Thursday, 2 May 2013

The real Gatsby was a woman: Lady Baillie and the glamorous 1920s

In the late 1920’s and 30’s when F Scott Fitzgerald created the immortal character of Jay Gatsby, America was going through times of great wealth and great poverty in equal measure.  Strict moral codes of the Victorian era were a thing of the past. The war was over, corsets were thrown away and wild dances swept the country.  The character of the Great Gatsby epitomised the mood of the times – a mysterious and incredibly wealthy man, he was pictured as the aloof and enigmatic host of wondrous parties thrown every weekend at his mansion in West Egg, Long Island.

Meanwhile in Britain, albeit in a slightly more discreet manner, a similar change in mood was under way - amongst the rich and powerful there was a new thirst for hedonism.  The era of the great House Party had come about and Lady Baillie, a wealthy Anglo American heiress, was a pivotal player, becoming one of the most influential hostesses of her day.

In 1926 Olive Wilson-Filmer (still in her second marriage) had her first glimpse of Leeds Castle, known as the loveliest castle in the world, and for her it was love at first sight.  She set about with characteristic determination and drive to save the gently decaying castle.  With help from the greatest French designers of the day, she redesigned the interiors to the very height of comfort and art deco fashion.  Almost unheard of luxuries were installed in the castle, including under-floor heating, onyx en-suite bathrooms with new-fangled American washing facilities - her guests’ enjoyment and entertainment were paramount.  At weekend parties they were able to partake of the new swimming pool (incredibly for the day, with a wave machine), tennis, squash, croquet, riding, boating, zebras criss-crossing the grounds; and then in the evenings after a sumptuous dinner, they could repair to the velvet lined Grand Salon, where a specially laid ebony dance floor was ready to welcome them.

And no one, no matter how rich, famous or powerful would miss a chance to enjoy the hospitality laid on at Leeds Castle.   Whilst she herself was a reserved and discreet person, Lady Olive Baillie found her greatest pleasure in bringing together fascinating and influential people.  Like a great casting director, she would combine Royalty – George, Duke of Kent, Queen  Marie of Romania; with stars of the silver screen – Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplain, Errol Flynn, David Niven, Noel Coward; and powerful politicians, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. 

Pamela Harriman (one of the castle’s more infamous house guests) once described Olive Baillie as restrained in behaviour compared with many of her much more notorious contemporaries”.  “Above all”, she said “she was discreet, which many were not.  She didn’t need to seduce rich men, her special aphrodisiac was power”.   But like Gatsby, Lady Baillie could be enigmatic and shy.  When Margaret Sweeny, the ultimate 1920s “it” girl and later Duchess of Argyll, was first invited to the castle, she was warned by a regular visitor that she might not even see Lady Baillie, who often kept to her rooms rather than joining in the party.  In the event, they had tea together and she continued to visit for over 30 years.

In fact Lady Baillie shied away from any publicity and her discretion, coupled with the natural security of a castle set on an island, ensured that celebrity guests, many of whom were on public show for much of their lives, were able to totally relax without fear of press intrusion.  A rare appearance in the papers occurred when the Profumo scandal broke and Profumo was a weekend house guest: “but all the waiting journalists saw was a weed-clogged moat.”  Indeed, the castle’s great privacy has led to many global conferences taking place within its secure walls over the passing years, including in recent times the Irish Peace Talks.

Lady Baillie died in 1974 after a full and fascinating life and her greatest love, Leeds Castle, she left to the Nation.