Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New Adventures: You'll be the First to Know

The newly opened  Falknuma Palace Hotel photographed by Guy Hervais

I hope you experienced everything wonderful and happy for Thanksgiving last week. In the meantime, I am in India researching new features. I'll catch up with you in December with a series of fantastic and surprising and inspiring features.

Have a joyful week!


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Adieu, Dodie

Farewell to a Legend

San Francisco philanthropist, fashion connoisseur and couture patron, Dodie Rosekrans, who counted John Galliano, Hubert de Givenchy, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, the Dumas-Hermes family, artists, curators, princesses and contessas, ballet dancers, art students and creators among her international friends, died recently at her residence in San Francisco.

She was 91, and had lived a bewitching, friend-filled, and vibrant life, full of curiosity, ebullience, and enthusiasm. Throughout her life, she inspired countless artists, designers, and friends to be creative, expressive and fearless. Her last words were, “I am so happy.”

Come and pay tribute to a generous spirit and visit her legendary residence, with superb and classic interiors by Michael Taylor.

Dodie Rosekrans bewitched friends and everyone she met. In San Francisco and in Paris and Venice, her arrival at an art gallery or the Prix de Diane equestrian event in Chantilly, or at a ball in Venice, was electric.

I recall Dodie appearing at a SFMOMA ball in the ‘Firebird’ jacket by Jean-Paul Gaultier. She looked like an exotic bird, her ensemble fluttering with long, shimmering red, blue, green and black iridescent feathers that extended up around her head and arched down beyond her fingers.

To an antique show in Paris she wore a baroque pearl necklace by Christopher Walling, with silvery gray/green pearls the size of quail eggs. Her asymmetrical black jacket, quite severe, was by Yohji Yamamoto. At a South of Market gallery show of new artists' paintings, she topped a Comme des Garcons side-buttoned tunic in black silk satin with an emerald necklace of the rarest of rare stones shimmering, in my memory as large as golf balls. She loved extravagant Tony Duquette jewelry and often piled it on with rainbow-embroidered quilted jackets by Kaisik Wong, another young designer she championed.

I always felt uplifted, thrilled, to see such beauty—and her natural and low-key way of wearing these rarities. Such beauty, and her celebration of designers’ most elaborate work, happen seldom and are qualities to be celebrated and savored.

“Top designers—Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Christian Lacroix, John Galliano, Junya Watanabe, Rick Owens, Yves Saint Laurent, Kaisik Wong, Karl Lagerfeld—are all artists and I admire their creativity, originality, and avant-garde sense of style,” says Rosekrans, who was born in San Francisco and went to private girls’ schools in Pacific Heights.
“She had a great personality, a certain extravagance, and was extremely generous with everyone. She was kind, intelligent and eccentric. She wore things like no-one else could; extravagant jewelry, like a toad necklace of jade or emeralds. She has her own taste, a type of elegance, of chic, and great humility.” — Hubert de Givenchy, WWD November 9 2010
John Galliano said to a WWD Paris reporter, “Honestly, without Dodie’s patronage and encouragement, I would not be where I am today. She had a vision, intelligence and integrity that made her one of the most amazing and interesting women to be around.”

The decor of the living room is exactly as Michael Taylor designed it in the ’70s. Taylor selected eight large-scale 18th century William Kent chairs, which are upholstered in chartreuse silk-velvet.

“I’ve always loved fashion, ever since my mother took me to the Paris couture in the thirties,” says Rosekrans, who divided her year, carefully following the art, social and fashion calendars, between her mansion in San Francisco (fall and Christmas), her chic jewel-like apartment in Paris, (spring), and her theatrical grand palazzo in Venice (summer, when she watched the Venice Regatta from her Grand Canal palazzo balcony).

Rosekrans has had a life-long love affair with art, and she enjoyed contemporary paintings and sculpture in her historic residences in San Francisco, in the Paris apartment, and the Venice palazzo. All of the carved stone fireplaces, moldings and architecture are original to the post-earthquake residence.

“I don’t set out to be original. Not at all. I wear what appeals to me. It happens that many fashion designers, like Galliano and Gaultier, are friends of mine and I like to celebrate their joyful work and enjoy sense of style,” says Rosekrans, whose grand closets and attic were filled with five decades of couture gowns, resplendent kaftans, Japanese wizardry, Halston cashmere dresses, Zandra Rhodes jackets, shimmering embroidered jackets and pastel-colored fur coats, any of which could hold pride of place in a museum costume collection. “I don’t set out to be original. I wear what appeals to me. It happens that many of the fashion designers are friends of mine and I like to wear their clothes.”

The ardent fashion aficionado is also a generous, life-long arts supporter, benefiting the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Pompidou, Mills College, Opera de Paris, Save Venice (savevenice.org), as well as arts organizations and cultural activities around the world.

Rosekrans, whose original name, Georgette, was replaced by her family’s endearing baby name, Dodie, grew up in San Francisco in the glamorous post-earthquake 20s and ’30s.

Dodie, like many young California girls of that time, was sent to finishing school in Switzerland. “They taught comportment for young ladies, how to hold a knife, and good manners, but I would not call it an education,” recalled Dodie as we sipped tea in her living room. “In those days, girls didn’t work, so that eliminated a whole world of interesting things I would have loved to explore.”

She soon set out to correct that, studying art, visiting museums and making a point of meeting leading artists of the day. Rosekrans, a lifelong autodidact, would eventually become a patron of young artists and university art programs, and was an honorary trustee for the prestigious Centre Pompidou Foundation in Paris, among many other posts.

In 1960, Dodie married her second husband, the late John N. Rosekrans Jnr, the grandson of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the legendary wife of a sugar baron. De Bretteville Spreckels, one of the great San Francisco philanthropists of the 20th century, and donated the elegant California Palace of the Legion of Honor overlooking San Francisco Bay to the City.

It was Rosekrans who encouraged his wife to buy couture, and Dodie’s photo albums from the ‘60s and ‘70s are chock-a-block with party pictures of Dodie in Paris, wearing Balenciaga and Givenchy, and in San Francisco in Dior and Yves Saint Laurent in diamond parures and over-the-top strings of baroque pearls, emeralds and rubies.

Rosekrans shows her rebellious streak by also wearing African tribal jewelry, chunky antique Tibetan coral and turquoise necklaces, along with dramatically overscale Tony Duquette necklaces, strands of pale gray baroque Tahitian pearls, along with walnut-sized emeralds and rubies like those in the treasure troves of the great Nawabs and Nizams and Maharajahs and Maharanis of India. Sometimes she appears to be wearing them all at once—a thrilling sight.

“I never set out to be dramatic,” says Rosekrans. “I look through my closets and jewelry cases and wear what appeals to me that day.’

The smoking room is the purest expression of Michael Taylor’s design, with its walls arrayed in grass cloth, a stash of immense Brazilian amethyst crystals, and a pair of carved Senufo birds. The twig wall sculpture is by Charles Arnoldi, a Taylor favorite.

In 1979, the Rosekranses acquired one of the most beautiful residences in San Francisco, built in 1916 by architect Willis Polk. The couple hired San Francisco designer Michael Taylor to design the interiors.

Taylor created one of his most elegant and enduring interiors in California, with elaborate pilasters and walls painted a soft gray, s parquet floors stained dark walnut. Taylor brought in eight bold and gutsy gilded Georgian chairs, a towering 12-panel Chinese Coromandel screen, and a pair of curvy sofas in a style favored by Elsa Schiaparelli. Lavish silk burlap upholstery, rich chartreuse cut silk velvet on the gilt chairs, and a series of majestic Chinese lacquered tables inset with mother-of-pearl, contrast with rough 4-foot tall Brazilian quartz crystals, massive geodes, tall African carved birds, and chunky Chinese jade collections.

“I have not changed a thing since Michael completed it,” Rosekrans, dressed in a black Yamamoto jacket, told me recently as she reclined on an 18th century gilded French chaise longue.
“To get Mrs. Rosekrans’ seal of approval on a collection was always high praise indeed and her high standard and discrimination are qualities I will continue to strive for.” — John Galliano, WWD Nov 9, 2010

Dodie’s Favorite Venice

In 2008, I wrote a feature about Venice for PAPERCITY, and I asked Dodie, who had a palazzo on the Grand Canal, for her favorites.

Next time you’re in Venice, wander in the footsteps of Dodie, ponder her generous life, and celebrate her spirit.

Dodie used to take up residence every summer in the legendary Palazzo Brandolini, overlooking the Grand Canal. From her grand and glorious and ultra-private piano nobile, decorated by Tony Duquette and Hutton Wilkinson, she would set off on foot to visit her favorite galleries, bookshops, and restaurants.

Here’s what Dodie told me:
“My palazzo is within easy walking distance from great museums and architectural glories of Venice. I’m especially fond of the Ca’ Rezzonico museum of 18th-century Venice. I love its grand Tiepolo frescoes and paintings of Venetian life by Longhi and Guardi.

Photo of  Dodie and Tony Duquette in her palazzo in Venice by W Magazine.

“I love to walk every day. All of my residences are near a great promenade. In San Francisco I walk along the bay on Crissy Field, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge. In Paris I walk on the Champs de Mars, and in Venice, I walk across Dorsoduro to the Zattere promenade, which runs along the Giudecca Canal. Along the way, I pass historic churches, like the Gesuati. The Zattere offers me time for contemplation, as well as the beauty of 18th-century houses and chapels, and quiet time beside the canal and away from the crowds.”

Images of Dodie Rosekrans at her residence in San Francisco, and interiors of the house were photographed by Lisa Romerein.  Seattle-born photographer Lisa Romerein lives in Santa Monica, California, and specializes in food, travel, architecture, interiors, gardens, portraits and lifestyle features for a client list that includes: C magazine (where these Rosekrans images first appeared), Casa del Mar, Chateau Sureau, Clarkson Potter, House Beautiful, Los Angeles, Kallista/Kohler, Martha Stewart Living, Meadowood, More, Santa Barbara Magazine, Shutters on the Beach, Sunset, Town and Country and Vanity Fair. Her photographs have appeared in numerous books, among them, the cookbook Small Bites, Big Nights, collaboration with Chef Govind Armstrong, and Santa Barbara Living, published by Rizzoli.

Lisa Romerein was the principal photographer for ‘Michael S. Smith, Elements of Style' (co-written with Diane Dorrans Saeks), one of the most successful recent design books. It has recently gone into an eighth printing.

Images of the Palazzo Brandolini, courtesy W magazine.

Venice images courtesy of citypictures.org, desktopnature.com and sights-and-culture.com
“We’ll miss for sure such a character, who had the know-how and skill to play with both eccentricity and highest taste.” — Christian Lacroix, WWD Nov 9, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bravo to the Brilliant Henry Urbach

Opening this week at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: 
Henry Urbach’s provocative and dazzling new exhibit, ‘When Wine Became Modern; Design + Wine 1976 to Now”

Bravo Henry! It’s a Triumph

Curator Henry Urbach thrills design, architecture and wine lovers with his intoxicating new exhibit, ‘How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 To Now’, which opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on November 20.

I’ve just had a preview of the exhibit and it’s thrilling.

The multi-discipline exhibit, which was designed by the renowned architecture studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, covers paintings, photography, dramatic architecture, wine labels and graphic design, along with scents and colors and flavors associated with the wine world.
Architectural models and photography present dramatic new Napa Valley wineries (Dominus by Hertog & de Meuron, and Clos Pegase by Michael Graves) and the Spanish winery, Hotel Marqués de Riscal by Gehry Partners. Taste, terroir, and design are examined in industrial design, performing arts, music, film, and lively multimedia presentations, including a representation of ‘the Judgment of Paris’, the momentous tasting in which California wines trumped French wines.

Henry Urbach, who ran his own highly admired art gallery in New York prior to arriving in San Francisco five years ago, set out to probe the contemporary culture of wine—and every facet of the popularization of California wine.

The exhibition by Urbach and his team explores transformations in the visual and material culture of wine over the past three decades. It attempts to provide a fresh way of understanding the contemporary culture of wine and the role that design has played in its transformation.

Urbach, SFMOMA's Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design has curated the first exhibition to consider modern, global wine culture as an expansive and richly textured set of cultural phenomena.

The exhibit takes as its starting point 1976, the year of the now-famous Judgment of Paris. In a blind taste test, nine French wine experts pronounced a number of northern California wines superior to esteemed French vintages.

However apt the decision, which was loudly praised and criticized and repeatedly restaged, the event gave the nascent California wine industry, particularly the Napa Valley, new confidence, credibility, and visibility.

The judgment, along with increased California vineyard investments and infusions of wine-making technology had in-depth effects, including the expansion of wine markets, growing popular awareness of wine, the popularization and new diversity of wine criticism. It also encourages vineyard tourism, the Napa Valley as a destination, and new knowledge and savoir-faire with wine. The culture of wine, posits Urbach, then began to encourage innovation in wine-making, diversification of wines, new markets, new vocabularies about wine, a new globalization, creative and effective marketing, the ubiquitous availability of fine wines, $2 wines, as well as rare and hand-crafted and impossible to buy wines. Screaming Eagle, flying high!

"In many ways," Urbach claims, "wine became 'modern' as it aligned with other forms of culture including music, painting, photography, dance, film, architecture, graphic arts and photography.”

And it is here, Urbach adds, "at this particular intersection between nature and contemporary culture, that the social meanings of wine reveal key issues of our moment today.

Dennis Adams, SPILL, 2009; production still; single channel video; Courtesy the artist, Kent Gallery New York and Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie Paris; photo: David Hurst

Dennis Adams, SPILL, 2009; production still; single channel video; Courtesy the artist, Kent Gallery New York and Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie Paris

The exhibition, developed in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, combines architectural models and design objects with works of art, some newly commissioned, and multimedia presentations, as well as objects drawn from viticulture and everyday life. Viewers will encounter artworks, objects, and information within immersive, quasi-theatrical environments that engage multiple senses including smell.

No wine-tasting, sad to say. Not a drop. But make a reservation at Spruce or Saison, Zuni Cafe or Quince or Nopa, and dive into the wine list. I suggest taking the provocative ideas and inspiration out into the world, go wine-tasting, and order an unknown bottle of wine at a restaurant. A world of experience, the wine exhibit can enhance a trip to a wine bar, or opening a $2 bottle on

The exhibition is organized as a suite of galleries, as follows:

Viewers pass alongside In [ ] Veritas, a newly commissioned wall work by Peter Wegner that charts more than 200 house paint colors related to wine. Wegner's mural, more than 70 feet long, wraps an 18-foot-high curved wall; it vividly demonstrates the diffusion of wine-related language into everyday life while calling attention to the gaps that structure language and its relation to perception.

The Judgment of Paris
Few traces remain from the actual event, a rather modest affair despite its mythic status. Key artifacts will be presented: the two winning bottles as well as the original Time magazine article. Working with snapshots of the judges at work, Diller Scofidio + Renfro present a life-size photomural; its tableau, formed by contemporary actors in period dress, evokes Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper while offering an astonishing degree of realism.

Terroir, a theory of climate and history and soil and place that is fundamental to the culture of wine, holds that distinctive, even unique qualities of soil and climate can be discerned in the character, taste, and aroma of the liquid. With the expansion of viticulture across the globe, terroir has become something of a holy grail that winemakers compete for and claim as their own. The installation combines, from 17 vineyards around the world, the following elements: a small soil sample; soil and climate data (including temperature and humidity in real time); and a quotation from the winemaker about his or her understanding of terroir.

Clos Pegase

Frank O. Gehry, Hotel Marqués de Riscal, 2006; image courtesy Hotel Marqués de Riscal

Noteworthy architectural projects have emerged in recent years, including wineries by Mario Botta, Santiago Calatrava, Norman Foster, Herzog & de Meuron, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, and Alvaro Siza, as well as emerging designers such as Sebastian Mariscal and Propeller Z. Many of these buildings are in California, Spain, and Austria, though there is hardly a wine-producing country that has not joined the race. Recent wine-related buildings by Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and Zaha Hadid (respectively, a hotel/spa, a hotel/spa and visitors center, and a tasting pavilion/boutique) reflect the accelerating importance of wine tourism in recent years.

Finally, four buildings are presented in depth: Clos Pegase Winery, Dominus Estate, Bodegas Baigorri, and the Hotel Marqués de Riscal.

In 1984, soon after founding its Department of Architecture and Design, SFMOMA sponsored a competition for the design of a winery (the first time a museum organized a competition for a building other than its own): Clos Pegase (1987), located near St. Helena in the Napa Valley. The winning architect-artist team, Michael Graves and Edward Schmidt, designed the winery at the height of American postmodernism as a faux-Pompeian compound.

Dominus Estate, courtesy of Maisons Marques & Domaines USA Inc.

The superbly elegant Dominus Estate by Herzog & de Meuron (1997), the first architecturally significant winery to be built after Clos Pegase, and the Hotel Marqués de Riscal by Gehry Partners (2007) mark two ends of a spectrum. On the one hand, Dominus asserts a strong and certain link between the building and the land; its gabion structure articulates a nearly invisible building that, among other qualities, establishes direct visual contact with the vines below.

A wall includes Thomas Ruff's photograph of Dominus Estate along with other works on paper.

Taste and Popular Culture
The taste of wine has been mediated, in our times, by a panoply of sources, from sommeliers to wine critics and popular media. The role and influence of these mediators cannot be overstated as, for example, critics such as Robert Parker influence not only what some consumers buy but also what some producers make. A media alcove contains eight monitors with a medley of images drawn from television, film, advertising, and YouTube.

Smell Wall
A translucent wall with suspended flasks, partially visible from the Judgment of Paris gallery, draws viewers into an intimate encounter with the smell of seven wines. Here, at the end of the exhibition, after learning about wine at a wide range of macro- and socio-cultural scales, the wall brings viewers into nearly direct contact with the liquid itself, providing an opportunity to enjoy its fragrance while learning about the education of the nose. Words whose meanings have shifted, disappeared, or been contested will be paired with each wine to emphasize the role of language in structuring sensory experience.

Viewers exit the galleries along the Peter Wegner mural, seeing it for a second time and understanding more clearly the ambiguities it poses. Moving towards the museum's fourth-floor north galleries, upon reaching an opening in the museum's thick, cylindrical wall, there's an invisible work by smell artist Sissel Tolaas. Commissioned for this exhibition, St(62) + [PGh(76) x Rp(100)],10 captures the aroma of a full bottle of the "perfect" wine- one of two bottles awarded 100 points by Robert Parker in 1976-on the artist's breath. 

You have to be there!

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

And after that rousing visit and stimulating intellectual exercise—I suggest heading to the nearest restaurant or wine bar to indulge in some very fine and wonderful glasses of wine.
Through April 17, 2011. 



Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Divine Debo

Deborah Devonshire, the legendary Dowager Duchess of Devonshire has just published her fascinating memoir,’ Wait for Me’.

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Photo: Andrew Crowley

Debo, the youngest and the last of the Mitford sisters and by far my favorite is a superb raconteur and historian. I wrote about the Chatsworth attic sale three weeks ago (check The Style Saloniste archive) Now I’ve got all the juicy details of her sparkling new book, and I’ve selected some of her droll and jaw-droppingly divine quotes. Delicious!

Deborah Devonshire. Photo: Christopher Thomond/Guardian

Deborah Devonshire, the 90-year-old Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, wrote her newest book, the superb ‘Wait For Me’ by hand over the last four years. I’ve just completed reading it, and I’m tempted to re-read it right now. I can’t recall a more surprising and witty autobiography.

Every chapter of the 370-page volume grabs the reader with portraits of her family and witty and wrenching anecdotes of her sisters.

Each paragraph bounds forward, and every era of her life is compelling. Debo brings to life dramatic decades of historical encounters, batty governesses, drafty houses she was attached to, her outlandish and rollicking childhood, family tragedies and comedies, and the spoils and sadnesses of a fabulous life.

I ordered ‘Wait for Me’ months ago from a London bookshop—and in October I received two signed copies, one inscribed ‘For Diane, Deborah Devonshire’, and the second simply ‘Deborah Devonshire’ in a very firm Italic-style signature, written with pen and ink.

The book, with a telling selection of snapshots from her family photo albums, is crammed with vibrant and lively anecdotes. Deborah and her sisters and mother kept lifelong diaries, wrote long letters to each other, so all was documented and recorded.

Debo grew up believing that she was the least talented of the sisters. She says Nancy was more sophisticated, Pam more adventurous, Diana more beautiful, Decca funnier, and Unity more ethereal. She says in the book she’s only read two books in her life, and had about two weeks of formal schooling. Her English-style understatement, modesty and dry wit turn outsize events and personalities on their head.

“It was a daily pleasure to live among the pictures at Chatsworth. Gazing at Velasquez’ ‘Lady with a Mantilla’ in my sitting room, was a real inspiration when I was trying to do something difficult. There seemed no obvious place to hand Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of an Old Man’, as it has to be studied close to and it is no good muddling it up with other pictures. 
Andrew put it on an easel to be examined at leisure. Reynolds’ portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her baby daughter, and Batoni’s portraits of the Fifth Duke (looking supercilious) and his younger brother Richard Cavendish (looking drab as befits a second son) suited the blue drawing room. Like Chatsworth’s furniture they were slotted in without a thought of dates or nationalities. I loved this mongrel arrangement.”

Deborah was the driving force behind the regeneration of Chatsworth) which now greets 600,000 visitors each year. She plays it all down, but she has been a lifelong charity fundraiser, has been a country campaigner, is the author of thirteen books, mother of three and great-great grandmother of many, as well as an award-winning arts and culture philanthropist and voice for the preservation of stately treasure houses and English country life traditions.

This is a book to delve into and delight over every unexpected tale of imprisoned sister Diana, fascist brother-in-law the black-shirt Mosley, Paris assignations, and travels to Africa with the Duke, at one time a politician. 

Everyone who pranced about the twentieth century seems to make a command performance. Deborah did not seek the limelight but nonetheless, a grand parade of notables, revealed as puffed up, tragic, lovely, silly or glamorous or wildly charismatic.

Appearing on the Mitford manuscript are Elvis (she visited Graceland three times), John F. Kennedy (at one time his sister Kathleen was the Duke’s eldest brother’s wife, a marriage that ended in two tragedies), kings and queens, emperors and princesses, farmers, equestrians, bores, debs’ delights, prime ministers, the artist Lucian Freud, curators, housekeepers, cooks, ambassadors, art collectors, and names too illustrious and name-droppish to mention.

Trust me, everyone who was anyone turns up on one or more pages. The Shah of Persia jump onto the page, as well as Ali Khan, the Queen Mother, coronations, the young Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of Windsor, Prince Charles and Diana, Cecil Beaton, Farah Diba, even Ian Fleming.

Deborah Devonshire. Photo by Andrew Testa/New York Times.

Lucian Freud, considered the greatest living painter today, was a lifelong friend.

“I had a black Mini which I kept in London and Lucian borrowed it several times. Being driven in London by Lucian Freud was hazardous. Marble Arch was terrifying. Hyde Park Corner even worse. He was Mr. Toad, scarf and all. He weaved in and out of the swirling traffic, avoiding buses and bicycles and angry taxi drivers by inches. When I shouted, “Stop. Slower. Please!” he said, “It’s all right. They’ve all got brakes.”

The Mitford Sisters

The five other Mitford sisters - Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela — in 1935. Photograph: Harpercollins

One mystery I had hoped to solve here is Unity, her lost sister, the one who in the thirties notoriously had a crush (or affair?) on Hitler and several of his cronies. There is a hint in the book that Unity was a little unbalanced and ‘eccentric’ early on, as she seemed to be swiftly thrown out of every school she was ever sent to. But Debo clearly felt great affection for her 'misunderstood' blonde Amazon sister.

Debo and her mother traveled to Germany as Hitler’s guests in 1934.

In her diary she wrote, “Neither Muv nor I could speak German, so Unity interpreted our conversations with Hitler. We all went and sat on some chairs by the window. Soon tea was brought in. Hitler suggested we might want to clean up, and we all went to wash up in the bathroom. He had some brushes there with ‘AH’ on them.” The totally apolitical Debo was not impressed.

When Germany and England went to war, Unity shot herself in the head with a gun she carried around. She was nursed lovingly for many years by her mother, and died tragically. Debo’s comment is that Unity, described elsewhere as a dreamy girl, was always misunderstood, and downplays the fact that she was a rabid Nazi sympathizer, and great pals with Goebbels. Debo writes at one point that ‘words cannot describe her’ so regarding the mad Unity, a reader is left mystified. Sometimes Debo just does not want to go there. Other sisters leap off the page. Their every conversation, shriek, gown, joke, banter, visit, and marriage and re-marriage and misadventure are recorded as if these decades-old chats had happened yesterday. Not Unity.

The parents were outsize characters, and the whole family followed a very strict diet of wholegrain bread, and no shellfish and only their father was allowed to eat sausages.
'When I was eighteen, I broke from that life, and was free to do what I liked,” said the Duchess, “Going to all the deb dances there were marvelous suppers laid out, with tables of things like pastries and lobster, which were absolutely banned at home.’

The Mitford family (l-r top) Lady Redesdale, Nancy, Tom and Lord Redesdale, (middle) Diana and Pamela, (bottom) Unity, Jessica and Deborah. The sisters were educated at home, because their mother didn't believe in exams, and Deborah spent most of her time hunting and skating. Photo by the BBC.
Deborah Devonshire, clearly backed up here by researchers, files, and her niece Charlotte Mosley, who has edited all of her books, is laconic about those she despised, and droll and languid as only a Duchess can be. She never complains, is generally kind (or deftly sly in her comments about concepts, like ‘self-esteem’, which she detests).

She deals briefly with the chronic alcoholism and violent rages of the Duke.

“Time dims the unpleasant or sad events in life and dates run into each other in a middle way,” she writes. “Had he not written so openly about it in his memoirs, I would not have mentioned my side of the story. Andrew was addicted to alcohol for much of his adult life, a weakness that ran through the Cavendish family.”

She writes about his giving up drinking in a thoroughly non-judgmental way, and credits Alcoholics Anonymous and many counselors for her hard-found wisdom. That’s it. To delve in an unseemly manner further into the dark side would be infra dig, simply not done. Bad form, you know.

But some personal experiences filter through her reticence. It is touching and rather a shock when she records in Chapter 10 that she lost three of her babies, two of them just hours after they were born. At that time she was expected to carry on as if nothing had happened, and no-one discussed it, including her nurses. Once more she muddled through. It’s a sad passage in a book that rattles along from one grand shooting party and gymkhana and chilly stately house to another.

She lost many of her four best friends, her brother and many others in just one month in the Second World War, but her lonely plight with callous neonatal doctors stops the reader as the Duchess reveals her truly tragic, private moments.

She had three subsequent children, including two daughters and her son, Stoker, the current Duke of Devonshire, with whom she is clearly very close.

Deborah Mitford and Lord Andrew Cavendish on their wedding day, 1941

We are invited to go with her to London balls, JFK’s inauguration and later his funeral (Debo and the Duke were there as ‘family’), and travels to India and Burma and the South of France, Paris and remote islands of Scotland.

The Duchess of Devonshire, at Chatsworth, sitting on garden furniture made at the estate workshops in the 1970s. Photograph: Popperfoto

Patrick Leigh Fermor 

Society Women, 1938: the Hon Pamela Herman Hodge (left), the Hon Deborah Mitford (centre) and Lady Margaret Ogilvy at a point-to-point race meeting. Photograph: Hulton Archive

Deborah attending at a banquet given by the Royal Society of St George, in 1954. Photograph: Getty Images        

The Duchess of Devonshire out shooting in 1980.  Photograph: Getty Images        

Chapters about inheriting Chatsworth and taking on the responsibility of restoring the house, living in it, and paying staggering death duties (with interest accruing daily) keep the reader enthralled and grateful.

Debo was the driving force behind opening the house to the public, launching retail shops and farm products, and welcoming school children so that they could learn about a vanishing country life.

When Andrew became the 11th duke, he inherited Chatsworth, and the estate comprised Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Compton Place in Sussex, Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire – and their contents. Lismore Castle in Ireland, he already owned. Thousands of acres, rare books, paintings and art works were sold to pay taxes. Hardwick Hall was ceded to the National Trust, and can be visited, like Chatsworth.

Calke Abbey (Courtesy of the National Trust).

Her enduring appreciation and love for Chatsworth, its collections, the hundreds of people who maintained it, flow through the book.

“Waking the first morning in the bed I was to come home to for the next 46 years and one month was a joy and I never tired of the incomparable view west across the park,’ she writes. 'In all those years I never took the place for granted, but marveled at it and the fact that we were surrounded by beauty at every turn.’ She stayed on there for over a year after Andrew’s death, and then handed it over to her son Peregrine, the 12th Duke, and his wife, Amanda.

“I was 85, it was high time to go and high time for the others to come.’ She now has eight grandchildren (the model Stella Tennant is one of these) and 17 great-grandchildren, and they all adore her. She lives in the Old Vicarage (she affectionately calls it the ‘Old Vic’) in Edensor (pronounced En-zor), surrounded by friends, family and her chickens.

The Duchess of Devonshire at her home since 2004, the Old Vicarage at Edensor.  Photograph: Christopher Thomond/Guardian

Mitford books take up many shelves in my bookcases. I’ve been feasting on the Mitford sisters' tomes for years, but quickly tired of narcissistic Nancy, and the unknowable beauty Diane, and never cared for Decca (so admired in Berkeley, California, and so doted on by all her literary and communist hangers-on. (“You know she’s the sister of the Duchess of Devonshire, don’t you,” said a simpering literary agent to me one evening, when it has been announced that Decca has raised funds to send pianos to Cuba. ‘Yes,” I responded mildly.)
I nibble on ‘Counting my Chickens’, one of the compendiums of essays collated from Deborah’s writings for various publications.

I recently worked my way through a cookbook she published a few years ago.
In the book’s introduction, Deborah recalls mentioning to one of her Chatsworth staff that she, who had never cooked in her life, was writing a cookbook.

“Oh, Madam,” the good woman responded, “You writing a cook book is like a blind man teaching someone to drive.”

It’s called the Mitford Industry in England—as the Mitford girls among them have written dozens of books. In 2008 I ordered ‘The Mitfords, Letters between Six Sisters’ (edited, like much of the Mitfordiana, by Debo’s niece Charlotte Mosley. It’s 75 years of letters, all with the upper-class Mitford voice, – relentlessly thirties. To each other, the girls had a particularly imperative (and now hopelessly dated) way of speaking in Noel Coward tones: 'do be sorry’, ‘don’t you think!’ and 'do miss me’, 'do say you’re thrilled’ and rather often, considering their sense of humor, 'you must say it’s very funny’

I especially loved ‘In Tearing Haste’, the 2009 book of fifty years of letters between Deborah Devonshire and the great writer and war hero, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who now likes in the Peloponnesus, in a remote Mani coastal town. My book in signed by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah (they are both in their nineties, I am so honored), along with the firm hand of Charlotte Mosley, who edited the letters.

Patrick (‘Paddy’ to Deborah) Leigh Fermor is one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers (not a mere ‘travel writer’) so his letters, of travels in remote places, Greek history and architecture, and historic events, are the richest feast in this book. Highest recommendation.

But Deborah’s new book, getting the last word, is the most charming and captivating. She does not have an axe to grind. She’s grateful for her life, and gracious and witty. The book is also a history of the decline of nobility in England, and a vanished life.

Deborah Devonshire with her rare breeds of chickens at Chatsworth, 2009.

One of my favorite sections of the book concerns a visit to Chatsworth, in 2000, by Debo’s friends Oscar and Annette de la Renta and their group. I’ve read this report several times, each re-reading offering up more detail.

The art collector Jayne Wrightsman and the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and his wife were making their annual visit to Chatsworth. They’re longtime friends, and Oscar has designed gowns for the duchess. 

The Duchess was convinced that these New York denizens would be bored by a table centerpiece of flowers or the usual flowering branches from the estate.

Chickens are her passion, and she is often photographed feeding her brood. So a Buff Cochin cock was washed and placed on some hay in a tall rectangular glass container and placed along the center of the dining table.

'A couple of hens of uncertain ancestry occupied another glass container,’ she writes, 'and there had been a hatch of Welsummer and White Leghorn chicks that morning so I put them in little china baskets lined with hay to keep them warm… the chicks presumably thought it was all quite normal as they had only been alive for 12 hours.’

The following year, she said, she had to think of something better. Piglets!

“The glass containers were pressed into service again, and half a dozen piglets, replete from a long drink of milk from the sow, lay sound asleep in their straw beds in the middle of the dining table. The decoration did not last long. ‘This really is too much,” said Andrew (the Duke of Devonshire) after the first course.” The pigs were removed.

Her follow-up to the pig incident: Old Master drawings on miniature easels in front of each place setting.

“I do not believe the Raphaels and Rembrandts and Co. were splashed by gravy or ice-cream, and after dinner they were returned to their cold, unwelcoming, air-conditioned, thrice-locked shelves,” she wrote. “I would rather be one of the piglets in a warm barn any day.”

Deborah Devonshire photographed at Chatsworth in 1990.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in 2005

Another (of many, many) sections I adored is about Debo’s visit for a celebratory dinner to the very grand seventeenth-century Palladian residence, Calke Abbey, in 1961.

“The owner, Charles Harpur Crewe was a recluse who lived an intensely private life, in an intensely private house, in his own little kingdom in a vast park in the south of Derbyshire,” she wrote. She drove forty miles through dense fog and got lost several times. Finally they saw a dim light.

“The curtains were drawn back on the ground and first floors of Calke Abbey and the rooms were lit only by candles,” she wrote. “It was something I had never seen in a house of that size. Not even oil lamps reinforced the flickering flames. I thought I had arrived in a fairy story.”

She goes on to write, “ The dining room table was set with more candles, the only light in that high-ceilinged room, which I imagine had not been used for years. The first course was melon, followed by cold beef, and then melon for pudding.”

In 1981, Harpur Crewe died and Calke Abby was ceded to the National Trust. While the truly eccentric family has long since gone, I can’t wait to go and visit. It has been preserved to show a country house ‘in decline’, just as the family left it, with strange and wonderful cabinets of curiosities and no sense of the twenty-first century, let alone the twentieth.
Debo notes, “The clutter that filled the house from hall to attic, including natural history objects collected over centuries, are still there. The four-poster bed, a wedding to the Fifth Baronet and Lady Caroline Manners from Princess Anne, daughter of King George II, has been unpacked. It had been in packing cases since it arrived from London in 1734.”

She says, “When Harpur Crewe was asked why the great bed, one of the treasures of great houses of Great Britain, had never been unpacked, he responded, “Oh, I don’t know. I suppose they had something else to do.”

Perhaps most satisfactorily, the book brings the reader right up to the present. She invites you in to the vicarage, where you meet her assistant and grandchildren and old retainers, including an ancient butler.

It’s all very unpretentious and cozy, and you love her for it.

“I find twenty roses as interesting as two hundred, and so on down the line,” she writes. “There is lots more to come. I look back on a wonderful life watching other people work.”

‘Wait for Me” by Deborah Devonshire. I recommend that you acquire the American edition, with a glorious black and white portrait of Debo on the cover, shot by Beaton.

Biographical notes:
Deborah Vivien Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire DCVO (born 31 March 1920), née The Hon. Deborah Freeman-Mitford is the youngest and last surviving of the six noted Mitford sisters whose political affiliations and marriages were a prominent feature of English culture in the 1930s and 1940s. She was born in Asthall Manor, Oxfordshire, England.


Chatsworth: The House (1980; revised edition 2002)
The Estate: A View from Chatsworth (1990)
The Farmyard at Chatsworth (1991) — for children
Treasures of Chatsworth: A Private View (1991)
The Garden at Chatsworth (1999)
Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts (2002) — essays.
The Chatsworth Cookery Book (2003)
Round and About Chatsworth (2005)
Memories of Andrew Devonshire (2007)
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008), edited by Charlotte Mosley
Home to Roost . . . and Other Peckings (2009)
Wait for Me!... Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (2010)

For more information on Chatsworth: 

Photography from a variety of sources, including chatsworth.org press office, the Mitford and Devonshire archive, www.guardian.co.uk, Mitford books, and ‘Wait for Me’ published in the UK by Murray.