Riches to riches

John Brooks

  • Bend’Or, Duke of Westminster: A Personal Memoir by George Ridley
    Robin Clark, 213 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 86072 096 9
  • Getty: The Richest Man in the World by Robert Lenzner
    Hutchinson, 283 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 09 162840 7

‘The plutocracy in a democratic state,’ wrote Mencken in a passage Robert Lenzner has chosen as epigraph for his book, ‘tends to take the place of the missing aristocracy ... It is, of course, something quite different. It lacks all the essential character of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, courage ... It stands under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty; it is transient and lacks a goal ...’ The subjects of these two books, the second Duke of Westminster and the American oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, almost too perfectly exemplify, at least on the surface, the dichotomy pointed to by Mencken. One a British peer of ancient lineage, the other a self-made man who, through investing skill and fanatical diligence, became the richest of all Americans, in ‘essential character’ they were poles apart. True, they had certain obvious things in common: each had many marriages (four for Bend’Or, five for Getty); each was a major public figure in his country; each was accused of favouring Hitler and the Nazis during the Thirties; each was an important art-collector. But there the resemblance ends.

Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (1879-1953), Duke of Westminster – called Bend’Or from the family coat of arms – was the product of a landed Cheshire family whose estate, Eaton Hall south of Liverpool, dated from the 15th century. The family’s first hereditary honour was a baronetcy conferred by James I in 1622, largely to raise revenue; the first baronet must have been a disappointment in that regard, as he went to prison for debt in 1629 and again in 1638. His son and heir was imprisoned for political reasons in 1646, and pardoned in 1651. The third baronet married an heiress, and as a result the Grosvenors came into possession of the core of their subsequent fortune – a great tract of London running from Marble Arch to the Thames, much of which the, family still holds. Over the next two centuries the Grosvenors climbed the rungs of the peerage (although their extravagance and open-handedness continued to lead them into debt), and in 1874 Gladstone made Hugh Lupus – Bend’Or’s grandfather, a serious Liberal politician – the first Duke of Westminster.

According to George Ridley, Bend’Or’s long-time employee and friend and eventually his estate agent and the executor of his will, Hugh Lupus was a major philanthropist, model landlord and altogether perfect duke. His son, Bend’Or’s father, died in Bend’Or’s infancy; the future Duke grew up with two father figures, his grandfather and his stepfather, George Wyndham, a Byronically dashing soldier-poet. Bend’Or’s mother, Lady Sibell Lumley, was so beautiful – although, some felt, a bit silly – she was the toast of London: her brother said that after her first husband’s early death 80 men were in love with her.

After being unhappy at prep school (where he was, as the headmaster wrote to his mother, ‘far from clever’), and happier at Eton, Bend’Or – tall and handsome as anyone could wish – was shipped in 1899 to South Africa, under the tutelage of George Wyndham, Under-Secretary of State for War. In the Boer War he distinguished himself in some of the hardest fighting, and eventually became ADC to Lord Roberts. Meanwhile, his grandfather had died and he inherited the dukedom. He came home to marry his childhood sweetheart Shelagh Cornwallis-West, and to take on ducal duties and pleasures at Grosvenor House, ‘the finest private house in London’, and at Eaton, where the chapel clock tower resembled Big Ben and the repertory of the carillon included ‘Home, Sweet Home’, which the first Duke had liked.

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