Fairy tale lives or not? The truth about the Guinness sisters' sad, turbulent lives
"The sisters are all witches, lovely ones to be sure, but witches nonetheless"
Masquerade suits Daphne's insatiable sartorial appetite, but also her fear of the world. 'Being in disguise, assuming another role, hiding behind a costume, is so easy. Being oneself, now that's always a little more tricky,' she said
The old song goes: "I went to a marvellous party. We played the most wonderful game. Maureen disappeared and came back in a beard and we all had to guess at her name. Imagine!"
It was the 1930s, and Noel Coward was making impish repartee about Maureen Guinness, the middle of the three 'golden Guinness girls' whose parties were as wicked and bizarre as their looks were angelic. No one knew what to make of them.
"The sisters are all witches," said the director John Huston. "Lovely ones to be sure, but witches nonetheless. They are all transparent-skinned, with pale hair and light-blue eyes." The golden (or fabulous, or glamorous, or glorious – take your pick) Guinness girls had it all: beauty, great fortune and a talent for throwing outlandish parties. They also suffered a lot of personal tragedies. Guinnesses have had mishaps proportionate in scale to their wealth, and people like to call them "cursed". And yet, it's not little-rich-girl victimhood but a subversive sense of fun that has cut like a light-beam through the brewing line of Guinness women.
You may have had your fill. The libations of Guinness literature that keep coming mean we know more about this clambering dynasty than we do about our own extended families. We know about the vision and acumen of Guinness businessmen, their political achievements, their public works, their patronage of the arts.
Primogeniture meant the men built the brand and the women had trust funds. They were that smoky notion, "heiresses". But since the season of 1925 when Maureen was irreversibly launched, Guinness girls have made the story quite interesting. They vary from gifted, calamitous artists to gifted, versatile businesswomen. Today, an inevitable throng in their 20s and 30s are making their fabulous names in the creative industries. This was always going to happen. Their forebearers, of course, had to work for their money.
The first Earl of Iveagh bought the title. And if you're called Jasmine Leonora, you're unlikely to become an accountant. Titled people don't easily become celebrities in this former colony. The novelist Nancy Mitford, a Guinness in-law, put it quite well: "An aristocracy in a republic is like a chicken whose head has been cut off; it may run about in a lively way, but in fact it is dead."
You won't find Guinnesses on the social pages. But of all heiress nobles, are the Guinness ones that bit more interesting? Are they different to the other girls? And if so, why? For one thing, Guinnesses are rich; far be it from your humble correspondent to say how rich. Secondly, looks. Living and dead, Guinness women share, I hate to say it, a mesmerising beauty, a jagged-boned glow that has made them muses as well as artists. They are the opposite of the pubby earthiness Diageo is at pains to promote. And three, there is a tendency towards high living and relationship fallouts.
It seems they all had complicated upbringings, coming from no particular place and ending up with several homes. But Guinness girls have that light-beam, a creative force that defies passive heiress-dom.
In fact, all of them have refused to be boring. (They aren't nearly all accounted for here – there are too many. The banking line also has some rare birds. The clergy Guinnesses kept more to themselves).
The golden Guinness girls started it. The daughters of Arthur Ernest Guinness, second son of the first Earl of Iveagh (great-grandson of the first Arthur), they grew up in stately Glenmaroon at Chapelizod, Dublin, and in England. In 1923, they travelled the world on a yacht and were launched into London.
Society expected that Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh would go to finishing school and marry nice dukes. They did so, and inherited splendid Irish mansions – Clandeboye (Maureen), Luttrellstown Castle (Aileen) and Luggala (Oonagh) – and some English gaffs.
But they were unsettlingly lovely to look at, very charming, and utterly devious. Maureen was the most devious. She became the Countess of Dufferin and Ava, when she married her cousin Basil, but no one was going to tell her to settle down. The practical jokes she inflicted on her party guests are legend. She would dress up as a drunken servant and do a stage-Irish accent, and collected trick objects including a fake penis for her nose, wine glasses with holes in them and fake cheese.
Part joke-shop, part slapstick comedian, Maureen was the Maeve Higgins of her time, who had to do up her estate to be taken seriously. Aileen had her own nightclub in the basement of lavish Luttrellstown Castle (where Posh and Becks got hitched). She hated when guests went to bed before 5am, and had a 'pink special' cocktail delivered to their doors in the morning. Her disgusting practical jokes included bowls of vomit at the supper table, and dummies in guests' beds. She was deeply glamorous. She had flowers shipped in from Paris, and in her boudoirs, designer clothes and shoes, lots of them.
Oonagh, the 'maternal one' and mother of Garech de Brun, the Irish-language enthusiast, was mild and sweet and an intriguing hostess at Luggala. John Huston stayed there when he was filming 'The African Queen' in 1951, and the writer's set included Sean O'Casey and an impressed Brendan Behan. The butler had a free hand with the party invites.
At Luggala, Oonagh raised her own children, her adopted Mexican children, her son Tara's children and sometimes Aileen and Maureen's children.
The sisters may have been the stuff of fairy tales but they had sad, turbulent lives. Bridget Hourican in the 'Dictionary of Irish Biography' notes that "between them they clocked up eight husbands". They suffered the deaths of children. Oonagh's 14-year-old daughter Tessa died suddenly, and her son, the popular socialite Tara Browne, was killed aged 21 in a car accident in December 1966 in London. The Beatles paid tribute to him in their song 'A Day in the Life', finding only the words "he blew his mind out in a car" to describe the awful accident.
That Maureen boasted about their debutante years as she got older makes the golden Guinness myth no less beguiling.
She never stopped social climbing, even in her elderly, diamanté-studded horn-rimmed glasses days. Until her death in 1998, she strove to impress her friend the Queen Mother with a yearly party.
Her daughters Caroline and Perdita felt she neglected them. A guest at Clandeboye recalls one of Maureen's daughters pouring a bucket of cold water over his head in bed. Lady Catherine Blackwood's counter-rebellion really took off when she eloped to Paris with Lucian Freud. A waifish beauty, with flashing, opalescent eyes and golden hair, she met him with Francis Bacon at one of her 'coming-out' dances in London in 1949 when she was 18, and he pursued her.
They lived in Paris, Soho and Dorset but, in 1959, she divorced him on grounds of mental cruelty. She drank to excess with him, and never stopped. She is the melancholy girl in his astounding portrait 'Girl in Bed', (seen left) which her third husband, the poet Robert Lowell, was clinging to when he died in a taxi in New York years later. Caroline was a muse all her life – her biographer has her as a "dangerous" muse.
An obituarist wrote: "Even in the last years, when life and illness ravaged her, you could not look at anyone else when she was in the room". She was petite and delicate in looks, but gauche and eerie in spirit, with heavily made-up eyes and careless clothes.
Friends remember her spilling drinks and cigarette ash everywhere. One admirer said: "She needs a darned good scrub all over". Painfully shy, she had a failed acting career in Hollywood and modelled for a while in New York. A bored muse, her real flair was for writing, and she shunned the spotlight to do so. Caroline made a promise once: "To never be ordinary, like everybody else. It's important to try to live the life of an artist."
Her journalism is clever and caustic, and brought her wandering into seedy 1960s sub-cultures, and also exposing fox hunting. Her novels, though they aren't really read today, are bleak and hilarious. 'Great Granny Webster', a deathly look at the aristocracy, was shortlisted for the Booker prize.
Caroline had three daughters with the Polish composer Israel Citkowitz and a son, Sheridan, with the American poet Robert Lowell. She had several affairs. Her drinking made for an unstable household, and there was tragedy. In 1978, her beautiful daughter Natalya died aged 18 after taking heroin.
Afterwards, a 'Sunday Times' article conjured up the idea of a Guinness 'curse', and headlines have been blaring it since. The youngest daughter Ivana Lowell – nee Citkowitz, though Citkowitz was not her father, a screenwriter called Ivan Moffat was, she discovered – wrote in her memoir, 'Why Not Say What Happened?', that Natalya's death had coincided with that of a distant cousin, 35-year old Henrietta Guinness, who jumped from an aqueduct in Spoleto.
"We never even knew of her existence until the papers linked the two deaths and gleefully attributed them both to the 'Guinness curse'. Of course, well-known families are often said to have a curse. It is a handy way to excuse generations of entitlement, self-indulgence, and general bad behaviour. It is also much easier to attribute alcoholism, madness, and suffering, to something supernatural," Ivana wrote.
Ivana's memoir is like a pint of Guinness: frothy, but deadly dark underneath. She was sexually abused as a child by a workman, almost fatally burned and scarred in an accident, and there was little comfort in her bohemian upbringing. She bonded with her mum over boozy lunches and instead of home-cooked meals they had Harrods' lobster.
She says she "inherited the family problem" of alcohol addiction. She attempted suicide, but made her way to rehab. Now in her 40s, she is a case for regeneration, a glamorous pin-up with those unnerving dynasty looks that belie privilege, and she's a promising writer. She lives on Long Island with her daughter and boyfriend (a 'Vanity Fair' writer). Her next book will be about the family.
Who knows what her third cousin, Daphne Guinness, will write about? Who knows what she is? Fashion is her chosen expression of wealth and outlandish style, but fashionista is too meek a word for the most famous of the heiresses today. She is pixie-like, cosmetically frosted and as thin as an icicle. "I'll eat when I'm dead," she once rasped. Her trademark is a black stripe running through her platinum hair. The daughter of Jonathan, Lord Moyne and Lisney (brother of Desmond Guinness), and a French actress, Daphne grew up in Ireland, England and a monastery in Spain next to Salvador Dali.
Her sister Catherine was Andy Warhol's PA and sometime topless model, and swore her into 1980s New York glamour. At 19, Daphne married a Greek shipping magnate, but they divorced. She is in her 40s, but already has adult children.
There is another strain in this already interesting bloodline. Daphne's grandparents were Diana and Bryan Guinness, the society couple of the 1920s. Evelyn Waugh dedicated his novel 'Vile Bodies' to them, which has been taken as a compliment. But Diana is remembered for eloping to Munich with the British fascist Oswald Mosley. Adolph Hitler came to their wedding breakfast.
Masquerade suits Daphne's insatiable sartorial appetite, but also her fear of the world. "Being in disguise, assuming another role, hiding behind a costume, is so easy. Being oneself, now that's always a little more tricky," she said. She reinvents herself in ways only she could understand. At Alexander McQueen's funeral she wore widow's weeds and an enormous spider sack.
To Maureen's 90th birthday, she dressed as a pony bedecked in plumes. Her beau, the 64-year-old French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévi, said: "You are no longer a person, you are a concept!" She prefers that to being compared to Cruella de Ville – "I can't believe no one's come up with something better" – or to being labelled eccentric.
"I loathe the word. It has become devoid of meaning: it is a blanket statement hinting at lunacy". Daphne has the spleen of a true, selfish artist. She is not only one of the great fashion collectors of the world, but a film-maker. And philanthropist.
Marina Guinness is another spirited granddaughter of Diana Mitford. She grew up in the rock 'n' roll demimonde of Leixlip Castle, where Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and The Police hung out. Her father is Georgian Society founder Desmond Guinness, and her mother was its co-founder, Mariga, a German princess remembered for her ice-cold exterior, wit and flamboyant style – she carried a parrot on her shoulder. It was an unusual menage in Leixlip Castle. When Mariga and Desmond separated, Mariga lived in one turret after his now wife, Penny Cuthbertson (a model and muse to Lucian Freud), moved in.
Marina had a disjointed upbringing, and was expelled from her English boarding school. In her 20s, she went to the US and did some wheeler-dealing. She went through a republican phase and has confessed to having had a schoolgirl crush on Martin McGuinness. Marina has those cool, blue Mitford eyes and heart-shaped face but she doesn't preen her looks. In her 50s, she's still a society woman – a person 'spotted', not seen – but her clothes are bonkers; she doesn't wear make-up and her hair is grey and wild.
What she is really known for is her music promotion, though she would hate the term as much as 'patron of the arts'.
Kila, The Frames, Damien Rice and Fionn Regan have all rehearsed in the ballroom of her home in Celbridge. She's a mother of three children (by three different men), but to everyone really. A friend describes her as having "the biggest heart of all the Guinnesses".
Not wanting to intoxicate you with Guinnesses, there is still Marina's niece, Jasmine Guinness, to fathom. Born in 1976, she's a model, and was the 'face of Guinness' for the first Arthur's Day in 2009.
Her 2006 wedding in Leixlip Castle was splashed all over 'Hello!' magazine, suggesting a boring and frivolous sell-out. But look closely at the pictures and you find the quirks of a restless heiress: a spindly plume fascinator for the bride, cowgirls instead of flower-girls and haystacks where guests lounged.
Jasmine's pretty 1950s housewife looks are set off by the scarlet lipstick she's rarely seen without, and the heirloom feline eyes. Bold and bewitching, her face hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
She's treaded that precarious tightrope of muse and artist with convincing agility, using her name and connections to create excellent things within her rarefied sphere. She continues to model, has branched out as a clothes designer, and now owns a boutique eco-friendly toyshop in London's Portobello, HoneyJam (her nickname is Jam).
It's not obvious that Jasmine also came from a broken, if large home. Her mother had her at 17, and her parents' marriage ended when she was 12. She was partly raised by her grandparents in Leixlip Castle.
But she has said: "It was very unselfish of them as they knew I didn't need to be moved about to strange places. Only now that I am a parent myself, do I realise how heartbreaking it must've been for them to leave me."
She now has three children with Gawain O'Dare Rainey. An old friend describes her as a "total sweetheart, a lovely mummy, shy and quite cheeky. She's got the most lovely giggle". She is "very private" yet "a party girl". Fashion is her lifeblood and, even in their teens she was setting trends, wearing neckties and furry parkas, showing glints of a wicked sense of humour.
The Guinnesses may have a lot, but they've made a lot of it too. From where we're sitting, it does look like a most marvellous party.