At the age of 87, Lady Anne Glenconner told her publishers that her memoir would sell half a million copies and she would like to promote it on The Graham Norton Show. They explained that the first was unlikely and the latter impossible. Norton booked film stars, not unknown octogenarian aristocrats. Three years on, she pauses for comic effect and looks at me with satisfaction.
“Anyway,” she says, “I did both.”
The book, Lady in Waiting, was a romp through her extraordinary life as lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret and wife of Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner, a mostly ghastly man who took his bride to a brothel on her honeymoon. The book was translated into 12 languages and was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Three years and two novels later she’s written a follow-up: Whatever Next? Lessons from an Unexpected Life. She wrote it, she explains, because she got thousands of letters asking for more, some addressed simply to “Lady Glenconner, England”. Many are from young gay men thanking her for writing about her son Henry’s homosexuality and death from Aids and asking for help coming out to their parents.
“I’m an agony aunt,” she says, beaming, “and a gay icon.”
Thanks to the brothel story, complete strangers approach her at parties to talk about sex. One man said how glad he was to be sitting next to her at dinner because he needed her help. His wife had lost her libido.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m 90. I’m not sure I’m quite the right person.’ But he seemed perfectly serious. We went through his wife’s libido.”
“I’m an agony aunt, and a gay icon.”
She is astonished by the level of interest in her and thrilled to bits with what it entails: book tours, promotional talks, interviews, TV appearances and being asked to present a cup at Royal Ascot. She is 90 now, an age when she could be forgiven for staying at home by the fire in Norfolk. Instead, she’s in her cosy flat in west London, chatting animatedly and as close to bouncing up and down with excitement as it is possible to be while also maintaining correct posture and ladylike deportment at all times. Her accent makes the late Queen sound middle-class – “orf” for off, “gel” for girl – and she makes no concession whatsoever to old age, basically by refusing to acknowledge that she is, in fact, old.
“I’ve never had so much fun ever,” she says, knees together, legs slanted, ankles crossed and hands neatly folded in her lap. “I’m having the best time, which is so invigorating.”
The new book has a jolly anecdote for every day of the year and excellent advice typical of her generation: be stoic, don’t dwell on things and, if in doubt, laugh. “I hate the word emotional,” she says. “It’s always in the newspapers. Perhaps you don’t have it in The Times.” Today, she’s reminiscing about a trip to Tuvalu.
“The New Zealand navy lent Princess Margaret a frigate,” she says, as if that is an entirely normal thing to say and any one of us could find ourselves on a loaned frigate in Tuvalu. “We sat around having these rather terrible feasts and, from behind us, bare-bosomed ladies slapped down a sort of ghastly grey muck on our leaves – it was leaf service – which one had to eat.”
Princess Margaret came down with pneumonia and when they stopped in the Philippines, Glenconner was dispatched in her stead to stay with Imelda Marcos. One guest house in the compound was devoted to Marcos’s shoe collection and, at cocktail hour, they toasted the shoes. The whole thing was bizarre, she says. Marcos never seemed to sleep and would turn up at 8 o’clock in the morning in a big bus and take the entourage on a tour, with her as tour leader.
There is also much darker material about Glenconner’s marriage to a violent, abusive and serially unfaithful man and the loss of two of her sons. She buried Charlie and Henry while caring for a third, Christopher. He suffered catastrophic injuries in a motorbike accident in Belize and was thought unlikely to recover (he did). Charlie, her eldest, started taking heroin at 16. He contracted hepatitis C and died, aged 39, in 1996. Henry, her second son, married and had a child before coming out as gay. It wasn’t a complete surprise, she says, because as a boy he used to dress up in her clothes, but when he married she assumed it was just a phase. He was diagnosed as HIV positive 18 months after he came out and died of Aids in 1990 at the age of 26.
“The New Zealand navy lent Princess Margaret a frigate.”
Glenconner turned to prayer and her Christian faith to help her to cope and spoke to a psychiatrist, although typically that was as much to help her to deal with Colin as it was to manage her depression. Somehow, she found humor even in death. Henry was 6ft 8in, she says, and a Buddhist. “They use fruit instead of flowers, so his coffin was huge and piled with mangos. I said to Colin, ‘It looks like the biggest fruit salad you’ve ever seen,’ and, of course, that made us laugh. Even in moments of appalling sadness, if you can find something to laugh about, I think it helps.”
She was born in 1932 and brought up at Holkham Hall, a vast Palladian pile in north Norfolk, the eldest of two daughters of the Earl and Countess of Leicester. Her father was an equerry to George VI, her mother a lady-in-waiting to the late Queen’s mother. Christmas meant a tree with real candles and two footmen to watch over it and parties at nearby Sandringham with the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. She was a maid of honor at the Queen’s coronation and she and other young women were followed and photographed and interviewed.
“We were a sort of harbinger of the girl bands,” she says. “There’ll never be another coronation like that, ever. It was really tip top.”
The new king is rumored to be planning a shorter, slimmed-down coronation.
“I think it has to be. And anyway, I’m so fond of King Charles but, you know, he’s not young. The Queen was so beautiful, so glamorous, and look at the Duke of Edinburgh. He was to die for. People were madly in love with him. It was absolute perfection.”
She wouldn’t presume to call herself close friends with the King and Queen, but they clearly are. They invite her to dinner when they’re at Sandringham and send a car to pick her up. She invited them to her 90th birthday party at Holkham, a house Charles knows well. As a child, he was sent there if he had mumps or measles to avoid infecting the Queen. Glenconner’s father taught him to shoot and fish, her mother how to make pottery and drive. “Darling Elizabeth,” the young Charles wrote to her, “thank you SO MUCH for allowing me to drive your Jag and van.”
“I went to his wedding,” says Glenconner absent-mindedly. “Both weddings, actually.”
He’ll make a “great” king. “He’s had long enough. He really minds about things and people and you can see it. And she’s great. She’s wonderful for him.”
Will he ever command the affection his mother did? “I think it’ll be different. People are different, in a way. He’s only just become king, so it’s a bit… Ask me that in a year or so.”
“They use fruit instead of flowers, so [Henry’s] coffin was huge and piled with mangos.”
One of her tips in the book is to keep abreast of current affairs, so she is well aware of the furore surrounding the new series of The Crown, which covers the early Nineties. John Major, the prime minister at the time, has denounced as “a barrel-load of nonsense” Netflix’s version of events, which includes Charles lobbying for the Queen to abdicate. Dame Judi Dench wrote to The Times describing the series as “cruelly unjust” and “crude sensationalism” and demanded it be prefaced with a disclaimer saying it is a work of fiction.
“I think it should,” says Glenconner, who was portrayed in an earlier series. “Absolutely it should. One saw the moment when I was on, and Princess Margaret, and it bore no relation to the truth whatsoever. I don’t watch it now. I couldn’t. It would make me so angry, seeing people trashed like that. Well, not trashed, but not like them. It’s fiction. I think it should say so clearly. And,” she says darkly, “a lot of people do.”
It is not just Charles and Camilla she minds about. It is the younger royals too. William and Kate live near her in Norfolk and Glenconner is a big fan of theirs.
“I think she’s absolutely fantastic. I don’t know her very, very well, but they come to Mustique quite often. I think she’s wonderful, and Prince William. They’re so good together. And lovely children. And she looks stunning, doesn’t she? That’s a help. I think she was very well brought up by Carole.”
Royal duties, she thinks, are more engaging and informal than in her day, with fewer civic lunches making small talk with the mayor. The book contains a memorable flashback to a time when Prince Andrew was a toddler and dressed in a romper suit, as was the fashion. Her son Henry was about the same age and she would exchange letters and romper suits with the Queen.
Royal duties, she thinks, are more engaging and informal than in her day, with fewer civic lunches making small talk with the mayor.
“The last time I saw Prince Andrew was in a romper suit,” she says. “He’s perfect in a romper suit.”
Does she think Andrew will return to royal duties?
“I can’t answer that, I really can’t. I wasn’t a lady-in-waiting for 34 years without learning discretion.”
As for Megxit and the ongoing Sussex psychodrama, she went to their wedding but met Meghan only once, briefly, which is at least more than some of the other guests. She sighs.
“I feel that probably the sort of things the royal family have to do, they’re just not very interesting. You’re not driven around in a golden coach. They had a wonderful wedding, but life isn’t going…” She pauses. “One’s own wedding was fantastic, but next day you’re back to normal. I don’t know whether she thought it was going to be all very grand.”
Princess Margaret was something of a royal renegade herself, so she might have sympathized. She gives me an arch look.
“I rather doubt it.”
“The last time I saw Prince Andrew was in a romper suit.”
Her own life has never been dull. Presented with a sheep’s eye to eat as guest of honor at a banquet in the Saudi desert, she replied, “How kind. Is there any other bit of the sheep that would also count as an honor?” We learn that there’s an NHS GP practice in the stables at Buckingham Palace, which treats all the royal household, including her. It makes it more of an occasion when you get your flu jab, she says, with a twinkle. She is a keen believer that time and weeding can solve many of life’s problems and that swimming costumes with sleeves are “very reassuring for the older figure”. Joy, she believes, is always waiting for us somewhere, even in our darkest moments.
Her husband was responsible for many of those. She had moments of “vivid happiness” with him, but he was also physically, emotionally and verbally abusive. Repeatedly unfaithful, early in their marriage he told her, “I’m going to break you, Anne.” He failed. She was 23 when they married and 78 when he died. In those 55 years she bore him five children and was spat at, kicked and had things thrown at her.
Once, on holiday on Mustique, he dragged her out of their twin daughters’ birthday party and beat her up so badly she nearly died, and has been deaf in one ear ever since. He left her bloodied and barely conscious on the floor of the house and returned to the party, where he told a friend, “I’ve just given Anne a thrashing.” Their sex life, she writes, “was marked by criticism and disappointment. He used to get very cross with me.”
She dreaded going to bed with him; one time, she suspects he had her drink spiked with LSD. She experienced terrifying visions and hallucinations, “but we ended up making passionate love, despite my feeling so scared”. Colin told her the next day, “That’s the way I want you to behave all the time.” How typical of him, she notes, that instead of being loving, he decided to drug her into doing what he wanted.
His rage could be triggered by anything and nothing: if she didn’t open a door quickly enough, or struggled with his luggage, which she had to carry through airports because he claimed not to be strong enough. It was exhausting and lonely, she writes, and like having another child, “but a particularly large, disruptive one”. Why on earth didn’t she divorce him?
“I wasn’t a lady-in-waiting for 34 years without learning discretion.”
“The way I was brought up was very different,” she says. “When I did go back to my mother, just after marrying, when I was pregnant with Charlie, she said, ‘You married him. You go straight back and you make the very best of it you can.’ And I’m very glad I did and the children are very glad I did.”
Really? Despite everything?
“Yes, of course. Absolutely.”
She told her children she wanted to write about the abuse and they agreed that it was the right time. She was also influenced by Queen Camilla, “who’s done a wonderful job to bring domestic abuse to the fore. People talk about it.” The Glenconners’ wealth meant that, to an extent, she was able physically to get away from her husband: different bedrooms, different houses, even different countries when he bought Mustique and spent much of his time trying to turn it from a mosquito-infested dump with no running water to the luxury playground it is today. (Mick Jagger is one of many who own a house there. She looks at me as if I’m stupid when I ask if she’s ever danced with him. “Yes, of course I have. And sung with him.”)
She talks of her work over decades on domestic abuse, including with the novelist Erin Pizzey, an early advocate against domestic violence. The two of them arranged a free telephone number for victims of domestic abuse and promised that if the woman could get to a phone box, they would come and pick her up. “I did that quite a bit,” she says. “It only happened at night, when the drunken husband was asleep. We’d go to the phone box and there would be the wretched wife in a nightie, bashed about, and the children in their nightclothes clutching their teddies. We took them to a safe house.”
Often, she says, looking sad and baffled, the women would go back to their abusers. “They never escaped.”
But nor did she.
“Yes,” she says briskly, “but in those days, you got on with it. Now, I wouldn’t dream of saying you should stick with somebody who’s treating you badly. But I was brought up that you stuck with it for as long as you possibly could, unless you were killed. Which, of course, I very nearly was.”
The Glenconners’ wealth meant that, to an extent, she was able physically to get away from her husband: different bedrooms, different houses, even different countries when he bought Mustique.
Ten years after she got married, she consoled herself with a lover. They had lunch every week and the occasional “magical” weekend away and were together for 34 years, until his death. His wife knew about Glenconner and had a lover of her own. It all sounds terribly complicated, but to Glenconner it was a life-saving source of kindness and tenderness and a civilized alternative to the scandal of aristocratic divorce. Her father used to invite his mistresses to stay for weekends, she says, and her mother only put her foot down if they brought their “boring” husbands too.
“Everybody seemed to have lovers, you know? It was just part of life. You moved around it. You made it work. Everybody did it. It wasn’t just me. Maybe it all sounds a bit flippant, but it’s how we managed things. My friend was kind and sweet and thoughtful and heavenly, really.” Will she ever say who he was? “No.”
When Colin died in 2010, he disinherited his wife and children and left everything to his St Lucian manservant. Glenconner writes that she genuinely mourned his death and made a conscious decision “not to dwell on that final act of cruelty. And, since I made that decision, I now see every day as a gift.” One of the reasons she wrote Lady in Waiting was for the money. She inherited nothing from her father, either, because she wasn’t a boy. Thanks to the rule of male primogeniture, everything, including Holkham and its 25,000 acres, went to a cousin from South Africa. The royal family has moved to correct this archaic practice. When the Princess of Wales was pregnant for the first time, the law of succession was changed so that the child, girl or boy, would inherit the crown.
“Of course they should now change it for the aristocracy,” says Glenconner. “It should go to the eldest, just one person, not spread around the family, because if you go to France or Germany there are these big houses with nothing in them. I would love to have inherited Holkham. I worked with my father in the estate office. I heard all the plans for the estate. I really enjoyed it.” Her 90th birthday party was held in the house’s long gallery, which was decorated as it had been for her coming-out dance in 1950. She sat in front of a statue of the goddess Diana, and reflected on the passing of time. “Time doesn’t really count,” she says. “It just goes on. Maybe my grandchildren will have a party there and remember me.”
Today, she lives mostly at her home nearby, which her father presciently encouraged her to buy early in her marriage. Her eldest grandson, Lord Glenconner since his father’s death, recently married, making his grandmother the Dowager Lady Glenconner. She is unimpressed. Surely the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire did a pretty good job of making it look glamorous? She comes close to a “hmmph”.
“Debo [Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire] didn’t really like it. We never called her ‘the dowager’ and I don’t want to be called a dowager. I’ll be Anne, Lady Glenconner. Why? Because I spent my whole life trying to be young. That’s why I walk so much and try to sit properly. I tell people not to shuffle. If you can hoodwink your body into thinking it’s younger, it’s a jolly good thing to do.”
And if you can laugh while you’re doing it, so much the better.
Whatever Next?: Lessons from an Unexpected Life, by Anne Glenconner, will be available in the U.K. beginning today. It will be published in the U.S. on February 21, 2023, by Hachette
Hilary Rose is a writer for The Times of London