The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys DeaconDuchess of Marlborough by Hugo Vickers

All his writing life, Hugo Vickers has been obsessed by the beau monde, above all the aristocracy and the crown. His first book was We Want the Queen (1977), which was not, shall we say, overly critical either of the institution of the crown or its current incumbent. But since then he has become an increasingly probing chronicler of the glittering scene, with a forensic eye for the complexities beyond its gaudy surface.

Already, in his second book, a 1979 biography of Gladys Deacon, Duchess of Marlborough, he was casting a critical eye on his chosen milieu, recounting the extraordinary journey of an exquisitely beautiful young American who flitted like a firefly in the early 1900s across the now entirely vanished world of European high society, bewitching crown princes, novelists, painters, philosophers, wits.

“She is really the most beautiful creature I have ever seen in my life,” gasped Hugo von Hofmannsthal of Deacon. “I don’t believe that Helena or any other Greek goddess could have been more beautiful.” She was witty in three languages, a provocative enchantress who, like a latter-day Cleopatra, ensnared Proust, Robert de Montesquiou, Bernard Berenson, Rodin, Jacob Epstein (who sculpted her) and Boldini (who painted her) in her strong toil of grace.

Driven to fulfill a fortune-teller’s prediction, at the age of 40 she married the moody Duke of Marlborough, a disastrous match that took a terrible toll on her; she withdrew from society, becoming an eccentric recluse before dying at the age of 96.

Now, 40 years after it was first published, Vickers has returned to the book, entirely rewriting it, partly in the light of newly released material, but also because, he tells us, there were a lot of people breathing down his neck first time round — “and they aren’t breathing at all anymore”.

This nicely acidulous opening sets up his introduction, in which we learn that at 16 the young Vickers came across an entry in Chips Channon’s diary for 1943, which described an encounter with an odd-looking, eccentrically dressed 60-year-old woman in a Bond Street jewelers. Channon’s dog growled at what he calls “this extraordinary marionette”, she looked up and he suddenly realized that he was face to face with the Duchess of Marlborough, “once the world’s most beautiful woman… the toast of Paris. The love of Proust, the belle amie of Anatole France.”

An exquisitely beautiful young American who flitted like a firefly in the early 1900s across the now entirely vanished world of European high society.

After reading the diary, Vickers became obsessed by her, finding out what little he could. Discovering that she was still alive, he determined to write to her. Receiving a reply from her solicitor, he flew to Lausanne to meet her nephew, and finally visited her. She was 94, he was 23. Despite being warned that “she’s as cute as a cat… she’ll look right through you”, he managed to strike up a conversation with her.

He became a frequent visitor and then, despite the huge disparity in their ages, a friend. She spoke brilliantly and wittily in all three of her languages, but never about herself. “Where is Gladys Deacon?” Vickers bravely asked one day. She looked at him with a twinkle in her eye. “Gladys Deacon?… She never existed.”

This introduction is a masterpiece of storytelling: edge-of-the-seat stuff, unputdownable. Vickers has written many excellent books, but this new version of an old one has a character all of its own: he is in it, at the beginning and at the end, attributing his entire subsequent career to that chance encounter with Channon’s diary, an event that provoked in him the strange itch that drives biographers on in their compulsion to release their subjects’ secrets from within.

With Deacon he has succeeded triumphantly, managing with consummate narrative skill and dazzling quotation to give breathing, alarming life to a woman who puzzled and thrilled her contemporaries in equal measure. “Who can hold you?” asked her admirer Count Keyserling. “You are a comet, a capricious comet, of whom even God does not hold the path. You escape me now — there, you are gone: will you ever return?”

Deacon was born in France in 1881 to rich American parents, whose stormy relationship culminated in Edward Parker Deacon shooting his wife’s lover dead; Gladys was 11. Her mother, Florence, canceled her lunch the next day but was not noticeably inconvenienced by the scandal. It also seemed to have had very little impact on Gladys. From an early age, she was fiercely original and defiantly independent, not qualities that sat comfortably in the world of the useless rich in which she was forced to make her way.

“Gladys Deacon?… She never existed.”

It was the world of Proust, in which snobisme and mercenary calculation ruled, a vast matrimonial market. People lived out their lives like characters in a novel, commenting, analyzing, noting, judging. Gladys refused to play the game: she loathed her pushy, theatrical mother, detested her sisters, was careless of her beauty, to the extent that, perceiving what she thought to be a flaw, she experimented with facial reconstruction, receiving an injection of paraffin wax that filled out her face, leaving blotches and lumps.

She seems not to have been unduly troubled by this, nor did it lessen her attractiveness both to men and women. In her mid-forties she still looked like “a heroine of Shakespeare’s: Rosalind in the rose bower”, said Lily de Clermont-Tonnerre.

Disastrously, marriage to Marlborough swiftly descended into hell, an aristocratic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Shut up!” she shouted at him one night at a dinner party at Blenheim. “You know nothing about politics. I’ve slept with every prime minister in Europe and most kings. You are not qualified to speak.” At another party, she put a loaded revolver on the table. “Duchess, what are you going to do with that?” asked an anxious guest. “Oh, I don’t know”, she replied. “I might just shoot Marlborough.” She nicknamed him Ogpu, after the Soviet secret police.

After far too long together, they divorced. By 1945, she had escaped from society to the Northamptonshire village of Chacombe, where she holed herself up: surrounded by animals, with no teeth, matted hair, uncut fingernails and tramp-like clothes, her Wellington boots studded with red puncture repair-patches, and wearing a sou’wester, she was known and feared in the village as the Witch of Chacombe.

But her ever-busy brain was still acutely active: all through this, she kept her diary neatly, commenting on world affairs. Finally in 1962, when she was 81, the family abducted her to St Andrew’s Hospital Northampton — a lunatic asylum for the unhinged great and good. The portico is decorated with Colefax and Fowler wallpaper; every medical facility was available, but to her it was a prison. After her death, it transpired that she had an estate of more than $1 million.

All of this is thrillingly recounted. Vickers has written a continuously astonishing and ultimately moving account of a unique figure, the stuff of great literature, rendering his subject as indelible as the greatest characters in literature.

Simon Callow is an actor and director, and the author of several books, including an acclaimed three-volume biography of Orson Welles