The diplomat's daughter
She was an American beauty, an heiress and the daughter of a colourful international couple. But Anne Bullitt died broken, almost blind, a ward of the Irish court. Along the way she married four times, experienced domestic violence, dealt in bloodstock and became chatelaine of a famous Irish estate. In an extract from his new book, The Dark Side of Celebrity, Liam Collins tells Bullitt's extraordinary story
Published 29/11/2009 | 05:00
When the prestigious London auctioneers Christie's sell a collection of haute-couture gowns as part of its Fashion Through The Ages sale next month it will bring down the final curtain on the life-long drama of "Little Annie" Bullitt, the American heiress and the last chatelaine of Palmerstown House.
When she bought the estate near Kildare in 1956 she was a wealthy socialite who mixed in international society and had just broken up with the third of her four husbands. When she left it for the last time more than 40 years later she was a lonely and broken woman, almost blind, a ward of the Irish court and about to embroil her advisers in a complicated court case with the wealthy Citywest owner, Jim Mansfield, that would last for almost a decade.
At stake in the dispute were a collection of valuables that included a Picasso painting, a couple of Ming vases, a pair of duelling pistols that had been given as a present to America's first president George Washington, and a collection of 80 high-fashion items, dresses by the Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga and Irish designer Sybil Connolly as well as accoutrements by Yves St Laurent.
It is these fashion items that will be sold at the South Kensington salesrooms of Christie's on Thursday.
How did such a glittering life end in such sadness?
Anne Moen Bullitt was born in Paris on February 24, 1924. Her father was a colourful American diplomat, William Christian Bullitt, who had been to Russia and brokered a deal with the revolutionaries under Lenin -- a deal that was repudiated by the man who sent him there, president Woodrow Wilson. Her mother, Louise Bryant, was a journalist, lover of the playwright Eugene O'Neill and wife of John Reed who is buried in the Kremlin and was the author of a famous eye-witness account of the events of October 1917, Ten Days That Shook the World.
Still bitter about Woodrow Wilson's "treachery", Bullitt had resolved to find some exotic place where he could "lie in the sand and watch the world go to hell". Instead he found himself in the arms of the glamorous widow Louise Bryant in Paris.
Having swapped diplomacy for writing, Bullitt had embarked on a collaboration with Sigmund Freud on a psychological study of his enemy Woodrow Wilson, which was so controversial that it wasn't published in the United States until the Sixties.
As a child Anne Bullitt would, according to Freud, prove one his great theories. When he asked her if she loved her father, the young Anne Bullitt replied: "My father is God."
"You know I have developed a theory that male children's first love is their mother and females' their father. But this is the first time a child has confirmed my theory," concluded Freud.
Then Louise began drinking heavily and told her husband in an angry letter: "I have lived too long with unconventional people to be suddenly made into a Bourgeoisie." Bullitt divorced her in 1930 and because of her drinking and a scandalous lesbian relationship he was awarded sole custody of their young daughter.
"I never have news of Anne. It is difficult for me to work," she wrote to friends from Paris, a lonely, sick alcoholic waiting for the cheque to arrive from Bullitt, who was prepared to give her a generous allowance as long as she stayed well away from him and their child.
In 1933 Bullitt was appointed the first United States ambassador to the USSR by his friend, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He sailed for Europe in November of that year accompanied by Anne, now nine, and her West Highland terrier, Pie-Pie.
It was a strange life for a young girl, living in a suite in the National Hotel in Moscow while the embassy was being built, her father being cheered in the streets and attending endless parties in Moscow where the diplomats drank the finest wines and dined on the choicest caviar while more than nine million peasants died in the countryside from starvation.
Louise Bryant died suddenly in 1936 and later the same year Anne's father was appointed the US ambassador to France. Anne was sent back to America to be educated. In a letter to Roosevelt, thanking him for having them to the White House, Bullitt noted: "I did not realise how lonely she felt, alone in America." Yet he forbade her to go to university or to follow a stage career -- and after a social whirl as a debutante she made him pay the price.
At the age of 19 Anne Moen Bullitt married Caspar Wistar Barton Townsend, a 24-year-old army staff sergeant. According to Time magazine, when her father was asked about the happy event, his reply was a startled: "What?"
Already divorced by May 1947, Anne then married Nicholas Duke Biddle, an American diplomat based in Spain. In 1952 her husband resigned from his job and the couple moved to London where he took up a career as an investment banker.
In keeping with her lifelong interest in horses they began to mix with "the racing set". That was how she came to meet Roderic More O'Ferrall, the owner of the famous Kildangan Stud, an impressive stately home near Monasterevin, Co Kildare, and his colourful brothers, Francis and Rory, at Lingfield Races in the summer of 1954.
Anne Bullitt bought a filly from Francis "Frank" More O'Ferrall and, when he decided to run her in the 1,000 Guineas at The Curragh on May 26, 1954, she and her husband Nicholas decided it would be "rather fun" to come over to Ireland. It was, after all, the land of her grandfather whose name was Mohan, which had been anglicised to "Moen" by her snobbish father.
They had a glorious day at the races and that evening they were invited by the colourful horseman and trainer Patrick J Prendergast to join him and his guests for dinner. She got on so well with "Darkie", as PJ Prendergast was known, they decided to buy a number of mares in partnership.
Travelling between England and Ireland, Anne Bullitt began spending weekends at Kildangan Stud where she was becoming increasingly friendly with the Eton and Oxford-educated Roderic.
He had returned to Kildangan in 1927 and took out a trainer's licence, but he still moved in the highest social circles in England -- staying with the Earl and Countess of Derby for Royal Ascot week, or at the Northumberland castle of his business partner Sir Percy Loraine, a former British ambassador to Italy and Turkey who bought a half stake in Kildangan in 1950.
Anne was certainly smitten by the charming Irishman and his international circle of friends. But during 1954 Prendergast had some disturbing things to say about the More O'Ferrall clan.
"He said Roderic was very peculiar. He kept telling me a lot of things about Roderic; he said that Roderic was a fairy and a sadist," she would later tell the High Court in Dublin.
"He said that Frank [Francis] More O'Farrell was completely dishonest, that Roderic More O'Ferrall was extremely queer and that Rory was all right, because he had married a wife [Lady Elveden of the Guinness family] who had a lot of money."
"Paddy," she replied, "I think you are exaggerating."
To which he answered: "I know what I am talking about."
Her marriage to Nicholas Biddle was now over and they quietly divorced.
On Saturday, January 29, 1955, the following announcement appeared in the Irish Times: "The marriage has taken place of Mr Roderic More O'Ferrall, eldest son of Mrs More O'Ferrall and the late Mr Dominic More O'Ferrall DL of Kildangan, Co Kildare, and Miss Anne Bullitt, only child of the late Mrs Bullitt and the Hon William Christian Bullitt, former American Ambassador to France and Russia. The ceremony took place in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico, where Mr Bullitt has been staying recovering from an operation."
For her wedding she bought herself a 100-carat diamond necklace produced especially in Paris for her by Cartier. It "perfectly matched her society lifestyle" and her elegant designer outfits. When it was sold in December 2007 at auction by Christie's it went for stg£602,500, more than double the estimated price.
Within weeks of her marriage, Prendergast was urging Anne to leave her husband and Kildangan, for her own safety.
"I had been beaten up several times by Mr (Roderic) More O'Ferrall, and Mr Prendergast said that he thought he would do almost anything to me if I stayed there," she said later, adding that Prendergast assured her she could count on his help if she wanted to leave.
On September 24, 1955, her father arrived from Washington and booked into the Shelbourne hotel. She contacted Prendergast and told him that Roderic was going to the Newmarket horse sales and she intended to use the opportunity to take her things, including the mares, from Kildangan.
But after initially agreeing to help her, he phoned the Shelbourne the following night to say he had changed his mind. "I don't think it's the right thing to do to interfere in a dispute between a husband and wife," he told her. "I don't want to be mixed up in your divorce from Roderic."
"You had six months to think about that," she replied.
Prendergast said later that Anne "flew into a violent temper and used abusive language to me". He warned her that he was going to ring Roderic and tell him that she was planning to leave Kildangan in secret while he was away.
By September 30 she had taken her own things from Kildangan and removed her horses to the establishment of Mr Michael Dawson, and the dispute between Patrick J Prendergast and Mrs Anne Bullitt More O'Ferrall over the ownership of the horses in the "partnership" ended up before Mr Justice Dixon in the High Court in December 1955.
Anne broke down crying as she related details of her troubled marriage to Roderic and her relationship with PJ Prendergast, of Keadeen, Newbridge, Co Kildare. The question for the court was: did Prendergast have a "half share" in three mares and two foals which were the subject of the "partnership" agreement?
"Mr Prendergast was to have a half share -- naturally, if you are going to get a half-share in anything you must pay for it," she maintained in her evidence.
Judge Dixon decided that a mare and two foals were part of a partnership and Anne Bullitt was entitled to re-purchase Prendergast's interest in them by paying all monies expended by him. Prendergast was ordered to pay half Anne's costs. The case was a huge scandal at the time, especially the references to domestic violence and Roderic More O'Ferrall.
While all this was going on Anne had quietly bought Palmerstown House, the former home of the Earls of Mayo on the border of Dublin and Kildare, which came with a "a valuable stud farm" of 697 acres, reputed to be the biggest in the country.
As trainer she employed Tommy Shaw, who was known as "the quiet man of racing" because he abhorred publicity, and between them they turned out 110 winners between 1958 and 1964, including the Ladbroke Gold Cup at Epsom, the Ebor at York, the Duke of Edinburgh Stakes at Ascot and the Beresford Stakes at The Curragh. Most of their winners, ridden by the stable jockey Liam Ward, were bred at Palmerstown.
Anne was the first woman in Ireland to hold a trainer's licence but she shocked the industry when she handed in her licence in 1965 to concentrate on the bloodstock end of the business.
When her father died on February 15, 1967, William Christian Bullitt was almost a
forgotten man. As a diplomat he had been literally embraced by both Lenin and Stalin. He had married a noted Bohemian writer. He had been a friend of American presidents Woodrow Wilson and FDR
and supported the future president Richard Nixon. He had been a bestselling author and collaborator with Sigmund Freud. Yet he was buried in Philadelphia without much fanfare.
That same year Anne married her childhood sweetheart Daniel B Brewster, her fourth and last husband. But the marriage ended in divorce just two years later.
By 1997 Anne was fading, her eyesight had deteriorated and she had retreated to a three-room apartment in the huge and increasingly gaunt Palmerstown House. She never allowed the curtains to be opened, living in the semi-darkness, the gloom lit only by artificial light. When her financial advisers came to see her they had to read the documents to her. She was, however, "an independent and determined lady".
In 1997 her advisers agreed to sell Palmerstown House and the adjoining estate for IR£8.2m. But while they were negotiating the deal Anne went behind their backs and "to the consternation of her advisers" agreed to sell the house and estate to Mr Jim Mansfield for IR£10m (€12.7m).
Born in Brittas, Co Wicklow, of humble origins, Mansfield left school at 14. He worked for a local farmer and then in a gravel pit before buying his own lorry. He married a local girl, Anne, and had three sons, Tony, Jimmy and PJ.
"When I got married first I left the house every morning at 4am and didn't get back until 11pm," he says of his early life.
In England he expanded his plant hire and machinery business, chartering a ship to bring machinery to the United States to sell. It is said that one of his great money-making schemes was to buy old, but still reliable JCBs, repaint them in the traditional canary yellow colour and sell them on at a huge profit. Mansfield came back to Ireland and bought Tassagart House and 160 acres in west Dublin for €1.3m in 1990. Over the next 10 years he restored the house beautifully and then set about building the Citywest Complex of hotels, golf courses and a conference centre.
Palmerstown House was to be the "jewel in the crown" of the Mansfield golfing and hotel empire and no expense was spared in restoring it and filling it with antiques.
Anne Bullitt's decision to sell to Mansfield led to a serious rift with her advisers -- in particular a distinguished New York lawyer and estate planning expert called Robert M Pennoyer. They arranged for her to be seen by a psychiatrist in July, 1998.
"To say she was uncooperative was an understatement," according to her lawyers. Ms Bullitt told the psychiatrist in her best French and in most undiplomatic terms what to do with himself.
Sadly it was the beginning of the end. The developer who had been "gazumped" in the sale of Palmerstown House sued for breach of contract.
There were further court hearings and in the year 2000 Anne had the ignominy of being made a ward of court by the President of the High Court in Dublin -- which means that the day-to-day running of her life was taken out of her hands and transferred to an officer of the court.
When Anne Moen Bullitt died in the Kylemore Clinic, Church Road, Ballybrack, Co Dublin, on August 18, 2007, there was little indication that she had once been such an international beauty, an heiress with a taste for designer clothes and the daughter of a very famous mother and an important American diplomat. Her death went largely unremarked, a testament possibly to the fleeting nature of fame.
In the meantime, Mansfield believed that not only had he bought Palmerstown House but that he had also acquired some of its valuable contents, including a large number of clothes from the "golden era" of haute couture.
When the case was called before the High Court in Dublin on Thursday, February 19, 2009, it had been rumbling on for years in the background. At issue, the court was told, was the Picasso painting, a Ming vase and a valuable antique Japanese screen. There was also a dispute between Mrs Bullitt's estate and Mr Jim Mansfield about the pair of duelling pistols presented to George Washington by a grateful general, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Pennoyer was seeking a declaration from the court that these items were part of the Bullitt estate, and not the property of Mansfield who had acquired them when he bought Palmerstown House. Pennoyer also claimed a deposit of IR£500,000, which was to be paid as part of the sale of the house, had been retained by Mansfield's company Bridford Developments.
Mansfield denied all the claims.
The case was opened on behalf of the plaintiff's -- Bullitt's estate -- by Bill Shipsey SC who described with some colour the history of the Bullitt family to Judge Mary Laffoy. But just when he had piqued public interest the hearing was suddenly adjourned after 30 minutes to "facilitate talks" between the two sides.
When it reconvened the following morning the judge was told that the case had been settled and the details would remain confidential.
Judge Laffoy said that she was striking out the case "with a little note of sadness" as she would like to have heard more about the relationship between William C Bullitt and Sigmund Freud.
And so the life of the fascinating William C Bullitt and his much-married daughter Anne sunk once again from public consciousness -- revived only by the sale of her last personal belongings at Christie's next month.
Fashion Through the Ages Sale is on Wednesday, December 3, 2009 at 10.30am at Christie's, South Kensington, London