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Gladys Deacon, Duchess of Marlborough, and the Revolver Story
Gladys Deacon was an American, born in Paris in 1881, of wealthy parents. Her parents, Edward Parker Deacon and American heiress Florence Baldwin Deacon, were originally from Boston, but travelled the world with their children in tow. They were from a wealthy class of people who treated life like a permanent vacation; their aim in life was pleasure-seeking. Gladys's parents had a very stormy relationship. In 1892, when Gladys was 11 years old, her father shot and killed her mother's lover. Her mother was entertaining her lover at the Hotel Splendide in Paris, with her children in tow. Edward Deacon had tracked his wife down, and in a fit of rage, shot the cuckolding lover three times in the chest. After a brief stay in jail, Edward Deacon was released, due to diplomatic reasons. Mr. Deacon had placed his children, of whom he had custody, in a convent. When Mr. Deacon went to retrieve Gladys from the French convent, he found his wife had abducted her and they had escaped. Mr. Deacon sued for exclusive custody of his children and won; he then took Gladys back to America.
Edward Deacon was very vain of this exploit, and bragged about it to his friends back in Boston, including the novelist Henry James, who was visiting there. Mr. James was shocked at the way he talked of this in front of his children.
In school in the United States, Gladys read the newspaper and society paper accounts of the upcoming marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. "Oh dear me," Gladys wrote in her diary, "if I was a little older I might catch him yet!"
Society made much of this fairy-tale romance between an heiress and a duke, and Gladys wasn't alone in sighing over the Duke, mostly on account of Blenheim Palace, his residence, which was a legendary palace, the place of golden dreams. Many young debutantes at that time would have given their eyeteeth to be the chatelaine of Blenheim palace and married to the Duke.
Gladys Deacon was returned to the custody of her mother in Europe when Edward Deacon began to suffer from severe mental illness. Gladys completed her education in Bonn, Germany, and her mother, in spite of the scandalous termination of her marriage, was accepted into European society. The turn of the century to 1900 brought a slightly more relaxed attitude towards divorce, in society. Gladys, as a debutante, was the most sought-after beauty of the season. Her huge blue eyes, her perfect Grecian profile, were the talk of Europe. She attracted many royal or rich admirers. Marcel Proust was said to have fainted at her beauty. There was a diplomatic incident involving the Crown Prince of Prussia, who was married. He fell in love with Gladys, and sent her an heirloom ring, which was part of the royal jewel collection. The Prussian Crown Prince terrified his passengers when driving to Oxford, in England, because he continuously turned his head to look at Miss Deacon, who rode in his carriage with him and flirted with him daintily. It took six agents of three different countries to get the ring returned to the Prussian Crown Jewel collection! Gladys Deacon was the "most beautiful woman in the world, the toast of Paris, the love of Proust, and the belle amie of Anatole France".
Gladys met the 9th Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo in London, and became friends with them both. They were both enchanted with her. Gladys Deacon stayed at Blenheim frequently, and was a houseguest for extended periods. There are two letters, one written by the Duke, the other written by Consuelo, to Gladys, both written on the same day in 1901.
It seems odd to me that Gladys became friends of both the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Consuelo and Charles were not getting along. The marriage itself began as a marriage of convenience--Consuelo's mother wanted her to marry a Duke; Charles desperately needed the money to restore Blenheim to its former glory. Both parties to this marriage were in love with other people when they married.
So the fairy-tale marriage of the heiress and the Duke was not, in reality, a fairy tale at all, but more a horror story.
After producing two sons (the heir and the spare) for the Duke, conjugal relations between Charles and Consuelo had virtually ceased. Charles ignored Consuelo, except to criticize her harshly: her Americanisms, her running of the vast household of Blenheim. Charles was sharp, bitter, sarcastic and cold to Consuelo. Consuelo found comfort in having Gladys Deacon as a houseguest--for one thing, it put Charles in a better mood, and he was less inclined to humiliate her in front of the servants by imitating brutally her American accent.
Consuelo described Gladys at varying times as "beautiful, charming, erudite, capricious...vain, petty, manipulative...traitorous". By 1908, Gladys had become an integral part of the menage at Blenheim, and Consuelo began divorce proceedings.
Gladys Deacon was a very intelligent woman: she was fluent in seven languages; she said at one time: "I was a miracle--Differential Calculus was too low for me!" And yet she had a wild streak. She was one of the pioneer experimenters in plastic surgery: she had a little kink in her nose fixed by injecting paraffin to straighten out the line. The wax slipped disastrously to her chin later on; still, she managed to make a conquest of the Duke of Marlborough and fulfill a life-long dream.
Gladys Deacon and Charles Churchill the 9th Duke of Marlborough, were married in 1920, after the divorce finally came through. At first, the couple, who were very much in love, were notoriously happy. The Duke made two likenesses in sculpture of Gladys, in the form of Sphinxes, and the famous huge eyes of Gladys were painted on the ceiling of the portico at Blenheim.
The marriage deteriorated rapidly. Gladys was shy of marriage--and for good reason. She had become more and more eccentric with the passing of the years. After marrying the Duke, she began to raise spaniels, and she let them have the run of Blenheim, making messes all over the place. The duke also developed an increasingly morbid interest in Roman Catholicism, which didn't improve marital relations any.
Glady's freedom of spirit, which the Duke had once so admired, had become an overbearing wish to get her own way, at the expense of everyone else. These two egocentric characters were at war, after a year or so of marriage. Gladys felt intellectually stifled by her marriage; the Duke, who was incorrigibly "county" in the British way, became embarrassed by Gladys's excesses.
The Duke, at a dinner party at Blenheim, ventured a political statement. Gladys said, "Shut up. What do you know about politics? I've slept with every Prime Minister in Europe and most Kings. You are not qualified to speak!"
Gladys arrived at the dinner table, armed with a revolver. When a guest asked her what that was for, she said, "I don't know. I might just shoot Marlborough."
The Duke abandoned Blenheim to Gladys; he then cut off her funds; then he cut off electricity to the place. He eventually evicted Gladys from both the Blenheim palace and the London town house in Carlton House Terrace.
The Duke died in June of 1934 of cancer at the age of 62. Gladys was his widow.
Gladys Deacon Churchill lived on until 1977. She had retreated to a house in Chacombe in 1938, where she had become a recluse. She adopted the name of "Mrs. Spencer", and moved about her house at night, sleeping during the day, surrounded by cats, and her precious paintings; works by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin...and books, a wonderful library of rare volumes, and precious jewels. She barricaded herself in her house: she wouldn't let anyone in. She had one friend only, who brought baskets of food for her, which she hoisted into her house by ropes from an upper window.
In 1962, she was compelled to leave her home and sent to St. Andrew's Hospital, where she lived until October of 1977. She was 94 when she passed from this life.