Jacqueline, Lady Killearn is just what we need in these dark, depressing days of January. The often bejewelled 98-year-old, who is currently embroiled in an entertaining industrial tribunal with the butler she sacked, may appear on the evidence to be "the unacceptable face of the aristocracy'' to some. Even her son, 66-year-old Lord Killearn, described her to me -- affectionately, of course, and without wishing to amplify -- as "an absolute nightmare''. But to anyone in need of a distraction as financial markets implode and credit crunches, she's pure heaven.
There are far too few really dashing old ladies around who are prepared, as her butler tells us, to jump into a white van and be driven 1,700 miles to Switzerland and back just to pick up some antique furniture. There are even fewer women of her age who would do all that and share a bedroom with Robert Hay, a married man 30 years her junior. She sounds as delightful/dreadful as Aunt Augusta, the wicked old lady who added a little zip to the life of her dull nephew, Henry Pullings, in Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt.
Doubtless such an outspoken woman -- she allegedly called the butler, Paolo Sclarandis, "a toad'', a "monster'' and a "selfish prat'' -- may not be the easiest of employers: we can imagine her face when he served her what she claimed was virtually raw meat and pasta drenched in olive oil. He in return calls her a "despot'' who thinks she is "living in the last days of the British Empire" (when he arrived, he found a Sikh sleeping in the kitchen in return for cooking her breakfast), as well she might, having been the wife of the late Lord Killearn, the British Ambassador to Cairo during the Second World War.
But whatever she is, it isn't dull. She may be in the mould of the grande dame whom Eileen Atkins is currently brilliantly portraying in Edward Bond's The Sea at the Haymarket Theatre Royal in London, a woman who feels it is her upper-class duty to be impossible. "People expect my class to shout at them. Bully them . . ." Atkins's character says. "It gives them something to gossip about in their bars.''
The Dowager Lady Killearn may even have right on her side. It's for the tribunal to decide whether she was entitled to throw out the butler, who has a sideline in antique dealing, after an Old Master painting and some furniture allegedly went missing. She claims that he was more interested in his other business interests than her comfort and that he left her stranded at the funeral of her grandson two years ago.
The tribunal may, however, sympathise with 64-year-old Scaralandis, who claims that he worked 67-hour weeks at the beck and call of an indefatigable socialite who, after she returned from parties, expected him to cook late dinners for her, in a kitchen no larger than two phone boxes at her unrenovated £10m Harley Street house.
It is not her only residence, of course. The wealthy widow also keeps a flat in 16th Century Haremere Hall, near Etchingham in Sussex, while renting out the rest, with its 150 acres and swimming pool, for £3,000 a week. A friend of mine who visited her there a few years ago describes Jacqueline as a small, dark woman, still good looking, who swept into the room trailing Pekineses and then, ignoring all questions, talked about herself for two hours: "She fluttered her thickly mascara'd eyelashes, like Barbara Cartland,'' she says, "but, in her bossy manner, she reminded me more of Cherie Blair.''
Jacqueline's mother was a Yorkshire Protestant, but her only child seems to have taken more after her flamboyant Anglo-Italian father, Sir Aldo Castellani, a Florentine bacteriologist turned Harley Street doctor who discovered the parasite that transmitted sleeping sickness, pioneered multiple vaccinations and founded the International Society of Dermatology. Colleagues described him as a fascinating raconteur, snob and rabid monarchist whose roll-call of patients included Rudolph Valentino, Elsa Schiaparelli, Guglielmo Marconi and Umberto, the deposed king of Italy.
When, in 1934, Jacqueline was invited to stay at the British Embassy in Cairo, she is said to have captivated the widowed ambassador, Sir Miles Wedderburn Lampson -- later Lord Killearn. She was 24, he 54. She was the focus of much gossip during the decade in which she presided over a glittering social scene, providing what Sir Winston Churchill called "princely hospitality". Amateur dramatics and charity work kept her busy -- she had trained as a nurse -- but she was too colourful and outspoken to be universally popular. The young king of Egypt, Farouk, took a strong dislike to her and when Killearn asked the king to sack his controversial Italian advisers, Farouk replied: "I'll get rid of my Italians when you get rid of yours."
After the war and the deposition of Farouk, the Killearns settled in England at Haremere, where Jacqueline failed to endear herself to neighbours by starting a duck farm. "You know what villagers are with their suburban attitudes,'' she said at the time. "I am ignoring the protests.''
In 1964, her husband died leaving her, aged 54, with three children. The eldest is the current Lord Killearn, a gentlemanly figure who was head of corporate finance at Cazenove. Next comes Jacquetta Lampson, a noted beauty who married (and later acrimoniously divorced) Peregrine, Earl of St Germans.
It was at the funeral of Jacquetta's eldest child, Jago Eliot, a music entrepreneur who died at the tragically young age of 40 in his bath after suffering an epileptic fit in 2006, that the Dowager allegedly found herself stranded by the butler/chauffeur.
The baby of the family was Roxana "Bunty" Lampson, who scandalised London in 1963 by wearing white Bermuda shorts to her debutante ball and having the Rolling Stones provide the music; she later married Ian Ross, founder of Radio Caroline, and had six children, including the model Liberty Ross.
Jacqueline did not mourn her husband for long. Two years after he died, she was being escorted by businessman Robert Hay -- a surprising liaison given the wide age gap and the fact that he had previously gone out with her daughter, Bunty. A few years later, he preferred to describe himself as her business partner -- and so they seem to have been ever since, innocently sharing a twin-bedded room when he took a "business" trip behind the back of his wife Sarah, who runs Bickleigh Castle as a small hotel.
The relationship between a carer and their charge is often fraught; it is like arranged marriages between individuals with different backgrounds, wealth and expectations. Whatever the tribunal decides in this case, it is splendid for the rest of us that a woman two years short of her century is prepared to allow us a glimpse into her colourful life. But I fear she may not find many applicants who wish to be her next butler.