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Who was Gladys Deacon?

Updated on October 21, 2015
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BritFlorida loves to track down historical stories, especially scandals and mysteries from the UK.

The extraordinary life of Gladys Deacon, the Duchess of Marlborough


Gladys Deacon: The early years

An unconventional childhood

It could be said that her unconventional and strange life started when she was eleven and her father killed her mother's long-time lover. Yes, this was a strange childhood indeed.

Gladys had been born in Paris to a socialite American couple in 1881. The Deacons were an accepted part of the upper echelons of European society and their daughters - Gladys was one of four girls - we brought up and educated in France,largely in Paris.

Her mother, Florence, was a glamorous and beautiful woman who had married and embarked on motherhood at a young age. These facts, plus the moral code of the time and her husband's tempers, virtually made affairs an essential part of her life.

Deacon however had a less relaxed view.After chasing his wife and her lover throughout Europe as they moved from hotel to hotel, he tracked them down in Cannes where he entered his wife's bedroom. Her lover, Emile Abeille, was present of course, and was shot down by the jealous husband,

A convent girl

Her father was duly prosecuted and young Gladys was sent to a convent school where she did well, whilst her parents moved between jail, American and various European resorts. She grew up quickly though.

Enter the Duke of Marlborough

Charles Spencer Churchill

As an English lord, and the owner of the fabulous Blenheim Palace, Charles was a very eligible bachelor. Lots of American mamas had their eye on him as a potential son-in-law.

Girls speculated about who he would marry. It was rather like the will-he, won't-he scenario regarding Prince William and Kate Middleton a few years ago.

See the quotation on the right. This is what Gladys wrote to her mother when the duke's engagement was announced.She was fourteen years old.


Like many British aristocrats, Charles Spencer Churchill was rich in land and property but not in hard cash. A marriage to a wealthy girl would be the perfect option for him.

Over the years, the previous duke had been obliged to sell some of the paintings, antiques and other valuables from Blenheim and restoring it to its former glory was important to the young duke.

Several men in his position had consolidated their finances by marrying rich American girls and this solution increasingly seemed to be a feasible option.

There was one American mother in particular who set her sights on him as her future son-in-law.

Consuelo Vanderbilt

An heiress

Consuelo was incredibly beautiful. But she was also in love - and not with Charles Spencer-Churchill. But you know how determined mothers can be. With a very beautiful and very rich daughter, Alva set to work on her campaign.

Her plan was simple. Consuelo was an agreeable girl who had been brought up to obey her mother. A meeting between the young people was arranged and Alva simply ordered her daughter to marry the duke.

It's said too that the duke's affections were elsewhere but he realised the huge advantages (2,500,000 of them) he would gain from the marriage. Alva cajoled her daughter by claiming to be at death's door. Needless to say, she made a miraculous recovery once the engagement was formalised.

An unhappy marriage

Based as it was on these shaky foundations, the marriage was not a success. Consuelo produced two sons but the marriage was to all intents and purposes over by the time the duke met Gladys in London.

She became a regular visitor to Blenheim Palace and the two young women became firm friends. The duke however had other designs on the bright and beautiful Miss Deacon. But Gladys was living life to the full being courted by poets, sculptors and even royalty.

But when the Marlborough marriage finally ended, Gladys achieved what she had wanted since she was fourteen years old - she became the duke's mistress.

Cosmetic surgery

A big mistake

Gladys was undoubtedly beautiful. She sat for some of the greatest painters of the day. But like many beautiful women, she focussed on her flaws (as she perceived them).In her case, it was her nose.

It had almost a classical Hellenic profile, she thought, but needed just a little help. She decided on an early and rather primitive form of cosmetic surgery. Her area of concern was a slight depression between her nose and forehead and she decided to have it filled with injections of wax.

It's not surprising that its effects were very temporary but the wax remained in her face and distorted her features, especially her jaw, for the rest of her life. One friend reported her sitting in front of the fire trying to massage the wax from the lower portion of her face to the top.

Gladys becomes the Duchess of Marlborough

This did not prevent the duke from marrying her once his divorce - which took a great deal of time - was eventually finalised. By the time they were married she was forty years old. She became the chatelaine of Blenheim Palace.

Twenty five years after her teenage longings, she married the man of her dreams.Or was he?

He had not had a happy upbringing. He had problems of his own and Gladys realised that the marriage had been a mistake. She became pregnant and lamented in her journal that this was a calamity. When she miscarried, she was hugely relieved. The relationship got to the point where she kept a revolver in her room to repel him should he tried to enter.

One dinner guest was astonished when she placed the revolver next to her plate at the table. She glibly remarked that she would use it to shoot her husband if he became objectionable during the meal.

The Blenheim spaniels

Gladys found solace in a hobby. As a longtime animal lover, she decided to breed dogs. Where aristocracy and royalty had once mingled, in the grand rooms of the palace, she installed cages as homes for her ever-increasing brood. She had little concept of their hygiene; their happiness and wellbeing were seemingly more important.

The duke moved out.

The result was years of wrangling. Both knew that the marriage had broken down. The duke eventually had Gladys evicted from his family home. She was moved from pillar to post until she eventually bought a small country cottage where she could surround herself with her animals.

She was widely regarded as being completely mad. As she grew older her eccentricities increased. She turned her country home into a small farm and kept chickens and other assorted livestock. The woman who had been applauded as the most beautiful and intelligent socialite of her day was transformed into an eccentric and deformed old woman. Local children believed she was a witch.

Over the years, her home became squalid. Remnants of her former life remained - some paintings and valuable jewellery mingled with her dozens of cats and their mess.

She would sit in her chair reading in the evening, smoking a pipe. Alongside her chair was a brand new fridge. Whenever one of her menagerie of cats died, the body was placed in the fridge (which was never plugged in) to 'be buried one day'.

She was eighty when she was removed from her home and taken into a care facility.

She remained in the facility for the rest of her life. She was ninety six when she died.

Further reading

Gladys: Duchess of Marlborough
Gladys: Duchess of Marlborough

The information in this article comes from this totally absorbing book. This gives full and complete details about the life of Gladys Deacon - those she loved and those who loved her.I highly recommend it.


Hugo Vickers

Hugo was only sixteen when he read a comment in a book about Gladys. He decided to investigate. After a great deal of detective work, he realised that she was still alive and in the care facility near Northampton.

In 1975, and in astate of great trepidation, he visited her. He found that she was amazingly au fait with current events. Whilst decidedly eccentric, she was still intelligent and bright. In total he visited her sixty five times.They became friends, unlikely as it may seem.

They spoke for hours. She refused to speak about her past at first but eventually opened up to this attentive and interested young man. He told her that he wanted to write a book about her life.

You can see the result of his work on the right. This is a truly fascinating account of an amazing woman and a remarkable life.

© 2014 Jackie Jackson


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    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Thanks so much @favored! It's a fascinating place with a truly strange story behind it.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 3 years ago from USA

      I remember visiting the palace many years ago. The grounds are fabulous. It's nice to read the other side of the coin (so to speak). You did a great job with the photos too.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Thanks Merrci - there's no shortage of bizarre stories from the British aristocracy :)

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Another interesting article, BritFlorida. It's a wonder to me how many of them you find. It definitely had me laughing at points--a gun to the dinner table? Ha! Sad though all in all. Great read!

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Hi @adventuretravels - thanks!

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna Sanguinetti 3 years ago from Perth UK

      Hi there - great Hub. Good read!

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Lovely of you to drop by Nancy and thank you so much for your kind words. I love to write about these unusual characters from history - I'm sure there'll be more :)

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      You know I've always been a fan, since the first piece of yours I read on Squidoo. You always come up with the most fascinating stories, replete with all the twists and turns of humanity. Love this Hub, and I know you have a great future here!

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      What a lovely thing to say, @DrBill - thank you for reading.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      Thanks you so much @ecogranny. There are certainly some truly fascinating characters in history. It makes me wonder if future generations will write about today's celebrities - maybe they will!

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      What a lovely comment @debW07, thank you. She had a fascinating life despite the bungled cosmetic 'improvements'. I do believe that she was happy in later life - perhaps part of that was her realisation that looks aren't everything.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      We get to learn something new, everyday, here. Thanks for making this day a success! ;-)

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

      Your biographical sketches are always fabulously entertaining, and this one especially. I had no idea women were experimenting with plastic surgery that far back. It never ceases to amaze me that a perfectly lovely woman will risk pain, permanent numbing, and grotesque results in the effort to make herself even more beautiful.

      Thank you for a good read. That biography is going on my "someday" list.

    • profile image

      debW07 3 years ago

      This is a beautifully written piece on Gladys Deacon, BritFlorida. It is so sad when naturally beautiful women (which are all women who are beautiful inside) succumb to the opinions of others on some type of standard of beauty. It is nice that she found something that made her happy later in life with the breeding of dogs. I enjoyed this and I enjoy your writing. You are going to do so well on HP!