Undeterred, 22 year old Vickers set about tracking down the 94 year old Duchess. Instead of the sumptuous surrounding of Blenheim, he found her held in a secure ward of St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, once the Northampton County Lunatic Asylum for the Middle and Upper Classes for the admission of ‘private and pauper lunatics’. In the two years that followed, Vickers visited the reclusive Duchess 65 times, and in winning her confidence, discovered ‘the most fascinating person I have ever met in my life.’
Brave, beautiful, bohemian, with a voracious appetite for knowledge and friendships with many of the most celebrated writers, painters and sculptors of the day including Monet, Rodin ("his hands were everywhere"), and Proust, Gladys captivated a colourful crowd of admirers including the Crown Prince of Prussia, who presented her with a magnificent ring. This was returned soon afterwards, on the orders of his irate father, the Kaiser.
Years before her European adventures, while still in America, Gladys had read of the marriage of the 9th Duke of Marlborough to her wealthy fellow countrywoman, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Writing to her mother, she expressed a wish to ‘catch him’ but felt her extreme youth was against her, though ‘mature in the arts of woman’s witchcraft.’ In England, Gladys became a friend of the Marlboroughs, and after their separation, was courted by her dreamboat for the next sixteen years, finally marrying the year after the 9th Duke’s divorce, precipitated by Consuelo’s wish to marry a French balloonist.
While they travelled, they were happy, but on their return to Blenheim, the relationship so long in waiting began to crumble. Spaniels and gardening replaced children and companionship, with the Duke increasingly absent, and Gladys suffering three miscarriages. With dogs penned in the Great Hall, with their own parties and Christmas tree, a divergence of interests, and Gladys’ increasingly erratic behaviour, the Duke preferred to stay in London. When estate business brought him back to Oxfordshire, he chose to stay at The Bear in Woodstock rather than join his wife at the Palace. The acrimony between them increased. When asked why she’d positioned a revolver beside her dinner plate, she replied: "I might just shoot Marlborough."
Gladys was finally evicted from Blenheim in 1933, the electricity cut off and her servants temporarily dismissed. Moving to Mixbury and then Chacombe, Gladys could reflect on her lasting legacy at Blenheim: the creation in happier times with the Duke of the magnificent Water Terraces, two Sphinxes bearing her face, and the six giant eyes in the portico entrance. A keen photographer, the pleasure of many parties was also captured by Gladys, but rarely entered into.
The exhibition at Blenheim revisits ‘a lost decade’, and tells a fascinating story, but as Hugo Vickers admits: "In conversation with Gladys, there was a jewel under every stone." Now that would be an experience.