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A Royal Affair, @ The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach

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The Life of the House by Lady Henrietta Spencer Churchill

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“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Sir Winston Churchill.

Palm Beach Florida has always served as the non-official capital of American royal-lovers. (I refrain from using the term royalists since the majority of those royal-lovers whom I have met are Americans, hence our relationship to the concept of royalty and the system of monarchy, differs from those of Europeans, especially ones with ruling families.)

In any case, back to Palm Beach: there is even a village, here, called the Royal Palm Beach which was incorporated, in 1959, thanks to Philadelphian-based supermarket magnates Samuel Nathan and Hattie Friedland.

Two years prior to the establishment of the Royal Palm Beach Village, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, the former Duchess of Marlborough, had already sold her Palm Beach estate, in 1957. She had built Casa Alva, in 1934, and named it in honor of her mother who was instrumental in encouraging (indeed, forcing) the quite lovely and so very wealthy young lady into a loveless marriage with the 9th Duke of Marlborough, in 1895. After bearing two boys, Consuelo separated from the Duke, in 1906, and divorced him fifteen years later, in 1921, to marry her beloved French aviator, Jacques Balsan.

Among the guests whom Consuelo hosted in Casa Alva, was her famed politician godson, Sir Winston Churchill. Sir Winston and Consuelo had shared some great, and some not so, years in their Oxfordshire home, the Blenheim Palace.

Even closer to, if not of the, British Royal Crown was the most romantic couple in the history of late modern era. (If you guess Dick & Liz, you are oh very wrong.) The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whose three year romance, starting in January 1934, and subsequent marriage, in June 1937, caused the most sensational scandal throughout the world. The abdication of Britain’s King Edward VIII, in 1936, and his marriage to Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson – the Baltimore-born, twice-divorced American commoner – turned the Duchess into the most hated woman in Britain.

Their romance, naturally, was very differently perceived on our side of the Atlantic pond: Palm Beach, in particular, became the part-time home of the royal lovebirds who were warmly hosted by some of America’s greatest living philanthropists. From the early 1940’s until circa 1970, the Duke and the Duchesse frequented the area, almost every winter. The cancellation of their visit in early 1971 is said to have caused a major stir in Palm Beach Society; a year later, the Duke passed away in Paris on May 1972. One of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s favorite places to frequent was the legendary The Colony Hotel.

…And, it was at The Colony where, just over four decades later, the American Friends of British Art hosted Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, this past weekend. (Here’s my earlier piece about Lady Henrietta’s visit). You see: this is how Palm Beach functions. As one local resident-attendee at the fundraising lecture and luncheon told me, “This is typical Palm Beach: we have dukes, duchesses and their near and distant relatives who help us out with our charitable work… They are everywhere, you know?”

I do now.

However, Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill is not your average European aristocrat whose mere presence entices people to open up their pockets to make charitable contributions. She is one of the leading, and exceptionally talented, interior designers in the world. In a field that is populated with individuals whose primary professional pedigree is their ability to hold entertaining conversations at cocktail parties – sounds quite like the world of art advisors, doesn’t it? – Lady Henrietta has more than three decades of experience working on a great number of noteworthy historic as well as contemporary projects… starting with her childhood home, the mythically celebrated Blenheim Palace.

In fact, one can peruse Lady Henrietta’s impressive curriculum vitae in no fewer than eleven volumes of books which she has published over the past twenty-three years. Her first publication, Classic English Interiors surveys some of Britain’s most beautiful homes including her family home at Blenheim. Classic Meets Contemporary is a curated profile of twelve contemporary designers beginning with the author’s own work. Classic Decorative Details is itself a classic reference book for designers on both sides of the Atlantic; Classic Design Styles is a broad ranging volume which covers Anglo-American as well as Medieval to Victorian traditions; Classic Fabrics appeals to anyone who is interested in any aspect of textile design, manufacturing and history; Classic Interior Design focuses on Lady Henrietta’s area of expertise: architectural details; Classic Georgian Style is a tour de force survey of British Georgian architecture; Blenheim and the Churchill Family is quite a delightful read with rare and personal insight into its author’s very private life with the Spencers and the Churchills at home in Blenheim; Classic Entertaining (re-issued) has become a must read for every society (or wish-to-be) hostess from San Francisco, via New York City…all the way to, of course, Palm Beach; Georgian Style and Design for Contemporary Living is a portfolio of Lady Henrietta’s experiences of working with historic – including quite a number of National Heritage – sites and the integration of practical contemporary design elements.

However, it’s Lady Henrietta’s latest publication by Rizzoli that brought her to Palm Beach, where her ancestors (& extended family) reigned over the life of the city’s High Society. The Life of the House, How Rooms Evolve is a thoroughly engaging book for every, not only, designer but lover of cultural heritage. A richly illustrated volume, the 224-pages book presents 150 color and black & white photographs of some of the most private historic residences throughout Britain and the United States. These are sites to which even scholars of cultural heritage do not gain easy – if any- access. This portfolio of the author’s awe-inspiring body of over thirty-years of work is an absolute gem.

Yes, I have wondered whether I’m under Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill’s charming spell. I may be. But, no, I am not awe-struck by her, or anyone else’s, title. I spent more than eight years at Oxford where young aristos – from Buhtan to Britain – are a dime a dozen. And, then there were the ‘other’ European as well as Middle Eastern, especially Persian, royals and aristocrats – Wait, do I sound as if I am bragging? Really!? The fact is that titles don’t impress me. Talent, competence, integrity and breeding – which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with money – do move me more than any other qualities in the people with whom I choose to associate.

As an art historian, I have spent too many years lamenting about the numerous interior designers – and, not to mention art critics & advisors! – whose taste are - dear me, how can I put this?! – less than refined? No. Not historically or formally informed? Hmmm… How about: inexcusably wretched? There.

I must say, meeting Lady Henrietta, hearing her talk – most thankfully to Dr. Michael Ridgdill and the American Friends of British Art – and (re)reading her books has restored my faith in interior designers’ profession.

I suppose, in some ways, listening to Lady Henrietta, also, made homesick for Nantucket – a National Heritage Landmark, in Massachusetts – where I have summered for the past eighteen years. I knew that as we were enjoying Southern Florida’s glorious winter weather, ACK-islanders were being hammered by a blizzard. After the conclusion of the luncheon and the lecture, and following my conversations with two inspiring women on my either side – Hope Alswang (Director of the Norton Museum of Art) and Dora Frost (a Palm Beach-based artist) – I thought of our own precious island’s conservation anthem: [Let us learn to] Gut Fish, Not Houses!

So…yes…even if, like many of you, I was not in the Pavilion of The Colony Hotel, in Palm Beach, this past Saturday…listening to Consuelo’s great-granddaughter; Sir Winston’s grand-niece; and, a relative of the future King of Britain…I would still be sitting here behind my laptop…somewhere near Sarasota, Florida, raving about the graceful aesthetics and professional integrity of an English aristocrat named Henrietta Spencer-Churchill.

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