I have always been fascinated by great houses. It’s not so much the architecture and grounds but those that lived and stayed in them. Melanie Gay, knowing that I always want to learn more about places I have visited or intend to, recommended me a book called the Riviera Set by Mary Lovell. I have not finished it but it’s a fascinating account of those “shady people who lived in sunny places” as someone memorably described the habitues of the Côte d’Azur.
The account begins with the story of a remarkable woman: Maxine Elliott. Born as the daughter of a sea captain in Maine as Jessie ‘Dettie’ Dermot she was a great beauty and soon established herself as an actress of note. She married a leading comedian of the day Nat Goodwin and were very much the glamorous couple of the Edwardian era on both sides of the Atlantic. They initially bought a country home, Jackwood near Eltham, but she was unsatisfied with this as she had great social ambitions and to further these you needed a great house so she acquired Hartsbourne in Bushey, North London.
After the Second World War Jewish people were refused admission to many golf clubs so four were formed with a Jewish membership: Ayling Manor, Coombe Hill, Hartsbourne and Potters Bar. My father was a member of Hartsbourne from the 1950s. He worked extremely hard during the week, leaving the house at 8 and back by 7, and his weekends were taken up by golf. So, in order to see him, my brother and I would sometimes go to Hartsbourne. It was a handsome club house and my father informed me that Edward VII installed his mistress there. I assumed this was the most famous of his mistresses Alive Keppel. I now realise this was wrong.
It was owned by Maxine Elliott and the great and good of the haut monde, notably Winston Churchill and Lord Roseberry, who succeed in his three ambitions of marrying a Rothschild, having a Derby winner and becoming Prime Minster, flocked there for her house parties from Saturday to Monday. It was one of the great political salons.
Maxine Elliott was very astute with money: she needed to be as she was extremely extravagant.
Although a socialite at the highest echelons she did immense charitable works. In the First World War she built a barge called Julia which was equipped as medical unit and she brought considerable aid and nursing to the civilians of Belgium who were forgotten and forsaken after the German invasion. She did similar work for the starving people of Antibes in the Second World war.
Although she had no connection with golf, and the Hartsbourne website and various researches do not reveal the transformation from country house to Jewish golf and country club, she did have one sporting liaison of significance, namely her romance with Tony Wilding, a Kiwi lawyer who won Wimbledon four times. Tragically and she never got over it – Wilding was killed by a shell in 1915 at Aubers Ridge in the Great War.
Maxine Elliott went on to build a beautiful villa in Cap D’Antibes. With typical determination she overcame the proximity of the railway line by having a bridge built over it. Her parties were legendary and Winston Churchill, The Aga and Prince Aly Khan who later acquired the house after the war, the Windsors, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and press barons Lords Beaverbrook and Harmsworth were frequent visitors. Whilst Churchill predicted the war and was one the few to read Hitler’s plans for global agrandisement, the dark clouds forming did not seem to affect the constant partying and pleasure-making and seeking. There were some glorious eccentrics, like interior designer Elsie Wolfe who every day stood on her head for 30 minutes by the pool and was once bitten in an intimate place by Maxine Elliot’s pet lemur. Sexual mores were haphazard. Two well know courtesans were frequent visitors – Daisy Fellowes who married Churchill’s cousin and the beautiful Doris Castlerosse (her beauty lived onto further generations as her grand niece is the super model Cara Delavigne), who was the kept woman of some of the richest men in Europe and was rumoured one night to have popped into Churchill’s bed. His beloved wife Clemetine disapproved of the company at Chateau de l’Horizon. Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela Digby, who married Randolph, was a close friend of Aly Khan and resident of the Chateau. She remained a powerful figure in the Democrat party to the time of Bill Clinton’s first campaign funding and lending him her jet to return for Paris.
At Maxine Ellitott’s death in 1942 she left a fortune of $1m dollars in property and investments (she was advised by JP Morgan) but sadly another enduing legacy – her correspondence with Tony Wilding, the Keppels , Lord Roseberry and Lord Curzon – she ordered to be destroyed unread.
When I came of the eighteenth at Hartsbourne and enjoyed a lager a the spike bar I had no idea of the precious occupier of Hartsbourne and the racy life she led.