely unbowed.
“ I see you’ve got your roof back over your head,” the Duke quoted one of his friends as remarking to him when announcement was made of the public opening of Blenheim.
A borrowed chauffeur, at the wheel of a borrowed car, drove me through the great entrance gate and along the winding avenue which lead through the magnificent green acres toward the mansion in the distance.
A guide conducted me to the family sitting-room. The Duchess rose from her desk to offer me a cocktail. I noted the stacks of correspondence, piles of stationery and envelopes and sheaves of accounting sheets - and gathered at a glance that much of the business sense behind the establishment belonged to this woman in her late forties or early fifties who was born the Honorable Alexandra Mary, fourth daughter of Henry Arthur, Viscount Chelsea and granddaughter of the fifth Earl of Cadogan.
“ It was my husband’s decision to open Blenheim to the public,” she said, adding quite candidly, “But I’m the one who puts the extra guide in the Great Hall or sees that the carpets are turned n the State Dining Room.”
We talked briefly of her Red Cross and A.T.S. activities. She is especially interested in the Red Cross activities at Monte Cassini, was chief commandant of the British Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service from 1938-40.
The Duchess was in the process of showing me her collection of small, hand-carved elephants arranged on a lamp table by the fireplace when her husband, a very tall, somewhat portly - but very erect - man leaning on a cane entered the room.
The Duke found it considerably harder than his wife to keep the conversational ball rolling with a visiting American journalist. Or perhaps the reticence was mutual. For I found it difficult to decide whether the poker-faced aristocrat was trying to be humorous - or was merely being inadvertently funny - in his comments about Texas and Oklahoma and questions as to whether I lived in Windsor. (I live in Detroit, on the United States end of the runnel which connects the Motor City and Windsor, Ontario, across the Detroit River.)
So, stifling an old Hoosier inclination to have a good, hearty laugh now and then, I tried to respond to each of his comments carefully and soberly.
My visit with the Marlboroughs left no doubt in my mind on two scores. The Marlboroughs love Blenheim with an intensity, almost a selflessness, that a vagrant, itinerant American hardly understands. And talk about teamwork - those two are pulling together in their proud, haughty, way, to keep the operation going, like a couple of veterans.
“ Do come and see our beeches”, the Duke led the way much like my Aunt Margaret used to direct visitors to her red peony beds at the Old Home Place in Greencastle, Indiana.
We walked through a pair of French doors that gave off of the sitting room onto a raised stone piazza affording a panoramic view of the south and east portions of the park.We stood for a moment, resting our hands on the grillwork railing covered with morning glory-like vines of abretia.
“ That’s what the war did to our hedges,” bridled the Duchess, pointing toward great gaps in the meticulously trimmed yews surrounding the formal garden below me.
She explained that yews require manure fertilizer and the latter was unavailable during the war, adding with a shrug, “It will be a long time before those bare areas fill up properly.”
We walked down the sun-stained, worn stone steps, across a gravel driveway, and out onto a great green. In the midst of the green the duke turned abruptly and pointed back.
“ The finest bust in existence of Louis XIV, “ he waved toward an enormous stone bust at the height of the South Portico.
How did it get to Blenheim?
“ The first Duke took it as a bit of loot, I think,” smiled the Duchess wryly. “It came from the gates of Tournai in Belgium.”
Later, I read in the guide book that it weighed 30 tons, was put on a West Country barge which was “quite ruin’d by its weight, and was not hoisted into place until 1721. But so perfectly is it in proportion with the rest of Blenheim that it might have been carved expressly for the palace.
Back in the sitting room we relaxed for a few moments, as the Marlboroughs told of some of the trials of getting the place refurbished ( it was taken over by the government during the war) and the treasures back in place in time for summer tourists. Then a footman in livery softy announced lunch.
“ What’s this?”, His Grace inquired a bit testily when the second course - long strips of gravy-covered meat - arrived to follow the first course of quartered, hard-cooked eggs served on beds of shredding lettuce, topped with a Hollandaise-like sauce.
His wife, who refers to him as “His Grace” in front of the help and addresses him personally as Blandford (he was the Marquis of Blandford until he assumed his present title after his father’s death in 1934), took his brusqueness sitting down. With a snap of her proud chin in my direction she answered, “It’s some beef my mother-in-law in America sent me.”
I asked where in America her mother-in-law lived and she told me that the former Consuelo Vanderbilt, whose portrait and sculptured likeness I was later to see in various spots about the palace, is now Mrs. Louis Balsan and lives in Aiken, North Carolina. The Marlboroughs also have a married daughter in the United States, whose husband is a newspaperman in Pennsylvania.
With the beef from America we had tin round new potatoes dipped in parsley butter, and excellent young spinach, neatly chopped and lightly creamed, which I relished. His Grace, however, lacked that common interest with Popeye. He looked on the spinach with considerable disdain.
The next course - the footman always served me first, the Duchess next, His Grace last - was a fruit-filled mousse, eaten only by myself and the Duke. (Perhaps the Duchess’ abstinence accounts for her beautifully slender figure.) Then a cheese board was brought on, with such a bewildering array of fine cheese that I found it impossible to identify the one the Duke urged by name and took only a small portion of the cheese nearest me.
Three glasses graced our place settings at the table, an indication that the owner of Blenheim were making an all-out effort for a visitor from America. Into the first, one of the footmen poured, at the beginning of the meal, a sort of iced orange-colored mixture with mint leaves in it. “Is there orange in this?” the Duke frowned at the footman nearest him. “Yes, Your Grace,” was the meek reply. The Duke sputtered audibly, “Never want to add orange to it - spoils it.” I gathered that the liquid had originally been the British favorite - tea.
The rest of the glasses went empty, except for the port the Duke took, which I declined, at the conclusion of the meal.
Conversation during the luncheon went somewhat jerkily from one topic to another. The Duke’s English - a British accent has always presented somewhat of a barrier to this Middle Westerner - added to his mumbled enunciation, had me bending my ears almost double.
The Duchess took hold, however, whenever verbal gaps occurred.
Knowing the Mr. Winston Churchill’s birth room was at Blenheim and that both Churchill’s parents were buried at Bladon Church, easily seen from the Saloon portico, I mentioned that my husband and I had seen Churchill twice that week - first during a fifteen-minute interview at his office in the House of Commons and later - even more dramatically - at the bewitching hour of near-midnight when the “division” (voting) followed the heated debate on the subject of raising the freight rates on the government-owned railroad.
“ Just this Wednesday I had dinner with him,” brightened the Duchess.
I went on to say that we were dinner guests at the House of Commons the evening of the debate of the Richard Crossmans. Crossman is a Labor leader, and a member of Parliament from Coventry.
“ How did you happen to do that?” the Duchess asked with a mixture of humor and incredulity.
I told her that the Crossmans had been sent to us in Detroit the previous year by a mutual magazine editor-friend, that I had found them both stimulating and interesting - and Mrs. Crossman surprisingly conservative.
When I mentioned that I had attended a 45-minute interview with Sir Stafford Cripps, Her Grace wanted to know what I thought of “the man”.
I replied that he had handled the interview extremely well, that he hadn’t resorted to an old English trick I find very annoying - the trick of belittling the question if the individual being questioned does not choose to answer or is unable to do so.
“ Several things he said alarmed me for the the future of Britain,” I added. “His statement to the effect that Britain could take care of cartels by nationalizing - that frightened me.”
“ But I must say I had the feeling he is very sincere,” I concluded.
“ Yes,” said the Duke quietly - “Yes, there’s no doubt about it - he’s sincere. Sincere and very able.”
“ He gave up a splendid practice to take on the task he now has,” he reminded me of the very remunerative legal practice Cripps had abandoned to become Chancellor of the Exchequer.
We discussed education.
The Marlboroughs’ five children were largely educated at home by tutors. Only the last, a nine-year-old boy who is now away at school, has been thrown in with the herd.
I inquired as to where they found suitable tutors.
“ Tutors?” the Duke looked as if the thought were almost too ridiculous to mention. “You can find plenty of them - anywhere,”
We got on the topic of babies and I mentioned that as an American woman I wouldn’t have thought of having my babies anywhere but in a hospital if I could avoid it.
“Too many British women that I’ve talked to insist they’s rather have them at home,” I opened up the subject.
“ Certainly, it’s better at home - at least we think so,” my hostess assured me. “Then you can boss things around the way you want to,” she modified the comment with the hint of a smile.
“ I’m on the board of the local hospital,” she went on. “And right now I’m having terrible problem with one woman.”
“ In the first place, I can’t get her a bed. And in the second, nobody wants the responsibility of the rest of her family while she’s off to the hospital.”
As mayor (cq) of the town of Woodstock, where Blenheim is located, the Duchess had to put in an appearance at the funeral of one of the local authorities. So she excused herself, reappeared in a moment - after donning the long gold chain of authority over the beautifully cut black dress she was wearing - and turned me over to the head guide for a two-hour tour of Blenheim’s interior.
The guide, a Scotchman who had served with the Duke in the army, turned out to be gentleman after any curious American’s heart.
I noted a tremendous, oblong silver bowl on a massive table in the Great Hall, where the official tour begins. The guide turned, and with a twinkle told me, “We tell the people the present duke was bathed (pronounced bathed) in it,” he remarked good-humoredly. “His father had it made from a collection of silver. The present duke insists it’s a punch bowl - but he’s the only one who does.”
I asked what was behind a door labeled the Rose Room.
“ Well, let’s just have a look,” he opened up obligingly.
Within were a few stacks of framed pictures, a corner fireplace into which a great chunk of soot had fallen, some beautiful parquet flooring.
“ Somebody suggested we should say this was the Churchill room,” he explained. “But the Duke said he wouldn’t have it - someone would find out it wasn’t the Churchill birth room. And now a young woman wants to rent it to show a collection of dolls.”
How did the Duke feel about letting out parts of the palace for others to profit by his ready-made audiences?
“ He thinks that when the people pay their money to see the palace there shouldn’t be extras they aren’t counting on,” was his answer.
Later, in passing through one of the great drawing rooms, I pointed to some exquisite, tiny, after-dinner coffee cups on a very accessible table. “He’d better put those things away before the crowd gets too thick,” I warned.
“ The Duke won’t put anything away,” he shrugged. “As long as they’re paying half a crown he wants everyone to have his money’s worth,” he insisted.
“ When the Marlboroughs got back from the funeral they expressed concern over something they had raised earlier - the best means of getting American tourists with American dollars to take a day off and travel seventy miles up into Oxfordshire to see Blenheim.
“ We’re out after your American dollars,” they both said quite frankly,
The Duke chewed thoughtfully on a long-thick cigar.
“ England needs those wonderful American dollars,” he mumbled softly, adding proudly, “I got my first American dollars only last week.”
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